There's Something About Mary

REVIEW: 'Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers'

October 30, 2022

About three-quarters through her memoir, Mary Rodgers manages to distill the volume—and her life—into a single line.

"If I'd been only bad, I'd have been a monster … if I'd been only shy, I'd have been no one."

Rodgers, who died in 2014, sprinkles a healthy dose of such quips in between the funny, outrageous, and heartbreaking stories that comprise Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers.

The eldest daughter of one half of the famed theatrical duo Rodgers and Hammerstein, Rodgers is the kind of person who was born to write a memoir. Descended from Broadway royalty, she grew up determined to emerge from her father's creative shadow and her mother's judgmental glare. Shy takes the reader along for the journey, through various careers, numerous affairs, and revealing encounters with well-known figures.

Written "with copious annotations, contradictions, and interruptions" from New York Times theater critic Jesse Green, Shy is bound to take its place among the great memoirs. Theater fans will delight in gossipy digressions, but one need not be a musical fanatic to appreciate Rodgers's revealing and captivating tale of art, parenthood, and life in mid-century America. Honest and breezy, Shy has something for everyone.

Rodgers's memoir has a leg up on the competition from the beginning—literally. The early chapters of a memoir are usually bogged down with childhood laments and digressions on irrelevant people and places. Rodgers does engage in a bit of reminiscence and amateur Freudianism, but is saved by the fact that she had famous—and terrible—parents.

It has already been reported, in Todd S. Purdum's 2018 biography Something Wonderful and elsewhere, that Richard Rodgers was a Grade A bastard. Still, Mary Rodgers manages to shed new light on the Sound of Music composer's personal darkness, detailing his alcoholism ("a bottle of vodka a day. Sixteen Scotch-and-sodas after dinner"), his philandering, and his prejudice, sometimes at the same time: "During the entire civil rights movement, I don't remember him speaking up for Black people, though he loved sleeping with them."

Rodgers is similarly, if not more, brutal with her mother, Dorothy, an ice queen who frequently told a young Mary, "We love you, but we don't like you." But the book is largely focused on Rodgers's relationship with her father: her attempts to make it as a composer without trading on the family name; her acknowledgment that most of her career would not be possible without said family name; her constant yearning for his praise, and constant certitude she would never get it.

"Daddy," as Rodgers unfortunately refers to her father throughout, is one of two men who shaped her life and who fill the pages of Shy. The other is Stephen Sondheim, the late Broadway icon whom Rodgers first met when he was a protégé of her father's writing partner, Oscar Hammerstein II. The pair met as children, and Rodgers realized immediately that she "would never be as infatuated with anyone again."

In what's bound to be the book's most talked-about section, Rodgers details the pair's attempt at a "trial marriage" in 1960. She grasping for domestic normalcy after three eventful years as a divorcée; he, on the advice of his therapist, trying to see if he could make a "normal" (read: heterosexual) relationship work. The arrangement obviously failed, though the tale reveals the all-too-human side of the oft-venerated Sondheim, whose misanthropy seemed to doom his affair with Rodgers as much as his sexuality.

Still, the pair remained good friends, and "Steve" can be found at the center of Rodgers's best stories. Like the time he gave her a Victorian pocket watch as a birthday gift, which seemed to be jammed shut for years until Rodgers's son pried it open, revealing a baggie of cocaine. Or when Sondheim suggested a publisher ask Rodgers to write a children's book as a joke, kicking off a chain of events that would lead her to write Freaky Friday.

But even with half a century, a happy second marriage, and six children behind her, Rodgers's love for Sondheim is palpable and seems a bit unrequited. It's one of the many serious subjects in Shy that Rodgers brushes past, like Sondheim's "Ladies Who Lunch," with so many brilliant zingers. Pill problems, adultery, and domestic violence are all described nonchalantly as a failed musical revue. Rodgers so swiftly and matter-of-factly recounts her three-year-old son, Matthew, dying in front of her from an asthma attack, it took several rereads before I realized what she was describing.

Rodgers neither harangues nor forgives herself for her contradictions, missteps, and other shortcomings. She simply recounts them, laughs at them, and moves on to the next thing. Combined with Green's annotations—funny enough to catch your attention, informative enough not to be cloying—reading Shy feels like listening to the world's most wide-ranging, fascinating conversation.

This, as Green reveals in the book's afterword, was intentional. Rodgers apparently "did not think she 'deserved' a memoir," because she didn't see why people would "want to hear about the daddy (and mummy) issues of a second-drawer composer and children's author." Rodgers only agreed to the project on the condition that it would read like a dialogue, and continually pestered Green to "make it funnier" and "make it meaner."

Her instincts were spot-on, and the result is a delightful compendium of wisdom, history, and Leonard Bernstein's bitchiness. Whether Rodgers deserved it or not, Shy is a fine memoir, and the perfect last word on wild life.

Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers
by Mary Rodgers and Jesse Green
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 480 pp., $35

Published under: Book reviews , Culture