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George Gershwin

An Intimate Portrait

Walter Rimler

Publication Year: 2009

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. The closest George came to domesticity was his longtime affair with fellow composer Kay Swift. But she remained married to another man while he went endlessly from woman to woman. Only in the final hours of his life did he realize how much he needed her. Fatally ill, unprotected by (and perhaps estranged from) his older brother Ira, he was exiled by Ira's hard-edged wife Leonore from the house that she and the brothers shared, and he died horribly and alone at the age of thirty-eight._x000B__x000B_Nor did Gershwin find a satisfying musical harbor. For years his 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, critics were unable to understand or validate it. Decades would pass before 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 this book, 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.

Published by: University of Illinois Press

Series: Music in American Life

Title Page

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Table of Contents

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1. From Street Kid to Wunderkind

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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...

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2. Falling in Love With Kay

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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...

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3. A Piano Concerto

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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...

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4. Ira Takes a Wife

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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...

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5. Porgy

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pp. 21-27

In the summer of 1926, during rehearsals for Oh, Kay!, Emily gave George a novel she had been reading, a best seller called Porgy written 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...

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6. Paris

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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...

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7. "That Long Drip of Human Tears"

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pp. 34-42

By 1929, Gershwin was once again thinking about opera. Several recent events had made him feel ready. One was the reception given An American in Paris. Although the reviews had been mixed—Herbert Francis Peyser, writing in the New York Telegram, called the piece...

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8. The Losing Streak Begins

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pp. 43-59

In 1930, not only did George have a hit show in Girl 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 called Delicious. The next year, 1931, was even better...

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9. "Something Big"

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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 all-black opera. When the soprano brings down the house with...

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10. "Don't Make It Too Good, George!"

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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...

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11. Kay, Jimmy, and FDR

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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...

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12. The Heart of American Music

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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...

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13. Kay's Divorce

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pp. 87-92

Back in New York in mid-July, the first thing on his agenda was getting ready for the second season of Music 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...

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14. Todd Duncan

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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. The remarkable Robeson—the son of slaves, an all-American football star, a graduate of Columbia Law School, a renowned...

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15. Casting, Rehearsals, and an Omen

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pp. 99-106

Although Gershwin had invited the Theatre Guild directors to hear Duncan sing and to hear his and Ira’s rendition of the Porgy and Bess score, 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...

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16. The Critics Have Their Say

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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...

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17. Limbo

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pp. 115-123

While George was encountering these difficulties with Porgy and Bess, Ira was finding solid success collaborating with others. His show Life 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...

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18. Hollywood Beckons

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pp. 124-129

On February 17, 1936, a few days before Ira left with Leonore and Follies set 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...

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19. Pleasure Island

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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...

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20. Final Concert, Final Affair

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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...

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21. Last Songs

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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...

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22. Epilogue

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pp. 163-173

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...

Author's Note

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pp. 175-178


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pp. 179-190


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pp. 191-204

E-ISBN-13: 9780252093692
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252034442

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: Music in American Life