The following is a guest post from Gershwin Archivist Janet McKinney.
Dear Jerry, Much as I hate to bother you, you must forgive me if, on rare occasion, I do. I know you are busy rehearsing your next, and what I hope will be a successful show, but if you could take a few minutes out to hear a really lovely voice I will appreciate it.
So begins an extremely polite letter one would expect a well-known composer to send to a fellow colleague. Taken in a broader context, however, it assists in telling part of George Gershwin’s story.
There is no doubt that Jerome Kern (1885-1945) was an inspiration and a lasting influence on George Gershwin’s (1898-1937) career. After hearing Kern’s music at a family member’s wedding, Gershwin left his job as a song plugger at Remick’s early in 1917 to pursue a career in musical theater. He said he “wanted to be closer to production-music—the kind Jerome Kern was writing.” He soon after succeeded in getting closer to Kern and a career in theater when he was hired as the rehearsal pianist for Miss 1917. The revue, with music by Kern and Victor Herbert, closed after only 40 performances, but Gershwin’s vital connection with Kern had been made.
Gershwin went on to be the accompanist for a number of other shows and in the meantime wrote songs he hoped to be interpolated into Broadway musicals. Kern urged him to continue in that vein and refrain from composing an entire show so early in his career. Although he looked up to Kern, Gershwin did not take his advice and soon ambitiously landed a full show. La-La-Lucille, with lyrics by Arthur Jackson and B.G. DeSylva, opened in May of 1919 and achieved a moderate success running 104 performances.
Gershwin’s career had begun to take off, but the enduring reverence he felt for Kern is captured in a letter Gershwin wrote to his brother Ira when he traveled to London in 1923 to supervise a production of The Rainbow.
A funny thing happened yesterday which made me very joyful and for the moment very happy I came here. The boat was in dock at Southampton and everyone was in line with their passports and landing cards. When I handed my passport to one of them at a table he read it, looked up and said “George Gershwin writer of Swanee?” It took me off my feet for a second it was so unexpected, you know. Of course I agreed I was the composer and then he asked what I was writing now etc. etc. I couldn’t ask for a more pleasant entrance into a country. When I reached the shore a woman reporter came up to me and asked for a few words. I felt like I was Kern or somebody.
Ten years later, Gershwin clearly sees himself as an equal in the polite letter he writes to “Jerry” in 1933 to recommend a singer. The letter shows that the two had become colleagues, and Gershwin had come full circle in his ambitions that were inspired by Kern. Gershwin even painted Jerome Kern’s portrait in the final year of his shortened life. George Gershwin died 81 years ago today, but we are still learning from his artistry and piecing together the stories that need to be told.
Objects in the Library’s permanent exhibition Here to Stay: The Legacy of George and Ira Gershwin change every six months. These two letters, along with the portrait of Kern, will be on display beginning July 23. You also can view the finding aid for the George and Ira Gershwin Collection here.