Monday, November 19, 2012

Gershwin Ain't Got Rhythm At Auction

by Stephen J. Gertz

They're selling lots of books, but not for me 
A lucky star's above but not for me 
With fame to lead the way 
I found more clouds of gray 
Than any auction play could flee.

Pantheon lyricist Ira Gershwin got rhythm, he got music, he got his gal, and when an important archive of his letters was offered at PBA Galleries on November 15, 2012 who could ask for anything more?

He could. Estimated at $80,000-$120,000 the archive did not sell. Who could ask for anything less? Collectors, who apparently, were just bidin' their time and not biddin' their dime. What should have been S'Wonderful and S'Marvelous sighed a collective Let's call the whole thing off.

That the archive did not sell is not a reflection of the quality of the material or its significance. "They can't take that away from me," as Ira wrote for Fred Astaire in Shall We Dance? (1937).

The archive comprises a rare assemblage of unpublished correspondence by Gershwin (1896-1983) and is crucial to understanding the music and entertainment industry om the U.S. during the 1920s-1950s from one of its giants, a song lyricist with a gift equaled only by his contemporaries Oscar Hammerstein II and Cole Porter.

It's an extraordinary archive of letters, offering rare insights into the mind and method of his brother and collaborator, composer George Gershwin (1898-1937), and the production of George’s masterpiece Porgy and Bess.

On May 26th, 1961, in perhaps the most significant letter in the collection, Ira writes about Porgy and Bess and George Gershwin’s perception of the production: “As for ‘opera’ or even ‘grand opera; - of course. ‘Folk opera’ was a compromise arrived at so as to not scare the general public – or, rather – the average theatre-goer, away. I’m sure that somewhere I’ve written or told that the Met was eager to produce the work and that Otto Kahn offered George a bonus of $5,000 if the Met could have it. (George was flattered but realizing that at best the work could get a guarantee of 4, possibly 6, performances he turned it down for Broadway)…”

The letters, a huge trove of 1-4 pages each, were written to Edward Jablonski, who later became an important  historiographer of musicians, publishing numerous works including a major biography of George Gershwin, begin in 1941 when Jablonski was still in high school and an adoring fan. In 1952, Jablonksi founded Walden Records, releasing many rare compositions by Gershwin and other musicians of the day.

The correspondence not only provides a remarkable record of Ira and George Gershwin but also gives a vivid picture of the world of music and show business in the 1940s and 1950s, the period when nearly 90% of the letters were written. Gershwin writes much on his brother and his legacy (a good deal of his time was spent in managing the estate), his own ongoing projects in Hollywood and New York, his opinions of actors, actresses and singers, criticism of composers and lyricists, reviews of movies and dramatic productions, and his thoughts on new records being released, through Jablonski’s Walden as well as Columbia and other major record labels.

Other highlights:

• June 18, 1941: “…Now as to those questions. ‘Short Story’ was a piece that might have been included in the ‘Preludes’. George wrote this at a very early age. Samuel Duskin heard it and asked if he couldn’t arrange it for the violin. George agreed to it… There is an actual 4th prelude, however – unpublished. Since it is in 32 bar song form I’m going to put a lyric to it some day…”

• September 22, 1941, on the lookout for copyright infringement: “Never heard of the Haynes-Griffin Co. and their album of excepts from ‘P. & B’ and ‘American in Paris’ etc. I imagine what they are offering are records of broadcasts like the one at the Hollywood Bowl of which I sent you a program. If it’s something else, I’d appreciate your letting me know. And thanks for the tip on records issued by the Commodore Music Shop. I’ll write them…” 

• April 6, 1942: “…Regarding ‘135th Street’ I feel that George wouldn’t have cared particularly about recording it because it was written in such a hurry and because ‘Porgy and Bess’ said in a much more mature way anything ‘135th Street’ had to say.”

• Sept. 1, 1943, about the upcoming film biography of his brother: “I went over to the Warner lot the other day and saw a couple of sequences from ‘Rhapsody in Blue’. I though they weren’t bad at all and that the unknown playing my brother captures a good deal of the spirit. It is of course too early to know how it’s all going to turn out but it is obvious that both Mr. Lasky the producer and Mr. Rapper, the director, were trying hard to make a worthy film…” 

• Oct. 30, 1943, “Sorry you missed ‘Girl Crazy’… I haven’t seen it either… I hear the story isn’t too original but that all the numbers are well done and it’s really a tribute to the vitality of George’s music that no interpolations have been made in the score and as for the lyrics I had to change only a couple of lines…”

