The Contemplative Craftsman
Ira Gershwin, the first lyricist to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize — for OF THEE I SING in 1932 — was born in New York City on December 6, 1896. While attending the College of the City of New York, Ira began demonstrating his lifelong interest in light verse and contributed quatrains and squibs to newspaper columnists. In 1918, while working as the desk attendant in a Turkish bath, he tentatively began a collaboration with his brother George, and their “The Real American Folk Song (Is a Rag)” was heard in Nora Bayes’ LADIES FIRST. Not wanting to trade on the success of his already famous brother, Ira adopted the nom de plume of Arthur Francis, combining the names of his youngest brother Arthur and sister Frances. Under this pen name, Ira supplied lyrics for his first Broadway show, TWO LITTLE GIRLS IN BLUE (1921), with music by Vincent Youmans.
By 1924 Ira was ready to begin his successful and lifelong collaboration with George and dropped the pseudonym. The Gershwins created their first joint hit, LADY, BE GOOD!, for Fred and Adele Astaire and followed it with more than 20 scores for stage and screen, including OH, KAY! for Gertrude Lawrence; two versions of STRIKE UP THE BAND (1927 and 1930); Ethel Merman’s introduction to Broadway, GIRL CRAZY (1930); SHALL WE DANCE (1937), one of Hollywood’s stylish pairings of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; and the triumphant folk opera, PORGY AND BESS, written with DuBose Heyward. Before and after George’s death in 1937, Ira collaborated with such composers as Harold Arlen (A STAR IS BORN, 1954), Vernon Duke (ZIEGFELD FOLLIES 1936), Kurt Weill (LADY IN THE DARK, 1941), Jerome Kern (COVER GIRL, 1944), Harry Warren (THE BARKLEYS OF BROADWAY, 1949; the final Astaire/Rogers picture), Arthur Schwartz (PARK AVENUE, 1946), and Burton Lane (GIVE A GIRL A BREAK, 1953).
For his film achievements, Ira Gershwin was nominated three times for an Academy Award: for the songs “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “Long Ago (and Far Away)” (his biggest song hit in any one year), and “The Man That Got Away.” In 1966 he received a Doctor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Maryland, confirming the judgment of so many of his literary admirers — writers such as Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, S. N. Behrman, P. G. Wodehouse, W. H. Auden, Ogden Nash, and Lorenz Hart, to name only a few — that his work was not only of the first rank, but that the Gershwin “standards” set new standards for the American musical theatre. Small wonder that their songs have been taken up by a younger generation delighted by the “new” Gershwin musicals, MY ONE AND ONLY (1983) and the 1992 Tony Award winner for best musical, CRAZY FOR YOU.
In the years after George’s death, Ira attended to the Gershwin legacy of songs, show and film scores, and concert works. Ira annotated all the materials that pertained to the careers of his brother and himself before donating them to the Library of Congress to become part of our national heritage. In 1985 the United States Congress recognized this legacy by awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to George and Ira, only the third time in our nation’s history that songwriters had been so honored. On August 17, 1983, Ira Gershwin died at the “Gershwin Plantation,” the Beverly Hills home that he shared with his wife Leonore, to whom he had dedicated his unique collection of lyrics, musings, observations, and anecdotes, the critically acclaimed LYRICS ON SEVERAL OCCASIONS (1959, 1997).