Afternoon Rhapsody

by Daniel Shapiro

(February 12, 1924)


Will and I got out of the taxi on Forty-Second Street, in front of Aeolian Hall. It was close to three o’clock. I couldn’t help but feel excitement about the coming performance but maybe something else, too. I took in the atmosphere, the late sun, the clang of trolleys gliding up and down the street. Then the murmur of voices in front of me, the visible breaths of men in overcoats and top-hats, women in furs over satin chemises, all of them gathered beneath the awning suspended by cables. We joined the group now forming a line.

It was the first time I’d attended an event here, though I’d walked by the place before on my way to the public library or Bryant Park. It looked so understated from the outside, much less grand than Carnegie Hall, though the friezes of garlands and lyres were impressive further up. Will nudged my arm with a jolt and we began to file in.

I felt a growing sense of anticipation, butterflies, as we reached the front and headed into the building. He’d surprised me with the tickets for this concert, “a gift from Yip,” E.Y. Harburg, his friend from his City College days, a budding songwriter in his own right.

“Simply can’t make it that night, old man, but maybe you could go,” Yip had said. “Luck of the draw. You’ll be over the moon when you see the program. Ira’s brother, premiering a new piece.”

Will almost dropped the phone, as he told me later, then regained his composure, and emphatically accepted the gift. When he presented me with the news, tenderly taking my hands, I responded, “It’s wonderful, Willy!” And it was—certainly the event of the year. So I felt excited, sure, but in more than one way, though I couldn’t tell him that. Imagine, a crush on George Gershwin!

None of it seemed fair. To him. Will was my beau, after all; I shouldn’t be thinking about other men. We’d been dating more than six months, six blissful months. He was a dreamer who wrote poems, but also my “rock,” a source of comfort; while our outward lives might have seemed pedestrian—he worked as a real estate broker, and I as a typist at the Jewish Board of Education—we shared “a meeting of the minds” or so I thought. Everyone said we were the cat’s meow. How true. In fact, I could say he worshipped me. He wrote me love letters, calling me “the most adorable creature God has ever taken delight to create,” and himself “the happiest of men” for knowing me, and other things that made me blush but were terribly sweet.

As we made our way through the entrance, I glanced at him and he glanced back, a look of devotion on his face that gave me a pang; even in the dark, his spectacles gleamed.

I’d first met George Gershwin at that uptown party we’d attended last fall. Yip and his fiancée Alicia had invited us to go. I barely knew them but when Will proposed it, I thought, “why not, it’ll be a lark.”

A blustery November night. We’d just walked into the foyer—in one of those big, high-ceilinged apartments on the Upper West Side, stately but homey, with marble tables, Chinese vases, glimpses of hallways filled with bookcases, sconces on the walls. I later learned it was the family home. Will hung up our coats as I scanned the room full of “bright young things” and my gaze suddenly landed on him:  seated at the upright, next to Ira—I recognized both from a recent tabloid—playing and singing “Lady Be Good.”

He looked so regal and long-limbed, with a prominent nose and dark, pomaded hair (Will was chubby, a little fet, as Mama put it, though he could look elegant with his walking stick; he had a different kind of charm). As he finished the song, the guests surrounding him broke into applause, the ones with drinks raising their glasses—I imagined them filled with pink champagne:  “To George and Ira’s latest hit. And to next year in London!”

Yip and Alicia had slipped away, most likely to get something to drink, so Will suggested we approach the host ourselves. All of a sudden, I felt shy and lingered behind him. Will stepped up and caught the pianist’s eye, thanked him profusely for the party, adding that the song was “simply swell. We’re friends of Yip’s, by the way.”

“Pleased you liked it—Will, did you say? And right, dear Harburg, I thought I saw him by the bar . . . happy to have you here, but who’s this?” He looked curiously at me, now standing beside Will.

“Oh, excuse me, this is Esther,” Will said, urging me forward. “Esther Marajda, George Gershwin.”

As if some feline had caught my tongue, I simply lost my words. “. . . Yes, Mr.—”

“Please, George,” he said as he took my hand, now sweating and trembling. He held it firmly in his grip, a moment longer than required by politeness. The message was clear. Then our eyes met: how could I forget that dark look?

“So handsome, so urbane,” I remarked to Will on the subway home. And to my surprise, he didn’t act jealous, not the least bit. Ever the good sport, he actually agreed with me. I responded with veiled eyes, afraid of giving myself away. I guess he didn’t pick it up, either my attraction to the pianist-composer or vice-versa. Or he didn’t care, eager to indulge me? That didn’t seem possible. Maybe he was also enamored of the great artist, but in another, nobler way. Such confused feelings, such a silly girl I seemed. Surely, I didn’t deserve this man! On the other hand, didn’t I have the right to dream?

