I FIRST MET George Gershwin after he performed the piano solo of his "Rhapsody in Blue" in Cleveland's Public Music Hall. That encounter deepened into a friendship that lasted until George died tragically of a brain tumor at 38.
When I became intermission commentator with the Clevelend Orchestra over the CBS network, I realized how much those fascinating hours with George, discussing all phases of music as well as the milestones of his vivid life, had enriched my own.
His began with his family's exodus from Russia to America, where George was born in Manhattan's Lower East Side on Sept 26, 1898. He was named Yakov Geroshovitz, then Americanized to "George Gershvin," and finally, "Gershwin." "My only background to fame," he used to say, "was that one of my granfathers was a bottmaker to the czar, and the other invented some kind of machine gun." George spoke of his father, Morris Gershwin, as a man of great versatility who had held 20 or more jobs in his lifetime - from running several bakeries, two restaurants, a hotel, a pool parlor, even to managing a Turkish bath.
He always spoke of his mother, Rose, as powerful, determined, but always loving, who "never rode herd" on her children. His brother, Ira, whose lyrics heightened the impact fo George's music, also served as a counterbalance to the fun loving life of his adored brother. They were close, and throughout most of their creative lives, lived in adjoining apartments on Riverside Drive.
George's 72d Street New York apartment, with its pale green paneled walls and comfortable furniture, was alive with a cross section of his talented friends. There might be the philosopher architect Buckminster Fuller, who had just designed his Dymaxion car and to celebrate, had asked me to invite Eleanor Roosevelt to drive with him on one of its first trial runs, which she graciously accepted. After they had gone a short distance, it nosed into the curb, and to Bucky's despair, stalled!
A frequent guest was Fred Astaire Composers Dick Rodgers, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, with a mix of English nobility and the star actors and actresses of the moment, were also regulars at these gahtherings. There were sure to be some artists among the guests, as George had become deeply interested in painting. Isamu Noguchi, teh sculptor, whom I brought into George's life and whose splendid black onyx head of him occupied a prominent position in George's apartment, was among the favored. There was a piano or two in each room - or so it seemed - but it was on his Hammond organ that George tested each new composition for its fuller orchestral effect. Before those magic evenings closed, our host would manage to play on each of his pianos - always his own music, of course.
Of those evenings his close friend and fellow composer, Kay Swift, would say, "To hear George play was like a double shot of B12" But another of his intimate circle, Oscar Levant, the gifted pianist and wit, took another line. "If you had to do it over again, George," he would tease, "do you think you would fall in love with yourself?"
At that time, Oscar was given to moods of depression and George, always sensitive to the well being and needs of his friends, suggested - even before I had met Oscar - that perhaps I might help lift his spirits if he could talk with me over the telephone. After our first week of chats, I asked Oscar how he was spending his time. His response was typical: "I'm resting between failures."
Most enjoyable were George's cozy luncheons of six to eight guests, with his fox terrier, Tony, always at his side. George was fascinated by new inventions, and surprisingly knowledgeable about scientific matters. I remember one occasion when he asked his butler to go out and bring back six copies of Popular Machanics, his favortie magazine - one for each guest.
Painting was another of his enthusiasms, and had the composer in him not won out over the artist, he might have gained fame as a painter. He was also a collector of French impressionists, including Rouault, his favorite, as well as Utrillo, Gauguin, Piscasso, Chagall and Modigliani. Before Maurice Sterne became well known, George bought two of his paintings and presented me with one which still hangs in my drawing room. His appetite for innovation was insatible. One evening, upon learning that "Stuff" Smith, the phenomental "hot" violinist, was performing with his band at the Onyx night club at 53d Street in New York, we took off to hear them. Soon after a waiter had placed us at our table, "Stuff" and his orchestra went into a maze of intriguing and intricate convolutions of sounds and rhythms. When they finished, "Stuff" came over to greet a puzzled George, who asked him what they had been playing.
"Why, Mr. Gershwin," he chuckled, "don't you recognize 'I've Got Rhythm'?"
One memorable evening Mrs. Harrison Williams added four concert grand pianos to the ballroom of her spacious Fifth Avenue home for a festival of music - mostly Gershwin - with George as the star attraction. He as joined by the two piano team of Mario Braggiotti and Jacques Fray, Oscar Levant, Harlem's "Fats" Waller, and Vernon Duke of "April in Paris" fame - all performing in varying combination on the four concert grands.
Igor Stravinsky came, as did Serge Koussevitzky, the pianist Jose Itrurbi and the Mexican artist, Miguel Covarrubias. Artauro Toscanini, another guest, became so fascinated by the evening's exotic music that some years after George's death he included, on one of his programs, "An American in Paris" and the "Concerto in F" with Oscar Levant as the pianist.
That same evening, after hearing "Fats" Waller perform his magic, Bill Paley, president of CBS, signed him up on the spot for his network.
During the evening's numerous "intermissions" there was a lively exchange of musical anecdotes. The one that evoked the most laughter had taken place in France, where George had gone for inspiration while he was composing "An American in Paris." Soon after meeting Maurice Ravel he tried to persuade the composer to take him on as a pupil. "And what do you earn a year?" was Ravel's first question. On learning it was about $125,000, he shouted back at George, "Then let me take lessons from you!"
