Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Our Love is Here To Stay

Who are the most remarkable brothers in American history? There are political brothers, who often obtain their position through a dynastic inheritance of sorts; Jack, Robert, and Ted Kennedy (or the lesser Kennedy-related brother pairs of McGeorge and William Bundy) or Jeb and George W. (There must be earlier examples of famous political brothers in American history before the Kennedys, but they are not immediately coming to mind, except for John and William Tecumseh Sherman, and speaking of Tecumseh, the American Indian pairs of Tecumseh and Tenshgawatawa “the Shawnee Prophet,” and the Seneca half-brothers of Handsome Lake and Cornplanter.)

There are numerous brothers pairs in business and invention, with perhaps Wilbur and Orville Wright being the most famous duo, but there are also Walt and Roy Disney, and in the area of finance and investment banking, which until the 1970s tended to be dominated by dynastic partnerships, there were numerous examples of brother-dominated firms, such as Lehman Brothers, Brown Brothers Harriman, and Goldman,Sacks, along with some famous European examples, such as the Baring Brothers, and the most famous financial brothers of them all, the five Rothschild boys.

But in business as well as politics there is an element of luck and of greatness being thrust upon people born into the right place at the same time. Brothers who achieve success in cultural areas are perhaps the most remarkable brother teams of all. There are the five Marx Brothers, all New York City born, who found renown as a brother-act in vaudeville and later films, and the Six Brown Brothers (not all of whom were members of the Brown family), who in the pre-jazz 1910s were the most important saxophone ensemble in the United States, and played an important role in introducing the saxophone into American popular music.

But even here, luck played a role. As everyone knows, Groucho, Harpo, and Chico were more talented than Gummo or Zeppo. What is perhaps most rare are brothers who are independently creative on the highest level. One such duo are William and Henry James, arguably, respectively, the greatest philosopher and novelist this country has ever produced. And what is perhaps striking about them is despite some common themes, notably the exploration of consciousness, how different they were, especially in their prose styles, with William’s direct, pithy, and apothegmic, while Henry’s was gloriously circumulatory in its nuanced complexity. After William James died in 1910, Henry James wrote his autobiography, Notes of a Son and Brother, not to tell his own life story of growing up in New York City, but to “attempt to place together some particulars of the early life of William James and present him in his setting, his immediate native and domestic air.” Like most accounts of growing up in New York, there is much about real estate and how much things have changed in the intervening decades.

But Henry and William James basically worked separately. If I were to nominate my choice for the most remarkable brother pair in American history, it would be George and Ira Gershwin, both native New Yorkers. George was probably the most gifted musician the United States produced in the 20th century, and like Schubert and Mozart, George died far too young and on the cusp of even greater things. Ira Gershwin has tended to be overlooked, but they were a vital team, writing together almost all of their great songs. I think that of all the great lyricists in the middle decades of the 20th century, Ira Gershwin is my favorite, the cleverest and the most versatile, producing funny, sexy, sad, and sentimental songs in equal measure. And unlike his two nearest peers as lyricists, Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart, Ira seems to have something of a mensch, someone you would like to know. (And Ira’s book, Lyrics on Several Occasions, is the greatest book ever published on the subject of lyric-writing.) I never could have been George Gershwin, but sometimes I imagine that I might have been able to write lyrics like Ira.

Ira continued to write lyrics after George’s death in 1937, perhaps most notably with Kurt Weill in “Lady in the Dark,” but he never really recovered from George’s passing, and retired from song writing in the mid-1950s, devoting the remaining thirty years of his life (he died in 1981) to keeping alive the legacy of his brother.

George and Ira were working on the mediocre film The Goldwyn Follies when George suddenly died of a brain tumor. One of the last things George wrote was the melody of a song that Ira completed after his passing. Although seemingly about romantic love, as many commentators have noted, it is really about the tragic and untimely passing of George, and the deepness and profundity of Ira’s love for his departed brother. It is perhaps the greatest song ever written about brotherly love:

The more I read the papers
The less I comprehend
The world and all its capers
And how it will all end,
Nothing seems to be lasting,
But that isn’t our affair;
We’ve got something permanent---
I mean, in the way we care

It’s very clear
Our love is here to stay
Not for a year
But ever and a day

The radio and the telephone
And the movies that we know
May be passing fancies---
And in time may go

But oh, my dear
Our love is here to stay
Together we’re
Going a long, long way

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


peter eisenstadt said...

That was so beautiful!

James Sheldon Hallett said...

Peter did you write this? It is an incredibly beautiful piece. Thank you for those thoughts and reflections. Sincerely, James Hallett