By People Staff
December 24, 2001 12:00 PM

by Meryle Secrest

The composer of hundreds of the most hopeful and romantic songs of all time for such beloved musicals as Babes in Arms, Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music was a depressed boozer who kept an outwardly happy marriage while chasing chorus girls. These are the surprising revelations in the first thorough biography of Richard Rodgers (1902-1979). Secrest (Stephen Sondheim: A Life) had the cooperation of Rodgers’s two daughters (though they didn’t have editorial approval). Her book is well researched but sloppily written, filled with run-on sentences and digressive anecdotes.

Secrest’s unsettling portrait of Rodgers, whose primary musical partners were lyricists Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II, paints him as a gifted artist unable to express much emotion except through his music. Only in a theater was he truly at ease. “If I’m unhappy,” he said, “it takes my unhappiness away; if I’m happy, I get happier.” (Knopf, $30)

Bottom Line: A life out of tune