December 1, 2014
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
“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”.
“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.
“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.
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