George Gershwin was born Jacob Gershowitz into a family of Russian immigrants in Brooklyn, New York on September 26, 1898. By the time George was 12, his mother was worried that he was on his way to becoming a juvenile delinquent, so she bought a piano and encouraged him to play. Astounding everyone with his aptitude, George became one of the most famous composers in America, with an eclectic writing talent that spanned the gamut from popular tunes like “Swanee” to musicals on Broadway, to film scores in Hollywood, to the unforgettable opera “Porgy and Bess.”
His specialty was breaking down the barriers of existing genres to create new ones. Perhaps his greatest “fusion” achievement was “Rhapsody in Blue,” a serious orchestral work that begins with one of the most famous clarinet cadenzas of all time.
Gershwin recalled to his first biographer, Isaac Goldberg, that he composed Rhapsody in Blue hastily:
“It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, that is so often so stimulating to a composer – I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise…. And there I suddenly heard, and even saw on paper – the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end. No new themes came to me, but I worked on the thematic material already in my mind and tried to conceive the composition as a whole. I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness.”
It had always been believed that Gershwin died of a brain tumor at age 38 in 1937, but a 2011 report by Mark Leffert in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry sheds some doubt on the cause of death. Dr. Leffert observes that Gershwin was receiving “treatment” for his neurological symptoms by Gregory Zilboorg, whose credentials as a doctor were suspect. (Gershwin went to Zilboorg at the recommendation of his lover, Kay Swift.) At the time, Zilboorg was “the fashionable analyst to see in New York,” in spite of the fact that his therapy often consisted of demands for sex from women and extra money or gifts from men.
Dr. Leffert reports that Zilboorg convinced Gershwin as well as his friends and family members that Gershwin’s symptoms were the result of “hysteria.” Leffert’s own in-depth examination of Gershwin’s medical records indicated that Gershwin probably would not have died had he been diagnosed properly and had surgery. Dr. Leffert’s exposure of the outrageous quackery of Zilboorg and resulting tragic death of Gershwin is worthy of perusal.
You can hear “Rhapsody in Blue” on this video, with the piano played by Gershwin himself: