Peg o’ My Heart

If you scan the nether regions of the hit parade three-quarters of a century back, you’ll see that we are fast approaching the Summer of Peg. A few weeks from now – June 1947 – the Harmonicats were Number One:

And, if you’re saying, “Hang on, that’s not right. The Number One hit record of ‘Peg o’ My Heart’ was by Buddy Clark”, well, no: Buddy Clark’s version was Number One the following month, July 1947:

And, if you’re saying, “No, that’s wrong, too. The Number One hit record of ‘Peg o’ My Heart’ was by the Three Suns”, well, no: The Three Suns’ version was Number One a month further still, August 1947:

Three versions of “Peg O’ My Heart”, and they all hit Number One in 1947, all summer long. Which isn’t bad for a song that was already 35 years old. “Peg o’ My Heart” was first performed in 1912 at the College Inn in New York City by Irving Kaufman, after he’d seen a lead sheet lying around at the publisher’s office and snaffled it away. And, if you’re saying, “Man, 1912. I can’t relate to anything that ancient”, well, a century later it was a big crowd-pleaser for Bruce Springsteen and the Dropkick Murphys – notwithstanding that they took all the Irish lilt out of the thing by stapling the original lyric to their “own” drearily conventional rock tune:

Sans Springsteen, it also showed up in a recent Downton Abbey.

But neither The Boss nor any other antique rocker would have “Peg o’ My Heart” to slaughter if it weren’t for a certain lady, who for a brief period in American life was way bigger than Mr Springsteen. “Laurette Taylor is the girl whose name is in our hearts and on our chewing gum!” reported Grace Kingsley in The Los Angeles Times. “We are naming our sailboats and babies and soft drinks and new systems of philosophy after the charming little actress, and there is now a Laurette Taylor waltz, a Laurette Taylor cigar, and a Laurette Taylor sundae.”

All true. Laurette Taylor had waited a long time for her sundae and cigar. As “girls” whose names are in our hearts, she was no spring chicken. Miss Taylor was 29 in 1912 with thankless bit parts, teenage motherhood and a failed marriage behind her. But she was a girl rather than a woman, at least in the sense that she was nobody’s idea of a glamorous sophisticated leading lady. She wasn’t tall and slim and elegant, but a bit pudgy and gauche, and hard to cast. Yet she had a natural presence that caught the eye and won the heart of the British playwright J Hartley Manners.

Incidentally, don’t you think “J Hartley Manners” is the perfect name for a writer of drawing-room comedies? I remember hearing of him as a boy and envying the moniker. If he weren’t writing drawing-room comedies, he’d almost certainly be a character in them, making up a four for tennis.

At any rate, J Hartley Manners was smitten by Miss Taylor. He was an older man, and so to him she was indubitably girlish, and he determined to write a play showing off everything he loved about Laurette. It was about an American girl of Irish extraction – just like Laurette. And off the poor wee colleen goes to England and falls among a stuffy upper-class family called the Chichesters. She prefers Jerry, the likeable country farmer next door:

JERRY: Were you born in New York?

PEG: Yes, I was.

JERRY: By way of Old Ireland?

PEG: How did you guess that?

JERRY: Your slight but delightful accent.

PEG: Well, I was much too polite to say anything, but I was thinking you had an accent.

Fortunately Jerry turns out to be a baronet – Sir Gerald. So happy endings all round.

No New York producer evinced a shred of interest in staging Manners’ love-letter in three acts to his sweetheart, so they wound up opening it about as far off-Broadway as you can get, at the Burbank Theatre in Los Angeles. Peg o’ My Heart was a phenomenon, and ran and ran: It was the most successful play anyone had ever produced in California, and it seemed to render the imprimatur of the Great White Way entirely unnecessary. By the time they made it to Broadway, to the Cort Theatre, Mr Manners and Miss Taylor were man and wife …and pooch. As replacement for a suddenly deceased pet, Laurette had gone to the local pound and been taken by an unwanted dog due to be put down the next day. The new household addition was pressed into service and played the role of Peg’s beloved Irish terrier Michael on stage every night. He was a bit of a ham when it came to his nightly curtain call. As Miss Taylor’s daughter, Marguerite Courtney, wrote:

Entering downstage left, he made a circuit of the stage at a brisk canter, exiting through the garden door upstage right. Invariably as he came flush with the footlights he rolled a laughing, roguish eye in the direction of the audience which won him a crescendo of applause.

