by Murray Ginsberg
Robert Farnon arranged and recorded the music of many of
the great composers. Had those who had passed away remained
alive to hear his arrangements, I'm sure each one, including
the late great George Gershwin would have contacted The
Guv'nor to lavish high praise for his stunning orchestrations
of such gems as Porgy and Bess suite, Love Walked In,
SWonderful and others.
The following passage is borrowed from
a foreword by Richard Rodgers on the first page of a book
titled The Gershwins by Robert Kimball and Alfred Simon
(Atheneum, New York 1973):
"Composers, by tradition, are not a generous
lot. Essentially, we are a breed of men and women concerned
with the arrangement of the same seven notes. We tend to
be somewhat taciturn when it comes to assaying each other's
work, and will often go to extremes to avoid having to pay
them public compliment.
So it ought to be with some misgivings
that I attempt to set down my thoughts on George Gershwin
and his music. In this case, however, I am delighted to
break with tradition and pay my unreserved respects to a
George had an endearing appreciation of
himself in his own work that was quite contagious. When
he had a new song he could hardly wait to marshal his friends
for a first-time-anywhere recital. On this occasion we were
weekend guests at the home of a friend. All was quiet and
relaxed, when suddenly George announced (to no one's surprise)
that he had a new composition. Without further
introduction he sat down and played his just completed symphonic
poem, An American in Paris. I thought it was
superb, and I raved about it. But a little later, as we
were all on our way to the beach for a swim, George caught
up with me and remarked with some puzzlement, "I never knew
you were like that."
I was surprised and asked him what in the
world he meant. Hastily, he clarified, "I didn't know you
could like anyone else's stuff!"
Gershwin's stuff' was marvellous,
and I was crazy about it. I can hardly remember a time when
I didn't know about him. He loved to play the piano. He
played marvellously. Performing was like a shot of adrenalin
to George; he loved to be the life of the party. The best
way to sum up George Gershwin's work is simply:
The Gershwin brothers were born within
two years of each other - Ira on December 6, 1896, and George
on September 26, 1898. Their parents, Rose and Morris Gershwin,
each of whom had emigrated from Russia before their marriage
in 1895, produced two more children, a son Arthur and a
Morris Gershwin, according to George, was
"a very easy-going, humorous philosopher who took things
as they came. He was at the time of his marriage, a foreman
in a factory that made women's shoes. But in the next 20
years he moved his family no less than 28 times as his occupations
shifted - part owner of a Turkish bath on the Bowery, part
owner of a restaurant on Third Avenue, owner of a cigar
store, and other pursuits."
Rose Gershwin, on the other hand, was,
in George's words, "nervous, ambitious and purposeful."
She wanted her children to be educated, feeling that with
an education they could at least become teachers. She opposed
George's desire to become a musician, thinking of such a
career in terms of a $25-a-week piano player. But she did
nothing to stand in George's way when he left school to
take his first job as a pianist.
George and Ira were as dissimilar as two
brothers could be. Almost everything that one was, the other
wasn't. And yet, the various pluses and minuses of these
two very distinct and individually creative men were so
complementary, fitting together as snugly as the parts of
a cleanly cut jigsaw puzzle, that, together, they formed
a remarkably complete whole.
In everything they did they were opposites.
George was open, exuberant, loving the spotlight, an irrepressible
performer. Ira was shy, slow-moving, inhibited.
And yet they functioned together with the
smoothness of a beautifully tooled piece of machinery.
The dynamism of George's personality was
inescapable. Whenever he entered a room, he captured it
instantly. He had an irresistible, infectious vitality,
an overwhelming personal magnetism beyond that of most of
the greatest movie stars.
George loved to play the piano. Whenever
a piano was available, George would sit down and play. Part
of his joy in going to parties was because of the opportunities
they afforded him to play. And what he played was usually
whatever songs he had written for many of his own shows.
Nor was his performing limited to the piano.
He was a great storyteller and had a natural gift for dancing.
If parties gave Gershwin an additional platform for his
considerable talents, they were also the perfect showcase
for a personality that helped give New York in the '20s
so much of the character New Yorkers have come to associate
with those years. New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia claimed
that because of George Gershwin's reputation and his amazing
musical output, New Yorkers were walking taller, smiling
more, and seemed generally happier. Every citizen was proud
to be a New Yorker.
Yet for all the love of self-acclaim that
this seeking out of the spotlight might suggest, George
was generous in his enthusiasm for other composers, helping
to launch the careers of Harold Arlen, Arthur Schwartz,
Vernon Duke, Kay Swift, and others.
On a different level he used a weekly radio
show in 1934 and 1935 called Music By Gershwin,
to promote the songs of his leading contemporaries - Richard
Rodgers, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, Irving
Berlin, all of whom were close friends. According to several
biographers, there was a surprising absence of professional
jealousy amongst them.
