Frank Loesser

Frank Henry Loesser (/ˈlɛsər/; June 29, 1910 – July 28, 1969) was an American songwriter who wrote the lyrics and music to the Broadway musicals Guys and Dolls and How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, among others. He won separate Tony Awards for the music and lyrics in both shows, as well as sharing the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the latter. He also wrote numerous songs for films and Tin Pan Alley, many of which have become standards, and was nominated for five Academy Awards for best song, winning once, for "Baby, It's Cold Outside".

Frank Loesser
Background information
Birth nameFrank Henry Loesser
Born(1910-06-29)June 29, 1910
New York City, New York, U.S.
DiedJuly 28, 1969(1969-07-28) (aged 59)
New York City, New York, U.S.
GenresMusical theatre
Occupation(s)Composer, lyricist, screenwriter
Years active1936–1969

Early years

Loesser was born to a Jewish family[1] in New York City to Henry Loesser, a pianist,[2] and Julia Ehrlich.[3][4] He grew up in a house on West 107th Street in Manhattan. His father had moved to America to avoid Prussian military service and working in his family's banking business. He came to America and married Berthe (Ehrlich), and had a son in 1894, Arthur Loesser.

In 1888, Berthe's sister Julia arrived in America. Julia and Henry soon fell in love and Julia really loved Arthur, but Berthe sent her to Washington D.C. Berthe died in childbirth and Julia moved back in and married Henry in 1907. Their first child, Frank, was born in December of that year.[5]

Both his parents, secular German Jews, prized high intellect and culture, and Loesser was educated musically in the vein of European composers.[4] But although Henry was a full-time piano teacher, he never taught his son. In a 1914 letter to Frank's older half-brother Arthur Loesser, Henry wrote that the 4-year-old Frank could play by ear "any tune he's heard and can spend an enormous amount of time at the piano."[6] (Frank Loesser would later collaborate with musical secretaries to ensure that his written scores (he was self-taught) reflected the music as he conceived it.[7])

Loesser did not like his father's refined taste of music and resisted when he wrote his own music and took up the harmonica. He was expelled from Townsend Harris High School, and from there went to City College of New York (even though he had no high school diploma).[5] He was expelled from the CCNY in 1925 after one year for failing every subject except English and gym.[4]

After his father died suddenly in 1926, Loesser was forced to seek work in order to support his family.[8] He held various jobs like restaurant reviewer, process server, classified ad salesman for the New York Herald Tribune, political cartoonist for The Tuckahoe Record, sketch writer for Keith Vaudeville Circuit, knit-goods editor for Women’s Wear Daily, press representative for a small movie company, and city editor for a short-lived newspaper in New Rochelle, New York called New Rochelle News.[4][5]

Early career as lyricist

After his many various jobs, he decided that he wanted to write in Tin Pan Alley and signed several contracts with music publishers before his contracts were eventually terminated. His first song credit is listed as "In Love with the Memory of You", with music by William Schuman, published in 1931.[8]

Loesser's early lyrics included two hit songs of 1934, "Junk Man" and "I Wish I Were Twins" (both with music by Joe Meyer, and the latter with co-lyric credit to Eddie DeLange). However, they apparently did not help his reputation, and in later years, he never mentioned them.

In the mid-1930s he would sing for his suppers at The Back Drop, a night spot on east 52nd Street along with composer Irving Actman, but during the day he worked on the staff of Leo Feist Inc. writing lyrics to Joseph Brandfon's music at $100 a week. After a year, Feist had not published any of them. He fared only slightly better collaborating with the future classical composer William Schuman, selling one song, that would flop, to Feist. Loesser described his early days of learning the songwriting craft as having "a rendezvous with failure." But while he dabbled in other trades, he inevitably returned to the music business.[4][9]

