We watched “Summertime,” a 1955 film starring Katharine Hepburn and Rossanno Brazzi, inspired — if I remember right — by the fact that it was shot entirely on location in Venice. In that respect, it was no disappointment. The photography took full advantage of the city.

The premise of the movie is that Jane Hudson (Hepburn), an executive secretary from Akron, Ohio, is vacationing in Venice. It is clear from the beginning that Jane leads a life devoid of excitement and that she came to Venice with the vague hope — accompanied by a vague fear — that something extraordinary will happen to her. The “something,” which anyone would have deduced from the opening credits, is Renato de Rossi (Brazzi), a Venetian shopkeeper with a complicated domestic life.


After what seems like an interminable buildup, during which Jane’s discomfort as a solo act in Venice is excruciatingly developed, she and Renato have a couple of chance meetings in which Jane’s skittish reaction to him is difficult to understand. At last their acquaintance flourishes until it is consummated in something that couldn’t be shown on the screen in 1955 but was ably represented by fireworks exploding over Venice while one of Jane’s new red shoes lies forsaken on the balcony of Renato’s apartment.

I won’t be a spoiler, but let’s just say there won’t be an opening for a secretary in Akron.

One of many panoramic views of Venice in "Summertime."

We found this film worth watching, but it’s got its flaws. One is that the transitions in Jane’s moods from one scene to the next are rather abrupt in a couple of cases. That might be a function of a larger problem, which is that this movie is largely about Jane’s interior life, but we don’t get much of a look at that. We don’t know why this woman, whom Renato finds irresistible, was incapable of finding romance without coming to Venice.

This film was based on “The Time of the Cuckoo,” which is a play by Arthur Laurents, who — among other things — wrote the books for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy.” I haven’t seen that play, but it ran on Broadway in 1952-53 and won a best-actress Tony award for Shirley Booth, who played the character originally named Leona Samish.


I do know Arthur, though, and I have seen several plays he has written more recently. His work displays a great deal of  insight into the human psyche — maybe I should say the human soul — particularly where love is concerned. I suspect Jane is more understandable in the play.

I have read that the makers of this film didn’t like Arthur’s screenplay and hired another writer to monkey with it. If so, I don’t think they did the audience any favors.



For my own amusement, I keep a file of presidential trivia, but there is one fragment of information about the 36th president that I have chosen to omit: Lyndon Johnson was the only president who conducted staff meetings in his bathroom while he was moving his bowels. The fact that he bullied his staff into participating in this bizarre behavior speaks to one of the worst characteristics of the president. And, I suppose — to the extent that they didn’t have enough personal pride to tell him to go take a whaddyacallit — it speaks to the self image of Johnson’s toadies. He was a coarse, loud-mouthed bully, and that went along nicely with his appetites for alcohol and women.

Johnson, in a few words, was no damned good. That is, he would have been if he hadn’t conducted the most successful domestic policy of any president except Franklin Roosevelt; if he hadn’t used his political brawn and skill to enact such measures as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Voting Rights Act, and if he hadn’t sponsored such programs as Medicare. These contrasting realities about LBJ are described in “Lyndon B. Johnson” by Charles Peters, one of a series of short presidential biographies by Times Books.

Maybe it has been true of every president including George Washington and Abraham Lincoln that the nation has had to accept the bad with the good sides of a man, but that lesson has hardly been more boldly drawn than it was in the case of Lyndon Johnson.

Peters, who was a member of the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Johnson, gives plenty of examples of Johnson’s petulance, pettiness, and cruelty, including his weakness for publicly humiliating the  people around him. Peters reports instances in which Johnson obfuscated or simply lied, including to the American public, in order to get his way — although LBJ hardly originated that tactic. In fact, Peters describes the scenario in which LBJ, then vice president, was left out of the loop when Robert Kennedy secretly agreed to the withdrawal of American missiles from Turkey as a quid pro quo for the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba. LBJ succeeded to the presidency and pursued what turned out to be a very aggressive policy against North Vietnam and the Viet Cong without knowing how the missile crisis had been resolved.

