Old Acquaintances Remember Cliburn

Van Cliburn during a ticker-tape parade in New York after returning from Moscow after winning the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958. Neal Boenzi/The New York Times Van Cliburn during a ticker-tape parade in New York after returning from Moscow after winning the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958.

To the world, he was the famous concert pianist who gave an uncertain nation a shot of confidence in those tense months after Sputnik. “The Texan who conquered Russia,” Time magazine called him. But to the people who saw him carrying furniture on West 57th Street, he was just another 20-something, moving to a new apartment. And mostly doing it himself.

“I would bump into Van carrying a chair or a small table,” said the pianist Gary Graffman, who later took an apartment in the building Mr. Cliburn had vacated. “That’s how he moved.” Mr. Graffman’s wife, Naomi, added, “I suspect things like his piano, he didn’t move himself.”

Mr. Cliburn, who died on Wednesday, had triumphed at the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958. That was after he had won another important contest, the Leventritt Competition, in 1954 — and after countless wake-up calls from Mrs. Graffman, who worked for his manager at Columbia Artists Management in those days.

Every morning, starting about 10 a.m., Mrs. Graffman would call the switchboard in the Osborne, the apartment house at 205 West 57th Street where Mr. Cliburn lived in the mid-1950s and where the Graffmans have lived since 1962.

“He liked to sleep late,” Mr. Graffman said. “Mrs. Hughes, who was down at the desk, would ring and keep ringing. It somehow didn’t register until 11 o’clock.”

Around 12:45, she said, “I’d be sitting at my typewriter and the door would open, and his head would pop in — his head, which seemed to be about 12 feet off the ground. He’d say, ‘Honey, I’m hungry.’ We’d go downstairs to Beefburger Hall, which is now a pizzeria, and we’d have a beef burger for 35 cents. I always paid, and if I was feeling rich, I’d have a cheeseburger for 45 cents.”

Mr. Cliburn soon made enough money from concerts and recordings to afford more than a burger. But by the 1970s, he was not making recordings very often. Thomas Z. Shepard, who took over as the vice president of Mr. Cliburn’s label, RCA Red Seal, said there was a reason.

“He had once taken a low-interest loan, I think it was 3 percent, and he used it to buy real estate and he did very well,” he said. “He was in no hurry to repay the loan and RCA didn’t care that much, either. They wanted to keep him happy. But whenever he came in to record, instead of getting any money for the recording, they would deduct his fee from what he owed them. And even though that was perfectly sensible and civilized, that deincentivized Van. He didn’t see why he should break his chops when he wasn’t going to make any money.”

Mrs. Graffman remembered Mr. Cliburn’s debut with the New York Philharmonic, soon after he won the Leventritt Competition — and the party after the concert, at the Park Avenue apartment of Rosalie Leventritt, the widow of Edgar Leventritt, a lawyer and amateur pianist who had started the competition.

“There were two planeloads of Texans who came for the concert,” Mrs. Graffman said. “In the old days, before they renovated Carnegie Hall, there was a long staircase backstage to go up to the green room, and hundreds of people pushing ahead like an ocean. We were with Mrs. Leventritt, and Van was standing at the top. He called down to her, ‘Honey, you see all these people? They’re all coming to your party.’ It was an absolute madhouse. She wasn’t expecting 500 extra people.”

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