- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 25, 2003

On the surface, Johnny Mercer’s life appeared to be one success after another. He is best remembered as an extraordinarily talented lyricist who wrote the words to such standards as “That Old Black Magic,” “Dream,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “And I Thought About You,” “Blues in the Night,” “Too Marvelous for Words,” “Moon River,” and “Laura,” among many others.

He had a small but genuine gift as a popular singer, and was one of the founders of Capitol Records, a company that defined “class” in popular music from the 1940s to the 1960s, with such singers as Nat Cole, Margaret Whiting and Frank Sinatra. As if all that were not enough, Mercer (1909-1976) had an idyllic childhood in Savannah, Ga., and the sounds and sights of nature, on summer childhood afternoons, left a lasting impression on him, inspiring some of his best work, e.g., “Skylark.”

A charmed life? Not quite. Sober, Mercer was a Southern gentleman of the old school: charming, courteous, generous with his time and money, a self-effacing man in a business filled with raging egos. Drunk (and it didn’t take much to set him off), he was incredibly nasty, spewing vile insults at close friends (and his long-suffering wife). When he sobered up, he sent roses to his victims. From his drinking to his doomed romance with Judy Garland to his failure to succeed on Broadway, genial, likable Johnny Mercer always could find ways to make himself and others unhappy.

In Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer (St. Martin’s, $25.95, 328 pages, illus.) author Philip Furia has written a biography that is highly readable, musically informed, and generally admiring. Mr. Furia not only recounts the ups and downs of his subject’s career, but analyzes many of the lyrics in depth. I am not as convinced as he is that Mercer’s doomed affair with Garland caused his lyrics to reach “a new depth of sorrow,” but generally speaking Mr. Furia’s analyses are enlightening.

Working with composers like Hoagy Carmichael or Harold Arlen (among many other partners), Mercer could write in a down-home Georgia black-dialect manner (at a time when dialect songs were still generally acceptable) or turn out an intricate, witty lyric worthy of Cole Porter. He often wrote in a style of monosyllabic sophistication, using small, ordinary words crafted exquisitely to create surprising, often lovely, unhackneyed images (e.g., ” … sad as a gypsy serenading the moon …”).

His inability to write a Broadway smash weighed heavily upon him, and he died believing he had not lived up to his potential. But anyone who has heard Frank Sinatra’s recordings of “One For My Baby,” “And I Thought About You” or “Day In, Day Out” knows that Mercer was a master of his difficult craft.

At his peak, the lyrical Mercer was the best, and Mr. Furia has done a good job showing us why.

It’s an old story: a sweet, highly intelligent young woman marries a classmate, the man of her dreams. In a series of letters to a good friend, the bride tells of her happy married life. But in a few years the letters begin to change in tone — the now-married woman senses that she is losing her husband. He achieves unparalleled success in his field, and then leaves her. Eventually they are divorced, and he remarries. But the letter-writer never marries again. She spends the rest of her life taking care of her children.

For 40 years her letters to her friend speak of the joys and sorrows of motherhood and of family life, but rarely mention her former husband. When he is mentioned, she refers to him quite formally, by his first and last name, as if she knows him only as the pubic figure he has become. The story, while sad, is unfortunately not particularly original — boy marries girl, boy achieves success, boy dumps girl for a trophy wife — and would have little claim on our attention except for one fact: In this case, the man who abandoned his wife was Albert Einstein.

Seventy letters sent by Mileva Maric, the injured spouse, to Helene Savic comprise In Albert’s Shadow: The Life and Letters of Mileva Maric, Einstein’s First Wife (Johns Hopkins University Press, $24.95, 176 pages, illus.). Edited by Milan Popovic, Helene Savic’s grandson, the book contains an introduction by Mr. Popovic that places the letters in historical context.

Mileva Maric’s life consisted of one mishap, disappointment or tragedy after another. She was born with a dislocated left hip and was described by a friend as “small, frail, dark, ugly …[and] limps a little bit… .” She never pursued a career in physics, even though some experts argue that she played a major role in the development of Einstein’s revolutionary theories. She suffered severe depression and one of her sons developed schizophrenia. Yet her letters show her to have been a courageous, warm-hearted, bright, unembittered woman. She was, in my view, well rid of “dear Albert.”

In a letter to Helene Savic, just after he had left his wife, Einstein said of Mileva that she “is and will remain always for me a severed limb. I shall never approach her again …” (italics in the original). Poor Mileva — she simply didn’t fit into the great physicist’s equation.

David A. Clary’s Rocket Man: Robert H. Goddard and the Birth of the Space Age (Hyperion, $24.95, 324 pages, illus.) is not only an enthralling biography of the great rocket scientist, but a readable primer on the physics of rocketry, patent law, the politics of science, and the art of public relations.

Robert Goddard (1882-1945) was, during his lifetime, among the most famous scientists in the world and his fame increased after his death. His theoretical and practical work in the development of rocketry attracted a host of admirers, including Charles Lindbergh and members of the influential (and very wealthy) Guggenheim family.

Goddard himself was a curious mixture of detached scientist, shrewd manipulator of the press and persistent and usually successful suppliant for private and public funding for his experiments. As if his ego were not large enough, he was adulated by Esther, his wife, who was his staunch defender during his lifetime and the guardian of his reputation after his death.

Was Goddard “the father of rocketry,” as has been claimed by his admirers? According to the author, the answer is yes and no. Yes, Goddard was preeminent among the pioneers of rocketry, but he shares some of the glory with the German Herman Julius Oberth and the Russian Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Did the Nazis steal Goddard’s designs to build their notorious V-2 rockets during World War II? The author examines this question in considerable detail and concludes: “… [Goddards type of] rocket and a long-range ballistic missile were separate species… .”

Goddard had a long and at times stormy association with Clark College (later Clark University) in Massachusetts, and with the Smithsonian Institution, but he was essentially a brilliant academic loner who had a gift for self-promotion. Mr. Clary handles the often complicated story with a sure hand, writes clearly about the physics, and has a balanced but on the whole admiring view of his subject. I enjoyed this book and recommend it to anyone interested in how the United States — and the world — took the first faltering steps into the space age.

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

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