Ira Gershwin

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Ira Gershwin
Ira Gershwin 1925.jpg
Gershwin in 1925
Background information
Birth nameIsrael Gershovitz
Also known asIsrael Gershvin
Arthur Francis
Born(1896-12-06)December 6, 1896
New York City, U.S.
DiedAugust 17, 1983(1983-08-17) (aged 86)
Beverly Hills, California, U.S.
Occupation(s) Lyricist
Years active1910s–1950s

Ira Gershwin (born Israel Gershovitz; December 6, 1896 – August 17, 1983) was an American lyricist who collaborated with his younger brother, composer George Gershwin, to create some of the most memorable songs in the English language of the 20th century. [1] With George, he wrote more than a dozen Broadway shows, featuring songs such as "I Got Rhythm", "Embraceable You", "The Man I Love" and "Someone to Watch Over Me". He was also responsible, along with DuBose Heyward, for the libretto to George's opera Porgy and Bess .


The success the Gershwin brothers had with their collaborative works has often overshadowed the creative role that Ira played. His mastery of songwriting continued after George's early death in 1937. Ira wrote additional hit songs with composers Jerome Kern, Kurt Weill, Harry Warren and Harold Arlen. His critically acclaimed 1959 book Lyrics on Several Occasions, an amalgam of autobiography and annotated anthology, is an important source for studying the art of the lyricist in the golden age of American popular song. [2]

Life and career

Gershwin was born at 60 Eldridge Street in Manhattan, the oldest of four children of Morris (Moishe) and Rose Gershovitz (née Rosa Bruskin), who were Russian Jews from Saint Petersburg and who had immigrated to the United States in 1891. Ira's siblings were George (Jacob, b. 1898), Arthur (b. 1900), and Frances (b. 1906). Morris changed the family name to "Gershwine" (or alternatively "Gershvin") well before their children rose to fame; it was not spelled "Gershwin" until later. Shy in his youth, Ira spent much of his time at home reading, but from grammar school through college, he played a prominent part in several school newspapers and magazines.

He graduated in 1914 from Townsend Harris High School, a public school for intellectually gifted students, where he met Yip Harburg, with whom he enjoyed a lifelong friendship and a love of Gilbert and Sullivan. He attended the City College of New York but dropped out. [3] [4]

The childhood home of Ira and George Gershwin was in the center of the Yiddish Theater District, on the second floor at 91 Second Avenue, between East 5th and 6th streets. They frequented the local Yiddish theaters. [5] [6] [7]

While George began composing and "plugging" in Tin Pan Alley from the age of 18, Ira worked as a cashier in his father's Turkish baths. [8] It was not until 1921 that Ira became involved in the music business. Alex Aarons signed Ira to write the songs for his next show, Two Little Girls in Blue , ultimately produced by Abraham Erlanger, along with co-composers Vincent Youmans and Paul Lannin. So as not to appear to trade off George's growing reputation, Ira wrote under the pseudonym "Arthur Francis", after his youngest two siblings. His lyrics were well received, allowing him successfully to enter the show-business world with just one show. [4] Later the same year, the Gershwins collaborated for the first time on a score; this was for A Dangerous Maid , which played in Atlantic City and on tour. [9]

It was not until 1924 that Ira and George teamed up to write the music for what became their first Broadway hit Lady, Be Good . Once the brothers joined forces, their combined talents became one of the most influential forces in the history of American Musical Theatre. "When the Gershwins teamed up to write songs for Lady, Be Good, the American musical found its native idiom." [10] Together, they wrote the music for more than 12 shows and four films. Some of their more famous works include "The Man I Love", "Fascinating Rhythm", "Someone to Watch Over Me", "I Got Rhythm" and "They Can't Take That Away from Me". [2] Their partnership continued until George's unexpected death from a brain tumor in 1937. Following his brother's death, Ira waited nearly three years before writing again.

After this temporary retirement, Ira teamed up with accomplished composers such as Jerome Kern ( Cover Girl ); Kurt Weill ( Where Do We Go from Here? ; Lady in the Dark ); Harry Warren ( The Barkleys of Broadway ); and Harold Arlen ( Life Begins at 8:40 ; A Star Is Born ). [4] Over the next 14 years, Gershwin continued to write the lyrics for many film scores and a few Broadway shows. But the failure of Park Avenue in 1946 (a "smart" show about divorce, co-written with composer Arthur Schwartz) was his farewell to Broadway. [11] As he wrote at the time, "Am reading a couple of stories for possible musicalization (if there is such a word) but I hope I don't like them as I think I deserve a long rest." [12]

In 1947, he took 11 songs George had written but never used, provided them with new lyrics, and incorporated them into the Betty Grable film The Shocking Miss Pilgrim . He later wrote comic lyrics for Billy Wilder's 1964 movie Kiss Me, Stupid , although most critics believe his final major work was for the 1954 Judy Garland film A Star Is Born . [4]

American singer, pianist and musical historian Michael Feinstein worked for Gershwin in the lyricist's latter years, helping him with his archive. Several lost musical treasures were unearthed during this period, and Feinstein performed some of the material. Feinstein's book The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs about working for Ira, and George and Ira's music, was published in 2012. [13]

According to a 1999 story in Vanity Fair, Ira Gershwin's love for loud music was as great as his wife's loathing of it. When Debby Boone—daughter-in-law of his neighbor Rosemary Clooney—returned from Japan with one of the first Sony Walkmans (utilizing cassette tape), Clooney gave it to Michael Feinstein to give to Ira, "so he could crank it in his ears, you know. And he said, 'This is absolutely wonderful!' And he called his broker and bought Sony stock!" [14]

Personal life

Gershwin married Leonore (née Strunsky) in 1926. [15] He died of heart disease in Beverly Hills, California, on 17 August 1983 at the age of 86. He is interred at Westchester Hills Cemetery, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. Leonore died in 1991.

