Sheldon Harnick: Working From Home for 55 Years

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Sheldon Harnick met his future wife, Margery Gray, in 1960, when she was auditioning for his new Broadway musical, “Tenderloin.”

Try as she might, Mrs. Harnick, now a photographer and artist, can’t recall the song she sang on that fateful day. Mr. Harnick, the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning lyricist, is similarly in the dark, but he distinctly remembers being impressed by what he heard, and at least as impressed by what he saw. She got the part, although the show folded after barely six months.

The couple’s marriage, on the other hand, is a long-running production: 55 years and counting, all of it spent in a classic six with a full-on view of Central Park at the Beresford, an Emery Roth confection on the Upper West Side.

It’s where Mr. Harnick, now 96, wrote the lyrics to shows including “Fiorello!” (1959), “She Loves Me” (1963) and “Fiddler on the Roof” (1964). A documentary about that legendary show, “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles,” will air Nov. 13 as part of the PBS series “Great Performances.”

ImageHanging above Sheldon Harnick’s piano is a mixed-media work by Margery Harnick.
Credit…Margery Harnick

Occupations: He’s a lyricist; she’s a performer turned artist and photographer.

Home is where the art is: “I never had an office,” Mr. Harnick said. “I thought about it, but it was always very easy to work at home. It was quiet. Nobody ever bothered me, and all my reference books were handy.”

Before Mr. Harnick got together with Miss Gray, and before a very brief marriage to Elaine May, who remains a close friend, he lived in an apartment near the theater district that had been occupied by a friend from his college days at Northwestern University, the actor Charlotte Rae. “She was leaving, and she asked if I wanted it, and I grabbed it,” said Mr. Harnick.

Quick access to the theater district was also top of mind years later, when he married Miss Gray and the couple began searching for a place to set up housekeeping. The Beresford hit all the right notes. With the subway at the corner, making short work of the commute to 42nd Street and environs, and the park just across the street, the location was ideal.

Credit…Margery Harnick

The building itself was a known quantity. Mr. Harnick’s friend and fellow lyricist Adolph Green and his actor wife, Phyllis Newman, were residents. So was his father’s cousin, the syndicated columnist Leonard Lyons.

“We had looked at other apartments in the area, but this one was the most convenient and the most beautiful in terms of the light and the view,” said Mrs. Harnick, 86, who appreciated the generously sized rooms, the herringbone floors, the wainscoting in the gallery and the fireplace with the marble surround. Some years after moving into the building, she commissioned a valence that echoed the design of the carved mantel for the three large windows in the living room.

“I never thought in terms of a penthouse or anything like that. I just wanted a place that was comfortable,” said Mr. Harnick, who has always worked at home, with the greatest pleasure. “When I get hungry, I can just go over to the refrigerator and grab something.”

He set up shop first in the dining room/library, which is ringed by bookcases holding many volumes of reference material, diligently clearing off the long wood table when mealtime rolled around. Later, when the couple’s two children grew up and left the nest, Mr. Harnick took his Eames lounge chair and moved to a vacated bedroom, a space that Mrs. Harnick firmly deemed off limits to the prying eyes of a reporter, citing untidiness.

Credit…Margery Harnick

In any case, a thesaurus and an enormous Webster’s Dictionary that is very much the worse for wear are always close at hand. Mr. Harnick clearly knows many words, but while at his desk, it seems, he is a man of precious few. “Sheldon works very quietly with his paper and pencils,” Mrs. Harnick said.

“I had a pen that squeaked, so I got rid of that,” Mr. Harnick added waggishly.

When the couple bought the apartment in the mid-60s, it was in excellent shape, requiring nothing more than a fresh coat of white paint. “I helped the painter mix the color,” Mrs. Harnick recalled. “I didn’t want any blue in it, and I didn’t want it to be blinding.”

That the kitchen hadn’t been updated in years was fine with the couple. The old stove was, and remains, a particular delight to them. “We never even thought about renovating. It was so comfortable,” Mrs. Harnick said. “We loved it the way it was. Sheldon isn’t a decorating kind of person.”

Mrs. Harnick took the lead role in putting together the apartment, which is done in earth tones — mostly warm shades of brown. Still, no purchase was made, no fabric selected without the approval of both parties.

No matter how inviting the sofa or the cocoa-colored velvet wing chair, though, nobody is likely to sit for long. There’s a lot to see. The refrigerator is upholstered with snapshots of the Harnicks, assorted family members, friends and colleagues like Danny Burstein, who played Tevye in the 2015 “Fiddler” revival on Broadway, and Mr. Burstein’s wife, the actor Rebecca Luker.

Hanging on a wall just inside the apartment is a self-portrait by Zero Mostel, the original Tevye; paintings by Mrs. Harnick and the couple’s daughter, Beth Harnick Dorn; photographs by their son, Matt Harnick; and rows and rows of show posters from musicals written by Mr. Harnick and musicals featuring Mrs. Harnick. Hanging in the dining room: a pair of photographs of the couple taken by Richard Avedon in the 1960s.

“It was to help raise funds for an anti-Vietnam War campaign,” Mr. Harnick recalled. “He would photograph you for $50 dollars a picture.”

Credit…Margery Harnick

Mr. Avedon also took one of the cache of photos atop the Baldwin baby grand in the living room: Mr. Harnick, arms around his longtime collaborator, Jerry Bock, and the “Fiddler” librettist, Joseph Stein.

“We put on a recording of ‘If I Were a Rich Man,’ ” Mr. Harnick recalled, referring to one of the songs from the show. “We didn’t actually dance. But it helped with the picture that we felt as if we were dancing.”

His awards for “Fiddler” and other shows crowd the tables and the tops of cabinets in the living room. He’s no show-off, “but there’s no place to store all of them,” Mrs. Harnick said. “And it’s really important for me to see them.”

In the middle of a phalanx of glass trophies is a Picasso ceramic pitcher, a birthday gift from Mr. Harnick to Mrs. Harnick during their courtship days. “I dearly love it, and so does he,” she said. “I tease him that he only married me because he wanted the pitcher back.”

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