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“An Hour Of Pretty Music”

June 2024
2min read

Walter Lord’s Other Life

When Walter Lord died Last May, the newspapers saluted his huge influence as a historian: all those books that vividly reconstructed events like the fall of the Alamo (A Time to Stand), the bombing of Pearl Harbor (Day of Infamy), and the sinking of the Titanic (A Night to Remember). But history wasn’t his first love.

As a young boy in Baltimore in the late 1920s, Walter began buying Bing Crosby’s records, and forever after he was hooked on American popular song. His New York apartment was cluttered with sheet music and with shelves of 78-rpm records of show tunes, movie songs, popular standards, and big-band numbers. He knew them all; I often played for him and other addicts who wanted to sing them around a piano.

Another thing nobody knew was that Walter wrote one lyric—for an international hit song that nobody knew had a lyric. It was “The Third Man Theme,” the zither-plucked melody by Anton Karas that runs through the movie starring Orson Welles as a black-market rogue in postwar Vienna. Walter got the job, he told me, because he happened to know a lawyer who worked with David O. Selznick, the film’s producer.

“Karas’s melody was very catchy and contagious, and Selznick’s people decided it would sell 200,000 more copies if it had words…. I was the only person who knew what Selznick wanted: that whoever wrote the lyric, it had to have zither in the first line. That’s how I won out over all those other lyrics that were probably infinitely better. Somebody like Yip Harburg wrote a lovely lyric, which I later saw, that was all about autumn leaves. Selznick didn’t want autumn leaves. He wanted a zither.”

When a zither starts to play, You’ll remember yesterday …

That’s how the lyric begins, and it goes on for 64 bars, perhaps the most meandering lyric since “Begin the Beguine.” “I still get royalties from ASCAP every year,” Walter told me, “for any recorded evidence that ’The Third Man Theme’ was played, with or without the lyrics.”

One night in 1988 1 got a letter from Walter that said he was in a hospital, about to have a serious operation. “The doctors seem optimistic,” he wrote, “but they are also a little ‘iffy,’ leading me to think of various contingencies. To begin with, I wouldn’t want any funeral. But I wouldn’t mind a memorial service featuring the kind of music I’ve enjoyed so much—just an hour of pretty music in the 1930s–50s fashion…. The perfect place would be a small room in the Princeton Club, around noon, perhaps in the period around my birthday, October 8.”

I was very upset by the letter but also very moved that on the night before he thought he might die, what was most important to him was this body of American songs that had been part of his life since he was a boy. As it turned out, he lived another 13 years. But I kept the letter and continued to regard it as his final wish, and last October, in a room at the Princeton Club, around noon, his friends and I gave him the good-bye he wanted.

—William Zinsser

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