George Gershwin's musical output was remarkable.
During his career George wrote the music for at least 25
Broadway shows, the first of which in 1919 was "La
La Lucille" when George was only 20. Others were "Lady
Be Good", "I Got Rhythm", "Strike Up
The Band", "Funny Face", and a folk opera
called "Porgy and Bess", to name a few, as well
as a piano concerto for symphony orchestra called "Rhapsody
When "Rhapsody in Blue" - the
title supplied by brother Ira - was first performed in February
1924, in Aeolian Hall, with Paul Whiteman conducting, the
concert was slammed by the critics as rubbish. They felt
the work contained too much jazz and blue notes, which classical
music must never include.
However, "Rhapsody in Blue" and
his other works were not only acclaimed in America, but
in Europe as well where Gershwin was hailed a genius.
He was also involved in more than a dozen
Hollywood films. And the large number of songs from these
shows and films will live forever in the annals of American
Gershwin did have a problem with one song
however: The Man I Love.
The Man I Love was introduced by
Adele Astaire November 25, 1924, in Philadelphia in a show
called "Lady be Good!" The show was noteworthy
for two reasons: outstanding performances by Fred and Adele
Astaire and a superb score by George and Ira Gershwin.
But after a few "Lady Be Good!"
performances, Gershwin wrote to a friend: "Imagine my discomfort
when the tune received a lukewarm reception that we felt
obliged to take it from the play.
"But my spirits rose again shortly after
this when Lady Mountbatten asked me for a copy of the song
to take back to England. Soon, Mountbatten's favourite band,
the Berkley Square Orchestra, was playing The Man I Love.
Of course, they had no orchestral arrangement, so they faked
an arrangement - that is, they played the song by ear. It
wasn't long before all the dance bands in London had taken
up The Man I Love - also in faked or ear arrangements.
Paradoxically enough, I now had a London song hit on my
hands without being able to sell a single copy."
"However, its out-of-the-theatre popularity
continued to grow, and after considerable success in London
and Paris, The Man I Love was sung by an artist who
has almost been directly responsible for its American success.
I refer to that remarkable personality, Helen Morgan."
In 1928 George Gershwin travelled to London,
Paris, Berlin and Vienna. While in Paris he visited Maurice
Ravel, composer of the Bolero, and other celebrated
works. Both musicians hugged each other on meeting, as though
they were lifelong friends. There was no doubt each had
become a mutual admiration society for the other. When Gershwin
expressed his desire to study with Ravel, the Parisian replied,
"But I was coming to America to study with you."
George Gershwin was so busy making music
that one wonders whether he was ever interested in women.
At first George claimed he was not attracted by the women
he met in Hollywood, but soon found companionship with Elizabeth
Allan and Simone Simone and became very much interested
in Paulette Goddard, whom he met at a party Edward G. Robinson
gave in honour of Igor Stravinsky in March 1937.
But he admitted to Ira's wife Lenore that
marriage would add responsibilities as a husband and father
that would detract from much needed time for composing,
so he never married. Rest assured however, that he had women
constantly throwing themselves at his feet.
In June 1937 George Gershwin, who was visiting
friends in Los Angeles, began complaining about headaches.
He went to a doctor who suggested he should have an x-ray
taken. When he did the doctor told him he couldn't find
anything conclusive, but on July 9 George collapsed into
a coma. Friends contacted Dr. Dandy, an eminent brain surgeon
in Chesapeake Bay who agreed to fly to California to perform
When it was too late to get him there in
time for the operation, they opened up a direct line between
Newark and the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital on the Coast so
Dandy could follow the course of the surgery and offer advice
to the California doctor who wielded the scalpel if needed.
Without regaining consciousness Gershwin
died on the operating table on July 11, 1937. He was 38.
He was buried on a rainy July 15 after
a simple funeral service, attended by 3500 persons at New
York's Temple Emanu-El. Outside the synagogue a crowd of
more than 1000 gathered in the rain behind police barricades
along both sides of Fifth Avenue. Hundreds had been turned
away at the entrance, and policemen were forced to hold
back the crowd.
Earlier, Mayor LaGuardia had ordered a
two-minute silence to be observed throughout New York City
at the precise moment the casket was placed inside the hearse.
I remember it well. I was 14 years old
at the time and remember radio stations across America and
Canada, reporting on the solemn occasion. And later we saw
it in the cinemas when they showed the news before the feature
Every person on the street, every taxi
cab, car and bus stopped, as did the underground trains.
For two minutes the city was frozen in time.
George Gershwin was deemed so important
that the homage paid to him was the same shown only to wartime