Uncle Chris said, “Go up to the attic.” This was at a brother-in-law’s funeral, in 1992.
He also told the niece he was talking to, Liz Roman Gallese, a documentary filmmaker and the daughter of the man who had just been buried: “You’ll see. They changed the quarter notes to eighth notes, that’s all.”
She did not follow Uncle Chris’ instructions until years later, but when she finally went through her father’s things, she discovered tantalizing clues that appeared to back up one of those improbable family stories: Her father, not Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, had written the endearing, enduring standard “Blue Moon.” Letters she found indicated he dashed it off in late 1930 or early 1931. Her father, Edward W. Roman, was 17 years old then and lived in Troy, New York, across the Hudson River from Albany.
“Blue Moon” is one of those heart-rending songs that was recorded by everyone from Mel Tormé to Ella Fitzgerald.
There is a subdued Elvis Presley version.
And there is a doo-wop group called the Marcels that rode up the charts with a high-energy take on “Blue Moon” in the early 1960s.
The story told in the family when Gallese, 70, was growing up was that her father had sold the song for $900 to buy a car, or maybe that he had “settled” with the rich and famous Rodgers and Hart for that amount. Either way, there was a car. Gallese found a snapshot of it that showed her father standing by the passenger-side door. She thinks it was a DeSoto, because the word in the family was that he had one. And the early DeSotos looked like the car in the photo.
Gallese — after talking to yet another uncle, Uncle Dom — concluded that he did not end up with $900, but $1,200. But she had been convinced about the story long before that.
“My father wrote ‘Blue Moon,’ ” she announced in her freshman dormitory at Skidmore College in 1965. She was remembering the one and only exchange about “Blue Moon” that she ever had with him, a conversation when she was 9 or 10, or maybe 11.
“You wrote ‘Blue Moon,’ didn’t you?” she asked.
She recalled that he did not say no, but he did not say yes, either. His reply was, “Who told you that?”
She said she “mumbled something about having heard the stories.”
He then told the story his way: He would go speed-skate racing on a frozen pond — he still had the skates when Gallese was a child, and he often took her and a sister skating with a cousin. That night in 1930 or 1931, he said, “the moon reflected blue on the ice.” She said he formed a circle with his hands, like the moon.
That was it, the end of the story. He said nothing about Rodgers, Hart, a Tin Pan Alley go-between or a lawsuit.
Uncle Dom said that Rodgers and Hart had called Roman offering to settle for $1,200. As Gallese pieced the story together, Roman took the money but did not tell Uncle Chris, who became furious when he heard that “Blue Moon” had rung up $75,000 worth of sheet music sales in the first year after it was published, with Rodgers and Hart listed in the credits.
Gallese said that her father had sent his version of the song to a Manhattan music broker who offered to represent him. Back came a contract, but her father never signed it. “They continued to write to me at intervals, sending me contracts to fill out and make them my agent,” her father said, according to a 1936 newspaper article about the lawsuit he eventually filed.
The newspaper article, from the long-gone Knickerbocker Press in Albany, said the lawsuit had named Rodgers and Hart, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the Robbins Music Corp. and Jack Mahoney, who Gallese said was the person who had sent the contracts her father never returned.
The article said Roman figured that he had forfeited his rights by the time the song turned up on the radio, but filed suit after being advised otherwise.
She found the letter from Mahoney, with the contract, proposing to represent Roman and handle the song. It was dated Jan. 12, 1932, a year and a half before the first MGM copyright on an unpublished song with the “Blue Moon” melody.
She said she assumed that Mahoney sent the song to MGM; that someone there “foisted it” on Rodgers and Hart; and that Jack Robbins, who ran MGM’s music-publishing unit, saw potential in the melody a little later on.
What to make of Gallese’s story?
“This is news to me,” said Ted Chapin, chief creative officer of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, who added, after hearing more of Gallese’s story, that it seemed “a little far-fetched.” Robert Kimball, who edited “The Complete Lyrics of Lorenz Hart” with Hart’s sister-in-law Dorothy, went a step further, saying, “I don’t believe ‘Blue Moon’ was written by someone other than Rodgers and Hart.”
Chapin pointed to a section in the 1976 book “Thou Swell, Thou Witty: The Life and Lyrics of Lorenz Hart,” by Hart. “Larry and Dick,” she wrote, referring to Hart and Rodgers, “never believed in letting a song go to waste,” adding that “no Rodgers and Hart tune ever led as many lives as the one that finally became ‘Blue Moon.’”
She then quoted Rodgers, who died in 1979, as tracing the song’s origins to the months between December 1932 and April 1933 when he and Hart worked at MGM. He said they wrote the song when a producer had the idea for a movie called “Hollywood Party” as a vehicle for Jean Harlow.
“Hollywood Party” was not made, but Rodgers said that Hart kept the melody and wrote new lyrics for another movie, “Manhattan Melodrama.” That second version was dropped too, but Hart churned out yet another set of lyrics that made it in, with the title “The Bad in Ev’ry Man.” (Hart biographer Gary Marmorstein added a footnote: “The Bad in Ev’ry Man” was the last song that gangster John Dillinger ever heard. He was strolling out of a theater when he was gunned down by FBI agents. The movie he had just seen was “Manhattan Melodrama.”)
By July 1933, Rodgers and Hart had moved to Paramount, but Robbins, the MGM music publisher, sent them a telegram asking for a more commercial lyric to go with the melody.
Rodgers said in “Thou Swell, Thou Witty” that the new lyric was written “sometime in the next three months” and that Robbins “personally suggested changes in the last three lines of the chorus.”
Gallese said she was well aware that there was a missing link in her story — how the song got from Mahoney to Hollywood. But that is the nature of a mystery.
“And who knows if he sent it to other people first?” she asked.