George Gershwin and Little Maxie Rosenzweig

June 5, 2007 at 10:00 am 2 comments

The largest book giveaway in the history of the United States took place between 1943 and 1947.  During and after World War II, the Council on Books in Wartime distributed more than 122 million cargo-pocket-sized paperbacks as a part of its Armed Services Editions (ASEs). [1] These works of fiction and non-fiction were selected from contemporary and classic literature, works which the council viewed as “weapons in the war of ideas.”[2]  They not only served as a diversion to US troops abroad, but also functioned as a reminder about just what they were fighting for.  Of the 1222 titles published, 99 were apparently popular enough to warrant reprinting during the ASEs years of production.  Among those select tiles was David Ewen’s The Story of George Gershwin.[3]  The appeal of Ewen’s book as an ASE is clear.  In addition to its popular subject, The Story of George Gershwin reflects “a typically American career, originating in comparative poverty in the slums and culminating in wealth and worldwide fame” – the ‘American Dream’ incarnate.[4]


Armed Services Editions, publication Q-3:
The Story of George Gershwin by David Ewen

Ewen’s biography, originally published in 1943, was the first book-length exploration of George Gershwin following the composer’s untimely death six years earlier.  While Ewen tended to embellish his narrative with fictionalized dialogue, his book (reprinted on seven separate occasions) imprinted Gershwin’s “rags to riches” story in the minds of the American public.  Its publication as an ASE allowed even greater dissemination.  Closer inspection of Ewen’s text, however, reveals that much of his narrative comes directly from an earlier, unacknowledged source: George Gershwin: A Study in American Music by Isaac Goldberg (1931).[5]

Ewen is not alone in mining Goldberg’s text for source material.  As one recent scholar notes, “perhaps more than any other single source, Isaac Goldberg’s 1931 biography provides a timeless glimpse of Gershwin during his lifetime, a uniquely valuable document given its dependence on the composer’s own thoughts about his life and music that are contained in the letters exchanged between the author and composer.”[6]  As such, all subsequent biographies draw on this work – particularly in their use of material relating to Gershwin’s childhood and early career.  Since Goldberg was the only biographer to have direct access to Gershwin himself, his book provides the only “informed” account of Gershwin’s youth.  It is this aspect of Goldberg’s biography which resonates most soundly in subsequent Gershwin scholarship.

Here, I’d like to trace briefly one such narrative thread: Gershwin’s discovery of music.  As reported by Goldberg, it was “little Maxie Rosenzweig, now the noted violinist Max Rosen, who, without knowing it, had kindled the spark in George’s vagrom soul.”[7]  While playing hooky one afternoon, Gershwin reportedly heard “strains of the violin, floating down to him from the assembly hall” as he loitered in the schoolyard.[8]  Gershwin was amazed by the sound and resolved to meet the boy behind the performance.  But, due to his truancy, he could not reenter the school.  At this point, Goldberg quotes Gershwin at length:

…I waited outside from three to four-thirty that afternoon, in the hopes of greeting him.  It was pouring cats and dogs, and I got soaked to the skin.  No luck.  I returned to the school-building.  Rosen had long been gone; he must have left by the teachers’ entrance.  I found out where he lived and dripping wet as I was, trekked to his house, unceremoniously presenting myself as an admirer.  Maxie by this time, had left.  His family were so amused, however, that they arranged a meeting.  From the first moment we became the closest of friends.  We chummed about arm in arm; we lavished childish affection upon one another in true Jean Christophe fashion; we exchanged letters even when only a week-end and some hundred blocks lay between us.

Yes; Max opened the world of music to me.  And he came near to closing it, too…  He wasn’t at all kind to my ambitions.  And there came a climactic day when he told me flatly that I had better give up all thought of a musical career.  ‘You haven’t it in you, Georgie; take my word for it, I can tell!’[9]

This story is retold in virtually every biography about George Gershwin, including David Ewen’s The Story of George Gershwin.[10]  Ewen tended to embellish his narrative with fictionalized dialogue, as seen in his re-telling of the “Maxie Rosenzweig” story:

A half-hour passed; then an hour…  Suddenly it occurred to George that something had gone wrong with his plans, that Maxie must have left the building through some other exit.  George rushed into the school building and made inquiries.  Yes, they told him, Maxie had gone home quite a while ago, using the teachers’ exit.


Maxie walked over to the piano and put his hand on George’s shoulder.  ‘I’m sorry, George,’ he said apologetically and with some difficulty.  ‘I’m really awfully sorry.  But I just can’t lie to you.  I know you want the truth…’

‘Yes, Maxie?’

