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.    

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.    

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. 

NYC 1897

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. 

Met Opera House 1904

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. 

Bertha Tapper
Institute of musical art 1910

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. 

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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"Kay Swift was very social, very chic, very funny. She had a marvelous leopard-skin coat. She was the kind of lady who would be in Vogue or Vanity Fair." 

~Alfred Stern

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. 

kay swift warburg wedding

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.

The Bydale

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. 

George Gershwin was a creative force. He brought energy to every room he entered and electrified every party with his charismatic swagger and steller piano playing. From 1926-1936, he played a significant role in Kay's life and career. Kay had perfect pitch and an incredible memory. During her years with Gershwin, she was his confidant, musical secretary, lover, and most likely, uncredited collaborator. Some of his most prolific years were the few in her life where she had no musical output. 

George and Kay at the Bydale

After George returned from touring Europe in 1926, Kay and he were frequently seen around town at shows and art openings. As a result, many have suggested that his performance, Oh, Kay! was named after her. 

In 1927, Kay took an interest in learning about popular music composition and joined the musicians union. She soon got work as a rehearsal pianist for Richard Rogers' Broadway show, A Connecticut Yankee. Shortly after, James and Kay began working together composing popular songs. When he was growing up, Paul's family had a tradition of composing poems at the dinner table each night. This activity developed a skill set that made him an excellent lyricist. He began writing under the pseudonym Paul James. Before long, Kay and James' music was getting put into musical reviews. In 1928, "Little White Lies" and "When the Lights Turn Green" were used in Say When. 

Can't We Be Friends Sheet Music

In 1929, Kay and James' tune, "Can't We Be Friends," was used in The Little Show. This tune would be lasting and become a frequently played jazz standard. Two more of the duo's songs, "Up Among the Chimney Pots" and "How Would a City Gal Know?" would be used the following year in 9:15 Revue, and Garrick Gaieties of 1930 used "Johnny Wannamaker." 

Kay became the first woman to be the sole composer of a full-length musical in 1930 when Fine and Dandy, a musical comedy with lyrics by Paul James, opened on Broadway. The show had a very successful run, despite the Great Depression, running for more than 250 shows. Music from the show would produce royalties for her for the rest of her life. "Part musical comedy, part vaudeville, part social satire, "Fine and Dandy" wasn't quite like any other show of its era."

Rehearsal shot for Fine and Dandy

In 1931, James frequently traveled to Europe to deal with business matters. During this time, the relationship between Kay and George intensified. When George's show Of Thee I Sing came out, she was not only present, she hosted the afterparty. 

In 1932, George Gershwin dedicated his songbook to Kay. Around this time, Gershwin felt like he was in a compositional rut. Several colleagues had recommended he study with German theorist Joseph Schillinger. As a result, he began studying with Schillinger three times per week from 1932-1936. Kay would accompany him to the lessons, take notes and absorb as much as possible. Gershwin's secretary at the time noted he had instructed her to do his homework each night because he found it boring. One of the pieces that resulted from this work was his Cuban Overture, a piece that Kay named her favorite of his works. 

""Like Ira,at times she was content to neglect her own career to serve what she saw as George's genius" ~Mark Steyn

In 1933, Gershwin wrote Pardon My English and Let Them Eat Cake. Kay did not compose anything from 1930 to 1934. Then, in 1934, Kay took a position composing music for Alma Mater, the first ballet choreographed by George Balanchine. In the same year, George was invited in July and August to visit Folly Island, North Carolina, to spend time with DuBose Heywood, the author of Porgy and Bess. That December, when Alma Mater premiered, Kay missed the opening night celebration so she could finalize her divorce from Paul Warburg. 

Alma Mater

When Gershwin began work on Porgy and Bess, Kay was present for almost every step of the process. She would play pieces that were in progress and notate portions of the score. Kay assisted in casting and helped with rehearsals. Opening night, she hosted a glamorous afterparty celebration. She was involved in promoting the production, memorizing the 559-page score, and traveling around the country lecturing and demonstrating sections. 

In 1935, Kay took a new position writing music for the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall. For the next three years, she would compose one song per week. Weekly assignments and deadlines created an environment for Kay to thrive. Kay once told Vivian Perlis, "there is nothing like a deadline." She worked with a friend, show producer, and set designer, Alfred Stern.

"She knew almost everything George had ever written, had frequently taken down sketches as he composed in his New York apartment, and had total music recall."

