The Greatest Wasted Musical Talent of the Century

The Troubled Life & Many Careers of Pianist Oscar Levant (1906-1972)

The story of pianist Oscar Levant is usually told as a tale of wasted talent. And nobody worked harder to spread this story than Levant himself. I suspect his ambition was to gain renown as the greatest wasted musical talent of the century.

“He had wit and talent to burn,” commented Levant’s friend Harpo Marx—who quickly added: “He might have been burning off excess talent.” Levant’s reputation in this regard was so widespread, that when John Garfield played the role of a cynical, failed pianist in the 1938 film Four Daughters, he based his portrayal on him. And the resemblance was so obvious that gossip columnist Hedda Hopper bragged in her column that she could identify the source of the role immediately. A quarter of a century later, another film about an unsuccessful pianist, The World of Henry Orient starring Peter Sellers, also relied on Levant as a model. (A clue: Levant in French can be translated as “Orient.”)

In time, Levant’s reputation for falling short of expectations became such a truism that actress Luise Rainer, the longest-lived Academy Award recipient in history, once famously complained: “I’m tired of hearing about how Oscar Levant is wasting his talent.”

Yet even when Levant had chances to rise above this ill-fated destiny, he made sure to sabotage them. His friend and teacher Arnold Schoenberg once tried to interest conductor Otto Klemperer in performing Levant’s piano concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and arranged for the composer to demonstrate the piece at the keyboard. Levant sat down at the piano, and proceeded to play a medley of “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” and “Chopsticks.” Schoenberg and Klemperer both looked on in amazement and horror. Levant followed up with some of his trademark insults, and Klemperer eventually stormed out of the room.

That was a typical day in the life of Oscar Levant.

But Levant saved his most biting putdowns for himself—almost to a pathological extent. When invited to play one of his compositions, named “Poem for the Piano,” on a popular radio program, he told the audience: “Maybe it should be called ‘Insult for the Piano.’” On another occasion he proclaimed: “I’m a concert pianist; that’s a pretentious way of saying I’m unemployed at the moment.” When he undertook his successful concert tours that were marketed as “piano recitals with comments’”—in an attempt to build on his reputation for both wit and keyboard pyrotechnics—Levant told the audience that, because he wasn’t “a good enough speaker to give a lecture nor a good enough pianist to play a recital,” he planned to give “two inadequate performances for the price of one.”

“According to a relative, Levant’s mother literally tied him to the piano to make him practice.”

Some saw this neurotic pose as a publicity stunt, but Levant was, if anything, even more beleaguered in his private life. Those closest to him grew accustomed to his assortment anxieties, superstitions, and obsessions, but it was hard to know in advance what might set him off. A name mentioned, an unlucky number seen, or almost any other situation could serve as an unwanted trigger. Seeking relief or guidance, Levant started on psychoanalysis in 1934—at a time when few in America would take such a step, let alone brag about it. Levant, for his part, made sure his friends knew that his analyst, Dr. Dudley Schoenfeld, was a specialist in criminal pathology.

His neuroses became the stuff of legend, and were an inextricable part of his public persona, even in his concert hall performances. “It is certain,” wrote one music critic in response to a concert, “that a more nervous soloist or one more anxious to please never stepped on to the stage.” His own cousin recalled his horror at seeing a Levant concert: “He was absolutely the most awkward-looking man up there on stage you could imagine.”

Yet with so much talent, even Levant’s failures, look like successes. Levant would always gripe about his limitations as a pianist, but in the mid-1940s he was the highest paid concert hall artist in the United States, receiving almost $5,000 per recital, more than even Horowitz or Rubinstein charged. By the same token, he mocked his writing talent, but his books were bestsellers—and still have devoted reader today. (They were, in fact, my first introduction to Levant.) Or consider his talent as songwriter, which he pursued with halfhearted ambitions as an occasional sideline, yet Levant produced the beloved jazz standard “Blame it On My Youth,” performed by everyone from Nat King Cole to Keith Jarrett.

Levant dabbled in a half-dozen other careers—including film composer, dance band pianist, conductor, movie actor, Broadway musical collaborator, and talk show host. He never stayed in any pursuit for long, but always proved his capability and upside potential before walking away. He might have enjoyed a remarkable career in any of these fields, had he kept with it.

