Let ’Em Eat Cake (1933)
“What is the voice of the American soul? It is jazz . . .”
George—close your eyes and make a wish! Now BLOW!—Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday, dear George. Happy Birthday to you.
On September 26, 1898—117 years ago—the musical phenomenon George Gershwin landed in the East New York section of Brooklyn in nothing but his birthday suit. Gershwin’s name conjures up his well-deserved towering stature as composer and pianist, but let’s explore a smattering of lesser known facets of this complex genius.
Just to jazz things up, as I did in my book JAZZ: America’s Gift—From Its Birth to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue & Beyond, I will introduce each interesting tidbit of information with a Gershwin song title and include the date of the song’s publication. So let’s have some fun!
Lovers of Art (1924)
“If only I could put Rouault into music.”
George Gershwin was deeply entrenched in the art world from all sides of the easel—art appreciator, art collector, and artist of note in his own right. Gershwin’s passion for modern art matched his devotion to modern music. He described himself as a “modern romantic,” which was spot on for both his music and art. He revealed his modernistic proclivities in both music and art, saying, “I am keen for dissonance; the obvious bores me. The new music and the new art are similar in rhythm.”
Gershwin’s cousin Henry Botkin, a celebrated American Modernist painter and art connoisseur, became Gershwin’s mentor in the world of art. Botkin—or as George always called him, “my Cousin, Botkin, the painter”—helped him amass an exceptional art collection.
How exceptional was Gershwin’s collection? Get this: The walls of his Riverside Drive apartment looked like a museum. He had works by Modigliani, Renoir, Cezanne, Gauguin, Chagall, Rouault, Kandinsky, Leger, Rousseau, Max Weber, Klee, Siqueiros, and even Picasso. Are you starting to get the picture?
By 1933 the collection was so extraordinary that Gershwin loaned oils, watercolors, sculptures, lithographs, and drawings to the Arts Club of Chicago for an “Exhibition of the George Gershwin Collection of Modern Paintings.”
Gershwin started to collect fine art in the mid-to-late 1920s through his untimely demise in 1937. To get a better handle on the value of his amazing collection, let’s plunge into the math. His brother, Ira, estimated that George paid approximately $50,000 (just shy of $1 million today) for the entire collection, but over time, the price tag grew exponentially.
For example, Gershwin purchased Picasso’s “The Absinthe Drinker,” created during Picasso’s renowned “Blue Period,” for $1,500 (about $25,000 today). In 2010, Christie’s Auction House auctioned “The Absinthe Drinker” for a whopping . . . hold on tight . . . . $51.2 million! And that was for just one of his more than 140 paintings. When we add up the value of the other paintings in his collection, it is safe to say George Gershwin’s art collection would easily top out in the HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS! Not too shabby for a $50,000 investment.
Gershwin was also an accomplished painter. Some said if he hadn’t been successful in music, he could have made it in the world of art. Again, under the masterful coaching of his celebrated “Cousin Botkin, the painter,” Gershwin blossomed into an outstanding artist. It was easy to see that in both music and painting, George Gershwin was indeed a “modern romantic.”
The He-Man (1925)
“A dapper lean shark of a man.”
—Hoagy Carmichael’s description of George Gershwin
Physically, Gershwin had it all. He was a human dynamo with an unparalleled zest for life, who leapt up stairs, several steps at a time, to get to his fifth-floor man-cave apartment in his family’s Upper West Side Brownstone.
Gershwin had more energy than a Texas wildcat, erupting with colossal pizzazz. Jewess singer and actress Kitty Carlisle (of TV’s To Tell the Truth fame) who briefly dated Gershwin is quoted as saying, “[He had] enormous energy, and there’s nothing quite as sexy as energy, is there? What else is there?”
Gershwin stood at five foot nine inches and was brimming with nervous energy; indeed, many painted him as a “high-energy guy.” He was a product of, as well as one of the early architects of, the Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties. Our very own birthday boy, George, was at the epicenter of a frantic decade overflowing with moxie.
