Monday, April 13, 2015

Stalking Gershwin: Julia's story




My completely obsessive but hugely enjoyable George Trek continues, and I just keep finding more and more enthralling stuff.

It seems strange to say that George Gershwin had a stalker. I didn’t even realize it until I began to read the formerly-controversial bio The Memory of All That by Joan Peyser (the one that was vilified and ripped apart by critics for daring to claim that Gershwin had an illegitimate son – which he did). Other bios mention a certain infatuated fan who pursued George, mainly through letters and phone calls, for nearly ten years. So who was this Julia Van Norman, and why did her daughter Nancy insist that she was Gershwin’s love child? It certainly muddies the waters in the case of Alan Gershwin, who at least had a few threads of veracity in his paternity claim  – not to mention looking so much like his suspected father that it was breathtaking to behold.





It started with a letter – a fan letter – a lavishly-written fan letter to George Gershwin from an articulate, gifted, emotionally fragile  (and married) woman, probably in her 30s, who had heard a recording of Rhapsody in Blue which caused her to do mental and emotional back-flips. Ironically, it was her husband Horace who had bought the record, to try to lift Julia out of a “profoundly unhappy” state. No doubt the fan letter was fired off without  much hope or expectation of a reply.

To quote Julia's long-suffering husband, “One day, to my complete astonishment, my wife showed me a blue envelope postmarked Long Island. It began ‘Dear Mrs. Van Norman: Your letter, which I received some time ago, gave me a feeling that is difficult to describe. I receive quite a few letters from various sources, due to the nature of my work, but I must say yours stuck in my mind longer than any other.” He then speaks of his new work, Concerto in F, and invites her to attend its premiere, expressing a desire to meet her: “Will you by any chance be in New York at this time? Or are you there already?”





She wasn't, but she would be soon. Eventually she would uproot and transplant her whole family from Minnesota to Manhattan just to be near him. The tone of Gershwin's letter is not particularly warm, but could be described as friendly in a detached sort of way. Biographer after biographer describe Gershwin as someone who could not easily express emotion. It all went into the work. I have no record of that first letter from Julia, but we can imagine what it was like. The fact that GG tells her he received it “some time ago” and explains that he receives a lot of letters “due to the nature of my work” seems to be putting it into a slot, just one in a thousand, though he then goes on to say his feelings about the letter were "difficult to describe".  So what prompted GG to respond to it the way he did?

I think it was a combination of narcissism and need. I have come to believe that George Gershwin was a profoundly lonely man who never really connected deeply to another human being. In a photo in which he is attempting to put his arm around his mother, she is pulling away from him in discomfort. He juggled girl friends without falling in love with any of them, and preferred to spend time with married women  because there would be fewer strings attached.





Gershwin included his telephone number with his letter to Julie, prompting even more emotional  back-flips. My theory is that Van Norman’s lavish praise and vivid writing style caused George to think she must be beautiful and ethereal, which is hardly the case. Nevertheless, Julia’s husband insists that when the two finally got together, “he sensed a kindred spirit. She sensed she understood him, his mind, his soul, in a way nobody ever had. The thing went on. They had appointments. They talked and talked and talked.”

And now I remember a song yet to be written, and these lines:

"He'll turn to me and smile
I'll understand
And in a little while
He'll take my hand
And though it seems absurd,
I know we both won't say a word."

But how much of this was Julia’s already-obsessive projection of her own needs? Was she rattling on to her husband about how they were kindred spirits, either to impress him or make him jealous?  Was Gershwin really that attentive? He was a man who often went on and on (and on) about his work, and if he ran out of steam there, he began a sort of “but enough about me, let me tell you about my new penthouse” monologue.  All of this would have thrilled Julie no end, for just being in his presence was a kind of ecstasy. He was just charismatic and charming enough to pull it off.  But it does seem odd that all this would be going on, if in fact it was, right under her husband’s nose.





Poor Julia. Horace didn’t think they were getting it on, because she was not very physically attractive, at least not by George’s standards, so it’s unlikely they were. I have my own theory as to why George strung her along for as long as he did.  He kept her around because of the awful hole at the bottom of his soul that needed endless infusions of admiration to keep him emotionally alive. Certainly poor Julie filled the bill for GG’s narcissistic emotional needs. Peyser sums it up this way:  “But Gershwin kept turning toward more motherly figures, somewhat older than he, married, generally with children, who saw him as someone they could appropriate.” That's a strange term, but perhaps not. He was passive enough to enjoy being moved around like a chess piece. There’s a strange but possibly-true account, second-hand, of someone walking in on George and a girl friend engaging in Fifty Shades-style sadomasochism, with George as the “sub”.  