Johnson was an extraordinarily ambitious man, and he never made decisions without weighing the political consequences for himself. For instance, he abhorred the idea that he would be cast as a weakling if he publicly vacillated from a determination to prevent the fall of South Vietnam — even while he seriously doubted that the war could be won and made several efforts to achieve a negotiated peace.

The war — or, at least, the way the war was perceived by much of the American public by 1968 — was Johnson’s undoing. People may forget about Johnson showing off his surgical scar, using an aide’s lap as a footrest, lifting his hound by its ears, or even pursuing one sexual affair after another. However, as Peters notes, the bloodshed and the divisiveness and LBJ’s unprecedented decision to decline to run for reelection will always be associated with his memory.

Still, this unlikeable man took a courageous stand during a time of great uncertainty in the country and doggedly promoted his programs to help the poor, to assure medical care for the elderly, to assist students, and to finally bring true political equality to black Americans. Historians can spend eternity speculating whether all of that could have been achieved in the America of the 1960s without an SOB of Shakespearean proportions in the White House.

President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Bill in August 1965. Although previous legislation had guaranteed the franchise to all citizens, this bill was actually enforceable.

Rainbow photographed by Beth Williams Liou

This photo of a rainbow was posted on Facebook the other day by Beth Williams Liou. She took it on Long Beach Island in New Jersey. It happens that Pat and I were on the island that day with two of our daughters and our four grandchildren, and were waiting for a table at a restaurant when someone spotted the same rainbow.

First, those of us who were standing outside the crowded restaurant stepped out into the parking lot and looked up at the sight. Then some people who were already seated got up and came out. Even some of the wait staff rushed over to have a glance. There was a lot of excited chatter, and several people were taking pictures of the rainbow with their cell phones. Maybe that’s how Beth Williams Liou caught this image.

As often happens with me, I knew while this event was taking place that I would write a column or homily about it. It turned out to be a column. What immediately struck me was that all of us for whom this rainbow became the center of attention are immersed in a world of seemingly endless technical advances — 3D movies, HDTV, WiFi, Wii, hand-held devices of every description. But we aren’t so jaded yet that we won’t look in awe when nature from time to time reminds us of the source of all genius.

One of the best things about a rainbow beyond its sheer beauty is that it’s a trick nature pulls on us humans. Where we see bands of color, for instance, there actually is a continuous spectrum of light. And the rainbow itself doesn’t really exist at all; it’s only the way our complex but still limited senses and nervous systems perceive the refraction of light passing through tiny drops of moisture. If we try to chase the rainbow, it is never where we look. If we do something else before giving the rainbow our attention,  it disappears.

”We have not the reverent feeling for the rainbow,” crabby old Mark Twain wrote, “that the savage has, because we know how it is made. We have lost as much as we gained by prying into that matter.” I don’t know if we were a band of savages on Long Beach Island the other day, but I don’t think any of us was any less impressed by the spectacle overhead because we knew how it was made.


I heard a promo recently about a segment on Public Radio, and the gist of it was, “What book did you read when you were young that changed your life?” I heard only the promo, but it got me to thinking about the question, and my answer — momentous if not quite life-changing — seemed to be Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel known in English as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and in French as “Notre Dame de Paris.” I was around 13 or 14 years old when I spotted a paperback copy of the novel on one of those carousels in a sweet shop near our house. I think I was attracted to it because  of the suggestive illustration of the gypsy girl Esmeralda  on the cover. (Did I mention that I was about 14?) In those days a paperback book cost less than a  buck, so I bought it and sneaked it into the house, figuring the cover might attract unwanted attention.


