Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Of Thee I Sing

‘Evening we were too tired to go to the Kit-Cat Club where a “George Gershwin Night” was on, so stayed in hotel & played 21.’ This is from a diary kept by Ira Gershwin, the American lyricist born 120 years ago today, while in London on a three month tour with his brother, George. The two brothers, famously, produced some of the most memorable musical hits of the 1920s and 1930s, not least Porgy and Bess, and Ira was the first lyricist to win a Pulitzer Prize - for Of Thee I Sing. There is not much information about Ira’s (few) diaries, but they are held by a charitable trust in San Francisco, and, though accessible to biographers, have never been published.

Israel Gershowitz was born on 6 December 1896 in the Yiddish Theater District of New York City, and was the oldest of four children. His father changed the family name to Gershwine (which later became Gershwin). He attended City College but dropped out, and worked as a cashier in the local Turkish baths. His younger brother, George, was already composing and ‘plugging’ (piano playing in stores selling sheet music) in Tin Pan Alley, when Ira, prompted by George, first became involved in the music business. Initially, he wrote lyrics under a pseudonym so as not to be seen as trading off his brother’s growing reputation. Very soon, though, the brothers were collaborating on their first musical - A Dangerous Maid.

In 1924, Ira and George wrote their first musical for Broadway - Lady, Be Good - which starred Fred and Adele Astaire and ran for 330 performances, transferring later to the West End in London. In 1926, Ira married Leonore Strunsky, and around the same time the brothers decided to live together in a large Manhattan house; this became a kind of artistic and musical hub of creativity. However, after a while, Ira moved to a farm north of the city, and at times George would join him there to work and collaborate. Through the 1920s and 1930s, they wrote music for a dozen successful shows as well as four films, and produced many hits, not least Tip Toes, Oh, Kay, and Funny Face.

In 1932, Gershwin, along with George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Of Thee I Sing. And, in 1935, Ira and George collaborated on Porgy and Bess, a box office failure, but considered by some to be Ira’s best work. Following George’s sudden death in 1937, Ira stepped back from writing for the best part of three years. Thereafter, though, and through the 1940s and into the 1950s, he teamed up with other composers - Jerome Kerm, Harold Arlen and Kurt Weill - writing the lyrics for many notable scores. In his latter years, he mentored several aspiring musicians, and collated and annotated much of his and his brother’s legacy before donating it to the Library of Congress. He died in 1986. More biographical information is available from Gershwin Fan, Wikipedia, George & Ira Gershwin or Bio.com.

Ira Gershwin must have kept a few diaries as they are quoted occasionally in biographies, in particular by Deena Rosenberg in Fascinating Rhythm: The Collaboration of George and Ira Gershwin (1991, University of Michigan Press). Rosenberg’s reference notes lists the Ira Gershwin Archive (IGA) - a collection of scrapbooks and clippings - as the source for diary quotations, and that ‘at present’ the IGA was still housed in Gershwin’s house in Beverly Hills, California. However, a few years earlier, in 1987, the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts (ILGT) were established. When Lenore (Lee) died in 1991, her nephew, Michael Strunsky became much more involved in the Ira Gershwin estate - Trustee of the estate itself and of the two Trusts. In 2000, the organisations - and presumably all the archives - were moved from Beverly Hills to new quarters in downtown San Francisco. Some years later, in 2007, the ILGT began publishing Words Without Music - The Ira Gershwin Newsletter.

In the newsletter’s second edition, also in 2007, the managing editor, Michael Owen published two extracts from a diary Ira Gershwin kept during his three-month trip to Europe (with his wife, George and their young sister Frankie), ‘reviving a habit he had begun in 1916’. Here is the first extract:

22 March 1928
‘Up at 12. To the Embassy Club with Lee to meet Guy Bolton for lunch. My lunch very nice, too - smoked salmon (everybody eats smoked salmon here), filet of sole marguery, curried veal with chutney, coffee, wine, cake (cocktail & beer). The club was crowded with a lot of important looking men, mostly over 40 and a lot of young women. At the next table to us sat Arnold Bennett, Frederick Lonsdale & 3 other men. After lunch walked Guy down Piccadilly to the theatre where his “Blue Eyes” is rehearsing. Dropped in for a minute, saw John Harwood. Then to Anderson & Sheppard for fittings. Visited some other shops. Evening we were too tired to go to the Kit-Cat Club where a “George Gershwin Night” was on, so stayed in hotel & played 21 with Phil [Berman] & Leo [Robin], losing about £4. Frankie came in about 3 & told us both “This Year of Grace,” the Noël Coward revue opening to-night, & the Kit-Cat affair were great successes. The weather was lovely again to-day & it’s too bad we don’t get up earlier in the morning to do some sight-seeing. Changed $200 worth more of American Express checks to-day making 5 in all.’