Whether she was willing to walk him on a leash or not, his longest-lasting relationship was with the brilliant pianist and composer Kay Swift, who filled all his basic requirements: older, married with children, rich.  They lasted ten years as companions, and who knows what they got up to in that time, but GG kept stringing her along in vague promises of marriage that never materialized, not even after she divorced her husband to free herself for him. Stringing women along was something he did all his life, though he never seemed cruel. He had such nice manners, such charm, and besides, he was a genius. How many chances in a lifetime do you get to know a genius? 





As for poor thwarted Julie,  the lopsided quasi-relationship traced a bumpy path, with GG cutting off all communication more than once when her devotion became alarming. Strangely enough, at one point her husband contacted him begging him to reply to her letters again, as she seemed to be “dying of despair”. She was a George-a-holic by this time, and theirs was a mutually parasitic relationship which GG now desperately wanted to escape from. Possibly he did not want to look into the abyss in his own soul which had drawn him in this direction in the first place.

The most heartbreaking evidence I found of this lack of true reciprocation is this excerpt from a six-page handwritten later from Julia dated May 14, 1933:

“In your Cuban Rhapsody you have attained a breadth of conception and a reach of vision that seems as yet impossible to any of these others. The work is beautiful and tremendous, and left me in a trancelike state, after I had heard it performed under the rise and fall of your baton. . . It is the finest thing you have written, my dear. I feel, and know that you possess a priceless gift, and when I speak as I do of conserving your energy, it is only that I feel your work is going to be of vital importance, and that its achievement will bring you swift (!! emphasis mine) and certain happiness. . . So you must conserve your valuable, virile body and your keen mind, for the task that lies before you. . . And because my love for you is not petty, but profound and deep and sure, I dare to tell you this. My creed begins, ‘I believe in George. . . ‘”





Ye gods! The woman worshipped at the Church of George, and her entire being seemed to revolve around him. But there’s a funny dynamic going on here. Elsewhere in this interminable letter, she assures or reassures him that she will leave him alone to get on with his superlative work which was surely destined for greatness. What provoked this response? It seems likely that GG was trying to scrape her off the bottom of his shoe, or at very least perform the slippery disappearing act that was the hallmark of his relations with women.

The repressed sexuality in this fragment is sad: her “trancelike state” which seems to bespeak sexual rapture; “the rise and fall of your baton”, a Freudian delight; “your valuable, virile body and your keen mind”, with the body mentioned first. The saddest of all is her declaration that her love for him is”profound and deep and sure”, topped off by a bizarre creed that seems cultish in its devotion.

Though that was not the end, things reached a low point when Julia asked George flat-out if he loved her, and he said a flat-out “no”. This seems heartless, but there is practicality in it as well. He insisted on keeping careful boundaries around the connection (one can hardly call it a relationship)  from then on. Julia kept up her six-page rhapsodies in script, and if he replied at all, there was nothing in those letters or telegrams that his mistress Kay Swift couldn’t have read.




Poignantly, Horace Van Norman said in an interview, “What my wife wanted more than anything else was to be free to marry George. But George told her to cool it. I remember Kay Swift once asked me if Julia was prettier than she was. Kay was not so pretty, but she was a witty, intelligent woman.”

This kind of symbiotic connection is common in show biz, and GG’s obvious magnetism and genius (which he forever remind everyone of)  could easily have triggered fan obsession.  There is no evidence she lurked around his property, but Gershwin biographies are largely based on conventional reporting, interviews conducted long after the fact (Horace Van Norman’s revelations came SIXTY year later), and the family’s carefully stage-managed accounts. So what really happened here?





We do know that something eerie happened very close to GG’s death from a neglected, agonizing brain tumor. By this time George wasn't able to manage more than the most terse messages. “Thanks for your letter. Home from hospital. Feeling somewhat better. Don’t worry. Expect to be well in a week or so.” Within a month, he would collapse in a coma and be dead 24 hours later. Almost as sad is Julia’s puppy-dog-tail response to his terse message: “That was the nicest telegram I ever received. Knowing you are better and out of the hospital – well, you can’t know how different everything looks to me. . . I dreamt you sent me a letter and I simply could not decipher it. It looked as if your coordination had gone haywire. Judging from your handwriting, something was terribly wrong with your nervous system. I never did find out what was in the letter. But I did wake up thinking something was wrong with George. Now you are moving away from the thing, thank God.”








Her prescience here is remarkable, because by this time Gershwin was suffering horribly from “the thing”: falling down, drooling, too uncoordinated to play the piano, and almost unable to eat, having his food cut up for him like a child. He was prone to inexplicable spasms of behaviour like trying to push his driver out of a moving car, and smashing up chocolates and smearing them all over his body.

