During his short life from September 1898 to July 1937, George Gershwin composed enough popular and classical music to warrant being called one of America’s greatest musicians.
Adding to the number of existing biographies, Walter Rimler, author of two previous books on music as well as articles and short stories, justifies another account of Gershwin’s life, titled “George Gershwin: An Intimate Portrait,” by his having discovered previously unused source material. Weaving together these new letters and interview records with his diligent research, Rimler has produced a lively narrative that captures Gershwin’s musical triumphs and failures as well as the tragedy and the achievements of his brief life.
Born to Russian Jewish immigrants, Gershwin was the second of four children. Raised on New York City’s Lower East Side, Gershwin became enamored with music at the age of 10 when he heard a fellow student play Dvorak’s “Humoresque.” He began to use the family piano, originally bought for his older brother, Ira. Despite their limited means, his parents recognized that George had talent and arranged for him to get music lessons. By the age of 15, he dropped out of school to work in the music business and six years later, he wrote “Swanee,” which earned him thousands of dollars.
In 1924, after composing for several Broadway shows, Gershwin wrote and performed the original presentation of “Rhapsody in Blue,” which brought him considerable fame. Wealthy and successful, he bought a five-story town house near Riverside Drive and moved his parents and siblings into it.
Living the happy life of a celebrity, Gershwin met James and Katherine Warburg in 1925; Gershwin and Katherine soon began an affair that lasted on and off for the rest of his life. James (Jimmy, as Gershwin called him) was a member of the well-known Jewish banking family and Katherine (Kay), who was not Jewish, was a composer who came from a musical family. The couple had been married for seven years and had three daughters but followed the ethos of the Roaring ’20s with limited marital restraints.
Gershwin, similarly not bound by his affair with Kay, had numerous romances, none of which led to marriage. Although he was not observant, practically all of Gershwin’s friends were Jewish, making Kay an outsider. Even after she divorced Jimmy Warburg, Gershwin did not marry her. They separated in 1936 when George moved to Hollywood to write songs for the movies with his brother, Ira. There, Gershwin complained about fatigue and headaches that were initially misdiagnosed as emotional in origin until it was recognized that he had a brain tumor. An effort to get Dr. Walter E. Dandy of Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, America’s best neurosurgeon, failed but it didn’t matter since the tumor proved inoperable and Gershwin died on July 11, 1937.
Interestingly, about a year later, author Thomas Wolfe was taken from Seattle, where he had become ill, to Baltimore for Dandy to operate. Although this time, Dandy did perform the surgery, it was too late and Wolfe died on Sept. 15, 1938, just before reaching his 38th birthday — about the same age as Gershwin.
In addition to his many show and movie tunes as well as his concert music, Gershwin is known for the folk opera, “Porgy and Bess,” considered by many to be his greatest contribution to American music. Rimler tells the story of its composition at great length. He also mentions the failed efforts to write a Yiddish operetta and an opera based on “The Dybbuk,” S. Ansky’s supernatural story. Rimler explores Gershwin’s troubled relationships with his family, especially his mother and Ira’s wife, his sister-in-law.
This energetically written book adds to our knowledge of a superb composer who, unfortunately, died too early.
(Morton I. Teicher is the founding dean of the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University, and dean emeritus of the School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)