If George Gershwin had an alter-ego, most people would agree that it was Oscar Levant (1906-1972), film composer and arranger. Levant, who was best known as a jazz pianist, was considered to have been the most accomplished interpreter of the vast songbook of U.S. composer George Gershwin, and was the first performer to record "Rhapsody in Blue" after Gershwin. He also scored numerous Broadway plays and Hollywood films, composed classical music, authored several books, and contributed numerous articles on musical topics.
Levant was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on December 27, 1906 to Max and Annie Levant, Orthodox Russian Jews. His talent with music was recognized early in his life, but he was a troublesome child to his music teachers and his parents, displaying a constant aversion to people who represented authority. His father, a demanding parent, insisted that all of his sons receive musical training and perform at family recitals, exactly as he commanded. He was meticulous in his plans for these recitals, dictating what each boy would play and how each piece was to be performed. In one instance, Levant rebelled, performing a piece of his own choice as an encore. His father's anger resulted in a humiliating slap in the face, and the beginning of his life-long loathing of authority figures.
Levant's formal education concluded at the age of 15 when his father died and he moved to New York in order to find the freedom to pursue his music in his own way. He was quick to find work in the Prohibition nightclubs and speakeasies of New York. It was 1921, the Great Depression was still a song away, and Broadway was thriving. A talented young man with his musical skills was soon absorbed into the spirit of the theater district, where popular stars included Al Jolson and Fanny Brice, were themselves children of Jewish immigrant parents. Although trained in classical music, Levant quickly picked up on current musical trends and played them to his advantage. It was not long before Levant became a regular at Lindy's, one of the more popular city nightspots. His satiric wit and skills at the keyboard soon became fodder for gossip columnists such as Walter Winchell, who recognized the value of Levant's caustic remarks.
Friendship with Gershwin
Levant first heard Gershwin's music when he was 12 years old, and was soon inspired to compose his own music. It was not surprising that during his time in New York, Levant and Gershwin would strike up a friendship-a friendship that would prove to be both intense and distressing. This relationship would extend through many years of a love-hate dependence on both sides. Levant, while personally insecure about his own talents, seemed driven to surpass Gershwin. Were it not for his neurotic insecurity, he might have done just that. His association with Gershwin was a blend of envy and hero worship; they had a deep mutual regard for one another that thrived on competitiveness.
Levant and Gershwin came from similar backgrounds. Levant was born of immigrant Jewish parents and raised in Pittsburgh, while Gershwin was an immigrant boy raised on New York's Lower East Side. Gershwin astutely understood that he would have quicker success if he cast off his background, affecting an upper-class bearing. Levant, on the other hand, remained the rumpled sidekick with the European accent. Levant knew that Gershwin could never change what he was, but that was little comfort to a man who remained trapped in the insecurities of his own immigrant background. Throughout his life, Levant was incapable of moving out of Gershwin's shadow, a fact that caused him considerable frustration and fed his neuroses. It was after Gershwin's untimely death in 1937 that Levant became his foremost interpreter.
With Gershwin's death, Levant picked up his friend's music and soon became known as one of the best interpreter's of Gershwin's compositions in the business. It was as a result of his love for this music and his ability to interpret it through subsequent recordings that Levant quickly became one of the highest paid musical artists in the United States. He would have enjoyed, and most likely commented on, the irony of having achieved this recognition not through his own compositions and arrangements, but through those of his friend and rival.
A Man of Many Careers
Levant truly had five vocations: composer, pianist, actor, author, and arranger. He studied music under Sigismund Stojowski from 1935 to 1937 and studied composition under Arnold Schoenberg, where he composed several classical pieces, including his piano concerto. He received high praise for his talents from the likes of Vladimir Horowitz. Levant's composition skills extended through many forms of music, including classical, jazz, and Broadway musicals. Among his own compositions are "Blame It on My Youth," "Lady Play Your Mandolin," and his classical "Sonatina: First Movement: Con ritmo." He recorded numerous works by other composers and, in addition to his best-known recording of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," he recorded Gershwin's "Prelude I," "Prelude II," and "Prelude III." He did not stray too far from his classical background as a listen to his recordings of Ravel's "Menuet," Shostakovitch's "Prelude in A Minor," and Debussy's "Jardins Sous La Pluie" reveal. Levant's recording of Gershwin's serious concert piano pieces raised an awareness of Gershwin's many musical talents beyond the New York area.
