Fields, Dorothy (1904–1974)

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Fields, Dorothy (1904–1974)

American lyricist for stage and screen who was the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Song. Born on July 15, 1904 (some sources cite 1905) in Allenhurst, New Jersey; died on March 28, 1974, after suffering a stroke at her home in New York City; daughter of Lew Fields (Lewis Maurice Schanfield) and Rose (Harris) Fields; sister of Herbert Fields, a librettist (1898–1958), Joseph Fields, a playwright, producer and director, and Frances Fields Friedlander ; graduated from the Benjamin School for Girls in New York; married Jack J. Weiner (a surgeon), in 1925 (divorced 1932); married Eli Lahm (a blouse manufacturer), in 1939; children: (second marriage) David Lahm (b. 1940); Eliza Lahm (b. 1944).

Awards and honors:

Academy Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for "The Way You Look Tonight" from Swing Time (1936); Screen Writers Guild Award for Annie Get Your Gun with Herbert Fields (1950); Tony Award for best lyrics for Redhead (1959); first woman elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Filmography—worked as lyricist, screenwriter, or storywriter on the following:

The Time, the Place, and the Girl (1929); Love in the Rough (1930); Dance Fools Dance (1931); Cuban Love Song (1931); Meet the Baron (1933); Dancing Lady (1933); Roberta (1935), Hooray for Love (1935); Every Night at Eight (1935); I Dream Too Much (1935); In Person (1935); The King Steps Out (1936); Swing Time (1936); When You're in Love (1937); The Joy of Living (1938); One Night in the Tropics (1940); Father Takes a Wife (1941); Let's Face It (1943); Something for the Boys (1944); Up in Central Park (1948); Mexican Hayride (1948); Annie Get Your Gun (1950); Excuse My Dust (1951); Mr. Imperium (1951); Texas Carnival (1951); Lovely to Look At (1952); The Farmer Takes a Wife (1952); Sweet Charity (1969).

Author of such standards as "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "The Way You Look Tonight," and "I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby," Dorothy Fields first made her mark in the mid-1920s. It was a pivotal time when musicals were evolving from naughty revues into plot-centered musical plays, such as Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's 1927 Show Boat, based on the novel by Edna Ferber . Dorothy's mother was Rose Harris Fields . Her father Lew Fields was a legendary vaudeville and music-hall performer and half of the team of (Joseph) Weber and Fields. Soon after Dorothy, his youngest child, was born, Lew became a Broadway producer and starred in many of his own shows. He and Rose, who had both been raised on the Lower East Side, the children of Polish immigrants, urged their children to avoid show business and find "real" careers. With laughter, Dorothy recalled her mother saying, "You children must be extra polite to strangers because your father is an actor." However, Dorothy's elder sister Frances was the only one of the siblings to avoid working in the theater. Older brother Joseph became a playwright while Herbert became a noted librettist. Family friends were drawn from the worlds of celebrity and show business. At seven, Dorothy was the flower girl when actress Lillian Russell married Colonel Alexander Moore, an industrialist. While pasting reviews into her father's scrapbooks, Dorothy became interested in what critics said about the plays themselves. She observed that a good story was essential, no matter how strong the acting, and never forgot this insight.

As a schoolgirl in New York, Fields occupied her spare time writing poetry and playing the piano. She considered becoming an actress and tried out for stock company, but her father dissuaded her. Her brother Herbert, meanwhile, was writing songs with Lorenz Hart and Fields' high-school sweetheart Richard Rodgers. Together the three of them put on amateur musicals and adapted their production of If I Were King, a romance about the poet François Villon, for Dorothy's annual high-school benefit. Starring as Villon, Dorothy made her debut in a Broadway theater on March 25, 1922.

Fields took a job teaching dramatic art at her alma mater, the Benjamin School for Girls, but her greatest enthusiasm was for writing lyrics. Then she met J. Fred Coots, later the composer of "For All We Know," "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," and "You Go to My Head," at a Long Island country club; he encouraged her and introduced her to music publishers. Shy and timid despite her expensive clothes, Fields made the rounds of seedy "Tin Pan Alley." The publishers thought she had talent but wanted to know why she didn't persuade her father to help her. When word of her rounds reached Lew Fields, he phoned the publishers and told them to throw his daughter out of their offices.

