Thursday, August 11, 2011
You Say To - MAY- to
In 1998, the Library of Congress hosted a symposium with musical performances over several days in honor of what they called George Gershwin's "centennial" and I call his centenary. (For some reason, the Library of Congress did not take my advice on this, though I did seriously try to influence what they were calling the event. I just cannot win on the centenary vs. centennial front.)
I was part of it, with the concluding performance being a salute to Kay Swift, at which I spoke, in effect narrating, with the late arranger Russell Warner, a concert performance of "Fine and Dandy" by Bill Bolcom, Joan Morris, and Max Morath.
During those days in Washington, I was privileged to spend a lot of time with a fantastic range of Gershwin people, from Anne Brown, the original Bess of "Porgy and Bess," to English Strunsky, the delightful brother of Ira Gershwin's not-so-delightful wife Leonore. (They are both dead. There were a lot of elderly people who knew George at this event, and most of them are now gone.) English was fond of my grandmother, and he recognized her role in George Gershwin's life. Among our many chats, over a range of topics, was a particularly resonant story that he told me. It had the feeling of a story told many, many times. I didn't include it in The Memory Of All That, though I wish I had, so this is a true staircase thought.
English Strunsky was an entrepreneurial soul with many interests, and one of them was a large tomato farm in New Jersey, what would be called a truck farm. (Do you see where this is going?) One day, Ira and Leonore went out to New Jersey with him to visit the farm. Observing English talking first to his workers in the field, and then later to some buyers, Lyricist Ira, ever alert to words and language and turns of phrase, asked him why it was, when English talked with his workers, he said "to-may-to," but when he spoke with certain buyers, he said "to-mah-to." Was he aware of this? And English replied with a shrug, "Oh, to-may-to, to-mah-to..."