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.
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 but that the kick split—leaping in the air, hyperextending one’s legs, and landing flat on one’s “you know what”—made me think twice. With the kindest face, she said, “Oh, darlin’, I think they’ve already chosen the girls for this year.”
Kilgore had settled into its new oil prosperity by the time Magnolia Petroleum sent Van’s father, who went by “H.L.,” and his mother, Rildia Bee, there to live. They moved from Shreveport, where Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr., or Van, who was six, had made his performance debut two years earlier at Dodd College, playing Bach’s Prelude in C major from the Well Tempered Clavier: Book I as his mother, a classically trained piano teacher, played Gounod’s “Ave Maria” melody on a second piano. In interviews, Van always described his father as a shy man, but how shy can you be when your job is to persuade people to let you ram an oil pipeline right through their cotton fields? It’s hard to survive in East Texas without a certain amount of affability, also known as “passing the time of day.” Ask my taciturn husband, who claims that East Texas is the only part of the state where the men talk as much as the women. I knew instinctively that if I did get a visit with Van, I wouldn’t have to do all the talking.
The Cliburns’ modest home on South Martin Street, now torn down, once stood close enough to Kilgore Heights Elementary School that children could slip through the hedge to have music lessons with Rildia Bee during recess. Like my childhood home in Texarkana, Van’s old neighborhood could stand some gentrifying now. A pump jack rhythmically nodding like a metronome still lifts oil out of the ground half a block from where he used to live.
H.L. had expressed hope that his son might become a doctor, a medical missionary, but the boy’s destiny was sealed at age three when he clambered up on the piano bench and played a perfect rendition by ear of Crawford’s “Arpeggio Waltz,” an early intermediate piece requiring hand crossing that had just been played by his mother’s pupil Sammy Talbot. From that day on, Van’s mother became much more than the neighborhood piano teacher. His early precocity offered Rildia Bee the possibility of a vicarious concert career that she had been denied by her father, who thought professional concertizing a little too risqué for a Texas young lady. Her training at the Cincinnati Conservatory and later with the Liszt-trained Arthur Friedheim at the New York School of Musical Art, a precursor to the Juilliard School, now would not be wasted. Even prodigies have to put in their 10,000 hours, and Van received a daily lesson with his mother until 1951, when she handed him off to Rosina Lhévinne at Juilliard. If young Van questioned his mother’s interpretation of the Hungarian Rhapsodies, she could remind him that he was receiving his instruction third-hand from Franz Liszt himself.
Small towns make all sorts of demands on their talented citizens. In the fifties in my hometown, if you could sing, tap dance, or give a patriotic proclamation, you might find yourself booked to perform for the local Kiwanis Club, Lions Club, or Rotary Club, maybe all three. These “soft openings” with generous applause are one of the many gifts small towns bestow. Van, of course, performed all over town. Rader Funeral Home, still serving Kilgore, is just a short distance from where the Cliburns lived. The story is told that Mr. Rader often called Rildia Bee on short notice to play the organ for chapel funerals. When one such request came, she responded that she was in the middle of a piano lesson and simply couldn’t leave. She could, however, send one of her students. When the funeral director opened the back door to admit the music student, he was surprised to see six-year-old Van, who could not yet read the words of the hymns but could remember the page numbers and read the notes. Journalist Caleb Pirtle, a Kilgore native who shared this story, told me, “I just like to think about some poor oil field worker who never knew that the world-famous virtuoso-to-be Van Cliburn played his mama’s funeral.”
Kilgore High School, just outside downtown, has undergone considerable renovation since Van graduated, in 1951, but the Friday-night-lights enthusiasm for the Red Bulldog football traditions is largely unchanged. I checked the game schedule during my visit and was disappointed to see that the Bulldogs no longer play my high school, even though both are 4A teams. Van’s only venture onto the football field was as a clarinet player with the high school band. In interviews, he frequently recalled his childhood in idyllic terms. Only the 1958 Time magazine cover story, about Van’s extraordinary Cold War triumph in Moscow, records his saying that childhood and adolescence in Kilgore, outside his supportive family, was a “living hell.” Van went on to say, “You can’t love music enough to want to play it without other kids thinking you’re queer or something.” His mother probably washed his mouth out for those comments.
If the word “homosexual” existed in the fifties, I never heard anyone say it. “Sissy,” however, was a label that could be stuck on any sensitive young male who listened to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on Saturday afternoons with his parents and preferred piano practice over two-a-day football workouts in August. Small wonder that his mother, who offered her complete confidence in his bright future during those awkward teenage years, as well as a practice regimen that made it possible, would earn his lifelong devotion. With his parents’ encouragement, Van took extra courses in the summer so he could graduate from high school early. “Later on,” he’s quoted as saying in the Reich biography, “I realized that some of the kids I went to school with couldn’t remember what they wanted to do yesterday, and I was having to think about what I had to do three months from now.” From age 12, when he first played with the Houston Symphony, Van’s calendar quickly filled with performance obligations. He won a Carnegie Hall debut when he was 20. Rildia Bee forewarned basketball coaches that Van’s large hands were not for dribbling or shooting balls. After he jammed a finger in a casual street ball game after school, she restricted that play as well. He almost drowned at age 21 because there had been no time for swimming lessons.
