By Philip Furia
Today marks the 116th anniversary of the birth of Ira Gershwin, lyricist and brother to composer George Gershwin. There are many fascinating details about Ira, ten of which are collected here.
1. When Ira was growing up, he held a lot of odd jobs, one of which was shipping clerk at the B. Altman department store housed in the same building where today Oxford University Press has its offices.
2. Ira loved to play Scrabble. In one game he triumphed by using all seven of his letters to spell out CHOPSUEY. I don’t know which letter was already on the board that he built upon.
3. One of Ira’s neighbors on Maple Drive in Beverly Hills was Angie Dickinson, then at the height of her success with television’s “Police Woman.” Angie was a good poker player and frequently joined the poker games at Ira’s house with the likes of Harold Arlen (“Over the Rainbow”), Arthur Freed (“Singin’ in the Rain”), and other prominent songwriters. At the time, she said, she didn’t realize what august company she was in — still, she frequently cleaned the old boys out. She also learned what a stickler Ira was for grammar. After he had lost a lot of money to her, she said, “Ira, I feel badly that you lost so much.” Ira snapped, “Would you feel ‘goodly’ if I had won?”
4. Ira was also a stickler for proper pronunciation. It annoyed him if someone said “Ca-RIB-be-an” instead of “CA-rib-BE-an.”
5. So it annoyed him when singers took upon themselves to “correct” his deliberate grammatical and pronunciation errors — singing “I’ve Got Rhythm” instead of “I Got Rhythm,” “It’s Wonderful” instead of “‘S Wonderful,” “The Man Who Got Away” instead of “The Man That Got Away.”
6. Ira admired Dorothy Fields as a lyricist, the one woman among that tight-knit group of male songwriters, but he thought it was unforgivable that she playfully distorted the proper accent of “RO-mance” in “A Fine Ro-mance (my friend this is, a fine Ro-mance with no kisses…)”
7. Ira loved all sorts of verbal play. He once built an entire lyric out of “spoonerisms,” named after a British clergyman who loved the reversal of syllables that produces “The Lord is a shoving leopard” instead of “The Lord is a loving shepherd.” Technically such reversals are termed “metathesis” (which can be “spoonered” into “methasetis”). In The Firebrand of Florence Ira concocted such hilarious spoonerisms as “I know where there’s a nosy cook (instead of “cozy nook”)… where we can kill and boo (instead of “bill and coo”)… I love your sturgeon vile (instead of “I love your virgin style”).
8. Three of Ira Gershin’s lyrics were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song: “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” “Long Ago and Far Away,” and “The Man That Got Away.” All three lost. Ira decided it was because he had used the word “away” in the title and vowed “Away with ‘Away’!”
9. In London, he attended a rehearsal for a revue of Gershwin songs. Backstage, one of the English singers said she simply did not understand his lyric for “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” When Ira asked what the problem was, she sang, “You say eye-ther and I say eye-ther, you say nye-ther and I say nye-ther…” then said “I just don’t get it, Mr. Gershwin.”
10. He had friends over for cocktails one afternoon and someone suggested they all go for dinner at a prominent restaurant in Beverly Hills. Ira offered to call and see if he could get a table for all of them. He came back to say he could not get a reservation because the restaurant was booked. One of his friends asked to use his phone and came to say he had gotten a table for the entire group that would be ready in a few minutes. When Ira asked how he was able to do that, the friend said, “I used your name.”
Philip Furia is a professor in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He is the author of The Songs of Hollywood (with Laurie Patterson), Ira Gershwin: The Art of the Lyricist, and The Poets of Tin Pan Alley.