Picks and Pans Review: A Talent for Genius: the Life and Times of Oscar Levant

updated 09/12/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/12/1994 01:00AM

by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger

Long before it was fashionable—or advisable—for celebrities to go on talk shows and bare their drug and alcohol dependencies, Levant, as this regrettably sluggish biography notes, was on Jack Paar talking about his nervous breakdown. "I was thrown out of one mental hospital because I depressed the patients," he announced. Levant, who died in 1972, was a composer, a radio personality, a concert pianist and premier interpreter of George Gershwin's oeuvre, a recording artist, a best-selling author and an actor who appeared in movies like Rhapsody in Blue, Humoresque and An American in Paris.

But perhaps the perennially unkempt Levant was best known as the smart mouth of the western world. After learning that Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio were divorcing, he weighed in with "No man can excel at two national pastimes." Leaving the White House after playing a concert for President Truman in 1947, he turned to his wife and muttered, "Now I guess we owe them a dinner." And it was Oscar who observed, "I knew Doris Day before she became a virgin."

The youngest of four boys, Levant was born in Pittsburgh in 1906 to Orthodox Jewish parents who withheld praise but never stinted on discouraging words. As a result, Levant never shucked his carapace of inadequacy and fear—and never became the composer or pianist he could have been.

There is a wealth of information in A Talent for Genius: Levant's tenure as George Gershwin's chief acolyte, his years in Hollywood among the stars and moguls, his tour of duty in mental hospitals. While authors Kashner and Schoenberger have done and done and done their homework—repetitiveness is the order of the day here—they often mistake detail for insight and never quite manage to capture their subject for the reader. And they are certainly never able to convey why, despite the insecurities, the rages, the irrational behavior, the often brutal jibes, people from Judy Garland to Harpo Marx to Arnold Schoenberg to Fred Astaire were so deeply drawn to Levant. (Villard, $25)

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