Van counted Rildia Bee as an inspiring presence in his life even after her death, in l994, at age 97. Both she and his father were devout Baptists; H.L. was a Sunday school superintendent in Kilgore’s First Baptist Church, and Rildia Bee was the organist. But Rildia Bee, who was 36 when she became pregnant with her son, had the more robust spiritual lineage: her grandfather Solomon O’Bryan is purported to have been Sam Houston’s pastor and a founder of Waco University, which became part of Baylor University. Had she perhaps enlisted the whole Baptist General Convention to pray for the birth of a prodigy for the first eleven years of her marriage? When my mother became pregnant at 36, she presumed I was a tumor.
My mother continues to inspire me much like Rildia Bee did Van. I feel her Vulcan pinch when I need an attitude adjustment. She lured my father from Methodism to the Baptist church. My Baptist roots may not be as deep as the Cliburns’, but a public profession of faith in front of the whole congregation, followed by a literal total immersion baptism at age seven, clings to your coattails even if you marry an Episcopalian. I drove past Kilgore’s First Baptist Church on North Street and wondered if Van could have possibly logged as many hours in his church as I did in the First Baptist Church in Texarkana. Sunday school and worship service in the morning, then choir practice, BTU (Baptist Training Union), and another worship service in the evening, absorbed about six hours of my weekend. Midweek was Girls’ Auxiliary (known since 1970 as Girls in Action), dinner at church (steak fingers and tater tot casserole), and prayer meeting, where a piano-playing girl or boy might accompany the service. On our own time we were expected to memorize vast amounts of the King James Bible, do daily Scripture readings, pray for foreign missionaries, and witness to the lost or just embarrass people who were conspicuously absent from church the previous week.
No church made more demands on its young people or achieved such measurable results. Even though I competed in regional hymn-playing contests, my piano skills are amateurish. I like to think, however, that I could have one-upped Van in “Sword Drill,” a militaristic Baptist youth activity in which one responded to such commands as “Attention” (stand tall with Bible in left hand), “Draw swords” (lift Bible and hold flat between hands), and “Charge!” (thumb wildly through Bible pages). The first participant to locate a certain Bible verse and step forward won. Aside from valuable lessons in unselfishness, gratitude, humility, and compassion, as Baptist children, we lost our fears of speaking or singing or spontaneously praying before a crowd. Dancing, card-playing, drinking, smoking, skepticism, and irony had to be acquired elsewhere or not at all.
Van, who remained a Baptist his entire life, usually saw his faith get brief mention in the national press. Twice I read that he neither drank nor smoked (untrue), as if abstinence could be the sum total of his religious experience. Central to his life and career, according to several friends I spoke with, was his belief in the transcendence of music and a Baptist notion of stewardship; he had received a gift from God and was obligated to develop it and use it for the purest and highest motives. His upbringing followed him to New York, where he became a member of the Calvary Baptist Church on West Fifty-seventh and annoyed some of his fellow Juilliard students by inviting them to attend Billy Graham crusades with him. Later, after his first visit to Moscow, he even contributed to the support of the Moscow Baptist church. (The Soviet Union initially encouraged Protestant proselytizing in hopes of weakening the hold of the Russian Orthodox Church.) “Van would be classified as a spiritual man even if he were not aligned with a denomination,” said Tom Stoker, the former minister of music at Broadway Baptist, Van’s church in Fort Worth. Music’s invisibility lends itself to mystery. When Van gave the commencement address at the Cleveland Institute of Music in May 2012, he spoke of musicians as missionaries for music, who devote themselves to a higher power.
I left Kilgore without seeing the auditorium that bears his name at Kilgore College, but I did talk with the school’s president, Bill Holda, who confirmed the relationship with hometown folks that Van maintained throughout his life. “Sometimes, he’d send a large basket of flowers to us for no apparent reason,” he told me. Other locals I spoke with recalled his flying in from New York to attend their parents’ funerals and his standing orders for poinsettias to be delivered at Christmas.
Van never saw the point of discarding his Southern manners or his pride in being a Texan after he left his home state. He performed all over the world and dined with kings and queens, premiers and diplomats, and sheiks and millionaires, but at the peak of his career, he also came to Miss Allie and Mr. Eugene Bowers’ house, in Clarksville, for a joint celebration of his birthday and their wedding anniversary. He later sent them unsolicited money to repair their roof. Ann Evetts, the couple’s granddaughter, remembers Van and his entourage—his mother and a carful of people that included a Baptist preacher and his wife from Shreveport—coming to visit on that hot July day in 1977. “Miss Allie made fried chicken, black-eyed peas—all the good stuff,” she told me. “The big deal was her ‘meringue kisses,’ to be served with ice cream and strawberries. We were all ready for the guests at noon and kept peeping out the front door. We were so excited! By one o’clock, the special meringue kisses were losing their luster. Finally, two big Lincoln Continentals drove up around two. Van opened the trunks, and out came two elaborate tiered cakes, three big flower arrangements, and heaps of presents for everyone. The house was so full of people I remember it sounding like a roar in the living room. Van was wearing his customary suit and tie and kept walking around the house exclaiming, ‘It’s so bloody hot.’ After lunch, everybody was hoping Van would play, but Rildia Bee had already seated herself on the piano bench facing away from the piano. She proceeded to play a ragtime piece called ‘Mashed Potatoes’ with her hands on the keyboard behind her back.” Not to be outdone, Van at last played five of his favorite pieces, including a Chopin Scherzo—facing the piano, I presume. (In fine East Texas tradition, Ann told me, “You should call my cousin Greeley Walker in New York. He was there and he can tell this story so much better than I can.”)
