Fine and Dandy: The Life and Work of Kay Swiftby Vicki Ohl
Kay Swift (18971993) was one of the few women composers active on Broadway in the first half of the twentieth century. Best known as George Gershwin’s assistant, musical adviser, and intimate friend, Swift was in fact an accomplished musician herself, a pianist and composer whose Fine and Dandy (1930) was the first complete Broadway musical/i>
Kay Swift (18971993) was one of the few women composers active on Broadway in the first half of the twentieth century. Best known as George Gershwin’s assistant, musical adviser, and intimate friend, Swift was in fact an accomplished musician herself, a pianist and composer whose Fine and Dandy (1930) was the first complete Broadway musical written by a woman. This fascinating bookthe first biography of Swiftdiscusses her music and her extraordinary life.
Vicki Ohl describes Swift’s work for musical theater, the ballet, Radio City Music Hall’s Rockettes, and commercial shows. She also tells how Swift served as director of light music for the 1939 World’s Fair, eloped with a cowboy from the rodeo at the fair, and abandoned her native New York for Oregon, later fashioning her experiences into an autobiographical novel, Who Could Ask for Anything More? Informed by rich material, including Swift’s unpublished memoirs and extensive interviews with her family members and friends, this book captures the essence and spirit of a remarkable woman.
- Yale University Press
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- New Edition
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Fine and DandyThe Life and Work of Kay Swift
By Vicki Ohl
Yale University PressCopyright © 2004 Yale University
All right reserved.
April 27, 1897. A quiet moment in the late afternoon gives me an opportunity to open this book after a long interval. I had not realized it was so long and now I have an important and joyful record to make, no less than the birth of our first grandchild, a dear little girl to be named Katharine Faulkner, after one of Nell's sisters. It was born on the nineteenth of April (Easter Monday) and is a large fine child, with good features and called by others as well as its partial Grandma a lovely baby.... Nell is getting along well and Sam is both proud and happy and we are all deeply thankful.-Gertrude Horton Dorr Swift
The entry in the diary of Gertrude Horton Dorr Swift announces the birth of her first grandchild to her son, Samuel, and his wife, Ellen Faulkner Swift, with the pride, reverence, and formality typical of a late Victorian woman of culture. For more than seventy years Gertrude Swift kept a diary, and it reveals her to be an educated woman who loved music and was devoted to church and family. Through her journal we glimpse the culture, behavior, and family relationships that shaped young Katharine Swift, nurtured her musical talents, and encouraged herdevelopment as a pianist and composer. That Katharine would study music is not remarkable. That she would pursue composition as a profession in a time when few women did is a testament to her musical abilities, her family's support, and her personal strength.
The Swift family originated in the British Isles but had lived in America for several generations. Samuel's great-grandfather Joseph Swift was born in Bristol, England, in 1731. He immigrated to the United States, bringing his Anglican traditions to the New World, and married Margaret McCall in Philadelphia in 1759. Glasgow, Scotland, had been the McCall family's home. The ancestors of our diarist, Gertrude Horton Dorr, they had resided in the northeastern United States since the early 1700s, moving from Connecticut to New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware.
More than a century later, Katharine Swift's grandfather Joseph Swift was residing in Roseville, New Jersey. He had married Gertrude Horton Dorr on June 18, 1868, in Newark, New Jersey, and was employed by the family business, Swift and Courtney, which manufactured safety matches (later the Diamond Match Company). Gertrude wrote with admiration that Joe was highly respected by all who knew him and that he had been president of the Athletic Club, a testament to his civic involvement. They began their family immediately but lost their first two children in infancy. The first baby to thrive was Katharine's father, Samuel Swift, who was born January 19, 1873. The Swifts would eventually bring twelve children into the world, though only six lived to adulthood. Samuel was raised with his five sisters, Frances (Fanny), Mary, Elizabeth (Elsie), Eleanor, and Gertrude.
Music was an important component in the children's lives, as it was in the homes of many cultured families. Mother Gertrude had an organ and a Steinway piano in her home. She not only played both instruments but composed hymns, art songs, and parlor songs. All of the children took lessons in voice, piano, or violin, and the family often sang hymns before going to bed. Samuel studied piano as well as organ. His mother proudly reported on his musical progress in March 1886: "Sam is getting on very well, having a good clear touch, which with more practice would become brilliant as well as sympathetic. He has a great deal of musical feeling, and his voice, although scarcely settled yet has every promise of a fine baritone." All indications were that Samuel was a typical American youth, a source of both joy and consternation to his ambitious mother. Several months later she continued, "He has developed a beautiful taste for music and begins to make fine harmonies in extemporising, but does not practice sufficiently to improve as he ought in execution." Despite her concern for his diligence, his mother was extremely proud of her only son: "a great blessing to us, being thoroughly reliable, gentle, earnest, and conscientious, attentive to his religious duties and very creditable in his conduct at school and standing high in his classes. Joe and he play games together.... With me, there is the great bond of music.... He is still my pupil." She must have been pleased that he persevered with his music study, evidently improving his practice habits-as a young man he served as organist for various churches and taught Sunday school.
