Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Memory of All That

The Memory of All That: George Gershwin, Kay Swift, and My Family's Legacy of Infidelities  by Katharine Weber
Crown Publishing Group, July 2011
Advanced Reading Copy, 267 pages
ISBN-13: 9780307395887
The Memory of All That is Katharine Weber’s memoir of her extraordinary family.
Her maternal grandmother, Kay Swift, was known both for her own music (she was the first woman to compose the score to a hit Broadway show, Fine and Dandy) and for her ten-year romance with George Gershwin. Their love affair began during Swift’s marriage to James Paul Warburg, the multitalented banker and economist who advised (and feuded with) FDR. Weber creates an intriguing and intimate group portrait of the renowned Warburg family, from her great-great-uncle, the eccentric art historian Aby Warburg, whose madness inspired modern theories of iconography, to her great-grandfather Paul M. Warburg, the architect of the Federal Reserve System.... Her mother, Andrea Swift Warburg, married Sidney Kaufman, but their unlikely union, Weber believes, was a direct consequence of George Gershwin’s looming presence in the Warburg family. A notorious womanizer, Weber’s father was a peripatetic filmmaker who made propaganda and training films for the OSS during World War II....

My Thoughts:
The Memory of All That: George Gershwin, Kay Swift, and My Family's Legacy of Infidelities by Katharine Weber is a family memoir. Weber is the granddaughter of Broadway composer Kay Swift, who was married to banker James Warburg. She had a affair with George Gershwin for ten years. Her mother, Andrea Warburg, married Sidney Kaufman, who was notoriously unfaithful to her. The FBI also kept extensive files on Kaufman. Weber describes her very dysfunctional family, and along the way name-drops a whole host of characters who passed in and out of their lives.
Initially, the title of the book seemed a bit misleading. It really feels like most of the book concerns Weber's parents, especially the poor relationship she had with her father. In fact, I would have to admit that The Memory of All That would have failed the 50 page rule (if you aren't enjoying it by page 50, it is not worth your time) except for I wanted to get to the information about Kay Swift and George Gershwin. I could have done with less disgruntled information about her father. Once she actually gets past her disappointing father and on to other relatives, The Memory of All That does become more interesting.
Although this seems like a negative review, what saves the book from failure is Weber's writing ability. At times Weber is funny, enlightening, informative, and entertaining.  Ultimately, all things considered, this is an uneven memoir. A good half of the book details Weber's parents and their failures as parents and in their relationships. If you can get through the first half and onto the rest of her family history and included anecdotes, it becomes more interesting. I can't help but think that this is a memoir that would have benefited from some reorganization in the presentation.
Recommended if you are a Gershwin or Kay Swift fan
Disclosure: I received this novel through the Goodreads First Reads program.


We are walking into the ocean. He is holding me in the crook of his left arm and I cling awkwardly to the soft expanse of his chest where I am squashed against his cold skin and his disconcerting chest hair. He wades deeper into the black water that laps against my thighs, and I am afraid, afraid of him and afraid of the ocean. He strides through the waves, a father going into the ocean with his little girl, and over his shoulder I see my mother in her blue seersucker shorts and her dark blue sleeveless shirt standing on the wet sand at the hem of the tide, taking photographs, her face masked by her perpetual Leica as she frames her picture of a devoted father holding his happy child.
She takes the picture of her husband and her little girl, the devoted father and his happy child enjoying this moment of going into the ocean on this perfect summer day. This is a day we won’t forget, a moment we have not forgotten, because she is taking, she has taken, this photograph, the evidence of this afternoon, this spot of time in one of many summer days spent in the funny rented house on Luchon Street at the end of the block facing the dunes. Remember that summer? she will ask me from time to time for the next forty years. Remember that summer, the one after the summer of John’s heart operation, the summer we rented the Lido Beach house with the kitchen upstairs, and you had that terrible sunburn, remember the lady across the street who put polish on the nails of her brown standard poodles? What were their names? Coco and Chanel. You remember everything, don’t you?
He strides purposefully away from the shore, his enormous black swim trunks billowing under me like seaweed. He is as purposeful as the polar bears I have seen at the zoo, the ones who dip into the water, swim in a circle and clamber out, only to repeat the activity relentlessly. They have to do it. They don’t know what else to do. He is wading deeper into the ocean, turning momentarily sideways to brace against the occasional wave that breaks against us, as if this slow march toward the horizon is a requirement, as if he doesn’t know any other way to be at the beach with his child, any other way to go into the water with his little girl. He doesn’t know what else to do.
I have never seen my father run, I have never seen him throw a ball, I have never seen him sit on the ground, I have never seen him in a bathing suit before, and now he is carrying me into the ocean, and I am seven years old and he is fifty-two, and this is the summer we are renting the beach house at the end of  Luchon Street, facing the dunes, the house with the kitchen upstairs and the dog-smelling shag carpet, and the sour piano on which my grandmother, my mother’s mother, the one we call Ganz, teaches me to play a new chord each time she visits. The sea air has ruined the soundboard, she diagnoses. My father is working at his office in the city and is only here on weekends, like a guest, and he sleeps in the room we call the guest room,downstairs, next to the room where my brother sleeps, and I share the upstairs bedroom, with its twin beds, with my mother. opening

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