I went to elementary school from the late ’40s to the mid ’50s, and the most provocative thing I read was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Hiawatha.” I was taking quite a leap from that curriculum to Victor Hugo — although I didn’t know it at the outset because writers like Victor Hugo weren’t mentioned at Memorial School. I was mesmerized by the book. I read it over and over. I certainly had never read such descriptions of lust and violence, and I was scandalized but fascinated by the idea of all this immorality in the Church.

What I found most absorbing, however, was not the salacious aspects of the plot nor the images of Esmeralda but the deformed bell ringer, Quasimodo, who has become the popular symbol of this story. As I mentioned in a post about six months ago, Quasimodo was so named because when he was an infant his mother abandoned him at the cathedral of Our Lady of Paris (“Notre Dame de Paris”) on Quasimodo Sunday — the first Sunday after Easter. The Introit of the Mass for that day is taken from the second chapter of the First Letter of Peter: Quasi modo geniti infantes, rationabile, sine dolo lac concupiscite ut in eo crescatis in salutem si gustastis quoniam dulcis Dominus. That passage is often translated, As newborn infants do, long for pure spiritual milk so that through it you may grow into salvation, for you have tasted that the Lord is good.


When I first read the novel, I was especially energized by the passage in which Quasimodo defies both public and ecclesiastical authority and rescues Esmeralda from imminent execution, and I was deflated by his ultimate failure to save her. Aside from the drama, though, one seemingly innocuous phrase in the translation I read had a permanent impact on me — so much so that I recall it more than 50 years later. It was Hugo’s reference to Quasimodo as “the unfortunate man.”

In the popular  retelling of this story, what is frequently lost is that core reality that the grotesque figure who plays a critical part in it was a human being with the same desires and sensibilities that motivate all human beings. The very fact that the story is popularly known as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” — as though his misshapen spine defined Quasimodo as a person — suggests a disregard for, or at least an ignorance of, Hugo’s intention to present Quasimodo as a man motivated  by two understandable feelings — a sense of loyalty to the archdeacon Claude Frollo, Esmeralda’s nemesis, who had provided the foundling with a home, and a chaste affection for Esmeralda, the only person to show Quasimodo compassion.


This experience of the fictional Quasimodo resonates in the experience of the real Joseph Merrick, the 19th century Englishman who was known to his contemporaries and is widely known now as “the elephant man” because he was so “unfortunate” as to suffer from a disease that badly deformed his body. Life gave Merrick two choices — to be alternately displayed and hounded as a freak or to withdraw from society almost entirely and live in seclusion in London Hospital. I think it is a telling detail in Merrick’s biography that once he was living permanently at the hospital he asked to be confirmed in the Church of England. I suppose that request was an indication of his hope, or faith, that in the mind of God he was as much a human being as any other amalgamation of body and soul.

Hugo’s novel was my answer to the NPR question both because it introduced me to classical fiction and because it  made me aware for the first time of the whole creature that may be imperfectly displayed in the features and posture of a man, woman, or child — something, I am sorry to say, I have had to be reminded of many times since.

Gargoyle at Notre Dame de Paris

While I have been musing over the question posed by NPR, I have learned that among Hugo’s many concerns was what he construed as a threat to the integrity of architecture in Paris and throughout Europe. In his mind, Hugo connected this fear with what he worried would be the numbing effect of the recently-invented printing press, an idea he touches on in “Notre Dame de Paris.”

The cathedral itself, which was begun in the 12th century and completed in 1345, was in disrepair in the early 19th century, partly as a result of the protracted political turmoil in the city and partly because of simple neglect. Hugo writes:

The church of Notre-Dame de Paris is still, no doubt, a majestic and sublime edifice. But, beautiful as it as been preserved in growing old, it is difficult not to sigh, not to wax indignant, before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer, without respect for Charlemagne, who laid its first stone, or for Philip Augustus, who laid the last

On the face of this aged queen of our cathedrals, by the side of a wrinkle, one always finds a scar. “Tempus edax, homo edacior,” which I should be glad to translate: Time is blind, man is stupid.

