April 5, 2017
In my last post, I mentioned Jack Lawrence, who wrote the song “If I Didn’t Care,” which became the signature of The Ink Spots. Their recording of that song in 1939 sold 19 million copies and still ranks as the tenth best-selling single of all time.
Still, that barely scratched the surface where Lawrence was concerned—either professionally or personally. In terms of his profession, consider this:
- “Play, Fiddle, Play,” 1932, which Lawrence wrote when he was 20 years old, became an international hit, a favorite of singers, violinists, and orchestras. It earned Lawrence membership in ASCAP at that young age.
- “All Or Nothing At All,” 1939, with music by Arthur Altman, was Frank Sinatra’s first solo hit.
- “Never Smile at a Crocodile,” 1939, with music by Frank Churchill, became a children’s classic.
- “Yes, My Darling Daughter,” 1940, which Lawrence wrote using music from a Ukrainian folk song, was introduced by Dinah Shore on Eddie Cantor’s radio show, and it was Dinah Shore’s first recording—and a hit.
- “By the Sleepy Lagoon,” 1940, with music written by Eric Coates in 1930, provided hit records for the Harry James Orchestra, Dina Shore, Glenn Miller, Fred Waring and others, including—in 1960—The Platters.
- “Linda,” 1942, which Lawrence wrote during his tour of duty with the Maritime Service during World War II, was published in 1946. The recording in which Buddy Clark sang this song with the Ray Noble Orchestra, was on the Billboard charts for 17 weeks, peaking at No. 1. The title referred to the five-year-old daughter of Lawrence’s attorney, Lee Eastman. Linda Eastman would be known to later generations as Linda McCartney.
- “Heave Ho, My Lads! Heave Ho!” 1943, which Lawrence wrote while he was a bandleader at the Maritime Service Sheepshead Bay Training Center, became the official anthem of the Service and the Merchant Marine.
- “Tenderly,” 1946, with music by Walter Gross, was a hit for Sarah Vaughan in 1947, but went on to become the theme song for Rosemary Clooney.
- “Beyond the Sea,” 1946, with music from Charles Trenet’s “La Mer,” became indelibly associated with Bobby Darin.
- “Hold My Hand,” 1950, which Lawrence wrote with Richard Myers, was used in the 1954 film Susan Slept Here and nominated for an Academy Award as best song.
In later life, Lawrence owned two New York theaters, and his credits as a producer included “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music” and “Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.”
Lawrence was born in Brooklyn and, although he was already writing songs when he was still a child, he acceded to his parents’ wishes and, after completing high school, received a doctorate in podiatry—a specialty that was not destined to be his career.
Lawrence was gay, and he was the longtime partner of Dr. Walter David Myden, a psychologist and a social worker in Los Angeles. The men met while serving in the Maritime Service. By the 1960s, their relationship was well known in their circles.
Lawrence and Myden were major art collectors and, in 1968, they donated about 100 20th century works to the American Pavilion of Art and Design at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. An interview concerning that donation, published in The New York Times, made no attempt to disguise their relationship—an unusual circumstance at the time but one that Lawrence and Myden could carry off with confidence and dignity. They were major supporters of the Israel Museum, which had just been established. Their donations in 1968 included works by Georgia O’Keeffe, Ben Shahn, John Marin, and Morris Graves.
Myden died suddenly of a heart attack in 1975, but Lawrence lived to the age of 96, dying in 2009 after a fall at his Connecticut home.
Last year I reviewed a book about Erik Jan Hanussen, a mentalist and con man who first flourished and then crashed and burned in Berlin during the Nazi era — an Austrian Jew posing as a Danish aristocrat. Hanussen struck me as one of the most bizarre characters in the drama of that time, but he has to make room in the pantheon for a puny Jewish teenager who is the subject of Jonathan Kirsch’s arresting book, The Short Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan.
Herschel was living with his Polish parents in Hamburg, Germany, when the Nazis came to power. During the run-up to the Holocaust, when Adolf Hitler’s scheme was to make life so unbearable for Jews that they would leave the Third Reich by their own volition, Herschel’s parents became concerned about his wellbeing. Their solution was to send him west when he was 15 years old, and he wound up living with his uncle and aunt in Paris.
During his sojourn, Herschel’s parents and siblings were among about 12,000 Polish Jews who were abruptly taken from their homes by the Nazis and deposited on the Polish side of the border with Germany. From the refugee camp there, Herschel’s sister wrote to him, describing the harsh conditions.
After an argument with his uncle over the question of helping the Grynszpans financially, Herschel bolted from the apartment and, on the following day, bought a revolver, entered the German embassy on a pretext, and shot a young diplomatic aide, who died from the wounds.
When he was taken into custody by French authorities, Herschel, who saw himself as some kind of avenging angel, immediately and then repeatedly told them that he had shot the man, Ernst Vom Rath, in response to the treatment of Polish Jews and, in particular, of his own family.
The Nazis reacted to the murder with the carefully staged mob rampage that destroyed Jewish businesses and synagogues and terrorized Jewish people throughout Germany and Austria on the night of November 9 and 10, 1938 — the so-called Kristallnacht.
Meanwhile, Hitler and his partners in paranoia had a different take on the crime. They saw it as the work of the “international Jewish conspiracy” that actually existed only in their nightmares. Hitler sent representatives to both observe, manipulate, and exploit the proceedings against Herschel.
Before the case was played out, however, Germany invaded France, and after Herschel, with the connivance of the French, dodged the grasp of the Nazis in a chain of events that sounds like a Marx Brothers scene, he fell into German control.
Hitler, employing a brand of logic of which only he was capable, decided to stage a show trial so that the international community would conclude from this solitary crime that Jews everywhere were plotting to take control of Germany if not the whole world.
Kirsch describes the elaborate investigations and other preparations the Nazis made for this spectacle, inquiring into the most remote details of Herschel’s background.
But Hitler didn’t know whom he was up against. The hundred-pound dropout pulled the rug out from under the Nazi propaganda machinery by telling interrogators that he and Vom Rath had actually been involved in a homosexual relationship that went sour. It was a idea that had been suggested to him by one of his lawyers while he was still in French custody. The Nazis were stymied. Given Hitler’s horror of homosexuality, they couldn’t let the show trial go ahead and take a chance that Herschel’s claim would become public. On the other hand, they also couldn’t simply do away with Herschel after making such a big deal about how the case would be tried in public. The trial was postponed — indefinitely, as it turned out.
In a way, that’s where this story ends. No one knows what became of Herschel Grynszpan, although the debate goes on about whether he was a megalomaniac lone ranger or an overlooked hero of the Jewish resistence.
It’s a wonderful yarn, and Kirsch tells it like a novelist, exploring the psyche of an oddball teenager who played a quirky role in the biggest historic epoch of the twentieth century.