I couldn’t help thinking about George Gershwin for weeks after that. His name appeared everywhere—via features in Life and Vanity Fair, even a piece in the New York Tribune about a new “jazz concerto” he’d begun writing (little did I know I’d be attending its premiere). So I thought and thought about him until I didn’t. I got on with life—work at the office during the day, evenings with Will and my family at home. Until with the news of the upcoming concert, he reemerged in my dreams, often right as I was falling asleep: the heft of his hand enclosing my own again and again, that look between us, like the promise of a kiss.

I tried to distract myself from those thoughts, turned to the moment inside the auditorium. It was baroque and spacious with three tiers of seats; the usher handed us our programs and led us down the aisle. Once at our row—G, in fact, could that be more telling?—Will directed me in with a flourish. Our seats were in the center, so we had to slide past a gangly man with long, bony legs, a woman with voluminous skirts I almost got tangled in.

“Excuse me. . . excuse me. . . .There we are. . . .”

We’d dispensed with the coat-check since there’d been a line and it was close to curtain-time so we unbuttoned our coats, unwound our mufflers, and made room for them against our seat-backs as we settled in. Will adjusted his striped lapels without setting off any static but as for myself, I got a few shocks smoothing down my dress, fingers bumping against the seed pearls embroidered there. I patted my bun—despite my jitters, at least that was in place. I glanced around—the man in front had a tall silk hat which worried me at first, but soon he removed it, revealing a shiny pate—at least I could look over his head when the show began.

“Over there,” Will said, gesturing with his chin, toward the front row, where a man with silvery hair and a smart mustache had turned around to take in the room. “That looks like Florenz Ziegfield.” And I added slyly, “with one of his showgirls sitting beside him”—her brassy blond curls were couched in a fluffy collar, raccoon I thought, nearly dominating the scene. Up in the boxes were elegant-looking couples, clearly diplomats or other officials and their wives, decked out in tuxes and sparkling gowns—one or two aimed glinting opera glasses down from their perch. Close to the stage were various men in suits and caps, hunched over pads, scribbling away: obviously journalists from the Trib, or the Sun, drafting tomorrow’s culture news.

I should have felt threatened among all those celebrities and the press but I held my own, though wondering how I would feel when I saw him. For the moment I pushed my anxieties out of my mind, having fun in spite of myself. Will seemed engaged with our surroundings, with the adventure, obviously pleased to be there with me. While we weren’t members of the “smart set,” I felt a connection through other events I’d attended with him in town—concerts, poetry recitals, and lectures—whether at Carnegie or the 92nd Street Y, the Yiddish Theater downtown. This one obviously had more meaning—through Yip and our previous meeting of the Gershwins (I couldn’t help but gulp).

Then the lights went down, the curtain rose, and the stage looked stark—in the background gray and white panels touched with light, the orchestra warming up their instruments—strings and winds and brass to left and right, percussion in back. The conductor’s platform still stood empty, the Steinway propped open, its padded bench conspicuously empty, too.

Will tugged my sleeve playfully. “You-know-who will be seated there.”

“Yes, just think of it . . . .”  I could sense a palpable frisson in the air.

Soon a man holding a banjo under his arm came onstage to a ripple of applause; we joined in. The banjo player was followed by the conductor, short and portly, who entered from the opposite wing. “That’s Paul Whiteman!” said a woman behind us, followed by, “Shhh!” from another seat, drowned out by applause. The conductor now stepped up to the platform, bowed to the audience, lifted his baton and the musicians launched into “Livery Stable Blues.” The spirit carried me and I smiled at Will.

Following the first few ragtime numbers, Paul Whiteman paused and announced:  “Ladies and gentleman, our purpose today is to educate the public to a new American sound. We’re presenting this on Lincoln’s birthday, a day when we celebrate our freedom but also reaffirm our bonds.”

After explaining the roster of pieces, the conductor concluded, “and to round off the afternoon, we’ll be premiering a new work by the inimitable George Gershwin” (the crowd went wild, and my heart did, too, simply at the sound of his name). “So, enjoy the show, my friends.” He turned back toward the orchestra, baton raised like a magic wand.

We thrilled to “Yes, We Have No Bananas” (a favorite of my sister Schiffie’s, I smiled to myself), “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (oohs and ahs throughout the auditorium), the promenade of “Pomp and Circumstance,” then a Cuban serenade gliding into “Orange Blossoms in California,” which filled me with nostalgia as I remembered a recent trip to Pasadena, my cousin Yankele, and so many other things. As if sensing my thoughts, Will reached for my hand, squeezing it affectionately before the curtain came down.

During the interval, we made our way to the lobby, pushed along by the crowd, and found a spot in the corner to sip the lemonade Will had picked up at the bar. He raised his glass, and we clinked to the occasion, “to this golden moment with dearest Esther, and to reencountering the great Gershwin,” as he put it, but the latter only made me wince.

“Aeolian harps,” I blurted out, changing the subject, pointing to the classical carvings in the arches high above us—it seemed safer to look up there—“they were also known as wind-harps in ancient times, did you know that, Will?”

