Two Exceptional Americans
Updated: Feb 13, 2019
This is the story of George and Oscar. Just two of the thousands of exceptional Americans who were responsible for shaping and carving out an American culture that burst forth in the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and beyond. They came to prominence in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s, were born and raised Jewish, were child prodigies, and were both tireless composers and musicians.They met and became friends and rivals of a kind. Each could display brief flashes of temper but they were keenly intelligent and of the two, Oscar was no doubt the better read and more intellectually gifted. George died suddenly and relatively young in the prime of life. Oscar lived much longer and struggled in the last decade or more of his life with drug addiction and mental illness.
My awareness of George Gershwin and Oscar Levant was sparked as a child, after listening to my mother play Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue on her Steinway upright. My mother had been classically trained, gave a few recitals as a teenager in Spokane, Washington and later in life, one more if memory serves, when she was in her late forties in Sacramento, California. There was nothing dainty about my mother. So, it was natural that she was a tenacious pianist and attacked the keyboard playing forcefully, lively and fast when the piece called for it, for example as with the third and final movement of Gershwin’s Concerto in F, which the direction is to play it “Allegro agitato” meaning quick, lively and as though you were agitated. Rhapsody in Blue, Concerto in F, Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody, American in Paris, and his I Got Rhythm Variations can be as challenging to play well as anything by Chopin, Liszt, Grieg, Schubert, or any of the composers of the Romantic Period. Music by all of these composers filled our home but I became more interested in and drawn to Gershwin, for the spontaneity and energy of his pieces and for the heart-swelling grandeur and sweep of slower allegro and adagio movements. When one hears Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue or his Concerto in F, one instantly sees New York City, its skyscrapers, its traffic, it’s people; a city in all it splendor, chaos and agitation. Woody Allen drove this home in the opening of his film Manhattan.
I was quite moved when my mother related to me that Gershwin had died in the prime of his life at the age of 38. So much talent in one man, gone so suddenly. How many wonderful, beautiful, titanic piano works, symphonies, ballads, standards, and perhaps operas were never to be composed, never to be heard, never to added to the continuing soundtrack of America? One day, I must have been about fourteen or fifteen at the time, I caught the romanticized version of Gershwin’s life in the Warner Brothers biopic, Rhapsody in Blue on television. In the film, I also first encountered the clever wit of the dog-faced pianist Oscar Levant, George’s friend in real life. Levant was a frequent often unannounced but welcome fixture at the Gershwin Manhattan apartment, at a time when George had already reached the pinnacle of success as a composer of hit tunes, Broadway musicals and his venture into classical music with Rhapsody in Blue. Oscar Levant jumped out in the biopic of Gershwin as a bit of an oddity as he tended to do in other films. He was never a great actor but he was fun to watch for his own spontaneity. Many directors let him insert his own lines since they were much wittier than what the screenwriter had come up with. It’s safe to say, Oscar was also an oddity in real life. He grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Pittsburgh and playing the piano almost seemed easy for him. At a young age, he quickly mastered several pieces by Beethoven, Mozart and other masters.
Levant biographers, Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger in their book, A Talent for Genius; The life and times of Oscar Levant describe a family recital in the Levant home when Oscar was about nine years old:
One evening, when extra chairs were squeezed in the smoky living room to accommodate an overflow of guests for a recital, Oscar decided to defy his father (Max). Max had instructed him that for his first encore he must perform Chopin’s “Military” Polonaise. His beloved Radin grandparents were there, as was his favorite uncle, Samuel Radin, whose independent-mindedness he tried to emulate. Oscar stood before the piano and accepted the applause for a precocious performance, basking in the approval of his family and neighbors. Returning to the piano for an encore, he announced in his high, squeaky voice that would play the second movement of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Sonata. His father, disturbed by his son’s disobedience, said nothing. But when it was over and everyone burst into spontaneous applause, Max strode up to his youngest son and slapped him full across the face. From that moment, Oscar’s love of performing would be undercut by a sense of dread, and he would lock horns with his father over possession of his music, a battle he would fight in various guises for the rest of his life.”
After dropping out of high school, Levant’s mother sent her musically gifted son to New York to study music in hopes that he would become as great one day as her idol, Paderewski. It was 1922 and Levant was 15 years old at the time. His older brother put Oscar in touch with a friend, a bookmaker named Benny Kaplan who showed Oscar the city. Oscar was quickly developing a reputation as a songwriter under the wing of famed music publisher Max Dreyfus and a reputation as a skilled classical pianist and would occasionally be in proximity of his idol Gershwin at after-theater parties. He hadn’t started to interact with George until he had been invited to Ira Gershwin’s apartment that adjoined George’s around 1930. When Oscar first heard Rhapsody In Blue (1924) it was an epiphany for him of what could be possible for a budding young composer of popular tunes who was also classically trained.
