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Book Review: Shy

You wouldn’t know from many reviews of SHY: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers that the book is not only a fascinating tell all, but – in the hands of co-author Jesse Green, The New York Times drama critic – a clever, well-structured tale. By including footnotes on every page that clarify, counter, or support Mary’s acerbic, witty, confessional, and sarcastic narrative, a reader gets two views for the price of one. And both, probably reliable.

At 480 pages, including photos of family, friends, colleagues, and frenemies - and the notes, the book may be asking a lot of readers, but Green’s decision to let Mary just talk, capturing her voice, her style, for hundreds of hours, as he sat marking spots for follow-up research and verification, was a shrewd move. The result is a memoir that sounds like lively conversation. For all its critical candor – especially about Mary’s imperious, wealthy parents and competitive sister, it’s never mean-spirited. Though she did urge Green to make his draft sound “meaner and funnier.”

Self-denigration was part of her act, which was sincere --a practiced, effective ambivalence about her personal and professional life that garners her points as a mother and as a second-tier theatrical composer, author, and songwriter. She studied music but admits her sister was the better performer. She wanted parental approval and admiration, but even more, the camaraderie
affection, and love that came from collaboration.

Her 1959 musical “Once Upon a Mattress” still yields $100,000 a year for the estate and her 1972 children’s book, ”Freaky Friday” became a successful movie. But she was, and she knew it, no Richard Rodgers, and in a way didn’t want to be. Seeing a photo of her at three with him, she asks, ”Where did that nice man go? He went to criticizing her too-large smile, loud mouth, and weight gains. Daddy, she says, “ hated having his time wasted with intangible things like emotions, and found an excess of any sort distasteful.” Well, except for his serial adultery, alcoholism, and drugs.

“Daddy” is the first word of the book whose opening chapter is called “Hostilities.” But it’s “Mummy” (known as “La Perfecta” behind her back) who earns most of Mary’s wrath. Love? Check out Daddy’s marvelous songs with Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II – that would have to do absent direct personal experience.

For sure, Mary took advantage of her privileged upbringing and famous connections. Picking up checks in a restaurant, she would say, “when your father writes “Oklahoma,” you can pay for dinner." She trusts that honesty will redeem her own dubious or bad choices. Her first marriage to an abusive and closeted gay, and her second to the loving but fiscally irresponsible Henry Guettel, father of Adam, whose musical, “The Light in the Piazza” won a Tony. These paralleled her lifelong love for Steven Sondheim, who was gay. For a time, they slept together but were never intimate. Steve was the gold standard against which no one, except her father, who didn’t like him, was judged.

There are also disturbing vignettes about others, including over-the-top Leonard Bernstein, who could be drunk and offensive, flirting once publically with Wagner’s great-grandson and enviously denouncing Sondheim.

Yes, she was rich, but she worked hard. Even at the memoir. Her portraits of theater folk and Broadway are spot on. “The theater is like a little disease,” she said, “it keeps dying and, if you’re not careful, you die with it.” Although Green does come out of what he calls the “footnote closet” to say, “Mary, you’re too hard on yourself, or hard on yourself for the wrong things,” he concludes, sympathetically, “This is how Mary saw [her life]. No, This is how I saw her see it.” Indeed both are true.

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.