Jacob was a delinquent in the making. The 12-year-old had no use for school; the street was his academy, and roller skating and fighting his favorite subjects. His older brother, Israel, was another story: quiet, intellectual, in love with words and ideas. Understandably, their parents, Morris and Rose Gershowitz, acquired an upright with the older boy in mind. But the law of unintended consequences applied in 1910 as in any century. When Jacob sat down at the keyboard, he fluently rattled off a few popular numbers, with dazzling left-handed embellishments. As it turned out, the boy had been practicing, playing by ear on a neighbor’s piano.
By then, the Gershowitzes had streamlined the family name to Gershwin, and Americanized the boys’ monikers to George and Ira. In this, and in many other ways, they were no different from a lot of immigrant Russian Jews during the early twentieth century: vigorous, close-knit, eager to get on in the Promised City. Morris led the way. “My father,” Ira recalled, “engaged in various activities: restaurants, Russian and Turkish baths, bakeries, a cigar store and pool parlor on the 42nd Street side of what is now Grand Central Station, bookmaking at the Brighton Beach racetrack for three exciting but disastrous weeks.”
The paterfamilias preferred to be within walking distance of his various enterprises, which meant changing residences every year or so, shuttling from the Lower East Side to midtown to Brooklyn and then back again to Manhattan—some 30 locations in all, as the family fortunes swung freely from middle-class comfort to near-bankruptcy and back again. The Gershwins’ two younger children, Arthur and Frances, came along during flush times, receiving closer attention and better educations than their elder siblings. In the early years, Morris’s ventures absorbed at least 16 hours per day, leaving George and Ira to fend for themselves in a city full of temptations.
Ira was saved by shelves of schoolbooks, George by 88 keys. “Studying the piano made a good boy out of a bad one,” George once reflected. “I was a changed person after I took it up.” A procession of teachers taught him to read music and opened his ears with Chopin, Debussy, and Liszt. By the time Charles Hambitzer entered the scene, George was experimenting with a few pieces of his own, more original than the part-time conductor and composer had ever encountered. In a letter, he prophesied: “I have a pupil who will make his mark in music if anybody will. The boy is a genius, without a doubt; he’s just crazy about music and can’t wait until it’s time to take his lesson. . . . He wants to go in for this modern stuff, jazz and what not. But I’m not going to let him for a while. I’ll see that he gets a firm foundation in the classics first.”
George paid close attention to his teacher for almost two years, but the modern stuff proved irresistible. At 15, he dropped out of the High School of Commerce and played himself into a job as pianist at Jerome H. Remick and Co., publishers of popular songs. He demonstrated new music in stores around the city, checked vaudeville houses to make sure that Remick songs were performed, and plugged a few of his own melodies. The pianist came to understand what the public loved and what it rejected out of hand. Isaac Goldberg, George’s earliest biographer, noted that audiences “wanted snap and ‘pep’; pep, indeed, was just beginning to come into our vocabulary, and by the same token, into our life. And pep was part of George’s nature. He had been made for the new day.”
Irving Berlin, then America’s hottest songwriter, heard George at the keyboard one afternoon. The young man’s sense of harmony instantly impressed him, as did his ability to write tunes that jumped directly into the listener’s brain. On the spot, Berlin offered Gershwin a job as his musical secretary—and then, on second thought, withdrew it. “You’re more than the skilled arranger I’m looking for,” he said. “You’re a natural-born creator. This sort of job would cramp you. You’re meant for big things.”
Word about this meeting circulated in the old neighborhood. Boris Thomashefsky, the Yiddish theater’s most commercial actor/impresario, summoned George to his Second Avenue dressing room, along with Sholom Secunda, composer of the international hit “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen.” Boris thought they could collaborate on a series of operettas. Each man played a few of his own tunes on the rehearsal piano. Before George hit his stride, Sholom shook his head. “The two of us are no pair,” he said. “We have totally different approaches in music.” Afterward, whenever the musicians met, George would pump Sholom’s hand delightedly and tell anyone within listening distance, “If he had agreed to become my partner, I would now be a composer in the Yiddish theater.”
