Op-ed: Moss Hart and Posthumous Closeting

Writer and director Moss Hart may have made slight nods to his possible bisexuality or homosexuality, but attempts to honor his life and work have ignored that part of his life.

BY Robert Hofler

April 23 2014 6:00 AM ET

Above: Moss Hart in 1940

The editors of the Lincoln Center Theater Review have given a new twist to that old gay adage about “not frightening the horses.”

The publication’s winter 2014 issue devotes all 23 pages to Moss Hart’s 1959 memoir, Act One, which has been adapted into a new play of the same title. It opened Thursday at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater.

The Act One issue certainly won’t frighten the Lincoln Center subscribers, many of whom are well over the age of 60, a demographic that hasn’t always been at the forefront of marriage equality. Despite Hart’s LGBT credentials, the LCTR issue includes no fewer than five photographs of the writer-director’s wife, Kitty Carlisle Hart, and four photos of his children, Christopher and Catherine, who are interviewed for the issue.

There’s nothing wrong with any of those photos.

What’s wrong is that there’s nary a word about Hart being gay or bisexual in the issue’s 15,000 words of text.

Talk about not frightening the subscribers or theatergoers who can pick up LCTR in the Beaumont lobby.

It’s perfectly fine that James Lapine, in adapting Act One to the stage, doesn’t revise the story to include homosexual references. Actually, both the book and the new play give three major references to Hart’s real sexual orientation without naming it.

The first reference is Hart’s very eccentric Aunt Kate, the person who introduced him to his real love, the theater. Hart had said she reminded him of Blanche du Bois. Only Auntie Mame could have been gayer. How many heterosexual boys have ever claimed that kind of a crazy older woman as their mentor? For gays, she’s so common she’s a cliché.

The second reference is Hart’s innate “difference” from other boys his age. The book goes into great detail on the subject. Hart writes, “The non-athletic boy, the youngster who liked to read or listen to music, who could not fight or was afraid to, or the boy who had some special interest that was strange or alien to the rest, like the theatre in my case, was banished from the companionship of the others by rules of the ‘tough’ world that was already beginning to prevail.”

A few heterosexual men might be able to relate. Almost every gay man I’ve ever met of a certain generation has told a similar tale of alienation.

And there’s a much greater reveal of the real Moss Hart.

Act One, the book and the play, are about a teenager entering his 20s and rife with raging hormones — and there’s not a word about romance or sexual longing of any kind. Moss Hart in Act One is all about career, career, career. Girls? Who ever heard of them?

I can’t think of a straight man who ever wrote about himself as a young adult and never mentioned women or wanting to fall in love, much less needing to get laid. Closeted young gay men, on the other hand, routinely avoid the subject. Oh, sure, they’re asexual. Like Langston Hughes was asexual, according to his friends.

Recently, there’s been a great deal of controversy about the existence of bisexuals. I’ve met bisexual people. I’ve just never met anyone who’s asexual, and yet it’s a term that gets bandied about a lot when it comes to young homosexuals who don’t show an interest in the opposite sex.

The LCTR issue brought to mind an interview I did with Hart’s biographer, the late Steven Bach, whose book Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart much upset Kitty Carlisle Hart.

Bach told me, “There were people who simply refused to talk to me because Kitty Carlisle Hart had told them not to. She somehow got the idea the book was going to be nothing but an exposé of Moss Hart’s sex life, which was never the intention. I’m told that you don’t mention my name in her presence.”

Obviously, Hart’s widow is still wielding considerable power, even though she died seven years ago.

The LCTR issue is especially absurd, coming as it does alongside Frank Rich’s profile of Hart in New York magazine. In his article “The Greatest Showbiz Book Ever Written” (March 12), Rich laments that Dazzler is not well known, explaining, “Kitty Hart’s successful four-decade effort to thwart other would-be Hart biographers had the unintended consequence of further diminishing her husband’s cultural status and, with that, public appetite for a biography. While Dazzler received respectful reviews, they tended to patronize its subject as an anachronism not worthy of the effort.”

At right: Santino Fontana and Tony Shalhoub both portray Moss Hart in Act One.

In his 2000 memoir, Ghost Light, Rich writes a lot about Hart and his intense identification with the man. In many ways, Ghost Light and Act One are very similar autobiographies, except there’s one major difference. Rich writes about his attraction to the opposite sex; Hart doesn’t mention the subject. Yes, the books were written 40 years apart, but hetero authors of any age have never been averse to writing about romance.

John Guare interviews the two Hart children for LCTR. Christopher and Catherine get into some very personal matters, such as their father’s extreme bouts of depression and his twice-daily visits to see the notorious psychiatrist Lawrence Kubie. Yet this intimate discussion with the kids never leads the House of Blue Leaves playwright to ask about Hart’s sexual orientation, even though Kubie was famous for treating homosexuals and even advised Tennessee Williams to give up writing for the theater if he wanted to changed his sexual orientation. Might all those visits to such a shrink have had something to do with Hart’s chronic depression? D’ya think?

It’s possible that everyone involved with the LCTR issue thinks he or she is honoring Hart’s wishes. In Dazzler, Bach writes that the 6-month-old Christopher Hart was introduced onstage in Bucks County, Pa., where Kitty Carlisle was appearing in a play: “Moss concocted a bogus tradition that theatrical children had to be presented to an audience during a Saturday matinee. Christopher gurgled through his first ovation.” After his son’s stage debut, Moss turned to a friend to exclaim, “Now they won’t be able to say I’m gay anymore.”

In its Act One issue, LCTR doesn’t resist exposing what other famous dead people might have wanted to keep quiet. Alcoholism and mental illness are discussed. Heterosexual promiscuity and adultery are also fair game, as Christopher Hart makes clear in a gossipy assessment of his father’s frequent collaborator George S. Kaufman: “he was the most, next to Wilt Chamberlain, marathon womanizer in the history of New York …. he would nail anything that moved.”

Those graphic words run across the page from an essay titled “A Daughter’s Reflection” by Anne Kaufman.

Marie Brenner, as Rich points out in his New York profile, did have the journalistic guts to ask Kitty the obvious question for a New Yorker article. The widow claimed that she’d asked Hart, “Are you homosexual?” and he firmly denied it. And she “never gave it another thought.”

Except when pesky journalists doing their job like Bach or Brenner felt the need to remind her.

Fortunately, the biographies I’ve written profile gay men who left no widows behind. Instead, I had to deal with the publishers’ lawyers, who are almost as bad as widows sometimes. Whenever I’ve written in my books that someone is gay or lesbian, a lawyer is always there to ask, “Is this person dead?”

If the answer is yes, no more questions asked. If the answer is no, the lawyer goes on an immediate Google search to determine if said queer has publicly come out. Oh, the editing that goes on! I’ve had to obfuscate the true sexual orientation of a famous fashion designer, entertainment mogul, and film critic in my books. Without a doubt, the biggest laughs I get at book readings are when I relate the edits made regarding that designer, mogul, and critic.  

Moss Hart is dead. Long live Kitty’s fantasy.

 

ROBERT HOFLER is a theater critic and the author of Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange; The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson, a biography of Henry Willson; and Party Animals, a biography of Allan Carr.

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