Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: The Death of George Gershwin

George Gershwin photographed by Carl Van Vechten on March 28, 1937
George Gershwin (1898-1937) photographed by Carl Van Vechten on March 28, 1937, 3½ months before his death

We mark the death on July 11, 1937 – 85 years ago today – of the American composer and pianist George Gershwin, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.  Born in Brooklyn New York on September 26, 1898, Gershwin was only 38 years old at the time of his death.

This is going to be an unavoidably depressing post.  Dealing with anyone’s death is difficult.  Dealing with the death of a young person (and damn, from where I stand, 38 is still a kid) is both difficult and tragic.  When we add to that Gershwin’s dazzling talent and unlimited promise we are forced, as well, to ask “what if . . .?”

George Gershwin (1898-1937)

George Gershwin had it all.  Tall, athletic, good-looking (in his own lantern-jawed sort of way), he was blessed with preternatural talent.  As someone who had grown up poor on the streets of New York City, he was devoid of snobbery or pretense and could get along with just about anyone.  He suffered no childhood trauma; he adored and was adored by his family and friends and was filled with vitality and an infectious joie de vivre. We are told that given his gifts and effusive personality, he would have inspired envy (and perhaps even dislike!) had not been such a genuinely sweet, ingratiating, affectionate man.

He had serious and lasting relationships with women but never married.  The bachelor’s life suited him just fine, and he lived a life that we all might envy.  An international jetsetter long before the invention of jet aircraft, he partied and performed; was feted and fawned over; and he ate, drank, smoked his cigars, played tennis, composed, and made love across the Americas and Europe at a time – the 1930s – when most people were doing their best to simply survive the Depression. …

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