Oscar Levant vanished into the memory hole of popular culture within a few years of his death in 1972. If he is known at all today, it is as the sardonic piano-playing sidekick he portrayed in a dozen movies of the ’40s and ’50s, most famously with Gene Kelly in An American in Paris (1951) and Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon (1953). Because these screen appearances are now his sole claim on posterity, it came as a surprise when Sony Classical released A Rhapsody in Blue: The Extraordinary Life of Oscar Levant last fall. This eight-CD boxed set contains the hundred-odd recordings that he made as a pianist between 1941 and 1958, accompanied by a 124-page book whose centerpiece is a biographical essay by the cabaret singer Michael Feinstein.

Beyond the mere fact of its existence, what is most remarkable about A Rhapsody in Blue is the nature of its contents. It includes all four of George Gershwin’s concert works for piano and orchestra, of which Levant was an admired interpreter, but the rest of the set is devoted to music by classical composers, including solo pieces by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Copland, Debussy, Liszt, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Schumann, and Shostakovich, as well as concerto performances that feature such noted conductors as Eugene Ormandy and Fritz Reiner.

That Levant recorded so extensively as a classical pianist will startle anyone who knows only his films. It is likely to be just as startling, however, to those who also remember that he once appeared regularly on such radio and TV series as Information Please and the Jack Paar–hosted version of The Tonight Show, on which he “played” a version of his real-life self, a wisecracking neurotic who bragged about his mental instability (“I have seizures of momentary sanity”) and, later, his psychiatric hospitalizations. He also discussed them in three bestselling memoirs, A Smattering of Ignorance (1940), The Memoirs of an Amnesiac (1965), and The Unimportance of Being Oscar (1968), which were replete with a confessional candor rare among celebrities of the period.

To read about Levant is to be struck by how his seeming compulsion to blurt the details of his mental illnesses into the nearest microphone foreshadowed the modern-day “oversharers” who chronicle each twist and turn of their private lives. Even so, there was more to him than his madness, and the story of his career as a musician, sometime actor, and media figure avant la lettre will be of interest to anyone curious about what it meant to be famous in America at midcentury.

Born in Pittsburgh in 1906, Levant was the third of four sons of Orthodox Jewish émigrés from czarist Russia. Max, his father, was a jeweler, and Annie, his mother, was a sarcastic, emotionally inaccessible housewife from whom young Oscar inherited his spiky sense of humor. Both parents were music lovers, but Max was determined that their children should become doctors. While two of them did so, Harry, the oldest son, moved to New York and became a pit violinist and, later, a respected Broadway conductor.

Oscar, who was even more musically gifted than his brother, might well have become a concert pianist had his mother been more consistent in her support. But Annie, though she believed in his talent, also warned the boy that he would “never become a Paderewski,” thus discouraging him from pursuing with the requisite single-mindedness a career in classical music. In any case, his interests ranged too widely for him to be pinned down easily. As well as being an omnivorous reader, he loved the jazz-inflected pop music of the day, and when he first heard George Gershwin perform in 1918, the then-unknown songwriter’s “free and inventive” piano playing left a lasting mark on him.

By 1925, Levant had followed his older brother to New York, where he played piano in Ben Bernie’s dance band and wrote songs on the side. His off-the-cuff quips found their way into Walter Winchell’s column, and before long he was part of Gershwin’s circle of friends. In 1927, he was cast in the Broadway premiere of Burlesque, a backstage drama in which he played a songwriter-pianist, and two years later he went to Hollywood to act in the film version. Thereafter he shuttled between the coasts, working for the film studios while trying to make a name for himself on Tin Pan Alley.

Levant occasionally applied his sharp tongue to Gershwin’s impenetrable carapace of vanity, asking him, “Tell me, George, if you had to do it all over, would you fall in love with yourself again?” Even so, what he called his “neurotic love affair” with Gershwin’s music persuaded Levant that his own composing talents were too modest to take seriously. He was right—only one of his songs, the tender “Blame It on My Youth,” is sung today—but the realization wrought havoc on his fragile ego. “I got so much, vicariously, out of his ability and creativeness that whatever latent talents I had were completely submerged,” he explained.

In the hope of breaking free from Gershwin’s smothering influence, Levant started studying with Arnold Schoenberg in 1935, but the only result was a slender portfolio of forgettable concert pieces that sound like crosses between Schoenberg’s atonal music and Rhapsody in Blue. In truth, he was not a composer de métier: His true talents lay elsewhere, and it was their belated flowering that finally made him a celebrity in his own right.

By then, Levant’s knack for lightning-fast repartée had brought him a notoriety with which he was ill at ease. “The columnists are always quoting me,” he complained. “If it weren’t for them, somebody, some day, might take me seriously as a musician.” Instead, Dan Golenpaul, a radio producer, invited him to be a guest on a new quiz show called Information Please, answering questions on music and baseball. He was a perfect fit, leading Golenpaul to make Levant a panelist on the show, which became a hit. He appeared on Information Please from 1938 to 1944, and its success brought him the fame he had never been able to win for himself as a musician.

Levant was a natural for radio. His nasal, cutting voice made him instantly recognizable, while his quick wit, unpretentious manner, and hard-edged urban accent drew the sting from his highbrow passions. In the words of Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, his biographers:

The cabbie who loved Tchaikovsky, the counterman at Woolworth’s who listened to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast on Saturday afternoons, the Fifth Avenue physician who tuned in to the NBC Symphony on Sunday nights while visiting his mother in the Bronx—to that midcult audience, Levant was a hero. He was one of them—he personified the democratic, popular spirit of the age.