Meantime, Ira, on his own track, was graduating from high school, reading a book a week, working odd jobs, and attending City College classes with his boyhood pal E. Y. “Yip” Harburg (later Harold Arlen’s lyricist for The Wizard of Oz). The two young men tried out light verse in an undergraduate publication, writing on equal terms, until Yip announced that his favorite book of poetry was W. S. Gilbert’s Bab Ballads. Ira informed him that the rhymes were only 50 percent of the story; music accompanied those words. This was news to Yip, who got an invite to the Gershwins’ home to hear the score of H.M.S. Pinafore on their Victrola. “There were all the lines I knew by heart,” Harburg later wrote. “I was dumbfounded, staggered!”
Ira yearned to play Gilbert to his brother’s Sullivan. The trouble was, a young lyricist named Irving Caesar had already taken the position. Irving and George enjoyed working together; they turned out one catchy song in just 15 minutes. A few months later, the composer contrived to get an invitation to a party attended by Al Jolson, the most popular entertainer of the day. Gershwin worked his way to the piano and performed his and Irving’s “Swanee.” Jolson loved the song so much he interpolated it into his already-running Broadway show, Sinbad. In 1919, the phonograph record sold more than 2 million copies; you could find the sheet music in almost every parlor in the nation. George wrote several more songs with Caesar—though none as popular as “Swanee”—and then teamed with B. G. De Sylva for a series of light Ziegfeld Follies–style Broadway revues called George White’s Scandals.
The third year of the Gershwin/De Sylva collaboration produced a breakthrough piece, Blue Monday, in which George gave notice that he was no longer content in Tin Pan Alley. He intended to be nothing less than the bridge between American popular music and classical music. Wrote biographer Goldberg, “It was the heyday of the new jazz, and Gotham was in the midst of a concurrent Negrophilia.” Gershwin seized the moment and composed a one-act opera based on American themes. Set in a Harlem barroom, Blue Monday concerned a couple whose romance ended in violence. Reviewers dismissed the simplistic plot, but most found the music beguiling. The New York Sun critic had an especially clear crystal ball: “Here at last is a genuinely human plot of American life, set to music in the popular vein, using jazz only at the right moments, the sentimental song, the Blues, and above all, a new and free ragtime recitative. True, there were crudities, but in it we see the first gleam of a new American musical art.”
But George was still a songwriter first and serious composer second. Even while he worked with other lyricists, he brought in his brother for occasional “singles,” offering them to vaudeville and Broadway headliners. One, “The Real American Folk Song,” was the first all-Gershwin number to say something about the country and its new music:
The real American folk song is a rag—
A mental jag—
A rhythmic tonic for the chronic blues,
The critics called it a joke song, but now
They’ve changed their tune
And they like it somehow.
For it’s inoculated
With a syncopated
Sort of meter,
Than a classic strain . . .
The real American folk song—
A master stroke song—
IS A RAG!
The key to that song is the word “syncopated,” indicating emphases on the unexpected beats. Traditional music, classic and pop, relies on a standard rhythm: four-four time, for example, would count off one, two, three, four. Syncopation, in contrast, would be one two, three four, a refreshment for the ear but hell for the lyricist, especially an exacting one like Ira, who soon became known by his sobriquet: the Jeweler.
Pop diva Nora Bayes agreed to sing “Folk Song” in her revue, Ladies First, at the Broadhurst Theater. It was the first time Ira had ever heard one of his works performed for an audience, and he hungered for more applause.
But the brothers still had a way to go before their paths truly converged. Now that Ira had proved himself in the theater, he found himself collaborating with Vincent Youmans on a couple of undistinguished shows, while George established his reputation with half a dozen Broadway smashes, working with Caesar, De Sylva, and other wordsmiths.
Then, in 1921, the famous brother persuaded a producer to let him write with an unknown talent named Arthur Francis. George described the lyricist as “a college kid with loads of talent.” The kid, of course, was Ira, who had concocted his pseudonym from the first names of his younger siblings. The team provided a study in contrasts; it was hard to believe that they shared the same parents. George was a dynamo—handsome, agile, mercurial, a smoker and chewer of cigars. Energy seemed to radiate from his fingers and eyes. A Gershwin number described him perfectly: “Oh, I Can’t Sit Down!” Ira was a worrier—pudgy, contemplative, a pipe-smoking personification of another Gershwin song: “I Won’t Say I Will, I Won’t Say I Won’t.”
