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George Gershwin

George Gershwin: An Intimate Portrait

Walter Rimler
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 240
  • Book Info
    George Gershwin
    Book Description:

    George Gershwin lived with purpose and gusto, but with melancholy as well, for he was unable to make a place for himself--no family of his own and no real home in music._x000B__x000B_He and his siblings received little love from their mother and no direction from their father. Older brother and lyricist Ira managed to create a home when he married Leonore Strunsky, a hard-edged woman who lived for wealth and status. The closest George came to domesticity was through his longtime relationship with Kay Swift. She was his lover, musical confidante, and fellow composer. But she remained married to another man while he went endlessly from woman to woman. Only in the final hours of his life, when they were separated by a continent, did he realize how much he needed her. Fatally ill, unprotected by (and perhaps estranged from) Ira, he was exiled by Leonore from the house she and the brothers shared, and he died horribly and alone at the age of thirty-eight._x000B__x000B_Nor was Gershwin able to find a satisfying musical harbor. For years his songwriting genius could be expressed only in the ephemeral world of show business, as his brilliance as a composer of large-scale works went unrecognized by highbrow music critics. When he resolved this quandary with his opera Porgy and Bess, the critics were unable to understand or validate it. Decades would pass before this, his most ambitious composition, was universally regarded as one of music's lasting treasures and before his stature as a great composer became secure. _x000B__x000B_In George Gershwin: An Intimate Portrait, Walter Rimler makes use of fresh sources, including newly discovered letters by Kay Swift as well as correspondence between and interviews with intimates of Ira and Leonore Gershwin. It is written with spirited prose and contains more than two dozen photographs.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09369-2
    Subjects: Performing Arts, History, Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-xii)
  3. ONE From Street Kid to Wunderkind
    (pp. 1-6)

    He was a ten-year-old, hyperactive, scrappy street kid, as well as a petty thief and a habitual hooky player. If he was good at anything it was roller skating—he was the acknowledged champion skater of Seventh Street—although he may have been precocious at sex as well. He later told his friend and biographer Isaac Goldberg that he “had a girl at the age of nine.”¹ He was the second of four children and the opposite of the first, Ira, who was the dutiful good boy. George was pegged by his parents as the one most likely to end...

  4. TWO Falling in Love With Kay
    (pp. 7-11)

    Street urchin Gershwin had become genius Gershwin, and he was as bowled over by the phenomenon as everyone else. “I have heard him,” wrote Goldberg, “while playing, come suddenly upon a beautiful tune. He would pause a moment, and in the most unaffected manner possible—for there was not the slightest room in George Gershwin’s make-up for affectation—exclaim, ‘Say, isn’t thatgood!’”¹ His friend, the writer Alexander Woollcott, described him as a “slim, swarthy, brilliant young man who, with his dark cheeks that could flood with color, his flashing smile and his marked personal radiance, did, when serving at...

  5. THREE A Piano Concerto
    (pp. 12-16)

    George commenced work on the concerto in his penthouse atop the family residence, where he was awash in relatives, friends, and callers. He had always been able to compose in the middle of a crowded room. In fact, he preferred it that way. But now the commotion was getting in the way. He had written theRhapsody in Blueamid the usual hubbub, but the new piece needed more planning and thought. When the critics delivered their verdicts, they were going to judge it by stricter standards than had been applied to the free-form rhapsody. They would compare it to...

  6. FOUR Ira Takes a Wife
    (pp. 17-20)

    In the spring of 1926, Ira Gershwin, approaching his thirtieth birthday, had not yet had a serious romance. In fact, history knows of only one girlfriend, a high school sweetheart named Rose Eisen who, when he took her hand late one night as they rode a city bus, said, “Izzy, if you don’t mean it, don’t do it—and if you mean it, think of me.”¹ He believed himself to be an unattractive man and could not imagine that any woman would really be interested in him.

    No one had been particularly interested in him in his youth—not even...

  7. FIVE Porgy
    (pp. 21-27)

    In the summer of 1926, during rehearsals forOh, Kay!, Emily gave George a novel she had been reading, a best seller calledPorgywritten by the South Carolina poet DuBose Heyward. Gershwin was not much of a reader but this one kept him up all night. It was a tightly written, highly atmospheric story about a crippled, middle-aged black man who longed for love, found it, fought for it, and, finally, lost it. Its setting was a black tenement in Charleston, South Carolina—not so very different from the tenements of the Lower East Side. The potential of this...

