Long, tall Texan

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday August 8, 2017
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Long, tall Texan

It took the death of his mother at 97, when he was 61 and still living with her, for American piano legend Van Cliburn " the long, tall Texan who thawed the Cold War " to begin to be open about being gay, not that it was a secret. It may have taken the pianist's death in 2013 for it finally to be safe for Stuart Isacoff to release his explosive new book, "When the World Stopped to Listen: Van Cliburn's Cold War Triumph and Its Aftermath" (Knopf).

The book is not a hit job, and in its most sensational revelations, not muckraking. Isacoff, himself a pianist, is a scholar whose sympathy for and appreciation of his subject is patent, if notably more clear-eyed than people on either extreme of the Cliburn hero-worship divide.

I was in impressionable early adolescence when the handsome 23-year-old was driven through Manhattan in a tickertape parade after winning the first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, thereby saving America's bacon, or at least pulling it out of the fire. I played my part in making his post-competition RCA Victor LP of the Tchaikovsky First Concerto one of the best-selling classical records of all time. And before becoming the editor of a piano magazine, I heard one of the late concerts, in which the legend, in some visible manner of transport, oscillated between the Keats and the Lurch of the instrument. Even so, I encountered a jaw-dropper on nearly every page of Isacoff's immaculately researched book.

Both as a musician and a personality, Cliburn was less eccentric than weird, and in these matters the author obliges. We learn of the pianist's obsession with astrology, to the point that he himself became an expert, not that he did not need a woman with black hair to her waist to counsel him on his every move.

And then there's Dr. Max Jacobson, a New York health guru known as "Dr. Feelgood" who attended to the needs of celebrities including Marilyn Monroe and Maria Callas " and who treated Cliburn, a regular client, with "a blend of amphetamines, vitamins, painkillers, steroids and human placenta responsible for that sense of soaring." Make no mistake: Isacoff in no way asserts that the Moscow victory owed to performance-enhancing drugs, despite the weight Cliburn lost, but no one who wanted to build that case would turn away from his book.

Given the exigencies of book publishing, neither the author nor the people at Knopf could have known the milieu into which "When the World Stopped" would drop, other than as a tonic for Nigel Cliff's simultaneous, tawdry "Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story." In all the talk of our budding, present-day Cold War, the particulars of the previous one, which Isacoff provides in a detailed backdrop, have some hair-raising properties of their own, a matter one does not say lightly in a saga about the "Brillo Boy" dirty-blond pianist.

To recap: In April 1958, Van Cliburn, as home-grown an American as the U.S. could have sent to compete, won the competition the Soviet Union, which had just rubbed America's nose in Sputnik, devised to further demonstrate its superiority. Given the piano talent it had grown (Richter) and exported (Gilels), it was not a fantasy that it might prevail again. But young Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr. " Vanya, and Vanyushka to the Russians whose hearts he stole " capped a grueling competition with a Tchaikovsky First and (still rarely performed then) Rachmaninov Third for the ages, and even the burly, philistine Khrushchev agreed that the right thing had to be done.

Like no writer before him, Isacoff puts the reader in the advance, middle and aftermath of the event with exactly the confidence, in both senses of the word, an audience craves, all the gossip and perhaps more of the facts than you needed. (There are photograph of the jurors' score sheets to obviate the hanging-chad problems.) Politics, music, musical politics, it's all there and more.

The more's the thing. Although eventually Cliburn played for Eisenhower in the White House (and subsequently, for every president through Obama), Isacoff observes, "The only people in Washington who thought to celebrate his arrival with the proper amount of fanfare, noted The Washington Post, were members of the Soviet embassy, who hosted a dinner in his honor." The author's knack for grasping the importance of the event overall without overlooking its kinks (Vanya's "love fest" with the Russians, the prelude to his flight from his hotel screaming, "The girls are after me!") and nail-biters (the voting and its backstage intrigues) verges on the uncanny.

Where Isacoff goes the extra mile is in the salient detail that reaches from then to now. For a competitive, post-competition American exhibition, "Pres. Eisenhower had insisted on the inclusion of voting machines at the exhibit " as a reminder of the joys of a free society " allowing visitors to choose their favorite presidents, movie stars, and musicians."

There are other details as telling and analyses as rich in Isacoff's discussion of the important intersections of music and world politics at the end of WWII and in Cliburn's reappearance at the Reagan White House in the heady days of Perestroika. Then there's this from the chapter on Cliburn's death: "Vladimir Putin avowed that 'during the most difficult historical times, the art of Van Cliburn brought together people from different countries, different continents, and united them.' Former Pres. George W. Bush told mourners that the pianist had surprised the Soviets by rising about the stereotype of the Texas cowboy. He was a gracious, humble young man, said the president, 'beloved, even by the enemy.'"

It's weird that a world that worships every sound that issues from the mouth of Anna Netrebko has been so willing, even eager, to overlook her relationship with Putin. Miss Netrebko, you're on in five.