Their first musical, A Dangerous Maid, enjoyed modest success in 1921; so did For Goodness Sake in 1922. Neither production featured any hits; that sort of triumph would wait another two years. By then, George had established himself as America’s first crossover musician, linking the raucous nightclub and the decorous concert hall in something he called Rhapsody in Blue. Conductor Paul Whiteman remembered the audience at Aeolian Hall on the epochal afternoon of February 12, 1924. In addition to Sergei Rachmaninoff, Victor Herbert, and Jascha Heifetz, it included “vaudevillians, concert managers come to have a look at the novelty, Tin Pan Alleyites, opera stars, flappers, all mixed up higgledy-piggledy.” That motley group reflected Gershwin’s rhapsody, played by the composer himself. From the first clarinet glissando to the fluent chords in the middle to the broad melodic finale, Rhapsody in Blue enthralled the audience. All of haute New York seemed caught in the skeins of George’s music. It suggested the rhythms of black jazz, the melancholy strains of Yiddish folk melodies, the kinetic force of Manhattan in the Speakeasy Era, as well as the art of the Old Masters.
The crowd went wild, and even though a few critics carped at the composer’s use of “colored jazz music,” most were intrigued. The New York Herald critic was typical: “Mr. Gershwin will be heard from often, and one music lover earnestly hopes that he will keep to the field in which he is a free and independent creator, and not permit himself to be led away into the academic groves and buried in the shadows of ancient trees.”
Not a chance. By the time the buzz died down, the 25-year-old was already at work on a new show with his brother. During the composition of Lady Be Good, produced in 1924, Arthur Francis disappeared. For the first time, a musical unabashedly presented itself as the work of George and Ira Gershwin. It starred two former vaudevillians, Fred and Adele Astaire, and contained bursts of poetry and melody that would enter the American repertoire, including the title number, “The Man I Love,” and “Fascinating Rhythm.” George had admired Fred’s work since his vaudeville days; after watching one routine backstage he asked, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could write a musical show and you could be in it?” Well, now George had written one, and Fred and his sister were its leads. Everyone who saw Lady knew they were at the beginning of something special—the confluence of the Astaires and the Gershwins. In the next decade, Adele would retire, but Fred would carry on. With a new partner he would lead George and Ira far up on the stairway to paradise.
Even in the Roaring Twenties, the Gershwins had a few detractors, but critics had never meant much to George. It was Ira who took them seriously, forever revising his verse, aiming for a Platonic ideal that he never quite achieved. After Ira’s emergence as a major lyricist, almost all of his colleagues wrote salutes to the man’s industry and exactitude. But there is a notable exception. In an ungenerous (and inaccurate) assessment, Stephen Sondheim commented, “It’s rare in an Ira Gershwin lyric where you don’t feel the sweat because he’s shoving so many rhymes in.” By contrast, My Fair Lady lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, who knew a thing or two about rhyme and rhythm, wrote that he was “overwhelmed by the wonderfully slangy sentimentality and ingenious versatility of Ira.” Lerner’s was the people’s voice, too. For every Sondheim phrase that has worked its way into the common language—“send in the clowns,” say—Ira Gershwin could easily provide ten: “lady be good,” “nice work if you can get it,” “our love is here to stay,” “stairway to paradise,” “someone to watch over me,” “ ’s wonderful,” “how long has this been going on?,” “I got rhythm,” “it ain’t necessarily so,” “they can’t take that away from me,” to name a few.
Moreover, unlike Cole Porter, Noel Coward, or Sondheim himself, Ira seldom had the luxury of writing music to accommodate his words. George’s music came first, the headlong tempi demonstrating the composer’s pep—today it would be called gusto on steroids. The speed of “Fascinating Rhythm,” for example, made Ira hurry his verse:
You’ve got me on the go!
I’m all a-quiver!
What a mess you’re making!
The neighbors want to know
Why I’m always shaking
Just like a flivver.
By the time of Oh, Kay! in 1926, though, George had learned to write for onstage characters. His yearning, blues-tinted melodies now began to mark the second Gershwin style, one that concerned itself with emotion and tempo. “Someone to Watch over Me” is typical of this period, George using a poignant, drawn-out theme, Ira matching him with the tangy assertions of a Jazz Age dreamer:
Although he may not be the man some
Girls think of as handsome,
To my heart he’ll carry the key.
Won’t you tell him, please,
To put on some speed,
Follow my lead?
Oh, how I need
Someone to watch over me.
Gilbert Seldes, the first American critic to take the popular arts seriously, worried that George might be going effete and highbrow with his serious concert music. In Esquire, he grumbled: “It is as if Gershwin were writing for the five thousand people who go to the Lido, know the best club in London, can’t count above 21 in New York, and depend on [society hostess] Elsa Maxwell for a good time.”
