My Search for Dorothy Rodgers

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Every writer has his muse, and I’m not talking about some anonymous angel from heaven who comes down to hover over your shoulder and offer gentle encouragement. I’m talking about a real-life person who, for some reason, you can’t get out of your mind. An obsession develops; you examine every facet of the person’s life, […]


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Every writer has his muse, and I’m not talking about some anonymous angel from heaven who comes down to hover over your shoulder and offer gentle encouragement. I’m talking about a real-life person who, for some reason, you can’t get out of your mind. An obsession develops; you examine every facet of the person’s life, and in those facets you see human nature illuminated, both the good and the bad. Orson Welles had William Randolph Hearst, Dominick Dunne had O.J. Simpson. And I have Dorothy Rodgers.

The fact that you have no idea whom I’m talking about would have driven Dorothy crazy. She was the wife of Richard Rodgers, the composer of Oklahoma!, South Pacific, Carousel, and many more. He was Mr. Broadway, Mr. Beloved Composer. And she was his wife. It was a role she played to the hilt. You’ve heard of the Perfect Hostess-well, Dorothy took the part and ran with it, in ways both comic and tragic.

I don’t remember exactly when I first took real notice of Dorothy, but I do remember it was at a garage sale. She was not there in person, of course, but her book was. It was titled My Favorite Things, and it was a coffee-table volume, a book you might have bought as a present for your aunt when imagination utterly failed. In My Favorite Things (a reference to the song from The Sound of Music), Dorothy offers tips on decorating and entertaining. It must have sold in the millions when it was published in 1964. You still see it a lot where used books are sold, usually on the tables that say "25 Cents Each," but sometimes on the ones that say-poor, poor Dorothy-"Free. Take ‘em away. Please!"

I’d thumbed through it before and wasn’t much impressed. The rooms Dorothy had decorated were cold and unattractive. The recipes she offered were not to my taste. But something about the prose began to interest me. So many details, so many dicta, so much false modesty. This person was revealing herself to the reader more completely than she realized. Like the part about decorating a man’s bedroom. It became clear that Dorothy considered it the natural order of things that a married couple should have separate bedrooms. And the man’s had to look "masculine."

I paid my quarter and took the book home.

It was a fascinating read. Though I’m sure it was ghost-written, a very strong, almost overwhelming personality comes through. This woman rules her roost with an iron hand, that much was clear. One pities her husband and two daughters. She speaks more lovingly of her servants than of her family. But then, the servants she could replace.

But what comes through even louder is her obsessive personality disorder. She had several complete sets of maids’ aprons, in case the caterers’ aprons didn’t match those of her own servants. This way, everybody would wear the same apron-and think how much nicer that would look.

Her big dream in life was, revealingly, a new freezer. So clinical was her approach to life that instead of having fun in the kitchen, she treated it like an operating room. Recipes were prepared according to strict rules, under bright fluorescent lights. Then, rather than serve the dishes to her loved ones, she placed them in the freezer.

Why on earth did she write this book, I began to wonder. Who could its market be? Middle-class housewives don’t live like this. Her advice on how to run a life involving a big-city apartment, a bigger country home, dinner parties for celebrities, and flowers that complement your new Vlaminck painting has a remarkably limited audience, and women who face the same problems want to do it their own way. So, for whom did Dorothy write her book?

Then it occurred to me-she wrote it for herself. No one else was putting the spotlight on her, so she’d do it herself. Look at me, she was saying. I do such wonderful things. I’m so organized and efficient. Pay attention!

My Favorite Things was much more than a coffee-table book. It was a cry for help.

Several years later, I met Dorothy Rodgers. I was working for the New York State Council on the Arts and Dorothy was a member. I was thrilled. I certainly didn’t take the job to be near her, but she was a wonderful plus, like a really good dental plan.

She was a thin, willowy woman, with an oval face and a rather pointed chin. Her hair, parted in the middle, was usually pulled back in a chignon. Her clothes were perfect, but so simple and understated that I can’t recall a single outfit. I do recall her glasses, however. They had smoky brown lenses, and they made her skin look sallow. I couldn’t figure why she wore them until it occurred to me that vanity may have been at work. As long as they had dark lenses, they really weren’t glasses at all. They were "sunglasses" she just happened to be wearing indoors.

Surprisingly, Dorothy was very quiet during council meetings. The only time I remember her saying anything, she pointed out, rather proudly, a mistake in addition that she had discovered in some report.

