November 09, 1998 12:00 PM

The audience cramming New York City’s Aeolian Hall on Feb. 12, 1924, seemed to have had its fill of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra’s concert “An Experiment in Modern Music.” Even before the last piece was performed, weary souls were heading out toward snowy West 43rd Street. Then they heard the wail of a clarinet, followed by a cascade of notes pounded out by the lithe young composer at the piano. It was George Gershwin premiering his now-classic work Rhapsody in Blue. With the final chord the crowd, including such music giants as Rachmaninoff, John Philip Sousa and jazz pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith, rose in a response one writer called “wild and even frantic.”

Then 25 and known chiefly as the author of show tunes, Gershwin had brought something electrifying to the concert hall. “Rhapsody in Blue was to music very much what Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic was to transportation,” says music scholar Robert Kimball. “It was an extraordinary event that bridged the gap between classical and popular music.” Gershwin himself said he wanted the piece to create “a musical kaleidoscope of America—of our vast melting pot…our blues, our metropolitan madness.”

He was referring particularly to New York City of the roaring twenties. But six decades after he died of brain cancer at 38 in 1937, as the world marks his 100th birthday with a host of concerts and new and rereleased albums, Rhapsody and other Gershwin classics remain vibrant. Says his sister, Frances “Frankie” Godowsky, 91: “He had his own rhythm. He had his own style. He was a natural.”

He was surely versatile. He created such major works as 1925’s Concerto in F, An American in Paris, in 1928, and his masterpiece, the 1935 folk opera Porgy and Bess. He also composed some 700 popular songs—most with his lyricist brother Ira, who died at 86 in 1983—among them such standards as “The Man I Love,” “Someone to Watch over-Me,” “How Long Has This Been Going On?” and “I Got Rhythm.” “The songs will last,” says Mel Tormé, 73, “until the stars fade and the heavens erupt.”

Much of Gershwin’s music reflects the Jazz Age joie de vivre of its creator. A tireless partygoer, he delighted in performing his work for friends, and he was famously confident. “Tell me, George,” needled his friend, pianist Oscar Levant, “if you had to do it all over again, would you still fall in love with yourself?” Even so, Gershwin was frustrated by the indifference of serious critics and suffered from what he called composer’s stomach. “George was a little sad all the time because he had this compulsion to work,” Ira once said. “George admired me because I was relaxed, happily married.”

Gershwin remained a bachelor, and an active one. “George would tell me about all his sexual exploits—and there were many, because he had a big appetite,” recalls Ira’s brother-in-law W. English Strunsky, 90. When he twice went to Hollywood to write for films in the 1930s, Gershwin dallied with actresses—notably Paulette Goddard, then involved with Charlie Chaplin. But Strunsky says George’s “great” love affair was married songwriter Kay Swift. Given these tangled liaisons, it is no wonder that the Gershwin sound is colored by the melancholy blue notes of both African-American music and the liturgical songs of his Jewish background.

His parents, Morris and Rose Gershovitz, emigrated from Russia at the end of the 19th century. In 1896, Rose bore Ira; George arrived on Sept. 26,1898, in Brooklyn. (Siblings Arthur, a minor songwriter and producer who died in 1981, and Frances, now living in Manhattan, would follow.) George was naturally boisterous, Ira diffident. As Ira recalled, “I was always home reading…. [George] would get into fights and come home with black eyes.” The Gershwins weren’t poor but they were peripatetic, as Morris opened and closed a series of businesses—restaurants, baths, a pool parlor.

They were living over a phonograph shop in 1910 when movers hoisted the family’s first piano through a second-floor window. Meant for Ira, it had scarcely arrived when, to everyone’s shock, 12-year-old George performed a tune he had learned on a friend’s player piano. At 15, George dropped out of high school to work in Tin Pan Alley demonstrating sheet music. It was a tough gig. “Some of the customers treated one like dirt,” he groused.

In 1916, Gershwin published his first song, “When You Want ‘Em, You Can’t Get ‘Em, When You’ve Got ‘Em, You Don’t Want ‘Em.” He wrote his first Broadway score, La-La-Lucille! in 1919, the same year he penned “Swanee,” the number popularized by Al Jolson that made him famous. Ira became his collaborator after 1921, and though Rhapsody took George to the concert hall, the pair continued turning out show tunes. “I used to sing their songs as they wrote them,” says their sister.

After Porgy and Bess, the Gershwins took their second Hollywood trip, writing scores for such films as Shall We Dance and A Damsel in Distress. In February 1937, while performing Concerto in F, George suffered his first blackout. Crushing headaches were dismissed as emotional strain, but on July 9 he lapsed into a coma. Two days later doctors removed a grapefruit-size tumor from his brain. Within hours he was gone. Novelist John O’Hara voiced the nation’s shock: “George Gershwin died on July 11, 1937,” he wrote, “but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.”

Devastated, Ira worked with other top composers, but remained above all the keeper of his brother’s flame. “When you walked into the house you felt as if George was going to come into the room,” says pianist-singer Michael Feinstein, 42, Ira’s assistant from 1977 until his death. “Ira even had the pipes that George smoked. This was a man who never got over the pain of his brother’s passing.” Ira once expressed their bond lyrically—in the verse to “Love Is Here to Stay,” their last song, when he added, in posthumous tribute to George: “Nothing seems to be lasting/ But that isn’t our affair/ We’ve got something permanent—/I mean, in the way we care.”

Richard Jerome

Julia Campbell in New York City and Irene Zutell in Los Angeles

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