The Nation's Pulse

Whatever Happened to Tom Lehrer?

(Not Much)

By From the April 2013 issue

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Most people assume that Tom Lehrer is dead, just as he has always wished us to think. Lehrer is by no means dead, but he turns 85 this month. After he retired at the peak of his fame in 1960, he gleefully collected all newspaper references to “the late Tom Lehrer,” and a CD box set of his collected works that came out in 2000 was called “The Remains of Tom Lehrer.” The songs’ exuberant wit emphasizes just how alive he remains.

Lehrer has long been an elusive guy, playing hide-and-seek with success. That success struck early, when he was still teaching math at Harvard, where he had been a 15-year-old freshman. He returned once his unplanned seven-year detour into showbiz ended after he’d had enough. Now and then he would teasingly emerge on special occasions to devise one of his wickedly clever songs for this person’s birthday or that colleague’s retirement.

In 2007, in a rare public appearance, he turned up at the opening of an exhibit celebrating San Francisco’s famous nightclub, the hungry i. Lehrer often performed there and once was almost assaulted by actor Ricardo Montalban, who objected to “The Vatican Rag,” which kids Catholic ritual (“Do whatever steps you want if/You’ve cleared them with the Pontiff/Everybody says his own/Kyrie eleison/Doin’ the Vatican Rag!”).

He wrote songs for BBC TV’s That Was the Week That Was, but his last recorded public appearance was warbling two numbers to celebrate producer Cameron Mackintosh’s 50th birthday in 1998. Mackintosh’s first hit show (pre-Cats) was Tomfoolery, a London revue of Lehrer songs that later played several U.S. cities. The show reminded people how much Lehrer had been missed, but he soon sank back into oblivion, his favorite place.

While he encourages rumors that he’s dead, Lehrer is in fact readily available, listed in the Santa Cruz, California, phone directory. When people call he is usually polite and obliging. He lives half a year in Santa Cruz and half a year in Cambridge, Massachusetts, symbolic of his bipolar career in music and mathematics. Lehrer has lived a quiet, happy life on hold. He falls into a tiny category of celebrities who packed it in at the peak of their careers. As he points out, “There’s me, Garbo, Salinger, and Deanna Durbin.”

He planned on retiring early, if prematurely, after 109 concerts: “The main reason I played was to put some money aside so I could do what I liked: teach and continue writing and lie down a lot and just enjoy myself.” He much preferred royalty checks to random applause. Lehrer was never tempted to return: “I’d just be doing an impression of myself. I don’t want to become like people who have lost it, like Carol Channing.” He calls the clamor for his return “The Lenin’s Tomb Phenomenon”—the public’s morbid wish to see the remains of a once-celebrated personage.

Lehrer also felt he lost his nasty edge, and began seeing issues in shades of gray. “Today,” he said in 2002, “everything just makes me angry, it’s not funny anymore. Things I once thought were funny are scary now. I often feel like a resident of Pompeii who has been asked for some humorous comments on lava.” He adds, “And people don’t know anything now. They’re all kids and they’ve never read a book. Who would get a Schopenhauer reference? What passes for satire is just easy targets. Irreverence has been subsumed by mere grossness.” In 1980, he observed, “This is no time for satire,” apparently believing that reality had outdistanced his creative powers to mock it.

His fans have never forgiven him for retiring, and those who doted on him in college—where he first found his audience in the satire-bereft mid-1950s— must be content to replay and remember the 37 songs that make up his rich but brief career, (here he pooh-poohs even that: “I wouldn’t call 37 songs a career”). Notable tunes include: “The Vatican Rag,” “National Brotherhood Week” (“just be glad it doesn’t last all year”), “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park,” “Be Prepared” (safe sex advice to Boy Scouts), “Lobachevsky” (a paean to plagiarism), “Smut” (an ode to obscenity), “I Wanna Go Back to Dixie” (a longing for racist days of yore), “So Long Mom (I’m Off to Drop the Bomb)” (a Cold War pilot’s hearty farewell), and “The Elements” (a rhymester’s holiday, in which Lehrer rattles off the periodic chart to a Gilbert & Sullivan tune).

G&S were early influences, along with Danny Kaye’s “Tchaikovsky,” Sheldon Harnick’s “Boston Beguine,” Stephen Sondheim, and Rodgers and Hammerstein. He doesn’t like Sondheim’s shows (“They’re not about people I want to spent time with”) but calls him the greatest lyricist since W.S Gilbert.

