Maryla Jonas
PIANIST

Artículo de Howard Taubman publicado en Revista Liberty en mayo de 1947

The extraordinary story of Maryla Jonas, who crossed hell and high water to Carnegie Hall—and sudden fame, riches, and glory.

 

THE date was February 25, 1946, and the place was Carnegie Hall in New York . Even close observers of New York 's musical scene paid little attention to the announcement that one Maryla Jonas would play the piano in that hall on that evening. Who had ever heard of Maryla Jonas? Apparently no one. The New York manager putting on the recital knew only that she had come up from South America ten days before, and had been born and trained in Poland . Could she play the piano? The manager didn't know; he'd never heard her.

Carnegie Hall, which seats almost 3,000, was grim and cavernous and virtually empty. The ushers had nothing to do. A handful of critics wondered how long they would have to sit through another dreary debut. A few friends and relatives of the pianist huddled in a couple of boxes, bitter at the big city's coldness. No one bought admission at the box office, and the people who had received free tickets didn't bother to use them. It looked like a public wake, with precious little public.

The lights were dimmed and the pianist walked out on the big stage. She was about five feet six and well padded in the wrong places, or so the ill-fitting gown-made it seem. She looked like a caricature of a suburban matron.

"Good Lord," whispered one of the long-suffering critics to a companion, "what makes people like that try Carnegie?"

Miss Jonas sat down at the big Steinway and began to play. As she lost herself in the music, she forgot that this was almost a private recital. All the emotions and understanding that had accumulated within her over the years came through, under the perfectly controlled fingers. The tiny audience listened in amazement, then in absorption. The ushers stopped whispering in the back of the hall. The critics stayed to the end. There was something irresistibly compelling about this woman's music. The lady could play — and how! The notices the next morning were ecstatic.

Maryla (pronounced Marie-la) p.29 Jonas found herself on February 26 an overnight sensation. F. C. Coppicus, vice-president of Columbia Concerts, Inc., hastily signed her to a long-term contract and booked her for another recital at Carnegie Hall on March 30. Tickets this time sold out, and every pianist in town was in the audience. The great hall was tense with one question: Could she do it again?

This time Miss Jonas no longer looked like a caricature. Her appearance was en grande tenue , and so was her playing. The question was answered for all time. A new star was made.

Managers throughout the country clamored for a date for the following season. Artur Rodzinski, then music director of the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra, who had arranged for all his soloists for the season, made room for her to appear on the orchestra's opening night — a signal tribute, since the orchestra rarely has soloists at its opening. Miss Jonas played just as many concerts during the season as she had time and energy for. Her earnings in her first full season in this country, at $1,000 an engagement, should be over $50,000. Her manager has her booked solidly into 1948. Next season her fee will go as high as $2,000 a date. Columbia Recording has given her a fat contract.

If there were nothing more to Maryla Jonas' story, it would still rank as one of the most vivid success yarns in years. But there is more — much more. And it is a story of and for our times.

Maryla was born in Warsaw in 1911 in a comfortably well-to-do family. At seven she began to study the piano, and at nine she was so good that she made her debut with the Warsaw Philharmonic, playing a Mozart concerto. At eleven she was invited to play for Paderewski. Her father, a physician, didn't want his daughter to seek a virtuosa's career; but when Poland 's greatest musician invited, one did not decline. Maryla was a heavy, self-conscious little girl. Her mother dressed her in a short pink dress and pink socks, and the young pianist fretted over the way her legs looked rather than how she would play. Paderewski was impressed; he offered to teach her. Her father was worried.

"Patience," Paderewski consoled him. "In a few years she may turn out to be a mediocrity like most other prodigies."

Paderewski's influence was the profoundest in her life. She worked with him periodically for many years. One day he took her gently by the arm and led her to a great window. Pointing to a slum section of the city, he said, "Do you see that street over there? You see how it winds down into that alley? Looks sordid, doesn't it? Well, there is life. Go out and find out for yourself. You'll be a better pianist."

Eventually she found out about the bitterness and tragedy and ecstasy of life. But she was only in her teens then, a brilliantly successful youngster, and her budding career was life enough.

AT fifteen she made her debut in Germany , then a republic where art and human generosity were valued. For three years she worked there with Emil Sauer, the famous pianist. When she was sixteen and seventeen she gave a series of Mozart Festival recitals in Salzburg and Bayreuth which earned her tremendous acclaim. In 1932 she won the International Chopin Prize against all comers, and in 1933 she walked off with another gaudy award, the International Beethoven Prize of Vienna. She toured Europe and conquered wherever she went.

Here was one prodigy who had not turned into a mediocrity. Her father was reconciled to her music. But she made him happier when she married. Her husband was a distinguished Polish criminologist.

When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Maryla and her husband, her parents and her three brothers were in Warsaw . Her sister, who had married a Viennese Jew, had migrated to Brazil when the Nazis moved into Austria the year before. Maryla and her family lived through the daily bombing of their capital. They huddled in cellars and shelters, changing their refuges as one area after another was pulverized.

It was not long before resistance p.83 was crushed and the Nazis moved into Warsaw . Maryla's home was gone. Her husband and brothers had taken up arms and were somewhere with the retreating Polish forces. Her father's house still stood, but the Germans had requisitioned it. She and her parents drifted from one place to the next. Finally, in one of the Germans' periodic round-ups, they were hauled in.

They were questioned by the Gestapo. The man who cross-examined Maryla recalled that she had played in Germany . He turned agreeable and persuasive. "Why don't you go to Berlin ?" he suggested. "We'll send you there in style. There you can play — and eat."

Maryla shook her head — and was locked up. She remained under arrest for many weeks. One day a high German officer who had heard her in Germany had her released. He was genuinely helpful. He advised her to make for Berlin and apply at the Brazilian Embassy for aid.

