Vladimir Dukelsky was a much-respected Russian composer of classical music as well as a poet of some distinction. He became Vernon Duke, one of the most successful American songwriters sophisticated popular songs.
He was born Vladimir Alexandrovich Dukelsky in Russia on October 10, 1903. His mother was traveling to Pskov at the time, but was detained at a railway station in the nearby village of Prafianovo in order to give birth. His family belonged to the Russian nobility--one of his grandmothers held the rank of Princess. Growing up in Kiev, Dukelsky showed remarkable musical talent early as a child, and was admitted to the Kiev Conservatory when he was eleven years old. At the Conservatory, he studied with the distinguished composer Reinhold Gliere, and one of his contemporaries there, born less than two weeks earlier, was the young Vladimir Horowitz.
When civil war broke out in the wake of the Russian Revolution, Dukelsky's family, like many other members of the nobility, fled the country. By 1920, after assorted adventures, they had arrived and settled in Constantinople (Istanbul), where the teenaged Dukelsky played the piano in cafes.
In 1921, the Dukelsky family managed to reach New York, where Vladimir Dukelsky's classical compositions began to receive attention, and where Dukelsky became friendly with George Gershwin. Gershwin encouraged him in his ambitions to write popular songs in the American style, saying, "Do not be scared about going low-brow". Gershwin also suggested that, if he wanted to be part of American popular culture, "Vernon Duke" might be a good pen name. Dukelsky accepted Gershwin's suggestion and from that time he used "Dukelsky" for his classical works and "Vernon Duke" for his popular songs.
In 1924, he moved to Paris, where, as Vladimir Dukelsky, he wrote music for Serge Diaghilev's renowned Ballet Russes (Zephyr and Flora, 1925, with choreography by Leonide Massine and sets and costumes by Georges Braque), First Symphony (1928) that was premiered by Koussevitsky and other classical works. During this time he became close friends with the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev as well as Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, George Balanchine, and Coco Chanel. He frequently visited London, where, as Vernon Duke, he contributed songs to British musical comedies, including The Yellow Mask, a musical with a book by Edgar Wallace, which ran for 17 months.
In 1929, Duke returned to the United States, and quickly he established himself as a writer of popular songs. By 1932, he had written his first complete Broadway score, a revue called Walk a Little Faster, which starred Beatrice Lillie. It was this show that introduced Duke’s "April In Paris" with words by E.Y. Harburg. Working again with words by Harburg, he wrote "I Like The Likes Of You" and "What Is There To Say" for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1934. In that same year, he wrote both words and music for "Autumn In New York", introduced to Broadway as the closing number of a revue called Thumbs Up. The Ziegfield Follies of 1936 introduced "I Can't Get Started", with lyrics by Ira Gershwin. When George Gershwin's tragically premature death left the two Gershwin's last Holly wood movie musical incomplete, Duke was chosen to finish the score.
Duke's first book-show for Broadway came in 1940, when he wrote the score for Cabin in the Sky. The musical, with a book by Lynn Root and lyrics by John Latouche, featured a black cast, including Ethel Waters and Todd Duncan, and introduced the song "Taking A Chance On Love". The show ran for 156 performances.
During this period, his alter ego Dukelsky was also quite active. Koussevitsky conducted the Boston Symphony in the premiere of Dukelsky's Second Symphony (1930) and in other premieres in the years that followed, notably Dukelsky's "Dedicaces" (1938). His oratorio, "The End of St. Petersburg" (1938), was performed in New York by the Schola Cantorum and the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra.
In 1936 (some sources say 1939), he became an American citizen. During World War II, he was a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Coast Guard, where he wrote the score for a Coast Guard revue, Tars and Spars, starring the young and then-unknown Sid Caeser.
Following the war, he lived for a time in France, where Vernon Duke continued to write popular songs, now with French lyrics, and Vladimir Dukelsky composed classical works. In 1948, he returned to the U.S., where he lived first in New York and then in California. By 1955, he dropped the name Dukelsky, and from that time both his classical and popular compositions were credited to Vernon Duke. In that same year, he published an autobiography, Passport to Paris and in 1957, he married singer Kay McCracken. In 1962, he published a volume of his Russian poetry, and in 1963, he published a book about music called Listen Here! A Critical –Essay on Music Depreciation.
Duke was also the founder and President of the Society for Forgotten Music, an organization dedicated to reviving interest in neglected classical composers and compositions.
Vernon Duke died during an operation for lung cancer in Santa Monica, California on January 16, 1969.