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Dorothy Fields on Jerome Kern

Dorothy Fields reminisces about her working and personal relationship with Jerome Kern. Quotes are drawn from three different sources.

1. Radio programme

In 1955, on the 10th anniversary of his death, a radio programme was broadcast called Jerome Kern: The Man and His Music. Dorothy Fields was interviewed:

First contact


Listen to Dorothy Fields talk about her first contact with Jerome Kern

I wonder if you'd like to hear about the first song I wrote without Jerome Kern. It sounds strange doesn't it, but actually I did write it without him. I was doing a picture at RKO, and at the same time on the lot, they were doing a picture of Roberta, a musicalization taken from the stage play. Of course they had all the numbers and I was reworking some lyrically and doing a little extra dialogue.

There was one number of Jerome Kern's, one melody that didn't have a lyric, but they owned the melody and they wanted to use it, because it was very lovely. So Pandro Berman who produced the picture, called me in one day and he said: "We need something for the fashion show. You've rewritten the fashion show for Freddie Astaire, but we need something for Irene Dunne to sing, because we're expecting to put her in a costume that costs about $8,000 and she really should sing something in anything as expensive as that. "

So he said: "I'd like it to be a song that could be used both as something to show off clothes in a fashion show, and yet could be one of the love songs in the picture. It was a kind of tall order. And he played the melody, which I loved, and he said: "Now d'ya suppose you could have this, by like tomorrow morning?" And of course that's the way they did things in those days but I was very much younger and very ambitious and a little frightened at the idea of doing anything written by Mr Kern who I didn't know and I said "Well does Mr Kern know that I'm supposed to do this?" and he said "No, but let's see how it is first." Well the song was - the title I luckily got was Lovely to Look At, and Pandro was excited about it and Irene Dunne loved it and they decided to go ahead and produce it.

All this time Jerry Kern was in the East and didn't know very much about what was going on at RKO. But nevertheless Irene Dunne appeared in this beautiful $8,000 costume and they built a set and they did a wonderful orchestration and had a fashion show and the whole thing was what they call 'in the can' which meant it had been shot and produced and then they sent Mr Kern a record. Nobody on the lot at RKO slept for two or three nights because you can imagine what would happen if it turned out that Jerry Kern didn't like it. Well he did like it, he liked it very much.

And he came out to California a few weeks after and he wanted to meet me because he was to do another picture for Lily Pons with Henry Fonda and he said "I think I'd like Dorothy Fields to do the lyrics". And that was the first time I was presented to Mr Kern. And when I met him, walked into the room, kinda shaking a bit, he left the piano and came up and kissed me. Well that was the start of a very wonderful association with Jerome Kern and myself.

The years in Hollywood

I was with him so much, I think from about 1934 to 1938 I was with him constantly. I was part of that family and they were part of my family. And it wasn't a question of any formality. I would run over in the morning and Jerry would be out doing something, some bit of business like going to the Farmers Market or looking for an antique, and I'd have coffee with Eva in the breakfast room, and he'd come in, we'd sit down and start to work and then he'd think of something else he wanted to do, like finding out from a bookie what horses were good in the third race at Santa Anita, so he'd knock off work to do that for a little while, and he… he loved to play. And every night I think for two years when the game Monopoly first came out, we used to play every single night - Eva Kern, Jerry Kern, Betty Kern and Johnny or Dick Green who were around the house at the time and myself and we used to play till two or three in the morning.

And there was always a .. I don't know .. a kind of family feeling about my association with the Kerns.

Kern's death

Jerry and Eva were coming East. Oscar and Dick I think were going to revive Show Boat. And of course being such great friends we had made an appointment to have dinner with Eva and Jerry the night after they arrived, but I was due to have lunch with Eva the day after they arrived.

I called early in the morning. Eva slept late but Jerry was up shaving and as he answered the phone he said "All right, you know better than to wake us up at this hour. I'll leave a message for Eva on the washstand mirror." And he wrote a message in soap on the mirror that said 'Meet Dorothy at Pavillon at one o'clock.'

