15 Sep 2005


The bittersweet life of Harold Arlen. The composer Harold Arlen, a dapper man whose songs brought something both dashing and deep to the Republic, liked to tell a story about the time he danced with Marilyn Monroe.

“People are staring at us,” Arlen whispered to Monroe. “They must know who you are!” she replied. The joke, as Arlen knew, was on him. Although his catalogue included “I've Got the World on a String,” “That Old Black Magic,” “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road),” “Get Happy,” and “Over the Rainbow”—which was voted the twentieth century's No. 1 song by the Recording Industry Association of America—Arlen was virtually anonymous. “Who's Harold Arlen?” Truman Capote asked in 1953, when it was suggested that he collaborate with the composer on the musical version of his short story “House of Flowers.” In 1955, at a concert in Cairo partly devoted to American music, five Arlen songs—“Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” “Ill Wind,” “Blues in the Night,” “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues,” and “Stormy Weather”—were billed, without attribution, as American “folk songs.” Even this year, which happens to be the centennial of Arlen's birth (he died in 1986), at a celebration for a postage stamp honoring the late lyricist E. Y. Harburg, with whom Arlen wrote a hundred and eleven songs, including the score for “The Wizard of Oz,” no one thought to even mention Arlen.

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