My Funny Valentine — Lorenz Hart


My Funny Valentine — You will still hear this every Valentine’s Day, even 80 years after it was written. The song is tender but odd — like the person who wrote it.

Actually, the beautiful music was written by “Richard Rodgers” — the guy who wrote Oklahoma and The Sound of Music and a lot of other classic Broadway musicals that were hits on the big screen.

But the lyrics were not written by Hammerstein — the better known of Rodgers’ partners.

For about 25 years, Richard Rodgers wrote with Lorenz — or Larry — Hart. And no story from Broadway or Hollywood could match the real-life story of this tortured but talented soul.

Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart composing a song

Larry Hart and Dick Rodgers

“Funny Valentine” was written for (in most opinions) the greatest of Richard Rodgers’ musicals — “Babes in Arms.” The score of that show is like a greatest-hits compilation of Rodgers & Hart. “The Lady Is A Tramp,” “Have You Seen Miss Jones,” “Where or When” all have been adopted as

standards and recorded hundreds of times over the years.

But “Valentine” is the one song that tells the most about the songwriter — the sensitive oddball who felt he could never be loved.

Hart was a genius, a prodigy in literature, languages and theater arts. He went to Columbia University with Rodgers’ older brother in the 1920s, and he co-wrote shows for the school each year. In fact, on some of those shows he worked with another Columbia co-ed — Oscar Hammerstein II.

Hart wanted to write the new show for Columbia but needed a composer. The older Rodgers brothers convinced him to come over and talk with Richard — then only about 16. Rodgers recounts in his autobiography that Hart actually did most of the talking — a fascinating treatise on rhyming and how popular music writers were shallow, immature and didn’t push the boundaries — but was impressed by Rodgers’ facility with melody. The 23-year-old Hart found a life-long musical partner (until his untimely death at age 48).

Together they wrote 26 Broadway musicals and were successful at least two different times in Hollywood, although the movies made of their work did not make them happy.

An example of Hollywood’s maddening habits is the hit-rich Broadway property “Babes In Arms” — starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. The movie was mega-successful, and basically started a new genre of “Hey, Kids, let’s put on a show in the old barn!”

Made in 1939 (two years after the Broadway smash), only two of the Rodgers and Hart songs were used — one of them as background music during a dinner scene. “My Funny Valentine” didn’t make the cut. It would be in another movie, the Rodgers and Hart musical “Pal Joey” (it wasn’t in the original Broadway production).

The songwriters got a lot of money and did little except sit around for a couple of months, so it is no wonder they were burned out on Hollywood and eager to return to Broadway.

Even in his own lifetime, Hart was recognized as the premier rhymer and wittiest of lyricists. One newspaper columnist remarked: “Larry Hart can rhyme anything. And does.”

“My Funny Valentine” would appear in other movies as well as being recorded thousands of times and installed in the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry (Chet Baker’s version backed by the Gerry Mulligan quartet).

Hart was the subject of his own verse, a “little person” who measured maybe five feet tall while wearing his elevator shoes (he called them his “2-inch cheaters”). His hair started receding before he was 20, and his head was large — out of proportion to his body.

“Behold the way our fine feathered friend,
His virtue doth parade
Thou knowest not, my dim-witted friend
The picture thou hast made
Thy vacant brow, and thy tousled hair
Conceal thy good intent
Thou noble upright truthful sincere,
And slightly dopey gent”

To compensate he always dressed like a swell, buying expensive bespoke shirts and suits, and he always had a foul, fuming cigar in his mouth to shroud him in a smoky haze.

He felt inadequate around women, and had open yearnings for them (his proposals were never accepted) but he was a closeted gay who preferred his sex rough and was often beaten by sailors he would try to pick up. In those days — even in musical theater — homosexuality would have put an end to his lucrative career.

And it was lucrative — but Larry couldn’t hang on to a dime. He loved partying and picking up the tab. As such, he became a magnet for many people. He gave numerous large parties. Beginning in 1938, he would disappear for days on a bender and his health suffered from his drinking.  He stayed out drinking every night slept until noon, when he would arise to the company of a great hangover.

But when he sobered up, he became the lyrical genius again.

Even in his own lifetime, Hart was recognized as the premier rhymer and wittiest of lyricists. One newspaper columnist remarked: “Larry Hart can rhyme anything. And does.”

But you can analyze his psyche by the tone and content of the songs. Some are wistful, some sarcastic, some are downright mean.

Try singing this to your Valentine and see if you are still a couple afterward:

“You’re my funny valentine,
Sweet comic valentine,
You make me smile with my heart.
Your looks are laughable, un-photographable,
Yet, you’re my favorite work of art.”

He obviously felt that he was so ugly that nobody could ever love him. His vulnerability is beneath every line he writes. Larry Hart was the ultimate hopeless romantic, and (as Jerome Robbins wrote), “the poet laureate of masochism.”

“Is your figure less than Greek?
Is your mouth a little weak?
When you open it to speak, are you smart?
But don’t change a hair for me
Not if you care for me
Stay little valentine stay
Each day is valentines day.”

The song ends on a happy rhyme and note. But Hart’s life did not.

He finally became so unstable and unreliable that Rodgers had to find another partner, and he struck gold with Hammerstein.

Larry Hart, drunk, depressed, perhaps suicidal, wandered away from home in the dead of winter without so much as a coat. He was found in a gutter two days later and rushed to the hospital with a bad case of pneumonia. There, he died.

His work survives today, though. New generations of artists keep discovering Rodgers and Hart tunes. Jazz musicians jam to “Have You Seen Miss Jones?” Singers as diverse as Rod Stewart, Tori Amos, Carly Simon, Elvis Presley, The Supremes, Andrea Marcovicci, Bob Dylan, Cowboy Junkies,and some group called My Morning Jacket. And if you are into soccer, you will hear it sung by fans of the Manchester City Football Club in England.

And a belated Happy Valentine’s Day to all lovers, both happy and miserable — from me and Lorenz Hart.

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