We're talking here of a Russian Jewish family that had settled in New York towards the end of the last century. Ira, the first of four children, was born on 6 December 1896. Perhaps because of his quietness, he was pegged as the family scholar and then, by a kind of natural psychological progression, as the family musician. You read books, you read music; that must have been the theory. In 1910, when Ira was 14, the Gershwins acquired a piano. According to a famous story it had to be hoisted up through the window of their second-floor apartment; once in, it was immediately commandeered by the apparently feckless George, who, it turned out, had been learning from a friend to play by ear. The piano became his as of right, and no more was heard of Ira learning to play it. He must have been greatly relieved. He always shunned the limelight (here, too, he was his brother's polar opposite) - and, besides, piano-lessons must have seemed too much like hard work.
The author of "The Man I Love", "Love is Here to Stay", "I Can't Get Started", "I Got Rhythm" and countless others always claimed to be prodigiously lazy. In fact he was capable of great and sustained effort in one or two chosen areas, but for the most part he liked to take life easy and to laugh at himself for doing so: "I'm Bidin' My Time / 'Cause that's the kinda guy I'm. / While other folks grow dizzy / I keep busy / Bidin' My Time."
That song from Girl Crazy (1930) sounds like the authentic Ira, not least for the eye-rolling, I-bet-you-never-thought-I-could-get-away-with-that- ness of the initial rhyme. But he sweated over his lyrics, sometimes taking weeks to complete a single song, and "Bidin' My Time", a celebration of inertia, probably took as much out of him as any other.
His favourite activity seems always to have been reading. His bookishness made him not just a lyricist but a particular kind of lyricist; it also, in earlier years, carried him through the New York school system. He got a place at Townsend Harris, a high school for the more gifted kids of the Lower East Side. From there he proceeded to the City College of New York. (George meanwhile had dropped out of school, and was pounding pianos for the city's music publishers. It was the dirt road towards composing his own songs, at which he became very successful, very young.) At high school and college Ira wrote light verse, contributed to school papers, and started his own. What undid him was mathematics. Hearing, in his second year at CCNY, that "calculus was in the offing", he decided, he said, "to call it an education".
That phrase is very Ira: in its neatness, in its laconic self-deprecation, and in the allusive spin that it puts on a familiar piece of slang. It's typical of his prose style, which itself is closely related to his lyric- writing. There are very few lyricists of whom one can make this claim, because there are very few who have left us any prose to speak of. P G Wodehouse did of course, but his lyrics now count as the merest appendix to his fiction; both oeuvres, though, are recognisably rooted in the same meticulous, bizarrely innocent consciousness.
Ira never, strictly speaking, wrote a book. What he did - in 1959, when his songwriting career was virtually over - was collect and annotate a generous cross-section of his own creations, under the title Lyrics on Several Occasions. These annotations are gems. On Ethel Merman: "a no-nonsense voice that could reach not only standees but ticket-takers in the lobby." On filmstar Victor Mature's appearance in the show Lady in the Dark: "When handsome 'hunk of man' Mature sang, his heart and the correct key weren't in it." On the highly characteristic peculiarity of one of his best-known love-songs: " 'Embraceable You' is rather unusual as a more or less sentimental ballad in that some of its rhymes are four-syllable ones." On the prevalence of female names in show-titles: "The lone marqueed male I've worked for is Porgy and he had to share billing fifty-fifty with Bess." The songs are grouped in whimsically labelled categories. Dance songs, fashioned for Fred Astaire and others, are "Turns for Terpsichore". A bunch of "male-wanted" numbers, ranging from "The Man I Love" to a predatory Manhattan matron's "My Son-in-Law", are corralled together under the heading "The Not Impossible He". The same cheerful arbitrariness leads him to follow the lyric of "That Certain Feeling" with a paragraph headed "That Certain Question". (It refers to the ubiquitous 'Which comes first, the words or the music?' And, like most songwriters, Ira isn't telling.) It all adds up to a relaxed urbanity in the great tradition of light Manhattan letters. And it was Ira Gershwin, more than any other lyricist, who translated that spirit into song.
He and George wrote their first song together in 1918. Their first full Broadway score, also their first hit, was Lady Be Good in 1924. From then until George's shockingly untimely death in 1937, they were virtually inseparable, professionally and even personally. For a long time they continued to live with their parents - though it might be truer, as their success increased, to say that their parents lived with them. In 1926 Ira married Leonore Strunsky, who it has often been claimed was really in love with George but settled for his brother as her best chance of becoming a Gershwin. (George never married, and dreaded commitment.) She got her wish; George and Ira's menages remained intertwined.
The standard line on the great Gershwin songs is that George's music, with its roots in both jazz and Stravinskian modernism, furnished the hard edge while sweet, gentle Ira supplied the sentiment. A perfect mix. There's something in this, as far as their individual textures are concerned, except that Ira was never much interested in sentiment. An American scholar, Philip Furia, has perceptively suggested that Ira wrote love songs because it was expected of him - or because he had to write about something. But what really interested him was words. It was the streetwise George who anchored Ira's words in accessible emotions; Ira's verbal flights had to move with George's jagged syncopations.