But Oh, Kay! put these fears to rest. Gertrude Lawrence sang the lead number, and, as the composer recalled, she had the stage to herself. “It was all very wistful, and, on opening night, somewhat to the surprise of the management, Miss Lawrence sang the song to a doll. This doll was a strange looking object I found in a Philadelphia toy store and gave to her with the suggestion that she use it in the number. The doll stayed in the show for the entire run.”
Just as George’s affecting new music and fascinating rhythms became his signature, the argot of the times became Ira’s ID. In Funny Face, he stood Broadway on its ear by fracturing the word “it’s” into pieces, using only the last consonant:
’S wonderful! ’S marvelous—
You should care for me!
’S awful nice! ’S Paradise—
’S what I love to see!
My dear, it’s four-leaf-clover time;
From now on my heart’s working overtime.
And in “How Long Has This Been Going On?” he turned an exclamation into the personification of a beautiful girl:
I could cry salty tears;
Where have I been all these years?
Tell me now:
How long has this been going on?
With royalties pouring in, George and Ira moved their parents and siblings to a large West Side apartment. Ira courted and wed Lenore Strunsky, but the marriage barely interrupted the brothers’ collaboration. In 1929, they rented adjoining penthouses at 33 Riverside Drive, where Ira was usually content to stay at home fussing over nuances and phrases, while George was always happy to attend a party, provided that his host had a grand piano on which he could regale the guests with a medley of his melodies played con brio. When not committed to a show, George traveled to London and the Continent, searching out conductors and composers. Introduced to Maurice Ravel in Paris, he expressed a wish to study with the maestro. Replied Ravel, “But I was coming to America to study with you.” A probably apocryphal version of the story has George asking Stravinsky for lessons, with the Russian, mindful of Gershwin’s huge income, responding, “How about you give me some lessons?”
At about this time, recalled playwright S. N. Behrman, George “was becoming one of the most eligible bachelors in America; there was curiosity among his friends from the beginning as to who the girl would be.” There had been brief liaisons with starlets, a long-term romance with composer Kay Swift, and a serious fling with a “physical culture” teacher, whom George called the Dream Girl. In the midst of that last romance, Behrman received a call from Ira with “some devastating news. He hadn’t the heart to tell George. He begged me to relieve him of this disagreeable chore. I took on the job. I went up to George’s room; he was working on the Concerto in F. He played me a passage; he completed a variation on it.
“ ‘George,’ I said, ‘I have bad news for you. Dream Girl is married.’ His brown eyes showed a flicker of pain. He kept looking at me. Finally, he spoke. ‘Do you know?’ he said, ‘If I weren’t so busy, I’d feel terrible.’ ”
The Concerto, debuting at Carnegie Hall, showed that Rhapsody in Blue was no fluke. George had no intention of abandoning his first love, the Broadway stage, but the ambitious composer never lost sight of his second love, the concert stage. Just when he began thinking of another, longer piece, though, a third love came along—the sound stage. Hollywood beckoned, and George and Ira went west. Their first film, Delicious, appeared in 1931, as the Depression settled over the land. The score was unremarkable; the movie bombed.
Other teams might have wallowed in sunshine and self-pity. The Gershwins packed up, returned to Broadway—and won the Pulitzer Prize. When George S. Kaufman observed, “Satire is something that closes on Saturday night,” he obviously forgot the book he had confected for Of Thee I Sing, a hilarious send-up of American presidential politics. Although many of the topical numbers have dated, songs like “Who Cares?” remain evergreen:
If the sky cares to fall in the sea?
Who cares what banks fail in Yonkers,
Long as you’ve got a kiss that conquers,
Why should I care?
Life is one long jubilee,
So long as I care for you
And you care for me.
The penultimate line is often misquoted. Performers tend to sing “As long as I care for you.” The Jeweler, ever grammatical, knew better.
In the next two years, the Gershwins came up with three new shows—in the 1930s, 40 musicals might open in a season—but George was restless, convinced that he could take his work to a higher plane. Back in 1926, he had read Porgy, a poignant novel by DuBose Heyward depicting the lives of impoverished southern blacks. Since the debut of Blue Monday, the composer had itched to write a full-length “folk opera” using jazz, blues, and classical themes. Set against a backdrop of African-Americana, Porgy seemed to offer an ideal mix of tragedy, comedy, and ethnicity.
