Fifteen Seconds of Fame

December 1, 2014

Fifteen Seconds of Fame

Galway Kinnell

The American poet, Galway Kinnell, died last October. I had the pleasure of knowing him and seeing him occasionally during the years he lived in New York City. One evening, Galway and his wife to be, Barbara, invited me and several other friends to dinner. Introductions were made all around and a superb meal along with lively conversation soon followed.

At one point, knowing that I was a musician, a woman seated across from me asked whether I had ever met Igor Stravinsky. I had, indeed, met the composer, but I told her the encounter had been so utterly minor that it really wasn’t worth repeating. She persisted. For whatever reason, I could see she was intrigued by Stravinsky, and so, reluctantly, I told my story.

When I was twenty-one years old, William Steinberg, the conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, invited me to perform the Stravinsky Violin Concerto with his orchestra. Of course, I accepted.

Fifteen Seconds of Fame

Igor Stravinsky

This was a very important engagement. What Maestro Steinberg didn’t know was that I had never heard, much less performed the Stravinsky Violin Concerto. Several months before the performance, I began to worry in earnest. Even more than simply learning the concerto’s notes, challenging as that might be, I was concerned about my ability to grasp the elusive character of Stravinsky’s music.

That summer, while in Los Angeles, my hometown, I happened to run into Sylvia Kunin, a great supporter of young musicians in the area. I asked her whether she knew anyone who could help me with the concerto. Sylvia said she would think about it and get back to me.

That afternoon, Sylvia called my parents’ house and told me she had found someone. Igor Stravinsky. I almost dropped the phone. “Here’s Stravinsky’s phone number,” she said. “He’s waiting for your call.

My head began to spin. The idea that Igor Stravinsky, arguably the most renowned composer on the planet, was waiting for a call from inconsequential me, was an impossibility. That Stravinsky even had a phone, just like ordinary mortals, also struck me as an impossibility.

Nonetheless, with shaking hand, I dialed Stravinsky’s number. “Hallo,” a voice answered after a few seconds. It was Stravinsky himself. I blurted out my name and began to state the purpose of my call, but Stravinsky gently cut me off. He told me he was too busy to devote any time for his older music but that I should come over to the house and he would give me a record of the concerto made years earlier with the violinist Samuel Dushkin. Stravinsky then gave me his address.

“Mom,” I said to my mother who was in the kitchen, “I’m taking the car and driving to Igor Stravinsky’s house.” Mother refused to believe me at first, but then insisted on sitting in the car in order to watch the revered composer open the front door and let me in. Stravinsky greeted me very personably, handed me the record of his concerto, and said that I could keep it as long as necessary but that he wanted it back since it was his only copy.

We shook hands and I left, record in hand, my head in a daze.

The record proved extremely useful in helping me absorb the concerto’s playful yet quirky style, but eventually the time came to return it. With trembling hand, I again dialed Stravinsky’s number, and again a voice on the other end said, “Hallo.” Within minutes I was back in Stravinsky’s house returning his record and thanking him. I was so unnerved by the experience that I left without even having had the presence of mind to ask Stravinsky for his autograph.

“And that’s my utterly insignificant Stravinsky story,” I told the guests seated around the dinner table.

I cannot vouch for the accuracy of what follows since the dinner party took place many years ago. I apologize for any tricks my memory may have played on me.

Fifteen Seconds of Fame

James Baldwin

There was a moment’s silence, and then the writer seated next to me said that she had an equally insignificant brush with greatness to relate. “I was still a relatively young writer, and working as a publishing house editor,” she said. “One day, the president of the company announced that James Baldwin would pay a visit to the office the next morning. I was so excited I hardly slept a wink that night and woke up with a horribly stiff neck. Hours later, I sat stiff as a board and miserable at my desk, wondering how on earth I was going to greet my hero with an immovable head glued to my body. But to my astonishment, when the president introduced me to the famous writer, Baldwin gushed something like, ‘Why young lady, I’ve read some of your work and I absolutely adore your writing. You are enormously gifted.’

“At that moment, my heart melted, and so did my neck muscles. I lifted my head effortlessly and thanked him. The encounter had lasted less than a minute, but my stiff neck had vanished.”

Fifteen Seconds of Fame

William Faulkner

Then another writer at the table chimed in with a similar story. He said that as a very young man, he had briefly worked as the telephone switchboard operator of a hospital. One evening, none other than William Faulkner was admitted. Later that night, Faulkner’s room lit up on the switchboard and he asked to be connected to a certain telephone number. Our fellow dinner guest said that he had had the thrill of saying exactly three words to one of the greatest American writers: “Certainly, Mr. Faulkner.”

