George Gershwin's World

Leon Robbin Gallery


Items in the Exhibition:

Photograph of George and Ira Gershwin

Quigley Photograph Archives

Like today, the opening of a major Hollywood release in Gershwin's lifetime was a star-studded event. This photograph shows the dapper Gershwin brothers (George and his older brother, the lyricist Ira) at the opening of The Green Pastures at Radio City Music Hall on July 16, 1936. Gershwin was fascinated with African-American life; so it is no surprise that he attended the premiere of this film, which tells biblical stories with black actors.

Review of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess

by Lawrence Gilman, New York Herald Tribune, October 11, 1935

In many ways the "American folk opera" Porgy and Bess was Gershwin's crowning achievement. The opera is based on Dubois Heyward's novel Porgy and paints an image of black life in Charleston, South Carolina during the first decades of the twentieth century. The music critic Lawrence Gilman (whose papers are held by Georgetown's Special Collections) heaped praise on Gershwin's choral writing, which he called "the music of anguish and supplication and despair and faith.” Tastes, however, change, and Gilman was none too happy with the "song-hits" he found in Gershwin's only full-length opera. Gilman called the famous "Bess, You is My Woman Now," "sure-fire rubbish."

Modern Washingtonians will be interested to know that the original Porgy was played by Todd Duncan, a professor at Howard University. Lawrence Gilman was the grandnephew of Daniel Coit Gilman, the first president of The Johns Hopkins University.

Article by George Gershwin on Porgy and Bess in the New York Times

October 20, 1935

Gershwin was often interviewed about his works, and here he writes an entire column on Porgy and Bess. The idea for the opera first occurred to Gershwin in 1926 (although he had already written a short, theatrical, and very serious work on black life, Blue Monday in 1922). While hardly an ethnological endeavor, Gershwin did spend most of the summer of 1934 in South Carolina, where he absorbed local color and music. One wonders if in this article Gershwin was replying to Mr. Gilman when he writes: "It is true that I have written songs for Porgy and Bess. I am not ashamed of writing songs at any time so long as they are good songs."


Al Jolson from the movie The Jazz Singer (1927)

Quigley Photograph Archives

In his early years, Gershwin worked as a song-plugger in New York's Tin Pan Alley and as a rehearsal pianist for Jerome Kern on Broadway. Several Broadway shows carried songs by Gershwin, and in 1919 he composed the full Broadway score, La La Lucille. But his first real hit came in 1920 when Al Jolson introduced the Gershwin/Caesar collaboration "Swanee" at the Winter Garden in the show Sinbad.  From the resulting recording, Gershwin earned some $10,000. Here we see Jolson in what is often described as the first sound film The Jazz Singer. The plot revolves around the young Jakie Rabinowitz who must balance the traditions and expectations of his cantor father with his own desire to transform himself into Jack Robin, a "jazz" singer. The story is not so different from Jolson's own (he was born Asa Yoelson and his father was a cantor in Washington, D.C.). Apparently one didn't need improvising skills in 1927 to make it in "jazz" - Jolson achieved his transformation simply by wearing blackface makeup.

Columbia Records Recording of Al Jolson singing “I’m Saving up the Means to Get to New Orleans" (1916)

by Harry De Costa and Howard Johnson

Our collection doesn't have a recording of Jolson singing Gershwin' s songs, but this recording from Georgetown's George O'Connor Collection features Jolson in another novelty number. It was quite common for nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American songs to evoke a longing

for the Old South (a continuation of the minstrel spirit found in the song "Dixie"). The sheet music to "I'm Saving up the Means to Get to New Orleans" depicts African Americans happily toiling away and performing music. On the backside of this recording is a performance by the former Georgetown student and Troubadour to the Presidents, George O'Connor.

Aline Fruhauf, George Gershwin (1954)

Photolithograph, Gift of Roderick S. Quiroz

The American artist and caricaturist, Aline Fruhauf (1907-78), first met George Gershwin at the premiere of An American in Paris in December 1928. She was covering the event for Musical America who had commissioned her to create a portrait of Gershwin for their pages. When Fruhauf went to Gershwin's apartment for the sitting, his appearance surprised her:

He was slender, athletic-looking, with a dark, rosy complexion and a very easy, unassuming manner. For some reason I couldn't fathom, he didn't look anything like his photographs ... his hair, instead of being smooth, stuck straight up, inches high, into the air. I told him he looked different from what I expected. "I know," he said. "It's my hair. I just washed it."

(Cf. Making Faces, ed. Erwin Vollmer (Seven Locks Press, 1987)

Fruhauf's first impression of Gershwin, captured in this photolithograph, obviously did not please her editor. The image she eventually published, entitled "Mr. Gershwin Sets the Pace", shows him in a more public guise, dashing across the stage for a final curtain call at Carnegie Hall.