Levant appeared as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic and the Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Rochester, Los Angeles, and Montreal orchestras, among others. In Hollywood he applied his talents as a composer of motion-picture music and, for a time, was the "Music Expert" on the Information Please radio program.
Levant frequently served as a sidekick in movies, where his sardonic wit played well against the hero. He was always cast to type and audiences identified him with objects such as smoldering ashtrays and full coffee cups. He appeared in 13 movies, among them Rhythm on the River, Kiss the Boys Goodbye, Humoresque, The Barkleys of Broadway, and An American in Paris, the last a biography of his friend, George Gershwin. Levant stretched his talents to include authorship when he wrote A Smattering of Ignorance in 1940, Memoirs of an Amnesiac in 1965, and The Unimportance of Being Oscar in 1968. He contributed to such magazines as Good Housekeeping, Harper's, Town & Country, and Vogue. Regardless of his many talents and throughout his multi-faceted career, Levant never stayed with one thing long enough to build his reputation beyond that of second string.
Levant began to make the circuit of radio and television shows where his biting wit delighted listeners across America. In 1950, he suffered a heart attack and subsequently developed an addiction to the pain medication, Demerol. Despite his exceptional musical skills and quick wit, Levant was plagued with lifelong uncertainty and depression. As his bouts with depression progressed, he turned these sad episodes into biting commentary about himself, drawing out his lack of self-confidence for the world to see.
In the early 1950s, Levant hosted his own television talk show with guests of the stature of authors Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood. He even brought his own psychiatrist, Dr. George Wayne, on the show from time to time. Television in its infancy was live. No one could be sure what Levant would do or say as the program progressed, and this show was often considered "must see TV" for everyone in Hollywood. His wit was notorious and, while he frequently used it against others, he more often used it against himself. Although Levant had the potential for becoming a success in this new medium, his increasing episodes of depression took their toll on his career. He recognized the affect his addictions had on his health and checked himself into Mt. Sinai Hospital each day after his show, but with little or no positive effects. He soon began to fade from the public's view.
In 1958, television host Jack Paar convinced Levant to appear on his program. For the next six years the composer appeared with regularity, amusing viewers with his neurotic satire. Levant both shocked and intrigued viewers with his open discussions about his neuroses and his addiction to painkillers. While his illnesses became more apparent with each appearance as his speech slowed, his wit remained as sharp as ever. His openness about his illnesses was unheard of during these early years of television and Paar was severely criticized for allowing Levant to appear when his deteriorating mental condition seemed at its worst. However, Levant's self-deprecating comments seemed to endear him to the public. He spoke at a time when others hid their problems or those of their families, and his frank approach to his addictions and illnesses was curious, amusing, and often sad. Fans could view their own problems through his eyes, a means of avoiding the essential confrontation at home.
In her biography A Talent for Genius, co-author Nancy Schoenberger described Levant as "the first public dysfunctional celebrity … that shocked and also amused because Oscar was funny when he talked about … group therapy." Schoenberger repeats Levant's satiric reference to a group trip to Disneyland: "To hell with Disneyland. I have my own hallucinations."
A Troubled Personal Life
Levant married twice during his life. His first marriage to Barbara Smith, on January 5, 1932, lasted less than seven years. On December 1, 1939 Levant again dove into marital waters when he married June Gale. They had three daughters, Marcia Ann, Lorna, and Amanda. The marriage was often explosive and the couple frequently found their private lives the topic of newspaper articles. There were moments of physical abuse, once when Levant charged that June threatened him with scissors. Yet through all of the marital problems that racked their life together, Levant's wife of 33 years remained with him until his death.
On August 14, 1972, Levant, a man who spoke openly about the devils that plagued him, died peacefully. He was buried in Westwood Memorial Park, West Los Angeles, California. A man who never got beyond the shadow of his best friend during his lifetime, may well have taken that very step with the legacy of music he left behind. He would have enjoyed that irony.
Further Reading on Oscar Levant
Entertainment Weekly, May 20, 1994.
Forward, June 24, 1994.
Los Angeles Times, August 23, 1997.