“I have my own Faulkner story,” Galway exclaimed. Galway told us that he was on a Fulbright scholarship in Paris, France, when it was announced that William Faulkner and Albert Camus would be giving a talk together about their lives and work. On the appointed evening, the two writers took their seats on stage accompanied by another man who told the audience that, unfortunately, the translator had become ill. He asked whether anyone would volunteer to translate between French and English.

Fifteen Seconds of Fame

Albert Camus

“I raised my hand and suddenly found myself on stage with Camus and Faulkner,” Galway related. “Camus began the conversation: ‘Please tell us, Mr. Faulkner, what the state of American literature is at the present moment.’ I translated.

“Then Faulkner answered, ‘How the hell should I know anything about American literature. I’m just a farmer.’ This time I did not translate, at least not exactly, and for the rest of the evening I felt obliged to edit as best I could Faulkner’s unpleasant remarks. Camus and Faulkner thanked me afterwards with a dismissive handshake and then, poof, they were gone.”

Fifteen Seconds of Fame

Frank Lloyd Wright

“I’ve got a story somewhat like that,” said the architect seated next to Galway. He told us that Frank Lloyd Wright had once visited his class in architecture school. After seeing several student designs, the elderly Wright launched enthusiastically into an impromptu lecture during which he absentmindedly sat down on one end of a door that had been temporarily placed on two saw horses.

“Seeing that Wright was oblivious to the danger of the door tipping over with his added weight and to the possibility of suffering a bad fall, I sat down on the other end of the door,” the architect explained. “Wright never missed a word and I, a mere student, had the anonymous satisfaction of having possibly saved the great architect a trip to the hospital”.

Fifteen Seconds of Fame

Eleanor Roosevelt

“Well, I have my own trifling story to tell,” said the woman who originally asked me about Stravinsky. “Eleanor Roosevelt had been invited to speak at my college, and as a member of the student welcoming committee, I was chosen to pin a corsage on Roosevelt’s lapel as the First Lady walked on stage. I was so nervous and my hands shook so badly that I stabbed Mrs. Roosevelt in her breast with the corsage safety pin. I was mortified, but seeing how upset I was, she consoled me and told me things like that had often happened to her when she was young and had to appear in public. Mrs. Roosevelt didn’t even know my name, but I’ll never forget her kindness.”

The man next to her, yet another writer, stirred in his chair and we all looked expectantly towards him. One by one, Galway and each of his guests sitting around the table had served up their utterly insignificant brushes with greatness and now it was his turn, the last guest, to speak.

“Yes, I too have a story you might want to hear,” he said. “The student literary club at my college had invited Dylan Thomas to read at their monthly poetry event. As president of the club, my job was to pick Thomas up at the train station and make sure that he, an infamous alcoholic, would stay sober.

Fifteen Seconds of Fame

Dylan Thomas

“I failed miserably,” he told us. “Thomas insisted on going directly from the train station to the nearest bar, and demanded that I keep him company. After a couple of hours of drinking, he announced out of the blue in slurred speech that he had a wonderful new name for our student literary magazine, doubtless one far better than the unimaginative name now adorning its cover.

“For the first time, I saw the possibility of something positive emerging from Thomas’s visit,” the writer said. “He might make a drunken spectacle of himself at the poetry reading that evening but our little literary magazine would be able to boast an evocative name bequeathed to us by one of the world’s greatest living poets.

“Dylan Thomas lifted his head in an alcoholic haze and said, ‘The word I have in mind for your magazine is’—and here he smiled at me ever so sweetly—‘the word I have in mind is…Scrotum.’”

We all burst out laughing, and someone at the table proposed a toast: “To the journey we have just taken from Stravinsky to Scrotum, and to a future with many more utterly insignificant encounters.”

If my memory serves me correctly, dessert was then served.

Share this Story


  1. From Carole on December 3, 2014

    Just loved this!!

  2. From Paula Lifschey on December 3, 2014

    When I was ten years old, Jascha Heifetz played with the Miami Philharmonic. From the first notes of the Beethoven concerto, which I recall to this day over 60 years later, I was mesmerized. After the concert I went backstage for his autograph in a little book in which I kept a record of special events and people. The guard at the door warned me, “He doesn’t like children.” Heifetz’s demeanor, of course, was not exactly warm and inviting! However, my heart must have been in my eyes — he looked at me for what felt like forever, smiling very slightly, and then went through my entire book, page by page, before signing it.