Group Photo of America’s Musical Elite

taken at a 1916 Actors Fund Benefit

The blend of story and song that defines the Broadway musical has captured audiences for most of the century, but who gave the genre its characteristic feel? The recognized dean of the Broadway musical was Jerome Kern, who is pictured here with the leading figures of American popular music. These were Gershwin's musical heroes, the primary influences behind his early song-writing years. 

Grouped around Oscar Hammerstein (seated at the piano) we see (left to right): Jerome Kern, Louis Hirsch, A. Baldwin Sloane, Rudolf Friml, Alfred Robyn, Gustave Kerker, Hugo Frey, John Philip Sousa, Leslie Stuart, Raymond Hubbell, John Golden, Silvio Hein and Irving Berlin.  Gershwin probably got to know many of these men a few years after this photo was taken. He was Kern's rehearsal pianist at the Princess Theater, a New York hotspot for young, creative talent.

This photo was presented to Father Repetti, in July 1958, by an old Gonzaga classmate, William Deriny (A.B. 1902).

George Gershwin and Ginger Rogers (1937)

Quigley Photograph Archives

This photo shows Gershwin and Rogers rehearsing one of the six songs he composed for the film score to Shall We Dance (1937). Gershwin teamed up with his lyricist brother, Ira, for this production, but their contribution was soon overshadowed by another famous pair Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. 

The film's comic-romantic plot is typical for the period: Ballet star Pete "Petrov" Peters travels across the Atlantic aboard the same ship as a dancer he's smitten with, but barely knows - the musical star Linda Keene. By the time the ocean liner pulls into New York's harbor, the rumor mill has churned what began as a little white lie into a hot gossip item: the two celebrities are secretly married!

George Gershwin at Samuel Goldwyn Studios (1937)

Quigley Photograph Archives

This is quite possibly the last photograph ever taken of George Gershwin. He and Ira were working on the film score for The Goldwyn Follies (1937) when Gershwin's life was cut short by a malignant cystic brain tumor at age 33. 

The photograph was taken just before Gershwin collapsed in the studio. Pictured left to right are: George Gershwin, Alfred Newman (musical director), Samuel Goldwyn and Ira Gershwin. 

At the time of his death, Gershwin was working on the melody for "Our Love Was Here to Stay." Since his passing, the numerous songs he wrote with Ira have been the basis for several films (American In Paris, Rhapsody In Blue) and stage musicals (My One And Only, Crazy For You, Fascinating Rhythm).

Samuel Goldwyn (1937)

Quigley Photograph Archives

Samuel Goldwyn was one of the most prominent movie producers of the twentieth century. He had an instrumental role in the formation of the two largest Hollywood studios, Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and his career spanned multiple generations of film production. A Hollywood mogul archetype in his early years, he later reinvented himself as an independent producer, forming a production company that became the model for the independents who followed.

Goldwyn was a huge fan of Gershwin's music, and he hired the composer for various film projects. Even after Gershwin's death, in 1937, Goldwyn continued to promote his music. In 1959 he produced a film version of Porgy and Bess starring Sammy Davis, Jr. The Gershwin family strongly objected to this film. They felt that Goldwyn had "Hollywoodized" Gershwin's original. They were also upset that the producer had fired the film's original director, Rouben Mamoulian (director of the original stage version in 1935). The film was withdrawn from release in 1974 and is currently only available in film archives. 

Bandleader Paul Whiteman (1890-1967)

Quigley Photograph Archives

Paul Whiteman, star of Universal's "King of Jazz Revue" trying it out on his piano in the bungalow built especially for him at Universal City (1830)

Paul Whiteman shooting a "little" pool at Universal City

Paul Whiteman led the most popular dance band (The Paul Whiteman Orchestra) in 1920s New York. He was something of a character - as these photos clearly reveal - and he never missed an opportunity for self-promotion.

Today Whiteman is a controversial figure among many jazz historians. Whiteman billed himself as "The King Of Jazz," even though his "orchestra" rarely played what is considered real Jazz. For the most part, his group performed commercial dance music and semi-classical works. 

No doubt, Whiteman secured his place in history in 1924 when he  commissioned George Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue for a concert he organized entitled: "An Experiment in Modern Music."


Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue

(Charlesbridge, 2006)

by Georgetown Professor Anna H. Celenza

George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue is undoubtedly one of his most famous compositions, and the story behind its creation in 1924 makes for a great read. The events in this children's book closely follow Gershwin's inspiration for the concerto:

. . . I had to appear in Boston for the premiere of Sweet Little Devil. It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattlety-bang that is so often stimulating to a composer, that I suddenly heard - even saw on paper - the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end. No new themes came to me, but I worked on the thematic material already in my mind and tried to conceive of the composition as a whole. I heard it as sort of a musical kaleidoscope of America - of our vast melting pot, of our incomparable national pep, our blues, our metropolitan madness.

(Cf. Merle Armitage, ed. George Gershwin (Longmans, Green & Co., 1938)

Anna Harwell Celenza, Thomas E. Caestecker Associate Professor in Music, is the Director of Georgetown's Music Program.