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Glorious George

A Century After His Birth, George Gershwin's Music--From "Summertime" to "Embraceable You," Rhapsody in Blue to Porgy and Bess--is Attracting New Generations of Fans
Edward Jablonski
From the Print Edition:
John Travolta, Jan/Feb 99

One day in the middle of the Jazz Age, an interviewer asked George Gershwin, "Didn't you play anything when you were a youngster?"

"Nothing but hooky," Gershwin replied.

True, up to a point, for he was an indifferent and absentee student, and later a high school dropout. His schoolboy behavior led his teachers to consider him a hapless case, and his studious, slightly older brother Ira was often called into the principal's office at P.S. 20 in Manhattan's Lower East Side to account for his brother's poor scholastic record. George's major accomplishment at the time was street games; he was the acknowledged roller skating champion of Seventh Street, around the corner from the apartment on Second Avenue where Morris and Rose Gershwin raised their family.

It was here, in 1910, where the piano arrived that eventually led to George's leaving the High School of Commerce at the age of 15. Brother Ira was the intended victim. Ira, who wasn't keen on studying piano, watched apprehensively as the movers hoisted the upright from the sidewalk through the window of their second-floor flat. But the instant the piano was pushed into place, it was George who sat down and, as Ira recalled, "He played a popular tune of the day. I remember being particularly impressed by his left hand. I had no idea he could play and found out that despite his rollerskating activities, the kid parties he attended, the many street games he participated in [which resulted in the occasional bloody nose], George had found time to experiment on a player piano at the home of a friend on Seventh Street," Ira added. "Although our piano was purchased with my taking lessons in mind, it was decided George might prove the brighter pupil."

He was--with a vengeance. In his brief but dazzling career (he died at 38 of a brain tumor), George Gershwin composed hundreds of songs for dozens of musicals. Today, 100 years after his birth on September 26, 1898, many of his songs (often with Ira's lyrics) are still cherished standards: "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Fascinating Rhythm," "Summertime," "The Man I Love," "Embraceable You" and many more. His musicals and orchestral pieces such as Rhapsody in Blue, Of Thee I Sing, An American in Paris and his opera Porgy and Bess are considered among the greatest in American music.

And throughout George's career, there were always cigars. According to Gershwin's first biographer, Isaac Goldberg, he would ask the composer a question, "to which George, always through the fragrance of the omnipresent cigar, made a ready reply."

Charles G. Shaw, a writer for The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, interviewed Gershwin in 1928. By that time Gershwin was a celebrated, successful and frequently interviewed composer. Shaw revealed that Gershwin "likes ice cream sodas and Scotch highballs, with a casual cocktail on the side, but rarely touches loganberry juice. Don Sebastians are his favorite cigars," he noted, adding, "He seldom smokes cigarettes, save in feminine company."

Goldberg described a rehearsal of the Gershwin musical Strike Up the Band during its Boston tryout in December 1929, with George conducting: "The theatre is darkened, all but the stage. In the auditorium, only a few spectators...scattered, perhaps strategically, about the lower house. The composer had just ducked his way through the low door leading from under the stage to the orchestra pit. His gray felt hat and fur-lined overcoat are thrown across the top of the piano; his cigar--that ubiquitous cigar...already going full blast. Later in the evening it will serve as a baton; or George will blow songs through it."

Gershwin enjoyed cigars with his outdoor activities as well. As composer Kay Swift (his longtime mistress) recalled for Gershwin biographers Robert Kimball and Alfred Simon, "Riding. He did it well. He smoked a cigar at the same time. I told him it doesn't go with riding a horse."

At 14, Gershwin had not yet taken up cigars, but he sure had taken to the piano. Up to that time, he had gone through all of the neighborhood piano teachers and study books to no great advantage. But then he was introduced to pianist-composer-teacher Charles Hambitzer of Milwaukee. Years later, Gershwin told Goldberg "I was crazy about that man" who introduced him to Chopin, Liszt and Debussy. "He made me harmony-conscious. I went out, in fact, and drummed up 10 pupils for him."

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