The foot-in-mouth Contessa, &c.


Mahler died in 1911. Kafka in 1924. Freud in 1939 — September, a few weeks after the Nazi invasion of Poland. They missed the Holocaust, all of them. Certain family members, no.

In a note to me, Tom Gross, the journalist, spoke of Kafka’s sisters, and Freud’s sisters. The Czech tourist board makes a lot of Kafka, he said, but they don’t talk much about the sisters: The question of who did what in the war is too — well, better to avoid.

Kafka had three sisters, all of whom were killed in the Holocaust. Let’s name them. They were Gabriele, called “Elli”; Valerie, called “Valli”; and Ottilie, called “Ottla.” Ottla was sent to Theresienstadt, in Bohemia, and then volunteered to accompany a trainload of children, who were being transferred somewhere. To Auschwitz, it turned out. The children and their Jewish chaperones were gassed upon arrival.

Three of Freud’s sisters were Marie, Pauline, and Rosa. Treblinka, gassed. Another was Adolfine, who died at Theresienstadt.

About Mahler’s siblings, I don’t know. Were they all gone, by the time the Holocaust got started? I do know about his niece, Alma Rosé. She was a violinist, and one of those musicians who played for the officers at Auschwitz, in an effort to stay alive. It didn’t work.

Anyhoo . . .

According to the news, Borders Books is closing. There will be no more Borders stores. I feel just slightly teary about this, which may surprise you: But, remember (if you’re a regular reader), I’m from Ann Arbor, Mich., and one of our big local bookstores was Borders — the original.

About 15 years ago, I was living in Washington, D.C., and went into a Borders there. On the wall was a photo of the original Borders staff, in Ann Arbor. I recognized most of them.

So, I was walking through Central Park, and there was some Mississippi festival going on — I think it was for Mississippians transplanted to New York. There were lots of booths, including one for ice tea: “We put the ‘sip’ in Mississippi.” That sort of thing.

On the outskirts of this festival was a rock band, playing at deafening volume. There were lots of older people around — and I felt sorry for them.

I remember, when I was a kid, I would really feel sorry for the old people subjected to loud, loud music. I could see the discomfort in their faces, and the bewilderment: Why does the music have to be so loud? Usually, they would leave, if they could.

So, in Central Park, I was feeling a little sorry for the oldsters — until I realized they were the very same people who loved and played the loud music when I was a kid! The oldsters I felt sorry for, back then — they ain’t gettin’ out much.

You know what I mean? I had to smile at my realization.

A little language? Above, I said “ice tea.” That’s the way language evolves, it seems: iced tea, ice tea. You know armchairs? They used to be armed chairs — really. And ice cream was, of course, iced cream. I think Monty Burns, in The Simpsons, says it.

“Candy apples,” rather than “candied,” still sounds a little wrong to me — but only a little.

A little music? I want to publish a letter from Stuart Laughton, the renowned trumpeter (La Scala, the Canadian Brass, etc.). A wonderful letter. Have a nice weekend.

Hi, Jay,

. . . My trumpet teacher at Curtis [the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia] was the great Philly Orchestra principal Gil Johnson, and his teacher (in the same position) was Sam Krauss, and his teacher (same position) was Saul Caston. Sam told me the following story about Saul:

The orchestra was doing an extended tour, taking high culture to Idaho, rural Kansas, etc. One night, the orchestra played in an immense livestock-auction barn, with a makeshift stage hammered over the week’s buildup of hay, sawdust, and manure. No air conditioning. The fourth such venue that week. On the program was Rhapsody in Blue.

Being a world away from the august concert-hall premises back home, Saul impulsively determined to play the short “wah-wah” bluesy trumpet solo just as drunk and raunchy as could be heard in any New Orleans cathouse at 3 a.m. — flutter tongues, note bends, rude tone, the works. Some young conductor was on the podium (name unknown now). Who cares what he thinks?

Said conductor raised an eyebrow and backed slightly away; the concertmaster sniffed and looked away; woodwind players suddenly inspected their reeds. But the show went on and came to an end. Clap clap clap.

Following the concert, Saul is putting his horn away on the rough-hewn trestle tables that served as the orchestra’s green room. A guy appears at his elbow and says, “I really, really liked the way you played that solo.” Saul says, “Oh yeah? Thanks a lot,” while trying to cram his mutes and music into the case.

After taking off his tie and snapping the latches on the case, Saul turns around and sees the guy’s still standing there. He notices for the first time that the guy’s small, and dressed immaculately, in a white shirt, black tie and suit, and polished shoes. The other men in the audience wore their checked shirts and farm boots.

His interest finally aroused, Saul says, “Who are you?” The dapper man says, “I’m George Gershwin. I’ve been out here on holiday, seeing rural America for the first time. I saw the poster for the concert, advertising my music, and thought I’d come and check things out.”

I’ve told about a thousand people this story. And Saul’s message to me — through Sam, my teacher’s teacher — is: Always play your best, ’cause you never know who’s out there.



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