The attention Hugo called to the condition of the cathedral was at least partly responsible for a major renovation of the structure, which is the focal point for many visitors to Paris. You can see interactive panoramic views of the cathedral by clicking HERE.

Alfred Barbou illustration from the first edition of the novel.


A friend told me last night that on Saturday he saw a play by Harold Pinter, “No Man’s Land.” My friend posed a question: “Did Pinter always write like that?” I am not an expert on Pinter, and I have never seen “No Man’s Land,” so I could have escaped this conversation save for the fact that while my friend was watching “No Man’s Land” on a stage, my wife and I were watching “The Last Tycoon” on a Netflix DVD. The 1979 film, directed by Elia Kazan, had a screenplay written by Pinter based on an unfinished novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I asked my friend what he meant by his allusion to Pinter’s writing, and he said that while the play was literate and funny, and the performances were engaging, the experience left him with a feeling of ambiguity. I have since learned that while “No Man’s Land” was well received when it first appeared in 1975, it left critic Michael Coveney, writing, “Yes, but what does it all mean?”


I was in no position to sort that out, but I did tell my friend that while “The Last Tycoon” is a worthwhile diversion for some reasons — including excellent performances by an impressive cast — the movie, too, raises questions that it doesn’t answer. It has been said that Pinter liked to lead his audiences somewhere between reality and dream, and that is the effect of this film.

“The Last Tycoon” is Monroe Stahr, a Hollywood producer whose demanding personality, at least, Fitzgerald ostensibly based on MGM’s “boy genius,” Irving Thalberg. The premise of the film is that Stahr’s wife, who was a major star at the same studio, died suddenly and at an early age, and that Stahr has not gotten over it. In the meantime, he is engaged in a power struggle with studio executive Pat Brady, whose young daughter is in love with Stahr. In the aftermath of a minor earthquake, Stahr notices a young woman — Kathleen Moore — who strongly resembles his late wife. He becomes obsessed with Kathleen, pursues her, seduces her, loses her. As he unravels emotionally, he also runs afoul of his employer, allowing Brady to push him aside.

Robert De Niro as Monroe Stahr

Stahr is played by a 36-year-old Robert De Niro in a performance so devoid of emotion that the audience gets no help in determining what this character’s reactions to people and situations really mean. Kathleen is played by Ingrid Boulting, a South African-born actress who is now an artist and yoga instructor in California. Her performance is much more interesting, but — thanks to the writing and direction — her character is inscrutable. Does she resent the fact that Stahr was attracted to her because of her resemblance to his lost love? Does she love him? Is she a woman easily used by men, is she a tease, or is she an opportunist — even a prostitute? What becomes of her? What becomes of Stahr?


It’s not the worst experience in the world — this not knowing; in fact, maybe it’s more like life than the movies usually are. At any rate, flawed or not, the story is well told by a cast that includes Robert Mitchum as Pat Brady; Jack Nicholson as a Communist who is trying to organize the studio’s writers; Dana Andrews as a director who incurs Stahr’s dissatisfaction; Ray Milland as a studio attorney; Tony Curtis as a top leading man; Donald Pleasance as a writer, and John Carradine in a brief but charming turn as a studio tour guide.


A scene between De Niro and Curtis provides one of the best examples of Pinter’s approach. The leading man, Rodriguez confides in Stahr: the actor is in love with his wife but has become impotent, and not only with her. Stahr’s reaction to the inexplicable fact that the actor has come to him with this problem is, like the rest of De Niro’s performance, difficult to plumb. More than that, the scene ends abruptly — with no resolution– but when Rodriguez and his wife encounter Stahr later in the film, they appear deliriously happy with each other, and the change is never explained.