George anxiously arranged to meet Heyward. The novelist was not what he expected. For starters, he was a southern white aristocrat—an ancestor had signed the Declaration of Independence. Yet Heyward had known poverty intimately, after the early death of his parents, when the traumatized boy dropped out of school and went to work on the Charleston docks. There he learned about the lives and loves of black folk and determined to write about them. Porgy became a bestseller and put him on the map. Heyward knew of Gershwin’s work, but he, too, was surprised by his soon-to-be collaborator. “My first impression remains with me and is singularly vivid,” the novelist wrote. “A young man of enormous physical and emotional vitality, who possessed the faculty of seeing himself quite impersonally and realistically, and who knew exactly what he wanted and where he was going. At that time he had numerous Broadway successes to his credit, and his Rhapsody in Blue had placed him in the front ranks of American composers. It was extraordinary, I thought, that in view of a success that might well have dazzled any man, he could appraise his talent with such complete detachment. And so we decided then that some day when we were both prepared we would do an operatic version of my simple Negro beggar of the Charleston streets.”
That day came in 1935, when DuBose, Ira, and George went to work on Porgy and Bess. Ira’s characteristically modest notes on “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’ ” are instructive. DuBose took George’s melody back to Charleston after discussing the subject of the song and what the words had to convey. “Two weeks later,” wrote Ira, “DuBose sent me a version that had many useable lines; many, however, looked good on paper but were awkward when sung. This is no reflection on DuBose’s ability. It takes years and years of experience to know that such a note cannot take such a syllable, that many a poetic line can be unsingable, that many an ordinary line fitted into the proper musical phrase can sound like a million. So on this song I did have to do a bit of ‘polishing.’ All in all, I’d consider this a 50-50 collaborative effort.”
Since its first run at the Alvin Theater, Porgy and Bess has played all over the globe, with at least a dozen revivals in New York, including one at the Metropolitan Opera. But its first run proved short-lived. Most key reviewers held the work at arm’s length. Composer/critic Virgil Thomson wrote that “Gershwin does not even know what an opera is”; others called Porgy “a hybrid” and “an aggrandized musical show.” The notices kept the public away. Though the Alvin slashed ticket prices, the cast still played to half-filled houses, and after 124 performances the final curtain rang down.
Emotionally drained, the Gershwins treated themselves to separate vacations. George went to Mexico, Ira and Lenore cruised to Trinidad. They returned, says George’s most scrupulous biographer, Edward Jablonski, to find that “word had begun to trickle eastward that Hollywood was interested in the Gershwins”—again. Yet the interested parties feared that George might consider himself above the cinema. George sent an assuring wire to his agent: “Rumors about highbrow music ridiculous . . . am out to write hits.”
That he was. RKO assigned the Gershwins to score Shall We Dance, starring their old colleague Fred Astaire and his partner on six earlier pictures, Ginger Rogers. Dance critic Arlene Croce notes: “No dancers ever reached a wider public, and the stunning fact is that Astaire and Rogers, whose love scenes were their dances, became the most popular team the movies have ever known.” This team embodied the Gershwin spirit—their romantic tribulations solved in upbeat numbers; their unforced sophistication gilding everything they touched; their cool, witty, wholly American good humor whisking the clouds away. Like George and Ira, they made everything seem fluent, effortless. It was the kind of ease that could only come after months of labor and attention to detail.
No wonder that practically every number was a smash. Astaire took “They All Laughed” and ran:
They all laughed at Christopher Columbus
When he said the World was round.
They all laughed when Edison recorded sound. . . .
They all said we never could be happy,
They laughed at us—and how!
But ho, ho, ho!
Who’s got the last laugh now?
In his memoir, Lyrics on Several Occasions, Ira recalls the song’s genesis. “In the Twenties not only the stock market but the self-improvement business boomed. One dance-school advertisement, for instance, featured, ‘They all laughed when I sat down to play the piano.’ So the phrase ‘they all laughed’ germinated and estivated in the back of my mind for a dozen years until the right climate and tune popped it out as a title.”
“Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” with its cascade of pronunciations, became another audience favorite:
You say eether and I say eyether,
You say neether and I say nyther;
Eether, eyether, neether, nyther—
Let’s call the whole thing off.
And “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” entered the pantheon of cinematic love songs:
We may never, never meet again
On the bumpy road to love,
Still I’ll always, always keep
The mem’ry of—
The way you hold your knife,
The way we danced ’til three,
The way you changed my life—
No, no, they can’t take that away from me.
