Ira Gershwin was born in New York on December 6, 1896, to Rose & Morris Gershwin (previously Gershowitz, of St. Petersburg, Russia). On September 26, 1898, his brother George and future songwriting partner would be born. They would collaborate until George’s death in 1937.
Ira was a book-reading young man, and was involved with school newspapers and magazines. In high school, he met Yip Harburg, and they shared a lifelong friendship and a love of Gilbert & Sullivan. (See our prior post about Mr. Harburg, at https://bethshalompgh.org/who-was-yip-harburg-originally-published-may-29-30-2020/.) The Gershwins lived in the Yiddish Theatre District. Ira worked as a cashier at their father’s bathhouse. In 1918, his brother George asked him to write lyrics for their first song, “The Real American Folk Song” (worth learning, test later on what the song references).
As brother George was becoming famous, Ira was asked in 1921 to compose songs with Vincent Youmans and Paul Lannin for the production Two Little Girls in Blue. He wrote under the pseudonym Arthur Francis, taken from the names of their two younger siblings, Arthur and Frances. Finding success, Arthur Francis would collaborate that same year with George on the score for A Dangerous Maid. Dropping the fake name, Ira would join George to compose their first Broadway hit, Lady, Be Good (1924). It was the first of their many shows (including the opera Porgy and Bess) and four films. Ira even devised the name of George’s piece “Rhapsody In Blue.”
Ira Gershwin was the first lyricist to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, for Of Thee I Sing (1931), along with playwrights George S. Kaufman (Pittsburgher) and Morrie Ryskind, for which many were indignant that George had been left out for his music not being considered “literary” (a decision later revisited by the Pulitzer Committee with an honorary award to George). The production deals with Presidential politics, and is timeless. (Your correspondent recalls Richard Rauh portraying a decidedly perfect Throttlebottom in a staging with the Pittsburgh Symphony years ago.)
After finishing the brothers’ last song, “Love Is Here to Stay,” and (with Vernon Duke) the last movie (The Goldwyn Follies), Ira wrote very little for a few years. Then he would join with Kurt Weill, Jerome Kern, and Harold Arlen composing lyrics for such hits, respectively, as “The Saga of Jenny,” “Long Ago and Far Away,” and “The Man That Got Away.” Ira wrote the lyrics to Danny Kaye’s hit “Tchaikovsky” (worth finding on YouTube) and would compose with Aaron Copland, Arthur Schwartz, and Harry Warren, as well. Friendly with many literati, Ira Gershwin continued to write throughout his life. In 1964, he wrote lyrics to three of George’s unfinished works.
Ira Gershwin’s book Lyrics on Several Occasions (1959) told in a very familiar way about the creative process. In the 1980s Ira would rework lyrics for some of the brothers’ early song for the musical My One and Only (1983). And we lost him on August 17, 1983. Crazy For You, an adaptation of Girl Crazy (1930), opened on Broadway in 1992.
Ultimately a prolific lyricist with a catalog of some 700 songs, Ira Gershwin had worked at many jobs, had even contemplated medical school. Yet his writing path had been laid: he published a story, “The Shrine,” in 1918 in Smart Set, and his first published song was “You May Throw All the Rice You Desire But Please Friends, Throw No Shoes.”