Ray Milland and Donald Pleasence

To give credit where it is deserved, I should mention that De Niro has one scene in this film that I could watch again and again. Stahr is having a confrontation with a British writer, Boxley, played by the great character actor Donald Pleasence. Boxley is complaining about the “hack” writers he’s working with, and he’s complaining about the story line on the film he has been assigned. In an attempt — fruitless, as it turns out — to get Boxley off the schneid, Stahr fabricates the fragment of a story line that has no beginning or end — a mysterious vignette about a girl who comes into a room, unaware that she’s being observed, with two dimes and  a nickel and a box of matches, and a pair of black gloves that she burns in a wood stove. De Niro tells this story with such skill, with such a teasing air of mystery, that he make the story irresistible and the desire to know the rest of it palpable.

If you don’t mind scrolling through the whole script, you can read that story at THIS LINK. It begins with Monroe Stahr’s words: “Listen … has your office got a stove in it that lights with a match?” See if you can read that without thirsting for the rest of the story.

Robert De Niro as Monroe Stahr


Planning a high school reunion is not, as Ed Norton might put it, “all beer and skittles.” The process, in which a small group of classmates and I are now engaged, forces a person to confront certain inconvenient truths, including the passage of time and his own age. Our class, the Class of 1960, had 299 members. Organizing a reunion makes us confront the fact that at least 44 of those classmates are dead. It makes us face the fact that the 22 or so we have not been able to locate in these 50 years probably are lost to us forever. And it forces us to accept the fact that many classmates don’t share whatever feelings make other classmates think of themselves as having something more in common than the date and place of our graduation.


None of us believes that a man or woman has an obligation to continue any connection to the class. If anything, it makes sense to us that people have had far more experiences, relationships, successes and problems since high school than they had in the first 17 years of their lives, and that high school has become a relatively unimportant part of a bigger picture. In fact, it has occurred to me, at least, that those of us who persist in keeping this circle intact are driven by emotion and perhaps by an insecurity that makes us reluctant to put behind us the last stage of our lives in which we were not wholly responsible for our own fate. High school, for most of us, is one of the last places, as Robert Frost might have observed, that when you go there, they have to take you in.


Still, there is another factor that must explain why some members of our class or any class turn their backs on the rest of us for good even before the recessional has ended. I started thinking about this last weekend while I was listening to a song called “Crazy Mary” that, it happens, was written by Michael Smith, who graduated from the same high school but in the Class of 1959. Michael, a folk singer who has lived in Chicago for many years, writes lyrics with a poet’s skill, and many of them can reach deeply into the psyche and the soul. “Crazy Mary” — not the Victoria Williams/Pearl Jam song — is about boys who torment a woman who lives in their neighborhood. The boys don’t understand this woman, so — like Scout and Jem Finch — they compensate for their ignorance by inventing explanations that satisfy their morbid, childish curiosity. When they no longer need her to entertain them, they forget her.

As I look through the yearbook, literally or in my mind, I can place my finger on the boys and girls in our class who were not treated well by the rest of us. Some of them suffered cruelty, some of them suffered ridicule, and some of them suffered indifference. Would they want to join us as we reminisce about those days? I remember the mother of one boy confronting a group of teenagers on the street and demanding to know why they had mocked her son. I was an adult and had children of my own before the recollection of that scene broke my heart. I wondered what had become of that boy; I never wondered when we were kids what would become of him.

This phenomenon isn’t confined to high school. Misunderstanding, or choosing not to understand, people who seem to hear drumbeats that elude the rest of us may be an inevitable part of growing up. There was an elderly man in my neighborhood when I was a boy who seemed to be perpetually angry and who would shout and flail at us kids if we came within  a perimeter that only he could see. We, of course, did our best to invade his space just enough to set him off. I wonder what became of him.

In the lamplight burning low
And dimly thru enchanted woods
We think about the sins that we commit
Along the green and golden paths of growing up
We light the fire
And say a prayer for Crazy Mary.

(Copyright, Michael Peter Smith)

The complete lyrics to “Crazy Mary” are at THIS LINK.