As Alec Wilder shrewdly observes in his definitive American Popular Song, the Depression years marked the Gershwins’ greatest popularity. And since George was “rarely given to sad songs, what could have been a more welcome palliative for the natural gloom of the times than the consistently insistently cheery sound of his music?”
It went on cheering in George and Ira’s next film, A Damsel in Distress, again starring Astaire. “A Foggy Day (in London Town)” quickly climbed the Hit Parade, and “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” with its conflation of employment and romance, became a Depression anthem:
The man who lives for only making money
Lives a life that isn’t necessarily sunny;
Likewise the man who works for fame—
There’s no guarantee that time won’t erase his name.
The fact is
The only work that really brings enjoyment
Is the kind that is for girl and boy meant.
Fall in love—you won’t regret it.
That’s the best work of all—if you can get it.
Holding hands at midnight
’Neath a starry sky. . . .
Nice work if you can get it,
And you can get it—if you try.
By now George had seen and heard his “serious” work—Concerto in F, Variations on “I Got Rhythm,” Preludes for Piano, An American in Paris—performed in the major concert halls of Europe and the U.S. He had more such projects in mind, but the easy life in California quickly seduced him. He took up oil painting and tennis, and started work on yet another film. After all, he reasoned, he had plenty of time to compose longer pieces; he was only 38. For the Goldwyn Follies, he and Ira wrote some numbers that displeased the studio, and one song that audiences soon knew by heart:
It’s very clear
Our love is here to stay
Not for a year,
But ever and a day.
The radio and the telephone
And the movies that we know
May just be passing fancies—
And in time may go.
But oh, my dear,
Our love is here to stay.
Going a long, long way.
In time the Rockies may crumble,
Gibraltar may tumble
(They’re only made of clay),
But—our love is here to stay.
Alas, there would be no more time for anything. “Love Is Here to Stay” is the last song George Gershwin ever wrote. He had experienced memory lapses during some piano recitals, and in the spring of 1937 suffered from blinding headaches. In the early summer, his personality underwent a disturbing change. Behrman dropped in at the composer’s Beverly Hills home. “It was not the George we all knew,” he remembered. “He was very pale. The light had gone from his eyes. He seemed old.
“I asked him if he felt pain.
“ ‘Behind my eyes,’ he said, and repeated it: ‘behind my eyes.’ I knelt beside him on the sofa and put my hand under his head. I asked if he felt like playing the piano. He shook his head. It was the first refusal I’d ever heard from him.
“ ‘I had to live for this,’ he said, ‘that Sam Goldwyn should say to me: “Why don’t you write hits like Irving Berlin?” ’ ”
Originally dismissed as psychosomatic, the symptoms indicated a grave illness, disclosed when George took an afternoon nap on July 7 and fell into a coma. Brain specialists arrived, and operated the following day. They removed a grapefruit-size tumor, but the damage was fatal: George died on the morning of July 11. “His death seems to me the most tragic thing I have ever known,” wrote George S. Kaufman. As the body went back east by rail, radio stations continually played Gershwin songs. George was buried in Westchester on a rainy July 15, after simultaneous overcrowded services at Temple Emanu-El in New York and B’nai Brith Temple in Hollywood. Earlier, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia had ordered a two-minute memorial silence, observed throughout the five boroughs. Subways stopped in their tracks, as did buses, taxis, and pedestrians. It was as if the nation wanted to freeze the clock forever. Only later could George’s friends console themselves, much as A. E. Housman did with the poem “To an Athlete, Dying Young”:
Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.
Behrman’s memoir is one of many restatements of that theme: “I see that George lived all his life in youth. He was 38 when he died. He was given no time for the middle years, for the era when you look back, when you reflect, when you regret. His rhythms were the pulsations of youth. He reanimated them in those much older than he was. He reanimates them still.”
But for Ira, no words sufficed to express his state of mind. It was as if he had lost one of his hands. Because he remained under contract to Sam Goldwyn and because he believed in professionalism over self-indulgence, he completed the rest of the songs for the Follies. Vernon Duke composed the new tunes. En route, says Ira’s biographer, Philip Furia, Duke “took down a melody Ira sang for a verse for ‘Love Is Here to Stay’ ”; Ira’s lyric registers his own distraught state of mind:
The more I read the papers,
The less I comprehend
The world and all its capers
And how it all will end.
Nothing seems to be lasting. . . .
