Case in Point

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This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

Vincent Youmans, composer/lyricist (1898-1946): God: “Vinny,give me more than your tunes and talent – your soul.”

Youmans hits

Kern, Berlin, Gershwin, Porter, Rogers and Youmans – the Big Six of American music in the 1920s. Youmans? Who’s he? Youmans wrote gorgeous, tuneful, sunny and upbeat melodies, and he told a colleague in the late 30s that the world was not ready for his kind of happy music with war imminent in Europe.

*Vincent Youmans was the king of the New York music scene throughout the first decade of the modern American theater. In fact, his creative career lasted only 13 years from 1920 to 1933. The last 13 years of his life were wasted on a sybaritic lifestyle.

*Youmans wrote the two biggest Broadway hits of the decade in Wildflower and No, No, Nanette.

*In 1926, Vanity Fair named Youmans and six other national figures to its Hall of Fame.

*Maurice Ravel and Serge Rachmaninoff asked him to teach them to play in his popular style.

*Fritz Kriesler, Norman Rockwell, George Gershwin, George Balanchine and Joseph P. Kennedy were his pals.

*F. Scott Fitzgerald named Abe North of his novel Tender is the Night after Vinny.

*He wrote the music for the 1933 movie Flying Down to Rio which forever changed movie musicals by introducing Astaire and Rogers.

*In l944, Louis B. Mayer wanted to do a bio-flick on Youmans’ life.

*In 1980, two of his songs were used in the movie Funny Lady (a bio-flick of Fanny Brice) but without attribution.

*Max Dreyfus, the New York impresario, once stated that Youmans was the only composer he knew who could be expected to produce a standard every time he sat down to write a song.

The lyrics of his life

William Zinsser wrote that Youmans was “a Christian in a predominant Jewish field,” but his Christianity was thin gruel for a serious Christian. Youmans was born in l898 and grew up in the St. John’s Episcopal Church in Larchmont, N.Y. He studied piano as a youth under the church’s organist, Dr. Charles Andre Feller. Youmans’ philandering father embraced the Christadelphian sect, but Youmans’s mother would not allow her husband to use the family care to attend services. She remained a devout Episcopalian. Young Vincent attended the church-related grade schools Trinity School (Mamaroneck, N.Y.) and Heathcote Hall school for boys (Rye, N.Y.), both of which are now gone. In l917, Youmans listed in the U.S. Navy when he was 19 and wrote his first hit song, “Hallelujah,” which hinted of his instinctive happiness and hope with its upbeat military march tempo.

There is little written indication that he attended church services or was active in any Christian worship. He did note in a letter to his girlfriend in the fall of l933, that while he was in London looking for work, he had taken communion at St. Paul’s Cathedral. His joblessness may have spurred his renewed interest in spiritual things, because in l936, he was living in Colorado Springs (slowly dying of tuberculosis) and he began studying organ with Frederick Boothroyd, the prominent organist and choir master on staff at Grace Episcopal Church. Later, Boothroyd gave a concert at Grace which Youmans attended. He wrote to his new wife, “My heart was full as the Cross passed by in the processional as it was the first time for me in nearly two years and I have so much to be grateful to the Almighty for… Life at best dear, is so short and at least, so indefinite that we must live that it’s only a brief time for us all that we may have the opportunity to deserve the great fit that God surely has in store for us.” As Gerald Bordman has written, “Time and again, Youmans credited his unique talents and his successes to God’s personal favor.… He saw no inconsistencies between his deeply felt, private beliefs and some of his behavior. To him all was in God’s hands and whatever was good in life had to be looked upon as God’s singular blessing.”

After his death in l946, his funeral was held in the historic and beautiful St. Thomas Episcopal Church in midtown Manhattan with the service being conducted by its eminent Barthian pastor, Rev. Dr. Roelif H. Brooks, Jr.

My favorite Youmans’ songs: “Tea for Two,” “More than you Know,” “Hallelujah”

Personal observations

What else can be said about Youmans? Oh yes, he was a drunk, a womanizer, a lousy father and family man, and a business failure.

Conscious of God or not, Youmans maintained a long list of mistresses until he died in 1947, and by 1927, booze, broads and boating were the pillars of his life. When he got married for the first time in l927, it was a civil ceremony in Philadelphia and not a church wedding. After a 13-year bout of tuberculosis, Youmans entered into the final glide path of his life shortly after World War II. Against the advice of his attorney, the celebrated show business lawyer, A. L. Berman, Vincent left nothing to his children, his wives or his still-living father, but rather he wanted to fund the Vincent Youmans Tuberculosis Memorial charity. After his death, his body was cremated and his ashes thrown in the Mud Hole fishing area off Ambrose Lightship off the coast of New Jersey.

Several anecdotes about Youmans cast a cloud on the depth of his Christian convictions. Steven Suskin reports that Youmans was “keenly aware of his position as the only ‘real American’ among the Jewish writers of the l920s on Broadway.” Terry Teachout writes of Youmans’ Broadway play Great Day, which was to involve Louie Armstrong, “It should have been a triumph. Instead it turned into one of the few occasions on which Armstrong was publicly humiliated. Youmans added white string and wind players to the Ketch Henderson band, . . . and brought in a white conductor to replace Fletcher Henderson.” It is no wonder that Wilfrid Sheed writes, “The saintly Oscar Hammerstein even went so far as to call Youmans the only man he didn’t like.” Harold Arlen was once asked if any of the great songwriters had been jealous of one another. He replied, ‘Yes, Vincent Youmans. Every time he heard a new Gershwin song, he said, ‘So the sob thought of it.’”

What to make of Vincent Youmans spiritual life? There is no telling what the genuine condition of his commitment to Christ was but clearly he was a deeply flawed churchgoer who left a shattered testimony of excellence and excesses to those around him.

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