Book Review: She Deserves To Be Remembered – But Not Like This

Publication date:  March 2021

Review, short version:  One rose.

Review, long version:

There are three lead characters in Mitchell James Kaplan’s Rhapsody:  a wife, her husband, and her lover.

I’d never heard of the wife, by either of her names:  her personal name, Mrs. James (Katharine) Warburg, or her professional name, Kay Swift (composer).

I’d never heard of the husband, by either of his names:  his personal name, James Warburg, or his professional name, Paul James (Swift’s sometime lyricist).

I’d certainly heard of, and was a great admirer of, her lover:

George Gershwin.

Swift and her lover, Gershwin.

Gershwin (1898-1937) was a pianist and composer, best remembered for his Rhapsody in Blue, the musical An American in Paris, the opera Porgy and Bess, and songs including Swanee, I Got Rhythm and many others for Broadway musicals and movies.

When I read a review of Rhapsody, I was intrigued because it was a fictionalized account of the 10-year love affair between Gershwin and Swift.

I was unaware of any serious love interest in Gershwin’s life – when he died at age 38, he’d never married – and Rhapsody seemed like a good place to start.

And it was a good place to start, for Gershwin.

For Swift, not so much.

When we meet Swift (1897-1993) she’s the socialite wife of super-wealthy James Warburg (1896-1969), whom she married when she was 20, and they have three daughters.  Katharine is an accomplished pianist and wannabe composer who longs for recognition – lots of recognition.  “What was the point,” she muses, “of artistic expression in music, or any other medium, if it affected only the artist herself?”

I said “muses,” but it was really more of a whine.  And not her last, as Kaplan portrays her.

Swift and her husband, Jimmy.

Swift and Warburg – “Jimmy” – are very social, and in 1925 a guest at one of their parties brings along Gershwin.  Swift knew of him and had seen him, but not up this close.  Zing! went the strings of her heart.

Gershwin’s heart?  Not so much.

Swift – soon to be christened “Kay” by Gershwin – become friends, drawn together by their mutual interest in music.  She longs for recognition of her work, and for more of Gershwin’s attention.  Gershwin craves recognition, and his attention is on his music. 

During one exchange at her family’s apartment, George says he has to leave and get back to work.  In an effort to make him stay, she – rather pathetically, I thought – offers herself to him as his assistant.  His response:  “I’ll keep that in mind.  Meanwhile, I’ll be touring the New York Concerto.  You won’t see me for a while.”

I could accompany you.  She said it with her eyes.

Really pathetic.  Especially since Gershwin doesn’t invite her to accompany him.

This – as written by Kaplan – pretty much sums up the relationship:  Kay always yearning for Gershwin, and Gershwin always on his way out the door.  They become lovers in 1926, but when she tells Gershwin she’s in love with him, he doesn’t respond likewise.  Gershwin is unfaithful, and doesn’t try to hide it.  And when she tells Gershwin she’s going to get a divorce and marry him, his response is…lukewarm at best.

Here’s another of Swift’s responses to Gershwin:

If that’s the best you can do, George, thought Kay, I’ll take it.

And another, after someone asks Swift if Gershwin is her beau:

“I think so,” said Kay.  “I hope so.”

This last was nine years into the Swift/Gershwin relationship.

Swift comes across as weak, clingy, and powerless in the relationship, and I didn’t think that was an accurate representation.  Rather, I hoped it wasn’t, and that led me to my own online research.  Under her professional name, Kay Swift (Swift was her maiden name) evolved into an accomplished composer, including becoming the first woman to score a hit musical completely – Fine and Dandy in 1930.

To be fair, Kaplan does talk about some of Swift’s musical accomplishments, but whatever she did after Gershwin’s death in 1937 is left untold – Rhapsody ends with Gershwin’s funeral.

So I’d encourage anyone who’s interested in Swift and Gershwin and that whole era –New York in the Roaring 20s and Prohibition into the Great Depression – to do their own research and form their own opinion of Swift.

She deserves to be remembered, but…

Addendum:

Among the Rhapsody reviews on Amazon is this April 5, 2021 statement, identified as being from the Kay Swift Trust, “established by the Estate of Kay Swift to provide stewardship of the body of music, to enable scholarship about the life and work of Kay Swift, and to perpetuate performance, recording and publication of her music”:

We are disappointed by this novel “about” Kay Swift and her romance with George Gershwin.  There is almost no page in the book without absurd errors, inauthentic representations, ignorant cultural, political, and musical references, or offensive characterizations.  There are numerous representations that we consider to be anti-Semitic, whether knowingly or ignorantly.  For a book attempting to portray the romance between two celebrated musicians, the writing is both inept and tone-deaf…

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