In 1934, while George was composing his "Porgy And Bess," based on DuBose Heyward's novel, "Porgy," I would receive ecstatic letters from Folly Beach in South Carolina where he was visiting tahe Heywards, immersing himself in plantation and Southern lifestyles. It was the spirituals that captivated him most on his visits to the churches - especially the ones where the Holy Rollers were singing "Dr. Jesus, reach down from Heaven and placae a bellyband of love around me." Later, during the opera rehearsals, George was always referred to by the cast as "Dr. Jesus."
In one letter he wrote, "I am fascinated by the beaches, the black bambinos, the crabs and turtles with 160 egg nests. There is music in the turtles, in the rhythm of the laying of their eggs, first one, then two, then one and two eggs at a time . . ." Then, changing the subject, he went on, "Your letter was like a drink to a tahirsty man . . . so anxious was I to hear what my Yankee friends are up to, because they are still talking about the war - the Civil War - down here . . ." George had become so deeply identified with the black life around Folly Beach and Charleston that he found the whites "more unemotional, dull and drab in comparison."
It was George who brought the blues to the concert hall, explaining, "Jazz is music; it uses the same notes as Bach Used . . ." And, he belived, "all the great composers were song writers. He proved his point to the full in "Rhapsody in Blue," "Concerto in F" for piano and orchestra, and especially in "Porgy and Bess." And there was "An American in Paris." On his return from the French capital, George loved to toot the French taxi horn he had brought back with him - to help him duplicate it exactly for his composition.
But back in New York there was the painful period when he was giving birth to "Porgy and Bess" - especially the lullaby. Often at-the end of a day of composing, Gloria, sister of pianist-composer Mario Braggiotti, and I would be summoned to hear some of the new bits. But not before going first to Reuben's delicatessen to bring the salami and pumpernickel bread George loved. Restlessness would often lead him to my Steinway baby grand piano, selected by Artur Rubinstein, which George particularly fancied. The desk clerk at the Elysee knew that if I was out he was to give George the key to my room so that he might "draw inspiration" from my piano. George could not retreat to the country to compose as he "became too aware of the rhythm of the insects and the other sounds of nature."
One night, on returning from the theater, I heard music drifting from my room. As I entered, George bade me "Sit down, I think I've got the lullaby!" And in his high, Wailing-Wall voice, he sang "Summertime." Overcome with its loveliness, I agreed: he had, indeed, "gotten it."
George had composed his first real hit, "Swanee," before he was old enough to vote. Launched by Al Jolson, it sold 1 million copies and 2 million records within a year. Then came "Stairway to Paradise," "The Man I Love" and "T've Got Rhythm." Also, such hita shows as "The Scandals," "Girl Crazy" "Strike Up the Band," and that classic satire, "Of Thee I sing," which won the first Pulitzer Prize ever awarded for a work of this type.
Next came the search for the right voice for Porgy. Ever a perfectionist, George auditioned many singers, including Paul Robeson, but none quite suited his concept of the voice for the role.
One day, George invited me and my sister, Jane Crile, to lunch, after which he was to audition still another candidate, Todd Duncan, who hailed from Washington, D.C., and was head of the voice department of Howard University. Instead of the spirtuals most of the contenders produced, he first sang Mussorgsky's "Song of the Flea," and then Seccchi's "Lungi dal Caro Bene," after which George, in a state of elation, handed him the scoore of "Bess, You Is My Woman Now."
Todd hadn't brought and accompanist, so he instructed George to act in his stead. We watched Todd's eye skimming the score for not more than a minute before he burst into song. When the last note of his powerful and passionate voice was stilled, George, in the greatest excitement tempered with relief, announced, "Todd, you are my Porgy."
The opening night of "Porgy and Bess," in Boston on Sept. 25, 1935, was ecstasy for those who had lived through its birth pangs with George, for we knew we were witnessing musical history.
But the event that moved George most in his 38 years was an invitation from his great admirer, President Roosevelt, to come with me to a New Year's party at the White House on Dec. 29, 1934. As we reached the entrance hall leading to the East Room, George's joy and excitement were so unbounded that he shot away from the receiving line to stand under the great glittering chandelier, joyfully crying out, "If only my father could see me now!"
After dinner, the president, seated at the side of his mother, Mrs. James Roosevelt, directed that the Lincoln piano be rolled nearer to him, motioning George toward it. With stars in his eyes, and a salute in the direction of the president, George sat down and played "Wintergreen for President" from his musical "Of Thee I Sing," with all the guests joining in song. Though the president's legs were in steel braces, he managed to move them ever so slightly in rhythm with the cascade of tunes that poured from George's fingers.
Today, 41 years after his death, George's music lives on, performed the world over. I was made stunningly aware of it while traveling from Moscow to Leningrad on tahe sumptuous Red Arrow Express, taken from the Nazis by the Soviets as part of World War II. When I turned on the bedside radio in the stateroom Intourist had assigned to me, I was enveloped in George's "Rhapsody in Blue." It is said that Sir Francis Chichester, the navigator who sailed around the world, took recordings of George's music with him as a companion.
But it was John O'Hara who spoke for all who honored and loved our greatest "song writer": "George Gereshwin died on July 11, 1937, but I don't have to believe it iif I don't want to."