This Day in Jewish History

2004: A Misanthropic Musician and Lover Tormented by Success Dies

Artie Shaw turned Cole Porter’s ‘Begin the Beguine’ into a best-selling record, and then decided that fans who begged to hear it were ‘morons.’ He blamed anti-Semitism for his problems.

Artie Shaw, ca 1947. Photograph by William P. Gottlieb.
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On December 30, 2004, the multi-talented and intellectually gifted – though misanthropic – musician Artie Shaw died, at the age of 94. Shaw was one of the world’s most popular bandleaders in the world during the 1930s and ‘40s, with his fame sometimes exceeding that of fellow clarinetist and Swing conductor Benny Goodman. Shaw found both fame and routine intolerable, however, so that he was regularly disbanding his ensembles and retiring “permanently” from the stage.

His edginess extended to his love life as well: He was married eight times, and some of his relationships were with the era’s most famous sex symbols.

Anti-Semitism in New Haven

Arthur Jacob Arshawsky was born on May 23, 1910, in New York’s Lower East Side. His father was the Russian-born Harry Arshawky and his mother the former Sarah Strauss, from Austria. The couple did piecework for dress manufacturers in their basement apartment.

When Artie was 7, his parents’ business having gone into bankruptcy, the family moved to New Haven, where he eventually attended New Haven High School. In his 1952 autobiography, Shaw described his life in Connecticut as an introduction to a persistent and omnipresent anti-Semitism: “I realized that my being Jewish was something to be jeered at for, called names for, or hated and excluded for,” and he came to understand “that this one lesson had more to do with shaping the course and direction of my entire life than any other single thing that has happened to me”

Seeking a way out of his social isolation, Artie took up music, teaching himself to play the ukulele, piano, saxophone and finally the clarinet. By the time he was 14, the year his father left the family, Artie had quit school and spent his days practicing his instrument until “my teeth ached and the inside of my lower lip was ragged from the constant pressure of the mouthpiece and the reed.”

'Fans are morons'

The following year, he left home and began playing professionally. He played as a studio musician and he performed as a member of the CBS Radio orchestra, he was musical director of Austin Wylie’s orchestra in Cleveland, and he worked with Irving Aaronson’s Commanders. He also learned to arrange music, and began composing as well.

In 1936, he formed his first eponymous ensemble.

As Shaw’s entry in the “Contemporary Musicians” encyclopedia notes, he wanted to create music people would listen to, not dance to. Speaking to The New York Times a decade before his death, he said, "I thought that because I was Artie Shaw I could do what I wanted, but all they wanted was 'Begin the Beguine,'" referring to the Cole Porter song that he recorded in 1938, and that became one of most popular tunes of the Swing era. The fans, he said at one point, were “morons.”

Shaw introduced drummer Buddy Rich to audiences, and hired Billie Holiday as lead singer for a time in 1938, when no other white bandleader dared to tour the South with a black musician (she suffered so much abuse from audiences that she quickly left the band, though not before recording “Any Old Time”). His arrangements and his own compositions sometimes seemed more fitting for a symphony hall, and the theme he wrote his own band, called “Nightmare,” incorporated cantorial motifs into its melody.  

During World War II, Shaw organized a band and took it to the Pacific theater, where he performed before Navy audiences as frequently as four times a day. After 18 months, he returned home in a state of exhaustion. Finally, in 1954, he lay down his clarinet, and never picked it up again – though in 1983, he formed the Artie Shaw Orchestra, led by clarinetist Dick Johnson, to play his old arrangements, and would occasionally conduct it.

Over the next five decades, Shaw published several books of short stories, and labored on a three-volume autobiographical novel that remained unfinished at his death. He also lectured on college campuses, with one of his offerings being “Consecutive Monogamy and Ideal Divorce,” in which he talked about his marriages to, among others, Lana Turner, Ava Gardner and novelist Kathleen Winsor (there were also affairs with Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth). Shortly before his death, Shaw was gracious enough to accept a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.