A Talent for Genius: The Life and Times of Oscar Levant



Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

A composer, concert pianist, film actor and radio and TV personality, Levant (1906-1972) was best known for his musical virtuosity and caustic wit. His idiosyncratic character is brought to life in this objective and entertaining biography by Schoenberger and Kashner, who are married and teach creative writing at William and Mary College in Virginia. Levant was a close friend to composer George Gershwin, and neglected his own compositions in favor of performing Gershwin’s music. (After Gershwin’s death in 1937, Levant appeared in Rhapsody in Blue , the Hollywood version of Gershwin’s life.) His other film apearances included parts in Humoresque (1947) and An American in Paris (1951), in both of which he honed a persona as a neurotic and cynical musician. Drawing on interviews and letters, Kashner and Schoenberger carefully document Levant’s emotional problems, which eventually led to a drug addiction that prevented him from performing and nearly ended his marriage to actress June Gale.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

A composer and a popular concert pianist, the multitalented Levant also acted (in films such as An American in Paris, 1951) and made memorable appearances on television talk and panel shows, where his cynical, eminently quotable wit spared no one, including himself. Publicly, Levant made light of his lifelong history of mental illness and was regarded as an amusing eccentric. Yet as this well-researched, intelligent biography shows, Levant’s manic-depressive condition and crippling chemical dependencies took a toll on his private life and, eventually, his career. Readers who pick this up in search of celebrity gossip won’t be disappointed, but what they’ll remember is a man for whom the dividing line between brilliance and madness was painfully thin. Highly recommended for most public libraries.
David C. Tucker, DeKalb Cty. P.L., Decatur, Ga.

From Booklist

For many years Levant was a very visible celebrity who appeared regularly on television variety shows, acted in films (playing himself at least as often as he was cast as a fictional character), and traveled the country as a concert pianist. He was also known for his quick wit, acerbic tongue, and neurotic disposition, showcased on venues such as Jack Paar’s talk show, and made manifest in the three books he wrote. Kashner and Schoenberger painstakingly define the demons that stalked Levant throughout his life, creating a wonderfully illuminating portrait of this decidedly complex man. A chain-smoking hypochondriac, with a serious addiction to drugs, Levant was also an abusive husband, though he continued to be loved by his wife, June. This fascinating biography plumbs the depths of a verifiably tortured soul but also an individual capable of thrilling others with his brilliant musical gift and sharp tongue. Alice Joyce

From Kirkus Reviews

Why does Oscar Levant, memorable mostly for his devastating put-downs, deserve a biography at all, let alone one this long? Kashner and Schoenberger answer that question convincingly. This husband-and-wife team of poets (both teach writing at the College of William and Mary) make an auspicious nonfiction debut with this biography. At one time Levant was the highest-paid concert artist in America, and one of the most popular. But by the time of his death he was remembered mainly as a deeply troubled yet very witty man, best known for a series of terrifyingly frank appearances on the Jack Paar Show in which he discussed his barbiturate addiction and nervous breakdowns with a candor unheard of at the time. In fact, as this biography makes clear, Levant was, in spite of an almost hallucinatory catalogue of neurotic compulsions and phobias, a composer of promise, a talented pianist with a wide range of musical strengths (although most widely remembered for his interpretations of Gershwin, his close friend), and a man of uncommon intelligence and erudition…A genuinely thoughtful and entertaining biography that should go far in rebuilding Levant’s reputation as a serious musician. — Copyright ©1994, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.


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