Friday, July 8, 2011
July 11, 1937, and a July day in 1935
On July 11th, 1937, George Gershwin died a tragic and lonely death at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles, where he had just undergone extensive surgery for a brain tumor, the symptoms of which had plagued him intermittently for many years. His final months were a misery, compounded by his doctors' failure to recognize the true nature of his illness and by what could almost be called a conspiracy to isolate him and keep at a distance the most significant people in his life -- his good friend Mabel Pleshette Schirmer, his sister-in-law's sister Emily Strunsky Paley, and the love of his life, my grandmother Kay Swift.
"Why has everyone left me?" he would ask his nurse plaintively as he lay in a darkened room, drugged and miserable with excruciating headaches and vertigo. Mabel, Emily and Kay, each deeply devoted to George, would have provided him with the comfort and tenderness he needed. Any one of them might have insisted on better and different medical treatment when it would not have been too late to save him, if only they knew the truth. But Leonore Gershwin preferred to keep George isolated, following instructions from his psychoanalyst in New York, Gregory Zilboorg, she always said. As George's condition grew critical, he fell into a coma, and only then was rushed to a surgery that came too late (even after some fourteen years of symptoms, at the end, if sugery had occurred just two days earlier, it would probably have saved his life). Even then, during and after the surgery, Leonore Gershwin withheld crucial information about his condition from the people who loved him the most. He died alone.
Here is a glimpse of a happier July day, just two years earlier, when George and Kay spent a weekend with Kay's good friend Mary Woodard Rheinhardt (the future Mrs Albert Lasker) on Long Island. Kay had divorced Jimmy Warburg the previous December. Porgy and Bess was in rehearsal for its Fall premiere. What are they eating? Why are Mary and Kay in beach attire while George is more formally dressed? Has he just arrived from the city and joined them at lunch, or is that the remains of brunch? As always, he needs a shave. Is Kay saying to him, "Here, dear, why don't you finish mine?"