book excerpt

A Trial Marriage to Stephen Sondheim

As Mary Rodgers says in her memoir, “I can’t believe either of us put ourselves through that.”

At right, Hal Prince, Stephen Sondheim, and Mary Rodgers at the Rodgers-Guettel Christmas party in 1965. Photo: Courtesy of the Rodgers-Beaty-Guettel family
At right, Hal Prince, Stephen Sondheim, and Mary Rodgers at the Rodgers-Guettel Christmas party in 1965. Photo: Courtesy of the Rodgers-Beaty-Guettel family

In the four years between her explosive separation from Jerry Beaty in 1957 and her Mexican wedding to Henry Guettel in 1961, Mary Rodgers (1931–2014) composed the music for Once Upon a Mattress, ushered the show to Broadway and London, assisted Leonard Bernstein on his Young People’s Concerts, and wrote songs for everyone from Bing Crosby to Captain Kangaroo. All this while raising three young children and juggling many unlikely husband prospects, including the producer Hal Prince; a married editor she called Boston Jack; her Mattress lyricist, Marshall Barer, who was gay; and a CIA operative named Cord Meyer.

Finally, there was the man she had met and fallen hard for at Oscar Hammerstein’s farm when she was barely a teenager: Stephen Sondheim. Would their affection take the turn they’d described in a song they wrote together in 1953? “I used to think how pure it is, / This friendship we’ve made. / But now I’m not so sure it is. / Something’s changed and I’m afraid.”

In this excerpt from Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers, written with Jesse Green, chief theater critic for the New York Times, Rodgers recalls the bittersweet last act of her very busy between-marriages “interregnum.”

Excerpt From 'Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers'

I’d been going out with a very nice guy called Paul Heller, who’d been an assistant set designer at Westport Country Playhouse the summer before Steve and I arrived as apprentices in 1950. I’m not sure how we met, or re-met, but Paul was a sweetheart and I knew I couldn’t go on forever the way I had been. As I cleared the decks, he was the last man standing. (Well, the last but one.) Hal and I were now just colleagues; my weekday captain’s paradise with Boston Jack had run its course. I even managed to put a full stop to the madness with Marshall, or at least a semicolon. And, screwing up my courage, I finally called Cord to say we couldn’t see each anymore, no matter what his secretary felt.

“Why not?” he asked.

“I’ve found someone I’m very involved with,” I said.

“Oh, and I suppose you don’t care that I now have cancer of the lip?”

I didn’t, in fact.

Anyway, just after Mattress closed on Broadway in July and before I left for England in August to rehearse the London production, Paul gave me a very pretty little pearl ring to signify our engagement.

I didn’t tell my parents, and Marshall was too busy with his own problems to notice the problem on my finger. He was so depressed by the closing of Mattress he was pretty much commuting to Dr. Feelgood’s every morning and shooting up at home every night.

But if Marshall was too blitzed to notice my engagement, Steve wasn’t. For him, no one I got involved with was ever good enough. Paul was too dumb or too square or too old or too unambitious or too this or too that—I don’t remember which.

Actually, he wasn’t any of those things. The only thing wrong with Paul wasn’t something wrong with him; it was something wrong with me. I was 29. I could hear the party-game music winding down, and all I wanted was a good-enough chair.

People get married for worse reasons. But also for better ones.

Having stashed the kids in the Hamptons with the Peruvian nanny for the summer, I flew across the Atlantic fuming with Steve’s comments in my ears. Did he want me never to marry again? Never to have more children? (Maybe not — everyone thought I had enough.) And what was he offering as an alternative? If nobody else was good enough, that was his fault for being so excellent.

I was still fuming when I arrived at my old friend Ginny Ryan’s. Ginny had married David Ogilvy, a Scottish laird and heir to the earldom of Airlie. Seventy thousand acres gives you room to think, and sheep provide the right chewing-it-over mood. In a room in the castle that came with the earldom, I felt properly Romantic as I wrote Steve what I elegantly called a shit-or-get-off-the-pot letter.

What can I say? I’d always loved him. He either had to love me back or finally let me go.

In the letter, I’d said I would be back in New York for a few days in early September to tape a TV show for which Marshall and I had written a couple of songs. Trying to be casual, but actually feeling preemptively hostile, I wrote something like: “If you’re still interested, get in touch with me then. You know how to do that.”