The Back Drop turned out to have some substantial connections. Due to his work there he was able to secure his first Broadway musical, The Illustrator’s Show, a 1936 revue written with Back Drop collaborator Irving Actman, lasted only four nights. The year before, while performing at the Back Drop, he met an aspiring singer, Lynn Garland (born Mary Alice Blankenbaker). He proposed in a September 1936 letter that included funds for a railroad ticket to Los Angeles where Loesser's contract to Universal Pictures had just ended. The couple married in a judge's office.[10] Loesser was subsequently offered a contract by Paramount Pictures. His first song credit with Paramount was "Moon of Manakoora" written with Alfred Newman for Dorothy Lamour in the film The Hurricane.[4] He wrote the lyrics for many popular songs during this period, including "Two Sleepy People" and "Heart and Soul" with Hoagy Carmichael and "I Hear Music" with Burton Lane. He also worked with Arthur Schwartz, and Joseph J. Lilley.

One of his notable efforts was "See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have", with music by Friedrich Hollaender sung by Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again. In 1941, he wrote "I Don't Want to Walk Without You" with Jule Styne included in the 1942 film Sweater Girl and sung by Betty Jane Rhodes.[4] Irving Berlin was a huge fan of the song, and once played it over and over again telling Loesser why he believed it was the greatest song he wished he'd written.[11]

Members of the Western Writers of America chose the 1942 song "Jingle Jangle Jingle", for which he wrote the lyrics, as one of the Top 100 Western songs of all time.[12]

He stayed in Hollywood until World War II, when he joined the Army Air Force.[2]

World War II era

During World War II, he was in the Army Air Force, and continued to write lyrics for films and single songs.[2] Loesser wrote the popular war song "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" (1942) inspired by words spoken by navy chaplain Howell Forgy.[13] Loesser usually wrote songs to a "dummy" tune, meaning the music was just a stand-in until more suitable music could be composed. After the positive reaction to Loesser writing both music and lyrics to the song, it encouraged him to write both his own music and lyrics.[4] Loesser wrote other songs at the request of the armed forces including "What Do You Do in the Infantry?" and "The Ballad of Rodger Young" (1943), among others.[2] He also wrote "They’re Either Too Young or Too Old" for the 1943 film Thank Your Lucky Stars.[4]

In 1944, Loesser worked as the lyricist on a little-known musical intended to be performed by and for US soldiers abroad, titled Hi Yank!, the music for which was composed by Alex North. Hi Yank! was produced by the U.S. Army Office of Special Services as a "blueprint special" to boost the morale of soldiers located where USO shows could not visit. The "blueprint" was a book containing a musical script with instructions for staging the show, using materials locally available to deployed soldiers. A document located at the US Army Centre for Military History states, "A touring company has been formed in Italy to tour a production of Hi, Yank!".[14]

This unique Hi Yank! show, without stars or a conventional theater run, was generally forgotten until 2008, when the PBS History Detectives TV show researched the case of a long-saved radio transcription disc.[15] The disc has two songs and a promotional announcement for the show's Fort Dix premiere in August 1944, when the disc was broadcast there.[16]

Broadway and later film career

In 1948, Broadway producers Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin asked Loesser to write both music and lyrics to George Abbott's book for an adaptation of the Brandon Thomas play Charley's Aunt. That musical, Where's Charley? (1948), starred Ray Bolger, and ran for a successful 792 performances, with a film version being released in 1952.

In 1948, he sold the rights to a song he wrote in 1944 and performed informally at parties with his then wife Lynn Garland to MGM. The studio included it in the 1949 movie Neptune's Daughter, and the song, "Baby, It's Cold Outside", became a huge hit. Garland was mad at Loesser for selling what she considered "their song" to MGM.[17] He ended up winning the Academy Award for Best Original Song for the song.

His next musical, Guys and Dolls (1950), based on the stories of Damon Runyon, was again produced by Feuer and Martin. Guys and Dolls became a hit and earned Loesser two Tony Awards.[18] Bob Fosse called Guys and Dolls "the greatest American musical of all time."[4] A film version was released in 1955, and starred Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, Frank Sinatra, and Vivian Blaine.

