Ira Gershwin: The Art of the Lyricist
The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America’s Great Lyricists
The Complete Lyrics of Ira Gershwin
Lyrics on Several Occasions
The Memory of All That: The Life of George Gershwin
The “golden age” of the American popular song is commonly held to run from about 1925 to 1950. One might quibble over the exact dates, but there’s no questioning the form’s range, richness, drive, durability. As it happens, its heyday corresponds with golden periods for other American genres—the Hollywood screwball comedy, the modern novel of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Faulkner, the theatrical renaissance led by O’Neill. But to my mind, none of the others matches Tin Pan Alley for perpetual freshness and replenishment. For anyone susceptible to the music’s spell it’s obvious why James Joyce once remarked that the soul of a culture is to be discovered in its music halls. The songs of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, and Hoagy Carmichael really are “standards” in the broadest sense—not only perennial melodies, but touchstones that crystallize a momentous chapter in our nation’s culture.
If you’re even passingly familiar with Tin Pan Alley’s scattered literature—its biographies, memoirs, album liner notes, playbill pronouncements—you know that the field seems to attract temperaments with a taste for rankings and hierarchies. One is forever coming across some catalog of the five greatest “saloon songs” ever written, the best “list songs,” the finest “sob ballads”—assertions posited in that tone of ferocious, likable partisanship with which a pair of baseball buffs will wrangle over whether DiMaggio or Mays was the better centerfielder.
Who was Tin Pan Alley’s greatest songwriting team? A simple tally of the votes would probably give the nod to Irving Berlin—songwriter and lyricist both, and a resourceful, indefatigable force in American music for half a century. This was the judgment reached by Alec Wilder, whose The American Popular Song remains, a quarter century after its publication, an authoritative guide to the field. Jerome Kern was still more sweeping in his estimation: “Irving Berlin has no place in American music. HE IS AMERICAN MUSIC.” Yet while taking nothing away from Berlin (have any film actors—anytime, anywhere—been blessed with a more magical score than Astaire and Rogers in Top Hat?), my own final allegiance lies with George and Ira Gershwin.
George was only thirty-eight when, in the summer of 1937, he dropped into a coma as the result of a tragically undiagnosed brain tumor and died two days later. Although he and Ira, who was two years his senior, had collaborated on a song as early as 1917, their partnership did not begin in flourishing earnest until 1924. Hence they were a team for only thirteen years—roughly half the span of time allotted to the golden age. Long enough, however, to put together nearly a thousand songs: a mountain of music, in which ran veins of ore remarkable—even by the standards of a golden age—for their purity.
This December marks the centenary of Ira’s birth. He was born in New York City, to Jewish parents themselves born in Russia. The family name was at various times Gershovitz, Gershwine, Gershvin. Like the father’s serial fields of employment—bakery, restaurant, Turkish bath, bookmaker—appellations were fluid in the Gershwin household: Ira, according to some biographers, was actually named Israel but was called Izzy and grew up thinking his name was Isidore; George was Jacob at birth.
Charles Schwartz’s Gershwin: His Life and Music informs us that George’s birth certificate lists Gershwine as the family name; Joan Peyser’s The Memory of All That: The Life of George Gershwin contrarily implies that it’s Gershvin. In this particular case, Schwartz is the one to trust (he supplies a photograph of the certificate in question), but other inconsistencies are less clear-cut. The discrepancies over names (which grew comically chaotic when I read in another biography that Ira’s birth name was not in fact Israel but Isidore) merely underscores the larger contradictions surrounding the brothers. George especially seems to alter shading and contour from one portrait to the next, and although my focus here is Ira, George’s enigmas were obviously integral to the brothers’ collective accomplishment.
Most of the writing about the Gershwins has, understandably, highlighted George, who brought genius to a partnership to which Ira contributed talent. In addition, George—the taller, handsomer, and more sociable of the two, the “ladies’ man” who had affairs with a French countess and Paulette Goddard—had a near-monopoly on glamour; no cocktail party was ever heated up by spicy speculations about what the bespectacled, square-headed, and very married Ira might be up to. Almost proudly self-effacing, Ira was somebody who took satisfaction in being an unshowy show-business professional. It’s an irony he would have appreciated: that so unromantic-looking a man did so much to mint the language of romance in his time.
Ira’s centenary provides a welcome occasion for featuring the partnership’s too-often-neglected figure, and Philip Furia’s Ira Gershwin: The Art of the Lyricist presents itself as a corrective. Furia, a professor of English at the University of Minnesota, for some years now has proceeded on the salutary assumption that the popular song’s union of melody and words isn’t to be fully appreciated until its lyrics and lyricists are scrutinized in isolation. In 1990 he produced a warm-hearted, useful book, The Poets of Tin Pan Alley, intended as a ground-breaking examination of “America’s Great Lyricists.” His new book is likewise warm-hearted, though somewhat less useful; it often feels like a mere extension of the chapter devoted to Ira in The Poets of Tin Pan Alley. Not quite either a biography (crucial events and issues are unaccountably missing) or a full cultural study, Ira Gershwin: The Art of the Lyricist shows Furia frequently succumbing to the occupational hazard of the writer about musical theater: an exhaustiveness seemingly rooted in trepidation of the reader who is a trivia buff. Furia dishes up encyclopedic detail about the casting, scheduling, and revamping of a number of forgettable Gershwin shows. It’s as though he’s constantly quailing at the thought of being discovered in error about who played the ingenue in some pre-Broadway Detroit tryout.
