S. N. Behrman
The New Yorker
February 6, 1932: 20-24

From Kuppenheim, near Baden, there came to these then hospitable shores, one day in 1888, Max Dreyfus, a young pianist with an itch to he a composer and ambitious to succeed as either one or the other. Possibly if young Dreyfus' ambition and equipment had been single instead of dual, he might never have abandoned both careers in favor of still a third; a single ambition, especially in the arts, is likely to be fanatical and to survive drearily the flicker of talent. At any rate, this thirteen-year-old boy found the going in New York fairly hard and took what odd jobs he could find as pianist and musical arranger. Fairly soon he struck up a friendship and collaboration with Paul Dresser, whose brother, Theodore Dreiser, was then editing a magazine called Every Month. This magazine published music and Dresser employed Max to arrange his songs in publishable form. Dresser was the type of composer who plays a vamp accompaniment for himself on the piano. To Max he submitted the details of writing down and arranging the melody; that is to say, setting it down in such form that the composer himself, very likely, would be unable to read it. To the outsider, this procedure is one of the odd phenomena of music publishing, of which, as used to be said, more anon.

At that time the leading music-publishing firm was Witmark's, Inc., a supremacy to be wrested away later by Harms, Inc., under the directing hand of Max Dreyfus. Max, creative ambition for the moment uppermost, went to Harms with some compositions. The compositions were put aside, but Max got a job as pianist and arranger. This was in 1895—the firm of Harms was then twenty years old. The big librettists and composers then were Wilson Morse, Cheero Goodman, Gustave Kerker, Reginald De Koven. The reigning musical hit was a show called "Wang." The popular favorites of the time were the so-called "motto songs": "The Picture That Is Turned to the Wall," "The Letter That Never Came," "A Boy's Best Friend Is His Mother" (mammy of the mammy songs). Max, working away at arrangements and pounding out tunes with such unassailable sentiments, managed to turn in a real hit himself: a ballad, a song without words, called "Cupid's Garden."

It is a singular attribute of Max's mind, a certain coolness and detachment, that made him decide, quite impartially, and while thousands of amateur and sentimental pianists throughout the country were disporting themselves in the melodic alleys of "Cupid's Garden," that he was not a composer and would never be first-rate at it. Max relates this conversion quite coolly. I imagine he arrived at this decision without travail or heartburn, just as one might discover a mistake in a total at the bottom of a column of figures and start over again the process addition to correct the error. Discussing his fondness for a young composer and pianist who is now one of the "boys" under his protective aegis, Max admitted to me his predilection for this irresistible enfant terrible and said with a faint smile: "I admit it's a weakness and may cause a little bad blood among the other boys, but why shouldn't I he allowed a little weakness?" But in his youth, I fancy, Max was less indulgent with himself. There must have come a moment of illumination when he decided that his craving to be a composer was a weakness he could not afford and he exorcised it with a Biblical ruthlessness. Max ceased being a composer and became a businessman. Never was frustration so felicitously capitalized; everything in his experience was useful to him when it came to recognizing and fostering other and sharper talents. Max is the only man in the music-publishing business of whom it may be said that he is also a musician; it was his early training and ambition which enabled him to distill a profession from a racket.

Max did everything in his new job—ran errands, sold music, arranged, played the piano, turned in an occasional hit. Two years after he arrived in this country, his brother, Louis, appeared from Kuppenheim and took to trudging around the Southern states selling picture frames. Louis, who is a larger, more aggressive and vigorous edition of Max, a Max without musical or aesthetic taint, took on sheet music as a sideline at Max's suggestion, and he plugged picture frames and songs with strict impartiality until 1901, when Max managed to raise the small sum of money necessary to buy a twenty-five-per-cent interest in the firm of Harms. At this point, Louis went one-hundred-per-cent musical. It was also Louis' entry into a business which was to find him installed in London twenty-five years later, the owner of Chappell, Ltd., the oldest music-publishing- house in England.

