Moss Hart was born in the Bronx section of New York, the son of Barnett Hart, a cigar maker who was left without a trade when a cigar-making machine was developed. The family survived as best they could, but Hart’s early life was dominated by a sense of poverty. The two most important influences in his childhood were his grandfather and his Aunt Kate. These impractical, domineering people, though a great drain on the family finances, were the only sources of color and vitality for the young Hart. Aunt Kate, an avid theatergoer, introduced Hart to the world of drama, which formed in his mind a desire to escape from his squalid surroundings via the glittering stage.
At the age of seventeen, Hart got his first theatrical job as office boy to Augustus Pitou, a touring-show producer known as “the King of the One-Night Stands.” While reading plays that were submitted to Pitou, Hart began writing a play of his own, replete with the sentimental and hackneyed elements of those he had read. He presented the play to Pitou, who was enthusiastic about it and agreed to produce it. Entitled The Hold-up Man, it opened in Rochester in 1923 and flopped.
The failure of his first play also cost Hart his job. He worked as a director for little theater companies and as an actor, once playing the role of Smithers in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones (pr. 1920) to glowing reviews. He spent his summers as a social director in various resort camps. During this time, he still nursed a desire to write plays in the manner of O’Neill and George Bernard Shaw, but he learned that his talent lay not with serious drama but with light comedy. In the late 1920’s, Hart began writing a comedy in the manner of his idol, the comedic writer George S. Kaufman, dealing with the advent of sound in motion pictures. Producer Sam Harris agreed to do the play only if Hart collaborated on it with Kaufman himself. The play, Once in a Lifetime, after dubious early showings and several major rewrites, was a smash hit and marked the beginning of one of the greatest writing teams in American drama. It also marked Hart’s escape from the poverty of his early years. After reading the enthusiastic reviews of Once in a Lifetime, Hart moved his family from their Bronx apartment to rooms in the fashionable Edison Hotel.
In the following years, Hart wrote some of his best plays. These included musicals with Irving Berlin and Cole Porter and further collaborations with Kaufman, including their greatest works, You Can’t Take It with You and The Man Who Came to Dinner. With the money from these plays, Hart was able to buy a large country estate in the Poconos, yet he found that success did not solve all of his problems. In 1934, he began seeing a psychiatrist and came to believe that he was too dependent on Kaufman. Finally, Hart, acting on the advice of his psychiatrist, broke off his collaboration with Kaufman, although the two remained friends.
Hart’s first play after the break, Lady in the Dark, proved that he could write without Kaufman’s support. He went on to write other successful plays but never with the popularity of his work with Kaufman. In 1945, he married actress Kitty Carlisle; they had two children. After World War II, Hart wrote some of his finest screenplays, including Gentleman’s Agreement and A Star Is Born. Hart served as president of the Dramatists Guild from 1947 to 1955 and of the Authors League from 1955 to 1961. Hart also returned to directing, winning a Tony Award in 1957 for My Fair Lady. In 1961, he died of a heart attack.
Moss Hart, who also wrote plays by himself, is best known for plays written in collaboration with George S. Kaufman. He was born the son of Barnett Hart, a cigar maker, and Lillian Solomon Hart. The family was extremely poor, and Hart was forced to drop out of school after finishing the eighth grade. His first job was with a wholesale furrier, but Hart had acquired a love for the theater from his maternal aunt and dreamed of a...
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