In 1950, Loesser started his own publishing company, Frank Music Corporation. It was created to control and publish his work but eventually supported other writers such as Richard Adler, Jerry Ross, and Meredith Willson.[8] Loesser also started theatrical licensing company Music Theatre International in 1952. Frank Music and MTI were sold to CBS Music in 1976.[19] Frank Music was later sold to MPL Communications in 1979.[20]

After working on Neptune's Daughter, he wished to write more than one song for a film. His wish was granted in 1952 when he wrote the music and lyrics for the film Hans Christian Andersen. The movie had notable songs such as "Wonderful Copenhagen", "Anywhere I Wander", "Thumbelina", and "Inchworm".[8]

He wrote the book, music and lyrics for his next two musicals, The Most Happy Fella (1956) and Greenwillow (1960). Around the beginning of 1957, Garland and Loesser got divorced, and Loesser then began a relationship with Jo Sullivan, who had a leading role in Fella. He wrote the music and lyrics for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961), which ran for 1,417 performances and won the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and for which he received two more Tonys.

Pleasures and Palaces (1965), the last Loesser musical produced during his lifetime, closed during out-of-town tryouts.

Later life and death

At the time of his death, Loesser was writing the book, music and lyrics for Señor Discretion Himself, a musical version of the Budd Schulberg short story. A version was presented in 1985 at the New York Musical Theatre Works. With the support of his widow, Jo Loesser, a completed version was presented at the Arena Stage, Washington, DC, in 2004, reworked by the group Culture Clash and director Charles Randolph-Wright.[21]

When he was asked why he did not write more shows, Loesser responded that "I don’t write slowly, it’s just that I throw out fast." The New York Times confirmed his hard working habits and wrote that Loesser "was consumed by nervous energy and as a result slept only four hours a night, spending the rest of the time working."[4]

Loesser, an avid smoker, died in 1969 of lung cancer at age 59 in New York City.[22]

Personal life

Lynn Garland and Frank Loesser divorced around the beginning of 1957, after 21 years of marriage.[23] They had two children together: John Loesser, who works in theatre administration,[24] and Susan Loesser, an author who wrote her father's biography A Most Remarkable Fella: Frank Loesser and the Guys and Dolls in His Life: A Portrait by His Daughter (1993, 2000, ISBN 0634009273).

He married his second wife Jo Sullivan (born Elizabeth Josephine Sullivan) on April 29, 1959.[25] Loesser was introduced to Jo by his first wife Lynn. Jo Sullivan had played a lead in The Most Happy Fella.[2] They had two children, Hannah and Emily. Emily is a performer who is married to Don Stephenson.[26] Hannah was an artist in oils, pastels and mixed media; she died of cancer in 2007.[27] Jo Sullivan Loesser died April 28, 2019, at age 91. [28]

Notable songs

Loesser was the lyricist of over 700 songs.[29]

War songs
Broadway musicals
Films and Tin Pan Alley

Awards and legacy

Loesser received Tony Awards for music and lyrics for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Guys and Dolls. He was nominated for the Tony Award for book, music and lyrics for The Most Happy Fella and as Best Composer for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Loesser was awarded a Grammy Award in 1961 for Best Original Cast Show Album for How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.

Loesser is highly regarded as one of the most talented writers of his era. He is noted for writing witty lyrics and using clever musical devices. He also introduced a more complex artistic style that shaped the development of the Broadway musical. He was influential in challenging the standard compositional approach of Broadway, Loesser opened the door for later composers to further expand and develop the genre. He was noted for also using classical forms, such as imitative counterpoint (Fugue for Tinhorns in Guys and Dolls).[8]

He won the 1949 Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song, "Baby, It's Cold Outside". He was nominated four more times:

"Dolores" from Las Vegas Nights (1941)
"They're Either Too Young or Too Old" from Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943)
"I Wish I Didn't Love You So" from The Perils of Pauline (1947) (a hit that year for both Vaughn Monroe and the film's star, Betty Hutton)
"Thumbelina" (1953)

In 2006 the PBS documentary, Heart & Soul: The Life and Music of Frank Loesser was released.[30]

