How the song ‘Manhattan’ is actually about Paignton, Devon. True story!

Story Behind the Song

The most cursory glance at Wikipedia or Google will not reveal the full story behind the song ‘Manhattan’, written by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart in 1925 and sung by, among others, Ella Fitzgerald and Lee Wiley. Originally intended for the revue ‘Golden Gaieties’, the song has grown to become a signature not only of Fitzgerald’ career, but also an evocative glimpse of 1920s New York society. However, the truth behind its composition is strange enough to be a subject for a comedy itself, and it is this that I shall concentrate on in this essay.
          The story of the lyricist Lorenz ‘Larry’ Hart – (for it is the lyrics of the song that I shall be concentrating on) – in its sadness, is a direct contrast to the sensitivity and humour of which his work is most remembered. Throughout his life he struggled with alcoholism and also the emotional turmoil of his homosexuality which, at the time, was not a socially accepted mode of living. At the same time he was enormously successful as a lyricist – his partnership with Richard Rogers – who wrote the music – resulted in such songs as Blue Moon, My Funny Valentine, The Lady is a Tramp and, of course, Manhattan. That such a talented man should die relatively young and alone of pneumonia at the age of 48 is, of course, tragic for one who brought such joy to the casual listener.

          It is only recently that the full story of ‘Manhattan’ has come to light. As in most cases of art, the simple and timeless lyrics were the product of much editing before a definitive version was arrived at. It is in this process that the most surprising discovery has, of late, been made – ‘Manhattan’ was originally intended not to be about Manhattan at all. A first draft, discovered by historians of popular song, corresponds with the time that the lyricist spent at the English seaside resort of Paignton where, incognito, he was able to recuperate in a harbour side boarding house and recharge his creative batteries.

          Paignton must have seemed a thousand miles from 1920s New York. Indeed, it is odd to think that a lyricist used to the lights of Broadway, Seventh Avenue and Times Square should be immersed in a location in which the only comparable sight was the splendour of the Torbay Road or the lights of the pedestrian crossing at the bottom of Victoria Street. But Hart was industrious during his stay in Paignton. His landlady at the Haddock’s Halt Guest House recalls visitors to his room, local theatrical types with whom he collaborated on such shows as the Fish Gutter’s Lament and the ever-popular I Am The Wife of the Crazy Golf Man. How sad it is that such scripts are forever lost, and that Larry Hart should have used the pseudonym Maud Jenkins on all such promotional material.

          It is not know whether Hart partook of such local delicacies as fish ‘n’ chips or candy floss during his stay in Paignton. As an advocate of inner rhyming in his work, it is certain that, even if he were not aware of their taste, he would almost certainly have attempted to rhyme them. If one were to look at the work he produced on his return to the Big Apple, one will find evidence of Paignton’s memory buried, as if a code, in such songs as ‘The Lady Is A Tramp’ or ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’. ‘My heart is sings like a crazed midships man / My eyes they sting as if hit by a fish ‘n’ chips pan’, or , ‘You’re woozy over wine, you feint over beer / You stole my heart on Paignton Pier’.

         It is interesting, of course, to speculate on the adventures of Larry Hart during his stay in Paignton. An intensely private man, he was not prone to mix well with other people – however, local historians have placed him at many a local party in the Paignton area and there are reports of him joining Agatha Christie, Gilbert and Sullivan, the D’Oyly Cartes, Albert Einstein and others at a wild party just outside of town, dancing the Charleston into the small hours and consuming vast amounts of chicken tikka misala. Such local tales, of course, have to be treated with the utmost caution, though one would find such to be historically accurate with the exception of the chicken tikka masala. It would almost have certainly have been a light korma.

          Hart’s stay in Paignton must have been recuperative. He regularly attended the local writers circle, or so it is thought, though he left once halfway through a workshop because he could think of nothing to rhyme with ‘Dartmouth Steam Railway’. His biographers explain that he had seen magic in the area, in the sun rising above the pier, in the calm waters of the harbour, the bingo halls, the bins out the back of Tesco’s. After a while, the lure of New York must have seemed like the hint of a timeless other world : who needed the subway when it was just as easy to ride the Number 12 to Newton Abbott? What was the point of the Empire State Building when Paignton had its Woolworth’s? Who needed the Big Apple when Paignton was his very own small, shrivelled prune? Perhaps it is in such a form of mind that Hart sat down one midsummer’s night in the Haddock’s Halt and, ignoring the sound of skateboarders in the street below, wrote the first draft of the song that would later become ‘Manhattan’.

And here it is in all its raw poetry. One has to remember that the final wording was not yet decided on, but I think you will recognise, underneath, the song we all know and love today :

Summer journeys to South Devon
and to other places aggravate all our cares
We’ll save our dayrider tickets.

I’ve a little guest house in
what is known as old Torbay Road
We’ll settle down
Right here in town.

We’ll have Paignton beach
Foxhole and Goodrington too.
It’s lovely going through
Hellevoetslus Way!

It’s very cool and neat
on Victoria Street you know.
The number 12 bus charms us so
When cool sea breezes blow
As far as the co-op.

And tell me what street
compares with Winner Street
In July?
Sweets and crisp packets gently gliding

The great big town is a wondrous toy
Though occasionally it might annoy.
We’ll turn Paignton pier
Into a Wetherspoons.

We’ll go to Hookhills
Where they all look ill
Or just weird.
And starve together dear
in KFC.
We’ll go to Broadsands
and eat a pasty or a roll
In Victoria Park we’ll stroll
Where our first wallet we stole
and we were mugged.

And EastEnders
Is a terrific soap they say
We both may see one of the characters smile
some day.

Paignton’s glamour may never spoil
Though in Winner Street, tempers come to the boil.
Yet I quite like it.
It’s handy for the shops.

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