~Ira Gershwin

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Radio City Music Hall

In 1936, George moved to Hollywood with his brother Ira to write for movies. George and Kay had agreed to take a break and see other people while he was in California. They continued to correspond, but they never saw each other again. George began suffering strange symptoms in early 1937. Shortly after, he died from a brain tumor. 

L-R: Mary Lasker, Kay Swift, George Gershwin

Alfred Stern provided a connection with the 1939 World's Fair. Kay became the fair's Director of Light Music. She also was asked to assist Ira Gershwin in creating a piece with some of George's unused phrases to be featured at the fair. The fair's board asked Kay to find a contemporary composer that would write a piece to be the fair's theme music. An exhibit that portrayed an imagined utopian future would feature the work. The music would play continuously while fair goers entered, stepped onto a rotating stage, and viewed a projection of this fictional world. The whole production had to be timed perfectly, creating an incredibly dubious task for the composer.

1939 World's Fair

Kay scoured local record stores for recordings of the best orchestral recordings she could find. She took the selected recordings and let the members of the Board of Design for the fair choose their favorite. They unanimously chose William G Still. Still was an African American composer and received pushback from the committee that selected him. Kay came to his defense and refused to let the board withdraw their selection due to their racist prejudices. The fair used Still's composition, and Kay and Still became good friends. 

William Grant Still

During the New York World's Fair, Kay regularly attended. She met friends for lunch, rode the Ferris Wheel, and frequented the rodeo. At the rodeo, she met her second husband, Faye Hubbard. Hubbard was a cowboy with a ranch in Oregon. After the fair, they moved to Oregon and lovingly renamed the Faye and Kay ranch. 

Bend, Oregon

Many have speculated about what would inspire Kay to make such a drastic move in her life. The change for a lifelong New Yorker that loved the hustle and bustle of the city and all the culture it had to offer had to have been jarring. She had always loved horses and horseback riding and no longer had access to them after her divorce. She also had little family left in her hometown: her mother had passed, her brother was somewhat estranged, George Gershwin had passed away, her oldest daughter was away at music school, and her other two daughters were living with their father and his new wife. So she was at a crossroads, and who better to be your compass than a hardy cowboy? 

While Oregon was a change from the busyness of the city, Kay was not one to be still for long. She taught Hubbard's daughters piano and composed songs for her daughter's birthdays. Kay also got to work on a book about her time in the West with her cowboy. She published it under Who Could Ask For Anything More? a nod to a Gershwin tune. One review for the book said, "At last, a cowboy-meets-sophisticated-city-girl yarn that doesn't gag the reader." RKO Pictures turned the text into a film. 

Who Could Ask For Anything More?

The quick success in Hollywood inspired Faye and Kay to make a move and give the pictures a try. They had been providing horses for many westerns, and Faye was excited to make a go. The producers of The Shocking Miss Pilgrim, starring Betty Grable, hired Ira Gershwin to compose lyrics. He decided to use unused music composed by George to complete the score and brought Kay in to help with the process. Unfortunately, they did not credit her for the work. Neither had much luck, and their marriage soon splintered with Hubbard's drinking becoming a problem. The couple divorced in 1946. 

Kay Swift and Faye Hubbard

"She was always so positive. She never had a negative word about anybody. Always made you feel good, even in the worst of circumstances."

~Louise Carlyle

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In 1947, Kay met Hunter Galloway, and they married shortly after. Galloway had run a radio station while serving in the Signal Corp and had some experience working in the theater. He began helping manage Kay's affairs. Whether due to his efforts or despite them, they did not have much luck getting work in Hollywood. The pair moved to New York City the following year. 

Kay Swift and Hunter Galloway

1948 brought the birth of her first grandchild, Guido Gagliano. Kay began composing a song cycle titled Reaching for the Brass Ring with a different piece inspired by and given as a gift to each of her grandchildren. Later in her life, this cycle would be orchestrated by Robert Russell Bennett and performed by several symphonies across the country, including the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the New Orleans Symphony. 

In 1952, Kay teamed up with an old childhood friend, Cornelia Otis Skinner, to write the music for Skinner's one-woman show Paris '90. Kay composed all of the music, and when the show toured, she conducted and played piano in the pit orchestra. 

Cornelia Otis Skinner
Paris '90 at the Booth Theater in New York

CBS hired Kay to write the music and lyrics for a made-for-television musical, Happy Birthday, Aunt Sarah. George Oppenheimer wrote the book, and it starred June Havoc and Johnny Graham. 