In Los Angeles, New York, London, on tours near and far, and back on Broadway for a 1921 revival that ran even longer than the original, Laurette Taylor played 1,107 performances in Peg O’ My Heart, and so did her Irish terrier. She never missed a show, and nor did he. It was not a great play but it was a perfect vehicle. J Hartley Manners took all the traits and quirks he loved about his Irish girl, and created a character that deployed them so effectively the world loved them, too. As Grace Kingsley marveled in The Los Angeles Times:

Everyone’s doing’ it – Peg and her charming little slouchy gait, and her dear little slovenly accent. What has become of the svelte figure that used to trip down Broadway? Gone. And in its place patters down-street a quaint little shape, slouching along with daintily drooping shoulders and softly shuffling slippers.

That’s all very well. But what if you get invited to a fancy party? Don’t make the mistake of letting the other girls out-Peg you:

Do you sit up nice and straight, and speak in a clear, ringing tone? Not by a long ways. You droop and wilt like a top-heavy lily, and talk in a soft little monotone with a thick tongue… And do you slick back your hair and roach it up neatly? No, sir, you scramble it… You wear a floppy hat so low that it looks like the cover to a dish. The more dejected and left-out-all-night you can make your hat look nowadays, the more fashionable you are.

Women wanted to be Peg. Men wanted to shove Sir Gerald aside and marry Peg. And men and women alike wanted their dogs to be called Michael.

Among those who went to see the play on Broadway was a Tin Pan Alleyman called Fred Fisher, whose very name has the plainspoken down-to-earth American solidity so lacking in an effete handle like J Hartley Manners. In fact, until a year or two earlier he had been Fred Fischer, and before that he was Alfred Breitenbach, born in Cologne in 1875. At the age of thirteen, Fred ran away to sea, and served with the Kaiser’s navy, doing a stint on an experimental U-boat. He then passed through the French Foreign Legion before washing up in America on a cattle ship in 1900. He worked his way inland to Chicago, where he took music lessons from a black pianist who made his living playing in the windy city’s saloons. Fred learned syncopation at a time when few other Europeans knew what it was and it gave him a head start in the music biz. Fischer (as he still was) started composing in 1904 and the following year founded his own publishing house in expectation of massive hits. The first one came a few months later: “If the Man in the Moon Were a Coon”. Back then, the two hottest genres in Tin Pan Alley were moon songs and “coon songs” (ie, “All Coons Look Alike to Me”, “Coon! Coon! Coon!”, “Every Race Has a Flag but the Coon”, etc). But, while cynics were already complaining about moon/June clichés, not until Fred Fischer showed up had anyone thought of combining moon songs and coon songs into one boffo category-smashing blockbuster. He sold three million copies. My old sheet music bills it as “A Combination of Classical Music and Comical Words”, which is a stretch on both counts.

