Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Remembering Van Cliburn

Ron and I have just returned from Fort Worth, Texas where he was honored to be an Honorary Pall Bearer at the funeral of a true American Icon, Van Cliburn. We went with the knowledge that we were representing the Nixon Family and the Richard Nixon Presidential FoundationJulie Nixon Eisenhower had a nice, long telephone conversation with Van just a few days before he died.  How Ron came to be so honored is an amazing story:

After the difficult task of advancing President Richard Nixon's historic trip to the People's Republic of China in early 1972, Ron was soon dispatched to prepare for the President's trip to the Soviet Union.  After the long flight, and a fitful night's sleep, Ron was surprised to find a marine guard right outside of his room.  "What's going on,?" he asked the marine.  "Sir, Ambassador Jake Beane is on his way to see you."  Ron told him that he hadn't been in-country long enough to get in any trouble and the marine couldn't help the small smile that softened his face.  He told Ron to look toward the elevators at the end of the hall.  A group of armed KGB agents were guarding the elevator.  Ron gulped when he saw them.

When the Ambassador arrived, he informed Ron that he and his entire party were under house arrest.  Overnight, the President had mined Haiphong Harbor in Viet Nam.  The Russians were not pleased.  Ron was allowed to accompany the Ambassador to the Embassy, where the only secure phone was located.  When he talked to Bob Haldeman, the President's Chief of Staff, he was assured that they didn't think the Russians would cancel the trip.  "Easy for him to say," Ron thought, recalling all the stern looking KBG-types, with guns in their hands, up and down his hotel hallway, but he certainly hoped the trip would still happen.

In the meantime, a small dining room was set up on the top floor of the Rossyia hotel for the Americans.  At the time, their hotel was the largest in the world, with over 1,000 rooms.  Another American, staying in the hotel, was allowed to join the President's advance team for meals.  He was already famous.  In 1958 he had won the very first Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition for his rendition of the composer's Concerto No. 1.  The contest had originated to highlight the Russia superiority in culture during this time when the Cold War was raging.  The 23 year old Texan was so amazing in his talent and showmanship, that the audience could not stop praising him. He was mobbed by admirers and women reportedly fainted. The judges were stunned.  They were worried about giving the prize to a non-Soviet musician, but they called Premier Nikita Khrushchev before announcing their decision.  "Is he the best?" Khrushchev wanted to know.  "Yes," he was told.  "Then give him the prize."  Van Cliburn returned home to a New York ticker tape parade, the only classical musician to ever receive such an honor.

In 1972, while Ron and Van were enjoying a meal together, Van told him he was very frustrated with the inefficiency of the Russian telephone system.  He could not reach his mother.  He did not like to miss a single day of talking to his mother.  Ron talked to the White House Communications Agency (WHCA) staff person on the trip with him, and within a very short time, Van had a White House Signal phone in his room.  Now he could talk to his mother whenever he wanted.

Van's devotion to his parents, especially his mother, was well known.  Rildia Bee O'Bryan Cliburn had been his first piano teacher and the person he most wanted to please when he played. My cousin, Elizabeth Lucille (BettyLu) Fitch Ackerman was at the Julliard School of Music with Van.  She recalls that he was always wearing a suit, always extremely polite and loved all things Tchaikovsky.

Ron asked Van if he would be available to perform at the reciprocal banquet they were having at Spaso House, the American ambassador's residence.  Van quickly accepted.  As it turned out, the President's talks with Breshnev, that resulted in the Salt agreements, went on forever.  Van Cliburn didn't seem to mind the prolonged performance that resulted and his enchanted listeners didn't either.
Bill Henkel from the White House Advance Office remembers that they made sure that all the empty seats waiting for the President and Premier's parties were filled with staff from the embassy.  Julie Rowe Cooke, also from the Advance Office recalls that she asked Mr. Cliburn what he planned to play?  His answer was that he always started with the "Banner."  And of course, he meant the Star Spangled Banner.
                             Van Cliburn plays the "Star Spangled Banner" at Spaso House.

Neither Van or Ron ever forgot how their friendship had bonded in a Russian hotel.  They stayed in touch with each other over the years.  Ron found out that Van had been diagnosed with bone cancer when he extended an invitation for him to attend the President's Gala Centennial celebration on January 9, 2013.  He was devastated and checked on him often with his long-time friend, Tommy Smith.  When Van died on February 27th, Tommy called and asked Ron to be an Honorary Pall Bearer.

When we got to the hotel, we were so surprised to find ourselves in the two-story, Van Cliburn Suite.  It was complete with  grand piano and pictures on the walls from Van's concerts and programs.  We don't know why we were chosen to have that room, as there were other, very worthy and long time friends of Van's that we would soon meet.  Again, we were honored.  Van had performed for every American President since Harry Truman and we expected to see other Honorary Pall Bearers from the world of politics, but Ron was the only one.

The funeral, in Van's long time church, Broadway Baptist, was packed.  A choir of over 300 voices, from several churches, and the Fort Worth symphony combined to produce the most beautiful music imaginable.  The sound took your breath away and brought tears to your eyes.  Van would have expected nothing less that the perfection we witnessed.

We especially would like to thank Tommy Smith for all he did to make us so welcome.  Also, Mary Lou Falcone, Van's long-time publicist and her husband Nicky Zann for their friendship and kindness to us.  Also, to Peter Rosen, President of Peter Rosen Productions.  It was a pleasure to meet them and share such an outstanding celebration of a remarkable life.

The President and Mrs. Nixon thank Van Cliburn after his performance at the Reciprocal Banquet.


Coronado said...

Love that post...thank you for sharing a special moment.

shmarte said...

This detailed remembrance of Van Cliburn’s historic Tchaikovsky Competition win is fantastic. Thank you so much for sharing these incredible stories.
Sincerely, Rita Anthoine