Shy (the book, not the song)

“Everyone should marry a gay man at least once,” says Mary Rodgers (better known as the daughter of Richard Rodgers, but an important figure in her own right, and not just for Once Upon a Mattress) on page 128 of Shy, her posthumous memoir.

Appropriately subtitled The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers, this totally fascinating book was co-written by New York Times theatre critic Jesse Green—more about that below—but is almost entirely in Mary Rogers’s voice. Given that most of the story takes place in and around New York’s musical theatre scene, it’s no surprise that Mary and many other women in the memoir married gay men. It’s also no surprise that so many of the people we meet, both gay and straight, are Jewish—more on that below as well.

Fortunately this is a New York story, not a Hollywood story, despite the very successful movies for which Richard Rodgers wrote the music. I say “fortunately,” but you, for all I know, might be one of the millions of Americans who are into Hollywood gossip. That’s not the kind of gossip you’ll find here. But you’ll find plenty about all aspects of creating and producing every part of Broadway musicals. I know that you’re not supposed to notice how the sausage gets made, but that process is one of the two most fascinating aspects of Shy. The other is the interpersonal relationships of the Rodgers family and Mary’s many sexual and emotional relationships—not just with gay men, although Stephen Sondheim features prominently among them.

Is this memoir really “alarmingly outspoken”? Well, perhaps. Mary certainly doesn’t pull punches and is not shy about naming names when she describes badly behaved men—mostly men, but not entirely—in the world of music, theatre, and musical theatre. She’s also not shy about describing the talents or lack thereof of her many colleagues.

Of course Richard Rodgers is the dominant figure in much of the memoir, especially the early parts. He and his wife Dorothy were extremely accomplished as professionals, not so much as parents. Then again, how often do parents fare well in memoirs? “Straight through my life, everywhere you look, they were horrible, especially my mother, about little things, but important things they were wonderful about.” (page 69)

“We love you, but we don’t like you,” says her mother—often. The resultant search for a strong and loving father leads Mary to convert from Judaism to Catholicism, where confession helps alleviate the guilt. Catholicism didn’t stick. It’s not clear to me in what way she raised her five children, other than permissively.

We do learn about some of the problems of being an upper-class Jew in the ’40s and ’50s. Consider Brearley, for instance. Now a paragon of diversity, equity, and inclusion (56% students of color, for instance), Brearley at the time had a 3% Jewish quota and was filled with Rockefellers and Vanderbilts, at least in Mary Rodgers’s telling. No students of color. East Side, of course. Mary’s mother, Dorothy, was East Side as well, but Mary was very much West Side, as she explains on page 361. (This all rang true when I consider how my aunt and uncle felt much more at home when they moved from the West Side to the East Side; they had always lived in a different world from my parents, who were a doctor and a social worker; my aunt and uncle were an interior decorator and a stock broker. Enough said.)

But it wasn’t just the ’40s and ’50s. Even in the ’60s, when I was at Phillips Academy Andover, there were no apparent Jewish faculty, although close to 10% of the students were Jewish. In the ’80s, when Mary Rodgers was on the board at Phillips Exeter Academy (don’t confused it with Andover!), she asked Dorothy to make a contribution:

After reading the booklet that had been in use since the late eighteenth century, she [Dorothy] said, “I’m not giving to a school like that! They say right up front that they only want Protestants.”

“Mummy, that’s not true anymore. They have plenty of Jewish kids.”

“But are there Jewish teachers?”

There weren’t.

Finally, let’s come back to the question how the two co-authors collaborated. That process has always been a fascinating question to me. In this case, most of the book—all but the last chapter—is somewhat in the style of A Garland of Ibids for Van Wyck Brooks, a New Yorker story by Frank Sullivan that you probably don’t know but should. In that story, Sullivan parodies Brooks for having too many footnotes by having the footnotes argue with the main text and eventually with each other. You’ll have to get to the last chapter of Shy to find out all the details, but the point here is that Jesse Green not only shaped Mary Rodgers’s narrative but also fact-checked and commented on it through multiple footnotes on almost every page. That odd style turns out to work really well in this case. The exception to the format is the last chapter, which Green wrote in its entirety.

OK, that’s long enough—too long, probably—but I was just so immersed in the details that couldn’t write it any more concisely.

Categories: Books