Alan Jay Lerner Aims for Broadway with Carmelina and Happiness with His Seventh Wife

UPDATED 04/02/1979 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 04/02/1979 at 01:00 AM EST

"Oh, let a woman in your life And you invite eternal strife."

Alan Jay Lerner didn't listen to his own lyrics from My Fair Lady. Like the man from St. Ives, Lerner has had—count them—seven wives. He isn't sure why: The plot line of his love life is implausible and confusing. "I can't explain it. I wish I could. In each case there was a different reason. I can't even find a pattern. Well, Moss Hart said, 'We get married for the wrong reasons and get divorced for the right ones.' One day I should retire to a Trappist monastery and try to figure out why it all happened."

Lerner's great musicals—Brigadoon, My Fair Lady, Gigi, Camelot—have had a more satisfying history. They have earned him two Tonys and three Academy Awards, plus more cash than he can shake a baton at. In gross revenues from theater, album and film, My Fair Lady earned more than $800 million.

Next week, after a tryout in Washington, Lerner's Carmelina opens on Broadway. The music is by Burton Lane, who scored Finian's Rainbow, the book by Lerner and Joseph (Fiddler on the Roof) Stein. It is an impressive triumvirate. Carmelina, a true story based on the movie Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell, is about an Italian woman who for 17 years collected child support from three ex-GIs for one child—$107,000 worth. As one of the men says, on uncovering the maternal con game, "We've paid more in war reparations than Germany did."

Right now Lerner is on a one-musical losing streak. His last, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (score by Leonard Bernstein), went over like miniskirts in Iran. "An enormous disaster," Lerner admits. "Early on in rehearsals I knew it was doomed." Carmelina, which features opera star Cesare Siepi and Georgia Brown, is a more modest production. "You have to consider economics today," Lerner says. "What I've tried to write is a small commedia dell'arte musical. A lot of old forms: balcony scenes and mistaken identity and hiding behind doors. A little confection of happiness. Something like that."

At 60 Lerner is still a flash flood of nervous excitement. Tension shimmers off him. His 5'7" physique has the compactness, the powerful economy, of good lyric writing. He walks with an athletic slouch—sideways, one leg out, one shoulder tucked down, like a counterpuncher wading in under jabs. His hair is close-cut, Army regulation style. The pliant and flat-lipped mouth is expressive, sensuous, yet shy. Curiously, though he never smokes while writing, Lerner scuffs out butt after butt during a conversation. Darkish glasses give the impression of a retired Mafia lieutenant. Two longhaired dachshunds (Frederick and Higgins) guard him, one on either side, with self-conscious, stereo barking.

Preparing for Broadway, Lerner is up by 7 a.m. in his suite at the Watergate Hotel. Carmelina needs some reupholstering. Though the show was well-received in its Kennedy Center tryout, the first five minutes are slow and confusing. Writing is a physically demanding act for Lerner. Several dozen pairs of white cloth gloves are stacked in his bureau drawer. He wears them while jotting ideas and dialogue on pads. It gives him a full-dress, formal look. "I get so much ink on my hands," he explains. "At the end of the day the gloves are covered with ink, but at least I'm not." His right hand appears chafed, as if worn away. When talking he pulls, wrings, throttles each finger in turn.

At Harvard he was a boxer who did not learn to duck quickly enough. A homicidal left hook connected, damaging the retina in the left eye. In time the vision disappeared. "I have a bad cataract in my right eye," Lerner adds. "But they have to wait until I bump into walls before they operate. I hope I'll go blind soon, so they can fix my eye and I can play tennis again. I can't follow the ball anymore." Meanwhile, he keeps fit by not eating; he's too impatient for a long meal. "I burn off poundage when I write," he says.

His has been a riches-to-riches story. His father, Joseph Lerner, founded the clothing store chain which bears his name. Alan was brought up on Park Avenue with a silver pacifier in his mouth. His education was similarly privileged: Columbia Grammar (New York); Bedales (England); Choate (with JFK); Harvard (also with JFK). As Lerner tells it in his just-published memoir, The Street Where I Live, his father professed almost evangelical atheism. Alan remembers, "I constantly searched the sky for some sign—I have no idea what—that my father was wrong. One night I saw a huge cloud formation that resembled a man's head, and my hopes rose. But then a gust of wind came along and blew 'God's' face away and my hopes with it."

Instead, he cultivated a 50-year dalliance with ESP and the occult. Lerner has, he admits, no aptitude for it; his telepathic frequencies are thoroughly jammed. Nonetheless, he has been an indefatigable student. The childhood spiritual vacuum explains, to some degree, his preference for fantastic or romantic subjects. In 1965 Lerner wrote On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, with ESP as a theme. "I wish I believed fanatically in something," he says. "I'd like to believe in reincarnation. It seems intellectually sensible to me. But I can't."