  8. SIX Paris
    (pp. 28-33)

    In March 1928, New York City received a distinguished visitor—the composer Maurice Ravel. It was Ravel who, along with fellow Frenchman Claude Debussy, had steered European music away from the hefty works of Brahms and Mahler toward a more playful and sensual sonic world. Ravel would write his most famous piece,Bolero, later that year, but at this time, he was engaged in a tour of the United States and Canada, performing his works as both a pianist and as a conductor. In New York, he celebrated his fifty-third birthday and when asked what gift he wanted most he...

  9. SEVEN “That Long Drip of Human Tears”
    (pp. 34-42)

    By 1929, Gershwin was once again thinking about opera. Several recent events had made him feel ready. One was the reception givenAn American in Paris. Although the reviews had been mixed—Herbert Francis Peyser, writing in theNew York Telegram, called the piece “long winded and inane”¹—it was favorably received on the whole. Leonard Liebling in the American described it as “merry, rollicking music.”² In theNew York Times, Olin Downes said he had enjoyed the piece and that it showed an improvement in technique and orchestration, although he warned that it was easier for Gershwin “to invent...

  10. EIGHT The Losing Streak Begins
    (pp. 43-59)

    In 1930, not only did George have a hit show inGirl Crazy, he signed a contract with Fox Film Corporation that paid him $70,000 and Ira $30,000 to come to Hollywood and spend six weeks writing the score for a movie calledDelicious. The next year, 1931, was even better.Of Thee I Singbecame the brothers’ most successful Broadway show yet, and it was the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize. It was a political satire in the vein of StrikeUp the Bandwith a story, this time by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, about...

  11. NINE “Something Big”
    (pp. 60-68)

    Heyward had been thinking about opera since his initial meeting with Gershwin in 1926. His first post-Porgy novel,Mamba’s Daughters, written in 1929, concluded with a scene that had the Met putting on the first allblack opera. When the soprano brings down the house with “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” one member of the audience exclaims to another, “Can’t you see it’s new—different? Can’t you feel it’s something of our own—American—something . . . that Gershwin actually got his hands on in spots ofRhapsody in Blue.”¹ The idea of writing such an opera would not leave...

  12. TEN “Don’t Make It Too Good, George!”
    (pp. 69-75)

    In the fall of 1933, George and Ira moved out of their adjoining apartments on Riverside Drive to East Seventy-second Street near Park Avenue on the Upper East Side, where they took apartments across the street from one another. This was as far as they would ever live apart, and it was as close as they ever got to having separate households. George’s was a penthouse apartment consisting of fourteen rooms on two floors. He had changed decorating styles and was no longer interested in themodernelook or any one style but bought whatever furniture appealed to him.


  13. ELEVEN Kay, Jimmy, and FDR
    (pp. 76-82)

    Kay and Jimmy were at this point in completely different worlds. After his father’s death in January 1932, he had found it necessary not only to manage his family’s U.S. finances, but also to go to Hamburg to deal with troubles besetting M. M. Warburg and Company, which, as run by his uncle Max, was heading toward insolvency. When Jimmy returned to New York in late 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt had just been elected president. Warburg wanted to know how the new administration would handle the nation’s escalating economic emergency. The banking system had failed, mortgages were being called in,...

  14. TWELVE The Heart of American Music
    (pp. 83-86)

    They were called Gullahs, a West African word perhaps derived from the name of their country of origin, Angola. They had been brought in chains to the coastal islands of South Carolina and Georgia, where they lived separately from mainland slaves and maintained a language all their own, a mixture of various African dialects and seventeenth-century English. Folly Island, eight miles off the Charleston coast, is a six-mile long, halfmile wide barrier island (so called because it bears the brunt of Atlantic storms, shielding the mainland) with wide stretches of beach and an interior jungle. Heyward’s cottage there was a...

  15. THIRTEEN Kay’s Divorce
    (pp. 87-92)

    Back in New York in mid-July, the first thing on his agenda was getting ready for the second season ofMusic by Gershwin. Again the scripts were by Farr and Byron, who worked on them with George in his apartment. The novelty of the new program was that it featured in-studio guests. Thus, radio audiences could tune in to CBS at 6:00 P.M. on Sunday nights and hear Gershwin chatting with Harold Arlen (they discussed and played selections from the Arlen/Ira Gershwin showLife Begins at 8:40,then running successfully on Broadway); Billy Hill (composer of “Last Round-Up”); Dana Suesse...

  16. FOURTEEN Todd Duncan
    (pp. 93-98)

    For some time, Gershwin had been thinking about who would play the role of Porgy. In early 1934, he told the press that he had Paul Robeson in mind.¹ The remarkable Robeson—the son of slaves, an all-American football star, a graduate of Columbia Law School, a renowned actor, and a great bass-baritone—had been associated withPorgyas early as 1926, when he was signed by Cecil B. DeMille’s production team for a film version of the novel, then still in galleys. But that project was shelved when DeMille realized the movie would be banned in the South. Robeson...

