S. N. Behrman
The New Yorker
May 25, 1929: 27-29

When I first knew George Gershwin he was living with his family in an apartment in 110th Street. To me, who am forced when I want to write so much as a postcard to shut all doors, cut off the telephone, and cere myself carefully in an immutable silence, it was a perpetual wonder that Gershwin could do his work in the living-room of this particular flat, the simultaneous stamping ground of the other members of the family and the numberless relatives and visitors who would lounge through, lean on the piano, chat, tell stories, and do their setting-up exercises. I have seen Gershwin working on the score of the Concerto in F in a room in which there must have been six other people talking among themselves, having tea, and playing checkers. In those days Gershwin used to mumble ineffectually that what he needed was privacy. This mild protest went on for several years and resulted finally in the purchase of a five-story house in West 103rd Street. The top floor was the composer's study; here his treasures were transplanted: the Steinway grand, the "Great Composers Series" drawn for him by Will Cotton, the photograph of Prince George of England informally inscribed "From George to George," the framed poster announcing the performance of the Concerto at the Paris Opera, the specially bound scores of Debussy and Wagner. At one time, during those 110th Street days, Gershwin was working simultaneously on the Concerto and the scores of "The Song of the Flame" and "Tip-Toes." During this triple creation he would occasionally emigrate to a suite of rooms in a hotel at Broadway and One Hundredth Street. But even here the "privacy" he achieved was only comparative; here, too, the rooms were generally full of admirers, voluntary secretaries who asked nothing further than to be allowed to copy out a score—and relatives.

The electrical success of the Rhapsody in Blue (first played by Paul Whiteman in Aeolian Hall, February 12, 1924) made Gershwin an international figure and the house in 103rd Street, with its presumably sacrosanct top floor, was a symbol of the composer's new dignity.

My last visit to the house in 103rd Street demonstrated vividly the futility of symbols in the face of an overpowering, reality. I hadn't seen the Gershwins in a long time and I telephoned to ask if it would he convenient for me to call. It was a sweltering night in September and I arrived at the house about nine o'clock. For a long time I rang the doorbell but got no answer. Through the screened, curtained door-window I could see figures moving inside, and I kept ringing impatiently. No answer. Finally I pushed the door open and walked in. Three or four young men I had never seen before were sitting around the hall smoking. Off the hall was a small reception-room which had been converted into a billiard-room. I peered in—there was a game in progress but I knew none of the players. I asked for George, or his brother Ira. No one bothered to reply, but one of the young men made a terse gesture in the direction of the upper stories. I went up one flight and there I found a new group. One of them I vaguely recognized from 110th Street and I asked him where George and Ira were. He said he thought they were upstairs. On the third floor I found Arthur, the youngest brother, who had just come in and didn't know who was in the house, but on the fourth I got an answer to my—by this time agonized —cry. I heard Ira's voice inviting me up to the fifth. I found him and his wife Leonore trying to keep cool in George's study. I told them of my adventures coming up the stairs. "Who under the sun," I asked, "are those fellows playing billiards on the first floor?"

Ira looked almost guilty. "To tell you the truth," he said, "I don't know!"

"But you must," I insisted. "They looked perfectly at home."

"I really don't," he said. "There's a bunch of fellows from down the street who've taken to dropping in here every night for a game. I think they're friends of Arthur's. But I don't know who they are."

"Where," I demanded sternly, "is George?"

"He's taken his old rooms in the hotel around the corner. He says he's got to have a little privacy."

And, lest I deduce from this that George had become unbeara1y temperamental, Ira—who is the fidus Achates of his younger brother as well as his lyricist—added apologetically, "You see, George had to do some work on 'Funny Face.'"

As matter of fact I had long since come to the conclusion that George doesn't in the least need "privacy"—at any rate not for composition. His talent is so amazingly prodigal that he hasn't, like the less favored of us, to dig and prod for it. Possibly his training in Tin Pan Alley when he plugged songs for Remick accustomed him to working under conditions that the average creative artist would find impossible. The Rhapsody in Blue was written in a few weeks because he had promised Paul Whiteman a piece for his first concert. The Concerto in F was written and scored while he was at work on two musical shows; "An American in Paris," during a few hectic weeks on the Continent. Mr. Gershwin is thirty; his first show, "La La Lucille," was produced when he was twenty. Since then he has written thirty full musical scores; three important orchestral works (" 'An American in Paris' is the most important American composition since the Concerto in F"—I quote from the review written on the morning after the first performance by the music critic of the World); a series of piano preludes which, I am told by the same authority, are first-rate; and besides that, literally scores of songs which have never appeared in shows.

Among these last are some of his loveliest. "The Man I Love" was one until it was stuck into the ill-fated "Strike Up the Band." There was talk once of making up a score of Gershwin songs which, for one reason or another, had been thrown out of shows, and the list made one feel like going out at once to raise the money. At the mercy of banal librettists and the exigencies of "show business," Mr. Gershwin has to take out songs because the prima donnas can't sing them, or because it's time for the slapstick men, or because they're too intricate for the chorus to dance. Almost anyone who knows him well will tell you that much of his stuff which sounds magnificent when he plays it on the piano is dimmed and muffled by the time it reaches the theatre.