In lieu of belief, Lerner has put in plenty of couch time. Psychosomatic ailments have plagued him: an ulcer, at least one severe case of lyricist's block, even, he says, brain fever (encephalitis) brought on by excessive worry. He has doubted his relevance "to the point of paralysis." As Kermit the Frog would observe, "It isn't easy being Alan." The lyricist says, "I used to think about death much more. It was when my father died [in 1954], and we were so close. I adored him. It was then I realized that I was mortal. I was scared."

For some time Lerner thought relevance might come with his political enthusiasms. A liberal Democrat, he won feature billing in New York politics. "When any bigwig came to town, I'd stage a rally for him," Alan explains. In 1963 he was given New York's Democrat-of-the-Year Award. Lerner wrote speeches for Adlai Stevenson. Later he became emotionally and philosophically allied with that offstage Camelot, the Kennedy administration. "I don't have anything to be passionate about now," Alan says. "I was involved as much as I could be until I couldn't any longer—which meant Johnson and, God knows, Nixon. I just have this terrible feeling that no one is discussing our problems. It's very hard to be passionate."

Passion: In the analysis of Alan Jay Lerner that word can be a useful diagnostic tool. Any musical worth doing (or woman worth wooing) should be approached with passion. He agrees with Pascal: "The heart may have its reasons of which the reason knows nothing; but reason all too often has no heart." His father was a passionate cynic. Even when Alan would seem to refute him—as in his book—the elder Lerner invariably has the better lines. Father (who was divorced from Mother) thought women were "inferior men." Sexual failure was, without exception, traceable to some female lapse. Father also felt that "the hallmark of maturity was the absence of a committed romantic passion." Alan acknowledges that Lerner Sr. had "indelible" influences on him. And those influences—whether in imitation of, or in rebellion against—undoubtedly fueled his passionate ambivalence toward women.

"Alan is very romantic," says one interested observer (female). "But he seems to find more pleasure in the search than in the resolution. He loves getting married. But he doesn't like being married quite as much."

Here, in order of appearance, is the list of wives:

Ruth Boyd 1940-47
Marion Bell 1947-49
Nancy Olson 1950-57
Micheline Muselli Pozzo di Borgo 1957-65
Karen Gundersen 1966-74
Sandra Payne 1974-76
Nina Bushkin 1977-?

In a recent study on the cause of human stress, divorce ranked second just behind "Death of husband or wife." How can Lerner afford the psychic mayhem of six divorces? "It does take a lot out of you," he admits. "It's very expensive for one thing. Women—in our liberated age—seem to have two sexes. You know, they are entitled, as strong ladies, to share in society. But the minute they step into court, they're the pathetic, helpless creatures of silent films. And it's up to the man to do his duty."

Give Lerner credit. He's more than frank about his married life: He's eager to discuss it. But the effort dwindles into frank perplexity. "My two brothers and I came from a broken home, and maybe that started it. The strange thing is that I was determined never to be divorced. The only thing I can think of is that I get passionately involved in what I do. And each woman tried to change me. Of course I didn't. And they were disappointed.

"I'm now married again—incredibly happily married. Nina is marvelous—especially for me—because she doesn't take me seriously. And she has a sense of humor besides being terribly pretty. She's not unfamiliar with our profession. Her father is a famous jazz musician, Joe Bushkin. My daughter is older than she is, but they all get along beautifully." Lerner has four children by three wives: Susan, 35, mother of two; Liza, 27, an interior decorator; Jennifer, 25, and Michael, 17, a freshman at Harvard.

"My children are as close as you could imagine," Father says proudly. "I don't see my ex-wives. I think that's uncivilized. I've always put on a pretense of great friendship as the children grew up—so that they feel there's a mutual respect between the parents. But the minute they've grown up, that's the end of the relationship. I've noticed that the hardest thing for an ex-wife to accept is the fact that you may be happy. I'm not going to pretend I'm unhappy if I'm not."

One thing Lerner is certain of. Art and romance go together like a horse and bridle. "Every time my eyes would light up, Fritz Loewe [the composer with whom Lerner wrote his most enduring hits] would say, 'Oh, zat leetle boy is in luff. Vonderful, I vill get some good lyrics.' There's a correlation between the two. Probably it's because the passion that any writer feels when he sits down to create makes the world seem flat unless his life outside of writing can be lived in an equally intense, romantic way."

It's hard to differentiate between the work and the man. Lerner says, "When I was writing My Fair Lady, I really felt I was Higgins. When I did Camelot, I really felt like Arthur and Lancelot." That's some virtuoso role-playing: one misogynist, one cuckold, one cuckolder. Yet Lerner could empathize with each. Now he has written about a woman who was the beneficiary of exorbitant child support. All are aspects of Lerner and his impassioned, ambiguous attitude toward the female. One of his memories puts it in perspective: "I spent a lot of time with Coco Chanel while working on Coco. She was over 80 years old and I fell in love with her. One day she was talking about someone she liked—someone I knew wasn't worth it. And I said, 'Why do you like him?' And she said, 'Because he likes me.' We love ourselves when we are loving."

Maybe, in summation of Alan Jay Lerner, one should quote an expert—Professor Henry Higgins:

"Why can't a woman be more like a man...
Why can't a woman be like me?"

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