The next months were a blur of melancholy. Then one day, Ira recalled, “I got to the record player and somehow found myself putting on the Fred Astaire recordings of the Shall We Dance score—most of which had been written in that very room less than a year before. In a few moments the room was filled with gaiety and rhythm, and I felt that George, smiling and approving, was there listening with me—and grief vanished.”
Grief would return in waves, though, and three years passed before Ira went back into harness. This time it was with composer Kurt Weill, a refugee from Nazi Germany. Weill had collaborated with Bertolt Brecht during the Weimar period, composing the music for stinging cabaret operas like The Threepenny Opera and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. In the U.S., he found work on Broadway, writing Knickerbocker Holiday with Maxwell Anderson, a show that featured Weill’s first American hit, “September Song.” Playwright/director Moss Hart sought the composer out for a new kind of project. Having undergone psychoanalysis, Hart envisioned an unconventional demi-opera about the id, the ego, and the superego, full of dream sequences and subconscious revelations. Weill was his first choice to write the music, but who would supply the lyrics? Lorenz Hart? Drank too much. Oscar Hammerstein II? Too sentimental. What about Ira Gershwin? He fired off a telegram, explaining his idea. Ira thought about it for days, realized that he had stagnated for too long, and signed on to write the rhymes for the musical, then titled I Am Listening.
By the time Hart’s show opened at the Colonial in 1941, it had a new title: Lady in the Dark. The musical focused on the tribulations of a women’s magazine’s neurotic editor, played by Gertrude Lawrence, and the dreams that revealed her inner conflicts. The tender ballad “My Ship” enjoyed immediate popularity; a punning song about marriage, “It’s Never Too Late to Mendelssohn,” announced that Ira’s wit was intact, and the patter song “Tchaikowsky” made a star of an unknown, Danny Kaye, when he rattled off the names of more than 50 Russian composers in less than a minute. The final stanza always drew an ovation that lasted longer than the number itself:
There’s Liadoff and Karganoff,
And Dargomyzski, Stcherbatcheff,
Mussorgsky, and Gretchaninoff
And Glazounoff and Caesar Cui,
Stravinsky and Gretchaninoff
Rumshinsky and Rachmaninoff,
I really have to stop, the subject has been dwelt
Lady in the Dark ran for two years and became a major film vehicle for Ginger Rogers in 1944. But Ira didn’t capitalize on his most recent success. For the next several years, he noted, “I did little else but read, answer letters and turn down scripts.” Moving from flat to flat in his youth, coupled with the back-and-forth of Beverly Hills to Broadway as an adult, had left its mark. Even though Ira considered himself “a New Yorker first and last,” he and Lenore settled into a big house in Beverly Hills, where they would spend the rest of their lives. Hollywood seemed right for him; in 1945, MGM produced Rhapsody in Blue, a worshipful, inaccurate screen biography of George Gershwin. Robert Alda (Alan’s father) played the composer rather listlessly, but no matter: the music was glorious, and the public ate it up. Once again, George’s soaring melodies and irresistible beats filled the airwaves.
From here on, Ira would work with the “A” list of American popular composers—Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Burton Lane, Arthur Schwartz, Harry Warren—yet he would write for Broadway only twice more, and neither occasion turned out well.
The first show, The Firebrand of Florence, began happily; he and Kurt Weill based it on Benvenuto Cellini’s delightfully indiscreet memoirs. Many of the songs saluted Ira’s idol, W. S. Gilbert:
We’re soldiers of a duchy
Whose Duke is very touchy,
Exploding on the slightest provocation.
The ducal front we back up,
And we’re supposed to hack up
The enemies who cause him aggravation.
Night and day we have to drill—
He doesn’t like us standing still.
But the public, weary of war, had already turned away from the past, toward modern sounds and contemporary thoughts. Firebrand closed after 43 performances. Bowing to the zeitgeist, Ira next worked with Arthur Schwartz on a “so-called ‘smart’ show” about divorce, with a gag-filled book by George S. Kaufman. During the Boston tryout of Park Avenue, a friend of Schwartz’s saw the show gratis. “She cried through most of it,” Ira recalled. “She had recently been divorced and just couldn’t take it.” Neither could the New York audience. “No-fault” divorces had yet to enter the lexicon of meaningless jargon. In those less irresponsible days, a marital split was no laughing matter, and no singing one either. The musical closed after 72 performances. “Heigh-ho,” the lyricist wrote a friend, “guess I can’t afford to do any more flops—two in a row is about six too many.”