“If the Man in the Moon were a Coon” is of strictly sociological interest these days, it’s pretty darn assimilated for a guy from Cologne who’d only got off the boat five years earlier. For the rest of his life, Fred Fisher retained enough of a Teutonic accent that, as his daughter Doris told me, he pronounced “love” to rhyme not with “stars above” and “turtle dove” but “enough”. Yet he certainly understood his market. You’re surprised that, having scored big with one ethnic novelty song, he didn’t follow it with “If the Man in the Sun were a Hun”. Instead, over the next three and a half decades, he prospered in just about every genre: Irish mother songs (“Ireland Must Be Heaven for My Mother Came from There”), substitute mother songs (“Daddy, You’ve Been a Mother to Me”), technological cutting-edge love ballads (“Come, Josephine, in My Flying Machine”). He composed songs about pedal extremities (“Your Feet’s Too Big”), songs about railroad excursions through mining country (“Phoebe Snow the Anthracite Mama”), and songs of sound general philosophy (“There’s a Little Bit of Bad in Every Good Little Girl”). Fred Fisher was a German who wrote anti-German love ballads of World War One (“Lorraine, My Beautiful Alsace Lorraine”), an immigrant who wrote anti-immigrant songs of World War Two (“If you don’t like the way our country is run… Go Back Over There”), and a proud patriot whatever the conflict (“Would You Rather Be a Colonel with an Eagle on Your Arm or a Private With A Chicken On Your Knee?”). And he wrote both words and music for a helluva place song to the first place in America he’d gotten to know: Chicago. Oddly no writer had managed to come up with a serenade to the windy city that stuck. But in 1922 Fisher sealed the deal: “Chicago” captures the spirit of that toddlin’ town in the Jazz Age, and yet has outlasted its age by almost ninety years. It’s a great explosive musical jolt with a lyric written in pure American.

And, as we’ll see, for a German he especially enjoyed writing Irish songs.

The lyrics for some of his biggest hits came from another foreigner: Alfred Bryan, born in 1871 in Brantford, Ontario. Bryan was a lyricist brimming with ideas, some good (“Brown Eyes, Why Are You Blue?”), some not so (“The Irish Were Egyptians Long Ago”). But on his game he was very effective. Their first hit together was “Come, Josephine, in My Flying Machine”, which I seem to recall Fisher’s daughter Doris telling me was inspired by the International Air Meet in Los Angeles in 1910. It was not only the first major air show to be held in the United States but one of the biggest events that had ever taken place in the American West. Over a quarter-million people turned out in what was then a very lightly populated part of the country. To a couple of savvy Tin Pan Alleymen, there appeared to be no limit to the appeal of “flying machines”. Clearly, this was no passing fad. All it needed was a popular song to match.

Two years later they were still looking for a follow-up. And then Fred Fisher went to see Laurette Taylor in J Hartley Manners’ hit play.

The composer was so taken by the spunky little colleen that the muse descended – as did the thought that the Peg phenomenon had every conceivable merchandising tie-in except a hit song. So he sat down and wrote a beguiling tune to which Al Bryan fixed a suitably shamrock-hued lyric. The directness is hard to resist:

Peg O’ My Heart
I love you
We’ll never part
I love you…

It’s as melodically simple as you could devise: The stepwise ascent on the title phrase, and the descent on “I love you”; cranking it up a tone on “We’ll never part” (a tone and a half on “part” to underline the great aching unbearableness of the very idea), and then once more that warm, reassuring descent on “I love you”…

If anything, Al Bryan’s lyric is a little too face-down in the Guinness:

Dear little girl
Sweet little girl
Sweeter than the rose of Erin
Are your winnin’ smiles endearin

Speaking as an Oirishman meself, I’m not sure that couplet quite rhymes even in fully fluent blarney. I’ve heard it sung with an alternate that, sure and begorrah, rhymes just ever so slightly more plausibly:

Sweeter than the rose of Erin
It’s the shamrock we’ll be sharin’…

But Bryan wasn’t done yet:

Peg O’ My Heart
Your glances
With Irish art
Entrance us
Come be my own
Come make your home
In my heart…

I assume Bryan intended “glances” and “entrance us” to rhyme in Irish, but “own” and “home” doesn’t even meet that highly elastic standard.

