Ira Gershwin Biography

American musical-theater lyricist and composer
Gershwin was a witty, skillful, and musically sensitive lyricist, particularly well attuned to the rhythm and energy of his younger brother George’s music. With his gift for ingenious wordplay and delightfully singable word choices, he is widely considered one of the finest lyricists of his era.

Born: December 6, 1896; New York, New York
Died: August 17, 1983; Beverly Hills, California
Also known as: Israel Gershvin (birth name); Arthur Francis
Principal works
musical theater (lyrics; music by George Gershwin unless otherwise stated): George White’s Scandals, 1920-1924 (revue; libretto by Andy Rice and George White); A Dangerous Maid, 1921 (libretto by Charles W. Bell); Little Miss Bluebeard, 1923 (lyrics with Buddy G. DeSylva); Lady, Be Good!, 1924 (libretto by Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson); Primrose, 1924 (lyrics with Desmond Carter; libretto by George Grossmith and Bolton); Two Little Girls in Blue, 1924 (music by Vincent Youmans and Paul Lannin; libretto by Fred Jackson); Tell Me More!, 1925 (lyrics with DeSylva; libretto by Thompson and William K. Wells); Tip Toes, 1925 (libretto by Bolton and Thompson); Oh, Kay!, 1926 (lyrics with Howard Dietz; libretto by Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse); Funny Face, 1927 (libretto by Paul Gerard Smith and Thompson); Strike up the Band, 1927 (libretto by Morrie Ryskind; based on George S. Kaufman’s libretto); Rosalie, 1928 (music by George Gershwin and Sigmund Romberg; lyrics with Wodehouse; libretto by Bolton and William Anthony McGuire); Treasure Girl, 1928 (libretto by Thompson and Vincent Lawrence); Show Girl, 1929 (lyrics with Gus Kahn; libretto by McGuire and J. P. McEvoy); Girl Crazy, 1930 (libretto by Bolton and John McGowan); Of Thee I Sing, 1931 (music with George Gershwin; libretto by Kaufman and Ryskind); Let ’Em Eat Cake, 1933 (libretto by Kaufman and Ryskind); Pardon My English, 1933 (libretto by Herbert Fields and Ryskind); Porgy and Bess, 1935 (folk opera; lyrics with Dorothy Heyward; based on DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy); The Show Is On, 1936 (revue; libretto by David Freedman and Moss Hart); Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, 1936 (revue; music by Vernon Duke); Lady in the Dark, 1941 (music by Kurt Weill; libretto by Hart); The Firebrand of Florence, 1945 (libretto with Edwin Justus Mayer; music by Weill; based on Mayer’s play The Firebrand); Park Avenue, 1946 (music by Arthur Schwartz; libretto by Nunnally Johnson and Kaufman); My One and Only, 1983 (libretto by Peter Stone and Timothy S. Mayer). songs (lyrics; music by George Gershwin unless otherwise stated): “When You Want ’Em, You Can’t Get ’Em, When You Got ’Em, You Don’t Want ’Em,” 1916; “The Real American Folk Song (Is a Rag),” 1918; “Mischa, Jascha, Toscha, Sascha,” 1919; “The Man I Love,” 1924; “I Got Rhythm,” 1930; “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” 1937; “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” 1937; “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” 1937; “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” 1938; “Long Ago and Far Away,” 1944 (music by Jerome Kern); “The Man That Got Away,” 1954 (music by Harold Arlen).

The Life
Ira Gershwin (I-ruh GURSH-wihn) was the first child of Russian Jewish immigrants, Moishe and Rose Gershvin. A quiet, studious boy and avid reader of poetry, he developed a particular appreciation for light verse and began writing his own. After dropping out of City College of New York in 1916, he took a variety of jobs, while submitting verse to newspapers and magazines.

