“And His Lovely Wife, Ira”
By Sarah Sisk
Ira Gershwin, Pulitzer-prize-winning lyricist and supplier of words to some of the most iconic songs in American musical history, may often be referred to as “the other Gershwin”, overshadowed by the popularity of his younger brother George. But while Ira may not always get the attention he deserves, the disparity in the Gershwin brothers’ respective notorieties has led to a sixty-year-running Gershwin joke—and of course poor Ira is the butt of it.
The story goes that in the 1950s, a radio disk jockey, when playing a piece written by the Gershwin brothers, attributed the song to “George Gershwin and his lovely wife, Ira.” (George, aside from not having ever married his brother, was in fact a bachelor his entire life.) Unfortunately for the DJ, this embarrassing goof did not go unnoticed, and the infamous line became lodged in America’s collective memory. Over time it developed into a familiar refrain, popular in commentaries about the laid-back and less-relentlessly charismatic personality of the elder Gershwin brother. Through the numerous iterations, certain details have been jumbled or omitted altogether. In fact, in many cases, the juicy line is referred to outside of the context of the radio blooper. Some sources even make the claim that Ira himself had to “endure references” to his mistaken identity, with at least one book going so far as to state that Ira had to bear the line while George was still alive, in the form of a recurring gag in which friends introduced the two brothers as a married couple.
But the most credible origin of George’s “wife” continues to be the radio gaffe, which was memorialized, and well-mocked, by several newspapers in the mid-1950s. A Variety article from January 5, 1955, includes the appellation in a collection of memorable media mishaps from 1954. Among a “Good Crop of ’54 TV-AM Bloopers,” as the article was titled, the author referred to “The New York disk jock who waxed about the ‘music by George Gershwin and lyrics by his lovely wife, Ira.'”
However, an even earlier column, one from the August 13, 1953 issue of the Chicago Daily Tribune, cites the same auditory event: “…Sid Shalit of the New York Daily News caught this howler on a disk jockey show: ‘And now a medley from “Porgy and Bess” written by the late George Gershwin and his lovely wife, Ira’.'”
The year discrepancy aside, the 1950s were certainly not the last time the line was circulated in jest. A humorous piece from a February 27, 1965 Chicago Tribune article dropped mention of “his lovely wife, Ira” in a manner that suggests that most readers were still in on the joke ten years later.
But has the snickering-inducing, yet somehow endearing misnomer disappeared from twenty-first century music-lovers’ humor vocabularies? Not quite. In fact, in 2009, singer and pianist Mark Nadler performed a cabaret show about Ira Gershwin, lauding the exploits of the accomplished yet laid-back lyricist. Its title? “…His Lovely Wife, Ira.”
Perhaps the reason the quote is so persistent is the way it captures the dynamic between George and Ira Gershwin. George, the more energetic and charismatic brother, center of attention at parties and certainly better-known, was sharply juxtaposed with the quieter, more scholarly nature of Ira. Yet they were close and efficient partners, with Ira not only supplying lyrics to George’s music but lending his artistic input and advice on even his non-lyrical compositions.
There is no firm evidence that Ira Gershwin actually heard the quote itself, but considering that he lived until 1983, it is quite possible that he may have come across it in some form. If he did, we hope it gave him a good chuckle and brought back fond memories of his days working with George. Don’t worry Ira, we promise this publication will never mistake you for your brother’s wife!
Editor’s note: After running this piece we received some new information that suggests that Ira did know this joke. Richard Glazer, pianist, wrote in a comment on our Facebook page, “[W]hen I met Ira in 1975 he absolutely told me the story about George and his lovely wife Ira. I remember it like yesterday so the answer is yes…Ira did know the story and it did make him chuckle.”
Freeman, Donald. “DON’T BE SO SQUARE, MR. FOSTER!” Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file), Chicago, Ill., 1965.
Furi, Philip. Ira Gershwin: The Art of the Lyricist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. 6-7.
Holden, Stephen. “All About Ira Gershwin: ‘S Encyclopedic.” The New York Times 12 June 2009. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.
Ranson, Jo. Good Crop of ’54 TV-AM Bloopers, vol. 197, Penske Business Media, Los Angeles, 1955.
Thompson, Robin. The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess: A 75th Anniversary Celebration. Milwaukee: Amadeus Press, 2010. 64-65.
Wolters, Larry. “TELEVISION NEWS AND VIEWS.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Chicago, Ill., 1953.