Yet what eventually brought him fame were none of these pursuits, rather his wit and capacity for biting one-liners. He mostly demonstrated this skill in private until the late 1930s, shining among his circle of entertainment industry friends. But a decision to cast him as a recurring participant on the radio quiz show Information Please turned Levant into a pop culture celebrity. The show format involved listeners mailing in questions, which would be posed to a panel of experts—a role in which Levant, whose formal schooling ended at age 15, was perfectly cast. He not only answered questions, but came up with an endless stream of edgy and funny remarks.

After Levant’s debut appearance on the show on July 5, 1938, the producers received a deluge of mail from listeners demanding he be given a recurring role. Levant himself had done the first episode on a lark—going to the studio without even a clear idea of the format, and was more surprised than anyone at his new-found fame. At its peak, Information Please had more than ten million regular listeners, and spawned spin-offs in everything from board games to movies. From this moment on, Levant was a household name, and widely admired for his intelligence and repartee.

Finally Levant found a job he could do without much anxiety. He wasn’t very good at working off a script, but that didn’t really matter. He was actually better when the situation was spontaneous and unscripted. He starred in other radio shows, and then moved his act to television, where he was in constant demand as a guest on talk shows. Sometimes his witticisms crossed a line and addressed some risqué or taboo matter, much to the TV producers’ dismay—but making his appearances all the more popular with late-night audiences.

When Levant briefly hosted his own TV talk show, he engaged in some of the most free-wheeling and uninhibited conversations in the medium’s history. If you tuned in on any given night, you might hear Christopher Isherwood reciting poetry, or Levant discussing hallucinogenic drugs with Aldous Huxley, or California Governor Edmund Brown talking about his son Jerry’s interest in studying for the priesthood. Only two episodes have been preserved, but word-of-mouth continues to circulate among those who experienced firsthand, or heard secondhand, what transpired onscreen during this marvelous interlude when TV seemed poised to turn into a new kind of performance art.

An article from the Los Angeles Times noted that audiences who tuned in might see Levant “smash a sponsor’s product on the stage, or direct insults at spectators.” At one juncture during the show’s run, a driver had to sign Levant out from the psychiatric ward at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, and drive him to the the TV station for the broadcast, then bring him back to the ward. Levant somehow flourished onscreen despite his travails, but his jokes went too far on too many occasions, and eventually his TV show lost its sponsors.

As a result, The Oscar Levant Show was cancelled in 1960 after only a two-year run. Critics would probably call it reality TV nowadays, but back then it was just Oscar Levant veering off into uncharted territory while the camera was running. Yet you could make a case that this troubled unpredictable performer was the most fascinating figure on TV during its formative years. People tuned in when he was on the air, and paid close attention—if only because they never knew what Levant would say next. But his most biting comments were, once again, often at his own expense. “Underneath this flabby exterior is an enormous lack of character,” he would announce with faux gravitas. Or he would refer, with surprising candor, to his own mental health difficulties: “I was once thrown out of a mental hospital for depressing the other patients.” When describing his role in the film Rhapsody in Blue, Levant quipped: “I played an unsympathetic part—myself.”

But he could be just as devastating when turning his verbal daggers on the sometimes vapid pop culture icons of the day. On theme parks, for example: “To hell with Disneyland. I have my own hallucinations." Or on the prim screen image of actress Doris Day: “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.” Or about Frank Sinatra, Jr.: “When [he] was kidnapped, I said, ‘It must have been done by music critics.’” But perhaps Levant’s most quoted one-liner was his summary of his own unpredictable mental state: “There's a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.”

It’s hard not to see the origin of his neuroses in Levant’s harsh, intense childhood. According to a relative, Levant’s mother literally tied him to the piano to make him practice. His father hosted home recitals and selected every piece to be played—and when the young Oscar once changed the program, performing Beethoven instead of Chopin, his dad strode up to the piano and slapped his son on the face. Such were the early roots of Levant’s sense of failure as a musician. Who can be surprised when talk show host Jack Paar once asked him “What did you want to be when you were a kid, Oscar?” the quick response was: “An orphan.”

“When describing his role in the film Rhapsody in Blue, Levant quipped: ‘I played an unsympathetic part—myself.’”