  17. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  18. FIFTEEN Casting, Rehearsals, and an Omen
    (pp. 99-106)

    Although Gershwin had invited the Theatre Guild directors to hear Duncan sing and to hear his and Ira’s rendition of thePorgy and Bessscore, the producers never tried to exercise their veto power over his cast choices or music. This was to be the first and only time in his career that he was in charge of the whole show. Every prior musical had been someone else’s idea, and he had taken those projects on as assignments, usually with enthusiasm, sometimes dutifully, but always without complaint. For instance, when problems arose in 1927 during the writing ofFunny Face,...

  19. SIXTEEN The Critics Have Their Say
    (pp. 107-114)

    He had now come into his full musical prime as a great composer, a master. Photos from this period show a physical maturity as well: still trim, but with a receding hairline that gave him a professorial look. A kindly, forgiving smile had replaced the one that had been by turns brash and quizzical. A mantle of musical gravitas had settled upon him, one he would never doff.

    Yet his coltish personal behavior had not changed at all. Although Kay was still his lover, friend, and musical sounding board, he continued to gad about town with the likes of Kay...

  20. SEVENTEEN Limbo
    (pp. 115-123)

    While George was encountering these difficulties withPorgy and Bess, Ira was finding solid success collaborating with others. His showLife Begins at 8:40, written with Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, had done very well in the 1934–35 season. In the late summer of 1935, as the final touches were being put on the opera, he turned to another collaborator, Vernon Duke. Born Vladimir Dukelsky in Belarus and trained at the Kiev Conservatory, Duke had started out as a gifted pianist and composer of concert music (he was a good friend of Prokofiev and had written a ballet for...

  21. EIGHTEEN Hollywood Beckons
    (pp. 124-129)

    On February 17, 1936, a few days before Ira left with Leonore andFolliesset and costume designer Vincente Minnelli for a Caribbean holiday, George heard from a Hollywood agent. This was Sam Howard of the Phil Berg-Bert Allenberg Agency, asking if he and Ira would be interested in coming to California to write songs for a yet to be determined Hollywood studio. Gershwin told Howard they would be interested if they could get $100,000 plus a percentage of the film’s profits. On their one previous visit to Hollywood, in 1930, they had spent a few weeks writing theDelicious...

  22. NINETEEN Pleasure Island
    (pp. 130-138)

    When they got to Los Angeles, the sky was cloudless and the temperature in the low eighties. They checked into a suite at the ornate Beverly Wilshire Hotel, the three of them living under the same roof again, and while Leonore went looking for a house to rent, George and Ira had a piano delivered and got to work. George’s first composition in California was “Hi-Ho,” which, besides being more than three times the length of the usual thirty-two–bar tune, had a complex piano accompaniment, sudden key changes, and a melody that surged with lighthearted grandeur. One musician exclaimed,...

  23. TWENTY Final Concert, Final Affair
    (pp. 139-149)

    In early January 1937, George and Ira went to a ranch outside Carmel to meet with RKO Pictures’ production chief Pandro Berman and director George Stevens to discuss the new Astaire film, but this was only a brief stop on the way to the Bay Area, where George was to appear with Pierre Monteux and the San Francisco Symphony. Two months would pass before he and Ira got to work on the new songs. In the meantime, there would be five concerts.

    Present at the San Francisco and Berkeley performances were Ira, Rose, Leonore, Jerome Kern, Kern’s wife Eva, and...

  24. TWENTY-ONE Last Songs
    (pp. 150-162)

    It was at this point that Gershwin began displaying an almost irrational irritability. Harold Arlen remembered an occasion when he and George were at a party with several other songwriters and each was having a turn at the piano. As Arlen stepped forward to demonstrate his latest wares, George said to him, “No you don’t. I’m not going to follow you.” This shocked Arlen. “Since we were always together in one bunch trying to help one another, there was little show of jealousy. When he acted that way, I felt uneasy. I knew something was wrong with him, and I...

  25. TWENTY-TWO Epilogue
    (pp. 163-174)

    The day following George’s death, a Monday, Ira was in court presenting papers prepared by his law firm to gain control over his brother’s estate. George had died intestate, and this was an attempt to preempt Rose, who was ready with papers of her own, filed on July 16 in New York. The issue would be decided by determining whether George, at the end, was a resident of California or New York. New York’s jurisdiction won out and the estate was awarded to Rose. Her lawyer was also successful in petitioning the judge to spare her the strain of personally...

    (pp. 175-178)
  27. NOTES
    (pp. 179-190)
  28. INDEX
    (pp. 191-204)
  29. Back Matter
    (pp. 205-212)