Obituary: Fran Landesman

Fran Landesman, songwriter and poet. Born: 21 October, 1927, in New York. Died: 23 July, 2011, in London, aged 83.

JACK Kerouac played bongos outside her window and tried to woo her. She turned a TS Eliot poem into a song sung by Ella Fitzgerald and Barbra Streisand. Bette Davis memorised one of her poems.

Fran Landesman made her life into an art form - not least because of the exuberantly public extramarital sex life she delighted in sharing with London tabloids. But her lasting footprint was the mordant, biting, yet strangely tender lyrics she used to chronicle the world's lovers, lunatics and losers.

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Her song The Ballad of the Sad Young Men - whom she described as "drifting through the town, drinking up the night, trying not to drown" - was recorded by Roberta Flack, Petula Clark, Rickie Lee Jones and, in an instrumental version, the pianist Keith Jarrett. With music by Tommy Wolf, it became a jazz standard. Another song she wrote that became a standard - but, like Sad Young Men, never a hit - was Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most. It sprang from Landesman asking jazz musicians to put TS Eliot's phrase "April is the cruellest month" into their own words. The music was also composed by Wolf. Bette Midler and Sarah Vaughan were among the many who sang it.

Landesman also published five volumes of poetry, some of it raw. The poem Bette Davis memorised, Life's a Bitch, contains the line "First love makes you itch, then it dishes you the dirt." She left an epitaph, something she said on more than one occasion: "It was a good life, but it wasn't commercial."

Frances Deitsch was born in New York and in her late teens fell in with the group that came to be called the Beat generation. She thought Kerouac was "the best-looking man I've ever seen", and the feeling seemed mutual. He and Allen Ginsberg serenaded her with bongos. "Be my girlfriend, I'm so lonely," Kerouac pleaded.

But she ended up marrying Jay Landesman, who published Neurotica, a magazine that gave the Beats a platform while seeking to explore America's "inner darkness". "He'll make a good first husband," she decided.

They were married for 61 years; Jay Landesman died at 91 in February. They had a remarkably open marriage in which each brought partners home to sleep in separate bedrooms. Everyone then had breakfast together. Their teenage sons, Cosmo and Miles, were appalled.

In his 2008 book, Starstruck: Fame, Failure, My Family and Me, Cosmo Landesman (who later married and divorced the writer Julie Burchill) wrote: "The thing that upset me the most was their dress and appearance. I can remember when I thought of having them committed to the Institute for the Criminally Dressed. It was parents' day at school. They arrived looking like two hippies who had failed the audition for the musical Hair."

Soon after marrying, the couple moved to Jay Landesman's native St Louis and opened a nightclub. The Crystal Palace booked performers like Woody Allen, Streisand and Lenny Bruce - who, she liked to recall, once urged her to leave her husband and run off with him: "Let's you and me go on the road and send him a little money every month."

The Landesmans collaborated with Wolf on a musical entitled The Nervous Set as a vehicle for Landesman's lyrics. The show was a smash in St Louis, then flopped on Broadway. The family moved to London, where Landesman continued her career as a lyricist, singer and poet. Since the mid-1990s, Landesman, who is survived by her sons, collaborated with the composer and pianist Simon Wallace and continued to perform.

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