1983: The Other Gershwin, Who Wrote Those Clever Words, Dies

Ira Gershwin was happy to take a back seat to his composer brother George, but it’s his lyrics that drive some of the 20th century’s greatest songs

David B. Green
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Ira Gershwin works on the score for the film "A Star Is Born," 1954
Ira Gershwin works on the score for the film "A Star Is Born," 1954.Credit: Wikipedia
David B. Green

On August 17, 1983, the lyricist Ira Gershwin, who wrote the words of some of the most witty and memorable pieces in the American popular “Songbook,” died.

Gershwin created the lyrics of such hits as “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” “I Got Rhythm,” “How Long Has This Been Going On?” as well as the libretto for “Porgy and Bess,” written with DuBose Heyward to the music of his younger brother, George Gershwin.

Both during the lifetime of George Gershwin, but also after his death, in 1937, it was he, though he was Ira’s junior by two years, who was always at center stage. With both his once-in-a-generation musical talent and his oversized personality, this was perhaps inevitable.

Ira was more modest and retiring: For several years early in his writing career (after George had become famous) he even wrote under a pseudonym, not wanting to be seen as trying to capitalize on George’s celebrity.  

Peripatetic childhood

Israel Gershvin was born on New York’s Lower East Side on December 6, 1896. He was the first son of Morris (or Moishe) Gershovitz and the former Rose Bruskin. Both Morris and Rose were born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and they may have known one another there before they each came to the U.S., Morris in 1890, and Rose with her family in 1892. They married in New York in 1895. 

Shortly after Ira’s birth, the family moved to Brooklyn, the first of 28 different addresses where they resided before their oldest son’s 18th birthday. The moves reflected the many different jobs held by Morris, which included leather cutter for shoe uppers, Turkish bath manager, and cigar star and billiard parlor proprietor.

Ira, a prolific reader, attended Townsend Harris High School for gifted students, followed by City College of New York, where he contributed light verse to two school newspapers. He dropped out of the latter during his second year, however, after failing math.

George Gershwin, c. 1935.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Despite his evidently challenged arithmetic skills, Ira Gershwin worked as a business manager for a traveling circus and as attendant at the bathhouses run by his dad.

In 1918, George, who began writing music professionally when he was 17, asked Ira to collaborate with him on the lyrics for a play called “Ladies First.” He did so, but under the name of “Arthur Francis,” which he took from the names of his and George’s younger brother and sister (although she spelled it “Frances”).

When George was approached by people wanting to meet his writing partner, he would say that “Mr. Francis is too busy working to be disturbed.”

A musical wins a Pulitzer

It was not until 1924 that Ira began using his real name, when he collaborated with George on the score for the Broadway musical “Lady Be Good,” which starred another sibling team, Fred and Adele Astaire.

In the next dozen-plus years, the brothers combined forces on more than a dozen Broadway plays and five movies. Ira’s lyrics for “Of Thee I Sing” (with music by George), together with the book by Morrie Ryskind and George S. Kaufman, constituted the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

In 1925, George bought a five-floor townhouse on West 103rd St., where the extended family – including their parents, younger siblings, and Ira and his wife, Leonore Strunsky, after their marriage in 1926 – all lived. In 1927, with two plays opening on Broadway – “Funny Face” and “Strike Up the Band” – Ira and George bought and moved into adjoining penthouse apartments on nearby Riverside Drive.

After George died, of an inoperable brain tumor, in 1937, a disconsolate Ira stopped writing for three years. Finally, Moss Hart convinced him to hook up with Kurt Weill in writing “Lady in the Dark,” for Broadway (1941).

The best of George Gershwin

His last work for Broadway, however, came in 1946 (“Park Ave.,” with music by Arthur Schwartz), and for the screen in 1954, for “A Star Is Born,” together with Harold Arlen. Following that, Gershwin retired to his home in Beverly Hills, where he spent the rest of his life curating the Gershwin family musical archive.

He died at age 86, on this day in 1983.