So I met Eva for lunch at one o'clock at Pavillon and we had a wonderful lunch and sat over many cups of coffee as Eva and I usually do and she walked me to Tiffany's and then she was going back to the St. Regis.

The next thing I knew there was a message for me at home to go to Welfare Island. You see Jerry had intended to leave the St. Regis where they were living and to walk around to Ackerman the antique shop on 57th St to buy a breakfront and he walked up Park Avenue and as he passed the Bible Institute he collapsed. He had no identification except an ASCAP button and when the ambulance picked him up, they rushed him over to Welfare Island and called ASCAP.

They finally reached Oscar Hammerstein, who called me, of course he called Eva first, and we all went to Welfare Island where we spent about four days. Jerry was unconscious and they had put him in a ward but all the little old men there agreed to be pushed and huddled together so that this great man could have his bed in a great long room just screened by white screens. And we sat there day after day.

Finally they moved Jerry up to Doctors' Hospital. He never regained consciousness, although they tried so hard to get through to him. And finally someone said Oscar, why don't you go upstairs to Jerry's room and sing the song he loved better than any song he ever wrote, and that song was I've Told Every Little Star.

And so Oscar leaned over and sang it very softly into Jerry's ear. And Oscar says sometimes well maybe I did see the flicker of an eyelid. Maybe he didn't but Jerry never did regain consciousness and he died on the Sunday morning in November.

2. They're playing our song

In the 1960s, when she was working with Cy Coleman on Sweet Charity, Dorothy Fields was interviewed by Max Wilk, who published the interview in his book They're Playing Our Song.

Working with Kern

I always found Jerry easy to work with. We'd sit down at the piano together - first at the Beverly-Wilshire Hotel, before he built the house on Whittier Drive. He always had next to him on the piano a basket of pencils and a little bust of Wagner. He didn't play the piano very well - not a great pianist like Arthur Schwartz, or Harold Arlen, or Cy Coleman , who play beautifully. He'd play something he'd written, and if there was an expression on your face that showed you didn't care for it - he'd react very quickly to what you thought - he's turn this little statuette around facing away and say "Wagner doesn't like it".

The Way You Look Tonight

The first time Jerry played that melody for me, I went out and started to cry. The release absolutely killed me. I couldn't stop. It was so beautiful.



Kern's temper

Oh it was a lovely collaboration. Don't let anybody tell you Jerry was unhappy in Hollywood; he loved it out there. He made an excellent living and he did a lot of good work. And he was never difficult … except perhaps once. This is the only time he ever let me have it. When George Gershwin bought a Cord. Remember the Cord car? It was beautiful.

We went down to Palm Springs. George started to teach me how to play golf down there. I fell in love with his car, and he said: "Well, why don't you get one too?" So I went out and bought a Cord. I always used very blue pencils to write with, and I had the car painted that bright blue colour. I used to drive Jerry to the studio every day, because he didn't drive. And I drove up in my brand new, bright blue Cord, very proud, to pick Jerry up. There he was, waiting for me. But he became very incensed, the only time he ever lit into me. He said "I won't drive with you in that vulgar, repulsive car!" Do you believe I had to take it back and have it painted black?

3. An Evening with Dorothy Fields

In 1972, Dorothy Fields appeared at the Lyrics and Lyricists series at the 92nd Street Y. A recording is available on CD.

Mr Bojangles

This was a tough one for Kern. He didn't seem to get the feel of Bojangles, which was the great Bill Robinson's nickname. So for a few hours in the afternoon, Fred Astaire came in and danced around the room - he danced all over the whole house. And Kern invented a really hot syncopated song. It was totally different from anything he'd ever done. And I thought it was great.


I used to take home a lead sheet and write and rewrite and rewrite many times until I thought it was good enough to bring back to him.

He was most particular that a lyric should accommodate the singer's voice especially on the high notes.

I heard he was very severe and critical. He was a dream.

I revered those years working with Jerome Kern. I loved him very much.

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