If this were a novel, you’d say I’d stretched things too far — Connected things and people that were worlds apart, oceans apart, decades apart. But everything you’re about to read is fact.
To fully enhance the reading experience, you will need a feather boa and a vodka tonic, or at least a non-alcoholic drink in a cocktail glass. Tap shoes are optional, but you’ll have more fun!
You’ll need to listen to this: Summertime – from Porgy and Bess
And then this: Nobody Breaks My Heart – Fine and Dandy
And one more, if you need it: Fine and Dandy – sung by Jane Russell
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
In late spring 2010, I found myself in the middle of a sing-song circle in Java’s coffee shop in Galway at 3.30am. Java’s is a French bistro, with black walls, red-and-white checkered table cloths, candles and a grand piano for practicing musicians. The friendly staff chatter in French while Galwegians drink wine, eat cake and put the world to rights until 4am. We’d had a long night of theatre and theatre-related festivities and a sing-song was the only way to end the evening. The last song of the night was Summertime from Porgy and Bess. I’ve no idea why, really, but everyone knew the words and the languorous jazz chords seemed apt as we eased towards sleep and the sky brightened outside. Two choruses were enough for the staff who had had a long night, but I was still humming the song as I stumbled home down Quay Street, to a bed where I’d dream of jumping fish and fields of cotton. Little did I know then how close to that song Aideen would bring me…
Porgy and Bess was begun in South Carolina, near Charleston, where George Gershwin sought inspiration from the deep south. But to work on it, he needed an environment that both inspired and nurtured him. So, he went to stay in the guest cottage of James Warburg and Kay Swift-Warburg. It was at Bydale, a rambling country house on extensive grounds in Greenwich outside New York, where he had written the complete score of An American in Paris. In this bucolic mansion, the Warburgs ‘summered’ with their three young daughters, away from the cloying heat of their double townhouse in New York city: horseback-riding, reading on the terrace, drinking cocktails and talking music into the early hours at their society parties. When Kay wasn’t helping George with musical notation and scoring the orchestration for his new works in the guest cottage, she taught him to ride horses and instructed him in the other sophisticated pastimes the poor young Jewish boy adored.
Encountering George at a party for the first time in the spring of 1925, Kay Swift (a classically-trained musician) had recognised a soul mate. So had he. Gershwin persuaded her to take a job as a rehearsal pianist for a new Rodgers and Hart show. With James Warburg frequently away in Europe on business trips and the girls under the care of their nanny, Kay regularly called the Warburg chauffeur-driven car to take her downtown. There, in a draughty rehearsal hall, she banged away on a piano and watched the musical A Conneticut Yankee take shape.
Photos of Kay Swift show a diminutive lady with huge eyes and a regal chin. There’s a gorgeous photo of her in a spotted 1920s dress with a white lace collar at the piano during a Fine and Dandy rehearsal, smiling broadly. She exudes energy and happiness; you can almost see her feet beating time. After a few solid song hits, she wrote the entire musical score for this show, a romantic comedy which captured the realities of the 1929 economic crash while putting a glossy sheen on the hardships. One of the songs is entitled: Nature will provide for those in love.
There are stunning pictures of her on the official Kay Swift website
In a strange twist, the lyrics for this show were written by her husband (banker and millionaire) James Warburg. In what may have been a last-ditch attempt to save his marriage and prove his own talent, Warburg wrote the lyrics:
Yes man, press man, lawyers and bankers … Don’t give me that for which my soul hankers.
And: I want love that’s really thrilling … The other thing is killing me.
Kay Swift celebrated the Christmas of 1934 in New York City with Gershwin; her divorce had been finalized on 20th December. While her daughters were at Bydale with their father, Kay and George made an impromptu visit to the home of Richard Rodgers and his heavily pregnant, bed-ridden wife Dorothy. Exuberant and joyous, they bounced in the door and offered to entertain Dorothy. Neither of the couple sang particularly well, but they sat at the piano and launched into the melodies of a previously unheard musical: Porgy and Bess.
[Somebody else spent the Christmas of 1934 in New York. Aideen O’Connor was away from her family for the first time, spending Christmas on tour with the Abbey Company.]
Having spent many blissful evenings with Gershwin in the dark and smoky jazz clubs of New York, soaking in the rhythms and cadence of this music, Kay must have already been familiar with much of it when George started working on Porgy and Bess. Blind to the unhappiness of her daughters and the anger and hurt of James, Kay worked tirelessly on the production, appearing at every casting audition and every rehearsal. Her presence could only have been approved, or requested, by the man himself. They had a wonderful new show and each other. They were invincible.
Then life got in the way.
FAST FORWARD FOUR YEARS.
Kay Swift has moved from the estate at Bydale to an apartment, far away from her townhouse, in New York City. She is a single female professional. Her husband and his new wife have full custody of her three daughters so that she can work full-time and support herself. Her new job is with Radio City Music Hall, where she writes her own promotional ‘blurb’. She describes herself:
Composes songs while you wait – a sort of Dorothy Parker at the piano. Wise-cracking, social and regular. […] Has an apartment on East 52nd street, with zebra skins all over the place. […] Never still a minute—always has something doing—works for eighteen hours at a stretch, then gets all dressed up, goes out someplace to dance to her own music.
George Gershwin isn’t with her, and she has remained Ms Kay Swift.
In August of 1936, Gershwin left for Hollywood with his brother. In modern parlance, the couple ‘took a break’, to see if their romance was the real thing. The following year, George Gershwin fell ill. He was listless, depressed, clumsy and having problems composing. Nobody thought to tell Kay Swift. Yet, she knew instinctively that he was suffering and in July 1937 she left a show at the interval, to be at home waiting for the phone call when it came. Gershwin had died suddenly of a brain tumour.
No tears, now. Have another vodka tonic, if you must. I told you you’d need it. And maybe a bit of a dance!
For Kay Swift had what she called a ‘disappointment adjustant’: A gift from her mother, she believed. An ability to ‘keep on keepin’ on’. Little scared her; nothing stopped her working.
So, late in 1938, she is at home in her zebra-skin-filled apartment on the eastside of the city. As it’s early evening, she has swapped her strong coffee for her perennial vod-ton and is contemplating going out for dinner before finding a nightclub to dance until the early hours. But for now, she is at her piano, surrounded by scraps of paper covered in musical notation and intent on meeting a deadline. On the table, as always, are the antique gold cuffs Gershwin gave her on the premiere of An American in Paris and paintings they chose together hang on the walls. Outside, the streets are thronged with traffic. It’s cold and dark and the radio in the next room is full of gloomy news of foreign affairs in Europe and a potential war. But none of this stops her dancing and beating rhythm as she plays on.
In between bars and sips of vod-ton, she hears the doorbell. The doorman announces a visitor; Kay immediately invites them in. She puts on some lipstick and takes out the vodka bottle, eager to catch up with her good friend before they go out for dinner.
The door opens and in walks: Aideen O’Connor.
Convent-educated, Abbey star. And now, unemployed jobbing actress and the mistress of an ageing married man, who is hospitalised with TB and quite possibly won’t survive until the spring.
What song did Kay play her to encourage her to ‘keep on keepin’ on’?
Was it something like this tune from Fine and Dandy ?
… I’m going to have to go to New York to find out!
Ps> I haven’t paid royalties to any of the up and coming stars in the photos of Java. I hope they won’t put their lawyers after me …