Undoubtedly, George Gershwin was familiar with this Yiddish expression and was likely wished biz hundert un tsvantsik many times. Tragically, his lifespan didn’t come close; he died of a brain tumor at age 38. In crafting my own stories about George and Ira Gershwin, I have come to appreciate George’s extraordinary, creative, exuberant life. Born September 26, 1898, he would have reached 120 years today. To honor his memory, I would like to share with you the eulogy delivered by Oscar Hammerstein II at the George Gershwin Memorial Concert at the Hollywood Bowl on September 8, 1937.*
To George Gershwin
Our friend wrote music, and in that mould he created gaiety and sweetness and beauty. And 24 hours after he had gone his music filled the air and in triumphant accents proclaimed to this world of men that gaiety and sweetness and beauty do not die.
A genius differs from other men only in that his immortality is tangible. What he thought, what he felt, what he meant has been crystallized in a form of expression, a form far sturdier than the flesh and sinew of the man. But lesser beings than geniuses leave their marks upon this earth, and it is as a lesser being that George Gershwin’s friends knew him and loved him.
We remember a young man who remained naive in a sophisticated world. We remember a smile that was nearly always on his face, a cigar that was nearly always in his mouth. He was a lucky young man, lucky to be so in love with the world, and lucky because the world was so in love with him. It endowed him with talent. It endowed him with character. And, rarest of all things, it gave him a complete capacity for enjoying all his gifts.
It was a standing joke with us that George could not be dragged away from a piano. He loved to play the piano. He played well, and he enjoyed his own playing. How glad we are now that some divine instinct made him snatch every precious second he could get at that keyboard, made him drink exultantly of his joy-giving talent, made him crowd every grain of gratification he could get into his short, blessed life.
Maybe the greatest thing he left us is this lesson: Maybe we take the good things of life too much for granted. Maybe we took George too much for granted. We loved him. Should we not have loved him more? Have we ever loved him so much as we do now? Have we ever said so as we do now? We are all inadequate, muddling humans with hearts and minds woefully unequipped to solve the problems that beset us. We are eloquent in the recognition of our troubles. Why are we not equally eloquent in the recognition of our blessings, as George was?
Some will want a statue erected for him. He deserves this. Some will want to endow a school of music in his name. He deserves this. But his friends could add one more tribute: In his honor they could try to appreciate and be grateful for the good things in this world. In his honor they could try to be kinder to one another—and this would be the finest monument of all.
*Sources: George Gershwin. Merle Armitage, ed. New York: Longmans, Green, 1938, p. 1-4. The George Gershwin Reader. Robert Wyatt, John Andrew Johnson, eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 272.