Alan Gershwin, Who Claimed a Famous Father, Is Dead at 91
By DAVID MARGOLICKMARCH 6, 2018
Alan Gershwin in Manhattan in 2015. Legions of George Gershwin fans were heartened by the thought that the composer, who never married, had left something behind besides his music, and hoped that Alan was who he claimed to be. Fred R. Conrad
As Alan Gershwin told the story — often — he was hidden away at his Uncle Ira and Aunt Leonore’s house on North Roxbury Drive in Beverly Hills in late 1945, right after his discharge from the Navy. Ignoring the orders of his hosts, he headed downstairs to join one of the parties the Gershwins regularly gave. When a guest spotted him on the landing, he dropped his glass of Scotch in shock. Or maybe two guests did.
By then, seven years had passed since the man Alan Gershwin called his father had died. But all anyone eyeing 19-year-old Alan that night saw was George Gershwin, reincarnated.
For 70 years or so, Alan Gershwin insisted he was George Gershwin’s long-lost son. And with his death on Feb. 27 at 91 in a Bronx hospital, the curtain came down on what was surely the Gershwins’ most bizarre show ever, revolving around whether this affable but monomaniacal man was one of the greatest victims in American musical history, or a grifter running a long-term con, or someone suffering decades of delusion.
Mr. Gershwin contended that sometime in the mid-1920s — the year and place varied in the telling, but once it was tracked down his birth certificate stated May 18, 1926, and the Brooklyn Hebrew Maternity Hospital, respectively — he was born Albert Schneider to a sultry dancer named Mollie Charleston, who went by the stage name Margaret Manners. His mother, by his account, was his father’s longtime paramour, whom he had met through his songwriter friend Buddy DeSylva.
Through the machinations of Ira Gershwin, George’s brother and principal lyricist, he said, he had been fobbed off on Mollie’s sister and her husband, Fanny and Ben Schneider of Brownsville, Brooklyn, who had pretended he was theirs. (By Alan Gershwin’s account, Mollie had masqueraded as her sister when she gave birth, so Fanny’s surname went on the certificate.)
Fortifying his sensational story were purported shards of memory, some happy — hammering out joint compositions on a piano with his father, visiting Ethel Merman with him backstage — and some not, like grim men in black limousines bringing crisp hundred-dollar bills to Brownsville to pay for his upkeep but warning him to say nothing about it, or else.
After considerable consternation, genetically certified Gershwins and their loyalists came to see Mr. Gershwin less as a threat to their millions than as a crank and an annoyance. Occasionally, they’d reach out to squelch his periodic public appearances. Whenever scrutinized, Alan’s claim wobbled; the faith of even his girlfriend for the past 20 years, Blossom Tracy, sometimes wavered.
A Striking Resemblance
But many continued to credit a story that, while improbable, was also strangely plausible, and appealing. Though occasionally stuck up about his claimed lineage, Mr. Gershwin was, despite living in meager circumstances, good-natured and optimistic — a modern Micawber. He was also the ultimate underdog, taking on the mighty, unfeeling and — in some music circles, at least — arrogant Gershwin establishment. And legions of fans were heartened by the thought that George Gershwin, who never married, had left something behind besides his music. People hoped Alan was who he claimed to be.
How, they asked, could the handsome and debonair George, who died in 1937 at the age of 38, not have impregnated someone along his gilded way? How else to explain Alan Gershwin’s encyclopedic knowledge of Gershwin lore and esoterica and a Manhattan apartment made uninhabitable by heaps of Gershwin detritus? And the 500, or 800, or 1,200 songs that he said he had written? And his single-minded pursuit of his claim?
“Very few people are that emphatic about anything,” the radio and television host Joe Franklin once said of him.
Mr. Gershwin’s claim that he was the son of George Gershwin first gained wide attention in early 1959 with this article in Confidential magazine. On the first page his profile was placed behind that of the composer.
Asked whether he’d put money on Alan Gershwin’s assertion, Mr. Franklin said he probably would. A lot? “Good question,” he replied. “No.”
More persuasive than anything else, though, was the jaw-dropping resemblance between George and Alan Gershwin. It explained why, according to Mr. Gershwin, an aged black man once approached him in Charleston, S.C. — where he had been stationed during World War II, and where George Gershwin had written “Porgy and Bess” — and declared, “Mr. Gershwin, we always knew you’d come back!”
And why the actor Robert Alda told him that he, rather than Alda himself, should be playing George Gershwin in the film “Rhapsody in Blue.” And why — again, strictly on his say-so — Rose Gershwin, mother of George and Ira, had melted at the sight of him shortly before her death.
