Gershwin's greatest song

Saul Lilienstein

July 10, 1992|By Saul Lilienstein

"What is Grandma humming, always humming?" the little girl asks of her mother.

"Oh, pay no mind, it's just a bit of a song that she's always sung since as long as I can remember." MANY YEARS ago, in New York, I met a young man who claimed to be the illegitimate son of George Gershwin. I believed him if for no other reason than this: You must believe that people are who they say they are or friendship with them is impossible. Thus I accepted his identity as he accepted mine, and we were friends.

He certainly looked like George Gershwin; the same bone structure beneath tight facial muscles, the same nose and profile. When we walked together into a Seventh Avenue deli (the kind of place that seems haunted by ghosts of the city's theatrical past), forks would drop.

It was an uncanny resemblance.

I asked him once, "Among all the songs your father wrote, what was his personal favorite?" What a glorious list to choose from: "Summertime," "Bess, You Is My Woman," "But Not for Me," "Embraceable You," "I've Got a Crush on You," "Lady Be Good" and dozens more of similar quality.

Gershwin may in fact have been the greatest melodist of the 20th century.

But the answer I got has baffled and teased me for years.

"I think," he said, "that 'Someone to Watch Over Me' was high on the list, but there was another, a beautiful love song, never published, that was cherished the most by him. You see, my father was something of a ladies' man. When a new woman was invited back to his apartment, she would be treated like a rare treasure, wined and dined in high style.

Then came the moment when he would be 'inspired' by her unique beauty and rush to the piano to 'improvise' a gorgeous song.

"And her name would be the title. Her name, their names, were always it. That's why he couldn't have it published. This was his seduction song. It must have been irresistible."

Perhaps there are a few women today, in their 80s now, who

remember a fragment of melody, changed by the time and rhythm of their own lives, but unaltered in their hearts. Perhaps there are dozens of them, each holding on to a personal secret that musicologists would give up tenure for.

George Gershwin died 55 years ago tomorrow. Like Mozart and Schubert, he died in his 30s with a lifetime of music still waiting to pour out.

And though I have lost touch with his son, I accept the story as true, and I imagine Gershwin's greatest song preserved today in only the most fragile and perishable of vessels.

The poet John Keats wrote in his "Ode on a Grecian Urn" that "heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter."

I believe the poet and love the composer, even if this entire story is a pack of nonsense.

Saul Lilienstein is a Baltimore musician and teacher of music.

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