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Review: Rhapsody, by Mitchell James Kaplan
Gallery, 2021. 342 pp. $27

In 1924 Paul Whiteman, legendary impresario and consummate schmoozer, attempts to persuade Katherine Warburg to attend a musical extravaganza at which George Gershwin has “consented” to play his latest composition. Katherine resists. After all, she’s a remarkably gifted, classically trained pianist and knows little of jazz or Gershwin besides his penchant for popular songs, about which the less said, the better. It’s not her type of music, thank you.

But as James Warburg’s wife — the banking Warburgs, known for generous hospitality to literary and musical celebrities — she’s an important target in Whiteman’s publicity campaign, and he’s a difficult man to refuse. Besides, Jascha (Heifetz), Igor (Stravinsky), and Sergei (Rachmaninoff) will be there. So Katherine attends and gets an earful:

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.… Whiteman raised his baton and that klezmer clarinet embarked upon its crazy discourse, complaining, wheedling, sulking.

Hearing “Rhapsody in Blue” turns Katherine’s world upside down. A deep friendship forms with Gershwin, later an affair, and a musical collaboration as well. For “Kay,” as Gershwin nicknames her, knows lessons about orchestration and harmony he’s never learned, while his restless, roving musical imagination jolts her from preconceived notions, and he encourages her efforts to compose. Not only does she feel that Gershwin understands her in ways that Jimmy Warburg doesn’t, the lovers enjoy the physical passion missing in her marriage. With a brashness typical of the man, he publicizes their liaison. He writes a musical using her name in 1926: Oh, Kay!, whose hit song, “Someone to Watch Over Me,” remains a standard.

Unfortunately for Kay, Gershwin’s roving imagination takes him into other women’s arms. Warburg, who’s never been faithful to Kay and often disappears for months on end to Europe, has little to complain about. Their daughters sympathize with him, however, a reflection of the sexual double standard and the relative discretion he maintains by conducting his affairs in other countries. They’re both indifferent parents, at best, but Kay bears the brunt. Meanwhile, her composing career takes off — she becomes the first woman to write a complete Broadway score — but she pays a terrible price. And Gershwin will never marry her, she realizes.

I wish I could say that Rhapsody does this story full justice, especially because I’ve loved Gershwin’s music all my life. (To insert a personal note, my wife and I walked down the aisle to strains of “An American in Paris,” because that city is where we got engaged.) I also love the theater, that of the 1920s and 1930s above all; and Kay Warburg (née Swift) makes an excellent protagonist with whom to explore the musical and theatrical happenings of the time. At its best, Rhapsody shows why and how music evokes feeling, and Kaplan astutely analyzes Gershwin’s in particular.

Yet I find the novel a cluttered hodgepodge, stuffed with anything and everything. Instead of beginning at the musical premier of “Rhapsody in Blue,” or even Kay’s life before she met Warburg, the story starts with a needless prologue and hops about like a grasshopper, seldom remaining long in one place. Further, if I listed every famous name that floats through the narrative, from Fred Astaire to Duke Ellington to Dorothy Parker, I’d have no room to review the book. In a way, the name-dropping has a point, because Kay knows nobody before she marries Warburg and barely has two pennies to rub together. Money buys glamor, and she soaks it up. But the People magazine approach wears thin, and the army of famous, or soon-to-be famous walk-ons distracts attention from the key players and the issues they face.

First performed in 1924, this piece, which Gershwin said he’d begun composing on a train to the rhythm of the wheels, captured Katherine Warburg’s imagination. She’s not alone. (courtesy http://riverwalkjazz.
stanford.edu/#bonus-content/george-gershwin-20s via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Rhapsody poses several cogent questions, not least about the influence of money on art and the artist, whether genius excuses bad behavior (especially negligent parenting), and what shapes or creates popular taste. But other themes and ideas bury these under a blizzard of famous names, scenes that seem to exist only to reach a certain biographical plot point, and sound bites about current events. There’s a cartoon psychiatrist I could have done without, even though he was a historical figure, and the pastiche of scenes from New York life never amounts to a lived-in atmosphere. By contrast, Gershwin seems much more likable than his legend would suggest, and though that interpretation may be justifiable, in the composer’s latter years, we see nothing of the nightmare he visited on his intimates, misbehavior resulting from an undiagnosed brain tumor.

Passionate Gershwin fans will find pieces here and there in Rhapsody to enlighten and perhaps delight them, and Kay Swift’s story deserves a hearing. But this novel is one of those in which a lot less would have yielded a lot more.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.