Books by Joan Peyser

Released: May 1, 1993

A Gershwin run-through, by the biographer of Bernstein (1987) and Boulez (1976): a disjointed mix of familiar anecdotes, so-so musicology, rancid gossip, and psychobabble. The supposed Big Story here is Gershwin's illegitimate son- -born in 1926, Peyser claims, to actress Mollie Charleston, but raised as ``Alan Schneider'' by Mollie's sister and brother-in-law. The primary sources are iffy: a former Gershwin valet and Alan himself, who has admittedly suffered from amnesia. Moreover, Peyser's own credibility is severely compromised by her inclusion, throughout the book, of thirdhand rumors about other illegitimate children and Gershwin's sexual habits. (At one point, we're told what someone said his psychiatrist said another patient said about Gershwin.) Nor are the Gershwin family portraits entirely convincing. According to Peyser, George himself, raised by rejecting parents, was a narcissist with low self-esteem, incapable of real feeling; wounded by bad reviews in the 1930's, he internalized his anger and wound up with a brain tumor. (According to Peyser's medical consultants, it started growing years before he died.) Brother Ira, a blur here, was ``virtually pathological when it came to money,'' under the thumb of ``cruel,'' ``rapacious'' wife Leonore. And there are unsatisfying glimpses of George's many girlfriends, with only Kay Swift emerging as more than a clutch of innuendos. As for the music, Peyser offers the standard ``torn between two worlds'' story: the facile songwriter straining for concert-hall greatness. Her analysis of the symphonic work is serviceable, but her treatment of the songs is unacceptably sketchy, with a thesis—Ira's lyrics tell George's life-story—that doesn't work. Gershwin's dark side may merit more attention than it's gotten in the past, but Peyser's version is too shrill and unscholarly to be taken seriously. Stick with Edward Jablonski (Gershwin, 1987), Deena Rosenberg (Fascinating Rhythm, 1991), and the other more balanced Gershwin commentators. (Thirty-two pages of b&w photographs) Read full book review >