CELLIST, the autobiography
of Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976)

Chapter Thirty

SINCE my first year in America my managers stressed the importance of accepting invitations for parties after concerts, especially in small towns. It was almost as improtant as the concert itself, they said. In my particular case, being a representative of an instrument difficult to "sell," I was told I had to convince the music society that it had not made a mistake in engaging a cellist-first with my playing and later with myself as a person. The smaller the towns, the longer the parties, the more meager the food, and the more numerous the questions. "How do you like our audience?" "Do you hate jazz?" "Are we as appreciative of good music as they are in Europe?" "How many languages do you speak?" "How many hours do you practice daily?" "What was the name of your accompanist tonight?"

But I have no complaints. I like people and I like meeting them. If they enjoy the concert, I am gratified by their appreciation. And those rare hosts who know that the artist does not eat before the concert and that his train leaves next morning at an hour when only night watchmen are awake, and who do something about it, I downright love.

One of the advantages of attending parties in small towns is that the people you meet do not come to congratulate you and say how dreadfully sorry they were not to be at the concert, which they understand was perfectly thrilling. In small towns concerts and artists are remembered, even by the children.

"Who are you?" I asked a young man with the physique of a wrestler, trying to free myself from his embrace.

"Me? Bobby! Don't you remember?!"

"Where was it I saw you the last time?"

"At Uncle Jimmy's in Glendora. It was such fun," the giant recalled. And after he finally let me know that it was twelve years ago, when he was ten, I still felt his disappointment at not being recognized at once.

Once, in a small town in Ontario, there was a party after the concert. I brought my cello and was still wearing full dress.

After being given a cooky and tea I apologetically told the hostess that I must leave soon because my train departed at an early hour the next day. She said that she would help me disappear unnoticed and that a car would be waiting for me in front of the house.

It was a dark and cold night, and the snow was deep. As I walked out of the house, I saw a car with motor running and, grateful for such promptness and consideration, I put my cello in the back seat and settled myself in the front next to the driver, who was a woman, she had a hat covering half of her face.

"It's so nice of you," I greeted her, but before I could tell her the name of my hotel the car sharply shot away and with unexpected gusto, rattling, and skidding sped along the deserted street. The car coughed and jerked and it moved away from the road and brushed into a snowbank, bounced off, and headed into another one. Stunned, I did not utter a word.

Soon there was no road at all, and I saw the car sliding downward toward a forest. My silent and unperturbed lady drove the car straight into the woods, where it finally stopped, sunk in the snow. Only then did I see the face of my driver. Really it was not a face, but a huge grin that covered everything that originally might have been a human face. Mute as before, she got out of the car and crawled under it.

Bewildered, but elegant in white tie and patent-leather shoes, I stood there not knowing what to do. After several vain attempts to communicate with her, I left the lady and my cello and rushed up the hill toward the road to look for help.

Soon I saw a truck coming. I stopped it and explained my predicament to the driver. He was willing to help and said that with his chains and other equipment he hoped that he could pull the car up onto the road. We gently dragged the woman out from under the car, and with her peacefully at my side the truck driver towed us to the hotel.

As I entered the lobby, I saw the anxious hostess and a number of her guests. I was told that the lady was a mental patient. Related to the hostess, she had attended the concert and came to the party with her nurse and doctor, from whom she managed to escape.

Since that ride I am much more careful, and only if a lady driver is pretty will I entrust myself into her care for a journey in the dark.

"Oh please, Mr. Piatigorsky, tell us more of your experiences. It's so exciting," said the hostess, caressing me with her eyes. "Such a raconteur," she whispered to someone loudly enough for me to hear. I was tired and uncomfortable in the wet shirt that stuck to my body and reminded me of the effort on the stage a short time ago.

"Grish!" I hearfd a familiar voice across the table. It was Ralph Berkowitz, my accompanist. Catching my eye, he said in his peculiar foreign accent (he was born in New York and brought up at the Curtis Institute of Music among Russian, French, Polish, and Italian fiddlers, singers, and pianists), "Grish, tell us of your visit at the royal palace in Bucharest."

"It was in Bucharest," corrected Ralph. His request surprised me, for on our travels together, sometimes locked for days in a train, he would seldom listen without looking at his watch.

"Yes, please tell us," everyone demanded.

"It was in Philadelphia," I began. "Just as it is now, only it was after a recital on my friend Artur Rubinstein, whose greatness as a pianist could be match only by his charm. As usual, he was in fine form. Artur's intimate acquaintance with every member of every royal family had been universally known for years. After he had told several amusing anecdotes concerning them, I broke in. 'My experience with just one royal family, I dare say, will surpass many of yours.' Surprised, Artur accepted the challenge.

"Years ago, late one evening after concluding my concert engagements in Bucharest and preparing to leave next morning for Vienna, I received a letter from Queen Marie. 'My illness prevented me from attending your concerts, but please do not leave my country without seeing me.' The two gentlemen who had delivered the letter waited for my answer. I joined them with my cello, and their limousine brought us to the palace without delay. I was led to a chamber where I found the queen resting in bed. Thougfh no longer young, she was still very beautiful. She spoke with great warmth and I lost my self-consciousness in no time. I played for her and we talked, and the hours passed rapidly. She called me 'Dear Cousin' and asked me to stay and be her guest. "My chef knows the Russian cuisine,' she said. 'You will like it here.'

"My attention was so focused on the queen that I was only vaguely aware of the presence of two other ladies in the room. They were dressed simply and both were very quiet. When I left the palace at a very late hour of the night, delighted with my visit, I asked my escorts who the other ladies were. The reply was, 'The Queen of Greece and the Queen of Yugoslavia.'

"Turning to Artur, I asked, 'Did you ever spend a night with three queens in a bedroom?'

"'I concede. You win. They are Queen Marie's daughters.'"

It was getting late. I saw Ralph give me a signal to depart. Everyone waited for everyone else to start thanking the hostess for a wonderful everning. Here I must confess that among my bad habits I possess one that is particularly hard on people who want to make a quick departure after a long evening. At that critical moment, as if waiting for such an opportunity, I begin to unforld my innermost thoughts. With devilish tenacity I use every device to hold people's attention until they lose hope and submit. This was the time. I began to speak.

It took a long time to describe an expedition I once made into the jungles of Sumatra. But I didn't stop there. I continued with an account of my peculiar behavior-something resembling reunning amuck-on the island of Celebes. The hostess's approving comments sounded tired in spite of her efforts, but Ralph, to my astonishment, seemed genuinely interested. I knew that these episodes were new to him, and although he did not share my passion for jungles, he glanced at his wrist watch but once. Unwillingly I had to shorten my ecstatic painting in prose of the caves in Celebes and my near- fatal swim in the treacherous but incredibly beautiful lake that appears like a mysterious dream the moment one emerges from the caves.

On our way to the hotel I asked Ralph if he thought my talkativeness was an attempt to compensate people for something they did not get at the concerts.

Before falling asleep I painfully thought of the performance. "Was the tempo of the first movement too slow? Was the scherzo of the sonata too fast? Those triplets-terrible! I must find better fingerings...never mind if they are more dangerous-what is a musician without courage?" It was hot in the room. I got up and opened the window. The icy wind made me close it again. "My bow must be rehaired... I must buy some strings...I will not read the reviews tomorrow.

"You said that before," I reminded myself, crawling into bed. My last thought was of the hostess. "She yawns with her mouth completely closed-not a muscle moves." I wanted to try it, but there was no energy left and I fell asleep.


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