“A lilting, jazzy ballad as catchy as a Gershwin tune...Rhapsody will have you humming, toe-tapping, and singing along with every turn of the page.” —Kate Quinn, New York Times bestselling author of The Alice Network and The Huntress
One evening in 1924, Katharine “Kay” Swift—the restless but loyal society wife of wealthy banker James Warburg and a serious pianist who longs for recognition—attends a concert. The piece: Rhapsody in Blue. The composer: a brilliant, elusive young musical genius named George Gershwin.
Kay is transfixed, helpless to resist the magnetic pull of George’s talent, charm, and swagger. Their ten-year love affair, complicated by her conflicted loyalty to her husband and the twists and turns of her own musical career, ends only with George’s death from a brain tumor at the age of thirty-eight.
Set in Jazz Age New York City, this stunning work of fiction, for fans of The Paris Wife and Loving Frank, explores the timeless bond between two brilliant, strong-willed artists. George Gershwin left behind not just a body of work unmatched in popular musical history, but a woman who loved him with all her heart, knowing all the while that he belonged not to her, but to the world.
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THIRTEEN YEARS EARLIER. WINTER 1924
The Aeolian Hall on the third floor of 29-33 West Forty-Second Street: a spacious room with a broad stage and fan-shaped lamps that supported the side balconies. Kay, or Katharine as she was then known, thought of it as the home of the New York Philharmonic, but Paul Whiteman, the P. T. Barnum of New York’s music scene, promised a different experience.
Whiteman was a big man in every way, with a basso cantante growl that he modulated as if riffing in the low range of a flügelhorn. He had telephoned her to insist that if there was one concert she and Jimmy could not avoid this year, it would be this one. “An experiment in modern music,” he drawled. “New sounds. New rhythms.”
“New pieces?” asked Katharine, sucking on a cigarette. “Or old pieces, newly arranged?” The former might interest her. The latter might upset her. Some modern arrangers, imagining themselves superior to composers, disregarded their intentions.
“Entirely new pieces, Katharine,” Whiteman assured her. “We open with a series of short works, sassy and moody and sweet to establish the mood. And then a big, spacious, exuberant piano concerto. The heart of the thing. George Gershwin.”
“Gershwin? The songwriter?” How could a songwriter compose a piano concerto? The idea seemed ludicrous.
“Yes, that Gershwin,” said Whiteman. “But no, not that vocation. We are not talking about a mere song, my dear Katharine. We’re talking about Brahmsian lyricism, Joplinesque ragtime, rip-roaring Souza band music, all stewed together in one luscious gumbo.”
Really? And just what does George Gershwin know about orchestration? Or counterpoint? The study of music, its intricate machinery, had been the focus of Katharine’s youth. Of her entire life. If a song was a hot-air balloon, a piano concerto was a locomotive. Ask a balloon maker to build a train engine, he will not have a clue.
Whiteman, meanwhile, was charging ahead. “What we are talking about, Katharine, is jazz. Clarinet smears, muted trumpets, blue notes, misplaced rhythmic accents, rubbing up against modern chords and Gershwin’s dizzying melodies. You of all people will appreciate this, with your perfect ears. Oh, and did I mention? Jascha will be there. And Sergei. And Igor. The warmth and good spirits of a family reunion. But even with these dear friends in attendance, what pleasure would there be without you and Jimmy? Where the gaiety, the wit, the sheer delight?”
“Oh, dry up, Paul,” Katharine chuckled.
That was how he did it, though. Paul Whiteman thrust people together the way he hammered sounds together, with a brashness that bordered on boorishness, delivered with a wink and a smirk. Heifetz, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky—anything but a family. More like a zoo. The carnivore division. How could anyone herd a grizzly bear, a Siberian tiger, a Eurasian wolf, and a Tyrannosaurus rex into one cage? Together with a few feral cats and a brood of starving rodents. Somehow, though, Whiteman got away with it.
“I’ll have to check with Jimmy,” said Katharine. But she knew they would go, if only for the illustrious company. They always did.
The trouble began before it actually started. Or vice versa. It commenced with the preparations. She and Jimmy were running late. Her strap pumps were too tight. One of the hidden buttons at the side of her silk column gown flew across the room and burrowed into the rug. Olga, her chief domestic, squinted and fumbled as she tried to align the clasps of Katharine’s jet and crystal choker. Together they dug through hatboxes searching for her matching cloche. “You must have misplaced it,” Katharine snapped. But then regretted her tone. Olga deserved better. She was one in a million.
“Here we are, madam.” Like a magician Olga extracted the hat from a silver box. “And here is your velvet wrap.”
“Oh, what would I do without you?” Katharine pulled the hat low as Olga draped the cloak over her shoulders.
Wearing a bespoke worsted wool suit that he had picked up on Savile Row four months earlier, reclining into the back seat of their chauffeured car, Jimmy opened the window a slit. “What’s on the program?”
“Music.” Katharine dabbed her lipstick with a handkerchief. “Music that Paul Whiteman thinks terribly innovative and exciting.”
“Well that narrows it, doesn’t it,” said Jimmy.
“New music,” said Katharine, “brassy and lively, according to Paul. And finishing with a piano concerto that doubles as a New Orleans gumbo.” She replaced her lipstick in her clutch and stretched her legs. “George Gershwin.”
Jimmy frowned. “La La Lucille?”
“La La someone or other,” said Katharine. “As if I followed these things.” Which was misleading. She had seen the posters, if not the shows.
The theater doors were swinging shut when their driver released them. Jimmy escorted Katharine to their third-row places like a window dresser wheeling a mannequin. Katharine removed his hand from the small of her back and smiled as she waved to Jascha Heifetz’s sister, Pauline.
They took their seats two rows behind Igor Stravinsky. Such a large head for a man who stood five-three in elevator shoes. Thank heavens, though, it was Igor and not Sergei. Rachmaninoff was taller, with a fuller head of hair than his rhythmically and harmonically more adventurous compatriot. Katharine opened the program.
George Gershwin has written a “Rhapsody in Blue,” which he has consented to play accompanied by the orchestra. Delicacy, even dreaminess, is a quality he alone brings into Jazz music. His sense of variation in rhythms, of shifting accents, of emphases and color, is faultless.
Consented to play. She sniggered at Whiteman’s too-clever wording. She had never met George Gershwin; indeed, never set eyes on him. But one thing she knew even then: the fellow did not shy from the spotlight. During the last few years she had seen his name clambering higher and higher on broadsheets for George White’s Scandals, the long-running series of musical revues on Broadway.
Katharine did not care for popular music. She found it predictable and trite, boring really. She was certain Igor, Jascha, and the rest of Whiteman’s validators shared her feeling. By inviting so many serious musicians, financiers, and politicians—no, not inviting them, corralling them—Whiteman was pegging expectations skyscraper high. But what fresh notions could show-biz hacks like Irving Berlin and George Gershwin possibly plant in the febrile mind that had birthed The Rite of Spring? And to lecture about “dreaminess, shifting accents, emphases, and color” with Sergei Rachmaninoff sitting in the front row—now that was what one of Jimmy’s relatives might call chutzpah.
She closed her program as the audience lights dimmed and Whiteman waddled out to polite applause. She liked that word, chutzpah, probably because her husband loathed it, along with every other grimy expression his people had hauled through Ellis Island in their battered cardboard suitcases. (My people? Perhaps, Jimmy would grudgingly admit. But not my immediate kin. Not any Warburg or Loeb. Our suitcases were crafted of Florentine leather, and we did not carry them. Our servants did. Except that he would never actually utter such words. He would transmit them with a glance and a raised eyebrow.)
The concert began, essentially a series of popular songs without voice, scored for wind ensemble. Saxophones, clarinets, and trombones delivering squiggly marginalia to melodies by and large carried by the other horns. Dixieland spread its messy tentacles everywhere in banjo twangs, whistling, oompah-oompah tuba bass lines, and grandstanding solos, all delivered in strict four time and diatonic scales. How could anyone express anything new and original, as Whiteman had promised, with such a paltry musical vocabulary?
It was celebratory music, entertaining, at times vaudevillian. She did, indeed, hear evocations of New Orleans brothels although she had never set foot anywhere near such an establishment. And of course, it went without saying, there was not a Negro in the house.
At intermission Katharine sipped a sarsaparilla, lemon, and cream soda; James clutched a tumbler of dry ginger fizz. Pauline Heifetz, in a knee-length print dress, sucked a pink beverage through a paper straw. Around them other guests chattered about mundane trifles, but no one mentioned their collective ennui or its cause, Whiteman’s overhyped dud. Katharine enquired whether Pauline and her brother were free to join a group of mutual friends for dinner next Tuesday. “Century Magazine picked up one of Jimmy’s poems.” She slung her arm through Jimmy’s. “It’s so terribly exciting, we have to celebrate.”
“Well done, Jimmy,” said Pauline. “But I’m afraid Jascha and I will be traveling next week.”
“Where?” asked Katharine.
“Oh, only everywhere east of New York.” Pauline sipped. “Everywhere that matters, that is. London, Paris, Rome, Berlin.”
“Nice,” said Jimmy in a tone that sounded, to Katharine’s ears, more than a little patronizing.
“Jascha’s touring,” said Pauline. “Me, I’ll be shopping. Shopping and drinking. Il vino’s still legal over there, you know.”
“You must try a Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino.” Jimmy smiled at a memory. “Exquisite.”
“Not everyone’s a banker,” said Pauline. “We’ll settle for ordinary Frascati.”