42nd Street Moon artistic director Greg MacKellan developed Once In Love With Loesser in 2013, as one of his musical tributes dedicated to exploring and celebrating the work of some of Broadway's greatest songwriters. The performance was built around the three stages of Loesser's career: as a Tin Pan Alley lyricist, then working in Hollywood, and finally as a Broadway songwriter. Jason Graae performed Once In Love With Amy and The King's New Clothes, Emily Skinner sang Cleo's Ooh! My Feet and Amy's Somebody, Somewhere (from The Most Happy Fella), whilst Ashley Jarrett performed If I Were A Bell and Ian Leonard provided a tongue-in-cheek rendition of Sing A Tropical Song.[31]


  1. Bloom, Nate (December 22, 2014). "All those Holiday/Christmas Songs: So Many Jewish Songwriters!". Jewish World Review.
  2. Frank Loesser biography,, accessed December 5, 2008
  3. Loesser, Susan (1993). A Most Remarkable Fella: Frank Loesser and the Guys and Dolls in His Life. New York: Donald I Fine, Inc. p. 1. ISBN 1-55611-364-1.
  4. Cogdill 2010, p. 1
  5. Lasser, Michael (2002). "Francis Henry Loesser" American Song Lyricists, 1920-1960. Gale. ISBN 978-0-7876-6009-3.
  6. Loesser 1993, p. 8-10
  7. Loesser 1993, p. 154-156
  8. Maiers 2009, pp. 1–3
  9. Loesser 1993, p. 13-15
  10. Loesser 1993, p. 24-25
  11. Vallance, Tom (2012-01-30). "Betty Jane Rhodes: Actress and singer who charmed the US as a wartime sweetheart". The Independent. Retrieved 2012-01-30.
  12. Western Writers of America (2010). "The Top 100 Western Songs". American Cowboy. Archived from the original on 10 August 2014.
  13. "Howell Forgy - Oxford Reference". doi:10.1093/acref/9780191843730.001.0001/q-oro-ed5-00004516. Retrieved 2019-08-31.
  14. PBS History Detectives; "Blueprint Special", 2008, show transcript, PDF
  15. PBS History Detectives; "Blueprint Special" Aired: Season 6, Episode 10; 2008
  16. Click on player at the bottom to listen to the recording of the Hi Yank soldier musical. (7m37s)
  17. Loesser, Susan (1993). A Most Remarkable Fella: Frank Loesser and the Guys and Dolls in His Life; A Portrait by His Daughter. Hal Leonard. pp. 8–10. ISBN 1-55611-364-1.
  18. Loesser biography,, accessed August 4, 2009
  19. "CBS Buys Show Tuner Frank Music". Billboard. 1976-09-11. p. 4.
  20. "Inside Track". Billboard. 1979-02-17 via Google Books.
  21. Riis, Thomas Laurence. Frank Loesser (2008), Yale University Press, ISBN 0-300-11051-0, p,219-223
  22. Krebs, Alvin, "Frank Loesser, Composer, Dead," The New York Times, July 29, 1969, p. 1
  23. Frank Loesser biography, accessed December 5, 2008
  24. Genz, Michelle (April 17, 2014). "'How to Succeed' playright's [sic] son now lives in Castaway Cove". Archived from the original on December 7, 2014.
  25. NPR Weekend Saturday Edition interview by Scott Simon with Jo Loesser on May 1, 2010
  26. "Emily Loesser, Actress, Marries", The New York Times, May 5, 1991
  27. Simonson, Robert (January 26, 2007). "Hannah Loesser, Daughter of Frank Loesser, Is Dead at 44". Playbill. Archived from the original on July 2, 2014.
  28. Evans, Greg. "Jo Sullivan Loesser Obituary", April 29, 2019
  29. Review of book "Frank Loesser", Thomas L. Riis, Dec 17, 2007,, accessed December 5, 2008
  30. "Heart & Soul, The Life and Music of Frank Loesser" Archived 2013-01-10 at the Wayback Machine, accessed 2013-01-11
  31. Heymont, George (26 June 2013). "Some Like It Shot". Huffington Post. Retrieved 30 September 2016.


  • Cogdill, John L. (2010). American National Biography.
  • Maiers, Claire D. (2009). Musicians and Composers of the Twentieth Century.
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