Thursday, July 28, 2011

The 1700 Typewriters of Sidney Kaufman

In The Memory Of All That, I refer often to the FBI records concerning my father, Sidney Kaufman. Here's a page from among nearly 800 pages. Note the generally insane look of this document, which could have been a prop page created by the mad mathematician in A Beautiful Mind. Your tax dollars at work! The 1700 typewriters of Sidney Kaufman were a minor obsession of the Bureau for years. What was he up to, what master plan for world domination was taking shape in our garage, where these 1700 flimsy East German typewriters (which did not have a QWERTY keyboard) were quietly rusting into a solid coral reef of uselessness?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Bracelets from George Gershwin

In this photo of my grandmother, Kay Swift, taken in late 1928, she is wearing the antique gold cuff bracelets that George Gershwin gave her to celebrate the success of "An American in Paris." At this point, she had been married to my grandfather, Jimmy Warburg, for ten years. (They were not divorced until the end of 1934.) Kay's involvement with George was well underway, and she had recently been employed, at George's suggestion, as the rehearsal pianist for a Rodgers & Hart musical, A Connecticut Yankee. Kay and Jimmy had now started writing popular songs together, and the following year would bring their first big hit, "Can't We Be Friends?"

What do you suppose Jimmy thought about her having and wearing these bracelets?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

They Were So Young!

Here they are, my grandmother Kay Swift and her great love George Gershwin, with horses, before or after a ride through the woods of Bydale, the country house in what was then rural back-country Greenwich, Connecticut, where my mother spent her childhood summers. George spent much time there as a houseguest, especially during almost the entire summer of 1928, when he was ensconced in the guest cottage, writing An American in Paris. This photo was taken that summer. The horse he liked to ride was named Denny. He always called it "horse riding," and my grandmother, who dressed the city boy from Brooklyn in riding clothes and taught him to ride, would correct him, ""Horseback riding, dear."

George would turn 30 in September, two months after this photo was taken, while my grandmother had turned 31 three months earlier. They were so young!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Why Did My Mother Marry My Father?

Of course, there is always a bit of mystery to any attraction. I make the case in The Memory Of All That for a significant factor in what drew my mother to my father being his passing resemblance to George Gershwin, who loomed large in her childhood. Can you see it? They were both self-made men, brilliant Jewish boys, the children of immigrants. Both took themselves from the streets of Brooklyn to the uptown world of culture and refinement. But George Gershwin acomplished monumentally great work as a composer in his 38 years, while Sidney Kaufman died at 73 without ever meeting his grandchildren, whose mother he had rejected, and left only a few bad movies, a couple of good ones, and the gift to mankind that was Aromarama.

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?"

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Memory Of All That Artifacts

I am going to be posting a number of items in the coming weeks, as The Memory Of All That makes its appearance in the world, things which aren't quite staircase thoughts (as you may have noticed, I post lots of things here that don't really qualify) so much as they are things that could have been in the book, but in the interest of making the book less of a loose, baggy monster, are not. Or they are mentioned in the book only en passant, or only implicitly, and so I will have a little more to say about the subject here. Not to mention the actual staircase thoughts that will no doubt arise.

We begin with this fish knife, one of eight in my possession, part of the remains of the silver service which belonged to my grandparents at the time of their marriage, the first of three marriages for each. The monogram is a J and a K nestled inside the W -- James and Katharine Warburg. I don't know if this set was used in the city (East 70th Street) or the country (Bydale, in Greenwich), but I suspect that when my grandmother left the marriage at the end of 1934, it was the silverware she had in her post-divorce apartment. It is very likely that George Gershwin used this fish knife at some point in the years (1925-1936) during which he was a constant in my grandmother's life.

In 1838 a book of etiquette for ladies recorded that, 'in first rate society, silver knives are now beginning to be used for fish: a very pleasing, as well as decided step in the progress of refinement.' The elaborate dining etiquette of the Victorian era made it a time when all sorts of weird utensils were created for eating particular foods. The proper use of cutlery required lengthy explanations in etiquette manuals. Often the standards of behavior reflected the manners and status of 'old' versus 'new' money. The development of fish eaters, as they were originally called, is a good example of this. Until the 1880's, it was traditional to eat fish using two ordinary table forks or one fork and a piece of bread. It was the middle-class who would have bought the newly developed utensils like fish eaters, thus distinguishing them as socially inferior people who have to buy silver because they don't already have it.