George and Ira Gershwin From Central Harlem

November 12, 2013
gershwinsGeorge and Ira Gershwin: composers, grew up in Harlem. Lived at 108 West 111th and other addresses.George wrote his first hit song, “Swanee”, at his home at 520 W. 144 Street in 1919.The pair were living at 501 Cathedral Parkway in 1924, and it was in this apartment that George wrote Rhapsody in Blue.

The Gershwin’s came from Russian Jewish heritage. Their grandfather, Jakov Gershowitz, had served for 25 years as a mechanic for the Imperial Russian Army to earn the right of free travel and residence as a Jew. He retired near Saint Petersburg. His teenage son, Moishe Gershowitz, worked as a leather cutter for women’s shoes; Moishe fell in love with Rosa Bruskin, the teenage daughter of a Saint Petersburg furrier. Bruskin moved with her family to New York because of increasing antisemitism in Russia; she Americanized her first name to Rose. Moishe, faced with compulsory military service in Russia, followed Rose as soon as he was able. Upon arrival in New York, Moishe Gershowitz gave his first name as Morris. He settled at first with his mother’s brother in Brooklyn, a tailor named Greenstein, and earned money as a foreman in a women’s shoe workshop. When Morris and Rose married on July 21, 1895, she was 19 and he was 23. Gershowitz changed his family name to Gershwin some time between 1893 and 1898, perhaps at his marriage.

Morris moved his family to Brooklyn, a second-floor dwelling at 242 Snedicker Avenue. George Gershwin was born there on September 26, 1898; his birth certificate bears the name Jacob Gershwine, which would have been pronounced ‘Gershvin’ in the ex-pat Russian neighborhood. The boy was named for his late grandfather, the army mechanic. However, he was not called anything but ‘George’. (Years later, George changed the spelling of his surname to ‘Gershwin’ after he became a professional musician; other members of his family followed suit.)

George and Ira lived in many different residences as their father changed dwellings with each new enterprise he became involved with. Mostly, the boys grew up around the Yiddish Theater District (that included Harlem). They frequented the local Yiddish theaters, with George running errands for members and appearing onstage as an extra.

After Ira and George, two more children were born to the family: Arthur (1900–1981) and Frances (1906–1999). George first displayed interest in music at the age of ten, when he was intrigued by what he heard at his friend Maxie Rosenzweig’s violin recital. The sound and the way his friend played captured him. His parents had bought a piano for lessons for his older brother Ira, but to his parents’ surprise and Ira’s relief, it was George who played it. Although his younger sister Frances Gershwin was the first in the family to make money from her musical talents, she married young and devoted herself to being a mother and housewife. She gave up her performing career, but settled into painting as a creative outlet; painting was also a hobby of George Gershwin.

The Gershwin’s were American composers. Gershwin’s compositions spanned both popular and classical genres, and his most popular melodies are widely known. Gershwin’s compositions have been adapted for use in many films and for television, and several became jazz standards recorded in many variations. Countless celebrated singers and musicians have covered his songs.

George and Ira Gershwin will always be remembered as the songwriting team whose voice was synonymous with the sounds and style of the Jazz Age. By the time of their 1924 Broadway hit, LADY, BE GOOD!, George had worked with lyricist Buddy DeSylva on a series of revues, GEORGE WHITE’S SCANDALS, while Ira enjoyed success with composer Vincent Youmans on TWO LITTLE GIRLS IN BLUE.  But from 1924 until George’s death in 1937, the brothers wrote almost exclusively with each other, composing over two dozen scores for Broadway and Hollywood.  Though they had many individual song hits, their greatest achievement may have been the elevation of musical comedy to an American art form.  With their trilogy of political satires — STRIKE UP THE BAND, the Pulitzer Prize-winning OF THEE I SING, and its sequel, LET ‘EM EAT CAKE (all three written with playwrights George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind) — they helped raise popular musical theatre to a new level of sophistication.  Their now-classic folk opera, PORGY AND BESS (co-written with DuBose Heyward), is constantly revived in opera houses and theatres throughout the world.  Concurrently with the Gershwins’ musical theatre and film work, George attained great success in the concert arena as a piano virtuoso, conductor, and composer of such celebrated works as RHAPSODY IN BLUE, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, and the CONCERTO IN F.

After George’s death, Ira continued to work in film and theatre with collaborators ranging from Kurt Weill and Jerome Kern to Harold Arlen, Burton Lane, Vernon Duke, and Harry Warren, among others, writing such standards as “Long Ago (and Far Away)” and “The Man That Got Away,” both nominated for Academy Awards.

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Ira’s book, LYRICS ON SEVERAL OCCASIONS, was published to critical acclaim in 1959; it was a unique selection of his lyrics, accompanied by his annotations, observations, and anecdotes.  In addition to his own career, Ira attended to the details of his brother’s estate and the Gershwin legacy.  He annotated their manuscripts and consigned to the Library of Congress all the materials that pertained to their careers.  In 1983, at the age of 86, Ira died in his Beverly Hills home.

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