One, however, asked her to write a song for Ruth Elder who was about to fly across the Atlantic. Sure this event would make Elder a celebrity and that the song would be a hit, the publisher told Dorothy the song must begin: "You took a notion to fly across the ocean." Though Dorothy objected that one did not just take a notion to do such a thing, she wrote some lyrics. Elder did not make it, and neither did Dorothy's song.

Lew Fields' economic hardships—he faced bankruptcy and the family was forced to sell their town house—gave her an understanding of people who were down on their luck. The feeling she later demonstrated in "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby" and "If My Friends Could See Me Now" attests to her empathy. According to From the Bowery to Broadway, written by her cousins, Fields eloped with her fiancé Dr. Jack Weiner in 1925 to spare her father the expense of a wedding. She and her husband separated quickly, and Dorothy moved back home and began to establish her career. They divorced in 1932.

Fields had a great ear for contemporary speech idioms and was able to compress complex emotions into apt phrases, which helped her to portray character and plot through her lyrics. Jimmy McHugh asked her to write words for his song "Our American Girl" and paid her $50. Since she could write lyrics overnight, music publishers on Tin Pan Alley called her "the $50 a night girl." In 1927, when McHugh asked Fields to collaborate on some songs for The Cotton Club in Harlem, Lew Fields told Dorothy, "Ladies don't write lyrics." Dorothy countered, "I'm not a lady. I'm your daughter." On opening night, performers made her lyrics racier than those she had written, and both father and daughter were appalled. Lew, along with his friend the columnist Walter Winchell, forced the manager to announce that Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh had not written those words to the music after all. Then Lew again told her to get out of show business.

The Cotton Club numbers brought McHugh and Fields a chance to write for the Delmar Revue, however, for which they produced "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby," which Bert Lahr and Patsy Kelly performed. Initially, the song was not successful, but the team included it in their first Broadway show Blackbirds of 1928. Though critics called the song "sickening" and "puerile," its popularity with the audience made Blackbirds a hit that ran for 518 performances. In 1929, their International Revue included "Exactly Like You" and "On the Sunny Side of the Street."

As Fields continued to write single songs for revues, none of which had a plot, the lesson that she had learned from poring over her father's reviews stayed with her—songs had to advance the story line. "I'm not out to write popular song hits," she told writer Max Wilk, "though I've written songs that have become popular. I'm writing a song to fit a spot in the show, to fit a character, to express something about him or her, to move the story line forward."

I wrote "I Feel A Song Coming On," but anyone who tells you a song just comes on is wrong. It's slave labor—and I love it.

—Dorothy Fields

She began writing to fit plot lines when she and McHugh went to Hollywood to work first at MGM, where they produced Cuban Love Song. They then went over to RKO where Pandro Berman was producing the Ginger Rogers -Fred Astaire films. Rogers and Astaire were beginning work on the musical film Roberta, which was set in the world of Paris couturiers. Berman gave Fields a melody written by Jerome Kern and asked her to do a lyric that would both introduce a fashion show and be a love song as well. She came up with "Lovely to Look At," and RKO filmed it without Kern's approval. He must have liked it, however, because when RKO asked him to write the music for I Dream Too Much, with the singer Lily Pons , Kern asked Fields to collaborate. During the 1930s, a golden age for the Hollywood musical, Fields and Kern collaborated on other RKO productions, most notably Swing Time, again with Rogers and Astaire. To inspire them to write a song he could dance to, Astaire tapdanced around the room where they were working. The lively syncopated "Bojangles in Harlem" was the result. For that film, they also wrote "A Fine Romance" and "Pick Yourself Up." Uncharacteristically, Fields wrote the lyrics for those before Kern composed the music. "The Way You Look Tonight," also from Swing Time, earned Fields and Kern a 1936 Academy Award.