Then again, Ira was lucky to come into his prime in the 1920s. Though hardly a Bright Young Thing he found the lingo of the flappers both useful and congenial. He loved their arch contractions. An early song (without George), "Sunny Disposish", is built on them: "It really doesn't pay / To be a gloomy Pill - / It's absolutely most ridic', / Positively sil'." (Elsewhere in the same song he goes to the opposite orotund extreme, rhyming "platitudinous" with "attitude in us".) "Be yourself, don't be sil' " was a Twenties catchphrase (and the same year, 1926, Ira used it in full in one of his biggest hits with George, Oh, Kay!) but Ira turned a fashionable mannerism into a style. He was still using it in 1940 when the heroine of Lady in the Dark, finding herself with "One Life to Live", announced for the sake of a rhyme that "gloom can jump in the riv' ".
Some people find this irritating. It's also possible to object to Ira's convoluted way with word-order. The generally wonderful "Nice Work If You Can Get It" includes the couplet: "The only work that really brings enjoyment / Is the kind that is for girl and boy meant."
And yet these weaknesses even out into their own kind of strength. Ira will twist language for a rhyme or just for a cute verbal idea - but that, done with sufficient consistency and ingenuity, is its own style. Many of his peers could do things he couldn't. Cole Porter could paint a hot-house society, alternately illuminated by frigid wit and torrid passion. Lorenz Hart could use flip humour to underscore personal pain. The still-underrated Irving Berlin could sound unforcedly right in every word he wrote. E Y Harburg, Ira's friend from high school on (this year is his centenary as well), could pun even more outrageously but with greater control; he also believed far more fervently in romantic love and social progress. (In 1934 Ira and Harburg collaborated with composer Harold Arlen on a revue, Life Begins at 8.40, that took Broadway sophistication in words and music to its zenith.) All these writers had a world-view; Ira had a word-view.
Ira was the writer whose literacy so impressed the moguls that they let him use a word as far-out as "picayune" - in a movie-song, yet. (The film was The Shocking Miss Pilgrim, 1947; the song was called "Changing My Tune".) He has a personal voice: a quizzical persona that can't quite believe it's writing love songs but creeps up on them slowly to make sure. "How Long Has This Been Going On" (1927), one of his very best, is about the moment of falling in love. The narrator tells an impossibly elaborate story about how "as a tot, when I trotted in little velvet panties" he was kissed by female relatives and loathed it. His first adult kiss has changed his mind and the main part of the song is given over to exploring, at succulent length, his new, delighted state of mind and body.
Two songs from the Astaire-Rogers picture, Shall We Dance (1937), explore the ramifications of the sinister word "they" meaning The Others, the enemies of romance. "They All Laughed" - a love song, as Ira pointed out, that never mentions love - exults in their outright defeat: "ho, ho, ho, who's got the last laugh now". "They Can't Take That Away From Me" acknowledges Their power in the physical world but defies Them from within. The memories that are the emotional weapons build from the delightfully trivial ("the way you wear your hat") to the downright superb ("the way you've changed my life") and the steady, passionate escalation makes the song a singer's delight.
Strictly speaking, "They Can't Take That Away From Me" is a lost-love song but nobody ever thinks of it that way. Ira hardly ever wrote a torch- song; God knows how he evaded them since the shows and films he wrote for must have included the regulation quota of boy-losing-girl. Faced with the situation in Girl Crazy, he came up with the superbly self-mocking "But Not For Me", full of wry literary jokes and ending with a twist: "The climax of a plot / Should be the marriage knot / But there's no knot for me."
Not till 1954 did Ira write an indisputable torcher, Judy Garland's last hurrah "The Man That Got Away", filled with curt, aggressive consonants. ("The night is bitter, the stars have lost their glitter.") It's magnificent, but it still has the feel of an exercise. It's Ira, proving he can do it. On only a few occasions did he actually project himself inside the skin of another character. One surprising example is "Someone To Watch Over Me" (1926), generally believed to be the ugly-duckling brother's rueful self-portrait ("although he may not be the man some / girls think of as handsome") but still perfectly matched to the girl who sings it. And in a class of their own are his contributions to George's opera Porgy and Bess. Ira was brought in to write some of the profaner numbers, in particular the songs for the dope peddler Sportin' Life ("It Ain't Necessarily So", "There's a Boat That's Leavin' Soon for New York"). Perhaps it was the Southern dialect that inspired him, perhaps it was the intensity of the work, but these songs are unlike anything else he wrote. Skin-tight to character, worlds away from standard Broadway cynicism, they give us diabolism itself: sleek, hard and irresistible.
After George's death - from a rogue brain-tumour - Ira was prostrated; he felt guilty, as if he should have been taken in place of his worshipped brother. Some say that he never recovered, that the rest of his life was a slow suicide. Still, he rallied enough to do some of his best work with other composers and to establish himself as official keeper of the Gershwin flame. The Fifties seem to have been golden times; he and Leonore kept the most hospitable house in Beverly Hills. But he progressively lost interest in work, in life and even in movement; he seems to have willed himself into becoming bedridden, biding his time till there was no more time left. The marriage, with no children, turned Strindbergian. The best memoir of Ira's last years is Michael Feinstein's Nice Work If You Can Get It. Before his success as a singer Feinstein worked as a cataloguer of Ira's musical archive, and became very close to him. Feinstein adored Ira, the writer and the man, but could still see his failings. He leaves no doubt that the wit and kindness, however compromised by self-pity and hypochondria, remained till the end. Ira died on 17 August 1983, aged 86: 46 years after his younger brother. The songs (this is not an original observation) are here to stay. !Reuse content