Actually, the most interesting portrait of Ira I know is achieved collaterally, in The Memory of All That, Joan Peyser’s study of George published a few years ago. She has taken it as her special task to illuminate the “dark side” of the composer’s life, including the revelation—persuasively documented—that he fathered and clandestinely supported at least one illegitimate child. In Peyser’s reconstruction, Ira emerges as a fascinating behind-the-scenes broker: mollifying those whom the “unfailingly insensitive” George had slighted, fending off his brother’s would-be blackmailers, tightfistedly amassing a fortune while the freewheeling George squandered money as if there were no tomorrow (ironically, for him there wasn’t). Peyser has Ira living not only for George but through George. He becomes a character ripe for a Henry James novel: a vicarious soul, experiencing the world at one remove; a symbiotic handmaiden, drawing inspiration from genius; an unprepossessing little fellow who, at the end of the day, having negotiated with a charismatic but boorish brother and a dragon of a wife, would sit down and formulate gallant new ways to declare one’s love.
Unfortunately, not all aspects of Peyser’s portrayal feel earned. Her dislike of Ira’s wife, Leonore, is so pervasive that the reader simply cannot understand by what sorcery the woman held Ira in wedlock for nearly half a century. Peyser pokes into the most private zones of George’s existence in order to advance lurid or wild speculations—he was a sexual masochist, he was impotent, he was a woman-beater—for which she provides only the most exiguous evidence. Perhaps most disappointing, she fails to make good on her provocative assertion that Ira’s lyrics represent a “virtual diary of George’s life.” How convenient if this were true! But the claim turns out to be something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, since Ira’s lyrics, in their generality, can buttress pretty much whatever suppositions we bring to them. A comic song in a Gilbert and Sullivan mode (French Ambassador: “I must know why/You crucify/My native country/with this effront’ry/To the illegitimate daughter/of an illegitimate son/Of an illegitimate nephew/of Napoleon!”) confirms Peyser in her suspicions about George’s having secretly fathered various children. A song about a young man looking for a lusty embrace (“Treat me rough,/Pinch my cheek,/ Kiss and hug and squeeze me/Till I’m weak”) supports her assertion of George’s masochism. But one might equally conclude, from lyrics like those of “The Man I Love,” that George was homosexual, or determine from “I Don’t Think I’ll Fall in Love Today” (“Safer to be platonic;/Why burn up with romance?”) that he was celibate. The fact is, most of Ira’s lyrics sprang from revues and shows, and they were about what most Tin Pan Alley lyrics were about: love, the falling into it and the picking yourself up after the fall out of it. They seldom speak in code.
Ira was the “scholar” of the two brothers. To some extent, the role was a put-on, no less a playful exaggeration than George’s dark, gangster-like mugging. Yet if his intellectual pursuits were not terribly broad, within the scope of his professional interests he was quite penetrating, as his charming book Lyrics on Several Occasions, composed at the end of his career, confirms. Although Ira completed a few semesters of college (unlike George, who quit school at fifteen), his formal studies were intended to be practical and businesslike; in the world of letters where he found his vocation and made his fortune, he was essentially self-educated.
Lyrics on Several Occasions boasts a number of the stylistic flourishes and patchy, appealing pockets of erudition one associates with the autodidact. Its foreword is dotted with unlikely terms—conjointment, paronomasia, reduplicative—and its epigraph is taken from the seventeenth-century author John Aubrey. But what comes through is the wit and nimbleness of a man seemingly born for the taxing, highly specialized task of “fitting words mosaically to music already composed.” If George inspired most of his finest lyrics, Ira also worked fruitfully with composers as varied as Kern, Arlen, Kurt Weill, and Aaron Copland. And some of this work was very good indeed. Like most popular song aficionados, I keep my own list of “bests,” and am ready to argue with anyone that “The Man That Got Away”—a collaboration with Arlen—is one of the five best torch songs ever written.
For all its pleasures, Lyrics on Several Occasions makes clear—and the far larger Complete Lyrics of Ira Gershwin, published in 1993, makes clearer—that Ira lacked that rare verve which can make a lyricist’s work wholly gratifying on the page, without benefit of musical accompaniment. There are probably only three American popular lyricists—Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim—whose lyrics can truly stand alone, and all three, not coincidentally, are verbal pyrotechnicians.
Ira’s best effects were, characteristically, quieter. He never saw his lyrics sweep the country the way Hart’s “Manhattan” or Porter’s “You’re the Top” did, inspiring a national fad of reprints and parodies. His wit usually depended on musical reinforcement, as in his Wild West parody “Bidin’ My Time,” whose refrain begins: