George Gershwin Lived Here

Roxbury Drive was always the centerpiece of the Old Hollywood tour I gave to out-of-town friends when they came to L.A. The two blocks north of Sunset featured Jack Benny’s house, Lucille Ball’s and Jimmy Stewart’s. My late friend Jim Chapin, probably the most brilliant political historian of his generation, wasn’t much impressed by celebrity — he was singer Harry Chapin’s brother — but the day we drove past Stewart’s house, and saw Stewart open his door and come outside to pick up something on his front lawn just as we passed, Chapin was impressed, if by nothing else, by my timing.

But Roxbury was a songsters’ street above all. Jerome Kern had lived one block over on Whittier; Harry Warren, the greatest of the songwriters who wrote chiefly for pictures, lived down Sunset on the other side of the Beverly Hills Hotel; and Cole Porter’s house was on Rockingham in Brentwood. Roxbury, however, beat them all. Oscar Levant lived on the 900 block so he could drop in on the Gershwins at all hours, as he had in New York. And on the 1000 block, lyricist Ira Gershwin lived until his death in 1983, next door to singer Rosemary Clooney, who lived for 50 years in the house where Ira and his brother George had lived and worked in 1936 and 1937, during the final year of George’s life.

They had come to write an Astaire-Rogers picture (Shall We Dance) and stayed for two more movies, until George died with terrible suddenness, at age 38, of a brain tumor that went undiagnosed until he fell into a coma the day before he died. His death was a shattering event for the American artistic community, and a far larger community as well: As he lay dying, Franklin Roosevelt’s White House enlisted the Coast Guard to find the nation’s leading neurosurgeon, then boating on Chesapeake Bay, so he could consult by phone with the surgeons at Cedars of Lebanon hospital.

What his contemporaries understood was that Gershwin was one of a handful of figures — with Whitman, Twain, Hemingway and Fitzgerald — who had defined America to itself. In the late ’20s, literary critic Edmund Wilson wrote a novel, I Thought of Daisy, in which the old-stock Protestant narrator lives, as Wilson did, in polyglot, bustling New York and tries to make sense of it all. He can’t, until he hears a composition by a composer named Harry Hirsh. The composer is a thinly disguised Gershwin, the composition a thinly disguised Rhapsody in Blue, and the understanding is that through a synthesis of classic European forms, black and Jewish sounds, and a propulsive urban beat, a new American music has given us an aural image of the dazzling newness of 20th-century America.

In the greatest generation of American songwriters, Gershwin always was first among equals: He said the most and said it most deeply — above all, in his 1935 opera, Porgy and Bess. But Porgy was not a commercial hit, and George grew nervous that while he’d been immersed for two years in composing it, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers and Larry Hart had been turning out one great hit after another. What quicker way to get back in the game than to come to Hollywood and write for Fred and Ginger?

So George and Ira moved into 1019 Roxbury and set to work. What they turned out differed from their work in the ’20s, their “Fascinating Rhythm” period of propulsive sound. Their Roxbury work — “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “Love Walked In,” “Our Love Is Here To Stay” — has more of the features of Porgy: longer melodic lines, calmer tempos.

As always, they worked at home. With Ira living in one wing of the house and George in the other, it would have been silly to work anywhere else. Of all the major artists of classical Hollywood, it was chiefly the songwriters who worked at home. Which is one reason why their homes — if their output was significant enough — have more historic value than most directors’ or actors’.

They get that in New York. There’s a plaque on one of the Gershwins’ residences there, a commemorative awning on another. They don’t get this at all in Beverly Hills, which is how the house at 1019 Roxbury came to be demolished last week, so that another god-awful mansion by builder Hamid Omrani can go up on the site.

“If Beverly Hills had some preservation mechanism in place, we would have saved this house,” Jay Platt, director of preservation for the L.A. Conservancy, said last week. But Beverly Hills and historic consciousness don’t rhyme. In 1990, the city permitted actress Pia Zadora to demolish Pickfair, the estate of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford — with Charlie Chaplin, the first global stars of pictures — and the house that established Beverly Hills as the town where movie people lived, and where the world’s celebrities came to visit.

Now, having lost its two most historically resonant buildings, a shamed Beverly Hills City Council has finally asked its staff to draft some changes to the city’s general plan that might affect any future disasters. Whether any ordinance can really dethrone the God of Real Estate Values, though, is an open question. In Los Angeles — not just Beverly Hills — we obliterate our past.

And maybe George and Ira knew it. I’ve always believed that the final stanza of the final song they wrote before George lapsed into his coma may contain a premonition of George’s death and a testament to the durability of their art. Now, we can read it as prophesying the rubble on Roxbury, too:

In time, the Rockies may crumble,
Gibraltar may tumble
(They’re only made of clay),
But — our love is here to stay.

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