Nevertheless, by now the producers of Peg O’ My Heart had announced a competition to write a song inspired by the heartwarming tale. Whatever the charms of their rivals, Fisher and Bryan’s smiles endearin’ and Irish art entrancin’ waltzed off with the winner’s trophy and a check for one thousand dollars, which was not to be sneezed at in 1913. On the sheet music they dedicated it to Miss Taylor and her “wonderful character”, and then they licensed it to Flo Ziegfeld for that year’s Ziegfeld Follies, where it was introduced by Jose Collins. Jose Collins was not America’s first Hispanic heartthrob, but an Englishwoman (Jose as in Josephine), born out of wedlock to Lottie Collins, the great London music-hall star who introduced “Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay”. Charles Harrison, one of those R-rolling tenors of the day, made a record of “Peg O’ My Heart” – actually, he sang it as “Peg Of My Hearrrrrt” and made no effort to rhyme “Erin” and “endearin'”, although he did at least drop the “g”:

It did well enough but it was basically two short choruses punctuated by two long introductory verses that I’ve always found a dreary trudge compared to that endearin’ refrain.

So the song wasn’t quite as big as one might have expected from a surefire cash-in on a blockbuster phenomenon. The following year, the European empires went to war, and Al Bryan had a far bigger hit than “Peg” with an isolationist America’s big pacifist anthem:

There’d be no war today
If mothers all would say
I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier.

“It took guts to write that in 1915,” my old friend Irving Caesar, writer of “Swanee”, “Tea For Two” and “Just A Gigolo”, told me many decades later. We were deep in conversation about Caesar’s low opinion of rock “protest” writers, and there was something faintly surreal about listening to a nonagenarian arguing that the anti-Great War peacenik hippies were way better than those Vietnam deadbeats.

While Bryan was cashing in on isolationism, Laurette Taylor and Hartley Manners were in London. They’d arrived in England for the West End run of Peg a few weeks before war was declared. The play ran a year-and-a-half and was a big favorite of British Tommies on leave from the front. Back in France, hundreds of them sent letters care of the theatre to Peg, as if she were their own sweetheart. In later life, Laurette would burn almost all her papers – but she kept all those “Dear Peg” letters, addressed to a girl who didn’t exist from soldiers far away in a too real living hell, until the day she died.

After the war Miss Taylor starred in King Vidor’s silent film of Peg o’ My Heart. J Hartley Manners kept trying to write a second Peg for his wife, but that kind of blazing-across-the-heavens lightning doesn’t strike twice. Laurette’s most significant post-war contribution to the theatre came after she and Hartley hosted their friend Noël Coward for a weekend. He went home and wrote (in three days) a comedy of manners that was also a thinly disguised comedy of Mr and Mrs Manners. The success of Hay Fever came at the price of the Manners/Coward friendship.

In 1928, a week before Christmas, Hartley Manners died of esophageal cancer – and a devastated Laurette went on the world’s almightiest bender, for ten years – or, as she described it, “the longest wake in history”. By the time she came out of it, she was bankrupt and either forgotten or assumed by those who dimly recalled her name to be long dead. In 1945, a third of a century after the premiere of Peg, Laurette Taylor was cast as Amanda Wingfield in the Broadway premiere of Tennessee Williams’ Glass Menagerie. Almost every theatre professional who saw it ranks it as the single greatest acting performance of all time: Martin Landau says so, and Ben Gazzara and Uta Hagen and Charles Durning, as does Fred Ebb, later the lyricist of Chicago, Cabaret and “New York, New York”, who as a young man went to see Miss Taylor in Williams’ play seven times. It was a spectacular comeback, and a very belated happy ending for a Peg with a heart hardened by life’s vicissitudes.

Two years later, the ancient song inspired by her first hit play made its own magnificent comeback, with three different Number One records in that summer of 1947. And somewhere between the original pre-World War One Ziegfeld Follies and the post-World War Two Billboard Top 40 the lyric had managed to lose all those precarious pseudo-Irish rhymes. Instead of “endearin'” all over “Erin” there was this:

Since I heard your liltin’ laughter
It’s your Irish heart I’m after…

It’s the perfect couplet for Fisher’s cavalcade of quavers: it lilts as the tune does. Likewise that “Irish art” and its alleged entrancing bit the dust. The “glances” remained, but with a rhyme that actually rhymes, and is awfully hard to resist:

Peg O’ My Heart
Your glances
Make my heart say
How’s chances?