In 1917 Ira began providing some lyrics for his brother George, whose career as a songwriter was getting under way. They first published a cowritten song, “Waiting for the Sun to Come Out,” in 1920. For this and other early lyrics, Ira used the pseudonym Arthur Francis (based on the names of their younger brother and sister respectively). He collaborated with other composers, as George did with other lyricists, but by the mid-1920’s they were a well-established team, and the majority of George’s songs until his death in 1937 featured his brother’s lyrics. Ira generally wrote lyrics to fit George’s music, but there was much give and take between them as they worked to complete a song.

Ira and his wife Leonore moved to Hollywood in 1936, to work in films along with George. They would live there for the rest of their lives. After George’s death, Ira worked with other composers on Broadway musicals and films until 1954, at which point he largely retired. He devoted himself to his brother’s legacy, donating a wealth of George Gershwin-related material to the Library of Congress. He died in 1983.

The Music
Musical Comedies. From 1924 until 1933 Ira wrote the lyrics for a series of mostly successfulmusical comedies with music by his brother, beginning with Lady, Be Good! and including Oh, Kay!, Funny Face, Girl Crazy, and Pardon My English. Each show contains a mixture of comic songs and ballads, the former witty and colloquial, the latter poignant but free of excessive sentimentality. Among the classic songs from these shows are “Fascinating Rhythm” from Lady, Be Good!, “Someone to Watch over Me” from Oh, Kay!, and “Embraceable You” and “I Got Rhythm” from Girl Crazy.

Political Satires. In 1927 Ira and George joined with playwright George S. Kaufman to create Strike up the Band, a biting political satire about war profiteering. This operetta offered Ira his first chance at lyrics that were fully integrated into the plot. A revised version in 1930, with libretto improved by Morrie Ryskind and the addition of more love songs, was substantially more successful than the 1927 production.

Two more political operettas followed, created by the same foursome: Of Thee I Sing and Let ’Em Eat Cake. Ira Gershwin’s lyrics for these works rival those of W. S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) for ingeniousness. Of Thee I Sing was the Gershwins’ longest-running show on Broadway and garnered Ira, along with Ryskind and Kaufman, the first Pulitzer Prize ever awarded for a musical. Porgy and Bess. Ira contributed significantly to the libretto for George’s Porgy and Bess. He wrote the lyrics for several songs, including “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York,” and collaborated with librettist DuBose Heyward on others, such as “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’” and “I Loves You, Porgy.” Gershwin helped Heyward, who was an accomplished novelist and poet but a novice lyricist, to make his lyrics more natural and singable.

Hollywood. The songs that the Gershwin brothers wrote during their brief time together in Hollywood are among their best, such as “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” and “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” from Shall We Dance? (1937), and “Love Is Here to Stay” (The Goldwyn Follies, 1938), the last song George composed before his death in 1937. Ira’s lyrics for these songs, with their wonderfully mundane details and seemingly effortless eloquence, are the perfect complement to some of George’s most memorable music.

Lady in the Dark. Of his various collaborations after 1937, perhaps the most significant was Lady in the Dark, with the book by Moss Hart and score by Kurt Weill. Gershwin’s sophisticated, contemporary, and often hilarious lyrics were an ideal fit for this ambitious musical about a woman’s psychoanalysis, with extended dream sequences that Weill called “one-act operas.” The show ran for 467 performances, beginning in 1941.

Musical Legacy
Happy throughout his life to take a backseat to his famous brother, Ira’s contribution to the golden era of Broadway songwriting has been increasingly appreciated over the years. His musically sensitive, endlessly inventive, and brilliantly witty lyrics have played an important role in the ongoing popularity of dozens of Gershwin songs. While his best-knownwork was done in collaboration with his brother, Ira went on to work with several other notable composers, including Weill, Aaron Copland, Jerome Kern, and Harold Arlen. In addition, Ira was a dedicated guardian of his brother’s legacy after 1937, working to ensure that his music was preserved at the Library of Congress and protected from infringement.