But Gershwin's active repertory at the piano is practically endless; besides the well-known ones, from "Swanee" to "My One and Only" and "Feeling I'm Falling" there is a succession not generally known—among which two prime favorites are the incomparable "Mischa, Jascha, Toscha, Sascha," written for a party at Jascha Heifetz's, and "My Little Duckie." It is a seemingly inexhaustible fecundity.

The house in 103rd Street has only recently been abandoned, and Gershwin is installed now in a penthouse apartment in Riverside Drive. To complete the gesture of emancipation, the place is done in ultra-modern style—a rather swooning, Melisandish bedroom, terraced bookshelves and elongated wall-lights in the living-room, and over the dining-room table a weirdly crenellated electric lamp that reminds me somehow of the last act of "Dynamo." One room, though, is fitted as a gymnasium with old-fashioned punching-bags and fencing-foils.

Personally I regard the break-up of the Gershwin ménage with considerable regret, because it will probably minimize my contacts with Gershwin père. He is short, rotund, inclined to literalness, and he has that singular and unerring faculty which certain originals have for saying, in any situation, that final thing beyond which there is nothing left to be said. There has accumulated gradually a saga of anecdotes emanating from him; when I meet George or Ira I simply say, "What's the latest?" and I am generally told.

The latest happens to be this. The family was discussing the new Einstein paper and George commented on the astonishing compactness of scientific vocabulary:

"Imagine working for twenty years and putting your results into three pages!"

"Well," said Mr. Gershwin calmly, "it was probably very small print!"

The rest of the family consists of Mrs. Gershwin and a younger brother and sister, Frances and Arthur. Mrs. Gershwin is level-headed and practical; I imagine it was she who steered the family through the early years and who helped Gershwin père to the eminence of a restaurant proprietor. I gather that it was not her fault that prosperity dwindled in the era immediately before George became famous. When George was growing up the family was so poor it couldn't afford a piano, and it was at some sacrifice that one was secured for him when he was thirteen years old. The sister is sporadically on t h e stage and at Palm Beach, and Arthur does something in the commercial side of films and practices the piano. It is the family joke that one day Arthur will out-distance George, but so far this speculation remains in the region of humor.

This is the background of Gershwin's electrifying genius—a background which has this in common with the environment of most genius—that it remains inscrutable and explains nothing. I use the expression deliberately, for this good-humored, ingenuous young man is one of the most thrilling artists now alive. Because I have no authority to write about music, I have spoken with circumspection of Gershwin's achievements as a composer. I come now to a side of his talent of which I can speak because I have been under its spell—his immediate talent as a pianist, as an interpreter of his own songs. Josef Hofmann says of Gershwin that he has "a fine pianistic talent . . . firm, clear . . . good command over the keyboard." To the layman it seems a positive domination. You get the sense of a complete mastery, a complete authority—the most satisfactory feeling any artist can give you. When he sits at the piano and plays his own songs in a roomful of people, the effect that he evokes is extraordinary. I have seen Kreisler, Zimbalist, Auer, and Heifetz caught up in the heady surf that inundates a room the moment he strikes a chord. It is a feat not only of technique but of sheer virtuosity of personality. At the piano Gershwin takes on a new life and so do his auditors. He sings. He makes elaborate gestures. When he comes to a line in "My Little Ducky"—

Gloria Swanson is hot for me,
Look at the pin she got for me

his hand flies to his tie to convey the better Miss Swanson's magnanimity. Described, this sounds grotesque, but actually it is as beautifully integrated as a clever harmony. Gershwin becomes a sort of sublimated and transplanted troubadour, singing an elemental emotion, an unabashed humor . . .

Do, do, do what you've done done done before . . .

Sigh away, cry away, fly away to heaven . . .

Vicariously, you obey. (What a stunt it would be for someone to take a slow movie of a group of people crowded around a piano while Gershwin is playing and run it off without music!) Illuminated and vitalized by his own music, his own voice, his own eager sense of the rhythm of life, Gershwin instantly conveys that illumination and that vitality to others, and that is why he can at once pick up the confused and disparate elements of the average New York party and precipitate them—willy-nilly—into a medium warm and homogeneous and ecstatic.

Of course, Gershwin enjoys his own playing and his own music and his own talent. It is part of the integrity of his effect. There are people who will tell you that Gershwin can't write a tune and there are people who will tell you that he plays too long at parties. There are, in fact, all sorts of people. As a matter of fact, Gershwin has been exploited mercilessly by hostesses—and hosts—whose parties he has saved from irredeemable dullness. I have referred to Gershwin as ingenuous. This is a condescension with which articulate people often indulge themselves when speaking of the less articulate. There are moments when I gather that Gershwin is not unable to evaluate nicely his own place in society. He told me once that his mother had cautioned him against playing too much at parties. With engaging candor Gershwin admitted that there might be some truth in this, but was it ingenuousness or sophistication which prompted him to add: "You see the trouble is, when r don't play, I don't have a good time!"?

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