Fine muscular coordination made Gershwin a great piano player and dancer. Master hoofer, Fred Astaire shared a story about Gershwin’s showing him and his sister, Adele, a complicated dance step for “Fascinating Rhythm.” Astaire said of Gershwin’s dance routine, “It was the perfect answer to our problem . . . it turned out to be a knockout applause puller.”
Gershwin indulged in all kinds of sports—golf, tennis, fishing, croquet, swimming, and Ping-Pong, which all fit perfectly with his supercharged nature. Although a big fan of boxing and baseball, he never partook for fear of hurting his hands. He once said, “I feel that I was meant for hard physical work, to chop down trees, to use my muscles.” Yet, with all his sports zest, he was an avid cigar smoker, dating back to his father’s cigar shop business.
Gershwin even approached songwriting like a well-conditioned, seasoned athlete. Writing music was a discipline, like exercise, and he needed to keep writing to stay in shape. At his “fittest,” he could write six songs a day, mostly at the piano, but songs came to him while he was away from the piano, too. He said, “The songwriter must always keep in training. He must try to write something every day. . . . Hence, I am always composing.” Boy was he composing. Gershwin said, “I write fifteen songs a day . . . That’s the way I get the bad ones out of my system.” Keeping up this assiduous pace makes one question the validity of writer’s block. Gershwin squelches the writer’s block roadblock with, “The tunes come dripping off my fingers . . .”
A 1930 article stated, “His bones are dry and he cracks them in the manner of a person cracking his fingers.” I suppose Gershwin did this because he spent hours at the piano with a cigar perched boldly from his mouth.
A Typical Self-Made American (1927)
“My people are Americans. My time is today.”
This brilliant double entendre title by George’s older brother, Ira, illustrates George’s paradoxical character: both a typical guy but also an atypical fellow. Some saw Gershwin as modest, self-effacing, and bashful, while others saw a conceited, arrogant braggart. He seemed to be made up of diametrically opposed individuals sharing the same body.
Those who did not comprehend Gershwin’s brutal frankness assumed he was a cocky, know-it-all narcissist, full of hot air. His honesty regarding himself was sometimes misconstrued as braggadocio. His friend pianist Oscar Levant asked Gershwin point blank, “Tell me, George, if you had to do it all over, would you fall in love with yourself again?” With friends like that . . .
Most saw Gershwin from a completely opposite perspective—not as a bigmouth boaster, but rather as a blushing, self-conscious cat. Pianist, composer, and orchestrator of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” Ferde Grofé said Gershwin was “extremely modest.”
Gershwin’s collaborator on “Porgy and Bess,” DuBose Haywood spoke to this dichotomy. Haywood related that George was a modest man and those who did not know him might mistake his frankness and confidence as conceit.
Adding another note to the Gershwin personality symphony was his wide-eyed naiveté. Conductor Walter Damrosch wrote, “[Gershwin] had an almost child-like affection and pride for his own music.” Porgy and Bess director Rouben Mamoulian noted, “George was like a child. He had a child’s innocence and imagination . . . [And a] great sense of humor.” Biographer Merle Armitage said of Gershwin, “He had style.”
Modest and self-conscious, this extraordinary composer/musician felt at a disadvantage when it came to other big-league composers. This is reflected in the following quote regarding his lack of formal training: “There is so much I have to learn.” He told composer Jerome Kern (“Ol’ Man River” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”), “I am a man with a little bit of talent and a great deal of chutzpah [nerve].” In Gershwin’s own words, we discover he viewed his musical chops less a product of expertise and more of his audacity.
Happy Birthday, George Gershwin!
“A Typical Self-Made American”
Richie Gerber is the author of JAZZ: America’s Gift—From Its Birth to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue & Beyond. He is an accomplished jazz saxophonist and retired vice president of Whole Foods Markets Florida Region.