Jesse Green Talks About Mary Rodgers and the Making of Her Memoir 'Shy'

Shy, the memoir of Mary Rodgers, is one of the best pieces of nonfiction, not just autobiography or theater writing, in years. I read the first 30 to 40 pages very quickly, then I slowed down. Like a meal in a five-star restaurant, I wanted to savor every moment. It is a great story filled with great stories.

Putting the book together, however, did not come easy. It took the better part of 10 years, mostly alone, for co-author Jesse Green to compile, edit fact check and shape the manuscript. The idea of writing of Shy had its beginnings in 2010, but the book took a long, roundabout route to publication.

Green, chief theater critic for The New York Times, told Newsweek, "Mary and I met in 2004, but she didn't ask me to work with her until 2010 or so. Then she waffled a few times; we didn't actually start until 2012. So, we had just two years of solid work together before she died in 2014. By that point, I had become the theater critic for New York magazine, and my schedule went insane. I wrote when I could but with big gaps when I couldn't. The Times job, which I started in 2017, only made that worse.

"But it's also the case that I was very saddened by her death. We had become very close, and I wasn't sure how to proceed without her. It took me a while to figure that out and get excited again about the writing.

"I think it's fair to say I worked on the book, off and on and in various ways, with and without her, from 2012 to 2022—10 years.'

Mary Rodgers Arthur Laurents Stephen Sondheim Shy
At a gala in her honor in around 1980, Mary Rodgers shares a moment with two key figures in her life and in her memoir "Shy" Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim. Courtesy Rodgers-Beaty-Guettel Family

The book actually had its genesis years earlier. Green said, "Mary had a contract with Farrar Straus [and Giroux] to write her memoirs. Then she vacated the contract, and then she reinstated the contract and then she vacated the contract. She tried to write some, but she was not happy with what she wrote. When she finally came to realize that what she really wanted to do was write with someone, we were friendly by then, and I had done some pieces that involved her or her family. So, she came to me at that point.

"When, after a few more wrinkles, we decided to work together, she handed over all the stuff she had written previously, none of which was used in the book, except for facts and a few phrases. It just wasn't her voice, which was strange, because she wrote it. But I very quickly knew that my prime objective would be to preserve her voice as an unbroken monologue to give the experience of Mary that I loved, of sitting with her and hearing her talk.

Mary Rodgers Memoir Shy
Mary Rodgers tells all or almost all in her new posthumous memoir "Shy." Courtesy Rodgers-Beaty-Guettel Family

It's been said of reading Shy that one gets the sense that Rodgers is just holding court and chatting with the reader.

Green said, "Of course. But that is the illusion we both wanted to create when we figured out how to approach the book so as not to be the kind of memoir she hated, which was (A) strictly chronological, (B) self-congratulatory, (C) dishonest and (D) kind of cardboard. So, we were trying to figure out how to make something that was none of those things, something more like the experience of talking with her and arguing with her disagreeing and like: 'I hated this.' 'You love that.' 'Create more of that.' We came up with this unusual structure."

Putting Shy together was a very workmanlike experience. Green said, "On a practical level it was us sitting in her living room for a couple of years, a little more than two years. Twice a week, four hours a day, bleeding into lunch, my typing every word she said and many of the words I said, and then discussing what we just talked about to figure out: How do we want to use that? Do we want to use that? There were very few things she decided not to include. Even though, I think you'd get more than 95 percent of the whole story, which is a pretty good bargain.

"The idea was that I would be taking that massive material and then crafting it into what she called a nonfiction novel—about her.

"But then she died."

The result is a what seems to be a spontaneous, unfiltered outpouring in information and opinion like a highly cultured Lucy Van Pelt when she is talking to Schroeder: entertaining, engaging, a little flirty and If along the way she happens to offend anyone, well so be it, let's move on. While I thought an index would be helpful and fun, so the reader can go from one Sondheim story to another, follow Arthur Laurents' bad behavior, and all the Daddy (aka Richard Rodgers) stories, that was not to be.

Green said, "She did not want an index. Of course, these days you can get everything online and electronically search for what you want, but she just does the opposite of what you want.

"But it has spontaneity. Part of that was just because she spoke with such verve, and it's such an interesting, if not immediate, sequence of ideas from one thing to another, that it just came that way. In many cases, of course, it was constructed, because, as I said, we spoke for more than two years and a piece of a story would start in one year and end in another. So, it had to be patched together and made all of a piece.

