In the male-dominated world of Tin Pan Alley song writing, especially in its heyday in the 1920s and '30s, lyricist Dorothy Fields was one of the few women to triumph and be taken seriously by her peers and the public. Her name might not ring bells, but most people of a certain age or with a certain interest would likely recognize some of the famous tunes she helped craft: "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "I'm in the Mood for Love" and "The Way You Look Tonight," to name just a few.
Her big break came writing revue numbers with composer Jimmy McHugh for Harlem's famed Cotton Club, and she eventually had considerable success in Hollywood and on Broadway. She also came from a storied theatrical family and, from infancy, was surrounded by a stellar crowd: a father who was a vaudeville headliner; many of his celebrated acquaintances; and, as the baby of the family, several older, precocious siblings who also made a decent living utilizing their considerable creative talents.
All of the highs and lows of her career — including a possible love affair with a major collaborator while both were married to others — are laid out in a thorough new biography by Charlotte Greenspan titled Pick Yourself Up: Dorothy Fields and the American Musical. The publisher is the ever-estimable Oxford University Press.
Dorothy Fields was born in 1904 and died at age 70, having worked at her profession steadily for nearly 50 years. Her father was Lew Fields, a legendary performer, the taller half of the comedy team Weber and Fields. The comic duo ended their escapades the year Dorothy was born, but Lew stayed in the business as an occasional performer and a theatrical producer, where his credits include hits like Peggy-Ann and A Connecticut Yankee.
"Dorothy's brothers, Joseph and Herbert," writes Greenspan, "had successful careers as librettists both on Broadway and Hollywood. Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart wrote songs for her high school musical. Cole Porter gave her her first rhyming dictionary. Lehman Engel accurately observed that, 'it is impossible that anyone could have been born and reared in the midst of a larger and more impressive musical theatre environment than Dorothy Fields.' Perhaps more important than the contacts she had (in fact, her father tried to block her entrance into show business) she grew up in an atmosphere in which words — their meanings and their sounds, the way they are used and misused — were highly valued."
Once she made a name for herself at the Cotton Club, she and McHugh headed for Hollywood in 1930, where they were under contract to MGM. According to Greenspan, the team's experience writing for revues as opposed to writing book musicals "was an excellent preparation for Hollywood's fragmentary approach to putting together a musical. In the course of the 1930s, Dorothy's whole family, with the exception of her sister Frances, moved to Los Angeles, where they all continued to work — mostly independently but sometimes with one another. Dorothy's exclusive partnership with Jimmy McHugh ended in Hollywood, and she began to join her words to melodies of composers as different as Oscar Levant, Fritz Kreisler, and — probably her favorite partner — Jerome Kern. With him she wrote the songs for Swing Time, [one of the great Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films]; the song 'The Way You Look Tonight' from the movie won them an Oscar in 1936."
Upon her return to New York at the end of the 1930s — she was soon joined by her mother and her brothers — she continued to produce songs for Hollywood but also started writing lyrics for Broadway, including Stars in Your Eyes (1939) to music by Arthur Schwartz and Up in Central Park (1945) with music by Sigmund Romberg. Together with her brother Herbert, she began to pen the books for musicals, including Let's Face It (1941), Something for the Boys (1943) and Mexican Hayride, all of which sported music and lyrics by Cole Porter; but perhaps the most famous and enduring Dorothy and Herbert libretto was for Annie Get Your Gun (1946), which had words and music by the inimitable Irving Berlin.
According to Greenspan, the nearly two-and-a-half decades between the 1950s and Dorothy's death in the '70s represented the longest and steadiest period in her life. "The groundwork for her career had been established," writes the biographer, "and there were no major shifts in direction in her professional life… . However, she did work with some composers she had not worked with before, including Burton Lane, Morton Gould, Harold Arlen [and] Albert Hague, and she worked in a medium she had not written for before, the television musical. The last two shows she wrote lyrics for were Sweet Charity (1966) and Seesaw (1973), both with music by Cy Coleman. In these late works, Fields adds to her customary well-crafted, apt turns of phrase a certain mature feminine insight that allows her to examine the shifting interplay between what a woman feels, what she says, and what she means."
Pick Yourself Up is filled with wonderful anecdotes. For example, when Lew Fields was at the height of his fame, he was basically an itinerant actor, away for home for most of the year, and so it was his wife, Rose, who had to control the household. She stood for "reality and stability," says Greenspan, while Dad was all "mystery and exciting potential."
But because she was the "reality" factor, Rose strove to shield her children from some of the more unappealing aspects of Lew's life on the boards — even to the point of trying to discourage her star-struck kids from going into the theater. Mama Fields thought a camp environment would likely place "a buffer" between her husband's life and her teenage sons' ambitions.
"How could she have known," writes Greenspan, "that summer camp was a breeding ground for young men's musical and theatrical talents? One of the earliest summer camps, the Weingart Institute in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, had as campers Lorenz and Teddy Hart, two of the Selznick brothers, and Oscar Hammerstein II. When Herb Fields went to Camp Paradox in 1910, among his fellow campers were Lorenz Hart; Eugene Zukor, the son of film producer Adolph Zukor; and Mel Schauer, who later became a producer at Paramount Studios. When songwriter Arthur Schwartz was at Brant Lake Camp, he got to meet Billy Rose and Lorenz Hart. Dorothy Fields remembered a song that her brother Herb and Richard Rodgers wrote when they were both counselors at Camp Paradox, a song memorializing a swimming feat of a camper named Ovid Rose."
(I highlight this little anecdote because I have a slight familial connection to it. My brother-in-law went to Camp Paradox in the Adirondacks, which, unfortunately, no longer exists; my wife's camp, just down the road, is still in existence, though now renamed. From both former, campers, I've heard often about Richard Rodgers Hall, an activities center that once stood on the Camp Paradox grounds, well into the 1970s.)
The love affair I mentioned earlier supposedly took place between Fields and McHugh. Greenspan says that McHugh biographer Alyn Shipton states flatly that it occurred, though it was discreetly commandeered. (The team's breakup during the Hollywood years was due to this requited passion, Shipton insists.) Greenspan takes a far more skeptical view of the whole matter.
No matter where the truth lies, the speculative — or not — "love affair" makes for good reading — and also makes you rethink a few of those "apt turns of phrase" that fill Fields' lyrics from Hollywood and beyond.