  3. From Bernard Zaslav on December 3, 2014

    My own “utterly insignificant brush with greatness” occurred in front of an exclusive men’s tie shop on the corner of New York’s 6th Avenue and 50th St. in the 1960s. Among the richly configured goodies displayed in the window, what caught my eye was a crushed velvet tie of a most delectable purple hue. As I waited patiently for my now tardy friend, along came the great Surrealist painter, Salvatore Dali, wearing his customary mustache and a magnificent tan camel’s hair coat. As he passed the shop window, he was attracted by that same tie and spent a long couple of seconds drinking in its lusciousness. Being more than a fan of his work, I was tongue-tied – what do you say to an idol; “Hello, Mr. Dali, I love your work”. . . duh? No, after he left, along with his two gorgeously attired female companions, I did the only thing possible; I bought the tie immediately and have treasured it ever since.

  4. From Carlos Cabezas on December 3, 2014

    wow, Amazing stories!!!

  5. From Kathleen Fitzpatrick on December 3, 2014

    So funny…..thanks for sharing this lovely vignettes with us!

  6. From julia aldrich on December 3, 2014

    Best Dylan Thomas story I’ve heard ! – and the perfect gathering – when accomplished artists speak of their own helpless love for their beloved teachers/heros – my own favorite encounter was with Stephen Spender, I do not do such encounters well, as he was in his 80s, and I was young and careless, wondering with him about the relationship with language, Spirit and age – he replied generously – but now that I am of his age, I feel my youthful arrogance was way out of line. Still! These precious moments!

  7. From Dave Yost on December 3, 2014

    It wasn’t enough that I got to watch Vladimir Horowitz rehearse at Carnegie Hall, peeking through the balustrade of the dress circle (along with probably a dozen others like me in the dark, I learned later) and got to see Wanda Toscanini lose it over some chairs that had been carelessly left on the stage. I wanted to meet him. So, as coached by his piano technician, my spouse and I dropped by his 14 E 94 townhouse one day at 11am to give him a copy of my Steinway poster, hoping, of course, to meet him. A housekeeper let us in and phoned upstairs. As we waited, we heard some unintelligible volodyistic vocalizations up the spiral staircase. Wanda came down to meet us, not livid at the intrusion, but in fact very earnest and polite. We couldn’t meet him though, Wanda explained, because “Mr Horowitz is not visible at the moment.”

  8. From Sonya Hamlin on December 3, 2014

    What a legendary evening! Great stories.Thanks so much for telling us about it all.

  9. From David Lakes on December 4, 2014

    In 1978 I was taking the Metroliner from Washington DC to NYC. On walked Arnold Steinhardt, 1st violin of the renown Guarnari Quartet, violin case in tow. I was sitting with my wife and I told her who he was. He was sitting alone, and I went over to talk to him because I was a fan of the GQ and also a cellist. The GQ had played the night before at the Carter White House. I told Steinhardt I was a medical doctor, originally from LA but now living in the SF Bay Area. He told me that when as young boy in LA he had seriously considered medicine but decided against it because he had a poor memory. “Really,” I said. “Can you play the Beethoven violin concerto from memory,” I asked. “No problem”, he said, “but that’s different.” Interesting how we conceive memory. That was my brief moment with our maestro.

  10. From Terry Byrd on December 4, 2014

    Arnold, as I’ve come to expect, your stories & writing are what I want to share when able. I was saddened to hear of Galway’s passing, tho I haden’t read his work for 40 years, remember, stil, homophobicthe feelings when reading his work. Brushes with fame, poets, my daughter, at 3 yrs. was asked to sit with Allen Ginsberg during a reading in Berkeley, Ca.

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Fifteen Seconds of Fame

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May 4, 2010

Joe Vita

I left the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University last year after having taught a graduate violin class there for over two decades. Among other things, I miss the lively conversations I often had with colleagues at student recitals, oral exams, juries, or over a pizza at the local Italian restaurant. Topic [...]
Twelve Note Story

April 23, 2010

Twelve Note Story

Take a deep breath and try to settle down. I know, I know. The task is daunting, but you’ve worked hard. Just be relaxed. Be focused. And now get practical. For starters, think of a good tempo. Not so easy based on the first two or three notes that are slow and deeply personal. Better [...]
News Alert

March 30, 2010

News Alert

The United States Bureau of Weights and Measures has just announced at a national news conference that chamber music may cause global warming. The issue first came to the bureau’s attention when directors of several distinguished music conservatories notified it of alarming and unexplained rises in temperature at odd times of the school day. Government [...]
Sophisticated Traveler