Between 1953 and 1958, Kay continued composing for various projects. She worked on ideas for musicals and television shows without much success. To no avail, she tried to get people interested in turning P.L. Traveler's novel Mary Poppins into a musical. 

In 1958, Kay composed incidental music for Marc Connelly's London production of Hunter's Moon. The following year, after the film version of Porgy and Bess received negative reviews, Ira Gershwin enlisted Kay to travel around the country and lecture on the show's merits. Again, she was well received everywhere she went. 

In 1960, she reconnected with her friend Alfred Stern to compose music for commercial shows. She wrote the lyrics and score for a show created to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Campfire Girls called, One Little Girl. In the following years, she would collaborate with Stern to work on music for the World's Fair in Seattle in 1962, New York City in 1964, and Montreal in 1967. She also continued to write music for commercial shows until 1974. 

Album from One Little Girl

In 1967, she began volunteering to work with the blind. She would read and play concerts with her lifelong friend, singer Louise Carlyle. 

In 1972, Kay set the poetry of Ursula Vaughn Williams, wife of Ralph Vaughn Williams, to music and created "Man, Have Pity on Man," a piece for solo voice and piano. 

In 1974, Kay went into the studio with her friend Robert Kimball to create a casual recording of Fine and Dandy. The goal was to document the work as Kay had conceived it. She would go on to formally record her works the following year. The double album was titled Fine and Dandy The Music of Kay Swift.

Fine and Dandy the Music of Kay Swift

In 1980 at age 83, Kay again teamed up with her friend Robert Kimball to teach a class at NYU on American musical theater. 

The question that looms over Kay Swift's life story is, "what could have been if she had not met George Gershwin?". On the one hand, it's possible that he was her first connection to popular music. She may never have composed any popular music. She may never have become the first woman to write the music for a full-length musical. But, on the other hand, perhaps she would have gone on- with the attention and time to focus on her artistry- to be the first woman to compose far more. One thing is sure, in the years following the peak of her success on Broadway, she put all of her energy into George Gershwin's music. She was his right-hand-woman, transcribing his work, taking notes for him in his composition lessons, and suggesting other teachers and artists to explore. She didn't compose anything of her own during those years- one of the only periods of dormancy in her entire life- and she received no credit from George on his compositions. George encouraged, but he also drained. He opened doors for her by giving her opportunities that he was too busy to take advantage of, but he also took full advantage of her skills and used them to help himself. For a brief period, he turned an incredibly talented artist into an overqualified musical secretary. And his notoriety did little to help hers. 

Kay with her daughters L-R Kay, Kay, Andrea and April.

Kay Swift led a fascinating life and left a great legacy of wonderful music. While it is difficult to say that she "paved the way" for female songwriters- it's clear the path was still rough and rocky- she certainly left an example of a woman whose talent rivaled and often surpassed that of her male peers. She also left an example of a life not defined by her relationships to others- she was a songwriter, who also happened to be a wife and mother. As Kay once said, "I hate predictable; I can't help it." She was anything but. 

Sources: 

Newspaper articles:

  • Fort Worth Star Telegram, April 3, 1933 page 12 "New Composer On Air Tonight"

  • The Kilgore News Herald , January 10, 1944, page 3, "City Girl Finds New Life as Wife of Oregon Cowboy"

  • The Boston Globe, August 21, 1959, page 28, 
    Kay Swift Talks of Gershwin"

  • Daily News, October 15, 1960, page 136, "New Kay Swift Songs; 'Her' Out to Conquer"

  • Democrat and Chronicle, March 17th, 1918, page 27, "Edith Rubel"

  • The Bend Bulletin, April 26, 1943, page 5, "Two Local Women Get Recognition"

  • The Eugene Guard, February 4, 1943, page 7, "Former Torch Writer Fools 'Em; Helps Run Own Ranch at Bend"

  • The Miami Herald, August 13, 1972, page 268, "An Exciting Search For Gershwin Originals"

  • The Indianapolis News, January 2, 1976, page 6, "Song Queen Has Plans for Future"

  • Cumberland Evenint Times, March 6, 1935, page 4, "Young Mother Starts Career As Composer of Music For Stage"

  • Oakland Tribune, January 22, 1931, page 17, "Banker Helps Wife Compose Musical Show"

  • Fort Worth Star-Telegram, January 2, 1948, page 18, "With Kay Swift Music and Marriage Go Hand-In-Hand"