Feature

Fran Landesman, 1927–2011

The lyricist of the Beat Generation

In 1955, the songwriter and lyricist Fran Landesman, like many others of her generation, was enamored of T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land. Having fallen in with the Beats in New York City’s Greenwich Village years before, she thought the poem’s famous beginning, “April is the cruelest month,” could be translated into beatnik-speak. Armed with that inspiration, she wrote “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” which would go on to become a jazz standard, sung by Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Bette Midler.

Born in Manhattan to a wealthy dress manufacturer, Frances Deitsch attended Temple University and the Fashion Institute of Technology before becoming a fixture in New York’s Beat scene. Jack Kerouac serenaded her with bongos and pleaded with her to be his girlfriend, said The New York Times. Instead she married Jay Landesman, the bohemian publisher of a short-lived downtown magazine that gave the Beats a platform to write about sex in America. “He’ll make a good first husband,” she thought.

When Jay made it clear that he wasn’t the monogamous type, Fran was delighted, said the London Telegraph. “It meant I could have lovers too.” The Landesmans embarked on a notoriously open relationship that lasted 61 years, until Jay’s death, in February. Their many lovers and unorthodox lifestyle scandalized their young sons, one of whom later wrote that his parents would arrive at his school “looking like two hippies who had failed the audition for the musical Hair.

After they married, the couple decamped to St. Louis and opened the Crystal Palace nightclub, which booked famous up-and-comers like Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, and Lenny Bruce, said the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In 1959, Landesman co-wrote the musical The Nervous Set, a self-referential portrait of the Beat Generation. It became the toast of St. Louis but flopped on Broadway. The Landesmans later settled in London, where they became more famous for their lifestyle than for their work, though Fran continued to write songs and perform. She suggested her own epitaph: “It was a good life, but it wasn’t commercial.”

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