Family & Companions
One-half of the most popular American songwriting team of the 20th century, lyricist Ira Gershwin penned dozens of timeless classics alongside his brother, composer George Gershwin, and other giants of the music industry. Though lyrics were not the focus of his early writing aspirations, the shy, retiring Ira eventually teamed with his younger sibling on Broadway, writing music for such early productions as "Ladies First" and "Lady, Be Good!" A string of Broadway successes followed throughout the 1920s and 1930s, among them the Fred and Adele Astaire starrer "Funny Face," the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Of Thee I Sing," and the classic American opera "Porgy and Bess." Seemingly overnight, songs like "Fascinating Rhythm," "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "Nice Work If You Can Get It" became part of the American musical vernacular. As shattering as his brother's sudden death in 1937 was for Gershwin, he eventually returned to work with several other composers on theater and film projects that included the Kurt Weill Broadway musical "Lady in the Dark," the Gene Kelly/Rita Hayworth romance "Cover Girl" (1944), and the heartrending lyrics to the song "The Man that Got Away" for the Judy Garland melodrama "A Star Is Born" (1954). Years after his retirement and eventual passing, Gershwin and his brother's work still managed to generate big box office with Broadway hits like "My One and Only" and "Crazy for You." Without a doubt, Ira Gershwin would be remembered as one of the defining voices of the American musical.
Born Israel Gershovitz on Dec. 6, 1896 in New York City, "Ira" was the eldest of four children born to Russian immigrants Morris and Rose Gershovitz, who later changed their surname to Gershvin and, finally, Gershwin. Somewhat shy in his youth, the bookish Gershwin spent most of his free time reading, although he was described then as an unremarkable student. While attending Townsend Harris High School, from which he graduated in 1914, Gershwin nurtured his early writing aspirations with a column in the school newspaper. After graduation he briefly attended the City College of New York, but soon dropped out to more actively pursue a career as a writer. In 1917, Gershwin published his first magazine article and began writing reviews of vaudeville shows. While working as a cashier for his father at a Turkish bath, Gershwin paired with his younger brother George - who had already begun to attract attention as a gifted composer - to pen the song, "The Real American Folk Song (Is a Rag)" for the Nora Baye Broadway musical, "Ladies First." Despite this early success, Gershwin remained tentative about committing to a songwriting career.
Not wanting to ride the coattails of his younger brother, Gershwin adopted the nom de plume of Arthur Francis for much of his early work, including the 1921 Broadway musical, "Two Little Girls in Blue," on which he collaborated with composer Vincent Youmans. After a string of well-received Broadway productions in collaboration with various composers, Gershwin at last felt confident enough to drop the pen name and begin working on projects with George. They struck gold with their first effort as a full-fledged team with the 1924 Fred and Adele Astaire hit Broadway musical, "Lady, Be Good!" In addition to the title song, the number "Fascinating Rhythm" quickly became one of the most popular and oft-recorded songs of the brothers' brilliant career. Instantly capturing the mood and meter of the American musical, Ira and his brother went on to thrill Broadway audiences throughout the '20s and '30s. Hit productions like "Oh, Kay!" (1926), "Strike Up the Band" (1927), "Funny Face" (1927) and "Girl Crazy" (1930) first introduced the country to such future standards as "Someone to Watch Over Me," "'S Wonderful" and "Embraceable You."
While he enjoyed his creative partnership with his brother immensely, Gershwin also found time to collaborate with a host of other lyricists and composers, like Harry Warren and Billy Rose on such Broadway productions as "Sweet and Low" (1930). The success of the Gershwin brothers soon attracted Hollywood. Before long, they found themselves traveling westward to pen their first film score for the musical romance, "Delicious" (1931). Working from a story by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, the Gershwin brothers also crafted the music to "Of Thee I Sing" (1931), another Broadway smash that one year later became the first musical ever to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Additionally, Ira worked separately with Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg on "Life Begins at 8:40" (1934) prior to the premiere of the groundbreaking and, at times, controversial American opera, "Porgy and Bess" (1935), regarded by many as the pinnacle of Ira and George's artistic achievements.
The Gershwin brothers returned to Hollywood many times over the following years, composing original scores for such movies as "Shall We Dance" (1937) - featuring the classics "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" and "They Can't Take That Away from Me" - and "A Damsel in Distress" (1937), which delivered the timeless standard, "Nice Work If You Can Get It." After George's sudden death from a brain tumor in 1937, Ira soldiered on to complete the final film project they had begun together, "The Goldwyn Follies" (1938), featuring the song "Love Is Here to Stay," with composer Vernon Duke as George's replacement. Upon finishing the score, a deeply saddened Ira entered a period of semi-retirement that lasted four years. When Gershwin eventually did return to write for Broadway, he teamed up with such luminaries as Kurt Weill for the musical comedies "Lady in the Dark" (1941) and "The Firebrand of Florence" (1945). He collaborated on more film projects, as well with composers like Jerome Kern on the Gene Kelly/Rita Hayworth musical romance "Cover Girl" (1944) and with the legendary Aaron Copland for the World War II musical "The North Star" (1945). Gershwin later paired with Arthur Schwartz on the Broadway musical comedy "Park Avenue" (1946). Unfortunately, the show did not fare well and the disappointment ultimately marked Gershwin's swan song as a lyricist on the Great White Way.
Film, however, still harbored future triumphs for the venerated songsmith. Teaming with Arlen once again, Gershwin wrote the lyrics for the Academy Award-nominated "The Man that Got Away," sung hauntingly by Judy Garland in the drama "A Star Is Born" (1954). Although it was his third Oscar nomination, shockingly, Gershwin would never take home the coveted statuette. In 1959, just prior to finally committing to a permanent retirement, Gershwin published his wry and informative memoir Lyrics on Several Occasions. In failing health since the mid-1970s, the aging lyricist spent much of his twilight years archiving his vast stores of unpublished manuscripts, recordings and sheet music. A few months after "My One and Only" - a romantic comedy starring Twiggy and Tommy Tune and featuring songs by the Gershwins - opened to rave reviews on Broadway at the recently renamed Gershwin Theater, Ira Gershwin died quietly at his home in Beverly Hills on August 17, 1983 at the age of 86.
While the music of the Gershwin brothers would live on forever, the legacy left behind by the men themselves was also recognized many times over in the years that followed. In 1985, the U.S. Congress bestowed the Congressional Gold Medal upon Ira Gershwin and his brother, marking only the third time songwriters had received the honor. Additionally, the George and Ira Gershwin Lifetime Musical Achievement Award was established in 1988 by the University of California, Los Angeles as a way to thank the brothers for writing the school's fight song, "Strike Up the Band for UCLA," decades earlier. Proving that the songs of the Gershwin brothers could still bring in the crowds, the Broadway tribute to their work, "Crazy For You," went on to win the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1992. In 2007, the Library of Congress established the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, named in honor of the brothers and given to a composer or performer for their lifetime contributions to popular music.
By Bryce Coleman
Music (Feature Film)
First lyrics for brother George with "The Real American Folk Song"
First published lyrics with "Waiting for the Sun to Come Out"