- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 28, 2002

Richard Sudhalter begins Stardust Melody: The Life and Music of Hoagy Carmichael (Oxford University Press, $27.50, 397 pages, illus.) with a sad and funny story. He once mentioned Carmichael's name to two college women. Greeted by blank stares, he reeled off some of the composer's greatest songs:"Star Dust," "Georgia On My Mind," "Rockin' Chair," "Ole Buttermilk Sky." No response. The shock of nonrecognition led him to hum the opening bars of "Star Dust." One of the women then said, "I'm sure I heard my Mom singing that once …"
To those of a certain age, "Star Dust" exemplifies the golden age of American popular music. The song's unforgettable melody has an elegiac, wistful quality to it, and the perfect lyrics (written by Mitchell Parish, a lyricist who worked for Carmichael's music publisher) tell a dreamy story of a memory of lost love. "Star Dust," as Mr. Sudhalter points out, is not the usual kind of love song it is a "song about a song about love." Its structure does not follow the usual AABA formula and …
But there I go, doing exactly what Mr. Sudhalter's highly readable and thoroughly researched book demands we must not do, and that is to remember Hoagy Carmichael (1899-1981) only because he wrote "Star Dust."He also wrote "I Get Along Without You Very Well" and "Sky Lark," two small, quiet masterpieces, and he had a special gift for what Mr. Sudhalter calls "home and hearth" songs, like "Rockin' Chair," and "Lazy River," evocative of a semi-mythical America of small-town innocence, much like the Indiana towns in which he grew up. A blend of sophisticated musical tastes and down-home sensibilities, Hoagy Carmichael was one hip Hoosier.
But he wasn't only a great songwriter. He was an accomplished, if untrained, singer, without much voice to speak of, but with an unerring feel for the music he had written. He wrote fine lyrics to many of his songs and became a successful character actor in movies like "To Have and Have Not" and "The Best Years of Our Lives." His movie persona, as Carmichael put it, was that ofa "hound-dog-faced, musical philosopher noodling away on the honkey-tonk piano, saying to the tart with a heart of gold, 'He'll be back, honey. He's all man.'"
His career extended from the Jazz Age, exemplified by his friend and greatest musical influence, the legendary Bix Beiderbecke, to the beginning of rock and roll, a music he did not like or understand. His last years were for the most part personally unhappy and professionally unrewarding. His music didn't sell and his marriage fell apart, but his best works continued to live. Composer Alec Wilder, in his definitive survey, "American Popular Song," said Carmichael was "the most talented, inventive, sophisticated and jazz-oriented of all the great craftsmen." Mr. Sudhalter agrees, and so do I.
Note: In my view, Nat Cole's vocal version and the Artie Shaw orchestra's instrumental rendition of "Star Dust" are among the best recordings made of any song, by anyone, ever.

Except for one puzzling question (about which, more below), I thoroughly enjoyed Richard Korman's The Goodyear Story: An Inventor's Obsession And the Struggle For a Rubber Monopoly (Encounter Books, $25.95, 300 pages). I knew nothing about Charles Goodyear (1800-1860) before I read the book, except, of course that he was the founder of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company.
Oops! It turns out what I knew isn't true. Goodyear, the man who tamed rubber through a process called "vulcanization" (he borrowed the word, if not the process, from a competitor), had no connection with the company that bears his name. In a way this is only right, because if there was ever a man who did not fit into the corporate mold, it was Charles Goodyear.
Born in New Haven, Conn., he was a classic Yankee eccentric: idealistic, stubborn, and self-confident to the point of lunacy, with a combination of Mr. Micawber's perennial optimism and Inspector Javert's obsessive belief that he was right and the world was wrong. His search for a process that would make rubber commercially usable involved unrelenting failure for many years, poverty, many visits to pawnshops, more and more debts, big law suits (Daniel Webster once defended him), terms in debtors' prison, family tragedies and constant illness. Mr. Korman handles all of this material with skill and a wide knowledge of the business practices of the times. He even makes clear the chemistry involved in rubber manufacturing or as clear as it can be to someone who daydreamed his way through high school chemistry class.
My only problem is the author's admission, made in the "Author's Note" at the end of the book, that in a few instances where he could not find documentary sources, he "substituted estimates of what people did and thought based on their characters as described by others and the customs of the times." In short, he made up some stuff, including a long deathbed scene which I read in good faith as describing what had actually occurred. In his notes, Mr. Korman carefully lists where such "conjectures" appear, so it isn't a case of trying to slip something by the reader. My only question is: Why make up things when you do so well in handling the often complicated documentary evidence? I don't get it.

When I say there is not much that is new in Richard John Neuhaus' As I Lay Dying (Basic Books, $22, 172 pages), I mean it as a compliment. Father Neuhaus, editor of First Things, an essential magazine for intelligent conservatives and recovering liberals, nearly died seven years ago after a misdiagnosis and two terrifying operations. What he has to say about this experience and its aftermath is rooted in ancient Christian teachings about how we should live and die no New Age platitudes here. At the heart of his book is his view of the difference between our understanding of the death of others and the experience of knowing our own death is imminent. The death of others is an objective fact; our own impending doom is a shattering truth.
Readers who recognize the title of the book should know that Father Neuhaus' prose style is anything but Faulknerian. It is instead uncluttered, direct, and conversational in tone without being overly familiar in approach. He has much to say that is wise about the need for reticence in today's let-it-all-hang-out world, the twin errors of stoicism and bravado in the face of death, and the importance of the body in spiritual life. And, yes, he had a strange "near-death" experience concerning two mysterious "presences": "It happened as surely, as simply, as undeniably as it happened that I tied my shoelaces this morning."
He has a sly wit about what happens in hospitals. "You soon discover," he writes, "that almost everyone has a doctor who is one of the top two or three, if not the very top, in his field." Most memoirs are concerned with the lives of their authors, but Father Neuhaus, in examining his own reactions as he (and his doctors) thought he was dying , tells us much that is worth knowing about his life, and ours.

William F. Gavin is a writer in McLean, Va.

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