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Goldfish are my homies

John Lahr, 22 October 2020

Casting Shadows: Fish and Fishing in Britain 
by Tom Fort.
William Collins, 368 pp., £20, April, 978 0 00 828344 5
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... hope. In my case, in the first instance, it was the hope of making a connection to my father, Bert Lahr, known to most people nowadays as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. An older dad, cut off both by his comedian’s celebrity and his saturnine nature – there was no ball-throwing, no camping, no swimming, not much of anything, really, except the trips ...

Her Haunted Heart

John Lahr: Billie Holiday, 20 December 2018

Lady Sings the Blues 
by Billie Holiday.
Penguin, 179 pp., £9.99, November 2018, 978 0 241 35129 1
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... different style. I’d never heard anything like it,’ Count Basie said. In time he employed her. John Hammond, the pioneering record producer who ‘discovered’ Holiday, said: she ‘changed my musical tastes and my music life’; she ‘sang like an improvising jazz genius’. ‘I don’t think I’m singing. I feel like I’m playing a horn. I try to ...

I sizzle to see you

John Lahr: Cole Porter’s secret songs, 21 November 2019

The Letters of Cole Porter 
edited by Cliff Eisen and Dominic McHugh.
Yale, 672 pp., £25, October 2019, 978 0 300 21927 2
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... it was.’ Porter, who wrote so well for low comedians like Jimmy Durante and Bert Lahr, has an ear for the sludge of American speech, and enjoys retailing it to friends. At a party for Douglas Fairbanks Jr, he recounts Samuel Goldwyn’s overheard malapropism: ‘Since the last time I saw you, we’ve passed a lot of water under the ...

Puzzled Puss

John Lahr: Buster Keaton’s Star Turn, 19 January 2023

Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life 
by James Curtis.
Knopf, 810 pp., £30, February 2022, 978 0 385 35421 9
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... Buster Keaton.​ I carried his ukulele to Grand Central Station, where he and my father, Bert Lahr, were boarding a train to Toronto to make a film called Ten Girls Ago. It was 1962; I was 21, old enough to know I was walking with two comedy legends. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the platform and the waiting silver carriage. I remember my surprise ...

Watching himself go by

John Lahr, 4 December 1980

by Noël Coward.
Eyre Methuen, 358 pp., £5.95, September 1980, 0 413 46050 9
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... Noël Coward never believed he had just a talent to amuse. A man who spent a lifetime merchandising his de-luxe persona, Coward liked to make a distinction between accomplishment and vanity: ‘I’m bursting with pride, which is why I have no vanity.’ A performer’s job is to be sensational; and in his songs, plays and public performances, Coward lived up to the responsibility of making a proper spectacle of himself ...

I want to howl

John Lahr: Eugene O’Neill, 5 February 2015

Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts 
by Robert Dowling.
Yale, 569 pp., £20, October 2014, 978 0 300 17033 7
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... If you were​ throwing a pity party among American playwrights, the antisocial, alcoholic, self-dramatising misery named Eugene Gladstone O’Neill would win the door prize. At the age of 21, already making a myth of his sense of doom, O’Neill was calling himself ‘the Irish luck kid’. By then, he’d been thrown out of Princeton (‘Ego’ was his nickname), fathered a son with his divorced first wife, caught syphilis in his wanderlust around South America as a merchant seaman, and attempted suicide in a Greenwich Village fleabag called ‘the Hell Hole’ by its permanently pie-eyed denizens ...

Squealing to Survive

John Lahr: Clancy was here, 19 July 2018

Black Sunset: Hollywood Sex, Lies, Glamour, Betrayal and Raging Egos 
by Clancy Sigal.
Icon, 352 pp., £12.99, May 2018, 978 1 78578 439 2
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The London Lover: My Weekend that Lasted Thirty Years 
by Clancy Sigal.
Bloomsbury, 274 pp., £20, May 2018, 978 1 4088 8580 2
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... Bill, where he studied English and edited the Daily Bruin (Watergate conspirators Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman were his arch-enemies on the paper). By then, he’d already been part of the Allied occupation of Germany pulling bodies out of the rubble, gone AWOL to attend the Nuremberg Trials (with the intention of assassinating Hermann Göring) and worked ...