“Just you wait ’til they hear what Jascha does with Bach’s D Minor Partita,” said Katharine. “He’ll be a smash. You’ll be stuffing your trunk with Brunellos.”
“Brunellos and shoes,” said Pauline.
“And maybe a boyfriend or two?”
“You are so wicked.” Pauline tapped her hand. “But no, I’m fine in that department. At least for the moment. I think.”
“Who is it?”
Pauline smiled. “I’ll give you a hint. He’s in this theater right now.”
“Then why are you standing here, gabbing with me and Jimmy?”
“He’s busy. That’s all I’m saying. You’ll find out soon enough.”
The room lights dimmed and they ambled back to their seats. Katharine braced herself for continuing boredom. The stage lights rose and Paul Whiteman bowed. Everyone applauded politely.
George Gershwin strolled out, a tall man with pomaded black hair and a prominent nose. Attractive, certainly, but it was not about his features. It was the way he held himself; his bemused, blasé expression barely masking an underlying restlessness; his dark, soft eyes. All in all a coolness tinged with vulnerability and warmth. He wore his tuxedo like a shroud of sobriety. The finest evening attire, however, could not transmute a Tin Pan Alley tunemeister into a classical pianist. He lowered himself to the Steinway shoving his tails behind the bench. Whiteman raised his baton and that klezmer clarinet embarked upon its crazy discourse, complaining, wheedling, sulking. A hush fell over the audience. They had never heard anything like this.
At first, Katharine was not quite sure what to make of it. Then she realized she was holding her breath and wondered why she was doing so during a piano concerto, or whatever this was. How many concertos had she heard performed on this very stage? She could hardly count them. She exhaled. She inhaled again, and repeated the exercise until it felt natural. As natural as... as breathing. Or almost.
Gershwin played like a self-taught virtuoso. Everything was wrong, his posture, his fingering, the distracted expression on his face. But when Katharine closed her eyes and set aside all she had learned since early childhood about the code-bound ways in which individual notes, rhythms, melodic figures, and harmonic progressions were supposed to cavort with each other—when she allowed the music to justify itself—somehow everything sounded right, too. How could that be? She opened her eyes.
His fingers tapped the keys repeatedly; scurried up and down, passing each other; meshed together; flew apart to opposite corners of the keyboard. Swaying, smiling to himself, Gershwin appeared not to be thinking about his hands or the sounds they produced. Yet despite his apparent mindlessness each note sounded confident, even the phrases that conveyed wistfulness, longing, and sorrow. At times Katharine wondered whether Gershwin was improvising or performing passages he had meticulously composed.
She failed to notice the moment when the music persuaded her to stop thinking and just listen. What she heard then was a man pouring his heart out to the world. At the height of the soaring, lyrical passage two-thirds of the way through, Katharine forgot about the funny parts, the exuberant parts, the piano-against-orchestra quipping and cajoling parts. The sadness and beauty of it enveloped her.
She closed her eyes again and leaned back. For no particular reason she imagined herself drifting in a rowboat. The wavelets softly smacking its sides. Ribbons of undulating moonlight.
That was the moment when Katharine Warburg, née Katharine Faulkner Swift—and still Katharine Faulkner Swift deep inside—realized that something was lacking in her marriage. She tried to ignore the absurd claims of her heart. She did not know George Gershwin or what he intended to communicate with his music. This was lunacy. By all accounts, her husband was an extraordinary man.
She and Jimmy drifted the half block to their car. He tapped the window to wake the driver and opened a rear door for Katharine.
She slid open the window of the driver’s compartment. “Twelfth Avenue. Across One-Hundred-Tenth. Down Fifth.”
“Good lord,” said Jimmy sliding in beside her. “It’s a straight shot up Fifth Avenue and you want to drive over to the port, up to Harlem?”
“I’d like to see the water.”
“At this hour? When I have a meeting with Andrew Mellon in the morning?”
“May I remind you?” asked Katharine. “The last time you met with Mellon, he was two hours late.”
Jimmy shook his head and let out a deep sigh, his hands clasped on his overcoat. The driver twisted the key and the Duesenberg shook to life.
As the Hudson River came into view under a crescent moon, Katharine looked over the water to the Jersey shore, its lights, its Ferris wheel. She placed her hand on Jimmy’s. He twisted toward her.
“You’re going to get lucky tonight,” she whispered.
Jimmy responded with a thin smile. “And to what do I owe this good fortune?”
She looked out toward the water, the Ferris wheel, and the crescent moon. “To that,” she said.
The next morning, Paul Whiteman’s Experiment in Modern Music was no more than a fleeting dream. Or so Katharine told herself as she glided down the curved stairway of their five-floor townhouse in her white robe, and through the main salon and hallway into the tiled kitchen with its high ceilings and tall windows.