And yet the original diagnosis of “hysteria" never changed. Lee Gershwin, Ira's bitch-on-wheels of a wife, insisted he was putting it all on and wouldn't help him get up off the sidewalk when he fell: "Leave him there. He's just trying to get attention." It almost seems they waited until he fell into a coma to get at the truth: they opened up his head and found a grapefruit-sized tumor that had probably been there for years.





The Peyser book, which has so many rich quotes from Julia’s rhapsodic letters to George, leaves the situation hanging after his death, never even telling us what happened to her. This is one of the clangers that has made this book so frustrating to read. It screams out for a good editor, and apparently never got one. (On one page, the exact same information appears in two separate sentences, only slightly paraphrased.)

But even if it is fairly crappily written, it includes far more than the others about Julia’s fascinatingly awful fan-worship. Howard Pollack’s tome mentions her in passing maybe 3 or 4 times, and quotes a sentence or two of the more prurient letters: “Don’t you suppose I am aware of that warm, living, beautiful body of yours?” Needless to say, GG never replied in kind.





Here is where it gets really strange. Most of the bios I’ve found don’t even mention whatever became of Julia. The story is merely dropped when it ceases to have a direct connection to GG. But I did find this awful, awful statement in Howard Pollack’s 900-page doorstop, George Gershwin: His Life and Work. He states that after Gershwin's death in 1937,  “few suffered as keenly as Julia Van Norman, who had a psychotic breakdown and was removed to a state hospital where she remained until her death in 1997.”

I always have problems with these stories and the language they use. Here is a highly intelligent and articulate, accomplished, musically gifted woman, a mother of three with a more-or-less stable marriage, or at the very least a husband who cares about her, who suddenly mentally disintegrates and never recovers. She simply falls down the other side and we never see her again. Pollack says she “was removed”, a horrendous passive-voice expression which is somehow even worse than those dehumanizing terms “committed” and “put away”. Even a dog isn’t “put away”, maybe laundry or dishes. We like to say it doesn't happen any more, the mentally ill aren't just written off and disposed of "for their own good", but I'm not sure things have changed that much. Or not enough.





Here is another dilemma that I can't resolve. If she was really incarcerated in that state hospital until her death in 1997, how old would she have been? She must have been well over a hundred. This was sixty years after her final letters to George, in which she so eerily picked up something like “static” on the line. She wasn’t young when she first wrote to him, not with three children. In fact she was older than George, who was at least 30 at the time. It feels like a biographical bobble, something that has not been adequately researched but only based on hearsay. Somebody said that somebody said that somebody said. And isn't it a lot easier to paint a picture of a raving lunatic being carted off to an insane asylum, never to be seen again, than to do the difficult homework of trying to find out just what the hell DID happen? 

So how can a lively and intelligent, if emotionally labile person like Julia end up warehoused in one of those wretched halls of degradation and pain? Did anyone come to visit her? Since she was pretty much of an embarrassment to George and those around him, it’s likely no one did. People didn’t visit mental hospitals back then unless they absolutely had to, and I have it from first-hand experience that no matter how sick you are, nobody sends you flowers.

I like to think it didn't happen at all, but was a convenient biographical Shakespearian-tragedy device, illustrating just what kind of a fatal, mystical hold GG had on women. Sorry, not buying it.





This story requires a coda, just like all the other ones, and since it’s one of the longest blog posts I’ve ever written, it must be a doozie - and it is. Joan Peyser mentions - though she is the only biographer who does - that Julia’s daughter Nancy Bloomer Deussen (whose picture actually appears in the book) is convinced she is George Gershwin’s illegitimate daughter. Everyone assumed the Julia/George connection was platonic, and in my opinion it probably was. She could not have dragged her idol off his high-altitude pedestal for such an earthy purpose, and as much of a horndog as George was, I don’t think he was THAT much of a horndog.

So we are left with yet another loose end.






CODA TO THE CODA. I keep noticing something strange. Though the Peyser bio was vilified and even savaged when it first came out, there are a lot of reviews still posted on the internet, whole and complete, after more than 20 years. I'm still finding them, in fact, in the oddest places, small-town newpapers and the like. (Of course that was back when newspapers gave space to books.) Everybody hates the book in these reviews, and they hate Peyser even more, for saying things that  have subsequently been proven, or at least perceived as plausible. All that outrageous scandal is no longer news, and the dirt is no longer dirt, to the point that Howard Pollack quotes Peyser in various places throughout his 900-page Gershwin tome.

But why are all those reviews still around? NOTHING lasts 22 years on the internet! Why does this book keep popping up, when other Gershwin bios, revered and respected ones, are nowhere in sight? What is going on here? I think it's an example of a rotten review having a much longer shelf life than a positive one. We love to see people (writers especially, because they dare to lay their shit on the line) ripped down and eviscerated. It's that schadenfreude stuff - and God how I hope I am spelling that right!  



"You had me at hello"

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