Awards and honors

Three of Ira Gershwin's songs ("They Can't Take That Away From Me" (1937), "Long Ago (and Far Away)" (1944) and "The Man That Got Away" (1954)) were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song, though none won. [16]

Along with George S Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, he was a recipient of the 1932 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Of Thee I Sing . [17]

In 1988 UCLA established The George and Ira Gershwin Lifetime Musical Achievement Award in recognition of the brothers' contribution to music, and for their gift to UCLA of the fight song "Strike Up the Band for UCLA". Recipients include Angela Lansbury (1988), Ray Charles (1991), Mel Tormé (1994), Bernadette Peters (1995), Frank Sinatra (2000), Stevie Wonder (2002), k.d. lang (2003), James Taylor (2004), Babyface (2005), Burt Bacharach (2006), Quincy Jones (2007), Lionel Richie (2008) and Julie Andrews (2009). [18]


Ira Gershwin was a joyous listener to the sounds of the modern world. "He had a sharp eye and ear for the minutiae of living." He noted in a diary: "Heard in a day: An elevator's purr, telephone's ring, telephone's buzz, a baby's moans, a shout of delight, a screech from a 'flat wheel', hoarse honks, a hoarse voice, a tinkle, a match scratch on sandpaper, a deep resounding boom of dynamiting in the impending subway, iron hooks on the gutter." [19]

In 1987, Ira's widow, Leonore, established the Ira Gershwin Literacy Center at University Settlement, a century-old institution at 185 Eldridge Street on the Lower East Side, New York City. The center is designed to give English-language programs to primarily Hispanic and Chinese Americans. Ira and his younger brother George spent many after-school hours at the Settlement. [20]

The George and Ira Gershwin Collection and the Ira Gershwin Files from the Law Office of Leonard Saxe are both at the Library of Congress Music Division. [21] The Edward Jablonski and Lawrence D. Stewart Gershwin Collection at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin holds a number of Ira's manuscripts and other material. [22]

In 2007, the United States Library of Congress named its Prize for Popular Song after him and his brother George. Recognizing the profound and positive effect of American popular music on the world's culture, the prize will be given annually to a composer or performer whose lifetime contributions exemplify the standard of excellence associated with the Gershwins. [23]

Notable songs

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"Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" is a song written by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin for the 1937 film Shall We Dance, where it was introduced by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers as part of a celebrated dance duet on roller skates. The sheet music has the tempo marking of "Brightly". The song was ranked No. 34 on AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs.

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My One and Only is a musical with a book by Peter Stone and Timothy S. Mayer and music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin. The musical ran on Broadway and in the West End.

"Sam and Delilah" is a song composed by George Gershwin, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin. It was introduced by Ethel Merman in the 1930 musical Girl Crazy. The song is an interpretation of the biblical story of Samson and Delilah in the Book of Judges of the Hebrew Bible.

Life Begins at 8:40 is a musical revue with music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Ira Gershwin and E.Y. Harburg, and sketches by Gershwin, Harburg, David Freedman, H.I. Phillips, Alan Baxter, Henry Clapp Smith, and Frank Gabrielson.

"I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'" is a bass-baritone aria sung by the character Porgy from George Gershwin's 1935 "folk-opera" Porgy and Bess (1934). The lyrics are by DuBose Heyward, the author of the novel Porgy on which the opera was based, and Ira Gershwin. It is one of the most famous arias from the opera and it has been recorded by hundreds of singers and music groups.


  1. Obituary Variety , August 24, 1983.
  2. 1 2 Ira Gershwin biography, March 17, 2009
  3. Furia, pp.3–4, 11
  4. 1 2 3 4 Ira Gershwin biography Retrieved March 17, 2009
  5. Howard Pollack (2006). George Gershwin: His Life and Work . University of California Press. p.  43. ISBN   9780520248649 . Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  6. "Reviving, Revisiting Yiddish Culture", Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times, October 20, 1998
  7. "Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress: George Gershwin". Jewish Virtual Library. 2013. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  8. Furia, p. 26
  9. Pollack, pp. 255–258
  10. Furia, p. 45
  11. John Thaxter (March 31, 2008). "The Stage". The Stage. Retrieved March 18, 2013.
  12. Ira Gershwin quoted by Edward Jablonski in Gershwin: A Biography, New York: Simon & Schuster (1988) ISBN   0-671-69931-8
  13. "Michael Feinstein: What I Learned From The Gershwins". NPR. October 13, 2012. Retrieved October 21, 2012.
  14. Purdham, Todd S. (April 1999). "The Street Where They Lived". Vanity Fair. Retrieved September 6, 2013.
  15. Brennan, p.100
  16. Gershwin (1959)
  17. Brennan, Elizabeth A., "Who's who of Pulitzer Prize winners" (1999), Greenwood Publishing Group, ISBN   1-57356-111-8, p. 100
  18. Gershwin Award Winners Archived September 27, 2007, at the Wayback Machine Retrieved May 11, 2009
  19. Rosenberg, p.31
  20. Widow of Ira Gershwin Endows Literacy Center",The New York Times, March 25, 1987
  21. The Library of Congress Gershwin Collection The Library of Congress. Retrieved March 17, 2009
  22. "Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin". Archived from the original on March 15, 2012. Retrieved March 18, 2013.
  23. "Paul Simon to Be Awarded First Annual Gershwin Prize for Popular Song by Library of Congress". The Library of Congress. March 1, 2007. Retrieved March 18, 2013.