Maryla started for Berlin — on foot. She walked the several hundred miles from Warsaw to Cracow . From Cracow she walked to Katowice , near the German border. Somehow she got to Berlin . It took weeks and weeks; she doesn't remember how many. She seldom ate. She slept in barns, under trees by the roadside.

The Brazilian Embassy in Berlin gave her asylum and fixed up a false passport that made her out to be the wife of the Ambassador's son. With him she flew to Lisbon , whence from Lisbon she made her way by ship to Rio de Janeiro and her sister.

ONCE safely in the Brazilian capital, late in 1940, her nerves broke from the strain. She spent months in sanatoriums. When she seemed to be mending, she received word that one of her brothers had been killed. This was followed by the news that her husband and parents had perished.

Her sister, searching for some way to reach through the haze of misery, urged Maryla to resume playing the piano, which she had not touched since the attack on Poland . She could not bring herself even to sit down before a keyboard. Her mind was numb, her fingers were stiff.

About this time Arthur Rubinstein , another illustrious Polish Pianist, came to Rio in the course of a tour of South America . He had known Maryla in Warsaw , and called on her. He urged her eloquently to resume playing. He told her she was now a representative of Poland . It was her duty, he said, to keep reminding the world that her country had stood for something, and to work and earn money to help rescue other Poles from their Nazi-dominated homeland. She agreed with every word. But she could not play.

Rubinstein is a man of character. One morning he phoned and asked her to come over to the Municipal Theater to hear him rehearse his program for that evening. She didn't want to go, but her sister argued that she could not insult Rubinstein by ignoring his invitation.

She went. Rubinstein played with more fervor than a great pianist needs to expend in a practice session. She listened. Vague memories brushed her mind, but they did not rouse her from her apathy. When he finished, Rubinstein asked her to try out the piano while he went to the back of the hall to test the acoustics. Miss Jonas recalls that she was too inert to remember that Rubinstein had often played in that theater and knew everything there was to know about it.

SHE shook her head. He insisted, and made a great show of being offended. So at last she went indifferently to the piano. She recalls that it was 2.30 P.M. when she sat down at the keyboard. Her fingers drew out of the hazy past precise recollections of Mozart and Beethoven and Chopin and Paderewski. She didn't notice the minutes and hours slipping by, nor was she conscious that the hall was filling with the audience for Rubinstein's concert, which was to start at 8. It was 7.30 P.M. when she arose from the piano. There were tears in her sister's eyes. Rubinstein was still there, too. He had barely time to dress, and he had not eaten. But Maryla had played. The spell was broken.

A few days later Rubinstein arranged for her to play at a private gathering of musicians and critics. This introduction led to a recital in Rio . She was now awake, determined to build her career anew. But building a career takes time and money. In those days she knew want. She lived in one small room, hardly large enough for a piano.

Ernesto de Quesada, a manager, began to book her, and in the next three years she played all over South and Central America . She did well, but her fees were small. Quesada kept telling her she must brave New York and click there; otherwise she would not command any real money in the rest of the Americas .

Maryla figured she would need $2,000 to pay for the trip and the recital. Finally she induced a Mexican friend to hire her for eight radio concerts for that sum. Her estimate was correct. She spent $1,400 on the debut recital, and the rest on traveling expenses.

For three days and night before the Carnegie recital she could not sleep. That did not alarm her; she thought it was nerves. She had known more sleepless nights than most people.

After the debut she took time to see a doctor. It turned out that she had a badly infected tooth.

And on the morning after her p.84 debut a cable from Poland informed her that one of her two surviving brothers had been found dead — another Nazi victim.

Miss Jonas has a distaste for making herself out a tragic figure. When I saw her in her small hotel room shortly after her first New York recital, she refused at first to tell her own story. She insisted on talking about the difficulties that face other young musicians. She herself did not reveal that dozens of fellow Poles were thronging to her, seeking help and advice. I got that story from those she had helped.

Several months ago she managed to bring her last surviving brother, George Jonas, to this country. The once successful physician arrived here a broken man. He had spent five years in a concentration camp; the Nazis had forced him to watch as his mother and nine-year-old daughter were murdered. His wife, also in America at last, had been interned for three years.

THERE were, of course, many details to take care of before Miss Jonas was able to arrange for her brother's passage. Last October, after they had spent a long evening signing papers and ironing out problems, her lawyer, Joseph Sharfsin, suggested that they go to a night club for a relaxing hour.

"I don't like night clubs," Maryla protested.

Sharfsin told her he would take her to a small, quiet club. Too tired to argue, she went. They met some friends of his — another couple and their friend, Dr. Ernest G. Abraham, a distinguished endocrinologist. As Maryla tells it, they sat at the same table for three hours, and she and Dr. Abraham did not exchange a word.

The next morning he phoned and said he had to see her. She was leaving that evening to start her concert tour, and answered truthfully that she had not a moment to spare. He insisted, and she finally let him call. They talked. As an amateur cellist, he understood music and appreciated her art. Somehow, he understood her, too. She was deeply touched.

While she was on tour, Dr. Abraham wrote to her and proposed marriage. In December she was married to him. Her husband puts her career first, she says gratefully.

"I think sometimes," she says, "he loves artist first, woman in me second. He says he knows I must travel. He will be happy if I am home a few weeks a year. And look at the apartment he brings me to! Ten rooms! I feel like Cinderella, and I worry — comes midnight , phfftt Cinderella."

She needn't worry. Dr. Abraham understands the temperament of an artist. Before a concert, as she puts it, "I become monster." After a concert she wants good food and good company and doesn't fret about tomorrow's reviews.