So Hard to Handle

John Lahr: In Praise of Joni Mitchell, 22 February 2018

Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell 
by David Yaffe.
Farrar, Straus, 420 pp., £20, October 2017, 978 0 374 24813 0
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... With her​ high cheekbones and her flaxen hair, Joni Mitchell emerged in the late 1960s as some kind of hippy Venus with an overbite. She was the personification of the New Woman, liberated by the pill and by her talent to take ownership of her body, her art and her destiny. She was thoughtful, feisty, free-wheeling, ‘open to experience and in touch with the miraculous’, as she put it ...

Greasers and Rah-Rahs

John Lahr: Bruce Springsteen’s Memoir, 2 February 2017

Born to Run 
by Bruce Springsteen.
Simon and Schuster, 510 pp., £20, September 2016, 978 1 4711 5779 0
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... OK,​ there are some things Bruce Springsteen and I don’t share. I haven’t sold 120 million albums; my net worth isn’t calculated by Forbes and, in any case, hasn’t yet reached $345 million; I haven’t rocked the planet for forty years; and Ex-President Obama has not hung the Medal of Freedom around my neck and said in my presence: ‘I’m the president, but he’s “the Boss” ...

Backlash Blues

John Lahr, 16 June 2016

What Happened, Miss Simone? A Biography 
by Alan Light.
Canongate, 309 pp., £20, March 2016, 978 1 78211 871 8
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... In​ June 1954, the tall, wary 21-year-old classical pianist Eunice Waymon found herself outside the Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City, New Jersey a few blocks north of the Boardwalk. Waymon, who had spent most of her hard-striving life in North Carolina, the sixth of eight offspring born to grandchildren of slaves, had never before been in a bar ...

Toots, they owned you

John Lahr: My Hollywood Fling, 15 June 2023

Hollywood: The Oral History 
edited by Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson.
Faber, 739 pp., £25, November 2022, 978 0 571 36694 1
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... of years earlier, Sticky My Fingers, Fleet My Feet, a short film I’d written with the director John Hancock about touch football in Central Park, had been nominated for an Oscar. (It played with Woody Allen’s Bananas at New York’s Baronet Theatre to brisk business.) In a giddy moment, we’d even taken out one of those bow-wow fuck-off ads in Variety ...

Where’s the barbed wire?

John Lahr: August Wilson's Transformation, 9 May 2024

August Wilson: A Life 
by Patti Hartigan.
Simon and Schuster, 531 pp., £30, August 2023, 978 1 5011 8066 8
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... in 1968 and would stay in the role until 1999, developing plays by Derek Walcott, Wole Soyinka, John Guare, John Patrick Shanley, Wendy Wasserstein and many others.When they joined forces, Richards was 63 and Wilson was 37. Every live wire goes dead without connections, and Richards had them. So Wilson could quit his job ...

Karel Reisz Remembered

LRB Contributors, 12 December 2002

... time. There was something Karel had – and we all say this – that affected people emotionally. John Lahr (writer): From a week after my arrival in Britain in 1970 until the day he died, I lived in one or another of Karel Reisz’s houses – below him, above him but always with him. Through all the comings and goings of my peripatetic life, he was ...

Here to take Karl Stead to lunch

C.K. Stead, 30 January 1992

Dame Edna Everage and the Rise of Western Civilisation 
by John Lahr.
Bloomsbury, 242 pp., £14.99, October 1991, 0 7475 1021 0
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... him. He said: ‘I was probably in my dressing-room asking: “Where are all my friends?” ’ John Lahr is not the first writer on Humphries to wonder how it is that Dame Edna contrives to make her victims enjoy being mocked. In the television studio politicians are made to dance like bears and sing like birds. Husky male film stars wear frilly ...

Short Cuts

Thomas Jones: Telly, 9 August 2001

... Bloomsbury have sent out the first publicity pack for Kenneth Tynan’s diaries, edited by John Lahr, which are to be published in October. Among the slogans (‘Think Alan Clark meets Alan Bennett’ – no, don’t) and the paraphernalia (a padlock and key) is a pamphlet of highlights. A good many of the selected entries concern spanking, and a good many others are anecdotes about Hemingway, Dietrich, Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Miles Davis, Gregory Peck, but it’s not all like that ...

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