I know why they say the heart is in
the heart. When you think about people you love,
you get warm there. I want to thank
my sister for loving me, which taught me
to love. I’m not sure what she loved in me,
besides my love for her—maybe
that I was a copy of her, half-size—
then three-quarters, then size. In the snapshots, you see her
keeping an eye on me, I was a little wild
and I said silly things, and she would laugh her serious
laugh. My sister knew things,
sometimes she knew everything,
as if she’d been born knowing. And I
so did not know—my wonder went
along with me wherever we’d go,
as if I had it on a tool belt—
I understood almost nothing, and I
loved pertinding, and I loved to go into the
garden and dance with the flowers, which danced
with me without hardly moving their green
legs, I was like a music box
dropped on my head. And I was bad—
but I don’t think my sister thought I was actually
bad, I was her somewhat smaller
littermate—nor did she need
my badness to establish her goodness. And she
was beautiful, with a moral beauty, she would
glide by, in the hall, like a queen
on a barge on the Nile, she had straight black hair
that moved like a black waterfall, as
one thing, like a black silk skirt.
She was the human. I aspired to her.
And she stood between the god and me.
And her hair (pertind) was like a wing
of night, and in my dreams she could hold it
over me, and hide me. Of course,
by day, if the god wanted you for something,
she took you. I think if the god had known how to
take my curly hair from my head,
she would have. And I think there was nothing my sister
wanted to take from me. Why would
she want to, she had everything—
in our room she had control of the door,
closed, or open, and the light switch,
dark, or bright. And if anything
had happened to me, I think my sister
would not have known who she was, I was almost
essential to her, as she to me.
If anything had happened to her,
I think I would not be alive today,
and no one would remember me,
as if I had not lived.
“Ode to My Sister” by Sharon Olds from Odes. © Knopf, 2016. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Today is the birthday of American composer and musician George Gershwin (1898), whose lyrical and jazzy pieces, like Rhapsody in Blue, “Summertime,” “I Got Rhythm,” and “Embraceable You,” have become part of the American Songbook and influenced musicians like Charlie Parker and Janis Joplin. Gershwin and his brother Ira wrote the music for popular shows like Porgy and Bess (1935) and Girl Crazy (1930), which made Ginger Rogers an overnight Broadway sensation.
Gershwin grew up in Brooklyn on Snediker Avenue and began playing music at age 11 when his parents bought a secondhand piano for his older brother, Ira. He started playing, and wouldn’t stop. His piano teacher was so impressed by Gershwin’s talent that he wrote a letter to his sister and said: “I have a new pupil who will make his mark if anybody will. The boy is a genius.” In 1916, Gershwin published his first song, “When You Want ’Em, You Can’t Get ’Em; When You Have ’Em, You Don’t Want ’Em.” He was 17 at the time and earned 50 cents for writing the song.
By the time Gershwin was 15, he’d dropped out of school and was working in Tin Pan Alley as “song-plugger.” Tin Pan Alley was a collection of music publishers and songwriters in Manhattan. Song-pluggers were pianists who performed popular songs in music and department stores, trying to entice customers to buy the sheet music. Gershwin made $15.00 a week as a song-plugger. He also met a young dancer named Fred and his sister, Adele. Later, in 1927, Fred and Adele Astaire would star on Broadway in Funny Face. It was the first time Fred Astaire danced in evening clothes and top hat. Gershwin and his brother Ira wrote the music and lyrics for the show.
George Gershwin composed “Rhapsody in Blue” (1924), what many consider his masterpiece, in a manic frenzy. He’d been having dinner with his brother when they read a newspaper article saying Gershwin would be performing a new piece in public in two weeks, which he didn’t know about. He’d been inspired to write the piece on a train ride. He said: “It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, that is so often so stimulating to a composer — I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise. … And there I suddenly heard, and even saw on paper — the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end. No new themes came to me, but I worked on the thematic material already in my mind and tried to conceive the composition as a whole. I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness. By the time I reached Boston I had a definite plot of the piece, as distinguished from its actual substance.”
When he performed the piece in public for the first time, Gershwin improvised some of what he was playing, and he didn’t write out the piano part until after the performance, so it’s unknown exactly how the original Rhapsody sounded, but it changed popular music forever. The soundtrack to the Woody Allen movie, Manhattan (1979) is composed entirely of Gershwin’s compositions, including Rhapsody in Blue.
On writing the music for his orchestral piece An American in Paris (1928), which later became a very popular film starring Gene Kelly, Gershwin mused: “It’s not a Beethoven Symphony, you know … It’s a humorous piece, nothing solemn about it. It’s not intended to draw tears. If it pleases symphony audiences as a light, jolly piece, a series of impressions musically expressed, it succeeds.”
When Gershwin lived in Hollywood and wrote for the movies, he became good friends with German composer Arnold Schoenberg. They used to play tennis every week at Gershwin’s Beverly Hills home. Once, he asked Schoenberg for composition lessons but Schoenberg said no, explaining, “I would only make you a bad Schoenberg, and you’re such a good Gershwin already.”
George Gershwin died at the age of 38. He’d been behaving oddly for weeks and his doctors said he’d been suffering from a fast-growing, malignant brain tumor. Now, doctors say his erratic behavior and years-long battle with depression might have been the brain tumor all along and that Gershwin was likely misdiagnosed.
His friend the writer John O’Hara was so bereft at Gershwin’s passing that he said, “George Gershwin died on July 11, 1937, but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.”
George Gershwin once said: “True music must reflect the thought and aspirations of the people and time. My people are Americans. My time is today.”
It’s the birthday of Jane Smiley (books by this author), born in Los Angeles (1949). Smiley came from a family of journalists and newspaper editors, but when she was growing up she cared more about horses than she did about writing. She read every book about horses she could find. She invented imaginary horse farms, drew maps of the stables, and made up names for all the horses. As a teenager, she grew to be six feet two inches tall. She said, “I didn’t want to be a writer when I was in high school; all I remember wanting to be was shorter.” Her height meant she could never be a jockey, so she began writing instead, and wrote her first novel as her senior thesis at college.
She lived on a commune in the late sixties, leafleting and selling pro-labor newspapers at a local electronics factory. She said: “You were supposed to talk to the workers and educate them. Although when I did, the workers all seemed very well informed and knew exactly what they thought about how the system worked.” She eventually decided that she didn’t want to be a revolutionary, but she did want to travel the world. She said, “My plan, was to go to England and then sort of wander around the world, with my typewriter in one hand, my banjo in the other, and my backpack on my back.” But after a year of traveling, she got married and started a family, deciding that novels about family life could be just as interesting as novels about life on the road.
She’s best known for her novel A Thousand Acres (1991), a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear, set on an Iowa farm and told from the daughters’ perspective. Smiley thought it would be a good way to write about the decline of the American family farm. She spent months hanging out in small town cafés interviewing Iowa farmers. For her research, she drove a combine and read the agribusiness section of the Des Moines Register for a year. A Thousand Acres begins, “At sixty miles per hour, you could pass our farm in a minute.”
That novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992.
Her latest novel, Golden Age, was published in 2015.
Jane Smiley said: “I think a lot of things are hilariously funny, and that’s kind of the way I live my life. And I also believe that it’s only possible to live if you can detach yourself and detach your sort of sense of what’s going on a little bit and take a kind of observational position on everything … Being detached is the first step to being comic.”