Bob Simon

May 1, 2015

Bob Simon and I unknowingly walked off with each other’s nearly identical coats several months ago. Once the error was discovered, we met days later in my apartment for the great coat exchange and had a good laugh about the situation. That done, Bob and I sat down at my dining room table and talked for the better part of an hour. We talked about many things—our work, the Upper West Side of Manhattan where we both lived, politics, and music—all with his intelligence, thoughtfulness, and gentle humor on full display. As it turned out, I had often seen Bob, a masterful journalist, on television’s “Sixty Minutes” and he had heard me as a performing musician.

Bob Simon photo displayed at his memorial service on April 30, 2015 in New York City.

When Bob and I parted, each once again the possessor of his rightful coat, I had the feeling that this could be the beginning of a friendship.

Bob called me a few weeks later and invited me to an Emerson String Quartet concert. Unfortunately, I was out of town and could not accept but it prompted me to reciprocate. The Guarneri String Quartet, of which I was a proud member, retired several years ago, but every once in a while we give a concert with a colleague or two. Last February 10th it was a fundraiser with violinist Pamela Frank, as part of the Ann Ratner concert series. We were billed as the Pameri String Quintet and I invited Bob to the concert.

We performed two viola quintets that evening, one by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in C Minor, K406, and one by Johannes Brahms in G Major, opus 111. As we bowed to audience applause, I was pleased to see Bob seated in the third row. Afterwards, my wife, Dorothea, Gwen, a friend of ours, and I sat down with Bob over food and wine. Amongst other things, we discovered that he was a passionate opera lover and very much excited about the prospect of hearing Verdi’s Don Carlo, his favorite opera, at the Met in the spring. Bob offered to send me the performance dates in the hopes that we might attend together. I left the after-concert party happy to have met up with Bob once again and very much looking forward to a Don Carlo performance with him.

The next evening, I opened the newspaper and to my great surprise saw Bob’s photo on the front page. Then my heart dropped as I read that he had been killed in an automobile crash only hours earlier. I wanted desperately to will the unthinkable away, to wipe clean the newspaper print that gawked at me, to engineer the impossible—that is, to reverse time so that Dorothea, Gwen, Bob and I were still together less than twenty-four hours earlier and continuing our talk about opera over a glass of chardonnay.

How could this senseless tragedy have happened to such a wonderful man? And ironically to someone who on occasion had risked his life in the service of his profession. Bob had always been moved, as he once put it, to go where others don’t go, to see what they can’t see. In the fifth day of the Gulf War, Simon as CBS war correspondent, was captured by Iraqi soldiers, narrowly missed being put to death on the spot, and then spent forty harrowing days in jail before being released. In Forty Days, the book Bob wrote about his Iraq experience, he eerily imagined his own future: “I had long believed that irony was the guiding principle of the universe and I would picture the headline: SURVIVOR OF SADDAM’S GULAG KILLED IN CAR CRASH…”

I recoiled from even thinking about the last seconds of Simon’s life, in which the limousine he was in collided with the back end of another car and careened into the street’s center divider in a tangle of unforgiving metal.

Easier to let my mind drift back to the previous evening and to the music we had played for the assembled guests—quite possibly the last music Bob ever heard.

What music would you like to hear just before you exit this earth? Would it be sad or happy? Lighthearted or inspirational? Billie Holiday or a late Beethoven string quartet? If Bob had actually died during the Gulf War, the last music he ever heard might have been Verdi’s Requiem, a recording of which was in the journalist’s car when he was captured. Bob would have possibly chosen one of his beloved operas, but if he had been confronted the evening of our concert with the terrible news of his impending death, he might have been content with what he did hear: two exalted works by Mozart and Brahms.

The Mozart Quintet begins operatically enough with a series of dark and ominous chords. In extreme contrast, the Brahms Quintet that follows rushes to its end in a joyous celebration of life. These were the aural bookends to that evening of music whose craft, imagination, and substance have the ability to deeply stir the heart and mind. In the waning hours of my own life, I would happily accept this music as its coda.

Several days ago, Dorothea, Gwen, and I attended a performance of Verdi’s Don Carlo. Each of us had independently come up with the idea as a way of honoring Bob’s memory. Don Carlo, an epic five-act historical drama, swept us away. The sheer magic of Verdi’s score, rendered stunningly and evocatively by the orchestra and singers, and the plot’s twists and turns filled with tragic conflict, all seemed to gravitate towards the celebrated opening of Act IV. In his study, King Philip II sings a poignant nine-minute monologue in which he reflects on his ability to rule an empire while failing to win the love of his very own wife. Bob had told us the night of our quintet concert that this was his favorite scene in the opera, and the rendition we heard brought the house down.

Dorothea, Gwen, and I occupied only three seats at the opera that night but Bob unquestionably was the fourth member of our little group—hovering over us in spirit as the conductor gave the downbeat for Don Carlo. In effect, the magnificent performance that followed was a gift from Bob in absentia, for surely we would not have been there without knowing him.

If Bob had lived to attend Don Carlo with us, what would he have thought of the singing, the staging, and Don Carlo himself who dies at the opera’s end with all his youthful dreams unfulfilled?

And what about Bob’s own youthful dreams? As he listened to the inspired sounds of Mozart and Brahms the night before he died, had those dreams been sufficiently fulfilled? And as the melancholy strains of the Brahms third movement segued into the last movement’s irresistible good cheer, did Bob think to himself that life was good and that he had done well by it?

I very much hope so.

Bob Simon with Nancy Wellman & Dorothea von Haeften holding a photo of Anne Ratner, taken during intermission at the Pameri concert. Photo credit: Hal Klinger

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Comments

  1. From Mimi Bravar on May 2, 2015

    What a beautiful and deeply moving tribute.

  2. From Sig Rosen on May 2, 2015

    All the senseless cruelty and danger of nature and of our workings impells us to create as much beautiful memory/art as to balance the dread. RIP to all, including our late friends: Miriam Brickman, pianist, and Ronald Senator, composer, taken together by fire in Yonkers. RIP.

  3. From Susan Wayo on May 5, 2015

    Simon’s death is so sad. And your comments are so meaningful. He was elegant and eloquent. He is missed. I’m so sorry you did not get the opportunity to develop this relationship more fully.

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May 1, 2015

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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 [...]