Kay Swift

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Researching Kay Swift proved much easier than some of the composers I had written about in the past. Her life is remarkably well documented. Her grandmother was a meticulous journaler, providing an insider look at her childhood. Her closest granddaughter became a novelist and wrote a memoir about her family, providing a unique perspective on the later parts of her life. In between, she had a very successful career going from one music post to the next. On top of all that, she had a close relationship with one of America's most beloved songwriters, George Gershwin. So there was no shortage of material. However, I leave with serious questions after scouring all of the books, newspaper articles, oral histories, and correspondence I could get my hands on. Questions about what she accomplished and how much more she could have accomplished in her long and fascinating life.    

Kay Swift was a woman ahead of her time in many ways. She was a natural-born creative. Her life story reveals that she had unstoppable artistic energy and drive. Whether she was in New York City or off in rural Oregon, she was composing and creating. It wasn't something she could turn off. And yet, to me, the most challenging part of her story is the portion of her life where she put her own art on hold. She was a woman ahead of her time and a woman who was a product of her time. Putting one's genius on hold for the man in one's life was not only standard, but it was also expected. Add to that, the man in one's life is Geoge Gershwin; how is one to argue that their talents wouldn't be put to better use serving his? While she accomplished an incredible amount in her career- more than almost any other woman of the time- I'm left wondering how much more she could have done had she not felt inferior to the love of her life. Additionally, I can't help but wonder what could have been if Ira Gershwin,  who turned to her for assistance with many posthumous George Gershwin projects, agreed to write a tune or even a whole show with her, as she had requested on many occasions. 

Katherine Faulkner Swift was born April 19th, 1897, in New York City to Samuel Swift and Ellen Faulkner Swift. Samuel grew up in a musical household: his mother had an organ and Steinway piano, and Samuel and his five sisters took music lessons and played instruments. He would study music in college and become a church organist. He and Ellen met after college while they were overseas, and when they returned stateside, Samuel's uncle got him a job as a music critic. 


Samuel's role as music critic gave him, and eventually his young daughter Kay,  unique access to music in New York City. He received scores to study at home for the operas, symphonies, and other performances he would review. At home, he and Ellen would go through the music together. Ellen was an incredible sight reader. Samuel could play beautifully by ear but needed the help of his wife to get through dense scores in enough time to meet his deadlines. 

Not only did young Kay Swift find herself regularly surrounded by her musical parents working together on the latest classical music of the day, but she also was able to join her father at the Metropolitan Opera House for performances. She loved the opera and was said to have even memorized part of the Ring Cycle as a child. 

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Her early access to music helped develop Kay's incredible ear and memory for music that would serve her well throughout her life. She began composing music when she was only five years old. She started music lessons with Bertha Tapper at the Institute of Musical Arts, Juilliard's precursor, in 1905. On scholarship, she also attended Miss Veltin's School for Girls, a prestigious college prep school in Manhattan. In 1909 she began taking composition lessons with Arthur Edward Johnstone. 

Samuel Swift died suddenly during gallbladder surgery in 1914. Ellen began to work as an interior decorator to support the family, and Kay helped out by teaching piano lessons and working as an accompanist.

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When she graduated from Miss Veltin's in 1915, she began her full-time studies at the Institute. She studied piano and composition and made it through the piano course, a program that typically took three years to complete, in one year. She was then awarded the school's highest honor and given a scholarship for a postgraduate year of study.

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“María did not write her music with color, she wrote it with the soul.”

~Eduardo Zamacois

After graduating, Kay joined a trio made up of her classmates. Cellist Marie Romeat, violinist Edith Rubel. They toured for a year and a half as the Edith Rubel Trio. While touring with the group, Kay met banker James Paul Warburg and the pair got engaged. They were married in 1918. They had three daughters, April, born 1919, Andrea, born 1922, and Katherine, born 1924. 

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Warburg's wealth freed Kay from the domestic duties of housekeeping and childrearing. In 1924 they purchased Bydale, a large farm in Greenwich, Connecticut, as a summer home and escape from the city. In 1926 they could even buy the adjoining townhouse to their home on East Seventieth Street in New York and have separate quarters for their children. This allowed Kay and James to pursue their interests outside the family and entertain frequently. The pair were well-connected and well-liked in the New York creative scene. Performers, writers, and composers were as expected at their parties as doctors and business people. Parties at the Warburgs became a salon where artists of all backgrounds would hobnob with aristocrats. 


At one of these extravagant parties, Kay would meet her life's most significant influence, George Gershwin. In April of 1925, George attended a party at the Warburgs. While it's clear she made an impression, Kay and George wouldn't meet again until the end of that year. 


"All my admiration for your beautiful songs and winning personality." 

~Tito Schipa


"It is a pleasure to sing your songs, they are so unique and immense in their dramaticity" 

~The Great Caruso


"Your songs shall live forever because of their sincerity." 

~Lawrence Tibbett


Theatre Art Life

New York Times Obituary



The Independent


"She expresses so much in such a few words that I cannot help but admire her even though I am not a musician."

~Vincente Blasco Ibinez

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