Biographical information, lyrics, videos, and touring schedule of Michael Smith can be reached through THIS LINK.

Poster from a previous Michael Smith concert

A couple of years ago, I stumbled across an anonymous post on a blog in which the writer was talking about — of all people — me. The writer was musing over the fact that I had been laid off from my newspaper after 43 years. That’s neither here nor there, but I was interested in his description of me as a “raspy-voiced guy with a North Jersey accent.” I was not aware that I had an accent — North Jersey or otherwise. In fact, I’m not sure there is such a thing as one North Jersey accent, and I don’t hail from the Hudson River towns that are usually associated with “joisey” talk.

This came to mind yesterday when I was listening to a presentation on WNYC radio about the accents in New York. There was a segment on the Brian Lehrer Show — absent Brian Lehrer who, I suppose, was on vacation — featuring Heather Quinlan, a TV producer who is producing a documentary called “If These Knishes Could Talk” and Sam Chwat, a speech therapist or pathologist who, among other things, helps actors who need to alter their speech for specific roles.

For my money, this discussion didn’t live up to its promise. Perhaps one of the reasons was that — as one listener commented on the show’s web site — neither of the guests is a linguist. I was disappointed, because this subject has always interested me, and I listen very carefully to how people speak. I like National Public Radio, in fact, not only because of all the information it provides but because of the many accents. I like listening to the accents of speakers whose first language was something other than English, but I have a special fascination with the many ways in which native speakers use English.

There are two aspects of speech variations: pronunciations and choice of words. Word choice , I understand, can vary not only from one region of the country to another but within a single state. For example, the pasta known as penne is known in the Chambersburg section of Trenton, here in New Jersey, as “pencil points.” And I read a magazine article many years ago in which the writer claimed to demonstrate that submarine sandwiches are called by different names — subs, hoagies, grinders, or heroes — in different sections of this state.

I’m more interested in pronunciation. When I lived for a year at Penn State in central Pennsylvania, it was a regular smörgåsbord of accents, because the tens of thousands of students and hundreds of faculty came from all over the world to mix in with folks who lived in what was then an otherwise isolated area. My immediate neighbors were from Iran and North Carolina.

There’s no beating New York City, though, for feasting your ears on varieties of speech. One of my favorite moments in that respect occurred in an Italian bakery in lower Manhattan. While a friend and I were talking to the woman behind the counter, a man — evidently her husband — came from a back room and headed for the front door while pulling on his jacket. “Ungo empee stur,” he said to her over his shoulder. “Wonting?” (“I’m going to the A&P store. Want anything?”)

PBS has a fun exercise on its web site in which you can listen to various voices and try to place them by region on a map of the United States. To see it, click HERE.

Brian Vanderbeek, Facebook friend and Modesto Bee sports writer, called attention today to a report from Bloomberg that the Little League World Series — played each summer in South Williamsport, Pa. — has expanded the use of video replays to resolve disputed calls. When replays were introduced to the tournament in 2008, they affected only plays at the outfield fence — home runs, ground-rule doubles, and issues of fan interference. Last year, questions of fair and foul balls were added. Now replays can be used to review force outs, tags on the basepaths, hit batsmen, and missed bases.

In addition, the original rule was that only umpires could call for review of a replay. Under the new rubrics, a team manager is entitled to one unsuccessful challenge in the first six innings of a game and one in extra innings. The league’s complete explanation of the procedure is available by clicking HERE.

The league emphasized in its announcement that replay appeals have been rare so far and that no appeal has yet resulted in reversal of a call. From my point of view, that information means that if the league comes to its senses and stops monkeying with a game that is not broken, it won’t make much difference.

