The Gershwins And Me

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Book review: ‘The Gershwins and Me’ by Michael Feinstein with Ian Jackman
By Meryle Secrest, Published: December 14

One approaches a book like “The Gershwins and Me” with caution. Of all the brilliant composers at work on the American musical in its heyday, George Gershwin was surely one of the most phenomenal. A performer, composer, author and gifted artist whose oeuvre begins in Tin Pan Alley and encompasses symphonic works, Gershwin was such a towering talent that any discussion of his achievement seen through the lens of another life risks being limited. And the book’s subtitle, “A Personal History in Twelve Songs,” implying that the Gershwin legacy can somehow be whittled down in this way, is somewhat misleading.

On the other hand, there is a great deal to be said for an affectionate memoir — albeit by a man who never met him — that does not pretend to be all-inclusive but is focused on Gershwin’s enduring appeal and the need to keep his songs alive. Michael Feinstein is perfectly placed to do this. He met Ira Gershwin, George’s brother and librettist, when he was only 20 and newly hired as a Gershwin archivist.

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As Time Goes By, What’s This Piano Worth?

Here’s looking at you, piano.

No one would mistake you for Ingrid Bergman, though you and she shared a moment. And what a moment it was. It made you one of the most famous pianos in movie history. You must remember that: The flashback scene in Paris, the one that turned“Casablanca” from simply a war story into one of the most enduring cinematic love stories ever told.

Now you are to be auctioned off at Sotheby’s by an auctioneer who has sold other famous movie props — the “Rosebud” sled from “Citizen Kane,” for example. Sotheby’s expects you to sell from $800,000 to $1.2 million in the auction on Friday. That is between 34 to 48 times what Bergman was paid for sharing top billing with Humphrey Bogart.

And she really had to work. She was in scene after scene. You appeared in only one, in the Parisian cafe known with the words “La Belle Aurore” on the window. Warner Brothers used a different piano in the scenes in Rick’s Café Américain. That was the one that Bogart slipped those “letters of transit” into, not you.

You were not on camera for long — only about 1 minute 10 seconds. And while you were seen, you were not heard. Dooley Wilson, who played Sam, moved his hands up and down your keyboard as he sang. But he was not hitting the notes. Somewhere off camera was a real pianist, performing on another piano.

So moviegoers never really knew what you could do. Bogart implied that you might not have been the greatest. Later in the movie, much later, when he told Miss Bergman that he had “heard a lot of stories in my time,” his next line was: “They went along with the sound of a tinny piano…” But what did he know? You were the silent piano.

Finally, 70 years after the movie came out, you had your “Garbo talks” moment — the moment when your voice was finally heard — at Sotheby’s. As your vaguely honky-tonk sound drifted through Sotheby’s exhibition space, a line from a certain song came to mind: The fundamental things apply as time goes by. And time does go by — pianos get old. They can lose the bounce they had when they were young.

You are not really in tune, but not badly out of tune, either, and that is with no help from a piano technician. Sotheby’s said the piano had not been worked on since it was delivered for display several weeks ago.
Considering that “Casablanca” was shot in black and white, a spoiler alert is probably in order here. Readers who want to keep imagining the movie in black and white should skip to the next paragraph. In real life, the piano is green and tan. Sotheby’s said it still had several coats of paint, apparently left over from appearances in other movies, when it was bought by a Los Angeles collector in the 1980s. He scraped off the layers, revealing colors that “Casablanca” audiences could only guess at.

The piano is weathered, and a bit sluggish. It cannot handle the thrill of a trill, as Michael Feinstein — the well-known pianist and singer, who, with Ian Jackman, is the author of “The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in 12 Songs” — discovered when he tried it at Sotheby’s on Monday. “It’s not gratifying to play,” he said, “but that’s not actually what it’s about.”

No. As he said after playing “Someone to Watch Over Me,” this piano was a prop. Bogart, who stood 5 feet 9 inches tall, must have liked this piano because it, too, is rather short. He would not have towered over a conventional upright the way he towered this one.

