In Search of Van Cliburn

He was a world-renowned piano prodigy whose romanticism and technical virtuosity inspired thousands and famously helped thaw the Cold War. But as a visit to his hometown of Kilgore made clear to me, he was also a Texan, a Southerner, a Baptist, a patriot, and a man who loved black-eyed peas as much as I do.
Thu February 28, 2013 11:00 am
Gregory Manchess

I was almost related to Van Cliburn because my cousin Miss Ruth Marable, of Clarksville, Texas, was a good friend of Miss Allie Bowers’s, who was a roommate of Rildia Bee O’Bryan’s at the Cincinnati Conservatory back before she married Harvey Lavan Cliburn and had her only son. That’s how Van came to play the piano as a young man at the Presbyterian church in Clarksville, where my great-grandfather’s Confederate saber was stolen from the church’s small museum.

Van Cliburn was, of course, a world-renowned musician, a piano prodigy who vaulted to international stardom at age 23 when he won, against all odds, the first Tchaikovsky International Competition in 1958. No one had expected the Russians, who had recently launched Sputnik, to give the prize to an American, but Van was clearly the popular favorite. His playing of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto in D Minor brought the audience to its feet for an eight-minute ovation, according to Russians who were present. Even the judges were overcome. “Slava Richter was crying,” recalled one. Emil Gilels, another judge, breached the rules of the competition by leading Cliburn back onstage for a second bow.

After much deliberation, Richter and Gilels nervously took the prominent jury’s final vote to the politburo, the cultural minister, and finally the new premier, Khrushchev. The premier asked, “Is [Cliburn] the best?” The cultural minister replied, “Yes, he is the best.” So Khrushchev said, “In this case, give him the first prize.” The ticker-tape parade in New York upon Van’s return to the U.S. remains the stuff of legends, and as almost every obituary published since his death yesterday at age 78 points out, his artistry was credited with helping to thaw the Cold War.

But amid all that hoopla and Russian grandeur, Van was also a Texan, a Southerner, a Baptist, a patriot who began each concert with the “Star-Spangled Banner,” a musical idealist, and a man who loved his parents, his childhood friends, and black-eyed peas as much as I do. We both grew up in East Texas behind the Pine Curtain—he in Kilgore and I in Texarkana—so I always knew that if we met, we’d have more to chat about than my own devotion to the piano, challenged though it is by my perpetual intermediate level.

When Van revealed late last summer that he was suffering from advanced bone cancer, I worried that the conversation with him I often daydreamed about while listening to his lush and near-perfect recordings might never take place. I called his official gatekeepers at the Van Cliburn Foundation to see if I might visit him at his home in Fort Worth’s Westover Hills. The director’s reply was swift: “That will not be possible.” I wasn’t surprised. I’m from Dallas, and my name wasn’t going to pop up on their big-donor database. I retreated, found Van’s address, and sent him a letter that stopped just short of claiming that I was blood kin.

When I didn’t hear back, I thought I’d meet Van another way. I headed to the library, where I checked out Chicago music critic Howard Reich’s 1993 biography of him, as well as all of his recordings that I didn’t already own. I read all of the archived newspaper and magazine articles about him and watched every YouTube video clip I could find featuring the six-foot-four virtuoso. Then, because I know firsthand how one can never shake the imprint of East Texas, I headed to Kilgore.

The forest on each side of Interstate 20 thickens as one drives deeper into East Texas. This shadowy wooded region is not the cactus and cattle country that outsiders associate with long, tall mythic Texans, but bumping over the Missouri Pacific Railroad tracks and into downtown Kilgore—with its oil derricks, history of boomtown lawlessness, and an entire museum dedicated to a female drill team—can cause a Texan’s heart to swell.

I stopped first at the East Texas Oil Museum, where I was the only one taking in the talking dioramas that afternoon. Even though my husband was waiting outside in the hot car, I let the lonely attendant talk me into watching the dramatized documentary in the small theater. A core sample rose up out of the floor while laser beams pinpointed on a map the rapid discovery of oil in and around Kilgore in the thirties; during footage of the spectacular Daisy Bradford eruption, the old-fashioned theater seats physically rumbled and quaked. According to the film, the quiet farm town was suddenly so overrun with greedy prospectors and criminals that the National Guard and the Texas Rangers had to be called in. I noted that Van and I could trade lore about Ranger Lone Wolf Gonzaullas, who during the boom, appropriated Kilgore’s First Baptist Church as his jail and, when the pews were full, tethered criminals to a trot line in the parking lot. Arsonists retaliated by burning three Kilgore churches to the ground. (Is it any wonder that Kilgore College’s football players are known as the Rangers?) I’d tell Van about Lone Wolf coming to Texarkana a decade later to investigate the still-unsolved Phantom Killer serial murders. According to my newspaper editor father, the only thing he appropriated in my hometown was a female Life magazine reporter.

I couldn’t resist walking across the street to the Kilgore College Rangerette Showcase, which records the history of the world’s first all-girl precision drill team. Nowhere is the myth of superior Texas female comeliness more graphically supported than by this bevy of beauties with big smiles, red lips, white teeth, small waists, short skirts, and shapely legs. The Rangerettes got their start in 1940, the same year the Cliburns moved to town. Rangerette founder Gussie Nell Davis’s early motto, “Beauty Knows No Pain,” is hardly foreign to any artistic endeavor. These high-steppers have performed for almost as many presidents and world leaders as Van did. After watching the Rangerette documentary, I jokingly told the hospitable receptionist that I’d considered trying out during my visit

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