“I heard his story, frankly didn’t believe it, and then he walked into my office,” recalled the Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, who consulted on one of Alan Gershwin’s few successes, a musical setting of the Gettysburg Address performed at the Kennedy Center in 2009 (and at Lincoln Center in 2015). “And, my God, it was George Gershwin as an old man. That protruding lower lip — no one has that face but George Gershwin.”
Dining with him at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mr. Holzer recalled, he half expected one of the elderly women nearby to stand up and exclaim: “George? Is it you?” One Gershwin family loyalist insisted that Alan had plastic surgery to look even more like George.
For decades, Robert Kimball, a Gershwin expert and adviser to the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trust, dealt with Mr. Gershwin and his claims. Despite repeated prodding, he said, Mr. Gershwin had never furnished him with anything — like the manuscripts he said his father had given him — to back his story.
“His idea of ‘proof’ is picking up awards in Kankakee or Sheboygan and using these plaques he got as evidence,” Mr. Kimball said.
Nor was he at all impressed that they were doppelgängers.
“There are a lot of Jewish guys in Brooklyn today who look like that,” he said.
Cruises and Autographs
Mr. Gershwin never took his case to court. And while family members were not about to fork over any of their DNA, neither did he push them for it, fearful perhaps of what it might prove. His long Gershwin gig — signing autographs, reminiscing and lecturing on cruise ships and at concerts, cadging freebies and attention at jazz clubs and cabarets — was too enjoyable and, occasionally, lucrative. He’d tease people with all of the Gershwin gore he knew — claiming, for instance, that Uncle Ira had killed three people to secure his brother’s secret, and that only he, Alan, knew where the bodies were buried.
The farther he got from home, the more respect he got. There were reverential interviews in Russia, Israel, Australia, Germany and Italy and, for several years, red carpets at Cannes. Once, he recalled, as 15 million people watched on French television, he got to descend a spiral staircase to “Rhapsody in Blue.”
“Though this was a grand hoax from the very beginning, I still feel kind of sad at his passing,” said Steve Charleston, 82, a second cousin of Mollie Charleston’s and the unofficial family historian. Though Mollie was flamboyant — the kind of woman, he said, who “dressed up to take out the garbage” — Mr. Charleston said he had found no evidence that she was ever on the stage, let alone that she was Margaret Manners. She died in 1975.
Mr. Gershwin said his mother, Mollie Charleston, was a dancer who went by the stage name Margaret Manners. Ms. Manners appeared in the Broadway musical “Fioretta” in 1929, when this photograph of her was taken. The New York Times
Mr. Charleston, a retired electrical engineer in Melbourne, Fla., said that while no one in his family knew of any Gershwin connection, many recalled Alan Gershwin’s eccentricity, beginning with boyhood. He speculated that his seeing action on Iwo Jima and Okinawa during World War II — doctors later diagnosed “psychoneurosis, anxiety” unrelated to combat, and subsequently added “schizophrenic reaction” — turned weirdness into delusion, and “Alan Gershwin” was born.
“The fact that he kept this thing going for so many years with such obvious falsehoods is, in a strange way, an accomplishment,” Mr. Charleston said.
But always there were hints of corroboration, heavily laden with hearsay. George Gershwin’s longtime friend and lover, the composer Kay Swift, once described to her granddaughter a poignant and seemingly prearranged encounter that she had witnessed between Gershwin and a woman with a young boy in Central Park. And sometime in the 1950s, Oscar Levant, the pianist, actor and comedian and another Gershwin confidant, told one of his daughters that Alan was visiting Ira and Leonore Gershwin, and how unhappy they were about it.
Alan Gershwin made his debut, anonymously, in Walter Winchell’s column of June 17, 1957. “July 11th will mark the 20th ann’y of Gershwin’s passing,” he wrote. “The date when a lawsuit will break alleging he was the father of an interpretive dancer’s son. The chap seeks control of Gershwin’s 15 million $ estate.”
“All kinds of mashuganas including columnists,” Ira Gershwin’s lawyer in New York, Leonard Saxe, wrote when he sent him the piece.
Ira Gershwin replied, “Ordinarily I would pay no mind to such crazy items and claims, but it leaves a bad taste.”
He put a detective on the case and opened what he labeled the “Impostor File,” in which Mr. Gershwin is variously referred to as “the idiot,” “this jerk,” “this imbecile,” the “phony,” “this Schneider guy,” “the rogue” and “that mental case.”