‘You just haven’t any talent at all,’ Maxie told him.  ‘I know.  You’d better forget all about music.  Take my word for it.  You just haven’t got it in you at all!’[11]

Edward Jablonski’s Gershwin (1987) has been considered by many musicologists to be the “standard” Gershwin biography for almost twenty years.  Still, his telling of the Maxie Rosenzweig story also relies heavily on Goldberg’s text.  Jablonski either quotes directly from Goldberg’s words or those attributed to Gershwin, or he paraphrases: “If the future Max Rosen had ‘opened the world of music’ to the future George Gershwin, he also came close to closing it.”[12] Instances of this story also exist in many of the biographies published in years between Jablonski’s book and the recent landmark study, George Gershwin: His Life and Work by Howard Pollack (2006).[13]  Even here, Pollack quotes from Goldberg including the line “he opened the world of music to me,” and Rosenzweig’s statement about Gershwin “not having talent.” [14]

Gershwin scholar James Wierzbicki recently called the reception history of The Second Rhapsody “a load of mythology.”[15]  Sadly, the same can probably be said about a majority of what has been written about Gershwin’s life as a whole  There are numerous examples that could be used to demonstrate how subsequent authors have relied on Goldberg’s book; however, the “Maxie Rosenzweig” example demonstrates not only the degree to which each scholar relies on Goldberg’s biography — a narrative long taken as a true representation of Gershwin — but also a key element in Goldberg’s construction of Gershwin.  As indicated by the subtitle of Goldberg’s book, this was “A Study in American Music” and as my ongoing examination of Goldberg’s career suggests, childhood stories such as that presented here are ultimately in service of his own vision of American music — a ground-up approach wherein the end result employs “the rhythms and accents of one’s childhood.”[16]  Such aspects of authorial agency have often been ignored in assessments of Gershwin’s life, not only from a biographical standpoint, but in the reception of his music as well.

[1] John Y. Cole, ed. Books in Action: The Armed Services Editions.  (Washington: Library of Congress, 1984): 3.

[2] ibid.

[3] Originally published as David Ewen, The Story of George Gershwin (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1943).

[4] Ewen, 153.

[5] One of the clearest examples of this appears in the first section of chapter six in Ewen’s book, “I’m a Typical Self-made American.”  It is little more than a retelling (in some cases word for word) of Goldberg’s introductory chapter “Young Man of Manhattan.”

[6] Robert Wyatt and John Andrew Johnson, eds.  The George Gershwin Reader (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004): xiv.

[7] Goldberg, George Gershwin, 58.

[8] ibid. Gershwin later identified the tune as Dvorák’s Humoresque.

[9] Goldberg, George Gershwin, 59.

[10] David Ewen, The Story of George Gershwin (New York: Holt, 1946), 1st ed., 1943.

[11] David Ewen, Story of Gershwin, 20-21, 24.  Ewen also reports, “From the first, the two boys took to each other…  They would walk arm in arm, up one street, down the next…”

[12] Edward Jablonski, Gershwin (New York: Doubleday, 1987): 8.  For the entire chapter in which Jablonski’s account appears, the author lists “Gershwin’s letters to Goldberg are the major source” with Goldberg’s book as the only secondary source.

[13] See, for example: Joan Peyser, The Memory of All That: The Life of George Gershwin (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993): 28-29; Deena Rosenberg, Fascinating Rhythm: The Collaboration of George and Ira Gershwin (New York: Dutton, 1991): 10; William Hyland, George Gershwin: A New Biography (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003): 9; and, in French, Mildred Clary George Gershwin: Une Rhapsodie Américane (Paris: Pygmalion, 2005): 25-26.

[14] Howard Pollack, George Gershwin: His Life and Work (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006): 22-24.  Unlike all those before him, Pollack not only provides a citation for the original account, he supplements it with a discussion of the lifelong association between Rosen and Gershwin.

[15] James Wierzbiki “Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody / “New York Rhapsody”: Facts and Fictions,” SAM Conference Paper, presented 1 March 2007.

[16] Isaac Goldberg, “Aaron Copland and His Jazz,” American Mercury XII/45 (September 1927): 64.

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  • 1. Ruth Zimmer  |  November 15, 2008 at 7:52 pm

    What a great surprise to see Max Rosen & George Gershwin. I met Philip Gershwin brother of George & Ira in Asbury Park where he spent his vacation & we spoke about Max Rosen who is a cousin to my mother. What a small world. My grandson is musically inclined & my son asked where he got it from & we told him about Max & several other muscians including Paul Whiteman, & Isadore Drimer who was a first violinist in the orchestras of Broadway shows.

  • 2. Carol Rosen  |  November 15, 2008 at 7:53 pm


    I am Carol Rosen, daughter of Max Rosen. I am 53 but have an 8 year old daugher.

    I am still in touch with my cousin, Isadore Drimmer’s daughter. I would love to get together with you! I sure she would as well.

    My e-mail is
    I will be away until Tues 29th. Best, Carol


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