“How’s chances?” That’s just deliciously casual, worthy of Frank Loesser. Who wrote the new line? Al Bryan? Maybe. He was still around in 1947, although not terribly active. But it doesn’t sound like him – or, indeed, like the lovestruck swain eyeing Peg on Broadway in 1913. It’s more like some breezy Irish chancer spotting someone across a barroom and figuring what’s he got to lose.

Whatever the origins of these 1947 modifications, they stuck. All that liltin’ laughter and the Irish heart I’m after is the folio of “Peg” that survived through to Dennis Potter’s “Singing Detective”, for which the song served as a theme tune in the Eighties, to the induction of the Harmonicats’ recording into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999, and down to Bruce Springsteen and the Dropkick Murphys today.

In part because of The Glass Menagerie, Miss Taylor’s first hit gets more attention than most other dusty forgotten star vehicles from before the Great War can command. The thinking seems to be that, if she was that good in Tennessee Williams, there must be something she saw in J Hartley Manners that was that good, too. In the Eighties, there was a West End musical version by David Heneker, the British composer/lyricist whose hit Half A Sixpence is currently enjoying a smash revival in London. Heneker’s adaptation was called simply Peg, but for all the charms of his new songs he had to face the fact that every theatregoer expected to hear someone sing “Peg O’ My Heart”. So they interpolated the old number, and, as the BBC’s Benny Green remarked rather cruelly, the production couldn’t get beyond the awkward reality that far and away the best song in the show was the only one Heneker didn’t write. More recently they tried again, this time in New York, at the Irish Repertory Theatre in 2003. As before, the producers concluded that everyone expected to hear “Peg O’ My Heart”, so Charlotte Moore, the author and artistic director of the Irish Rep, wrote a new song with that title. Not a smart move. Instead of Irish hearts and liltin’ laughter:

I thought love was an illusion
I resisted from the start
Now I see a new conclusion
When I look at you…

Which is generic pap with clunky contrived rhymes that only reminds you how at their best hack Alleymen can have a greater aesthetic sensibility than self-proclaimed artists.

Neither the composer nor the lady that inspired the song lived to see “Peg O’ My Heart”‘s hat-trick of Number One records in that golden year of 1947. Laurette Taylor died in 1946, barely a year after her triumphant return to Broadway. As for Fred Fisher, in 1942, after three years of cancer and five painful operations, he hanged himself. That week in America, he was on the Hit Parade with “Whispering Grass”, written with his daughter Doris. A third of a century later, in 1975, the same song was Number One in Britain. He bequeathed the world not only his own catalogue but an entire family of songwriters: His son Dan wrote “Good Morning, Heartache” for Billie and Ella (and Natalie Cole and Gladys Knight et al). Dan’s brother Marvin wrote “When Sunny Gets Blue” for Johnny Mathis and Nat “King” Cole, and “Destination Moon” for Dinah Washington. And their sister Doris wrote “You Always Hurt The One You Love”, “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall” and many more. When some Eighties rocker revived “That Old Devil Called Love”. Miss Fisher was happy to see the uptick in royalties, but, when I asked whether this heralded a return to the good old days, she snorted: “Ha! They always say that, every time there’s an exception to the rule. But that’s all it is.”

That’s true. But the exceptions are awfully good. And maybe one day Bruce Springsteen and the Dropkick Murphys will try those seventy-five-year-old lyrics they like with Fred Fisher’s lovely indestructible 110-year-old tune, as endearin’ as Erin:

Peg O’ My Heart
Your glances
Make my heart say
How’s chances?

Pretty good.

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