It is also slimmer than most pianos. It has only 58 keys, 30 fewer than a conventional modern instrument. “It’s a cafe piano,” said the auctioneer at Sotheby’s, David N. Redden. “It was designed to be wheeled from table to table. The pianist would move it to the next table. It’s rather like the violinist coming round to each table.”

In “As Time Goes By,” Mr. Feinstein was well aware of just how limited the keyboard was. “At a couple of spots,” he said, “I was reaching for notes that weren’t there.”

He was also aware of its little odor problem, not uncommon among old pianos with dust on the hammers, the strings and the soundboard. Mr. Feinstein said he could “actually smell the dust when the keys are depressed.”

The piano’s life after “Casablanca” is “a little unclear,” Mr. Redden said. “It may have been used in other films, although we haven’t identified any.” There is a photograph from a 1943 War Bond drive. It apparently languished in a prop shop for years. (The other piano in “Casablanca,” the one from Rick’s Café Américain, was sold to the same collector in the 1980s. Sotheby’s said it is now on loan to the Warner Brothers Studio Museum in Burbank, Calif.)

Watch the video. Tiny Piano, Grand Romance

Mr. Redden sold the “La Belle Aurore” piano in 1988 for $155,000, at the time the second highest price for a piece of Hollywood memorabilia. Prices for Hollywood memorabilia have soared since then. And just as Marilyn Monroe’s dress from “The Seven Year Itch” was not bought to be worn when it went for $4.6 million last year, the “Casablanca” piano will probably not be bought to be played.

“This is memorabilia,” Mr. Feinstein said. “Nobody’s buying this as a musical instrument. I mean, this is not something Lang Lang would want to have to play. But you can’t put a price on what it is worth to an individual because there’s only one of these. I’ve played many pianos through the years that people said George Gershwin played — ‘This belonged to George Gershwin’ — and it’s usually apocryphal. But this is the real thing, and so it’s basically worth whatever someone’s willing to pay for it. And it’s going to be a lot.”

A Personal History in Twelve Songs

Book Cover

Simon & Schuster

On Sale October 16, 2012

“Feinstein writes with wit, humor, and attitude, including fascinating bits of trivia and illuminating anecdotes…this is an impressive celebration of the Gershwins and their lasting legacy.”—PUBLISHERS WEEKLY

“Frisky, affectionate, lushly illustrated, deeply informed and profoundly respectful.”—KIRKUS

A multiple Grammy-winning performer of and advocate for American popular song offers the story of his long affection for the work of the Gershwins.

Feinstein (Nice Work If You Can Get It: My Life in Rhythm and Rhyme, 1995) begins with a swift account of how he met Ira Gershwin, the lyricist of the celebrated duo, and how he subsequently went to work for him for six years, researching, identifying and cataloging Gershwin materials. The author has hit upon a happy way to organize this dual biography/celebration: He selects a dozen classic Gershwin songs (from “Strike Up the Band” to “Love Is Here to Stay”), which he arranges not chronologically but biographically. This approach effectively illuminates the lives and careers of his principals. As the title indicates, Feinstein is the third subject. Although he tells the Gershwins’ stories, childhood to grave, he also relates his own history with their music and reveals his great respect for their achievements. Although Feinstein knew Ira and writes affectingly about his lyrics, his admiration of George—pianist and composer—soars. Repeatedly, he lauds George’s artistry at the keyboard and his enduring compositions. Feinstein also discusses the Gershwins’ love lives, the significant performers of their work (from Fred Astaire to Ethel Merman), their successes and flops, their experiences in Hollywood and the devastation of George’s shocking death at 38 (brain tumor). The author includes stories about his own preferences and performances, tales of his avid collecting, minirants about music education and some shots at others (Virgil Thompson among them).

Frisky, affectionate, lushly illustrated, deeply informed and profoundly respectful.

Includes 12-track CD of Feinstein performing Gershwin songs
Credit: Kirkus Reviews