Thursday, April 9, 2015

Lost and found: the mystery of Alan Gershwin






This might be categorized as a Separated at Birth of a very different stripe.

I love a mystery, but this mystery has pushed me back time and time again, leading to more frustration than information.

I've been chopping my way through several of the multitude of George Gershwin biographies. Surely no American composer has ever been more sliced, diced, hashed and rehashed than GG. I finally found my way to the really smutty one (The Memory of All That, 1998) by Joan Peyser, the one that reviewers vilified for being inaccurate and making "outrageous claims", including the insistence that GG sired an illegitimate son with a chorus girl in 1926.

One indignant review of the Peyser book sniffily claims that "the family has never recognized Alan Gershwin's claim to their", etc., etc., blah blah blah, but why would they? The stigma of an illegitimate child could ruin a career back then. No doubt the woods were full of opportunists and pretenders, not to mention gold-diggers. After his death, GG's affairs (literally) were hermetically sealed by Ira and Lee Gershwin, his brother and sister-in-law, who lived a long time and were bound and determined to show only the more brilliant facets of this enigmatic jewel to the public.

That restriction remained in place long after both of them were dead.




Strangely enough, in subsequent reviews and commentaries on Peyser's book, critics have become more forgiving.  Over time, her formerly sleazy tell-all has found its way into the Gershwin canon (not the boom-boom kind: I keep telling you!). A three-inch-thick Gershwin tome by Howard Pollack, the "definitive" bio until the next one comes along, admits Peyser's scholarship is a bit wonky, but nevertheless cites her work three or four times in a fairly straightforward manner. It's included, which in itself lends her work validity.  By some mysterious process that I don't understand, her controversial, vilified, preposterous and completely discounted biography now "counts".

Could it be that she got it right? 






But here's the thing. When I try to dig up some hard, plausible evidence that Alan Gershwin exists, or ever did exist, I can't find anything. There is a glorious photo gallery of "someone" - the photographer claims it's AG - taken when he would have been 88 years old.  The fine facial bone structure that has kept him photogenic all these years is a trait he shares with George (who never had the misfortune of growing old). But I can't post these, they're protected by the web site, and there's no text with them that I can find. Nothing to explain the photos. Nothing at all.







The few sites I found that even mention Alan Gershwin now identify him as "son of George", not "supposed" or "alleged" or any of that. No one seems to question it any more. But except for a claim to be a composer in his own right, this man of nearly 90 left very little trace. I found a YouTube video of just one piece he wrote called The Gettysburg Anthem, performed a few years ago at a small church for a commemorative Lincoln event. But the piece was composed FIFTY years ago - a bit longer than the time it took for GG to snatch his notation paper off the piano and perform it in public the same night. In his case, the smoke was still rising, the ink was still wet.

And that is all. No more videos. No more compositions. Nothing. I modestly have to tell you that there is a hell of a lot more of MY stuff on the internet, maybe because I don't know when to keep my mouth shut.




Tantalyzingly, there is a Facebook page that had me racing to find it, but in essence there's nothing on it except a link to a review from the late 1990s of the Peyser bio, one of the very few positive ones that thought her claims of an illegitimate son were valid.

There's also a cropped photo of AG's mouth, the feature that most resembles GG's. Hmmmmm.



If you're to believe this strange and ultimately unproven story, people would see the young Alan Gershwin and nearly fall over backwards because they thought they were seeing a mini-George. Imagine what a shock it must have been after GG's untimely death in 1937. Alan Gershwin was a walking stigma, or else just an oddity with a chance resemblance. But it wasn't just the way he wore his hat, the way he sipped his tea. His gait, his way of inhabiting his lanky body, his nervous energy and the smile that made you hear bells and the intoxicating rattledy-bang of trains - they really did seem to match up.

Or did they?

AG has never submitted to a DNA test. And of course, there are lots of examples of the Separated at Birth phenomenon (many of which I've posted here) that are almost creepy in their similarity.

Might AG be one of these? Now that he has aged, the resemblance isn't quite so startling, except at certain angles. The photo most widely circulated plays that up.

And yet, and yet.




One of the tidbits I found, deep in the archives of a website called The Blacklisted Journalist, was this piece of information, true or not:

Alan Gershwin was born in Brooklyn on May 18th, 1926, his birth certificate recorded in the name of Albert Schneider, with Mollie Schneider, Alan's mother's sister, listed as his mother.
In Alan's early years and during his occasional visits with his famous father, Gershwin could never find the courage to acknowledge Alan as his son and introduced Alan as a "son of a friend".
For what appears to be endless years, Alan waged a futile battle for full acknowledgement. And while the evidence is overwhelming, denials rage on.