John Golden, the producer—who, like Jimmie Walker, began his career as a songwriter—tells how in those days you could go to Harms and for two dollars get a frail young man who worked there to make a piano arrangement of a whistled tune or score it for orchestra. Another young man who walked in on Max one day with some unpublished songs—Max describes him as thin and very good-looking—was greatly impressed by the fact that he saw a Prince Albert coat hanging in Max's office. Here, the young visitor thought, was dignity. Here, after the fly-by-night outfits of Tin Pan Alley, was solidity. As a matter of fact, Max had hired the coat to wear at a party he was going to that afternoon as a paid pianist, but this fact he did not disclose to the hopeful composer. Max heard some of the young man's songs and was impressed by them, but he advised him that it was more vital at the moment to sell songs than to compose them, and he sent him into the Hudson Valley territory to try his luck with some popular hits that had just arrived from England: "A Bicycle Built for Two," then being sung by Vesta Tilley; "Algy, the Piccadilly Johnny," and "Waiting at the Church," Vesta Victoria's standby. The young man, with more tuneful melodies of his own coursing through his mind, went nevertheless obediently into the Hudson Valley to dispose of his wares. His name was Jerome Kern.

The association between Kern and Harms affected Dreyfus' career profoundly. Kern created a new style in song and show-writing and his brilliant emergence gave the firm such distinction that it suddenly became the ambition of every musical talent above the routine to be associated with it. Because the career of Kern, besides being the first and most lustrous of the new school, is also the epitome of those of the composers—from Gershwin to Youmans—who came after, it is worth following in some detail. Kern's first opportunity—dug up for him by Max —was to do some interpolations for Sam Shubert, the early-deceased and lamented brother canonized in those enlarged and melancholy photographs which you may see hanging in any Shubert lobby throughout the country. It was a period when the old composers were running dry, when producers cried for the oxygenation of lifeless scores by fresher talent. Kern got his first chance to do some songs for Sam Shubert's production of "The Earl and the Girl" and he made his mark with a song which turned out to be the sensation of the show: "How Would You Like to Spoon with Me?" This inquiry was brazenly directed to the gentlemen in the front rows by the chorus-girls the while they were sailing out over their heads in swings. The startling audacity of the staging and the vitality of the number itself gave Kern an immediate place. He became the late Charles Frohman's white-haired boy for interpolations. From his first full score, "Red Petticoat," in 1912, down to "The Cat and the Fiddle"—considered by many to be his richest achievement—Jerome Kern has kept up an unflagging career of high distinction, lifting by himself the plane of light-music and music-show making generally in this country; for Kern, aside from his gift as a composer, is one of the keenest generals of the show fields.

Harry Askin of Chicago, now manager for Sousa, then general manager for Charles Dillingham's Hippodrome, came to Max about a show called "Miss 1917" which Dillingham and Ziegfeld were doing at the Century Theatre. Askin asked Max to have a look at a kid who was playing the piano for rehearsals. He summoned George Gershwin, who walked in surrounded by a horde of acclamatory votaries. Songwriting is no occupation for the solitary; it thrives on gregariousness. The young songwriter generally carries his audience with him. The ideas spring full-born; a brilliant pianist like Gershwin sits down, plays his tunes, and gets the audience-effect instantly from his coterie. (This may have a doubtful result: George Kaufman is said to have remarked bitterly that the "Of Thee I Sing" music was so well known by the time of the New York opening that the show might have the effect of a revival.) Gershwin struck fire immediately and Max put him on the payroll at thirty-five dollars a week. The first job Max got for him was as accompanist for Nora Bayes on a vaudeville tour. Harms has published everything of Gershwin's since then, including his serious compositions: the Rhapsody in Blue, which sold seventy-five thousand copies, and—con amore—the Concerto in F, the "American in Paris," and the piano preludes. The new Second Rhapsody is being played here this week by Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

