Bandleader and clarinetist Artie Shaw, as famed for his music as he was for his intellect and his many marriages, died Thursday. He was 94.
Shaw’s manager Will Curtis tells Reuters that Shaw had been in declining health since Thanksgiving.
Except for a brief appearance in the Ken Burns Jazz series for PBS, Shaw had been something of a recluse in the past few years. Yet during the swing era he was a giant, thanks to his version of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine.” The success of the song pitted him against Benny Goodman for the title of the period’s greatest clarinetist, though Shaw was never shy about voicing his opinion that Goodman was his intellectual inferior.
A tireless perfectionist, Shaw put down his clarinet in the early ’50s, saying he’d gone as far as he could with the instrument and complaining that audiences only wanted to hear “Begin the Beguine.”
In a 1985 interview with Reuters, Shaw said he gave up playing when he decided he was aiming for a perfection that could kill him.
“I am compulsive. I sought perfection. I was constantly miserable. I was seeking a constantly receding horizon. So I quit,” he told the news service
Born into poverty as Arthur Jacob Arshawsky on New York’s Lower East Side, Shaw fought long and hard to escape his humble roots – without ever quite losing his irascibility.
Shaw had tumultuous relationships with women, especially his eight wives, who included such voluptuous Hollywood glamour girls as Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, Doris Dowling and Gone with the Wind costar Evelyn Keys.
Judy Garland was said to be suicidal when Shaw dropped her in order to marry Turner, while Gardner considered being married to Shaw like going to college. Once asked by a reporter why her marriage to Shaw failed, the brunette beauty quipped: “I flunked.”
Shaw was also married to author Kathleen Windsor, herself a superstar in the 1940s with her bestselling romance novel, Forever Amber.
But it was music that made Artie Shaw a household name – and a sex symbol, thanks to his strong resemblance to Tyrone Power. He was also a groundbreaker and a civil rights advocate, integrating his band by hiring Billie Holiday as its singer.
Once he put away his licorice stick, the world sounded a little less lively. Shaw spent his new free time producing movies and writing books, including one on love, marriage and divorce, titled, with self-awareness, I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead. He even worked on his fly-fishing. But no matter how hard he tried over the next half a century, there was one thing Artie Shaw could never escape: being a legend.