"And I kept myself completely out of the main text because I didn't want to interrupt it, and I didn't want to have her say things—force her to say things—that she wouldn't say. She would not explain who Daddy was, she wouldn't even explain who Betty Comden was. She would just say Betty. So, it fell to me to figure out how I was going to let readers understand what she was talking about without interfering with her voice."

Speaking of Comden, Rodgers does drop a lot of names in the book, understandably. Green said, "She was at the center of the theatrical culture at that time even if she wasn't a leading figure in it, she was right in the middle of it. Think of how she midwifed, to her regret, Do I Hear a Waltz with music by her father, lyrics by Steve Sondheim and the book by Arthur Laurents. There was no one in the position that she was in, certainly no one who's going to be completely honest about it."

Eyes on the Surprise

When asked what if anything Rodgers said surprised him, Green told Newsweek, "She deployed her surprises even to me. It was brilliant timing. For me, the major surprises in the book include that she converted to Catholicism for a man whom she then did not proceed to marry, getting the archbishop involved. It's a whole story that involves Walter Winchell essentially blackmailing her father.

"A much sadder story is the one of her first marriage, which I had certainly known was not a happy one, but I did not know—and I don't even think her children knew—that it was also a violent one. Her first husband, Jerry Beatty, was gay. She kind of knew that; her parents knew it. But she was in denial because she wanted to be married and get out of her parents' house and out from under their thumbs. And she wanted to have children, desperately. And he did provide those things. In later life, they became friends. But during the course of their marriage, things were very grim as is described here for the first time.

Jesse Green Shy
Jesse Green tells how Mary Rodgers memoir Shy came about. The New York Times

"And speaking of marriages, the biggest thing that I think will be a surprise to people—as it was to me—was that she was not just Sondheim's friend from the age of 13 and close buddy till the day she died and sometime collaborator on songs. But they had what amounts to a trial marriage, which is described in uncomfortable detail in the book."

Rodgers' attraction to Sondheim is palpable. Green told Newsweek, "Well, she was almost, I don't want to make this sound outré, but in a way, she was really turned on by genius. And it was enough to at least make her consider ignoring the signs that say, 'No, this is not a good idea.'

"Between her marriages, she also even had an affair with her writing partner Marshall Barer, who was not just gay but crazy and brilliant. That was the key: the brilliant. She really lived by her artistic ideals. And she paid the price sometimes."

Careering From Career to Career

Over the years, Rodgers had several very different careers. To a younger generation, she is the primarily, if not exclusively, author of the Freaky Friday books, which are still hugely popular, smart middle-grade novels that are closer in spirit to the books of Daniel Pinkwater and Leonard Wibberley than Judy Blume, who wrote books that were, Rodgers says, "dead serious about your period."

Putting musical theater behind her turned out to not be difficult for Rodgers. Green said, "She had a real talent as a composer. She was realistic about it, though, and when the world of musical theater didn't seem to be offering her a lot of opportunities. She had a lot of other things in her quiver that she could pull out. And she wasn't afraid. as a lot of men might be, to say, 'All right, I'm moving on to the next thing,' and then she succeeded at that.

"And then when writing those books came to a natural end for her, she moved on to a third career. That led to her being the chairman of the board of Juilliard for many years. So, this was a woman with a lot of skills, maybe too many for her to become the top of the list in any one field. But she was crucial in all of them."

A Sense of One's Self

When asked if it was true that Rodgers considered Once Upon a Mattress her story, even though she only wrote the music. Green told Newsweek, "She did. Look back at how it's worded: She feels she says that is the way things happen. You work with what comes before you to write, and if it has something to do with your life, it's kind of unconscious. However, that's not really quite credible when the parallels are so strong.

"When Sondheim said that although Merrily We Roll Along was generally about the life that he and his friends were leading as they were trying to become successful in musical theater, he insisted that the character of the woman in that show was not in any way based on Mary Rodgers even though the character's name is Mary. That's not credible. If you create a musical like [Once Upon a Mattress] even if you're just writing music, whose main character is a princess who is displaced and trying to find happiness and find love on her own terms instead of conventional terms, and you're Mary Rodgers, how do you not see that connection?

"Even if she didn't, I'm sure Marshall Barer did."

Rodgers, like the character Winnifred in Mattress, doesn't really strike one as shy. Green said, "The book is ironic. And the song, 'Shy,' is ironic. And as I point out in writing the music to that lyric, Mary understands the joke. She sets the word shy on a giant octave leap that Carol Burnett made famous, you really basically have bellow it. So, it's about someone who, whatever delicacy they may possess and she says a great deal, may feel internally shy but presents as the opposite.

