George Gershwin, Incorrectly Diagnosed with Depression


George Gershwin was arguably America’s greatest composer of Broadway musicals and movie film scores, and was always the bon vivant of every party he attended. He wrote the enormously successful “Swanee” at age nineteen. He was a playboy who rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous, and was also a natural athlete and a painter of considerable talent. He was not a person you would expect to withdraw from society.

He was born Jacob Gershovitz on September 26, 1898, the second of four children of Russians who had immigrated to New York. He dropped out of school at age fifteen to join music publisher Jerome K. Remick as Tin Pan Alley’s youngest-ever song plugger for $15 a week. His first Broadway show, La La Lucille, written at age 21, ran for one hundred performances in 1919. He wrote successful musicals for Fred Astaire, Gertrude Lawrence, W.C. Fields, Jeanette MacDonald, Ruby Keeler, Jimmy Durante, Fannie Brice, Bob Hope, and many other notable performers. He wrote Porgy and Bess in 1935.

DIAGNOSIS OF DEPRESSION: Early in 1937, this social butterfly began to withdraw from his friends and started to accuse people of stealing from him. He told people that he didn’t want to be with them because he wanted to write great symphonies. His doctor told him to see a psychiatrist, who diagnosed depression.

Depression is often hereditary or situational, but he had no situation to cause depression and no family history of depression. Yet he spent his time sitting on a psychiatrist’s couch, “treating” his depression by talking about his childhood and his fantasies and dreams. Then he began to experience headaches, dizzy spells, and blackouts.

GLIOBLASTOMA MULTIFORME: On July 9, 1937, he passed out, was hospitalized and diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, the most malignant type of brain tumor. Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent two destroyers to bring America’s most famous brain surgeon from his yacht, but by the time Dr. Walter Dandy reached Newark Airport, brain surgeons in Hollywood had found it necessary to operate and discovered that the situation was hopeless. This great man never woke from his coma and died on July 11, 1937, two months before his 39th birthday.

I can understand how the doctors missed a brain tumor in 1937 because at that time, they didn’t have MRIs. Today anyone who has a change in personality must get an MRI to rule out a brain tumor or other cause of nerve damage, before a doctor even considers referring to a psychiatrist. (Seminars in Neurology, 1999, vol 19, suppl 1, p 3-9).