The introduction of instant replay appeals in baseball is the latest ill-advised, unnecessary change that alters the nature of the game. The designated hitter rule was one; it took away an exciting element of strategy in which the manager of a team frequently had to decide whether to stay with a pitcher who was doing well or yank him for a pinch hitter. The DH also eliminated those situations in which the pitcher batted in a crucial situation and tried to use his limited offensive skills to move baserunners along. What did baseball gain by getting rid of those elements? I also object to artificial turf, but there’s no point in belaboring that here.

It is an intrinsic part of baseball to rely on the judgment of the umpires and to suffer over their bad calls. That’s been going on for more than 160 years, and the Republic has endured. In that respect, it’s a lot like life in general. What exactly is the league trying to teach pre-teen children by taking that human side out of baseball — that it isn’t a game after all? Or is this more about self-important adults than it is about kids?

I have to share Brian’s comment: “(I) can’t wait for an overturned North Korean home run to spark nuclear war.”

Sometimes we meet people in unexpected ways. For example, I met Lew Brown, who died 52 years ago, while I was struggling to write a sermon yesterday. We homilists are supposed to base our message on the readings of the day, and today’s readings have a consistent theme: Don’t neglect your spiritual well-being while you’re absorbed in accumulating possessions and other forms of material wealth. The first reading is from the Book of Ecclesiastes (“For what profit comes to a man from all the toil and anxiety of heart with which he has labored under the sun?”); St. Paul’s letter to the Christian community in Colossae (“Think of what is above, not of what is on earth”); and the Gospel according to Luke (“Though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions”).

It’s a message we hear often. In other words: Been there, done that.

And so I thrashed around for several hours, trying to find a way into this homily. I looked back at hooks I had used the last few times these readings came up in the three-year cycle, but they seemed contrived and heavy-handed — as my writing often seems to me after some time has passed. Then, as we like to say in the church, the Holy Spirit put a song in my head: “Life is just a bowl of cherries / Don’t take it serious / Life’s too delirious / You live, you love, you worry so / but you can’t take your dough / when you go, go, go.”

Lyricist Harold Arlen, left, and Lew Brown visit with Eddie Cantor on the set of "Baby Face."

The lyric was a pop iteration of the central theme of today’s readings and, because the tune is still familiar, I decided to use it. When I set out to find out who wrote the lyrics, I found several web sites that attributed it to George Gershwin who, of course, was not a lyricist. I also found it attributed to Ira Gershwin, who was. That didn’t sound right to me, so I persisted, and I found out that the lyric was written by Lew Brown for the Broadway review “George White’s Scandals of 1931.” (Pay attention, boys and girls. You can’t trust internet sources.)

When the song is performed now, it usually seems to recommend a carefree life, but Brown wrote it at the onset of the Great Depression when it had a different connotation. As is frequently the case with popular lyrics, these at least touch on pretty serious ideas: “The sweet things in life / to you are just loaned / so how can you lose / what you’ve never owned?”


Like Irving Berlin, Lew Brown was born in the latter 19th century in tsarist Russia, and like Berlin, his family brought him to New York City when he was child. Brown began writing songs when he was still attending Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx and by 1912, when he was 19 years old, he had his first hit, “I’m the Lonesomest Gal in Town,” and he had another in 1916, “If You Were the Only Girl in the World (and I Was the Only Boy)”. The scores for both were written by Albert von Tilzner, with whom Brown collaborated on several other tunes. “If You Were the Only Girl in the World” became an American standard, and it would be only one of many for which Brown — either solo or as a collaborator — provided the words. He teamed up for a long time with composer Ray Henderson, and together they wrote the song that prompted this blog and one of my favorites, “The Thrill is Gone,” which was also written for the “George White Scandals.” Other songs he had a hand in were “The Beer Barrel Polka,” “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else but Me),” “Sonny Boy,” “It All Depends on You,” “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” and “You’re the Cream in My Coffee.”

Lew Brown — who was born Louis Brownstein — died in 1958, never expecting to help a tin-horn deacon preach the gospel. Thanks, Lew . . . for everything.