In 1889 Joseph retired and moved his family to Wilmington, Delaware, to be near his brother, William, who had also been with Swift and Courtney. Gertrude's parents, Horatio and Adeline Van Nostrand Dorr, resided in Wilmington as well, so the family members were near one another. The same year, Samuel enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania, where he concentrated on musical activities. He joined the University Glee Club, studied voice and harmony at the Philadelphia Musical Academy, took organ lessons from David Wood in Philadelphia, and was organist at Calvary Church and Christ Church. He earned his bachelor of science from the University of Pennsylvania in 1894.
After graduation, Samuel sailed to Europe for several months with the Reverend H. Ashton Henry, rector at Trinity Episcopal Church in Wilmington, where Samuel then substituted as organist. On the return voyage he met a young English woman, Ellen Mary Faulkner, and became infatuated with her. Once home, Samuel returned to his position as organist in Wilmington. Ellen went to live with her sister, Frances Faulkner, a schoolteacher in Philadelphia. Shortly thereafter, Gertrude's brother, Robert Dorr, publisher of the evening newspaper the New York Mail and Express, offered Samuel a job as music critic, a position that would offer him more opportunities in his chosen field and a chance to live in New York City. He accepted with enthusiasm.
Ellen Faulkner had been born and raised in Leicestershire, England. Two years older than Sam, she had a great appreciation for art, music, and literature. Katharine Swift later described her parents in her memoirs. She remembered her mother as
a strikingly pretty, vivacious Englishwoman ... with pink cheeks, soft chestnut hair, and large hazel eyes. She was lively and full of fun ... a ready, brave person who could rush in and try anything, generally bringing off whatever project she had in mind. My father, equally brave, was patient, even-tempered and of a relentlessly high standard. Mother was witty, mercurial and a 'good sport,' to quote a phrase much in use at that time. She was good for my father, urging him on and taking nothing too seriously, and he was equally helpful to her, as he held her back when she dashed ahead rather recklessly in any direction.... My mother adored him.
Katharine's positive memories of her parents and their relationship signal a secure and happy childhood. It was one that would help her to develop confidence in herself and her abilities.
Samuel Swift and Ellen Faulkner corresponded for more than a year, and they announced their engagement in January 1896. Gertrude confessed that Ellen was "a very charming, bright, fresh-faced girl, very well educated. ... [She] has charmed us all." They were married on June 8 at the home of Philadelphia friends, Mr. and Mrs. Rufus Shapley, since Ellen's sister, Frances, was not feeling well and was making plans to return to England for a visit. Only relatives were invited to the wedding, and John Van Nostrand Dorr, Samuel's cousin, was his best man. Four small girls, including Samuel's sisters Gertrude and Eleanor, served as bridesmaids, and the Reverend Henry, the Swifts' family pastor, officiated. Samuel and Ellen settled in New York City in a fifth-floor walk-up apartment at 200 West 96th Street. Their daughter, Katharine Faulkner Swift, was born on April 19, 1897.
Both Samuel and Ellen Swift played the piano, and music filled their apartment. Swift's assignments as music critic necessitated his frequent attendance of performances at the Metropolitan Opera House. In preparation, he would familiarize himself with the works by playing them on the piano with his wife. Years later, Katharine Swift remembered these sessions. Her mother, she recalled, "read any musical score at sight, with plenty of bravado and several clinkers, a great help to my father, who played beautifully by ear and read slowly. They always went over new scores that my father was about to review." It was into this cultured, intellectual home, "unburdened by wealth of any kind," that Katharine had been born. Ellen and Samuel Swift shared their musical interests and talents, a collaboration that benefited the entire family and made a lasting impression on their young daughter. By 1901, Samuel was appointed to critique both music and art and, by the next year, was a contributor to Harper's Weekly Magazine.
Gertrude Horton Dorr Swift kept her diary until 1916 and often recounted visits with her son and his family. These visits always included trips to concerts and operas. In February 1898, she and her husband, Joseph, visited Sam, Ellen ("Nell"), and the baby, when Katharine was less than a year old. During this time, they attended three Wagnerian operas and Gioacchino Rossini's Barber of Seville, in addition to a "charming morning concert at the 'Astoria' Hotel conducted by [Anton] Seidl, which featured a Tschaikowsky symphony (the Pathetique) and a violin concert of Bruch played by Miss Maude Powell." An entry in January 1899 describes a short visit to New York in which Katharine's grandmother heard "three operas splendidly given." The account describes the performers to a far greater extent than would a casual concertgoer, revealing a deep interest in the names of the singers and conductors.