I didn’t expect him to. I was sure I had scared him off for good. Meanwhile, I rehearsed my show about the second-rate princess who is desperate for a husband.

But when I got to New York for the NBC taping, Steve called and said, “Let’s talk.”

I didn’t talk much; he did. He showed me the new place he’d just bought for $115,000 thanks to the movie deal for Gypsy, which promptly fell through but then came together again. It was a townhouse on East 49th Street in Turtle Bay Gardens, next door to Katharine Hepburn. “This is where we could live,” he explained, showing me the bottom two floors, which were then a duplex. “And there’s plenty of room upstairs for your kids,” he added, pointing through the ceiling toward the triplex he was then renting to the singer Anita Ellis and her not very nice husband, a neurologist and big-game hunter.

He never used the M-word and neither did I. But that’s what it was intended to be: a marriage, at least of the trial variety. We gave ourselves a year, to start when I got back from London again, after Mattress opened. I know what you are saying: Mary, don’t!

Had I not just freed myself from this sort of thing with my first husband? Well, no. I was a patsy in that marriage. Here I would be — what? A co-conspirator? The follier half of a folie à deux?

And what would Steve be? Even if I loved him, and I did, what was in it for him?

But his shrink was pushing him to have a “normal” relationship, and perhaps not having to push too hard. Together, I thought, she and Steve would fix his problem, and together, I thought, he and I would fix mine. So I clamped my ears shut to the hurricane bells ringing everywhere and decided I would give it a go. But the omens along the way were immediately unfavorable. First omen: Paul Heller. When I gave him back his little pearl ring, explaining that I was taking a flier with Steve instead of a sure thing with him, he looked at me funny and said I was totally out of my mind. Even I knew enough not to write that off as jealousy.

Second omen: London, where Mattress opened to 17 — count ’em, 17 — horrifying reviews. Turns out that not everyone is Carol Burnett, and the person who most wasn’t Carol was Jane Connell. She was working very hard to eke out laughs Carol got with an eyebrow. And maybe, too, the Brits didn’t appreciate our humor.

Third omen: When I called Steve in New York to commiserate, and to tell him my flight information so he could meet me at the airport, he said, “Meet you at the airport?” as if I’d asked him to eat the leg of a piano.

His plan was that I should haul myself to Manhattan. There I was to join him at a party being given for Antonio de Almeida, a conductor he knew.

So that’s what I did. I cabbed home from the airport, fixed my hair, and met up with Steve. Once he got me to the door of the party, though, he promptly vanished, which was not in my lexicon as the behavior of someone who liked you as a friend, let alone someone who was sort of supposed to be getting experimentally married to you.

I’ll give myself this: I never moved into that house in Turtle Bay with the big-game hunter upstairs and Hepburn next door and the ghost of Maxwell Perkins — Hemingway’s editor, who once owned it — in the floorboards. But I didn’t give up, either. Instead, on occasion, in a cab or after dinner, Steve would say, “Do you want to stay over?” and I’d say, “Sure,” even if I wasn’t.

I don’t know what the hell he thought I was doing there. Even though he was 30, I don’t think Steve had the foggiest idea what people who love each other did. Which begs the question: Did we love each other?

Can one beg an answer? He wasn’t in love with me, certainly, and I wasn’t really physically attracted to him. I just loved him, thoroughly enough for nothing else to matter. Do you not believe in that? Have you never seen Carousel?

So we would get into the same bed, side by side, frozen with fear. We just lay there. We didn’t discuss anything; we didn’t do anything. If we touched, it was en passant.

The whole thing was wildly uncomfortable. I guess eventually we went to sleep. And I can’t think how I got up and got dressed and got home before the kids woke up the next morning — because I didn’t want them to know I hadn’t been home. It was so humiliating. I can’t believe either of us put ourselves through that.

And yet it kept happening.

Was there anything satisfying about the arrangement? Nothing. It was too fraught with what I assume was revulsion on his part, if not on mine. Like a lot of women, certainly of that era, I was responsive to guys’ advances if they knew what they were doing, but, willing as I was, I was never the aggressor. We just kept reoccupying this strange purgatory. All the guilt of sinning with none of the pleasure.

At some point I finally said: “Look, Steve, I have three children who expect to see me in the morning, so these last-minute invitations to spend the night are difficult. We have to set things up ahead of time, make specific plans.”