Yet Levant possessed extraordinary talent for the keyboard. He amazed one of his first teachers, by showing up the day before a highly-publicized recital by the touring virtuoso Paderewski, one of the greatest concert hall legends of the era. “Do you want to hear what Paderewski is going to play tomorrow night?” The teacher thought his student would reel of the names of the pieces, but instead the young Levant, age twelve, sat down at the piano and actually performed the works.

Levant never put in the long hours of practice that might have brought him to the highest tier of concert pianists. He may have made more money than Horowitz and Rubinstein, but he understood that he operated at a step or two below their virtuosity. Yet he genuinely had the potential to move into the stratosphere of recital hall heroes. And for certain types of works—especially those that allowed him to channel his jittery, manic energy into the performance—he ranked among the best.

This was especially evident in his performance of Gershwin’s jazz-oriented piano works. Strange to say, Levant had no love for jazz itself, but he was a passionate advocate for concert hall works that drew on its percussive syncopations and bluesy vocabulary. His recordings of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in F still rank among the finest versions of those seminal works. And it helped that Levant had been one of Gershwin’s closest friends, getting approval from the composer himself.

With this semi-official blessing, Levant became the piano player you hired when Gershwin wasn’t available for the engagement. This started in 1932, when Levant was enlisted by the composer to play Gershwin’s Concerto in F at a high-profile Lewisohn Stadium concert—but only for an awkward reason. Gershwin was already scheduled to play two other works on the program, and feared a third one might be too much for him. But this endorsement set an important precedent. For many years to come, Levant stood out as the keeper of the flame, the keyboard exponent who was the next best thing to hearing the composer of Rhapsody in Blue play his own music. But even as this opened up opportunities for Levant, his role as chief acolyte in the cult of his dead friend—rather than a high priest in his own right—must have been a source of frustration.

In time, Levant would attract many high-powered advocates, who would each try to spur his ambitions as a composer of his own works. But despite the support of Schoenberg, Copland and others, Levant only produced a handful of pieces—which even he had doubts about. Then again, Levant had doubts about everything. And it’s hard not to believe that he really could have developed into a well-known composer, just as he might have prospered on Broadway or the many other settings where he dabbled then departed.

Even as Levant enjoyed the status of a pop culture celebrity, his private life was in constant chaos. His relationships never lasted. He soon became dependent on a range of drugs, a complete pharmacopeia of mind-altering substances. He was a chain smoker, even after suffering shortness of breath and a heart attack—which strangely, but characteristically, he kept secret, telling people instead that he had been hospitalized for mental health issues. In truth, he eventually was institutionalized for both his anxieties and the dangerous steps he took to relieve them. Levant even agreed to electroshock treatment in an attempt to get his thinking on the right track, but it only led to a further deterioration in both his abilities and demeanor.

It’s something of a miracle that Levant lived to age 65, when he succumbed to a heart attack. There’s an urban legend that his tombstone reads “I told them I was ill.” But, in fact, there’s only a small plaque, with birth and death dates, to commemorate a life with far too many achievements to fit on a grave marker.

Oscar Levant remains one of my favorite figures from 20th century popular culture. I’ve always been fascinated by the self-taught polymaths of that era, many of them rising from the working class, and reaching amazing peaks despite little formal education. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in a family where no one went to college before my generation, but still cultivated intellectual and artistic aspirations. If I could ever assemble one of those dream dinner parties with a guest list drawn from anybody in history, I would pack the table with those impressive self-made authorities, such as Isaac Asimov, Martin Gardner, Orson Welles, and—probably the most incisive conversationalist of them all—Oscar Levant.

The cumulative impact of his assortment of careers is astonishing. Levant eventually composed 80 songs, appeared in 13 movies, wrote 3 bestselling books, recorded more than a dozen albums as a concert pianist, and appeared on countless TV shows. Yet he would be the first to tell you that it all wasn’t quite good enough. He ought to have worked harder, practiced more at the piano, composed better music, and just aimed higher. “It's not what you are,” he once reflected, “but what you don't become that hurts.” And for Levant, those hurts ran deep. But let’s be scrupulously fair in our assessment, and agree that, in falling short, Oscar Levant rose higher than almost anyone else.

Here is a link to my Qobuz playlist of tracks featuring Oscar Levant.

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