After seeing him in several films, most notably The I Don't Care Girl at Cinevent in 2019, I became interested in learning about Oscar Levant. I found myself completely fascinated by his piano playing, which on a normal day would bore me. Levant, however, played hypnotically and emotionally.
Levant wrote several books in his lifetime, but they can be difficult to come by at a reasonable price. Thankfully husband and wife Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger wrote this biography published in 1994 which gleaned information from those and many other sources. It is an informative and enjoyable read filled with hilarious stories about the famous pianist who was known for his wit.
Levant began his career playing the piano in New York City. A restless man, he never kept a job for very long and dabbled in various forms of music working in both concert halls and jazz halls. He wrote popular songs ("If You Want the Rainbow (You Must Have the Rain)," "Lady Play Your Mandolin," "Blame it on my Youth"), appeared on Broadway in Burlesque, and composed and conducted orchestral work. He was well-known among intellectual types and spent a great deal of time with his idol George Gershwin as well as George F. Kaufman, Harpo Marx, and Berthold and Salka Viertel.
When Levant was invited to be a guest panelist on an episode of radio's Information Please, a quiz show that allowed listeners to submit questions to stump the panel, his vibrant personality won over the audience and he quickly became a permanent member of the panel. He later worked as second banana to Al Jolson on the Kraft Music Hall, a wonderful comedy program that introduced its audience to both classical music and popular standards from the vaudeville era.
His appealing personality attracted the attention of Hollywood and he made several films where he played the piano and mostly played himself. He was a superstitious man with major anxiety and an addiction to caffeine, nicotine and sleeping pills. The combination gave him a heart attack from which he never fully recovered. In an effort to conceal his ailment, he became addicted to pain killers, causing him to have several breakdowns which required institutionalization to cure. The public loved him through it all.
Levant got his own television show which featured his wife June Gale, but he was in no condition mentally or physically to have longevity. He withdrew from the public eye, battling his addictions and eventually triumphing over them, but much weaker than he had been.
He died in 1972 at the age of 65.
Levant's personality seems very modern compared to his contemporaries upon reflection. His cynical outlook on life, brightened by intelligence and humor, is much more common in our society. His fall into the world of addiction is also sadly modern. Perhaps that is why, in addition to a desire to build up people who are brilliant but are insecure about themselves, Levant is so easy to like. This book sheds light on a fascinating person and only makes him seem more fascinating. It inspired me to seek out more of his work.
***** 5 stars