He took my cue and raised his glass to those carvings, too. “Yes, Esther, that’s exactly right:  it was the instrument of the gods.”

As we settled back into our seats, couched in crushed velvet, the butterflies started up again. The curtain lifted from the left in a sweeping movement and an imposing man in a black tuxedo strode across the stage. It was him. Those butterflies grew stronger and stronger, now fluttering in my chest. Whistles and cheers, a pounding of hands on the armrests of the seats. Then he turned and looked out at us—at me, I could almost swear—with what seemed like a shy but confident grin.

I imagined myself crossing paths with George Gershwin, someplace in public, maybe at the Automat, where I often went to have lunch. I saw myself scanning the grid of display-windows, oblivious to all the people bustling around me, when something brushed my arm. Esther? George! What a surprise! We’d engage in chit-chat, then make our selections, taking them out of their transparent compartments—maybe a grilled cheese for me, a slice of cherry pie for him. Then drifting to a table where, as he put it, we could really talk. I imagined him gallantly pulling out my chair; a whiff of his cologne that frankly aroused me, the elegant movement of his hands as I nibbled my sandwich, watching the fruit ooze from his pie as he lifted forkfuls, his lips now stained red. His dark eyes holding my gaze and I, waiting for a sign:  You know, Esther, since that evening, I can’t stop thinking about you, you’re a special girl. . . . I can’t stop, either, George, I’d answer, the two of us swimming in each other’s eyes. He’d suddenly stand up, come around the table, drape his arms around my shoulders, before the pièce de resistance: tilting my face up to his as he drew closer for that delightful, inevitable, kiss.

In some other world where it might be possible, could I actually leave Will for him?

I never got around to ponder that further because the pianist was now taking a bow, sitting down at the Steinway, hands poised.

When I heard the opening clarinet solo to that final piece—a mocking note that rose and lingered as if posing a question—I knew I was on shaky ground. I tried to resist it, but without success:  I experienced a tingling in the back of my neck. Close to the strains of Liszt my brother Abe had played on the gramophone back on Hewes Street, but somehow different:  it carried me away on wave after wave, notes clustered almost like grapes about to burst. A loose forelock fell over his temple as he struck the keyboard, two sure hands coming down at once, then running tandem along the keys (again I couldn’t help thinking of his hand, palm in palm, that fleeting touch, the imagined others). He held his notes suspended in the air, held them back and gathered them together before racing headlong with strings and booming horns.

I felt lightheaded, to say the least, as if I were floating in that music, not knowing or caring where or how it would end. I flowed like water, imagined myself falling from the sky, I’d sail on a river and paddle awhile, rise up again, as if through fog, through cumulus, nimbus clouds, and when it cleared, the city would be beneath me, sparkling with spires and winking lights, rattling subway cars, machines, gears, all the dark places in-between. I breathed in. The horns, the trumpets, the cymbals were like laughter crashing together. Building, building like an ending to a romance, Valentino and Lillian Gish face to face in profile, in silhouette, waves breaking on a silvery shore.

I forgot my surroundings, even my body, the chemise sheathing it, the weight of my hair bound with pins; the presence of Will now lighter than air—he was there and not there to hold me on solid ground. The instruments then sped to their conclusion, the conductor drawing them after his baton like a flock of herons, flourishes releasing bright crescendos as if flashes of wings. But it was him, the soloist Gershwin, crowned in light beams against dove-gray, who charged through his rhapsody at the helm of a Steinway truly grand. I’d gone for a ride and the music provoked me, jagged with steel cloaked in velvet that soothed and pierced.

In the rain of applause, I felt too dazed to stand. I sensed my forehead beaded with perspiration. My palm was imprinted with circles of seed pearls, and some dark strands had come loose from my bun. Where had I been?

Minutes later we exited the auditorium, followed the crowd onto the now-lit-up streets, teeming with gears and machinery, the trolleys’ random pings. Back to our lives, my budding relationship with dear sweet Willy, now walking by my side, walking and breathing, a real live man. I laced my arm through his steady, woolen-sheathed arm.

“What are you thinking, Esther?”

“About you. And about Yip. You’ll have to thank him for this marvelous afternoon.”

Time to “celebrate our freedom but also reaffirm our bonds,” as the conductor had said. There weren’t fireworks between us—not yet—but something real I could count on my fingers, unlike the fleeting dream of music that had carried me away. I blew an imaginary kiss to that fantasy-man, as if saying goodbye to him.

But wasn’t that dream just as real, too?  George Gershwin would now be heading to a party on 57th Street or the Upper West Side; maybe Paul Whiteman and the other musicians would all be there. I imagined him surrounded by a throng of well-wishers toasting his success at Aeolian Hall, like a chorus of Greeks in a limestone temple lifting their harps to praise Zeus. The next day, he’d be huddled over the piano in his lamp lit study, fingers ambling up and down the keys as he hummed new words, jotted new notes, tangled black clusters still flat on the page that would one day soar.