Today is the birthday (1885) of Jerome Kern, a US composer of musical theatre and popular music. Kern was one of the most important US theatre composers of the early 20th century, writing more than 700 songs, used in over 100 stage works, including such classics as “Ol’ Man River.”
Kern was born in New York City, on Sutton Place, in what was then the city’s brewery district. His parents were Henry Kern (1842–1908), a German immigrant, and Fannie Kern née Kakeles (1852–1907), who was of Bohemian parentage. At the time of Kern’s birth, his father ran a stable; later he became a successful merchant. Kern grew up on East 56th Street in Manhattan, where he attended public schools. He showed an early aptitude for music and was taught to play the piano and organ by his mother, an accomplished player and teacher.
In 1897, the family moved to Newark, New Jersey, where Kern attended Newark High School (which became Barringer High School in 1907). He wrote songs for the school’s first musical, a minstrel show, in 1901, and for an amateur musical adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin put on at the Newark Yacht Club in January 1902. Kern left high school before graduation in the spring of his senior year in 1902. In response, Kern’s father insisted that his son work with him in business, instead of composing. Kern, however, failed miserably in one of his earliest tasks: he was supposed to purchase two pianos for the store, but instead he ordered 200. His father relented, and later in 1902, Kern became a student at the New York College of Music, studying the piano under Alexander Lambert and Paolo Gallico, and harmony under Dr. Austin Pierce. His first published composition, a piano piece, At the Casino, appeared in the same year. Between 1903 and 1905, he continued his musical training under private tutors in Heidelberg in Germany, returning to New York via London.
For a time, Kern worked as a rehearsal pianist in Broadway theaters and as a song-plugger for Tin Pan Alley music publishers. While in London, he secured a contract from the American impresario Charles Frohman to provide songs for interpolation in Broadway versions of London shows. He began to provide these additions in 1904 to British scores for An English Daisy, by Seymour Hicks and Walter Slaughter, and Mr. Wix of Wickham, for which he wrote most of the songs.
In 1905, Kern contributed the song “How’d you like to spoon with me?” to Ivan Caryll’s hit musical The Earl and the Girl when the show transferred to Chicago and New York in 1905. He also contributed to the New York production of The Catch of the Season (1905), The Little Cherub (1906) and The Orchid (1907), among other shows. From 1905 on, he spent long periods of time in London, contributing songs to West End shows like The Beauty of Bath (1906; with P. G. Wodehouse) and making valuable contacts, including George Grossmith Jr. and Seymour Hicks, who were the first to introduce Kern’s songs to the London stage. In 1909 during one of his stays in England, Kern took a boat trip on the Thames with some friends, and when the boat stopped at Walton-on-Thames, they went to an inn called the Swan for a drink. Kern was much taken with the proprietor’s daughter, Eva Leale (1891–1959), who was working behind the bar. They were married at the church of St. Mary’s in Walton on October 25th, 1910. They then lived at the Swan when Kern was in England.
Kern is believed to have composed music for silent films as early as 1912, but the earliest documented film music which he is known to have written was for a twenty-part serial, Gloria’s Romance in 1916. This was one of the first starring vehicles for Billie Burke, for whom Kern had earlier written the song “Mind the Paint”, with lyrics by A. W. Pinero. The film is now considered lost, but Kern’s music survives. Another score for the silent movies, Jubilo, followed in 1919.
Kern’s first complete score was Broadway’s The Red Petticoat (1912), one of the first musical-comedy Westerns. The libretto was by Rida Johnson Young. By World War I, more than 100 of Kern’s songs had been used in about 30 productions, mostly Broadway adaptations of West End and European shows. The best known of Kern’s songs from this period is probably “They Didn’t Believe Me”, which was a hit in the New York version of the Paul Rubens and Sidney Jones musical, The Girl from Utah (1914), for which Kern wrote five songs. Kern’s song, with four beats to the bar, departed from the customary waltz-rhythms of European influence and fitted the new US passion for modern dances such as the fox-trot. He was also able to use elements of US styles, such as ragtime, as well as syncopation, in his dance tunes.
Kern composed 16 Broadway scores between 1915 and 1920 and also contributed songs to the London hit Theodore & Co (1916) and to revues like the Ziegfeld Follies. The most notable of his scores were those for a series of shows written for the Princess Theatre, a small (299-seat) house built by Ray Comstock. Theatrical agent Elisabeth Marbury asked Kern and librettist Guy Bolton to create a series of intimate and low-budget, yet smart, musicals. The “Princess Theatre shows” were unique on Broadway not only for their small size, but their clever, coherent plots, integrated scores and naturalistic acting, which presented a sharp contrast to the large-scale operettas then in vogue or the star-studded revues and extravaganzas of producers like Ziegfeld. Earlier musical comedy had often been thinly plotted, gaudy pieces, marked by the insertion of songs into their scores with little regard to the plot. But Kern and Bolton followed the examples of Gilbert and Sullivan and French opéra bouffe in integrating song and story.
The 1920s were an extremely productive period in American musical theatre, and Kern created at least one show every year for the entire decade. His first show of 1920 was The Night Boat, with book and lyrics by Anne Caldwell, which ran for more than 300 performances in New York and for three seasons on tour. Later in the same year, Kern wrote the score for Sally, with a book by Bolton and lyrics by Otto Harbach. This show, staged by Florenz Ziegfeld, ran for 570 performances, one of the longest runs of any Broadway show in the decade, and popularized the song “Look for the Silver Lining” (which had been written for an earlier show), performed by the rising star Marilyn Miller. It also had a long run in London in 1921, produced by George Grossmith, Jr.
