Fran Landesman (Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most) Lyricist, Dies At 83

New York Times
August 1, 2011
Fran Landesman, Lyricist With a Bittersweet Edge, Dies at 83

Jack Kerouac played bongos outside her window and tried to date her. She turned a T. S. Eliot poem into a song sung by Ella Fitzgerald and Barbra Streisand. Bette Davis memorized one of her poems.

Fran Landesman made her life into an art form – not least because of the exuberantly public extramarital sex life she delighted in sharing with London tabloids. But her lasting footprint was the mordant, biting, yet strangely tender lyrics she used to chronicle the world’s lovers, lunatics and losers.

Her song “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men” – whom she described as “drifting through the town, drinking up the night, trying not to drown” – was recorded by Roberta Flack, Petula Clark, Rickie Lee Jones and, in an instrumental version, the pianist Keith Jarrett. With music by Tommy Wolf, it became a jazz standard.

Another song she wrote that became a standard – but, like “Sad Young Men,” never a hit – was “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.” It sprang from Ms. Landesman’s asking jazz musicians to put T. S. Eliot’s phrase “April is the cruelest month” into their own words. Its music was also composed by Wolf. Bette Midler and Sarah Vaughan were among the many who sang it.

Ms. Landesman also published five volumes of poetry, some of it raw. The poem Bette Davis memorized, “Life’s a Bitch” contains the line “First love makes you itch, then it dishes you the dirt.”

Ms. Landesman died on July 23 at her home in London at 83. Her death was announced on her official Web site. She left an epitaph, something she said on more than one occasion: “It was a good life, but it wasn’t commercial.”

Frances Deitsch was born in Manhattan on Oct. 21, 1927, attended Temple University and the Fashion Institute of Technology, and fell in with the group that came to be called the Beat generation. She thought Kerouac was “the best-looking man I’ve ever seen,” and the feeling seemed mutual. He and Allen Ginsberg serenaded her with bongos. “Be my girlfriend, I’m so lonely,” Kerouac pleaded.

But she ended up marrying Jay Landesman, who published Neurotica, a magazine that gave the Beats a platform while seeking to explore America’s “inner darkness.” “He’ll make a good first husband,” she decided.

They were wed for 61 years; Mr. Landesman died at 91 in February. They had a remarkably open marriage in which each brought partners home to sleep in separate bedrooms. Everyone then had breakfast together. Their teenage sons, Cosmo and Miles, were appalled.

In his 2008 book, “Starstruck: Fame, Failure, My Family and Me,” Cosmo Landesman wrote: “The thing that upset me the most was their dress and appearance. I can remember when I thought of having them committed to the Institute for the Criminally Dressed. It was parents’ day at school. They arrived looking like two hippies who had failed the audition for the musical ”˜Hair.’ ”

Soon after marrying, the couple moved to Mr. Landesman’s native St. Louis and started a nightclub that became one of the hippest in the Midwest. Called the Crystal Palace, it booked performers like Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand and Lenny Bruce – who, she liked to recall, once urged her to leave her husband and run off with him: “Let’s you and me go on the road and send him a little money every month.”

The Landesmans collaborated with Wolf on a musical called “The Nervous Set” as a vehicle for Ms. Landesman’s lyrics. It was a smash in St. Louis, then flopped on Broadway. They moved to London, where Ms. Landesman continued her career as a lyricist, singer and poet. (Mr. Landesman wrote, founded a publishing company and managed the career of a kung fu stripper.)

Since the mid-1990s, Ms. Landesman, who is survived by her sons, collaborated with the composer and pianist Simon Wallace on some 300 songs and kept performing.

Last March, the singer Shepley Metcalf performed Ms. Landesman’s songs in Manhattan. The New York Times critic Stephen Holden likened the lyricist to “a cranky, jazz-steeped Beat Generation Dorothy Parker.”

He continued, “In those days of hanging out in bars into the wee small hours, dragging home strangers whom you can’t remember the next morning and generally acting in the name of hip, dissipation was a competitive urban sport and Ms. Landesman one of its champion chroniclers.”

But she long ago gave up the sport herself. “When you reach 60 – forget it,” she said in 1998. “I think it’s unattractive after that.”

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