Thus raised by serious amateur and professional musicians, young Katharine did not disappoint her family. Grandmother Swift observed in June 1898, when Katharine was one, that her granddaughter "evidently has an excellent musical ear, recognizing little songs by the tune without the words and taking her own little part by filling out with the right word or gesture at the critical moment." She expected her to be a "remarkable musician." Several months later, she described singing Gilbert and Sullivan's aria "I'm Called Little Buttercup" to young Katharine so frequently that Katharine called her "Buppa-pa," her version of "Buttercup."
As a young girl, Katharine accompanied her father to the opera so often that she memorized various lines and parts of Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung and developed aspirations of singing the part of Brünnhilde. Her grandmother's diary entry in September 1903 suggests the extent of six-year-old Katharine's talents:
Katharine's musical achievements, entirely untaught, are wonderful. I believe she will become a remarkable musician by the time she is grown. She plays whatever she hears and works over the harmonies until she approaches in many instances the correct ones. Not only this, but her little compositions have a form and coherency that is almost marvelous in so young a child. Besides this she has great fluency and plays chords ... without the least hesitation, using the pedal quite judiciously, although to do so involves her sitting on the edge of the piano stool.
Grandmother Swift's pride in Katharine's early accomplishments and in her potential as a musician is obvious. She did point out, however, that her granddaughter was a "genuine little child" who "climbs trees and swings with her cousin Joe." Katharine also enjoyed her baby brother, Samuel, Jr., who had been born in January 1903, when Katharine was not quite six. By 1904, Grandmother described young Sam as "a fine child, very merry, though with a strong will and somewhat pugnacious, but still very tender and affectionate."
In February 1905 the diary entries note that Gertrude Swift attended five operas and three concerts during her weeklong visit to New York, as well as "an afternoon tea and dinner party." She was very proud of her son and his position. "It was ... so pleasant to go with my dear boy who takes such tender care of me when I am with him. It is such a pleasure too to know that he is so much thought of and liked by people of real worth and culture, and also to see him so happy with his dear wife and children." Though we cannot know who Gertrude Swift considered "people of real worth and culture," we can speculate that they included his friends who were present at tea or at dinner; or perhaps the famous musicians and artists that Sam met when he reviewed their performances and exhibitions. Earlier she had commented, "They have many delightful friends among refined and artistic people." It is important to note that this pride in his social status was balanced with the pleasure she felt as she noticed the attention and joy he shared with his family. Grandmother also noted Katharine's musical development at age seven: "Katharine's progress with her music is excellent and her love for it and appreciation is wonderful. She went with me to hear Rheingold and sat with unfailing attention through the two hours and a half, enjoying it most intelligently. She has heard it once before and knew the libretto perfectly." Katharine's extraordinary memory would become legendary in her later years. This comment by Gertrude Swift establishes early evidence of her gift.
Such exposure to opera made a lasting impression on young Katharine. In her later years, Swift herself spoke of her love for opera in an unpublished memoir. This excerpt describes her natural musical talent, her intense involvement with music, and her vivid imagination.
Starting at the age of just past four, nothing really mattered much to me except the opera. My father happened to be a music critic, and he played, often by ear, scraps of different operas on the piano, which whetted my imagination for a fuller hearing of these magical performances. As my father's assignments took him to the Metropolitan Opera House-the old Met on West 39th Street-he not unnaturally took me with him.... It was just then that a door swung open for me, into an enchanted land, in which I remained for ten years. Looking back, I am amazed at the forbearance of my mother and father during this total immersion of an otherwise apparently normal child into a world composed of fantasy. I not only played a game in which I half-believed the characters depicted in, say, Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung, were real people, friends who conversed with me and, by night, took me, in waking fancy, as well as in dreams, into their unreal world. Being a musician with positive pitch and almost total musical recall, from a very early age, I literally lived in Wagner's opera world. As soon as I could read music -which was when I was six-I memorized parts of the scores. Without understanding German, I learned several of the operatic roles.
While this passage emphasizes the creative fantasies that opera awakened in the young Katharine, it also attests to her remarkable gift of memory-both for music and for language patterns-and to an intellect that could grasp the complex Wagnerian plots at age six.
In another section of the memoir, Swift describes her youthful friendship with Eleanor Hyatt, whose mother, Mabel Hyatt, was an opera singer. Katharine accompanied Eleanor to productions in which her mother sang, and she became enthralled with this art form. "Shining vistas opened up before me, dreams of backstage at the Metropolitan Opera House; all these dreams came true, and we had magnificent times, learning most of the music of several operas by heart, and singing them together. Sometimes Ellie's father, who was a composer of songs, accompanied us. Sometimes Daddy did, or Mother (who could sight-read much more easily than could Daddy, although she didn't play nearly as well as he played by ear)."
With humor, Kay Swift recalled a "maddening phase" she went through, of imitating the chromatic laugh given by Brünnhilde's sister Valkyries in act 3 of Die Walküre:
Excerpted from Fine and Dandy by Vicki Ohl Copyright © 2004 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Vicki Ohl is professor of piano and theory at Heidelberg College.
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