For a songwriter who spent his career bashing sentimental clichés and parodying fond musical forms (lullabies, jigs, anthems, waltzes, folk songs), Lehrer is an unlikely but unabashed R&H fanatic and, in fact, for years taught a course in musical theater at the University of California at Santa Cruz that focused on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s shows. His own songs attack fake or vapid sentimentality, but The King and I can make him cry.

JUST WHAT Tom Lehrer has been up to for the past half century, since he left show business at 40, is anybody’s guess. He taught math again at Harvard and MIT, and until 2001 taught a class in infinity at UC–Santa Cruz. He never married (“I couldn’t even sit through Nicholas Nickleby, let alone a marriage”) and mainly has amused himself browsing bookstores, catching occasional revivals of old musicals, seeing friends, and indulging in the pleasures of a solitary man with no goals or obligations. As he says, “What good is it having laurels if you can’t rest on them?”

After he stopped performing, which eventually bored him, he chose a life of doing as little as possible, residing half a year in a modest apartment complex in Santa Cruz. In 2007, when I last saw him, he was slightly stooped, but as sharp, droll, and courtly as ever.

Lehrer’s very post-performing indolent life, in fact, seems a mild rebuke (or at least response) to American ambition, enterprise, and the need for fame and fortune. The younger Lehrer, however, was a bit of a self-promoter—hiring a studio to record his first LP, Songs by Tom Lehrer, designing the cover (the devil at a piano), and distributing it himself to friends, colleagues, and students at Harvard, where he was a favorite at smokers and parties before being yanked into show business at a Boston restaurant in 1952, his first paid gig. His initial hit, “Fight Fiercely, Harvard,” a rousing pep song for intellectuals (“Throw that spheroid down the field!”), is still played at Harvard football games.

Lehrer’s little 10-inch LP took off in 1953 when DJs in England began playing his songs on the air; American radio stations considered the songs in bad taste but a few FM DJs smuggled them on the air. They were the earliest satirical shots across the bow in the complacent ’50s that gave rise to wits like Mort Sahl, Stan Freberg, Ernie Kovacs, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Bob & Ray, and MAD magazine. Lehrer’s next album was called “An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer” and featured his worst reviews emblazoned on the cover.

It was impossible then to attend a party and not hear Tom Lehrer songs on the stereo. Indeed, the mark of one’s intellectual prowess was quoting Lehrer’s ruder lyrics, like those in “I Got It from Agnes” (about STDs, none mentioned), “The Masochism Tango,” and “Pollution,” marking him as a proponent of so-called “sick humor.” Before political incorrectness had a name, Tom Lehrer personified it and celebrated it.

LEHRER HAS REMAINED, if not a recluse, an intensely private man. Nobody knows much about him except his songs, exactly as he likes it. He grew up in Manhattan, the privileged Jewish son of a necktie manufacturer, attended a prep school and then Harvard, where he spent seven years pursuing a doctorate he never got (“I wanted to be a graduate student forever”). After he stopped performing, he produced a handful of songs for “The Electric Company” (“Silent E” is still fondly remembered by yuppies) and this or that riff, like his Jewish Yuletide carol, “Hanukkah in Santa Monica.”

For a songwriter who quit performing 53 years ago, Tom Lehrer still resonates in the public consciousness and remains remarkably current. Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe recently sang “The Elements” on TV, and a new Lehrer revue, “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park,” had a hit run last year in Seattle.

Nobody has equaled Lehrer’s incisive songs that punctured American pomposity and hypocrisy, and only one guy even tried: political satirist Mark Russell. Russell’s ditties, however, were mostly set to existing melodies, and his lyrics lacked Lehrer’s cutting insights, macabre sentiments, scathing lyrics, and sly, artful rhymes.

Tom Lehrer’s songs are so identified with their creator that it’s hard to imagine anyone else singing them, but it’s worth a try. Lehrer’s insidious lyrics, dry intros, and tart, sardonic, nasal voice may be inimitable, yet the songs are still so much fun they’re certain to outlive the sui generis genius who wrote them. Despite Lehrer’s best efforts to bury it, his legend refuses to die. 

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About the Author

Gerald Nachman is the author of Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, Raised on Radio and Right Here On Our Stage Tonight!: Ed Sullivan's America. He is currently working on a book about the great Broadway musical show-stoppers.