In the film Rhapsody in Blue, Levant plays himself as Gershwin’s friend and confidant. Liberties are taken, as they are in most biopics, about the circumstances of their first meeting that was actually much later after George’s many stage hits and Rhapsody in Blue. Unlike the film, in real life, their relationship could often be a bit strained and contentious. They were competitive at the piano almost in a sibling rivalry sort of way, George playing the role of an older, more accomplished brother, and Oscar nipping at his heels. Gershwin would occasionally drop a snide or hurtful remark but it seems clear that he enjoyed Levant’s wit and company and thought highly of his musical talent. On one occasion, Gershwin after listening to recently pressed record of Levant’s version of Rhapsody in Blue, responded that he preferred his own playing of it, even though Levant knew his own technique was also masterful and that his classical training was deeper and broader than Gershwin’s. But for all that, he sought George’s approval and recognition for his talent while he was also in constant awe of Gershwin’s genius as a composer. Who wasn’t? Who isn’t still?
Here is Oscar playing his own piano transcription of Aram Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance. Note how exuberant and full of life he is and then compare that with later videos.
And here is Oscar playing music by Claude Debussy:
Gershwin was clearly a musical genius who pushed the envelope of the classical repertoire by blending into it Broadway musical phrasing and jazz with the Rhapsody. Levant quickly mastered everything Gershwin had written and was gaining a reputation as the authoritative interpreter of his music. The two men would often play for hours on two pianos side by side in the Gershwin apartment, so it’s safe to say that Oscar was able to observe Gershwin’s technique quite closely. When not inhabiting the Gershwin residence or busy playing and studying music, Levant was consorting with gangsters, hookers, writers and other celebrated musicians, composers, theater people and politicians in speakeasies and brothels. He was a court jester of sorts with the hoi poloi and the theater set of New York. Levant’s quick wit and acerbic and sarcastic sense of humor was on display nightly and many of his quips were quickly taken down by Walter Winchell appearing in his daily column. Levant could be brutal in his witty put downs if someone crossed him or insulted him. Some of his more famous quips (and many that were self-deprecating) include:
“I think a lot of (Leonard) Bernstein - but not as much as he does.”
“I once said cynically of a politician, ‘He'll double-cross that bridge when he comes to it.’”
“Strip away the phony tinsel of Hollywood and you will find the real tinsel underneath.”
“I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.”
“Underneath this flabby exterior is an enormous lack of character.”
“There’s a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.”
Apart from music, Levant read incessantly. Novels, histories, works of philosophy, science, art. Since he suffered from or became accustomed to his insomnia, he read quite a lot. Everything fascinated him and he stored a great deal of it into his brain and would recall it in answering questions meant to stump him or his fellow panelists on the radio quiz program Information Please achieving a wider level of fame beyond New York City. If Levant were alive today, I’m confident he would make mincemeat of other contestants on Jeopardy or any other game show that tested one’s knowledge.
On the evening of February 11, 1937 while Gershwin was performing his Concerto in F in California, Levant watching from the audience, heard his friend fumble a few notes. Levant was alarmed and shocked, even though the rest of the audience seemed unaware of the error. Here’s how biographers Kashner and Schoenberger write of the incident:
But on the second night, as Levant sat and listened to his friend begin the first movement of the Concerto in F — a piece he had seen Gershwin perform effortlessly at countless gatherings — nothing could have prepared him for what he suddenly, startlingly, heard. “I noticed that he stumbled on a very easy passage in the first movement. Then in the andante, in play the four simple octaves that conclude the movement above the sustained orchestral chords, he blundered again.”Levant was nearly jolted out of his seat. Gershwin was always an impeccable performer — “not terribly expressive but very rhythmic and ingenious.” What was happening?
Backstage after the concert, where Levant had gone to congratulate his friend, he debated whether or not to mention the muffed notes. But it was Gershwin who first spoke, greeting Levant with “When I made those mistakes, I was thinking of you, you bastard.” Gershwin later said to Levant that he had experienced a sudden dizziness and the disagreeable odor of something burning.
No one suspected in February 1937 that George’s impaired motor function, as evidenced by the missed notes, his dizzying headaches, and the burning smell in his nostrils, were a triad of symptoms that suggested a brain tumor.
These weren’t new symptoms for Gershwin. From the NY Times:
When he was 23, Gershwin began complaining of vague abdominal pain and constipation. Doctors found no physical basis for the complaints and told him the illness was in his head. He eventually sought psychotherapy. But in early 1937, his behavior turned bizarre. He tried to push his chauffeur out of a moving car, smeared chocolates on his body, complained that he smelled burning rubber and forgot his own music at a performance.