Hollywood producers soon started casting him in second-banana roles in movie musicals, to whose fluffy charms his acerbic, disheveled presence was a refreshing contrast. He also acted in a few straight dramas, the best of which was Jean Negulesco’s Humoresque (1946), in which he is entirely believable as the cynical pianist who accompanies a struggling young violinist played by John Garfield.

But Levant had mixed feelings about his metamorphosis. He assured an interviewer that “I don’t want to be known as a wag….I want to be known as a serious musician.“ His mother wanted the same thing and made no secret of her belief that being a pop musician and radio star was unworthy of his gifts. In Rhapsody in Blue (1945), a fictionalized biopic about Gershwin in which Levant played himself, he speaks a revealing line that he added to the screenplay: “If it wasn’t for George, I could have been a pretty good mediocre composer.” He had long been given to cracking defensive jokes, but this one cut too close to the knuckle, pointing as it did to the crippling self-doubt that was central to his personality. Yet Levant continued to make such “jokes,” and the line that separated truth from fiction in his screen roles and public utterances grew blurred as a result. 

Ironically, though, his success as a radio star also made it possible for him to have the concert career of which he (and his mother) had dreamed. Promoters booked him on the assumption that he would draw enthusiastic crowds of Information Please fans and moviegoers, and they were right. It helped that Gershwin’s untimely death in 1937 had freed Levant from lingering inhibitions about performing his friend’s works in public. Despite the phobic, near-incapacitating stage fright from which he would always suffer, he played Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in F with orchestras all over America. He was even asked in 1944 to play the concerto with Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony, a sign of the high esteem in which his direct, unmannered interpretations of Gershwin’s scores were rightly held.

Two years earlier, Levant had also started giving solo recitals, albeit of an unorthodox kind. Billed as “concerts with comments,” they consisted in the main of short, mostly lyrical classical miniatures that he introduced from the stage, interspersed with self-deprecating remarks about his playing. These recitals received favorable notices, though some critics expressed reservations about his pianistic skills. “He could go far as a virtuoso, farther than he went last night,” Olin Downes pointedly wrote in his New York Times review of Levant’s Carnegie Hall debut.

At the same time, Columbia began to release studio recordings of the pieces that Levant was performing in concert. They show that he had a technique far more finished than might have been expected from a pianist who for years had played no classical music. It is evident from his versions of such demanding warhorses as Liszt’s Twelfth Hungarian Rhapsody that he was capable of rising to virtuoso occasions, though comparison with the greatest pianists of the day reveals that he lacked their strong individuality. His interpretations, by contrast, were often straightforward to the point of baldness, in much the same way that Benny Goodman’s classical clarinet playing was technically secure but emotionally straitlaced. 

Despite his limitations, Levant’s “concerts with comments” delighted the middlebrow listeners who flocked to see him. Within a few years, he was the highest-paid classical pianist in America, and many of his musician friends believed that he could have gone on to master a more ambitious repertoire. But he was ill-suited to success: His manic-depressive tendencies were exacerbated by his demanding concert schedule, and the delicate balance of his psyche broke down altogether when he suffered a heart attack in 1952. A well-meaning doctor made the mistake of treating him with Demerol, a synthetic narcotic to which he promptly became addicted, a problem with which he struggled for the rest of his life.

Within a few years, Levant was washed up, both as a pianist and as an actor. The Cobweb (1955), his last film, was an overwrought Vincente Minnelli melodrama about life in a mental hospital in which he played—of course—a patient. In one horrific scene, he is shown under restraint in a hydrotherapy tub, singing “M-O-T-H-E-R” to an appalled nurse and speaking lines whose autobiographical overtones suggest that, once again, he wrote them himself: “The futility, the emptiness, the hydrogen bomb…say, I may even be fit to cope with my mother! There’s a formidable woman. Quick of eye, steady of hand, never been known to miss with a knife in the back.”

It was his willingness to parade his neuroses for profit that brought Levant back into the public eye once more. Jack Paar booked him as a Tonight Show guest in 1958, and the favorable response led Paar to ask him back repeatedly. Surviving kinescopes of these shows betray the extent to which his mental condition had deteriorated, but Paar’s viewers were still titillated by his comic allusions to his psychiatric problems (“My usual formal attire is black tie and straitjacket”). His later appearances, however, grew increasingly unsettling, and in 1965 he gave up TV and drifted into reclusive obscurity.

 The most revealing line that Levant ever spoke was interpolated by him into Clifford Odets’s screenplay for Humoresque: “It’s not what you are, but what you don’t become that hurts.” He was grievously hurt by his failure to become a composer of distinction, and he was too talented not to have been as painfully aware of his limitations as a classical pianist. Above all, he longed to be a second Gershwin, and he knew better than anyone how far short of the mark he fell.

To be sure, what he did do was far from unworthy. His stylistically exemplary recordings of Gershwin’s music remain listenable to this day, and his best film performances have a wry humor that is no less engaging. The same is true of A Smattering of Ignorance, his first book, which contains a pen portrait of Gershwin (characteristically titled “My Life: or, The Story of George Gershwin”) that is one of the shrewdest things ever written about his old friend.

In the end, though, he was right to be dissatisfied. His talent was bigger than anything he managed to do with it. Had he been born a half-century later, when it was possible to treat the malignant manic-depressive disease from which he suffered so cruelly, he might have accomplished at least some of the greater things for which he longed. Instead, the popular culture that he embraced paid Oscar Levant to turn himself into a grotesque self-caricature. He—and we—deserved better.

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