He replied that it was often impossible to reach me — which was true; that’s why he bought me for my 30th birthday, that same winter, an additional phone line. Not only that, but he wrote — and performed at my birthday party in January — a song called “Mommy on the Telephone” whose tune included the touch-tone pitches of the new number: LEhigh 5–5539. The lyric made me seem more like a zookeeper than a mother: “Tod has hidden Mommy’s Frigidaire. / Nina hid her extra hair. / Kimmy hid herself and forgot just where.” That was pretty accurate.

But the new line didn’t help. Instead of calling to make specific plans to spend the night together, he stopped inviting me entirely. I would call him instead, and that’s when he began to be resentful. One side of his mind must have known it wasn’t my fault, but the other side must have said, “Holy shit, get her off my back!” For him, with his crazy mother, there was nothing worse than someone wanting to have a hold of you when you didn’t want to be held.

What I wanted wasn’t his concern — nor, apparently, that of his shrink. As I understood it, from a remove, I was a bit of a pawn in their psychiatric gamesmanship. They were working through what love could be in his life, a process that would take many more years. For now, for all I knew, he was celibate, even outside our “marriage.”

But if I was a pawn, I wasn’t just Steve’s. Marshall, my work husband, was in full undermining mode. Sometime that fall he decided to disabuse me of whatever illusions I still harbored about Steve’s heterosexual potential. “Guess who was at the gayest of gay parties I went to last night?” he said one day while we were working.

His motive was transparent: to punish me for not choosing him. If I was going to marry a gay guy, he felt, why not the one who wanted to be married, who loved kids, and could get it up for a girl if necessary?

But he wasn’t lying about Steve. To prove it to myself I pulled a little trick. On nights I wasn’t staying over, I’d call him after going to the theater or dinner together. If he didn’t answer — if the service picked up after the requisite number of rings — I knew he had just dropped me off and gone on his way.

The service always picked up.

I didn’t confront him. I just said, “Steve, this isn’t working, is it?”

And he said, “No, it’s not.” Not meanly. Merely an observation.

I’m not sure he would have known how to call it off himself. He was probably looking for a kind way to unhook the fish. That’s me all over: The fish did it for him.

Excerpted from SHY: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers, by Mary Rodgers and Jesse Green. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2022 by Mary Rodgers Guettel Family LLC. All rights reserved.

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Certainly not unambitious. Paul Heller (1927–2020) soon became successful in Hollywood, producing David and Lisa in 1962 and dozens more later, including My Left Foot. Though a native of New Jersey, Virginia Fortune Ryan (born 1933) wound up a Lady of the Bedchamber in service to Queen Elizabeth II. No Place Like Home was an hourlong revue starring Carol Burnett, Rosemary Clooney, José Ferrer, and Dick Van Dyke. It aired on NBC on Thanksgiving afternoon. TV Guide described it as a “spoof of domestic man’s foibles.” In one Rodgers–Barer song, about having a baby, Barer brilliantly rhymed “alchemy” and “talcumy.” Sondheim once heard Hepburn banging furiously out back where their private gardens joined the communal one; when he went to investigate, he found her barefoot and red-faced, complaining that he was keeping her up all night with his composing. She later told Rex Reed that Steve was “a most disagreeable person” because he complained when smoke from her fireplace infiltrated his house. Anita Ellis (1920–2015) was a pop singer before she went into analysis — and a jazz singer when she emerged. Her brother was Larry Kert (1930–1991), who starred in West Side Story and later took over the role of Bobby in Company from Dean Jones. Some of them were real: Hurricane Donna struck Long Island on September 12. The Coast Guard rounded everyone up, including Mary’s children, who had been left in the care of a nanny in a rented house on Dune Road in Quogue. “Funny only in spots,” trumpeted the Daily Telegraph. But the Daily Express raved: “Although this may be good enough for New York, it would be very far from halfway good enough for London even as a pantomime.” Jane Connell (1925–2013) fared better as Agnes Gooch in Mame a few years later. Or, for that matter, Passion. The 1994 Sondheim–James Lapine musical, based on the movie Passione d’Amore, is about a homely, sickly spinster who nevertheless gets a handsome young captain to fall in love with her. For whatever reason, Mary did not like the show. Mary turned 30 on January 11, 1961. Touch-tone service was introduced in the United States in 1963. Perhaps there were prototypes? And at least one more woman: Lee Remick. He adored her, but if push had come to shove, the results would have been the same. Luckily for both of them, it didn’t.
A Trial Marriage to Stephen Sondheim