10 (little) things you (perhaps) do not know about George Gershwin

Did you know that George Gershwin was very interested in boxing and tennis? That he was a seductive dandy and a night owl but that he loathed Hollywood?

When you hear the name Gerswhin do you think of “Summertime and the livin' is easy ”?
Alright but what else? Born in New York in 1898 of Jewish Russian immigrants, George Gershwin suddenly dies of a brain tumour when he is 38. Author of An American in Paris, of the famous Rhapsody in Blue and of Porgy and Bess, he lead a common life. Did you know that he was…  

Very close to his older brother

Behind George’s work can be found Ira Gershwin’s, two years older than George. Musician like his brother, Ira wrote his lyrics and advised him loyally. As different as two brothers can be – George was thin and vigorous, Ira was chubby and discrete – they still spent most of their lives together. When George died, Ira fell into a depression and dedicated the rest of his life to the music he had created with his brother.

Ira Gershwin
Ira Gershwin

Said to be “a little brat” who should be watched

People used to whisper in the Lower East Side (one of Manhattan’s neighbourhood) “Mrs. Gershwin has beautiful children but her son George will bring trouble”. Little George was indeed more interested in roller-staking and fighting than he was by music. It is yet in the street, while playing ball under one of his classmate’s windows that George heard the kid play on his violin Dvořák’s Humouresques. It was his first musical revelation and the beginning of his vocation.

Friends with Fred Astaire since their teenage years

George met Frederick Austerlitz at his musical edition offices, Remick, where he used to work as a song demonstrator – which means he spent all of his days playing the piano. The young Fred had created a dancing duet at the time with his sister and was looking for new musical acts. The two boys are sixteen when they meet and yet George foresees their future when he says to his friend “It would be amazing if I wrote a musical and you had a role in it…”

Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers et George Gershwin sur le tournage de 'Shall We Dance'
Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers et George Gershwin sur le tournage de 'Shall We Dance'

Very anxious. Very anxious indeed

A little bit arrogant but crushed by his fright of failure, sociable but with a little problem of OCD (he was always chewing on his cigars and his pipe or pulled compulsively his nose) the artiste had to deal daily with his anxiety. He suffered of what he called “a composer stomach” (meaning he had diarrhoeas, constipation and cramps). Not long before his death when he complained of having terrible headaches, when he tried to push out of the car his driver while the man was driving or when he covered his entire body with chocolate, everyone thought it was because of the stress.

Talented in many disciplines

The man could do so many things that it could have been annoying! His artistic activities went beyond music: he danced, painted, drew portraits and caricatures, could talk about literature or poetry… Almost anything that he saw rose his interest, even if it was about knowing how that little plant could have grown so big.

Gershwin peignant Arnold Schoenberg / Gershwin réalisant son autoportrait
Gershwin peignant Arnold Schoenberg / Gershwin réalisant son autoportrait

The soul of the party

When he was not composing, George used to go out to the New York hotspots. And if he was not out, he was holding the party at his East Side home. The composer knew how to heat up a night and after having entertained his guests playing the piano he could spend hours dancing! But hold your horses, George was not only a socialite dandy, always with a cigar in his mouth. He worked very meticulously and knew how to focus on his work, leaving behind him more than two hundred songs and about fifty musicals.

Very fond of sports

Had he been born in the 21st century, George Gershwin would probably have been diagnosed with A.D.H.D by the modern medicine. He composed, painted, partied and on top of that did a lot of sports activities: he played tennis, he even trained with Schönberg in Los Angeles, he also played golf, which was his favourite, rode horses, fished, liked boxing, bodybuilding, hiking… He tried and liked everything! 

Gershwin sportif
Gershwin sportif

A true Casanova

Rich and famous, George Gerswhin had a lot of success with women. Some may have heard him say “Why should I settle for only one woman when I can get as many as I want?” And so he did, he could always be seen in good company and even was caught at the New York bordellos doors a few times. Has he never known love? Not so sure… First, there was Kay Swift, his confident and most loyal friend, and of course the famous Paulette Goddard whom he fell for instantly when they met at a dinner with all the fine people of Hollywood. The actress, who had just married Charlie Chaplin, saw him only for a few months before putting a sudden end to their romance.

Upset with Hollywood

All people want here are hits that they can whistle to”. Twice George and Ira moved to Hollywood. Twice they regretted it. First, they had New York under their skin and missed the Big Apple too much. Second, they considered cinema was not a good way to use their music: “a composer who works in Hollywood, even a famous one, is nothing but a guy who works for the movies”. And George didn’t like the idea of being just one in the crowd.

Proud but a bit shy

His Second Rhapsody was soon forgotten and yet George considered it his most complete work. His one and only opera Porgy and Bess was the result of a hard work and got bad reception after the first representations. George Gerswhin knew he was famous but wondered if “people will still play my music in a hundred years?” Afraid of being seen as an artist of the popular genre, he admired the great music that defies time and dreamt of only one thing: join the Pantheon of grand composers alongside Bach, Mozart and Ravel.

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