The Memory of All That: The Life of George Gershwin

Who killed George Gershwin? The composer died of a brain tumor in 1937 at the age of 38, but Joan Peyser, in this new biography, The Memory of All That: The life of George Gershwin, nevertheless fingers a few suspects, including his psychoanalyst, his sister-in-law, and those master criminals the critics. Peyser, whose gossipy biography of Leonard Bernstein appeared in 1987, believes Gershwin’s tumor was, to some extent, brought on by stress resulting from the decline of his Broadway career and from assorted predators.

Gershwin’s outstandingly warped psychiatrist, Dr. Gregory Zilboorg, bullied him, belittled him, and declared his severe headaches neurotic, as did Gershwin’s Freud-fed friends. Leonore Gershwin, the greedy, imperious wife of George’s mild-mannered brother and lyricist, Ira, badgered him and, when he was clearly ill and increasingly clumsy, more or less threw him out of the house. When he fell down while leaving a restaurant, she quickly took charge: ”Leave him there, all he wants is attention.” The fact that Ira, his sober, responsible alter ego, wound up married to this revolting woman may have had more to do with his own reluctance to marry than any of the armchair psychology that Peyser dispenses. The critics plagued Gershwin whenever he seemed poised to cross their well-defended border between classical and popular music. As a book critic, I was shocked — shocked — to learn that music critics can be so obtuse and spiteful. Peyser quotes, for instance, a catty passage on Porgy and Bess by Virgil Thomson, who added anti-Semitic swipes (”gefilte fish orchestration”) to his strictures about ”fake folklore” and ”fidgety accompaniments.”

Gershwin, a charming bundle of nervous energy, was also, according to Peyser, an impassive man who rarely showed emotion. His Russian-Jewish parents — cold, carping mother, oblivious father — had something to do with this reticence, she thinks, and the result was an ”internalization of hostility and aggression” that perhaps took the form of a tumor (she quotes a Woody Allen joke to clinch her case).

Peyser has a tendency to find pathology where others might see only the standard introversion, detachment, and melancholy of the original artist. In any case, she succeeds in her declared aim of replacing the usual jaunty image of Gershwin with a more somber one. In fact the book becomes as poignant as a biography of Mozart, complete with brilliant work right up to the premature end amid the quackeries of medical fools. Peyser also succeeds in convincing the reader that Gershwin fathered an illegitimate son, now in his 60s, who has inherited his father’s tendency to be abused by other Gershwins (the heirs to the estate call him an imposter). There may be, through Gershwin’s affair with a married woman, a daughter as well. His industrious sex life, rendered in keyhole-caliber detail by Peyser, could be described as she describes his piano renditions of his own music: ”brisk… characteristically unsentimental, and marked by idiosyncratic accentuations.”

The book itself is brisk enough, but Peyser’s prose style is out of harmony with her subject, humorless and toneless. She demonstrates Gershwin’s controversial debt to black musicians and, through his efforts to catch up on technique, the importance to him of being accepted as a serious art-music composer. But she doesn’t give us a consolidating assessment of his distinctive place in American music. The academically trained composers who despised him are forgotten or fading fast; Gershwin is here to stay. B

The Memory of All That: The Life of George Gershwin
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