After a sad childhood, lacking even a shred of his father's musical genius, Alan approaches the waning segment of his life still hoping the world will, at the very least, announce him as "the son of George Gershwin," not Gershwin's "son of a friend."




Now that the world is paying at least a scrap of attention, at least enough to take his picture and set up an empty Facebook page, perhaps Alan Gershwin (IF he's Alan Gershwin) feels vindicated. Believe me when I say that I am a bloodhound, and if there is any more information to be found, I will find it. But I haven't found it yet.

Some people coat-tail all their lives, and it's sad. Meanwhile, a weird thing has happened: Alan Gershwin has morphed into someone who looks sort of like George's grandfather, if grandsons bore that much resemblance (which they don't). 

In fact, in a rare photo of George's father, we see no resemblance at all.




Just when I am ready to write this off as a strange posthumous form of stalking, I think of Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh was a bona fide American hero, an aviator who flew solo from New York to Paris in 1927. Tickertape parade, picture on the cover of Time, the whole works. (Except Time probably didn't exist then.) Though he was supposedly happily married to the longsuffering Anne Morrow Lindbergh, rumors dogged him throughout his life that he in fact had several families scattered all over Europe, and that he had fathered, according to the garbled information I found, either four, five or nine illegitimate children (along with the six he had with Anne). These rumors seemed as preposterous as the murmurings that he was a Nazi sympathizer, until the surviving children took DNA tests in the mid-2000s and proved to the world that it was all true.




This one is truly bizarre, one of the strangest photographs I have ever seen. I have no idea where it came from, who took it, and why. Like all the other shreds I found, there's no explanation for it. It appears to be a shot of Alan Gershwin's face in profile, directly behind that of his father, perhaps made as a deliberate comparison. This would have been hard to accomplish, I mean technically, back in the day, so it may be a sophisticated form of photoshopping. The scribbles all over it are somewhat similar to the scrawling George liked to do when he gave someone a photo. He was even known to write little musical phrases, like-a so:




Or were the scribbles by George himself? Unlikely - they're big and sloppy and nothing like George's small, neat, upright hand. (Sidebar note: apparently George's original manuscripts were as immaculate as Mozart's, often without a single correction.) They also obscure the photo, which would have driven him crazy. In spite of the dash and verve of his music, his vibe suggests to me obsessive attention to detail and an insistence on order. On top of that, like most geniuses he was an inherently narcissistic personality who needed the world to see that incredibly beautiful face.





So we are left to compare basic features: the flattish face, the aristocratic high-bridged nose with its handsome Jewishness, the long clean jaw reminiscent of a movie star's. The sloping forehead with its receding hairline. The sweet, sad, expressive eyes that one jilted girl friend described as "heavenly". But most of all, and perhaps this is why it is on the FB banner, the "Hapsburg lip", pouty, sensual and a little sardonic. George had a killer mouth, with the kind of insolently brilliant smile that would light up a foggy day in London Town, or anywhere else.

What do you think? Are you with me here? Am *I* even with me here? Due to the frustrating lack of information, I don't think I will ever know for sure.



  Visit Margaret's Amazon Author Page!

BONUS! Just found an incredible version of the "superimposed" GG with Alan Gershwin. It was for sale on Etsy, of all things, for five bucks, an "original", and that's all it said. The mystery deepens. . . 



28 comments:

  1. I met AG at a Bar Mitzvah at which I was performing with my band in 1999. I talked to him for a while, and he sent me an autographed photo of himself at an age when he looked remarkably like GG. The inscription reads, "For Marc Sherman, on behalf of my illustrious father, I am musically yours, Alan C. Gershwin. 10/22/99" I've read the Peyser book, and have always wondered why AG never submitted to a DNA test, unless it was the GG family that refused to cooperate.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Fascinating! I have mixed feelings about this whole subject. The man seems to live through Gershwin, as if being his (perhaps) son has been his whole life. And yet, there is a guy going around who looks more like Obama than Obama. Lookalikes can make a very good living at it. So I am not sure, especially since he balks at the DNA test. I am re-reading the Peyser right now. I have seen some reviews of it (which are still on the internet, a lot of them for some reason) from when it first came out, and everyone blasted it as heresy. The level of fury tended to say there was some denial going on. The critics protested too much, not wanting "their" George sullied by such possibilities as being hung from the ceiling and whipped by Kay Swift. But more recent Gershwin bios are citing/quoting Peyser as if her ideas have gained more credence in the interim. I get the impression GG has been hermetically sealed by the family for a very long time, adding to his mystery. There is so much we still don't know. He seems to have had the x-factor that makes a genius, whereas Berlin, Arlen, et al. aren't much known to the younger generation. I mean: White Christmas, versus I Got Rhythm/Rhapsody in Blue? Anyway, I am deep in another George phase right now and back on the fox hunt, posting like mad. Tally-ho! (Oh, and - did AG ever really write any music? There is one YouTube vid which purports to have a performance of a very old choral piece, but I am not sure about it.)