But his real coming out came in early 1959, when Confidential magazine published a first-person plea. “I AM GEORGE GERSHWIN’S ILLEGITIMATE SON,” it shouted, over superimposed profiles of George and Alan in which their respective hairlines, foreheads, noses, lips and chins ran along perfectly parallel paths.
“Everybody who knew my father jumps at the sight of me,” wrote Mr. Gershwin, who in this telling had been born in California in 1928. “But none acknowledge ever having seen me before. … I wonder if I am a real person at all.” He pleaded for help; none ever came.
In October 1960 he married Edith Sadoyama, a graduate student at Columbia University. Their three children, Daniel, Maile and Emily, survive him, as does another son, Adrian, from another relationship, along with three grandchildren. At his death he lived in Midtown on the West Side.
A Biographer Steps In
For years Mr. Gershwin plugged his songs — with titles like “The Loneliest Heart in Town” and “I Want a Humdinging, Bell-Ringing, Singing and Swinging Love” — around the Brill Building; Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and others flirted with them, he claimed, but either never recorded them or failed to release them.
A postcard that George Gershwin sent from Atlantic City in 1918. An investigator paid nearly $3,000 for it in the hope of extracting his DNA from the stamp Gershwin presumably licked.
He said he had helped write hits like “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” which Elvis Presley immortalized, but had sold off his rights before getting proper credit. He worked as an agent, sometimes pushing Gershwin-related acts abroad.
“Embassy should avoid taking any official position on validity of Alan’s claim to be son of George Gershwin,” said a State Department memo from 1973 signed by Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger.
But he held no full-time job and lived largely off disability payments from the military.
In 1988, George Gershwin’s former valet, Paul Mueller, asserted that Mr. Gershwin was indeed his boss’s son — but only, an eyewitness recalled, after Mr. Gershwin had badgered the old man unrelentingly.
That nonetheless helped persuade the New York-based musicologist Joan Peyser, looking to recover from a critical drubbing she had taken over her salacious biography of Leonard Bernstein, to tackle George (and Alan) Gershwin next. The stress of concealing his son, she argued, had fed the brain tumor that had killed the other.
Her book, “The Memory of All That,” came out in May 1993 and was heralded by the gossip columnist Cindy Adams in The New York Post. “SECRET SON OF GERSHWIN EYES HIS BIG $CORE,” the Post headline declared.
Ms. Peyser’s case for Mr. Gershwin was also skewered, and with a redemptive paperback edition in mind, she set out to buttress it with irrefutable DNA.
There were setbacks: Blood tests revealed that the cousin with whom Mr. Gershwin claimed to have been reared was his brother after all. (He then argued that George Gershwin must have fathered the brother, too.) Meantime, assisted by a Yale medical school professor, Ms. Peyser tried procuring slides of George Gershwin’s brain, from which genetic material might be extracted. An investigator paid nearly $3,000 for a postcard that George Gershwin had sent from Atlantic City in 1918, propelled by a stamp he had presumably licked.
Most dramatically, in January 1999, moments before the place closed for the day and her body was removed, a former F.B.I. agent who had been enlisted in the cause yanked a small tuft of hair from the head of George Gershwin’s sister, Frances Gershwin Godowsky, as she lay at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel on Madison Avenue. The hair, paired with a swab taken from the reluctant Mr. Gershwin’s mouth, was sent to a lab in Boston.
Mr. Gershwin’s lawyer had devised a sliding scale to calculate his take once he had proved Mr. Gershwin’s case, running from 40 percent of the first $5 million Mr. Gershwin collected to 35 percent of the next $5 million, down to a quarter of anything over $25 million. But the lab dashed all such dreams: Ms. Godowsky and Alan Gershwin, it found, were not related.
At that point, an embittered Ms. Peyser gave up on Alan. She died in 2011, and, to the astonishment of those who knew her, her files on him, which she told Mr. Gershwin he could consult in his own defense, had mysteriously vanished (as had materials on all of her other books). Her efforts nonetheless proved a boon for him, bringing him new visibility, and credibility, and adulation.
There was, for instance, the “Gershwin Celebration” presented by the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra in June 2003, at which Mr. Gershwin — for $1,000, round-trip airfare and two nights in a nice hotel — introduced “An American in Paris,” “Rhapsody in Blue” and selections from “Porgy and Bess.” The program, The Cincinnati Post reported, “even had DNA in the person of Alan Gershwin, who shared recollections of his famous father.”
“It seemed a little bizarre,” Peter Throm, the orchestra’s general manager at the time, later recalled. “We were all a bit skeptical.”