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Kay Swift, 1931

Katharine Weber’s lovely new book “The Memory of All That” (Crown Publishers), in which she recalls her complicated and somewhat famous  family, reminded me of my own rather terrifying correspondence with Ms. Weber in 2009.   I was asking permission to use photos of her grandmother, the remarkable composer Kay Swift, for use on the Wild Women website, alongside a short bio celebrating her work.

Katharine asked for advance approval of my few words on Kay before she would send me the images.  I sent along a breezy little article about Kay Swift and her music (Can’t We Be Friends, Can This Be Love? Fine and Dandy)  and of course brought up Kay’s long love affair with George Gershwin, conducted while she was also writing songs with her banker husband James Warburg.

Ms. Weber curtly admonished me for treading so lightly upon what must have been an excruciatingly complicated situation.   I submitted no less than five versions of the article before she finally sent me the images.  And although I bristled at the time (I’m just a jazz singer!  I’m not writing a term paper!)   I was later very glad indeed, as the story had turned out to be one of my favorite pieces in the show, like much of Kay’s music: nuanced, beautiful, wistful.

Her story feels at times like a Jazz Age Fairytale:  “There once was a young, brilliant, struggling classical composer named Kay Swift, who met, fell in love with and married a young banker named James Warburg.  They had three little girls and set up housekeeping in the upper East Seventies in New York City.  One night a charismatic songwriter named George Gershwin came to their dinner party…”

Kay and George

Reading “The Memory of All That” brought into sharper focus how deep the musical connection was between Kay and George Gershwin.  He introduced her to the world of Jazz and Popular music, and she became the helpmate who finished his musical thoughts.  You can see her handwriting on most of his manuscripts, and their notes back and forth to each other.    What heady times those must have been, to fully share an artistic passion with a soulmate!  Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.  Paul and Jane Bowles.  Kay and George.

Weber amplifies the tragedy of George’s death by revealing new information of their truly spooky psychiatrist Zilboorg, who was treating ALL three of them at the same time:  James, George and Kay.  At the very least he was unconscionably manipulative, blithely telling each one what the other was saying; at the worst, he seems to have mis-diagnosed George’s symptoms of what may have been a completely operable brain tumor.

The larger than life stories of Katharine Weber’s family are well worth reading – not for their sensational qualities, but for the poignant, complex tales of people whom she loved very much.

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