December 14, 2012

One approaches a book like “The Gershwins and Me” with caution. Of all the brilliant composers at work on the American musical in its heyday, George Gershwin was surely one of the most phenomenal. A performer, composer, author and gifted artist whose oeuvre begins in Tin Pan Alley and encompasses symphonic works, Gershwin was such a towering talent that any discussion of his achievement seen through the lens of another life risks being limited. And the book’s subtitle, “A Personal History in Twelve Songs,” implying that the Gershwin legacy can somehow be whittled down in this way, is somewhat misleading.

On the other hand, there is a great deal to be said for an affectionate memoir — albeit by a man who never met him — that does not pretend to be all-inclusive but is focused on Gershwin’s enduring appeal and the need to keep his songs alive. Michael Feinstein is perfectly placed to do this. He met Ira Gershwin, George’s brother and librettist, when he was only 20 and newly hired as a Gershwin archivist.

At the end of six years, he had acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of not just Gershwin’s most obscure melodies but also a great deal of family lore, every scrap of which Feinstein cherished. Not all families keep such scrupulous archives. But then few families have a gifted brother who died of a brain tumor at the early age of 38.

Feinstein is himself a pianist, singer, lecturer, artistic director and host of PBS’s “Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook.” He has chosen the unexpected format of a coffee table book that includes a CD of him performing the 12 songs of the title, including one of my favorites, “Love Is Here to Stay,” along with the irresistible “S’Wonderful” and the wistful “The Man I Love.” The result is a handsome book, with more than 200 captivating illustrations.

For instance, there is the sheet-music cover for the first song Gershwin published, when he was 17, with the cumbersome title “When You Want ’Em You Can’t Get ’Em; When You’ve Got ’Em You Don’t Want ’Em.” There are all kinds of other lovely pieces of memorabilia, including a program cover for the show “Strike Up the Band” (1930), with an inset drawing of an adorably wistful Pierret.


"The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs" by Michael Feinstein (Simon & Schuster)

One believes Feinstein when he says his book is meant to be a celebration, his attempt to “capture and preserve the essence of an era of songwriting and creativity that is nearly impossible to fathom today.” A man who confesses that he has never liked rock is someone to cherish. So it is sad to say that his prose does not always match the handsome presentation. Slipshod expressions such as “left a mishmash,” “I say, get real,” “yet one more riff” and, of Gershwin’s death, “a switch had been hit and everything numbingly ceased in mid-motion” are gratingly off-key.

Gershwin’s story has often been told, and Feinstein deals with it briefly, from his family background and his prodigious start as a teenage songwriter, through his career writing wonderful songs for forgettable plots, to his greatest triumphs, “Porgy and Bess,” “Rhapsody in Blue,” “An American in Paris” and other masterworks.

Just by hanging around with Ira, Feinstein became privy to a great deal of information about George’s life that adds fresh insights and new clarity to the portrait of the man. Feinstein tells, for instance, about the time George lost a notebook full of his melodies, a mishap that would have appalled any other composer. He was not even slightly bothered. He once told conductor-arranger Andre Kostelanetzthat he wrote “thirteen songs a day to get the bad ones out of my system.”

Feinstein is also illuminating on the subject of other composers, such as Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen and Cole Porter, who were running neck and neck with Gershwin for the title of biggest talent in town.

Richard Rodgers and his wife, Dorothy, probably knew Gershwin as well as anyone. Dorothy recounted how Gershwin, in the 1930s, would come to visit with Kay Swift, who adored him but was married to someone else, and how he would play melodies from his work in progress, “Porgy and Bess.” She said: “He was so brilliant and a wonderful pianist. He could talk about himself in the third person and admire his own work that way.”

When he died, they were appalled. Rodgers wrote, “I’m so upset at the moment I can hardly think enough to write.”

Leonard Bernstein was sometimes compared to Gershwin, but while Ira Gershwin admired Lenny, he also viewed him, Feinstein writes, as “a pale imitation of George. I consider that harsh, but I understand Ira’s perspective. I believe Bernstein was dogged by the ghost of Gershwin.”

As for Stephen Sondheim, Lauren Bacall once asked Ira Gershwin his opinion of Sondheim’s masterwork, “Sweeney Todd.” Did he not agree, she asked, that this was a great opera? Ira asked whether Sondheim had also orchestrated the score. He had not. That was it, as far as Ira was concerned.

One of the book’s recurrent themes has to do with a less-admirable aspect of George Gershwin’s character. He was so engaging, even endearing, a personality that people like Dorothy Rodgers were willing to put up with his adolescent insistence on his own genius, a notion that his brother unquestioningly shared. Ira never minded being relegated to a lesser role, even though George could not have gotten along without him.

Others, less devoted, had a clearer view. Feinstein relates a famous story in which George was getting a ride with an unusually reckless cab driver. The ride became faster and faster and more and more scary. Finally, the exasperated passenger shouted: “Be careful, man! You’ve got Gershwin in the car back here.”

In 1932, Oscar Levant, a pianist who was an irrepressible clown, played in a concert with Gershwin in New York. Hardly had it ended before a fan rushed in to tell Gershwin how wonderful he was. Levant recalled Gershwin’s reply. “That’s all?” said George. “Just . . . wonderful?”

The song is ended, but the melody lingers on, as Irving Berlinwrote. After Ira died in 1983 and his effects were being dispersed or placed in archives, his wife asked Feinstein what he would like. He ventured that he would love to have George’s piano. Next question? she replied brusquely. Feinstein settled for Ira’s old electric pencil sharpener, and the piano went to the Library of Congress. It is now guarded behind a rope. Sometimes, Feinstein says, when the staff gives him permission, he slips under the rope and plays Gershwin.

bookworld@washpost.com

Meryle Secrest has written biographies of Bernstein, Sondheim and Rodgers. She is at work on a life of the French couturier Elsa Schiaparelli.

THE GERSHWINS AND ME

A Personal History in Twelve Songs

By Michael Feinstein with Ian Jackman

Simon & Schuster. 352 pp. $45