Ira returned to film work, composing rhymes to his brother’s unpublished “trunk” music for the Ginger Rogers vehicle The Shocking Miss Pilgrim. This, too, flopped. Ira announced his retirement. At 50, he said, he was “determined to rest.”
He would break that rest several times. He collaborated with Harry Warren on The Barkleys of Broadway, the last film to star Astaire and Rogers. It was not easy. P. G. Wodehouse once told Ira that the greatest challenge in lyric writing was to come across a section of melody requiring three double rhymes. In “Shoes with Wings On,” that was exactly what Ira encountered. “I well realized what this special torture was,” he wrote, “when I tackled ‘wings on.’ When I finally wound up with ‘wings on—strings on—things on,’ I felt like a suddenly unburdened Atlas”:
I give Aladdin the lamp,
Midas the gold.
Who needs a wizard or magician
In the old tradition?
That’s not competition—
I’ve got ’em beat by a thousandfold!
’Cause I’ve got shoes with wings on—
And living has no strings on.
I put those magic things on,
And I go flying with ’em
And the town is full of rhythm
And the world’s in rhyme.
But these were minor triumphs in a career rapidly winding down. Gene Kelly’s 1951 film, An American in Paris, with its sweet Gershwin tunes, reminded the world of how much it had lost in 1937. The melodies, at once heartbreakingly beautiful and jaunty, evoked a long-gone romantic era, a time before irony and doubt had replaced wit and feeling. It reminded Ira, too, of how lonely he had been all these years. In palmier days, he had written a British-tinged song:
Stiff upper lip! Stout fella!
When you’re in a stew—
Sober or blotto,
This is your motto:
Keep muddling through!
Now he took the words seriously, muddling through as best he could, aware that the Jeweler was not much in demand.
And then, in 1954, Warner Brothers assigned him to work with Harold Arlen on the Judy Garland film A Star Is Born. “The Man That Got Away” came from this coupling, and with the exception of “Over the Rainbow,” with Arlen’s music and Yip Harburg’s lyrics, no other song has ever been so identified with the singer; it became an integral part of every Garland concert. Her phrases gave desperation a human face:
The night is bitter,
The stars have lost their glitter;
The winds grow colder,
And suddenly you’re older—
And all because of the man that got away.
No more his eager call,
The writing’s on the wall;
The dreams you’ve dreamed have all
Typically, Ira had a reason for the ungrammatical title—”that” instead of “who.” This “had to be ‘The Man That Got Away,’ ” he explained, “because, actually, the title hit me as a paraphrase of the angler’s ‘You should have seen the one that got away.’ ”
After A Star Is Born came some undistinguished efforts—The Country Girl in 1954; Kiss Me, Stupid ten years later. Between these films, Ira tended to the things that mattered most to him: editing and annotating the works of George and Ira Gershwin. In the course of his activities, he came across an unused song, “I’m a Poached Egg,” for Shall We Dance. He set new words to it, in the style of a Cole Porter “list” song:
I’m a poached egg
Without a piece of toast,
Yorkshire pudding without a beef to roast,
A haunted house
That hasn’t got a ghost—
When I’m without you.
I’m a lawyer
Who never won a case,
I’m a missile
That can’t get into space,
Just a poached egg
With egg upon its face—
Each time I’m without you.
In one sense, it was just a job, a comic tune for Dean Martin to warble in a second-rate farce. In another, it was an expression of Ira’s state of mind, kept from sight and sound since his brother’s death.
Ira went on puttering with items in the Gershwin estate, always modest to a fault. Whenever a tribute occurred, he always seemed astonished. After a Beltway celebration of the brothers, he asked a friend, “Did you ever think you’d see the day that Ira Gershwin would be a guest of the Library of Congress?”
He died peacefully in 1983 at 85, still organizing memoirs of the past. Just how he felt about rock ’n’ roll and rap, heavy metal, and the rest of the pop parade went unrecorded. But one can imagine. These are the days when the three double rhymes of rapper Chamillionaire’s chant have become: “Next to the PlayStation controller/There’s a full clip in my pistola/Turn a jacker into a coma.” And when Bon Jovi gets standing ovations for singing, “When the world keeps trying to drag me down,/I’ve gotta raise my hands, gonna stand my ground./Well I say, Have a nice day.” A jeweler would be out of place in this environment, on the Broadway that houses Spamelot and in the Hollywood that produced The Producers.
We are all poached eggs now.
Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images