February 28, 2010

Sophisticated Traveler

I planned to take the 2 PM Eastern Airlines shuttle from New York City. That would have gotten me into Boston by three with plenty of time to grab a bite, take a taxi to Jordan Hall, change, practice some, and relax a bit before the Guarneri String Quartet concert at 8 PM. But an [...]
Grammy Award

January 18, 2010

Grammy Awards

The Guarneri String Quartet was nominated for a Grammy Award in the category of Best Chamber Music Performance this year for our Hungarian Album on RCA Red Seal. The CD consists of Ern? Dohnányi’s Quartets Nos. 2 and 3, and Zoltán Kodály’s Quartet No. 2, three works of striking beauty. The Grammy Awards (originally called [...]
Shall We Dance?

January 4, 2010

Shall We Dance?

Many years ago, I had occasion to play a Bach Partita for the pianist and scholar, Arthur Loesser. When I finished, Loesser asked me whether I knew how to dance the partita’s five movements. I vaguely knew that the movements were based on old dance forms, but I had assumed that the dance steps themselves [...]
Looking for Work

December 1, 2009

Looking for Work

The Guarneri String Quartet retired, yet Arnold Steinhardt continues to perform in public. Photo by Dorothea von Haeften. Violinist in Recently Retired String Quartet Looking for Work * Skills Proficient in chamber music. Works best with people willing to overlook occasional lapses in intonation, phrasing, and tone. Performs virtuoso solo works, but no higher than [...]
Birth Pains

November 4, 2009

Birth Pains

Mozart’s String Quartet, K. 421 in D Minor, occupies a special place in the hearts of the Guarneri String Quartet. It was the very first music we read through after deciding to form as a group. Why that work? Hard to remember after all these years, but I would guess that its emotion charged and [...]
The Guarneri Quartet

October 6, 2009

For the Very Last Time

On June 12, 2007, the Guarneri String Quartet sent out the following announcement: Dear Friends, We, the Guarneri String Quartet, have decided to retire at the end of the 2008-9 season, our forty-fifth year before the public. This has not only been a long journey, but a deeply satisfying one as well. What could be [...]
Gray's Papaya

September 1, 2009

Gray’s Papaya

“We’ll drive you home,” said Frank Salomon, an old friend and long-time presenter of the Peoples’ Symphony Concerts at Washington Irving High School. The Guarneri String Quartet had just finished a performance there, the last ever on the series before our retirement. Moments later, Frank behind the wheel, his wife Martha, my wife Dorothea, and [...]
Second Concert

August 3, 2009

Second Concert

The following is a slightly extended version of Second Concert, that appeared in the June publication of the new magazine Listen: Life with Classical Music. Our string quartet played a concert at Emory University in March of this year. Whenever I’m in Atlanta, I stay with my friends, Murphy Davis and Ed Loring, ministers who [...]
Arthur Rubinstein

July 7, 2009


A member of the audience, somebody I’d seen backstage more than once before, came up to me recently after a concert I had just played. He smiled broadly, shook my hand enthusiastically, and said, “Great concert… really.” In the midst of thanking him, that last word, “really,” finally registered. Really? Excuse me sir, but what [...]
Life, Death, Music

June 13, 2009

Life, Death, Music

Last summer, Emily Hsiao, a teenager whom I’d never met, e-mailed me. She asked whether the Guarneri Quartet would have time to listen to music students in her high school when we played in Ann Arbor, Michigan that winter. Only hours after my visit to the school, a brutal attack on one of those students [...]
Almost on the Riviera

May 11, 2009

Almost on the Riviera

Did you always believe what your parents told you when you were young? I certainly did. I may not have always had the good sense to obey them or heed their advice but their wisdom was unquestionable. Take education, for example. My parents believed mightily in the importance of formal knowledge and therefore the need [...]
The Abode

April 1, 2009

The Abode

Alter Bock, a dedicated amateur string quartet player, has just announced plans for the creation of a home for retired chamber musicians. “I’m concerned that these wonderful musicians I’ve heard and admired most of my life have a nice place to spend their golden years.” He spoke to me from the music room in his [...]
Yehudi Menuhin

March 5, 2009

Genie in a Bottle

I ran into the violinist, Jennifer Koh, not long ago. Jenny is a highly gifted young musician who happens to have a keen interest in string players of old. At some point, our conversation turned to Yehudi Menuhin, one of the great violinists of the twentieth century. We talked about Menuhin’s instantly recognizable style, the [...]
A Brush with Fame