1925 was a major turning point in Kern’s career when he met Oscar Hammerstein II, with whom he would entertain a lifelong friendship and collaboration. He rarely collaborated with any one lyricist for long. With Hammerstein, however, he remained on close terms for the rest of his life. Their first show, written together with Harbach, was Sunny, which featured the song “Who (Stole My Heart Away)?” Marilyn Miller played the title role. The show ran for 517 performances on Broadway, and the following year ran for 363 performances in the West End, starring Binnie Hale and Jack Buchanan.
Kern had been impressed by Edna Ferber’s novel Show Boat and wished to present a musical stage version. He persuaded Hammerstein to adapt it and Ziegfeld to produce it. The story, dealing with racism, marital strife and alcoholism, was unheard of in the escapist world of musical comedy. Despite his doubts, Ziegfeld spared no expense in staging the piece to give it its full epic grandeur. After the opening night audience filed out of the Ziegfeld Theatre in near silence, Ziegfeld thought his worst fears had been confirmed. He was pleasantly surprised when the next morning brought ecstatic reviews and long lines at the box office. In fact, Show Boat proved to be the most lasting accomplishment of Ziegfeld’s career. The score is, arguably, Kern’s greatest and includes the well-known songs “Ol’ Man River” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” as well as “Make Believe”, “You Are Love”, “Life Upon the Wicked Stage”, “Why Do I Love You”, all with lyrics by Hammerstein. Although Ferber’s novel was filmed unsuccessfully as a part-talkie in 1929 (using some songs from the Kern score), the musical itself was filmed twice, in 1936, and, with Technicolor, in 1951. While most Kern musicals have largely been forgotten, except for their songs, Show Boat remains well-remembered and frequently seen. It is a staple of stock productions and has been revived numerous times on Broadway and in London.
In January 1929, at the height of the Jazz Age, and with Show Boat still playing on Broadway, Kern made news on both sides of the Atlantic for reasons wholly unconnected with music. He sold at auction, at New York’s Anderson Galleries, the collection of English and American literature that he had been building up for more than a decade. The collection, rich in inscribed first editions and manuscript material of eighteenth and nineteenth century authors, sold for a total of $1,729,462.50 – a record for a single-owner sale that stood for over fifty years. Among the books he sold were first or early editions of poems by Robert Burns and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and works by Jonathan Swift, Henry Fielding and Charles Dickens, as well as manuscripts by Alexander Pope, John Keats, Shelley, Lord Byron, Thomas Hardy and others.
Kern went to Hollywood in 1929, but there was a public reaction against the early glut of film musicals after the advent of film sound. Hollywood released more than 100 musical films in 1930, but only 14 in 1931. So, Kern returned to writing from Broadway and West End productions. In 1935, when musical films had become popular once again, thanks to Busby Berkeley, Kern returned to Hollywood, where he composed the scores to a dozen more films, although he also continued working on Broadway productions. He settled permanently in Hollywood in 1937. After suffering a heart attack in 1939, he was told by his doctors to concentrate on film scores, a less stressful task, as Hollywood songwriters were not as deeply involved with the production of their works as Broadway songwriters. This second phase of Kern’s Hollywood career had considerably greater artistic and commercial success than the first. With Hammerstein, he wrote songs for the film versions of his recent Broadway shows Music in the Air (1934), Sweet Adeline (1935). With Dorothy Fields, he composed the new music for I Dream Too Much (1935), a musical melodrama about the opera world, starring the Metropolitan Opera diva Lily Pons. Kern and Fields interspersed the opera numbers with their songs. Their next film, Swing Time (1936) included the song “The Way You Look Tonight”, which won the Academy Award in 1936 for the best song. Other songs in Swing Time include “A Fine Romance”, “Pick Yourself Up” and “Never Gonna Dance”.
Kern songs were also used in the Cary Grant film, When You’re in Love (1937), and the first Abbott and Costello feature, One Night in the Tropics (1940). In the autumn of 1945, Kern returned to New York City to oversee auditions for a new revival of Show Boat, and began to work on the score for what would become the musical Annie Get Your Gun, to be produced by Rodgers and Hammerstein. On November 5th, 1945, at 60, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage while walking at the corner of Park Avenue and 57th street. Hammerstein was at his side in hospital when Kern’s breathing stopped. Hammerstein hummed the song “I’ve Told Ev’ry Little Star” from Music in the Air into Kern’s ear. Receiving no response, Hammerstein realized Kern had died. Kern is interred at Ferncliff Cemetery in Westchester County, New York.
The Jazz Age is often conceived of as a period of culinary innovation in the US, although for me the dishes are not much to write home about. This was the era when salad dressings were invented – French, Thousand Island, Russian, and Ranch – and also complex salads with meat such as Cobb and Waldorf. Revolutionary in a way, but I do not find either rich dressings or meaty salads appealing. I was, however, struck by a 1924 recipe for chicken in golden sauce with rice, because I used to make something similar for many years.
Gently poach chicken breasts until they are barely cooked. In a wide skillet make a white roux of butter and flour. Add cream and chicken broth in equal quantities, and stir until thickened. Then add an egg yolk and stir until well mixed and cooked through. Add the chicken breast to warm through, and serve over cooked rice.