      Delete
  2. I don't know if AG has/had any musical talent or not. There is that Gettysburg Anthem that he composed:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=INFRrUopSIU.
    I did see a video of him banging (and I do mean banging) on a piano once.
    He declined to sing with my band, and doesn't play any musical instrument as far as I know.
    BTW, I performed my mini version of Rhapsody in Blue at 2 concerts today.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Where do you play? Piano? RiB is immortal, I think.

    I am starting to wonder if AG is a pretender. He seems like a sad figure, living only through his "father", and the stories in the Peyser book seem a bit contrived.

    She doesn't get into the "was he gay or wasn't he?", to which I answer, WHO CARES?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I perform in the Philadelphia area and surrounding counties (Bucks and Montgomery), plus South Jersey.

      Delete
    2. You can hear samples of my piano playing here:
      http://www.cdbaby.com/Artist/MarcSherman

      Delete
    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
    4. That's OK, I found the CD site! Enjoying it. My piano teacher told my mother I was "unteachable", so to hear this kind of expertise is wonderful!

      Delete
    5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IgApJUs7DA4 Don't know if this will work - a YouTube video of Love Walked In, my current fave GG, sung in Russian. Wonderful arrangement, beautifully sung.

      Delete
  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Then again, AG refuses to take a DNA test, as does William Shatner's "son" who is suing him for x-million dollars. It may be one of the hazards of fame. Another "thing" that comes up with Gershwin is "was he or wasn't he gay?" Personally I don't care, and the answer may be "yes" (both ways), but does it really matter now? We have the music.

      Delete
  5. He is not gay. George or Alan Gershwin. So before you speak stupidly get your facts straight. Alan is a very difficult man but he is very lovely. It is amazing to know him and k would never change that. If you only had the privilege and be as blessed as I am.

    ReplyDelete
  6. YOU NOT ONLY RESEMBLE HIM PERFECTLY , BUT YOU HAVE THE TOTALITY OF ALL HIS MUSICAL TALENTS .= MARZZY-' the lady's with me '

    ReplyDelete
  7. Alan Gershwin is a living person who has had a very hard life. The nonsense here about his "refusal to submit" to DNA testing gets it exactly wrong. The Gershwin family have never been willing to provide anything for him to be tested against. It has been his lifelong hope to be able to prove his heritage. Joan Peyser searched desperately for a way to get this testing done while she was writing her problematic book (for which the superimposed double profile photo was created). Peyser asked me repeatedly if I possessed anything of my grandmother Kay Swift's that might have George's DNA. She was particularly hopeful for any envelope or postcard that might have a stamp George himself had licked. I had nothing for her, as my grandmother destroyed all letters and photos after George's death in order to preserve privacy. There is no certainty about Alan's claim, but there is much to suggest he is indeed George's son. Kay Swift, who met him when he was a child at least twice, would never make a public statement about this but she certainly never denied his claim.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for your comments. I especially value your perspective as Kay Swift's granddaughter. She in some ways reminds me of Mozart's sister Nannerl, who never achieved her rightful place in musical history. Would I be correct in saying the Gershwin family are still trying to negate AG's existence, or at least keep him a secret? Even in the age of Google it is difficult to find any information about his life. At any rate, I found Peyser's book a mixed experience, with some claims that seemed over the top or even downright gossipy. But other bios were almost too reverent, gingerly tiptoeing around anything that would disturb the legend. Others hyperfocused on the music, brushing past problematic areas in GG's personal life. Peyser waded right in there fearlessly, and from what I can dig up, the critics absolutely clobbered her. Now, she is being cautiously reconsidered as a valid biographer, perhaps because of that lack of intimidation (and - just maybe - validation of some of her more outrageous claims). GG's early death must be a factor, and the fact that he was so quintessentially American, reflecting the lavish blooming of musical culture in the '20s-'30s. I also wrote many (many!) posts about Oscar Levant, who in many ways couldn't have existed without GG. But in finding out more about Levant, I couldn't help but gain deeper insight into GG. "Upper berth, lower berth - the difference between talent and genius", indeed.