In 1938, she returned to New York to write Stars in Your Eyes with Arthur Schwartz for Broadway. Ethel Merman and Jimmy Durante starred and the young Jerome Robbins was in the chorus. Dorothy married Eli Lahm, a blouse manufacturer, in 1939. By that time, she had collaborated with her brother Herbert on many screenplays, including Riviera and Love Before Breakfast, both written in 1936. They also created Broadway musical-comedy librettos for Cole Porter, for such shows as Something for the Boys and Mexican Hayride.

At first it seemed that brother and sister might produce their best work with others. Herbert had written Fifty Million Frenchmen for Porter in 1929 and DuBarry Was a Lady, starring Merman and Lahr in 1939. The siblings first collaborated on a libretto for Broadway in 1941: Let's Face It! starred Danny Kaye, with music and lyrics by Cole Porter.

The two worked at Dorothy's home, either a succession of Manhattan apartments or her country house in Brewster, New York. In contrast to her brother, who was a bachelor, a Democrat, and an easy-going personality, Fields had a family, was a Republican, and was often intense. Tall and slender with chestnut hair and hazel eyes, she was an early riser and liked to write with a pencil and yellow pad on her bridge table. "I begin writing at 8:30 am and stop when the waste basket is full. By that time, I've had it," she said of her daily work schedule.

Fields worked until late afternoon, breaking only for noon-time soap operas. In the early years of World War II, the Fieldses explored the musical possibilities of the colorful, corrupt Boss Tweed era of the 1870s. They wrote a story of how one of the Tammany Hall swindles resulted in the creation of a beautiful park. One critic described Up in Central Park, for which Dorothy and Sigmund Romberg created the songs, as "quaint, colorful and spirited as a Currier and Ives print." The musical ran for 504 performances and was revived in the early 1950s.

Still more successful was their exploration of the dramatic possibilities of the Wild West. While working at the Stage Door Canteen in 1945, Fields heard an account of a decorated soldier who used his sharp-shooting skills to win prizes at Coney Island. Dorothy began thinking of the sharpshooter Annie Oakley and came up with Annie Get Your Gun, for which the Fields team wrote the book. Dorothy and Jerome Kern were to have collaborated on the songs, but when the latter died suddenly that year, Irving Berlin stepped in. In 12 days, he wrote five songs, including "There's No Business Like Show Business." Starring Ethel Merman, Annie Get Your Gun became one of the greatest musicals ever, running for 1,147 performances in New York and touring the U.S., Europe, and Australia. The Fieldses wrote film scripts for Up in Central Park, Mexican Hayride and Annie Get Your Gun (which starred Betty Hutton ), then returned to Broadway in 1950 with Arms and the Girl, starring Nanette Fabray .

Heroines dominated the Broadway stage of the 1950s and '60s. Fields wrote lyrics for many of them, notably A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and By the Beautiful Sea, both for Shirley Booth . Though her brother Herbert and her husband died in 1958, she was still able to finish the lyrics for the 1959 musical Redhead, a box-office success, starring Gwen Verdon , set in turn-of-the-century London. Redhead won six Tonys, including one for Dorothy.

Always working to be current, Fields joined with a talented trio of young men—the composer Cy Coleman, playwright Neil Simon, and choreographer Bob Fosse—to create the hit show Sweet Charity, starring Verdon in 1966. Although Fields had come of age personally and professionally in the late Flapper era, in the 1960s she produced lyrics like "Hey, Big Spender!," "Where Am I Going?" and "If They Could See Me Now," that reflected the sexually liberated world of contemporary New York. She and Coleman also teamed to produce the 1973 musical Seesaw, starring Michele Lee . It was Dorothy's ninth and final Broadway musical. On the evening of March 28, 1974, after attending a rehearsal for the road company of Seesaw, she had a stroke and died at her home in New York City.


American Songwriters. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1987.

Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1958.

Fields, Armond, and Marc L. Fields. From the Bowery to Broadway. NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary. Vol. IV. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980.

Tape recording of "Lyrics and Lyricists: An Evening With Dorothy Fields," April 9, 1973, at the YMHA in New York City.

Wilk, Max. They're Playing Our Song. NY: Atheneum, 1973.

Kathleen Brady , author of Lucille: The Life of Lucille Ball (Hyperion) and Ida Tarbell: Portrait of A Muckraker (University of Pittsburgh Press).