Martin Gottfried: Jed Harris: The Curse of Genius; Little, Brown; Boston.

The man who called himself Jed Harris was the leading producer and director of the Broadway of the 20’s and 30’s. The staccato pacing of Broadway (1926) won him instant attention and a place on the cover of Time magazine. It turned the American stage from the smarmy sentimentality of Abie’s Irish Rose to a more realistic, snappier rhythm, which culminated in his production of The Front Page the next year. His mournful, idyllic production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1935) is still remembered as the classic version of a classic work. As late as 1947 his production of The Heiress (a stage version of Henry James’s Washington Square) was a smash hit. But people were already refusing to work with him, and by the late 50’s he was unemployable. Brilliant, obnoxious, shy, a poseur, Harris ruined as many shows as he made, from stubborn pride or inability to work with his peers. His personal life was as chaotic as his professional. His many wives and strings of shiksa lovers, from Ruth Gordon to Judith Anderson, storm through the pages of Martin Gottfried’s forcibly written lament over wasted creativity. The theater stories come thick and fast. It was, for instance, Harris who directed Katharine Hepburn in The Lake (1934), when Dorothy Parker penned the classic reviewer’s put-clown: “Miss Hepburn’s performance ran the gamut from ‘A’ to ‘B.'” The impact of his personality can be found far from Forty-Second Street. Harris was the model for the protagonist of Freel Wakeman’s The Saxon Charm (novel and movie) and Ben Hecht’s A Jew in Love. Lawrence Olivier modeled his characterization of Richard III on Jed Harris. “I thought of the most venal person I knew.”

Gottfried never finally decides why Harris’s success story ended in such miserable failure. Was it a callous Broadway’s indifference to rambunctious creativity, reminiscent of Hollywood’s treatment of Orson Welles? Had success come too early? Could it have been Harris’s love-hate relation with his Jewish past? Harris adopted his Gentile surname after Alexander Woolcott persuaded Maxwell Anderson to give his smash What Price Glory? to another producer by commenting, “I have never heard of Jake Horowitz.” (Woolcott was later a big fan of Harris’s.) He had many Gentile lovers, but avoided Jewish women, except for one unnamed Smith undergraduate he seduced and kept on seeing on and off for most of his life. (His success with women was phenomenal. Even as a drunken bankrupt in his seventies, he could seduce and live off of an LSU graduate student half his age who was writing her dissertation on him.)

By the end of his life in 1979, he had been out of the theater for many years, having squandered his remaining credit by turning down Stalag 17 and making a mess of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in the 50’s. (Gottfried mocks the idea that “McCarthy-ism” did in the play; it was Jed Harris.) His last clays in the hospital alternated between such cruelty and horrible agony that one nurse commented, “The only other patient we ever had who suffered the way Mr. Harris did was Giuseppe Gambino … the Mafia don.” After his death, Dick Cavett devoted five shows to the inter view he did with Harris. It was a fascinating mixture of important theatrical history and personal cruelty. When asked about his son with Ruth Gordon, he commented, “I don’t particularly like  him…. Having him was  something she did. It was part of being an actress, having an illegitimate child by a famous director. It had nothing to do with me.” cc