I think it’s very appropriate after writing about Irving Berlin that I write about George Gershwin. After all, they were contemporaries. I read the Gershwin biography of Howard Pollack entitled: George Gershwin: His Life and Work. But no, I am not recommending it because it’s almost one thousand pages long, which is quite an arduous read. And, the focus of the book is more on his music than his personal life. It’s good; it’s just that it’s a bit excessive.
But, I’ll begin by pointing out that many people, to this day, consider George Gershwin to be the most gifted musical composer that America has ever produced. And I am one of those people. And it’s especially true when you consider that he died of a brain tumor at the age of 38. So, his incomparable wealth of music was all produced within a mere 20 years. What kind of genius does that make him?
When his Rhapsody in Blue came out in 1924, when he was 26 years old, it was met with both praise and derision. The public loved it, but there were high-brow music critics who felt that it was too undisciplined, too unorganized, too much in violation of the standards of orchestral music, too patronizing of jazz and blues, and not anything that would endure. Well, they could not have been more wrong. Today, the Rhapsody in Blue is one of the most popular and frequently performed pieces of classical music in the world- not just in the United States but all over the world. Recall the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles when they had 50 white grand pianos on the field playing the Rhapsody in Blue to a worldwide audience. Why’d they pick that piece? Because it is the greatest and most beloved piece of American classical music.
Like the parents of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin’s parents were Russian Jews, and they were immigrants to New York City from Russia. But unlike Irving Berlin, George Gershwin was born here: in 1898. His given name was Jacob Gershovitz. He later changed it to George Gershwin. Everybody called him George, including his family.
As a child, he was a regular kid. He was very active. He loved sports; rollerskating and hockey were big for him; and he also got into fights. But, he was a poor student. His musical life started when his parents bought an upright piano which was intended mainly for his older brother Ira. But, it quickly became apparent that George was the one with natural ability; in fact, it quickly became apparent that he was gifted. So, they found a teacher for him and then better teachers as his talent became even more apparent. It became very obvious that he was a prodigy.
George dropped out of school at the age of 15 to become a song plugger. That was a pianist who played songs all day for one of the song publishers on Tin Pan Alley in order to showcase the songs. And he started writing songs. His first big hit was Swanee when he was 17 which caught the attention of Al Jolson and became a national smash.
It was the era of Broadway musicals, and George teamed up with his brother Ira, who had become a leading lyricist, and they became an indomitable team. But, George was also interested in "serious" music, and that's what led him to Europe to study with the masters. So, he had a foot in both camps: popular and classical music.
One of his last projects was the opera Porgy and Bess which concerns the lives of poor blacks living in the slums of Charleston, South Carolina. The music is hauntingly beautiful; the most famous song being Summertime, although my favorite is Bess, You is My Woman Now. It is regrettable that acclaim for Porgy and Bess did not surface until after Gershwin's death. Today, it is considered one of the greatest American operas, and it is the favorite of many.
Gershwin's final project was to write the musical score for the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie Shall We Dance, and that is what brought him out to Los Angeles. And it is considered to be superb writing, including the perennial They Can't Take That Away From Me. And that, by the way, is the song my parents danced to at their 50th wedding anniversary.
For the remainder, I am going to focus on Gershwin's health since this is a health blog. George had a very athletic way about him. He was toned and chiseled and in good shape for most all his life. And even though he worked like demon, he always reserved time for exercise. In the afternoons, he would quit composing and do something active. He was passionate about both golf and tennis and quite good at both. He loved to swim. And he even boxed. In those days, they had boxing gyms all over New York, and he went to one regularly.
Regarding food, he was particular, and he became somewhat of a health nut. When he would visit his parents, he would bring vegetables because he knew they didn’t buy them, and he thought they should all be eating them. And that made me think that he probably didn’t get too many vegetables as a child. And therefore, he probably did not get too many fruits either. Remember that this was a time when the importance of fresh fruits and vegetables in the diet was not widely known and appreciated.
Gershwin's digestion was delicate his whole life. He had a sensitive stomach. And he tended to have digestive complaints, both upper and lower. And he complained of irregular elimination. He always stayed thin, which was probably because he was so active physically but also perhaps because assimilating food was not his strong point. He just wasn't a good digester.
He did smoke, but practically all men did back then- as contradictory as that was for an avid sportsman as he was. His preference was for pipes and cigars, and there are quite a few pictures of him with one or the other, and they may be worse than cigarettes. He drank alcohol but not excessively. He was no big drinker. There was no mention of him ever being intoxicated.
Gershwin never really studied music academically. He didn’t go to Julliard or any other music school. He learned the technicalities of music from various private teachers that he had, here and in Europe. And that’s it; he never actually took a formal course in music. But, he doggedly traveled the globe to take influence from the masters of the day, including some of the biggest names in classical music, including Debussey and Ravel. Still, it is amazing what he did without any formal education in music.
Gershwin never married, but he was considered the most eligible bachelor of his day. If they had People magazine back then, they probably would have put him on the cover as the sexiest man in America. His longest relationship was with a woman named Kay Swift, who was also a musician and composer herself, and they did some collaborating. Another girlfriend of his was Ann Ronnell, who was also a songwriter. Her song, Willow Weep for Me, which became a standard, is widely believed to have been a collaboration with Gershwin. But, he went through a lot of relationships, and it’s amazing he had the time for them. Like Irving Berlin, he often sacrificed sleep in order to produce. He often stayed up all night to compose.
So, on the whole, he was athletic and healthy and certainly active and vigorous, and he looked good. However, he suffered with chronic issues relating to his digestion, and that was the worst health problem he had. That is, until the last year of his life when horrific headaches started to plague him. Also, he developed coordination problems which hampered his ability to play the piano. Even the simple act of bringing a spoon to his mouth to eat food became difficult and troubling. He also started having olfactory hallucinations; he complained of smelling burnt rubber all the time. And mentally, he started losing it too with personality changes and sudden explosive and bizarre behaviors.
Finally, a brain tumor was diagnosed, but by then, he was too far gone. They flew out to Los Angeles the best neurosurgeon in the country from the East Coast, and Gershwin was operated on. However, he never regained consciousness after the operation, and he died several hours later. That was on July 11, 1937, and he was 38 years old. He was 2 months shy of his 39th birthday.
What can we say about George Gershwin’s tragic death? And it was tragic for him, his family, and the whole world because there is no telling how much more beautiful music he would have written. Why did he develop a brain tumor? Was it the result of his bad habits? I can’t say that because millions of people indulge in bad habits much worse than he did who do not develop brain tumors.
I don’t think we can attribute any particular cause to his developing a brain tumor, especially at that young age. To me, the lesson from this is that we should do the best we can for ourselves, and all we can, but we need to recognize that there is luck involved in health, that it is not all under our control, and there is nothing particularly fair about it. But, I don’t think that one should be discouraged by that. You simply have to recognize that you are trying to do the best that YOU can do.
I’m going to leave you with a link to the Andante movement of the Rhapsody in Blue because I don’t think I have ever heard a more beautiful melody than this. To me, this is musical perfection. It is so emotional and haunting and moving. What a gift to humanity.