George and Ira Gershwin

• July 5, 1945: “…I was a groom once but never had been a best man. Vincente Minnelli asked me to be his b.m. when he married Judy Garland so it was I who handed over the ring and now nobody can say I’ve never been a best man. Saw ‘Junior Miss’ and ‘The Lost Week-End’ in projection rooms. Both excellent movies – Don’t miss them when they get around…” 

• September 17th 1945, protective of his brother’s musical legacy: “I didn’t see that article in ‘Metronome’ but I did see a digest of it in ‘Newsweek’ a couple of weeks ago. I found what I read a malicious outpouring rather than an analytical criticism and therefore too special to be much concerned about. Generally, any unfavorable notice of my brother’s music doesn’t bother me too much. So someone doesn’t like ‘Rhapsody’ or ‘American in Paris’ or whatever it is. So someone is entitled to his opinion. So all right. What does bother me is when I see phrases like ‘naïve orchestration’ or ‘structural ignorance’ as though my brother were just a terribly talented fellow (which they grant) who somehow stumbled into the concert hall, was impudent enough to take advantage of it, put on a high pressure sales talk – and got away with it. With these critics there is an utter disregard of the facts that George from the age of 13 or 14 never let up in his studies of so-called classical foundations …” 

• On March 11, 1948, Ira runs afoul of the red-baiters: “As for being investigated by the Thomas Committee should you go to an institution Thomas doesn’t approve of – you ought to feel you don’t belong if you aren’t subpoenaed. As you may or may not know I was recently summoned by the Tenney Committee (our local Un-American seekers) because a meeting of the Committee for the First Amendment was held at my home. It turned out to be nothing, but it’s pretty bad that these committees have the power to drag you to them just because someone’s uncle said he thought you were wearing what seemed to him a red tie at a football game last fall…”

•  September 28, 1951, after congratulating Jablonski on his marriage: “Glad you agree that Columbia did a remarkable job with ‘Porgy and Bess.’ Those who questioned he recitatives will now, if they’re at all musical, understand and appreciate that it wasn’t composer’s indulgence but powerful and authentic musical setting in the plot lines…” 

• May 18, 1954: “Saw rough cut of ‘Star is Born’ last night. Fine acting and singing beautiful production. Has to be cut considerably though as it ran three hours and eleven minutes and a musical specialty of five to seven popular songs has yet to be added (‘Melancholy Baby’ ‘Peanut Vendor’ ‘I’ll Get By’ ‘Swanee’ and one or two others) which will take, I imagine, twelve to fifteen minutes. This is the spot that’s to close the first half of the picture and it was decided that any one new number wouldn’t be socky enough…”


Why didn't this significant archive sell? It sure ain't plenty of nothin'. It's difficult to say with certainty beyond the obvious: too rich for collectors' blood. How many collectors of American Music History, specifically that of the Gershwin Brothers incalculable contribution to popular music, are there with deep pockets? Perhaps it ought to have been offered to Ira Gershwin's torch- and standaard-bearer, singer, pianist, and historian of the Great American Songbook, Michael Feinstein, who worked for him as assistant and archivist

I suspect that the next step in the quest to find it a  home will be institutional offers. This is an ideal archive for any library with an American music Special Collection.  It's   a perfect fit for The Ransom Center's Ira Gershwin Collection.

Great song lyrics stand alone from the music that carries them. Ira Gershwin continued to flourish after his brother's premature death. In 1953, for the movie A Star Is Born, he wrote (with music by Harold Arlen) the greatest song yet written to capture the heavy yearning, emptiness, sorrow, regret, mourning, wan hope and melancholy of the heart in throbbing agony when deep love is lost forever. It's the torch-song to end all torch-songs, and though written for a woman is not  an experience exclusive to females; gut-wrench gone love does not discriminate.

The night is bitter,
The stars have lost their glitter,
The winds grow colder
And suddenly you're older,
And all because of the man that got away.

No more his eager call,
The writing's on the wall,
The dreams you dreamed have all
Gone astray.

The man that won you
Has gone off and undone you.
That great beginning
Has seen the final inning.
Don't know what happened.

It's all a crazy game!
No more that all-time thrill,
For you've been through the mill,
And never a new love will
Be the same.

Good riddance, good-bye!
Ev'ry trick of his you're on to.
But, fools will be fools,
And where's he gone to?

The road gets rougher,
It's lonelier and tougher.
With hope you burn up,
Tomorrow he may turn up.
There's just no letup the live-long night and day!

Ever since this world began
There is nothing sadder than
A one-man woman looking for
The man that got away,

You don't need Judy Garland opening her veins to hear the ache pouring out of those lines.

Images courtesy of PBA Galleries, with our thanks.

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