On a day 50 years ago this summer at Newark airport, George Gershwin boarded a plane bound for California. He was off to Hollywood with his brother and lyric-writing partner, Ira, to score an MGM musical starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. He would never see New York again.
Within 11 months of moving to Los Angeles, Gershwin was dead of a brain tumor at 38. He left behind a legacy of countless popular songs, a handful of fine concert pieces and one masterful opera (some of his music--"Rhapsody in Blue," "An American in Paris" and a selection of songs--will be performed by Sarah Vaughan, Christopher O'Riley and the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the direction of Lawrence Foster at Hollywood Bowl Friday and Saturday).
George Gershwin's last year--the Hollywood year--is a fount of myths, misconceptions and contradictions about one of America's great composers. He was bitter and depressed about the failure of "Porgy and Bess," some say, a depression linked, perhaps, to the tumor. Yet others claim he rebounded from "Porgy" with amazing swiftness.
The movie biography, "Rhapsody in Blue," painted a friendly Gershwin at the end, a man subliminally aware of his approaching death and obsessed with the passage of time. But the contrary picture of an easygoing, same-as-ever bon vivant has also been offered.
FOR THE RECORD - IMPERFECTIONS
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 13, 1986 Home Edition Calendar Page 107 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
LETTERS: George Gershwin and his brother Ira did not come to Hollywood in 1936 to score an MGM musical starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but to score an RKO musical, "Shall We Dance." John P. Kaufman of West Hollywood, R. Guy Steiner of Glendale, Stanley R. Weitz of Los Angeles, Mary Beth DeBeau of Oxnard and R.A. Allen of Inglewood were alert to this mistake in last week's article on George G.
When it comes to Gershwin, it's difficult even for the experts to tell the true from the apocryphal. Throughout many editions of "The Gershwin Years," the standard Gershwin biography, authors Edward Jablonski and Lawrence D. Stewart steadfastly maintained the falsity of a certain story about Gershwin's Hollywood encounter with Igor Stravinsky. According to the story, Gershwin, always eager for new musical expertise, asked the Russian-born master for lessons. Stravinsky inquired about Gershwin's annual income and received an answer in handsome figures.
"Young man," Stravinsky said, "perhaps you should teach me." After years of labeling this a tall tale, Jablonski wrote in Ovation magazine early this year that the story was true after all.
This much about the Hollywood year is undeniable: George and Ira moved to adjacent houses on North Roxbury Drive in Beverly Hills, where they penned some of their most enduring material. (In fact, Ira continued to live there until his death in 1983.) The decision to go west in 1936 had been primarily a financial one, Broadway having been without a Gershwin hit since "Of Thee I Sing" nearly five years before. The plan was to make quick money in Hollywood, then return to New York for any number of other, largely less commercial, projects. As it turned out, the brothers scored the first film ("Shall We Dance"), picked up the option on a second ("Damsel in Distress") and were starting to work on a third, "The Goldwyn Follies," when George died under a surgeon's knife.
In that last year, busy though it was with starlets and studios, Gershwin was continuing his first strides to mastery, and had he lived, there is every reason to believe he would have produced work to equal and even surpass his earlier efforts.
"Shall We Dance" yielded the perennials "They Can't Take That Away From Me," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" and "They All Laughed." From "Damsel in Distress" came "A Foggy Day (in London Town)" and "Nice Work if You Can Get It," while "Goldwyn Follies" gave us "Love Walked In" and "(Our) Love Is Here to Stay."
During this time, George also toured the West Coast as a pianist, hobnobbed with Hollywood intelligentsia, dated the likes of Paulette Goddard and Simone Simon, pursued his serious hobby of painting and planned all manner of musical projects, from a second piano concerto to a new musical comedy with Kaufman and Hart. If he was downhearted and depressed, he put on a good front.
"He wasn't the sort to linger over disappointments," says Kay Swift, Gershwin's close friend of more than a decade. A composer in her own right ("Can This Be Love?," "Fine and Dandy"), Swift lives today on New York's East Side.
"You were always at ease with George," she said in the living room of an apartment dominated by Gershwin memorabilia. "He had a naturalness about him. If he were here right now, he'd probably walk over to the piano and play."
Like so many aspects of Gershwin's life, his emotional relationships with women are a mass of question marks, although his amours, per se, are well documented. He never married, but some have said that Swift was a top nominee for Mrs. Gershwin in her day.
"We were devoted to each other, there's no question about it," she says. "But we never thought of marriage. When I met George, I left off being married to someone else, and, well, that was it. George could never have married anyone."