On June 23, Gershwin was admitted to Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles, complaining of debilitating headaches. He refused a spinal tap, a painful procedure that was commonly used to diagnose brain tumors, and was discharged with a diagnosis of "most likely hysteria". Less than a month later, he was taken back to the hospital, unconscious. In the right temporal lobe of his brain, surgeons found a cyst filled with an ounce of dark yellow fluid. They removed it, but it was too late. The pressure had begun to bear down on his brain stem, which controls functions like heart rate, respiration, temperature and consciousness, forcing part of it outside his skull. He died on July 11.
Levant was devastated. He felt that a good deal of his own career had evolved under Gershwin’s shadow despite the fact that he had written his own songs, a few that became popular, like “Blame It On My Youth” (see video below), written a couple of autobiographies, was relied on as an audience draw for Information Please and was constantly in demand as a concert pianist around the country.
In 1950, Levant suffered a heart attack and became addicted to Demerol as a consequence. During this period, the strain and hectic schedule of nationwide concert tours and meeting train schedules took its toll on him. He had never felt the need for much sleep but began taking stimulants to stay alert and focused before performances and then get injections of Demerol to bring him down afterward. When he couldn’t get Demerol, he would cajole his friends to let him borrow a few pills of whatever they might have in their medicine chests. Oscar was also a life-long chain smoker. There is hardly a video or a film scene of Levant that doesn’t show him smoking, sometimes one cigarette after another in the same scene. He had already been somewhat superstitious, many entertainers and performers are, but his superstitions transformed into phobias and became more extreme. In the 1950s, he would check himself into sanatoriums in Los Angeles to deal with his demons, would leave after a time, feed his addiction once more and soon return. He made friends with his doctors and other patients and started to think of them as an extended family. Sometimes he would leave a facility for a day or two, shoot a movie scene, and then head back to the sanatorium to be readmitted.This was the case when he was cast in The Band Wagon with Fred Astaire and Nannette Fabray and set to appear for filming on a few weeks after his heart attack. Here is how Levant biographers, Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger describe Oscar’s physical struggle with performing the signature scene “That’s Entertainment” in the film:
And Levant was simply too weak and too ill to enjoy any aspect of performing. First of all, he felt he had to keep his recent heart attack a secret in order to keep the studio’s insurers from dropping him from the picture. But it was obvious that he was not well. He could barely perform the big song-and-dance number “That’s Entertainment.” Fabray remembered:
“Oscar was down on the floor all the time on a chair. We would shoot two or three minutes of it, with a stand-in for Oscar, and they would arrange it so that it would be physically possible for him to do something and then he would do it…in one take. And then he would be popping pills — he was a very sick man.” Dr. Kert advised Levant that the number’s finale, which entailed striding down a ramp at great speed, was too strenuous and he shouldn’t do it at all. At the next rehearsal Levant refused to stride down the ramp, so Fred Astaire, in disgust, offered to carry him. “So, I did it,” Levant later wrote.
Oscar’s physical deterioration starts to become noticeable in later films and especially on television. In the 1950s, as he grappled with his addictions, his friends could still see that his memory and his wit was still quite sharp. Were it not for the love of his family and friends, Levant could have easily ended up disoriented and on the street, a sad and forgotten soul. But he was much loved and much admired, even when he was incoherent or acting like a tyrant from the effects of the myriad drugs he was ingesting.
In 1958, Oscar was also given his own unscripted TV program, The Oscar Levant Show by Los Angeles station KCOP, where guests and friends like Fred Astaire would sit by his piano as they would reminisce about the old days or he would engage Aldous Huxley, Linus Pauling or a few times his own psychiatrist. In the video above Astaire sings snatches of songs to Oscar’s accompaniment. You can almost feel the discomfort and concern that Astaire has for his old friend while appearing with him as Levant’s mind tangentially jumps from one topic to another. Also about this time, Levant made several appearances on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar or on other TV quiz shows as a panelist. But even in the midst of his pain and mental anguish was still able to make light of his troubles in a witty way as this video demonstrates:
I don’t think it’s incorrect to say, even if it’s difficult to support with precise empirical evidence, that America, especially in the 20th century, produced more talented human beings than any other nation on the planet. Had not two world wars and mass death throughout Europe occurred perhaps the contrast wouldn’t have been so stark. But it would also be foolish to suggest that the freedom to learn, to associate, to expand one’s talent and to rise from meager or impoverished circumstances that an American experience provided also wasn’t an enormous contributing factor.
Will a 21st century America produce a similar vast array of talent? Or should we lower our expectations considerably? And what would some of these aggressively talented artists think about their own voices, opinions and maybe even their creativity being censored or constrained by group think and political correctness in this century? I’d like to think that Oscar Levant wouldn’t have put up with it and that if he were alive today, might have some choice words about it all as he puffed away on one cigarette after another and attacked either a computer keyboard or his piano’s.