NAME: Ira Gershwin
BIRTH DATE: December 6, 1896
DEATH DATE: August 17, 1983
EDUCATION: City College of New York
PLACE OF BIRTH: New York, New York
PLACE OF DEATH: Beverly Hills, California
BEST KNOWN FOR: Lyricist Ira Gershwin wrote for popular musicals like Porgy and Bess in the 1920s and ’30s. He was in the first writing team to win a Pulitzer for songwriting.
Lyricist Ira Gershwin was born as Israel Gershowitz in New York, New York, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, on December 6, 1896. The oldest of four children born to Russian Jewis immigrants Rosa Bruskin and Morris Gershovitz, the future lyricist was always a bookish child. Unlike his brother George, whose interests were primarily musical, young Ira’s ran more along literary lines. The family moved frequently throughout Gershwin’s childhood due to his father’s ever-changing job status. In 1914, the word-loving Gershwin enrolled as an English major at City College of New York, but dropped out after only two years.
Gershwin spent the next several years taking after his father, moving from job to job. He worked at various times as a steam room attendant, a photographer’s assistant and a business manager for a carnival. Occasionally, Gershwin would write theater reviews, but otherwise he did not show much promise as a writer. Meanwhile, his brother George was making a name for himself in the music business, composing and arranging, as well as making a brief foray into vaudeville.
At his brother’s prompting, Gershwin took a shot writing lyrics for one of his songs. Their first collaboration came in 1918 with “The Real American Folk Song,” which appeared in Ladies First. Ira Gershwin once said, “I always felt that if George hadn’t been my brother and pushed me, I’d have been contented to be a bookkeeper.” He continued writing lyrics, but often under the pen name Arthur Francis, a playful combination of the names of his younger brother and sister.
Still using his pen name, Ira wrote his first published song, “You May Throw All the Rice You Desire but Please Friends, Throw No Shoes.” He followed up in 1921 with his first stage success, providing lyrics for the show Two Little Girls in Blue. The critically acclaimed show was produced by Abraham Erlanger and co-composed by Vincent Youmans and Paul Lannin.
In 1922, the Gershwin brothers came together again creatively to write the first major hit of their career, I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise. In 1924, they followed up with the hit show Lady, Be Good! The next decade of collaboration would cement the brothers firmly in American musical history; combining their talents, they wrote for Broadway musicals, operettas and even vaudeville. In the 1920s, their big hits included Tip Toes (1925), Oh, Kay (1926) and Funny Face (1927).
On September 14, 1926, Ira Gershwin married Leonore Strunsky. Around the same time, the Gershwin brothers decided to combine their personal lives as well as their professional careers, moving both families into one five-story house in Manhattan. During this time, the house served as a creative nerve center for the brothers; artists, musicians and friends could be seen coming and going at all hours of the day and night.
Soon, however, the frantic pace became too much and Ira Gershwin retreated to spend some time on a farm north of the city. His brother would join him in the spring and summer to work and collaborate. It was there that the two wrote and re-wrote Funny Face and Smarty.
Biographers and music historians note that the brothers’ huge popularity was due, in part, to their innovative new style and combinations. Ira Gershwin in particular was adept at implementing new lyrical styles, playing with timing and unusual word combinations. Charles Schwartz once said that the brothers had “the uncanny knack for coming up with the fresh and the novel ballads appropriate for their time and genre with wonderfully creative lyrics, songs of chivalric love and gallantry.”
In 1928, the Gershwins and their wives went on a trip to Europe that included stops in Vienna, London and Paris. Their journey across the Atlantic ended up becoming the inspiration for the iconic orchestral, “An American in Paris.” Four years later, Ira Gershwin shared the honor of a Pulitzer Prize with writers George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind for the score of the musical comedy, “Of Thee I Sing.” The award gave the men the distinction of the first ever Pulitzer Prize for songwriting.
The Gershwin brothers’ biggest triumph came in 1935 with their famous “folk opera,” Porgy and Bess. The characters in the musical are almost exclusively African-Americans hailing from Charleston, South Carolina. The Gershwins insisted on hiring only black singers to play the parts, a progressive move at a time when blackface entertainment was still common. Musically, the composition was the brothers’ most ambitious and successful, and it remains a popular production even today.
After Porgy and Bess, Ira Gershwin began working almost exclusively on motion pictures, spending much of his time in Hollywood. For his work on “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” (1937), “Long Ago and Far Away” (1944) and “The Man That Got Away” (1954), the lyricist was nominated for three Academy Awards.
In 1937, Ira Gershwin’s beloved brother and partner, George Gershwin, died of a brain tumor. Throughout their lives, Ira had functioned as his brother’s business manager and always looked after his finances. After George’s death, Ira devoted himself to organizing his brother’s legacy in the hopes of preserving it for future generations. His work paid off and the Library of Congress now has an extensive Gershwin Collection dedicated to that end.
1940, Ira Gershwin began writing and collaborating again with the likes of Jerome Kern, Kurt Weill and Harold Arlen. The famed lyricist said his goodbye to Broadway in 1946 with his last work for the stage, Park Avenue. He spent the rest of his life working on the family archive with historian Michael Feinstein.
Though he died on August 17, 1983 in Beverly Hills, California, symbols of his legacy and contribution continue to live on. In the Gershwin Room of the Library of Congress, curious visitors can see George’s piano and Ira’s typewriter on display. Despite his more bookish nature, the older brother and lyricist of the famed pair was just as invested in the joy of music, once saying, “Life is one long jubilee.”