In true reflection of his Jewish heritage, Ira Gershwin was named Israel Gershowitz at birth by his parents. Unlike his brother, George, who was born in Brooklyn, Ira was born in the "Lower East Side" of New York City's Manhattan District. Ira's father, Morris, was never in business for very long at any location and therefore moved Ira and his family close to thirty times until Ira turned eighteen.

Ira's early influences are nothing out of the ordinary for children. Ira simply enjoyed reading. Where George was displaying musical talent, Ira (for whom the family piano was actually purchased) did not engage in a family rivalry against George and focused his attention on the literary area.  To help support the family, Ira worked in his father’s Turkish Baths.

To that extent, Ira became an English major at New York's City College when he turned sixteen. Ira's first publications were in the college's newspaper. But Ira didn't find great success in writing. So he did what most young men would have done to guarantee success -- he joined the circus. Seriously, Ira joined the circus.

Before images of getting shot out of a cannon goes through your head, it should be understood that Ira was not contributing talent as a performer. He served as business manager to a carnival, not exactly a circus, but the parallel exists nonetheless. Ira's tenure as a carnival businessman was short lived and he spent time working as a clerk and in other jobs which under-used his talent. With the exception of a job writing theater reviews, Ira was not using the English education he had received in college.

While Ira was finding himself and deciding on a final career choice, younger brother George was developing a reputation in the musical realm. Ira returned to the musical realm to try his hand at lyric writing. Although he was assisted by George in writing a lyric for one of his songs, Ira refused to hitch his star to George's and used a penname rather than his true identity. Borrowing from his little brother, Arthur, and little sister, Francis, Ira used the pseudonym Arthur Francis as the name appearing on The Real American Folk Song, which was written for the musical comedy Ladies First in 1918.

Still using the pen name Arthur Francis, Ira's first published song, Waiting For The Sun To Come Out, appeared in print in 1920. Departing from his partnership with George occasionally to work with other composers, Ira wrote the lyrics for Two Little Girls in Blue, which provided Ira with his first stage success.

Although he dallied with other composers every so often, the mainstay of Ira's work was with George. The first hit the brothers teamed to create was I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise, which was written for the George White Scandals of 1922. In 1924, George and Ira teamed to write Lady Be Good for Fred and Adele Astaire. Included in the show were such hits as The Man I Love, Lady be Good and Fascinating Rhythm. Other hit shows of the 1920's on which the brothers collaborated were Tip Toes (1925), Oh, Kay (1926), Funny Face (1927), and Strike Up the Band! (1930).

The last dual success for George and Ira wasn't a success at first. Written in 1935, two years before George's untimely death, Porgy and Bess was a box office failure. Despite its poor showing at the boxoffice, Porgy and Bess has become known as the American Opera, depicting the poverty of a disabled black man and the hope he and his wife hold despite their troubles. Porgy and Bess may be Ira's best work. Featuring songs such as Bess, You Is my Woman Now, I Got Plenty uh Nuttin', Summertime and There's A Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon For New York, Ira created lyrics which depicted the dialect of that culture with compassion and not disdain.

After George's death in 1937, Ira worked with several composers, including Jerome Kerm and Harold Arlen, with whom he created A Star Is Born.

Ira Gershwin died peacefully in his Beverly Hills home on August 17, 1983 at the age of 86. He was survived only by his widow, Lenore Strunsky Gershwin.  His latter years included mentoring several aspiring musciains, including noted Gershwin performer Michael Feinstein.

Ira Gershwin tidbits:

Ira was the first songwriter awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama. (with George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind for Of Thee I Sing in 1932).

Ira wrote a book, Lyrics on Several Occasions, in 1959.

Ira established the Gershwin Archive at the Library of Congress to preserve manuscripts of George and Ira's work.

What you should know

Top photos

greatest works:

  1. 1.Embraceable You

  2. 2.Our Love is Here to Stay

  3. 3.Fascinating Rhythm

  4. 4.Bess, You Is My Woman Now

  5. 5.Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

  6. 6.The Man I Love

  7. 7.Strike Up the Band

  8. 8.Swanee

  9. 9.Someone to Watch Over Me

  10. 10. A Foggy Day

greatest artists:

  1. 1.Ella Fitzgerald

  2. 2.Frank Sinatra

  3. 3.Harry Connick

  4. 4.Rosemary Clooney

  5. 5.Sammy Davis, Jr.

Listen to Richard Glasier’s fantastic story about meeting Ira Gershwin when Richard was a young boy.


IRA Gershwin Biography