July 17, 2012

Having begun this month's concentration on George Gershwin during the 75th anniversary of his death with a review of a book I enthusiastically endorsed, I'm sorry to say this week we look at one I cannot recommend for its Gershwin content. 

In spite of the fact that its title would lead you to believe that Gershwin was at least a major topic of the volume, Katharine Weber's book adds little to what you would know about George Gershwin if you read The George Gershwin Reader which I recommended two weeks ago. 

This book lends new meaning to the phrase "a real page turner." Normally, that means a book so interesting that you can't wait to turn the page to find out what comes next. Here, on the other hand, you keep turning the page to find out when the author is going to start writing about George Gershwin. By the time you get to the 100th page, you've only found two paragraphs about the composer whose name is so prominent in the book's title. 

And what have you learned? That in 1936, when visiting a friend in a hospital, the author's father discovered that Gershwin was in the same hospital undergoing tests and he dropped in on him every day for three days. Whether or not they actually knew each other or if her father simply enjoyed pestering famous persons isn't known. She says "It is impossible to know if Gershwin welcomed these visits from someone he barely knew, or slept through them." 

The chapter in which Webber begins to deal with Gershwin doesn't start until page 126 of this 270 page book. It isn't a chapter on Gershwin however. It is a chapter on the author's grandmother, the Kay Swift of the title. Swift was, of course, the composer of the musical Fine and Dandy who had a deep and lasting relationship with Gershwin which is generally assumed to have been a decade long romantic and sexual affair. It is that which leads those interested in Gershwin to read the book in the first place. 

Swift was a fascinating presence in Gershwin's life and an interesting part of Broadway's history in her own right. (There's a delightful recording of her score for Fine and Dandy on PS Classics – ASIN: B0001XAQDM, and a thoroughly researched full biography of her titled Fine and Dandy - The Life and Work of Kay Swift, by Vicki Ohl, published by the Yale University Press, ISBN 0-300-10261-5.) 

Information on Swift's life and career contained in Weber's book adds some color to drier, more academic writings about either Gershwin or Swift. For example, a three paragraph quote from Swift's own notes for a possible memoir give a delightful look at one night in Gershwin's life when Swift took him to see Wagner's Die Meistersinger and they ended up stumbling into a pile of snow as the exited the theater in their formal evening wear.

The one chapter in the eight-chapter book that purports to be about Gershwin is titled, as is the book, "The Memory of All That" - a line from the Gershwin song "They Can't Take That Away From Me." The chapter, however, is not really about Gershwin. It is more about Swift and the impact that her relationship with Gershwin had on the lives of others in Weber's family. It is here, however, between pages 127 and 221, that you will find what interesting material about George Gershwin there is in the book. 

There is a great deal of speculation in the book: family traditions that can't be proven true or false, suppositions that can't be documented, possible lies (white or otherwise) told by relations she believes or suspects deviated from the truth whenever it was convenient. Some of this is interesting, some is titillating – and some is downright objectionable. She indulges in a bit of speculation as to whether Gershwin might have taken some indecent liberties (unspecified) with her mother, the daughter of Kay Swift. There is no evidence of such a thing presented and even the author says first "I am suspicious of my own suspicion" and then "My best guess is that nothing that would qualify in contemporary terms as literally abusive ever occurred between my mother and George." Then what the heck is it doing in this book? And why is there no indication anywhere that she undertook any independent investigation into any possible source of evidence other than items in her own family's possession? 

Notably, the book has no index, no footnotes, no endnotes, no bibliography and no indication of sources. Weber does, however, include five family trees covering the major branches of her story. They come in handy time and again when it isn't clear just whom is related to whom and how. 

All of this is not to say that the book wouldn't be of interest to other readers. Surely, Mrs. Weber's family will all find the book alternately fascinating and infuriating, depending on whose secret she's discussing on which page. And there are thousands – perhaps tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands – who read her novels and will find material here that explains the views she brings to her fiction. She is the author of five novels, including Triangle, a piece of historical fiction centered on the famous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in which 146 garment workers died in New York City in 1911. This book reveals that the author's great-grandmother was a garment worker at that same factory until shortly before the fire, which lends a sense of personal connection to the tale.  

But those who learn of this book from this column, presumably those theater aficionados who want to learn about George Gershwin, need be warned that the title's promise of information about the great composer goes unfulfilled. In short, I read the book so you don't have to.

The Memory of All That: George Gershwin, Kay Swift, and My Family's Legacy of Infidelities
Broadway Paperbacks - 288 Pages
ISBN 978-0-307-39589-4
List Price $14

The Memory of All That – 
George Gershwin, Kay Swift, and My Family's Legacy of Infidelities