Published 8 years after her death, Mary Rodgers' memoir is a true tell-all book
Mary Rodgers was a songwriter, children's book author, philanthropist and — perhaps most famously — the daughter of theatrical legend Richard Rodgers. Though she died in 2014, her memoirs were published on Tuesday. Titled Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers, they're co-authored by New York Times theater critic Jesse Green.
The book, the product of hundreds of hours Green spent with Rodgers, has extensive, entertaining, even gossipy footnotes on just about every page. There's an asterisk after the very first word, "Daddy," and the note explains: "If you've read this far, you probably know that Daddy was Richard Rodgers (1902-1979): composer, womanizer, alcoholic, genius."
"What I wanted was her voice," Green explains, saying he didn't want to clog the narrative with a lot of descriptions of the people, places and shows Mary Rodgers was talking about. So, he came up with the idea of footnotes. "I felt if people are going to read this book, what would I want them to get is the experience of sitting in that room and listening to her. I don't want it to read like prose. I want it to read like dialogue or monologue, really."
Green knew about Mary Rodgers long before he met her. "I had been in a show she wrote the music for, Once Upon a Mattress, in high school and also at camp," he says. Green says he had a great deal of fun performing in Rodgers' most famous work – it's a kind of Borscht-Belt adaptation of The Princess and the Pea, and originally starred Carol Burnett on Broadway. He "loved the music and wondered who this woman was who wrote it," he says. "I mean, there were very few women composers ever on Broadway at that time, and certainly none whose shows were being done in high schools all around the country."
When he was assigned to write a profile of Rodgers' son Adam Guettel, composer of Floyd Collins and The Light in the Piazza, Green met Mary and her second husband, Hank Guettel. It was his introduction to Rodgers' alarmingly outspoken ways. "Their behavior was not demure, because during that meeting, just about any provocation from me, any slight little question would result in torrents of shockingly honest answers," Green says, "the kind you never expect as a journalist or really even as a partygoer... At one point, she handed me a kind of a dossier of material for my use in the story that included the kinds of things you would probably normally burn!"
Green and Rodgers hit it off and, several years before her death, she asked him if he'd collaborate on her memoirs. And true to its subtitle, the book is filled with alarmingly outspoken stories about some of the most prominent figures from the golden age of musical theater – not just "Daddy," but his collaborators, Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein. And members of the next generation, too: Readers learn that Rodgers dated both director/producer Hal Prince and lyricist Sheldon Harnick. There are some acid descriptions of librettist Arthur Laurents, and snapshots of Stephen Sondheim through the years.
Green says Rodgers evokes a whole world of privilege – she was educated at Brearley and Wellesley – not unlike Jane Austen's novels: "The restrictions, the opportunities, the conniving, the trying to find love without giving yourself away too cheaply, the mistakes. All of that was a great richness of material that she would just pour out, as I sat there typing madly."
So, the book is filled with stories about the difficult relationship she had with her ice-cold parents (her mother, Dorothy Rodgers, was called "La Perfecta," behind her back by her friends); her first marriage to an older man, Julian B. Beaty Jr., with whom she had three children and who turned out not only to be gay but physically abusive; the affairs she had before she married her second husband. "She went through a checklist of inappropriate men," says Green.
"There's a lot in this book that I think people sort of know or think they know, but they don't," Green explains. "And then there's a few things that I think are going to be shockers to people."
One of them — her relationship with Stephen Sondheim, who she met when they were teenagers through her dad's partner, Oscar Hammerstein. "He was, in a way, the love of her life," Green says. He'd thought it was strictly platonic, but she said that wasn't the case. "She fell hard for Sondheim when they were kids, when they played the first game of chess at Oscar Hammerstein's farm. And then Sondheim went and played Gershwin at the piano, and she was done for life."
But Sondheim was gay. "She told me something I have never read or heard before, that they had briefly what she called a 'trial marriage,' where they slept together in the same bed in a kind of nightmarish confusion about what they were doing, which was nothing," explains Green. "But trying to make some go of what was clearly a very powerful and deep and non-sexual relationship, at least from his side. And eventually, even she had to say, 'no, this is not going to work.'"
They did collaborate on some songs together – their parody of "The Boy from Ipanema" from The Mad Show in 1966, "The Boy From...," has become a cabaret staple. And they remained good friends over the years. Rodgers was part of Sondheim's elaborate celebrity scavenger hunts, all over New York City. And when Sondheim was working on Company, a show about a bachelor and his married friends, he peppered Rodgers with questions about marriage (by then, she was in her second). He even threw in a little Easter egg in the opening number, where one lyric says: "Hank and Mary get into town tomorrow."
Rodgers had an active but frustrating career as a theatrical songwriter. "Mary was quite talented, but was somewhat done in by being a talented person who was the daughter of the nearly universally acknowledged great composer of American musical theater," says Green. There were flops, shows that were never produced (including, tantalizingly, an adaptation of Carson McCullers' A Member of the Wedding), there were constant rumors that her songs were ghost-written by her father, which Green says she found amusing.
But at a certain point, "She just decided, I have a lot of things I can do and I'll try something else," says Green. "This world doesn't want me or isn't working for me right now. I don't need to win."
Perhaps as compensation for her difficult childhood, she threw herself into parenting – she had three more children with her second husband, though she also had the heartbreak of losing one child to an acute case of asthma.
And Mary Rodgers had a second career writing children's books, including Freaky Friday. The extremely popular novel, in which a mother and her daughter swap bodies, has been adapted several times for the screen and spawned sequels that Rodgers authored.
As a last act, Mary Rodgers served on the board of many major institutions, including as chair of the Juilliard School. Jesse Green says, in that role, she got to support generations of young musicians, actors and writers. "She was invested in the world of talent, not so much in the expression of her own," Green explains. "And that's what made her a great dame and a philanthropist with real heart and a wonderful person to be around."
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.