Summertime: George Gershwin’s Life in Music
By Richard Crawford
W.W. Norton & Company, $39.95, 592 pages
It’s hard to read a biography of George Gershwin, who died at 38, without feeling a sense of loss. But rather than bemoan the composer’s premature passing, Richard Crawford, a musicologist and professor emeritus at the University of Michigan, emphasizes a life bursting with accomplishment, creativity, friendship and love.
The Gershwin who emerges from “Summertime” is not just a precocious musical genius, but a gifted personality who brought joy to nearly everyone in his orbit. Close friends, Crawford writes, “saw Gershwin as a marvel: charismatic, prodigiously talented, and seemingly always in motion.” In Crawford’s epigraph, the playwright S.N. Behrman declares that “there was nothing more thrilling than to hear George play the piano,” which “heightened the sense of being alive.”
Gershwin (1898-1937) was the son of Morris Gershovitz and Rose Bruskin, Russian Jewish immigrants from St. Petersburg who settled in New York. The family were at best “casual practitioners of their Jewish faith” — only George’s brother Ira had a bar mitzvah. George Americanized his name at age 17, with his first published song.
By 20, after an apprenticeship as a Tin Pan Alley “song plugger,” Gershwin was a salaried composer for a music publishing company, as well as a vaudeville pianist. He also penned his first music for Broadway, beginning with revues and long-forgotten musicals.
His career progressed rapidly, aided by a fruitful partnership with Ira, who became his favorite lyricist. Over time, he conquered the worlds of both classical and popular music, triumphantly bridging the two with the 1935 folk opera “Porgy and Bess.” During his travels, he befriended a raft of European composers, including Igor Stravinsky, Alban Berg and Kurt Weill. At home, he feuded with his one-time role model Jerome Kern, but elicited plaudits from rival Richard Rodgers.
In subtitling his biography “George Gershwin’s Life in Music,” Crawford signals his focus on the achievements rather than the personal life. The book almost begs to be packaged with a greatest-hits collection, from the jazzy “Rhapsody in Blue,” which Gershwin called “a musical kaleidoscope of America,” to such popular standards as “Swanee,” “I Got Rhythm” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”
Unfortunately, in the first half of “Summertime,” Crawford too often overwhelms his portrait of the artist with dry plot summaries and review round-ups of the 1920s and ’30s stage musicals on which Gershwin collaborated. Among the most successful were “Lady, Be Good!,” “Strike Up the Band,” “Girl Crazy” and “Of Thee I Sing,” a political satire with some resonance for the present day. It is the songs, though, that have proved most enduring.
The book’s title is drawn from the gorgeous opening lullaby in “Porgy and Bess,” and the book’s richest chapters treat the creation of that opera. Gershwin’s principal librettist was DuBose Heyward, author of the bestselling 1925 novel, “Porgy,” about black life in Charleston, South Carolina. Ira Gershwin also contributed lyrics to the opera. The composer worked closely with prospective cast members, mostly trained opera singers, as he tweaked the score – sometimes, by contemporary standards, a bit too closely.
Anne Wiggins Brown, the soprano who originated the role of Bess, praised Gershwin’s willingness to change his music to suit the voices of cast members and appreciated “that he was investing so much of himself in an opera about black Americans,” Crawford writes. But here is her description of his working methods:
When I went to his apartment…he would play through the music. Then I would eat lunch with him, and he would sometimes, once or twice, invite me into his bed. Of course, I never went there. After lunch he would play the whole opera over again….
Brown seems to have taken the composer’s advances in stride, and he seems to have been equally unflustered by her refusals. Brown later quotes Gershwin as having been transported by his own creation: “This music is so wonderful, so beautiful that I can hardly believe I have written it myself.”
Crawford notes that the never-married Gershwin was involved, to varying degrees, with a long parade of women from the worlds of music, Broadway and Hollywood. But his treatment of that aspect of Gershwin’s life is erratic and glancing, no doubt in part because it has been covered in previous biographies. He does quote adoring letters to Gershwin from Adele Astaire — Fred’s sister and dance partner, and, by Crawford’s account, the bigger stage star of the two. Adele’s love was apparently unrequited, and Crawford says that until now the relationship “has escaped the historical record.”
Crawford also draws on letters from Rosamond Walling, a Swarthmore College student from a wealthy family. She was about 12 years younger than the composer, and Crawford says that the romance, while mutual, remained chaste and eventually evolved into friendship.
More tumultuous, it seems, was Gershwin’s most important and sustained romantic relationship, with the pianist and composer Kay Swift. When they met, in 1925, she was married to the banker James Paul Warburg. (They divorced in 1934.) And Gershwin continued to court other women. His 1936 move to California, with Ira, to work on movie musicals, triggered the end of the romance, which had sent them both to therapy (with the same psychoanalyst, in another lapse by today’s standards).
By mutual agreement, Swift and Gershwin stopped writing each other. But his letters to others included repeated inquiries about her. Eventually, she wrote to say that she would be marrying someone else, a revelation that saddened him without, apparently, spurring second thoughts.
Pretty soon, he had bigger headaches, quite literally: health problems that he was convinced, at first, were psychosomatic. Eventually operated on for a brain tumor, Gershwin never regained consciousness, limiting “his days on earth” to what Crawford calls “the summertime season of life.” Gershwin’s brother and longtime partner, Ira, would become the guardian of his music and his memory.
Julia M. Klein, the Forward’s contributing book critic, has been a two-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein