Ira Gershwin – The Floating Soul

December 6, 2016

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In the summer of 1919, Ira Gershwin – whose 120th birthday we celebrate today – was two years away from his first true Broadway success. This came with his lyrics, to the music of composers Vincent Youmans and Paul Lannin, for Two Little Girls in Blue, a musical which ran for 135 performances at the George M. Cohen Theatre before touring Baltimore and Philadelphia.

At age of 22, however, he was – in his own words – “pretty much of a floating soul.” As George Gershwin made his way up the ladder of musical success – from rehearsal pianist for Broadway shows and as an accompanist for singers such as Louise Dresser and Nora Bayes, to signing the contract for his first Broadway show La-La-Lucille! in March 1919 – Ira drifted.

He attended classes at the City of College of New York (finally dropping out, he said, because “calculus was in the offing”), worked as a clerk at B. Altman’s department store, handed out towels at one of his family’s many business concerns, the St. Nicholas Baths on Lenox Avenue and 111th Street, wrote reviews of vaudeville shows, and received the precious sum of $1 for “The Shrine,” a satirical sketch published in H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan’s fashionable Smart Set magazine.

He also tried his hand at lyrics, and in his diary for May 26, 1918, he writes about “The Real American Folk Song (Is a Rag),” which Nora Bayes would introduce to the public a few months later:

“I started on the chorus. I wrote one. Discarded it. Wrote another. Started a third. Waste-basketed all. Finally after several sporadic starts came to some agreement with myself somewhat …. Not good, not bad. Passable with a good rag refrain.”

But after Bayes dropped the song from the show she was bringing to New York, Ira wasn’t convinced that lyric writing was for him. On July 2, 1919, the popular entertainment newspaper the New York Clipper ran a small item on page 17 stating that one “Ezra Gershwin” had “left last week for Pittsburgh, where he will become treasurer of the Maurice B. Lagg Circus, now showing in that vicinity.” (“Maurice B. Lagg” was the pseudonym of Maurice Lagowitz, a Gershwin cousin.)

Four days later, Ira wrote a letter to his friend Max Abramson – a cousin of the Paley family which had already become an integral part of the Gershwin story – that described life on the road with a traveling circus during the early days of Prohibition.

“Here it is Sunday, and the three movie palaces are closed as tightly as Frank Tinney’s purse is reputed to be. [Tinney was a popular comedian of the period.] Talk of a feller needing a friend! Of course all the girls in the ’49 show are just dying to fall into my arms, but Hell! as sec-treas of this outfit the bosses told me they expect a certain dignity of bearing, an external contempt for the charming vices of the Sirens, so demmit, the gals’ll just have to swear and bear it. And there ARE GALS.”

“Oh, how I miss you, dear old town of mine,” he added. When the circus closed at the end of the summer, Ira returned to New York to reconsider his decision to abandon lyric writing. Within months the combination of George and Ira Gershwin – the latter under the pseudonym Arthur Francis – published their first song together, “Waiting for the Sun to Come Out.”

Ira’s career was about to really get underway.

— Michael Owen