Arthur on the Rocks

Early on, Page 30 as I recall, Rodgers expresses her disdain for Arthur Laurents, with whom she had been friends. When asked why they became estranged, Green told Newsweek, "Mary had complex feelings about him, largely because she feels that for many years, she was complicit in his awfulness, because she stood by and watched for fear of becoming the next victim, she never said or did anything about it. Over the years. she said, it was almost as if she had a kind of Stockholm syndrome.

"At some point, things happened, some of which are discussed in the book and others of which were among the very few things she did not wish to discuss, that really pushed her over the edge—as eventually he pushed almost everyone over the edge, including Sondheim, who tried to remain his friend as long as he could. Over various issues, she'd seen him destroy people in public too often. And then she saw it coming her way next, and she finally broke it off with him. And he resented her for that. Their friendship never recovered, nor should it have."

Old Friends

Sondheim is an interesting character in Rodgers' life too, in that their friendship begins at age 13. And it seems like even early on before he's even writing music, certainly anything for musical theater. She sees something special about him.

Green said, "He was just so intensely brilliant, so intensely himself that even before he had a specific aim, and he had that aim fairly early, you knew it. She described their first encounter, the first thing he did was beat her instantaneously in two games of chess. He was going to express his genius in whatever the venue was, whether it was chess or musical theater or, as he often threatened, making video games.

"There's a scene I particularly loved in the book—partly for its drama and partly for its setting. This is when he first tells her, in essence, that he's probably gay, and they are in her parents' house in Connecticut, sitting under Richard Rodgers' piano. There's just some treasure of all those enormous and enormously important cultural signifiers that makes that seem thrilling to me. The idea that I got the privilege of getting to hear about it from one of the players in the scene, when I had spent a lot of my own youth, dreaming about that sort of life, where you might sit under Richard Rodgers' piano and talk with the greatest theater writer of our time. That was really satisfying."

When asked if he talked to Sondheim about that, Green said, "Not about that scene. He and I talked about a moderate amount about the book as it was going on. He at first didn't understand why I was writing the book: 'Why would you be writing about her any more than you would about me?' and I was like, 'Oh, for God's sake. Even if you admit that your life isn't interesting, which I don't think anyone would admit, Mary's is different because she was a woman.' And he said, 'Oh, yes, that's right.' And he did corroborate some things. In other cases, he claimed no memory of the things that I was asking him about.

"And then he died."

One is struck by Rodgers' easy honesty—about herself and others if she knew you and you were gay, Jewish or lesbian, you had better be out, because you are now. Green said "She was really particularly perturbed by hypocrisy. Although she converted to Catholicism, basically lived as a Jewish New Yorker. She just wasn't into people pretending to be from a different world than they actually were."

Footnotes to History

The footnotes in Shy are special: informative, funny. Green told Newsweek, that "they were informed by things Mary told me, but obviously I checked. The idea for the notes was that they would start on the kind of a neutral note and then gradually become apparent that they were me. And at some point, I actually break out the neutral voice and clearly talk to her and respond to her in my own voice. And she sometimes talks to me in the notes: She'll say things like, 'You down there in the notes.'

"This draws on an idea that came from a book she wrote with her mother, A Word to the Wives, in the '70s, in which the two of them representing two different sort of generational and emotional types responded to issues of the day facing women. And they did so in alternating colors or typeface and that gave us the idea of having a conversational quality that Mary really wanted.

"Originally, they weren't going to be at the bottom of the page. They were going to be along the side or buried on the side like in the Talmud, or within the text, or like in that book she wrote A Word to the Wives with them just in a different color, straight in line with her stories. But in the end, this was what was practical to do. I hope people go with it."

Getting to Know Her

The key to Rodgers here, kind of a Rosebud scene, according to Green, comes early on in Shy. Green told Newsweek, "She was salty and believed strongly in giving people a good time if she was going to bend their ear. There is a scene in the book early on when she considered herself—and was told repeatedly by her parents—to be an ugly fat girl. But she goes to dances that are set up for Jewish girls at that time since they couldn't be debutantes. And she makes a pact with herself that if she can just get two boys to be interested enough in her and the way she talks that they might call her back, that she would consider it a success. And although that's a very sad little scene, it tells you something about her.

"She gave really good value for the time you spent with her."