Fine and Dandy: The Life and Work of Kay Swift, By Vicki Ohl, Yale University, 294 pp., illustrated, $30
Kay Swift is best known as the composer of the popular standards "Can't We Be Friends?" and "Fine and Dandy" and as the woman George Gershwin came closest to marrying. Her role as Gershwin's helpmate, lover, and keeper of his musical legacy has overshadowed her own formidable talents and unusual career, now brought to light in Vicki Ohl's new biography, "Fine and Dandy."
Swift was classically trained in piano and composition; the musical "Fine and Dandy" (1930) was the first complete Broadway score written by a woman; in 1934, she composed the music for "Alma Mater," George Balanchine's first American ballet; and her output ranged from show tunes to classical works to scores for some World's Fair exhibitions, Radio City Music Hall routines, and industrial shows.
Swift makes for an elusive subject: Eclecticism and unpredictability marked her life as much as her music. She was lively and outgoing, but retained an old-fashioned reticence about matters close to her heart. In her unpublished memoir, she passed over painful experiences.
Given these challenges, Ohl, drawing on personal interviews and the memoir, does an admirable job of accounting for the twists and turns of Swift's life, meticulously, if rather dryly, describing her music, and grappling with the mystery of why she did not give freer rein to her talents.
It is easy to imagine Swift as the smart, glamorous heroine of a snappy 1930s comedy; a friend described her as "very social, very chic, very funny."
Swift was born in New York in 1897 into a close-knit musical family. As a child, she displayed prodigious gifts. By age 6, she had happily immersed herself into Wagnerian opera, memorizing parts of the scores and learning several of the roles. Her family nurtured her talent and ambition. She grew up to be self-assured and optimistic, and stayed that way through struggles and losses.
Swift's life took a turn in 1925, when she met Gershwin at a party. By then, she was the wife of banker and lyricist James Warburg, she was a mother, she was a dazzling Manhattan hostess.
Influenced by Gershwin, Swift took up popular songwriting and became his musical adviser; a powerful creative and romantic partnership developed. The bond came at a price, destroying her marriage, straining her already distant relationship with her children, and hindering her own career. Had he lived, it is far from clear whether Gershwin, a noted ladies' man, would have married Swift. (Observing the couple, pianist Oscar Levant remarked, "Here comes George Gershwin with the future Miss Kay Swift!") Whatever hurt it brought her, Swift treasured the relationship.
In considering Swift's achievement, Ohl is fair and judicious, suggesting what is distinctive in her music and gleaning from Swift's writings her own ambivalent feelings about her career.
In her later years, Swift wondered whether she might have tried to compose "the Great American Symphony." Though disinclined to view gender as having much effect on her life and work, she proposed that many creative women were thwarted by their own choices; she also wrote of her music as more of a means to her than an end.
Ohl lets Swift have her say. She alludes to, but does not pursue, the question of whether discrimination limited the careers of Swift and her female peers. In Swift's case, Ohl's approach seems appropriate. Swift enjoyed many advantages, created her own opportunities, and did as she pleased. If she suffered any conflict, it was within herself: the promise of a great talent versus an irrepressible desire for an abundant life.
Hers was an expansive, convivial nature. Devotion to an artistic vision probably would have entailed the loss of too many other pleasures. She took on commissions that other composers might have found stifling; the structure diminished her creative freedom, but she could write music and still throw herself into friendship, love, fun, and, in later years, family.
We'll never know whether Swift's creative genius rivaled Gershwin's, since she chose a different path. It is the mix of passions in her life and her efforts to reconcile them that make her story fresh and compelling.