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Hart, Moss (1904-1961)  
 
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With Sweyd's encouragement, Hart became actively involved in the burgeoning Little Theater movement and directed a variety of plays for Labor Temple Players and other groups. Hart also gained both theatrical experience and income by working as a director at adult summer camps on the "Borscht circuit" and at the Brooklyn YMHA and other Jewish organizations in the New York area.

In 1926, Hart gained favorable reviews for his performance in a revival production of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones, featuring Charles Gilpin, who had originated the title role. Hart's early work with Gilpin, the most famous African-American actor of his generation, is of interest because he later became a vocal proponent of equal rights for racial minorities.

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Serving as his assistant at the elite Flagler Hotel in Fallsburg, New York in the summer of 1929 and later at several other venues, Dore Schary became one of Hart's closest friends. Letters, written in later years by Hart to Schary, suggest that they developed a passionate romantic relationship. In a letter apparently written in late 1939, Hart revealed his feelings for Schary: "we shall once again lay in each other's arms and taste the sweetness of sin--I love you very much." Hart concluded another letter, dated December 11, 1939, with "a large incestuous kiss to you."

In 1929, Sweyd actively promoted Hart's Once in a Lifetime to several prominent theatrical agents and indirectly helped Hart secure the collaboration of George S. Kaufman, one of the most successful comic playwrights of the era. Between February and September 1930, Kaufman and Hart worked intently on refining Once in a Lifetime, which became an immediate hit upon its opening. Because it was so widely imitated in later plays and movies, it is now hard to appreciate the originality of the storyline, concerning unsuccessful Broadway actors assigned to help improve the diction of former silent screen stars.

Hart at the Height of His Theatrical Success

The critical and popular success of Once in a Lifetime helped Hart gain access to elite New York society, and he quickly distanced himself from many of his early friends, including Sweyd, who, nevertheless, remained devoted to his memory for the next several decades. Concerned with impressing the famous individuals with whom he now associated, Hart spent much of his money on lavish clothing and furnishings, as he would for the rest of his life.

In December 1930, Hart traveled to California to work on the Los Angeles production of Once in a Lifetime, sponsored by Sid Grauman. However, he was unable to attend the opening on January 27, 1931, because he suffered the first of the many nervous breakdowns that were to plague him for the rest of his life.

After spending several months recuperating, Hart returned to New York, where he sought to forget his problems by working on several shows, including two popular musical reviews, which he created with Irving Berlin: Face the Music (1932) and As Thousands Cheer (1933). The latter turned out to be the most successful American musical show of the Depression era, and it certainly seems to have been helped, rather than hindered, by the controversies that swirled about it.

In opposition to those who wanted to preserve racial segregation on the Broadway stage, Hart insisted that the African-American singer Ethel Waters be given a featured role. After the opening, several newspaper critics loudly condemned the loose morality of the production, exemplified by the scanty clothing of the male chorus. The male lead of As Thousands Cheer was Clifton Webb, an elegant gay singer, whom Hart nicknamed "my blemish" and who was later to go on to epitomize the "film sissy."

To celebrate the successful opening of As Thousands Cheer, Hart undertook a South American cruise with Charles Lederer, a young MGM screenwriter. Hart described this trip as "doing a Noël Coward"--which may have referred to more than the concept of intercontinental travel. Hart and Lederer only got as far as Jamaica when they were removed from the ship, supposedly because of an unspecified illness afflicting them.

When Hart and Lederer returned to Hollywood, most of their acquaintances assumed that they were "an item." Hart seems to have been disconcerted by the comparatively relaxed attitudes to homosexuality that he encountered in the film community. In a letter of 1938 to Schary, Hart explained the discomfort and ambivalence he often felt in Hollywood: "I am fond of Hollywood--but I don't like the life out there. It's wrong--so wrong."

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