February 8, 2009

The Brush With Fame

Ah, Los Angeles! So-called city of angels, a place where the sun shines almost always, where palm trees flourish, a place that knows no winter-in short the city where I was born and raised. But in my adolescence, Los Angeles was much more than a hedonist’s playground. Thanks to the movie industry, the balmy weather, [...]
New Years Thoughts

January 1, 2009

New Year’s Thoughts

A drawing in the New Yorker magazine several years ago depicted a tawdry back alley with a few empty cans and bottles strewn about. The caption above read: Life without Mozart. Its message apparently affected many of us. I saw the drawing on peoples’ desks, walls, and refrigerator doors for years afterward. As a member [...]
The Swan

December 1, 2008

The Swan

When I was eleven years old, my violin teacher assigned me The Swan by Camille Saint-Saëns. I had no idea that The Swan was a famous cello solo or that it was part of a much larger work, The Carnival of the Animals. I had never even heard of its composer, Saint-Saëns, or seen his [...]
Mr. Oliver

November 10, 2008

Mr. Oliver

I enrolled in a music appreciation class when I was a high school student. Near the beginning of the semester, the teacher of the class took ill and a substitute, Mr. Oliver, replaced him. Mr. Oliver knew his subject well. He played us everything on the school record player from Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony to Peruvian [...]
Tooth Talk

October 8, 2008

Tooth Talk

I was having my teeth cleaned by the dental hygienist the other day when she offhandedly asked whether my children were also in the music industry. Fortunately, with my mouth wide open and filled with dental gear, I was only capable of answering with a few rather inarticulate and muffled noises. Otherwise, I might have [...]
What Good is Music

September 11, 2008

What Good is Music?

[Originally written and published in September 2002]. I lost no loved ones on 11 September 2001, nor was my home destroyed or my work affected in any palpable way by the tragic attack on our nation; and yet, the events of that morning have prodded me to look inward and take personal inventory. As a [...]
A Tale of Three Violinists

August 10, 2008

A Tale of Three Violinists

I stood in the artist’s dressing room, warming up nervously before my sole rehearsal with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. For a twenty-two-year-old violinist just starting a career, performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with this distinguished group of musicians was an important engagement. My palms were sweating, my heart beat rapidly, and I began to pace back [...]
Last Words to a Son

July 11, 2008

Last Words to a Son

Andrea, the head nurse at the assisted living home where my mother has lived for many years, called last month to tell me that mother had stopped eating, that she was drifting in and out of consciousness, and that she was failing rapidly. The next day, my son Alexej and I flew to Southern California [...]
A Dog's Tale

June 12, 2008

A Dog’s Tale

I’m a wonderful teacher. I know, you don’t have to tell me. It’s not nice to brag. But truth above all, I always say. Here. Let me show you why I’m so good. We have a dog named Tessa. As far as I can tell, Tessa doesn’t have much feeling for music one way or [...]
Remembering Izzy

May 10, 2008

Remembering Izzy

Photo by Allen Cohen Every one of us has to die. We know that. We also know that sooner or later all of us will be forgotten. Even Einstein. Even Beethoven. Nevertheless, we humans doggedly strive for meaning in our lives and harbor the secret (or not so secret) wish to accomplish something of sufficient [...]
A Noteworthy Day

March 2, 2008

A Noteworthy Day

I heard a great deal of music yesterday. Let me rephrase that. Yesterday, I heard a multitude of sounds—some longer, some shorter, higher or lower, louder or softer—as I made my way through my waking hours. The sounds appeared sometimes as individual tones and sometimes in groups of two and three. They often repeated themselves [...]
Solo Bow

February 2, 2008

Solo Bow

The Guarneri String Quartet played a concert in Wisconsin several years ago. Why do I remember that this particular concert was in Wisconsin? Probably because Wisconsin is a cheese-making state and a delicious selection of cheese was set out at the after-concert party. It’s funny what details remain vibrant in one’s mind, especially in light [...]
In the Key of Strawberry

January 1, 2008

In the Key of Strawberry

An unexpected thought interrupted the sentence I was reading in the morning newspaper, followed by several other thoughts in quick succession. I had just remembered last night’s dream: My wife, Dorothea, and I were riding on a bus in a foreign country. Through the window we espied an open-air flea market with an array of [...]
Hiroshi Iizuka

December 1, 2007

Cousin Sam

“How much time you giving me today, maestro?” This was more or less the way Sam began most of our phone conversations. Sam Schloss was my cousin, more specifically: my mother’s mother’s sister’s son. I would usually call him during a break in one of the open rehearsals the Guarneri String Quartet held during its [...]