A Talent for Genius

By the time he died in 1972, exhausted by coffee and cigarettes and barbiturates and neuroses, Oscar Levant had excelled at everything he puts his hand to. He had composed music for Broadway and Hollywood. He had written best-selling volumes of memoirs. He was sought after—even if feared for his acerbic wit—as a dinner guest. His appearances on the JACK PAAR SHOW were legendary. He was celebrated as a pianist, and is still regarded as the best interpreter of George Gershwin’s works. In fact, he was many of these things at once. Harpo Marx remembers Levant reading a book, playing the piano, listening to a record, and singing—all at the same time. He interrupted the singing, but only the singing, to greet his friend.

Kashner and Schoenberger’s biography is not only a loving tribute to a complex man but also an examination of the way in which this man remained, seemingly by an enormous effort of will, on the periphery of every world he inhabited. Levant could have been one of the best songwriters of his generation, or one of the best film composers. Yet success had only to beckon for Levant to flee. His fellow composers Aaron Copland and Arnold Schoenberg though highly of his talents as a purely orchestral composer, yet when one of Levant’s pieces was featured in a concert honoring Schoenberg, Levant could not be bothered to attend.

The last decades of Levant’s life make for painful reading. Growing increasingly addicted to drugs, he once had to be straitjacketed for incarceration in a psychiatric ward. At this point very little but Levant’s wit had survived, but what a wit! Kashner and Schoenberger’s greatest competition is Levant himself. Jack Paar once asked, “What did you want to be when you were a kid, Oscar?” Levant answered, “An orphan.” That answer speaks volumes.