A "nice young boy" sitting around upstairs in Max's office finally got a chance to play a tune for Max. The tune was "Who's Who With You?" and the composer Vincent Youmans. He had been a piano-player teaching songs to vaudeville acts, but during his association with Harms he developed as one of the most melodically talented composers in America. The song "Who's Who With You?" became part of Youman's first full score, "Two Little Girls in Blue," the lyrics for which were decanted by Arthur Francis, a pseudonym from beneath which Ira Gershwin later made a shy appearance. Kalmar and Ruby were popular songwriters very anxious to do musical-comedy work. Ruby's melodic gift impressed Max and he got the team the commission to do the music and lyrics for "The Ramblers." Rodgers and Hart were introduced to Max by Larry Schwab of Schwab & Mandel. These boys had done the brilliant and unforgettable first "Garrick Gaieties" show while they were still in college. Max confesses that he didn't "go" for them immediately, but later they became Harms standbys and recently Max has organized a subsidiary company to publish their work exclusively. Early in the game, Max took over Victor Herbert's contract from Witmark for the "prestige value." Sigmund Romberg, also under contract to Witmark, came over to Harms because of the firm's great standing with the musical-comedy producers. But manifestly Max takes no pride in the acquisition of those full-fledged, unaided talents compared with the paternalism he feels for those of the boys whose abilities matured near him.

Otto Harbach, Oscar Hammerstein 2nd, Cole Porter, "society composer;" Lew Gensler, Phil Charig are Harms buddies. Irving Caesar, the vociferous irresistible comic, is one of the most successful of the lyricists who have worked for Harms. It was Caesar who wrote the lyrics for "No, No, Nanette" and the famous "Tea for Two" number. Oscar Levant, the enfant terrible referred to before, in the intervals when he is not playing Bach fugues or being witty in Lindy's, composes sonatinas, hit songs like "Lady Play Your Mandolin," and musical shows. The most industrious and promising of the new crop is Arthur Schwartz, who has emerged recently as the composer of the scores of "Three's a Crowd" and "The Band Wagon." He edged into the game in a semi-professional manner by getting in interpolations where he could and is now a full-fledged composer much in demand. It is a long roster, from the young Kern to the young Schwartz, from "The Earl and the Girl" and the swinging, organdied chorus-girls to "The Band Wagon" with its brilliant, saturnine orchestration by Russell Bennett and the mechanistic black-and-white orgy of the Astaires' startling "White Heat" number.

The mention of Russell Bennett's name brings me to an aspect of the song-publishing business which, to a complete outsider like myself, is somewhat piquant. Bennett is generally recognized by composers and the members of his own craft as the foremost orchestrator in the country. He is a master, a "whiz." Owing to the exigencies of time, if for no other reason, it is impossible for a composer to orchestrate his own score. Gershwin and Kern both use Bennett; "The Band Wagon," "The Cat and the Fiddle," and "Of Thee I Sing" are all orchestrated by him. You have only to listen to the score of "The Band Wagon" to appreciate Bennett's virtuosity with the orchestra. And this is what seems to me so friendly about the business of composing: if you have some tune jingling in your head, you have only to go to Harms and, provided you can get by Max's factotum, secretary, and Minister with All Portfolios, Irene—and by Max, hum it or play it with one finger to Russell Bennett and it will presently emerge fully arranged or scored, suavely and colorfully, for a modern orchestra. It is as if an aspiring writer who could neither read nor write were to go into Scribner's, whisper an idea to the editor, and get it written for him in novel form by John Galsworthy. Mr. Bennett is a composer in his own right. He was born in Kansas City, is self-taught, won a Guggenheim Fellowship, and two of his compositions won prizes of five thousand dollars each in the recent Victor contest: "Abraham Lincoln" and a tone-poem, "Sights and Sounds," which is on the program of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Another Dreyfus dignitary is Dr. Albert Sirmay, a popular Viennese composer who is general editor of the Harms publications. The completeness of the organization, its equipment to transform into sophisticated musical speech the stammering inspirations of these random Homers, fill a writer who has to go through it in longhand with the profoundest envy.

