The Lost Gershwin

What might George Gershwin have accomplished if he hadn’t died at 38?

George Gershwin at the piano, 1927.

George Gershwin at the piano, 1927.

Photo via Edward Steichen/Library of Congress

This essay is adapted from The Art of Youth: Crane, Carrington, Gershwin, and the Nature of First Acts, by Nicholas Delbanco, out now from New Harvest.

The New York Times recently showcased two articles on Rhapsody in Blue, George Gershwin’s groundbreaking composition of 90 years ago. One, in the Arts section, announced a planned recreation of the debut concert for Rhapsody. Though the original Aeolian Hall has disappeared, participants will do their best to re-enact Paul Whiteman’s staging of the now classic concert piece and hundreds will, once again, cheer. And, two, a piece in the Business section said United Airlines puts its customers on hold to the canned repetition of R hapsody,their musical accompaniment to the “please hold” announcement. Those who must wait for a live respondent grow heartily sick of the piece.

Not bad for a composition that premiered on Feb. 12, 1924, and for a composer dead in 1937. Gershwin was born two centuries ago and—witness those newspaper articles—remains wholly current today. On radio stations, in cabarets and nightclubs, on college campuses and summer stock platforms, around the piano in a private home where friends share sheet music and gather to sing—in venue after venue his work lives. Our culture is in important ways enriched by his contributions; his melodies and “folk opera” and orchestral compositions are part of the national song. The upward thrust of his career seemed, in effect, unstoppable—or, rather, what stopped him was death. So one cannot keep from asking, What if, what else, what next?

It’s the problem posed by every man and woman dead in the throes of invention while still at the top of their form. George Gershwin was working till the end, he collapsed almost literally at the piano keyboard and the conductor’s podium; he was full of projects in his final days. He did complain, in his last period, of headaches and exhaustion—but those who knew him thought it likely that he would recover; a trip to Europe or a week of tennis would no doubt prove restorative, and he’d be back on stage again with his customary élan. He’d been “down and out” before, but always only briefly, and the trajectory was always, only, up.

This held true from the beginning. From the modest house at 242 Snediker Ave. in Brooklyn where he was born, to penthouse apartments in Manhattan and lavish suites in Hollywood, his is the career path of the American dream. Prosperity was new to him, and as soon as it arrived he embraced its tailored trappings; with a starlet on his arm and expensive cigar in his manicured hand, he became the very image of a dashing young celebrity. The playboy romancer and man-about-town were roles Gershwin took to smilingly; his name glowed in actual lights. Photographers trailed him; gossip columnists made much of him; when he traveled he traveled first-class.

The family began with no such wealth; his father, Morris (Moishe) Gershowitz, came by himself to the United States from St. Petersburg in 1890. His mother, Rosa Bruskin, left Russia in 1892; the two immigrants met again in New York (according to family lore, they had known each other in St. Petersburg) and were married on July 21, 1895. George Gershwin—the second of the couple’s four children—was born on Sept. 26, 1898 as Jacob Gershvin, the name Gershowitz had assumed upon arrival in America. After he became a professional musician; he would change the spelling of the family name to “Gershwin”; his older brother Ira (whose given name was Israel) and the others followed suit.

Poverty was, early on, an issue; hard work was a necessity, not a choice. As Robert Kimball and Alfred Simon put it in The Gershwins, Gershwin’s father “was, at the time of his marriage, a foreman in a factory that made fancy uppers for 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 near 129th Street, part owner of another restaurant on the Lower East Side, owner of a cigar store, owner of a billiard parlor, of a bakery, even a venture into bookmaking at Belmont Park.” Though they were never destitute, the family was elevated by their children’s earnings to what must have felt like a noble condition; not for nothing are so many of the Gershwin brothers’ songs about a realized dream.

That dream was of increase and plenty: achievement unalloyed. The art of youth appears incarnate in this artist who wrote “Swanee” when not yet 21; it was recorded by Al Jolson some months later, on Jan. 8, 1920. This “first act” sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and it would prove a sturdy rung on the ladder of success. Then, by the time of Rhapsody, something somehow happened that lifted the composer from the creation of the ordinary—jazz and Dixieland and torch songs and dance tunes, no matter how inventive—to the extraordinary. It transpired at that moment in our history when the audience was ready to shift allegiance from the march-along music of the 19th century to the blues-tinged anthem of a new America. Through an alchemical process we recognize after-the-fact but can neither render formulaic nor by sheer will repeat, he was joining his own genius to the nation’s genius. From “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” to the blues of W.C. Handy, from klezmer music and the stride piano of Fats Waller to the jazz of Jelly Roll Morton, from Tin Pan Alley to The Cotton Club in Harlem, contemporary idioms were added to the crucible; the perform-for-hire aspects of Gershwin’s early efforts became an original fusion and—to pursue the trope of alchemy—transmuted into gold. From the son of Russian immigrants, a new American art form emerged.

As songwriter, composer, performer, Gershwin has few if any equals in this nation’s history, and none who came to prominence so young. When I asked William Bolcom—himself no small musical presence—to name a great American opera, he said there were six of them. And their names were “Porgy and Bess,” “Porgy and Bess,” “Porgy and Bess,” “Porgy and Bess,” “Porgy and Bess” and, finally, “Porgy and Bess.”

* * *

The range of Gershwin’s endeavors was wide, the scope of achievement broad. Though single-minded in his focus on a career in music, he had other interests as well. He rode and swam and golfed and boxed with omnivorous enthusiasm, he danced and played tennis with skill. The profession of composer is a sedentary one, and his athletic diversions no doubt served as physical release from long hours at the keyboard: a kind of counterpoint. He read, he liked to travel, he wrote with colloquial flair. He was a serious amateur painter and, soon enough, a collector.

No matter what Gershwin engaged in he engaged it fully. His appetites were large. Such hunger was not literal, however; he was meticulous about his diet and to the end of his brief life stayed slim. (His digestive problems and his “nervous stomach” were well known and much discussed; it’s possible, indeed, that the friends and doctors who failed to pay attention to his complaints of failing health ascribed to hypochondria and even to hysteria what was a mortal condition.) Yet the prevailing recollections of his acquaintances and friends attest to a sweetness of nature, a life-of-the-party brio and love of entertainment. All such accounts speak of his conviviality. If there were a piano in the room, he’d sit and improvise, then launch into a song. Music poured forth from Gershwin in full flood and at the slightest prompting: no hint of reticence here. His was a compulsion to perform.

Here’s a bare-bones summary of the curtain call. On the evening of July 9, 1937, George Gershwin collapsed and lapsed into a coma; he was rushed to Cedars of Lebanon hospital, where he was at long last diagnosed with a brain tumor. There were frantic efforts to secure the most accomplished surgeons and neurologists; special planes were commandeered for transcontinental flights. A medical team assembled and did what then seemed possible, but the patient never regained consciousness. On July 11, 1937, at the age of 38, and after a five-hour operation, the composer died.

There seems no outer limit to what he might have accomplished; the trajectory he dreamed of was always, only up. George Gershwin did pass through the stages of age, yet he did so much more urgently than those whose time encompasses a fifth or ninth decade. Since the desired end point is the same—a masterpiece—the creative artist whose sojourn is brief must work at a more rapid pace. The least Gershwin did was more than most, his best as good as anything the period can claim. “Art is long and life is brief,” perhaps, but when the art of youth transacts its blithe transformational magic, both art and life are both.

This essay is adapted from The Art of Youth: Crane, Carrington, Gershwin, and the Nature of First Acts, by Nicholas Delbanco, out now from New Harvest.