      Delete
    2. Alan is alive and well, having just turned 91 years old this week. He's been a friend of mine for several years. He lives with his long-time 'lady-friend," Blossom Tracy (who's 96--and the last wife of Arthur "The Street Singer" Tracy) in NYC. They're certainly one of New York's most colorful couples. I'm a musical scholar...and do you know what? I believe him! When I look at his face, there is no denying there is a strong physical resemblance. I choose to believe him and give him the benefit of the doubt--as I would hate to have it someday be proven that he IS George Gershwin's son--and I was one of the people who didn't believe him. He keeps a pretty sunny outlook, most times...though he does have sort of a cloud of sadness about him. What an awful thing it would be, to have the world deny you your own birthright, wouldn't it? Incidentally, that photo superimposition was originally run in CONFIDENTIAL MAGAZINE in the mid-1950's--they ran an entire article about him, which I could send you if you're interested. In any case, thank you for shining the light on this under-reported musical mystery. I believe you, Alan!

      Delete
    3. Please do! I would love to see it. I find this whole subject fascinating. I wasn't expecting this many intriguing comments, including a recent one from Katharine Weber, Kay Swift's granddaughter. I went through a real GG phase in my writing and tried to see him through various lenses, especially the people around him.http://margaretgunnng.blogspot.ca/2015/04/stalking-gershwin-julias-story.html I do appreciate your comments and believe you're fortunate to know Alan Gershwin. I'm becoming more convinced all the time! Your description of "a pretty sunny outlook, most times. . . though he does have a sort of cloud of sadness about him" reminds me a lot of people's descriptions of George Gershwin. No matter how many biographies you read, it's very hard to get close to a sense of how he really was. To my surprise, I learned that he appeared to many people (including Ira, who was terrified) as a ghost after he died, no doubt due to all that unfinished business. Anyway, thanks!

      Delete
  8. Just saw this page. I knew Alan Gershwin when I lived in NY. When I knew him he was selling copies of that double profile portrait ... autograph extra.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've received so many comments on this post from people who know/knew Alan Gershwin. He remains a mysterious figure to me. Thank you for your contribution to the enigma.

      Delete
    2. ALAN GERSHWIN IS NOT AN ' E N I G M A ' ; BUT RATHER IS A REAL ' L I V E ' FLESH AND BLOOD INDIVIDUAL , WHOM NOT ONLY LOOKS LIKE HIS FATHER ; ' GEORGE GERSHWIN ' BUT ALSO HAS THE SAME MUSICAL TALENTS OF HIS FATHER ! I KNOW THIS , BECAUSE I'VE HEARD HIS MUSIC . DID YOU KNOW THAT , HE EVEN HAS HIS OWN PUBLISHING CO. ! I FIRST MET HIM IN 1985 AT A LECTURE IN NEW YORK CITY , ON A TOPIC OF MUTUAL INTEREST , AND WE INSTANTLY BECAME ACQUAINTANCES AND LATER , VERY GOOD FRIENDS . YOU JUST COULDN'T HELP BUT LIKE THIS MAN INTENSELY . ONE OF THE THINGS I WOULD SAY TO HIM OVER THE YEARS THAT I KNEW HIM , WAS THAT IN ADDITION TO ALL THE WONDERFUL MUSIC HE WROTE , THAT HE MISSED OUT ON HIS OTHER SECOND CALLING IN LIFE ! THAT WAS THAT HE ' ALAN GERSHWIN ' IS A GREAT COMEDIAN ! I OFTEN SUGGESTED HIM TO ALSO TRY DOING THAT FORM OF ENTERTAINMENT , AS A SECOND POSSIBILITY . I'M CERTAIN HE WOULD HAVE BEEN QUITE SUPERB AT IT . I CAN SEE THIS IS BECOMING A LONG ABSTRACT SO THINK OF HIM AS A WONDERFUL ' HUMAN BEING ' FIRST AND THEN TRY TO UNDERSTAND THE NIGHTMARE HE WENT THROUGH IN LIFE , IN JUST TRYING TO ' PROVE HIMSELF ' FIRST , AND THEN WHOM HE REALLY IS AND IN ALL OF HIS 80 + YEARS HAS RAISED CHILDREN AND GRANDCHILDREN , I'D SAY ". . .YOUR A BETTER MAN , FOR HAVING DONE IT ALL. . ." ! PLEASE EXCUSE ANY TYPOS OR GRAMMA MISTAKES , AS IVE ' SLOSHED ALL THIS TOGETHER AT 4AM ! ALSO PLEASE EXCUSE MY USING ' CAP-LOCKS ' AS I TYPE MUCH FASTER AND MORE ACCURATELY WITH THEM ON ! THANK YOU !