“Morning, Misses Warburg.” Lionel, their majordomo, poured a cup of coffee, with cream.
“And it is a lovely morning, isn’t it, Lionel.”
“Couldn’t be better, ma’am. Couldn’t be better.”
Katharine sat down and peered at the news. It was Jimmy’s habit to browse widely before heading to the office. On top, a one-week-old copy of the Berliner Börsen-Zeitung. It took that long for a newspaper to travel across the Atlantic, which made gazing at Europe through this lens somewhat like studying a distant star. What you were observing was the past of the universe, at least if you believed the famous theory of that disheveled whiz in Germany, Albert Einstein. Or what the newsmen wrote about it, anyway.
She saw splashy headlines about the legal woes of a young upstart named Adolph Hitler, whose coup plot had fizzled but whose trial was a smash. For Herr Hitler, it seemed, the courtroom was a stage on which to prance and strut, blaming “Jew bankers” for Germany’s predicament. By Jew bankers, Hitler meant the Warburgs and a few other families whose offices filled fashionable belle époque buildings in Hamburg, New York, and London. For Jimmy, this news was personal.
Under the Berliner Börsen-Zeitung lay this morning’s copy of the New York Times. She leafed to the Arts section and skimmed the review:
Rhapsody in Blue shows extraordinary talent... irresistible vitality and genuineness... a young composer with aims that go far beyond those of his ilk.
It had not been a dream, after all. The music surged back. She reread the article. But for all its praise, it failed to explain why the Rhapsody had moved her. Was it the music itself or something within her, a yearning that for some inscrutable reason attached itself to Gershwin’s melodies? It could not have been the music George Gershwin! Just a songster. Even the title, Rhapsody, was a dodge, as if to imply, sure, it doesn’t conform to the rigid structure of a classical concerto. That is deliberate. But she had to admit, Liszt and even Brahms were guilty of the same evasion.
And what of that other word, Blue? Synaesthesia, wasn’t that the term? Associating sounds with colors? A reference of course to the blues, the musical style and the mood. Also, perhaps, to Picasso’s famous Blue Nude, further suggesting sadness and modernity.
Leaving her cup half full, she went into the salon. She sat at the piano, attempting to retrieve portions of the composer’s long solo.
Katharine possessed not only perfect pitch but also an unerring musical memory. To these aptitudes her parents had added the finest musical education money could buy, although in her case there had been no exchange of currency. Her conservatory schooling had been financed with scholarships and grants. Not that her father would have hesitated to support her ambitions, had he been able. Her technique meant more to him than his own. Her dreams were his.
Katharine could ramble through almost anything on the piano after hearing it once. The Rhapsody, however, proved different. So much of it was wrong. Although she still heard it, she found herself unable to reproduce it and grew frustrated with the effort. She had never learned how to play wrong.
She tried again; a different portion. The part that made her think of horses racing around a track. Failing to reproduce Gershwin’s style, she bit her lip and gave up. She opened her book of Chopin’s nocturnes and meandered through his thoughtful, introspective opus 9, number 1, a piece her father used to play when she was a child.
As Katharine’s mind floated on the warm pond of Chopin’s nocturne, her daughters April and Andrea dashed into the room accompanied by their governess, Miss Louisa, and Andrea’s nurse, Miss Lainey. Katharine’s hands paused midmelody above the keyboard.
April clutched a doll. Miss Lainey cuddled Andrea on her shoulder. Both girls were dressed up, their curls brushed, their shoes shined.
“Go ahead, say it,” Miss Louisa instructed little April.
Sucking her thumb, April looked up at her.
“Say ‘Good morning, Mama.’”
“Good morning, Mama,” April recited.
“Come here, you little ragamuffin, so I can give you a smooch,” said Katharine.
April glanced up at Miss Louisa, who nudged her forward. Katharine gave her a peck on the forehead.
Two-year-old Andrea struggled and pointed. Miss Lainey set her down. Katharine opened her arms, but Andrea darted toward the gray cat on the corner table. The cat leapt off, dashed away, and squeezed under the sofa. Startled, Andrea began crying.
“It’s all right,” said Miss Lainey crossing to pick her up again. “It’s just a kittie.”
“We was going to go to the park,” Miss Louisa informed Katharine.
“That sounds delightful.” Katharine glanced at the window. “The weather is perfect, isn’t it.”
“It most certainly is,” agreed Miss Louisa with a toothy smile.
After they went out, Katharine stared at the piano feeling blue and unfulfilled, chiding herself for resenting her children’s interruption. They are not that disruptive. They are adorable.
She resumed playing, allowing her hands to guide her away from the present. She dipped into a Mendelssohn sonata, and another by Brahms, and finally traveled back to Beethoven. Music she found celebratory rather than contemplative.
Celebratory of what? Of their early days together. Hers and Jimmy’s. Of their courtship. Of a languid summer day, seven years ago.