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March 11, 2016

Growing up Gershwin

“I like a Gershwin tune – how about you?”

That’s the first question I asked Nadia Natali last week in a sit-down in the Drama Book Shop’s Arthur Seelen Theater. And indeed Natali said that she certainly did like many a Gershwin tune, and often sang “They All Laughed” and “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” with her children when they were young.

Well, that’s not surprising given that Nadia Natali, née Naina Godowsky, is the niece of George and Ira Gershwin as a result of her being the daughter of their sister Frances. That – and plenty of issues – inspired Natali to write her memoir STAIRWAY TO PARADISE: GROWING UP GERSHWIN (Rare Bird Press, 2015; 304pp, $29.95).

Frances Gershwin wasn’t the only famous family member. Her father Leopold Godowsky, Jr. was first violinist with the Los Angeles and San Francisco Symphony Orchestras. Fine, but how about this: he was also a co-inventor of Kodachrome, the color transparency film that dominated the market for nearly three-quarters of a century.

(Natali did tell us, however, that she doesn’t believe that her dad ever heard Paul Simon’s song of the same name, although he lived for ten years after it was released.)

Many of us would think that Growing up Gershwin would be nice work if we could get it, but Natali was here to tell us it ain’t necessarily so. Only 58 words had to pass in her first chapter before she used the phrase “my difficult family.”

The hardship could be said to have started on the day she was born, for Natali has a twin sister (making them Gersh-twins?) who came into the world eight minutes earlier. Predictably, like any elder twin, she lorded her seniority over Nadia.

That her sister was named for George Gershwin also helped make her the favorite child. Nadia, however, was named for no one. Because she was named Naina, people kept calling her “Nana” even as a child, so after a few years her parents officially changed her name to Nadia (“after Boulanger,” she reported). Getting a name change when you’ve spent a few years with another can be jarring.

Because Natali’s memoir tells story after story of sibling torture, I asked what her sister’s reaction was to the book. Natali said brightly “She apologized for the way she’d acted.” Apparently all is well, for Natali is even staying with Georgia in her Westchester home while she has her rainbow book tour.

Making nice with her parents, now long deceased, was harder. She said that “drive for perfectionism is a family trait” and that there was a significant contrast “between the music they made and the lack of beauty in their lives.

“I’d never been close to my dad,” Nadia remarked, “and growing up with him I never thought that becoming close with him was even possible.” She reported that he was especially finicky; such transgressions as putting elbows on the table made him angrier than the critics after they saw LET ‘EM EAT CAKE.

“I never gave up on wanting to impress my mother,” Natali said. But praise for any musical attempt wasn’t easy to get. “When as children we sang and danced after supper,” she said, “I suspect that my parents were checking us out for talent.”

Frances apparently wasn’t overwhelmed by what she saw.
Natali reported that her mother said “Unless you’re a genius like George or like Grandpa” – meaning Leopold Godowsky, Sr., a world-renowned classical pianist – “it’s ridiculous to try to become a performing artist.”

And yet Natali said that only “when my mother sang for guests, she looked alive and fine.” Late in life, Frances even insisted on singing at a Gershwin Tribute at Carnegie Hall, which Natali dreaded. She was quite relieved when mom was relegated to singing in a ballroom after the main event.

But as remote as her parents could be, they seemed s’wonderful compared to Mrs. Ira Gershwin. Because Aunt Leonore lived in Los Angeles, it’s tempting to call her The Wicked Witch of the West.

For when Nadia and Georgia were 13 and made their first visit to Gershwins’ California home, Aunt Leonore told them that they’d go shopping and buy nice things for a change because “your mother doesn’t have the best taste.” Said Natali, “I was a kid and had no idea how to respond to that.”

Years later a friend of the family told Natali that Leonore had settled for Ira but had really wanted George. “But George was having none of her,” Natali muttered with a dismissive hand-wave. “Leonore really snared in Ira, who was weak.”

Ira and Leonore’s home life apparently wasn’t so hot. That same family friend later disclosed to Natali that Leonore once told her that she’d never let Ira see her naked. That may well explain why the couple never had children.

So with a background such as this, Natali came to the conclusion that “Nothing handed down by my family – with all their brilliance and genius – was of any help in making sense of who I was or what I yearned for.”

Eventually she found true love with photographer Enrico Natali, to whom she’s now been married for 45 years. When she first brought Enrico home, however, her father did not welcome him with open arms. He may have even had clenched fists later when he said “Fine with me if I never see him again.” To be fair, Enrico was still married, albeit en route to a divorce.

And yet, some hard feelings were obviously in place, for neither parent attended the wedding. To be fair again, this was Natali’s second marriage after a short-lived first, and people tend to be less celebratory the second time around.

As for their absence, Natali said “I actually preferred it this way.” She also noted that she was rather used to such behavior because her parents didn’t come see her in school shows. “They just weren’t the type,” she added with a whaddaya-gonna-do shrug.

Many of Mr. Natali’s photographs pepper the book. Natali did recognize the irony when I pointed out that most were in black-and-white and that he apparently eschewed Kodachrome.

Not voluntarily mentioning her Gershwin blood is a policy. That caused me to ask a theoretical question: “If you were in a restaurant with a friend who didn’t know your background and a Gershwin song came over the sound system and the friend said ‘Oh, I love this song!’ would you then acknowledge your roots?” She said that she indeed would under such circumstances – but that the situation would have to be something like that.

So Nadia followed Enrico into “a life very different from my childhood” – a rustic one, living on 40 very remote and rustic acres in California. Natali did give her mother credit for giving her enough money to buy the property” and that “my mother gave me $100 each month with no questions asked.”

Was it guilt money? Whether or not Frances felt remorse, Natali did. “It felt strange to be receiving money from a source that I had nothing to do with, which put me in the awkward position of feeling proud to be part of the Gershwin-Godowsky heritage while feeling righteous about having values so different.”

It hasn’t been an easy life. At first, they weren’t even living in a house but in an honest-to-God teepee. They spent four years in it before they were able to build a genuine home. Once inside they had few modern conveniences, and home-schooling the children seemed the best option. Floods and bears have been genuine threats, and Natali lost a son in a terrible accident.

But she’s still there and said she doesn’t miss so-called civilization. Natali admitted that she seldom if ever goes to the theater, and didn’t attend even when she was living in New York. However, this time in town, she did attend a Broadway show.


One other thing before we go: IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE, Sinclair Lewis’ play seen on Broadway in 1936, is getting a reading by The Peccadillo Theater Company on Monday, March 21st at 7:30pm at The National Arts Club on 15 Gramercy Park South.

In case you’re wondering why Dan Wackerman’s marvelous troupe is doing it, check out this description of the Nobel Prize winner’s play: “Imagine America ruled by a charismatic bigot elected president on a populist platform.” Need we say more?

Yes -- Tickets are offered on a first come first served basis and can be ordered by emailing 

         — Peter Filichia



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His upcoming book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available
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