      Delete
  9. Met and spoke with Alan Gershwin in 2003 at the annual International Al Jolson festival on Long Island. Nice guy, looked exactly like his pa, if his pa was in his 80s.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I find that fascinating. So many people have left comments about how they met him or know him, and most are convinced he is indeed GG's son.

      Delete
  10. ALAN GERSHWIN IS NOT AN ' E N I G M A ' ; BUT RATHER IS A REAL ' L I V E ' FLESH AND BLOOD INDIVIDUAL , WHOM NOT ONLY LOOKS LIKE HIS FATHER ; ' GEORGE GERSHWIN ' BUT ALSO HAS THE SAME MUSICAL TALENTS OF HIS FATHER ! I KNOW THIS , BECAUSE I'VE HEARD HIS MUSIC . DID YOU KNOW THAT , HE EVEN HAS HIS OWN PUBLISHING CO. ! I FIRST MET HIM IN 1985 AT A LECTURE IN NEW YORK CITY , ON A TOPIC OF MUTUAL INTEREST , AND WE INSTANTLY BECAME ACQUAINTANCES AND LATER , VERY GOOD FRIENDS . YOU JUST COULDN'T HELP BUT LIKE THIS MAN INTENSELY . ONE OF THE THINGS I WOULD SAY TO HIM OVER THE YEARS THAT I KNEW HIM , WAS THAT IN ADDITION TO ALL THE WONDERFUL MUSIC HE WROTE , THAT HE MISSED OUT ON HIS OTHER SECOND CALLING IN LIFE ! THAT WAS THAT HE ' ALAN GERSHWIN ' IS A GREAT COMEDIAN ! I OFTEN SUGGESTED HIM TO ALSO TRY DOING THAT FORM OF ENTERTAINMENT , AS A SECOND POSSIBILITY . I'M CERTAIN HE WOULD HAVE BEEN QUITE SUPERB AT IT . I CAN SEE THIS IS BECOMING A LONG ABSTRACT SO THINK OF HIM AS A WONDERFUL ' HUMAN BEING ' FIRST AND THEN TRY TO UNDERSTAND THE NIGHTMARE HE WENT THROUGH IN LIFE , IN JUST TRYING TO ' PROVE HIMSELF ' FIRST , AND THEN WHOM HE REALLY IS AND IN ALL OF HIS 80 + YEARS HAS RAISED CHILDREN AND GRANDCHILDREN , I'D SAY ". . .YOUR A BETTER MAN , FOR HAVING DONE IT ALL. . ." ! PLEASE EXCUSE ANY TYPOS OR GRAMMA MISTAKES , AS IVE ' SLOSHED ALL THIS TOGETHER AT 4AM ! ALSO PLEASE EXCUSE MY USING ' CAP-LOCKS ' AS I TYPE MUCH FASTER AND MORE ACCURATELY WITH THEM ON ! THANK YOU !

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm amazed at the comments I still get on this subject after more than two years. It seems that many people have met him, know him, and love him. I can believe he has had a very hard life living in this shadow, though it must be a source of pride. Thank you for your comments, I appreciate them. I don't usually make it to 4:00, but I've been known to be up til 2:00. I find I can't type slowly as I make too many errors. My fingers have to forget what they're doing.

      Delete
  11. Alan gave me one if those superimposed Alan/George pictures once. I also have a cassette tape of Alan's songs. He'd come into a Greenwich Village bar I played at and immediately start requesting that I play one of his songs. The only one that wasn't utter hack work was called "This Is Only The Beginning." I must have been the only person playing any of his songs in the entire decade.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm beginning to get a very complicated picture here. Some have echoed your thoughts about AG as an untalented wanna-be, but others insist he's the real thing. At this point I don't know what to think, but I do appreciate all the comments, including yours.

      Delete