As far as I can tell, though, the ILGT has not published any further information about Ira Gershwin’s diaries anywhere on its extensive website; and I haven’t been able to find anywhere online (or in biographies) a list or inventory of diary material Gershwin left behind. Nevertheless, here are several more extracts from the diaries as found in Rosenberg’s book Fascinating Rhythm (in the context of her text).

- ‘Ira read incessantly. The first book he remembered apart from school primers was a nickel novel. “That thin publication with its bright lithographed cover had a tremendous fascination,” he wrote in his diary in 1916. “Sitting by the warm stove, huddled in a chair, I read the marvelous adventures of Young Wild West, his sweetheart, his friends, and all about the claimjumpers on whom he finally and completely turned the tables. I read and reread it at least half a dozen times.” ’

- ‘Meanwhile, Ira enrolled as an English major at the City College of New York in 1914, and his omnivorous reading continued. “Everytime I had a dollar or two to spare,” he recalled, ‘‘I would walk from Second Avenue and Seventh Street to the old Dutton bookshop on 23rd Street to buy various volumes in the catalogue of Everyman’s Library. (Most of the classics - hard linen covers - were only 34 cents.)” He also read twentieth-century fiction and drama; his special favorites were Henry James, George Bernard Shaw, and Theodore Dreiser - in Dreiser’s case, at least in part because of his assaults on the constraints of a still-Victorian culture. “Altogether a great novel,” the twenty-year-old Ira noted in his diary after reading Dreiser’s The Genius, “not one for anaemic individuals, for prudes, for those who dislike anything but the conventional clap-trap of sweet young things by sweet old things.” ’

- ‘Ira was also drawn to the lively writers in the American popular press. During the early decades of this century, some American journalism was characterized by a high degree of literacy, intelligence, and humor. Essays, poems, short stories, and even novels flowed from the pens of a richly endowed generation into newspapers and magazines. “The Tribune Sunday Magazine is without a doubt the cleverest newspaper I have ever seen, with delightful drawings and smart literary sketches,” Ira noted in his diary in 1916. “It combines the wit of Life, chic drawings and sketches of Vanity Fair and Smart Set - and let us not forget the literary New Republic. The daily Tribune (bless its progressive soul!) I could hardly do without. F.P.A. very interesting, Heywood Broun, theatrical critic, delightful, Briggs, artist, human and humorous, S. H. Adams, “Advisor” column, fine editorials full of firm convictions, be they right or wrong, ever forceful, and on literary topics, ever instructive and entertaining.” ’

- ‘For Ira as well as George, Kern’s Princess Theater shows were a revelation. On January 15, 1917, he wrote in his diary: “Love O’ Mike: Kern music, with Harry B. Smith lyrics. Music and lyrics good. Book slow but many originalities. 1st - atmosphere of a house party was sustained throughout by having only young people in the cast (6 and 6) with college boy’s jealousies, etc.; no roues, biases, or mundanes. No chorus. Ira’s first first night.” ’

- ‘Ira kept close track of George’s career. He wrote in his diary on May 21, 1918: “George played Baltimore, Boston, and Washington with Louise Dresser. As yet his firm has printed nothing of his although 4 or 5 of his numbers have been filed away for use when opportunity presents. At present he is rehearsal pianist at the New Amsterdam Roof Garden where the 1918 Ziegfeld Lollies is in preparation.” ’

- ‘Ira still spent a lot of his free time “drawing, reading at the Ottendorfer branch of the Public Library, going to the movies,” supporting himself through a series of odd jobs such as cashier at B. Altman’s department store and business manager for his cousin’s touring carnival show. At twenty-one, he considered himself a “floating soul,” unsure where he would land. Meanwhile, he kept up his diary, taking note of a wide variety of matters that would become useful later on. For instance, Ira used entertainment events to observe human behavior: “The movies and their audience,” he wrote in 1918, “are a good means of studying. Yes. Psychology, ethics, fashions, manner. Manners. Would be’s. Have beens. Never weres. Can’t be’s. Impossibles. And here and there an occasional Is and Are.” ’

- ‘As always, the Gershwins met assorted luminaries. On May 30, 1928, Ira wrote in his diary: “After dinner we drove to Dushkin’s  [the eminent violinist], 160 Rue de l’Université, where was a musical party - a Concerto for two violins by Bach, then Vladimir Horowitz played, then George. Nice formal people there and a nice formal party. Later Horowitz played his study on Carmen, a marvelous technical accomplishment. Dushkin also played [George’s] Short Story and Blue Interlude accompanied by George.’’ ’

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