Now Max is merged. Several years ago, when the picture companies went music-mad, Warner Brothers made Max an offer that ran into the millions and Max allowed himself to be absorbed with the understanding that he continue on in an "advisory capacity." The phrase, so flattering and so ambiguous, took Max in. He had his new estate in the country, he had the "boys," to whom his presence at his familiar desk is as inevitable as the stars in their courses, he had—an anomaly in a music-publisher—his interest in music. But, he tells me, these accessory possessions have proved not to be enough. To advise where you have been accustomed to order, to confer where you have been accustomed to O.K., to defer to blunted and alien opinion—these are slings and arrows. Max confesses that he was shortsighted, that the outside interests on which he relied to bolster his it leisure are not enough. There is the farm, there is music; but then, too, at the core of the business which is his life, there is that innocuous-seeming but lethal "advisory capacity." Still, to the casual eye, things at 62 West Forty-fifth Street are as they were in the days before Max was merged: he sits at his desk, Oscar comes in to report his latest "crack," Dr. Sirmay, mystified that Max should allow such trivialities to intrude into business, waits solemnly and impatiently with a score.

Thirty-five years of Harms have brought Max a home in Bronxville with four pianos; a delightful country estate, Madrey, in Brewster, with hundreds of acres, a private lake, sheep and swans and a small family cemetery. The place belonged to Daniel Drew, a mid-nineteenth-century buccaneer, and Daniel is at his rest here together with his family and a few contemporaries from Brewster. By town charter, Daniel's living descendants may visit the cemetery whenever they like, but they are a dwindling race and the privacy of Madrey is seldom disturbed. Max took me through and we read the ancient inscriptions amid the peace of a Sunday afternoon, a peace unbroken except by conventional pastoral sounds and the echo of Irving Caesar's voice in the midst of one of his impersonations: a passionate Italian saying farewell to his girl on a receding ocean liner, or the mythical Russian of the old régime, Sikoloeff, inviting, in stertorous English, his American hosts, with whom he has spent a weekend lasting nine years, to come to his little place in the Crimea: "Two hundred thousand a-a-c-r-r-e-s!" Here Mrs. Dreyfus and Max entertain the "boys": Kalmar and Ruby, Jerome Kern, Irving Caesar, the Gershwins, Russell Bennett, Oscar Levant, Dr. Sirmay. After dinner in the evening, Max will play a Brahms symphony with Oscar Levant; their two profiles, under the piano lamp—Max's austere, marmoreal, like a bust of Scipio; Oscar's sensuous and insurgent—are like contrasting medals of the old and the new dispensations. (Mrs. Dreyfus will tell you of weekends when Victor Herbert used to come to Bronxville and there would be four pianos going on a Sunday morning.) In The Playhouse at Brewster, the great, ingeniously transformed barn where Daniel Drew used to keep his horses, there is every conceivable kind of game to satisfy the childish impulses said to be inherent in musicians and, in case of emergency, two additional pianos. One of them is a forty-year-old Steinway upright, still in good tune, the first piano Max owned in this country. It came with the office equipment when he took over Harms. Through the multiple activity of the great room, Max moves with a benignant detachment. Supper is after midnight (the food, as Oscar Levant would say, is "powerful") and at around two in the morning, Irving Caesar, the maestro of practical jokes, will be on the telephone getting out of bed a sleepy composer who lives in White Plains to give him the friendly, if apocryphal, information that one of his songs is to be broadcast from Denver at three in the morning and he can catch it if he waits up an hour. The hysteria over Irving's solicitude for the sleepy composer mounts. Max is in a corner smiling; for this the long years of artistic midwifery, the endless auditions, the projects, the mergers, the ocean voyages to catch first nights in Berlin or Vienna or Budapest, the flops and the successes, the ardors and endurances—for a Saturday evening in Daniel Drew's old place in Putnam County, for an hour of Brahms after dinner and a few laughs amid the company of the "boys."

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