“Van is always Van,” I heard over and over as I spoke to the people who knew him well. He performed for the opening of the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, and he performed for the public library in Marshall. He accepted an award from the East Texas Women in Communications with the same humility that he received a National Medal of Freedom at the White House. He worked with the greatest orchestras and conductors of the twentieth century, and yet he also admitted his nervousness before performances to the young musicians preparing for the competition that bears his name. His passionate romantic renditions made women faint in Russia; my cousin Betty Sue Flowers almost fainted in Abilene. “I remember my mother taking me to hear him soon after he won the Tchaikovsky competition,” she wrote in an email. “I felt faint until I realized that the music was so beautiful that I had been holding my breath. I think of that Van Cliburn concert as my first experience of artistic beauty.”
When I got home to Dallas from Kilgore, I sent Van another letter. I gave him such a detailed report on my weekend visit to his hometown that he probably had to take an extra nap after reading it. I wanted to meet him more than ever, but I also knew how well-meaning gestures can go awry. My family has called them “acts of mistaken kindness” ever since a young church member came every day to sing hymns and play the zither in my father’s hospital room after he’d had hemorrhoid surgery.
I shamelessly called people who moved in Van’s social circles to put in a good word for me. I even called his lawyer. (Talk about taciturn.) Knowing that ailing people have good days and bad days and may be reluctant to make appointments, I decided to hand-deliver some flowers to his house and casually mention that I’d be in Fort Worth all day. My husband and I ate lunch at Joe T. Garcia’s, took a leisurely stroll through the Lucian Freud exhibit at the Modern Art Museum, and drove around town. My phone didn’t ring, but at least I got a glimpse of Van’s beautiful estate, formerly the home of museum benefactors Kay and Velma Kimbell. Maybe I had picked a bad day.
I remembered when my dear friend Jan was so sick with cancer that she didn’t want to see anyone beyond immediate family. It made me sad that I couldn’t tell her goodbye, so I wrote her a letter saying that I was pretending that she was too busy to see me because she was packing for a trip to Paris. (You can have streets of gold; I’m counting on Paris.) I threw in a few travel tips and the names and irreverent character sketches of some of my old boyfriends she might meet who seemed to have taken up permanent residence there. Perhaps Van was packing for lovely Moscow nights, where he’d see again the people who not only threw roses after his performances but also treasured ancient music scores by Russian composers. I had no contacts to offer him.
Actually, I learned later that he was planning a dinner party for twelve close friends. After dessert, nine great voices from the Dallas–Fort Worth area joined the party for a hymn sing. One of the sopranos leaked this news to me as she drove toward Fort Worth for the party. Would anyone have noticed a tenth choir member? I know the alto parts of every hymn they sang:“Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling,” “In the Garden,” “Fairest Lord Jesus.”I wouldn’t even have needed the hymnal for “Blest Be the Tie That Binds,” so we could hold hands.
Alas, in life and in music, timing is everything. I had missed my entrance cue. Throughout the fall, as Van’s health declined, I continued to post letters to his home in Fort Worth, even though I knew there would be no replies. I wrote the last one on December 12.
Dear Maestro Cliburn,
I heard you playing Brahms’ Intermezzo in B flat minor (Op. 117) yesterday on WRR-FM. It was so lovely that I pulled off the road just to listen.
Brahms always seemed to frame his tenderness in such complexity that it can never descend into schmaltz. You found voices in that piece that my Radu Lupu recording ignores.
I hope the spirit of this season is lifting your spirits as well. My friend Anne and I are planning to sing in a sing-a-long Messiah on December 20. We’ve done this together for at least 25 years. We are well-rehearsed altos who occasionally have to sing tenor on these occasions if real tenors don’t show up or don’t seem to be able to count. Our grandest performance was singing along with 3,000 others in Avery Fisher Hall in New York in 2001 as a blessing on the city.
It’s the season of music and miracles. I’m wishing both for you.
I received news of Van’s death two months later in Austin, as I was driving away from the University of Texas campus, where I teach a class every spring. A radio station was playing the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto that Van recorded shortly after his Moscow triumph.
I knew exactly what to do. I turned off Speedway into the parking lot of the Hyde Park Baptist Church to listen.