51 – It Ain’t Necessarily So: Improbabilities and Beautiful Infinities

There have been enough digressions and diversions and tangents for a little while – Time to get back to Aideen on the hunt that never ends. I keep thinking about that maths problem with the two hares racing, where one gets a head start, and the space in between (in the mathematical sense) never ends. It’s something about infinities and infinities, which I could never fully grasp. Anyway, there are beautiful infinities. But while I was enjoying a summer of lazy meanderings, there was one piece of information I was still doggedly trying to track down and prove once and for all: when did Aideen meet Kay Swift for the first time? When did they share a laugh, a story and become friends?

There are numerous connections between the Abbey Company and Gershwin, not least of which the fact they were both managed by the Schuberts, a theatrical agency in New York City. I know for a fact that Eddie Byron, a radio star and Kay’s suitor in 1939, was a friend of Arthur and Barry. But how far back did that connection go? And it seems pertinent to know, did Aideen know Kay during the ‘Gershwin years’? You might argue that Gershwin is irrelevant here, in this story about women’s friendship. But the truth is, Kay Swift was a different person when she was with George Gershwin – she must have been.

This Week's Reading - The Gershwins
This Week’s Reading – The Gershwins

In the tale of Kay Swift and Gershwin, there were many public moments that have been recorded for posterity. The biggest, of course, being the opening of Porgy and Bess in Boston in 1934/35. Thus, I was understandably excited when I found a note that May Craig left. A folder of odds and ends in her archive contained typed notes for some kind of an interview – perhaps for the radio or a book about the Abbey theatre. Among the oddly sprung type are handwritten notes, prompts for her own memory. She remembers the cherry blossom in Washington, meeting President Roosevelt AND being at a party in New Orleans where the guest of honour was DuBose Heyward, author of the novel on which Porgy and Bess was based.

To read about composers is to realise how close to writers they are in what they do. While you envision a languishing genius struck with bolts of musical energy, the truth is much slower and more mundane. Gershwin composed endlessly, exhausting all possible variations on a theme before choosing the best one. Neither he nor Kay Swift ever disposed of anything, but constantly recycled and reworked ideas to forge new work. For Porgy he devised a triangular system of inspiration: Heyward (a gifted poet) wrote lyrics, which Gershwin used as a basis for composing tunes. When other scenes were ‘needed’, he wrote music and passed it onto his brother Ira. His longtime collaborator, Ira could always find the lyrics to suit the melody and tell the story. (Can you follow that? I’m all about the mathematical figures today.)

But aside from the party with Heyward, where dinner was served so late that all the attendees were ravenous and probably quite tipsy, May Craig remembered seeing a production of Porgy and Bess and meeting Gershwin …

Much excitement in the sedate environs of the library! Perhaps Aideen and Kay met at the Washington National Theatre, where the cast rioted for desegregation in the audience. Or perhaps at the opening night party in Condé Nast’s apartment in New York, where the champagne flowed and the theatre critics read out their reviews. The wealth of material for a dramatic opening act to their friendship was almost overwhelming. Then, like all archivists, I had to go back to the source documentation, to the real details, the dates and facts. When were the Abbey players in the US? When was Porgy and Bess staged? When conceivably could these paths have crossed?

May Craig’s recollection is that they saw the show and met Gershwin in San Francisco. Perfect: the bright spring days of San Francisco in 1938, when F.R. Higgins had been left behind in New York. Elbert Wickes took Frolie dancing for St Patrick’s day, Aideen drank cocktails in Chinatown and visited the Mandarin theatre, and Ria Mooney made friends with a young Chinese girl who took her to the temple one afternoon. Then as the fog rolled in over the bay one evening, the Company went together to see the West Coast Revival of Porgy in the Curran Theatre on Geary Street. Still humming the tunes, they were brought back stage to meet the man himself and the beautiful Kay.

Anyone see the problem with this version of events?

It ain’t necessarily so.

Gershwin went into a coma in July 1937, from which he never recovered. He was dead and buried by the spring of 1938, when that revival hit the West Coast.

If Aideen was doing the jig-hop with Kay Swift in a San Francisco night club, it was after the death of George Gershwin. May Craig misremembered, or I’ve failed to find a production of Porgy and Bess in San Francisco that coincided with the Abbey tours.

There are times when it’s SO TEMPTING to dispense with a couple of facts and weave a tale from the truths you choose. But I also have discovered in the last few years that resisting that temptation and carrying on searching for the absolute truth can conjure up more dramatic scenes than anything you could envision. There are improbabilities, there is the infinite, and there is the beautiful infinitely unknown.

2 comments on “51 – It Ain’t Necessarily So: Improbabilities and Beautiful Infinities

  1. That last sentence is a wonderful short statement of the charms of nonfiction, both for readers and writers.

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