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George Gershwin: An Intimate Portrait
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Walter gives an overview of the book:

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. He and his siblings received little love from their mother and no direction from their father. Older brother and lyricist Ira managed to create a home when he married Leonore Strunsky, a hard-edged woman who lived for wealth and status. The closest George came to domesticity was through his longtime relationship with Kay Swift. She was his lover, musical confidante, and fellow composer. But she remained married to another man while he went endlessly from woman to woman. Only in the final hours of his life, when they were separated by a continent, did he realize how much he needed her. Fatally ill, unprotected by (and perhaps estranged from) Ira, he was exiled by Leonore from the house she and the...
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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.

He and his siblings received little love from their mother and no direction from their father. Older brother and lyricist Ira managed to create a home when he married Leonore Strunsky, a hard-edged woman who lived for wealth and status. The closest George came to domesticity was through his longtime relationship with Kay Swift. She was his lover, musical confidante, and fellow composer. But she remained married to another man while he went endlessly from woman to woman. Only in the final hours of his life, when they were separated by a continent, did he realize how much he needed her. Fatally ill, unprotected by (and perhaps estranged from) Ira, he was exiled by Leonore from the house she and the brothers shared, and he died horribly and alone at the age of thirty-eight.

Nor was Gershwin able to find a satisfying musical harbor. For years his songwriting 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, the critics were unable to understand or validate it. Decades would pass before this, his most ambitious composition, was universally regarded as one of music’s lasting treasures and before his stature as a great composer became secure.

In George Gershwin: An Intimate Portrait, 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.

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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 possible—for there was not the slightest room in George Gershwin’s make-up for affectation—exclaim, ‘Say, isn’t that good!’”<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[i]<!--[endif]--> His friend, the writer Alexander Woollcott, described him as a “slim, swarthy, brilliant young man who, with his dark cheeks that could flood with color, his flashing smile and his marked personal radiance, did, when serving at the altar we call a piano, achieve a dazzling incandescence.”<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[ii]<!--[endif]--> In playwright Samuel N. Behrman’s words, he “freshly oxygenated” any room he walked into and had “all the rush of the great heady surf of vitality.”

That vitality seemed limitless. He boxed, swam, played a good game of golf, and an even better one of tennis. When away from the piano his fingers would reach for the nearest surface and beat out complicated rhythms, peradiddles. When waiting for an elevator he was liable to break into a tap dance.<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[iii]<!--[endif]--> Fred Astaire recalled that when he and sister Adele were stuck for an exit step during rehearsals for their “Fascinating Rhythm” routine in Lady, Be Good! George jumped up from the piano and demonstrated a move that would work.

 

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<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[i]<!--[endif]--> Isaac Goldberg, In Memoriam: George Gershwin, B’Nai B’rith Magazine, August-September 1937, p. 2

<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[ii]<!--[endif]--> Alexander Woollcott, Long, Long Ago, Viking Press, 1943, p. 100

<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[iii]<!--[endif]--> Kay Swift 1975 interview. Oral History American Music, Yale University. Interviewer: Vivian Perlis.

 

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Note from the author coming soon...

About Walter

I was born in Brooklyn, NY, grew up in Los Angeles, CA, and have lived in the San Francisco Bay Area since attending UC Berkeley (class of '68).

My most recent book is "George Gershwin: An Intimate Portrait" (University of Illinois Press, 2009).

My other...

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