I grilled the more gossip-prone staff members for Dorothy stories. The most interesting was how a certain handsome young man, a famous opportunist of the time, was trying to charm her into channeling the Rodgers millions into a scheme involving a new museum, which he, of course, would design and run. It came to naught, and the young man eventually found an even better mark. He made a brilliant marriage and is now at the pinnacle of New York society.

But something about the situation gripped me. My comfortably widowed and highly respected muse was suddenly flirting with danger. This was exciting. I began to play around with Dorothy and the young man in my mind. I imagined their motives. I plotted their strategies. I chose their secret weaknesses. The result was a novel titled Love Junkie, published in 1993. The heroine was a middle-aged housewife named Mimi Smithers. She was not rich, she was not married to a famous man, but in her soul she was Dorothy Rodgers.

But one of the sad things about being a muse is that, when your work is done, you’re dropped like a used hankie. I’m currently finding inspiration in the life of Beyonce Knowles, and Dorothy has rarely crossed my mind.

Until recently, when I read a book about Richard Rodgers: Somewhere for Me by Meryle Secrest. The good news-for me, anyway-is that I hit the nail right on the head. Dorothy was as controlling and driven as I suspected. Her friends remember her as manic, rigid, selfish, homophobic, a bad parent: the verdict is brutal. Her two daughters have spent years in therapy coming to terms with what they feel she did to them, and they don’t hesitate to say so in public. Stephen Sondheim calls her "one of the real monsters of the world."

Yikes. My Dorothy a monster?

But the bad news is that if I got her personality right, her life was much sadder than I imagined. Her perfect marriage was anything but. True, in its early stages, during the 1920s and ’30s, she and her husband lived a glamorous life as a sort of B-list Scott and Zelda. But later, when Rodgers was at the height of his creative genius (Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I), a pattern set in. They were both trapped, he with a woman who had made his life a straitjacket of gracious living and she with an uncommunicative overachiever who cared only for his work.

They both began to seek refuge elsewhere. He took the classic masculine route: chorus girls (in his case, literally) and drink; she, the classic feminine: prescription drugs and decorating. They became adept at torturing each other, like George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Yet, with all the mean things people have to say about Dorothy, a grudging admiration does come through. People marveled at her energy, her resourcefulness, her keen mind. And on one subject a wholehearted appreciation was felt: her invention of the Jonny Mop. Yes, she came up with the idea for a disposable toilet mop and sold the patent to Johnson & Johnson. It’s an odd defining moment for a person’s life, to be sure. But still, one fraught with metaphoric significance-and perfect comic timing.

In 1968, Dorothy wrote another book, The House in My Head, and in it she recounts the creation of what she had hoped would be her masterpiece. She would build the ultimate house, design all its systems for living, plan it perfectly, decorate it beautifully, and then document it all in another coffee-table book.

Like all classic drama, The House in My Head begins with an act of hubris. Unknowingly, Dorothy finally goes too far. She forces her family out of their beloved 18th-century Colonial and into a cold, antiseptic contemporary with all the charm of a suburban bank. The endless hours of planning the air-conditioning and heating systems backfire when they are hooked up in reverse. The mistake takes ages to fix, and the utility bills are still outrageous. With 8,000 square feet on a single level, the house turns a walk from one end to the other into a hike. Friends offer polite compliments, but it is clear that no one likes it. And then, one autumn afternoon, as the house is nearing completion, Dorothy, rushing to present the painter with the color she has finally chosen for the living room, slips on the brand-new pavement and breaks her knee.

All his life, Richard Rodgers searched for women whose stories were grand enough and emotional enough for a Broadway musical. And he found some great ones. Nellie Forbush in South Pacific, Anna Leonowens in The King and I, Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music. But he missed the drama right in front of his eyes.

For all her faults, Dorothy Rodgers’ life had an epic feminine grandeur. Her story is the story of every woman who strives to be the Perfect Wife and what it costs her in self-esteem and unspoken suffering. And if you think hers is a dying breed, some leftover from the 20th century, just look at Hillary Clinton-or Laura Bush.

What did Dorothy want? I can only imagine that it was that eternal female "more." All women seem to want it, even if they can’t quite put their finger on what it is. And, as sad as her life was, I don’t see it as a failure. It was a triumph of the will.

Of course, lying there with a broken knee, with everybody hating your new house and your husband off with a chorus girl-I doubt Dorothy felt all that triumphant. But what an 11 o’clock number that would have made, the glorious climax of a big Broadway musical.

I can only hope that Dorothy’s days as a muse are not yet over.