The following essay was written by Steve J. Sherman, Clara Rockmore’s great-nephew and Nadia Reisenberg’s grandson. As the title suggests, it provides us with an in-depth account of Clara Rockmore’s life during her last decade, up until her death in 1998, and includes a detailed chapter devoted to the controversial summer of 1997 and the events that brought an end to the friendship between Clara Rockmore and Reid Welch, the theremin engineer and aficionado.
Thereminvox.com does not take sides in this dispute, but we hope that the publication of this document, originally intended only for the members of the Levnet mailing list, will promote a dialogue between all those involved and, hopefully, further allow for closure. (Valerio Saggini)
This is my own personal recollection of Clara’s last years, up to her death in May of 1998. As the title suggests, I will also specifically detail the summer of 1997 when the controversy surrounding Reid Welch, our family and Steve Martin took place. And while in any other essay about Clara, I would have relegated the entire Welch saga to maybe a paragraph, if even that, for this particular essay it will be dealt with in depth, as promised to Levnet members. My hope is to finally provide authoritative closure to this episode.
I am motivated in part by the amount of misinformation and disinformation I’ve discovered across the internet and indeed the published spectrum, masquerading as fact yet wrongly representing Clara’s life and story. The dispute between Reid Welch, our family and Steve Martin became a source for much of this speculation and false information; when it went public over the Levnet in 1997, it revealed many private details without proper context or explanation – or in some cases, without basis in reality. Reid continues to discuss his own version of events on various Internet forums to this day, and I truly believe that the resulting distortion of her story would have bothered Clara as much as it does me. I want the record set straight, for it is a record of pride, courage and dignity, and the rumors and false innuendo have no rightful place in this story.
By definition, I can’t very well discuss these last years without revealing certain details of the medical issues and personal tribulations Clara was dealing with during her last three years. A public figure for almost all of her life, Clara was really a very private person who kept details of her personal life close to her and her family. While she confided easily to those she most trusted, she fully expected we would honor her and maintain discretion. During her last few years, Clara chose to isolate herself from much of the public, and even some close friends and relatives – she was very clear that she wanted people to remember her as she had been for her first 84 years, not as she was for the final three. Also, her illness forced her to do things that she was not able to understand, or control. So how to honestly relate what was going on inside her home, mind and life without revealing details she would consider private? This is my greatest quandary in writing this piece.
My primary authority here is that I was there. Of the many nieces and nephews in Clara’s family, I ended up perhaps closest to Clara in her very last years; while ALL of us enjoyed a rich and deep relationship with her throughout our lives, during those last many months, I was one of the few who spent a great deal of time with her and as she became ill, physically cared for her, often daily. My role here was partly due to proximity (my office was 4 blocks from her home, and my home a 15 minute bike ride away) and partly due to our shared professions in the music world. But most of all, we were always close and had a special personal relationship; for Clara, I was “The Little Character”, a nickname bestowed upon me by Clara’s husband Bob when I was a toddler, and one which she lovingly called me ever after.
On Levnet, responding to Howard (“Uncle Howie”) Mossman’s direct question to me of what really happened between Reid and Steve, many people had strong reactions — some requested that I not “reopen” old wounds while others were thrilled that I would finally set the record straight. Personally, I do not think those old wounds ever closed (I know they have not for Reid and Steve), and therefore do not believe I can re-ignite what is still smoldering. I accept that for some people, I am destined to hurt and offend nonetheless, simply by telling the truth as I witnessed and lived it.
This is the second quandary I face in writing this piece — how to tell this part of the story honestly, candidly and accurately while remaining fair to all involved, and still somehow provide a measure of closure instead of fanning the flames and unnecessarily adding to the hurt and anger. Is this even possible, or necessary?
My loyalty is unabashedly to Clara, and I will adamantly represent her side of this story, and thus our family’s side. I am aware that I am not a neutral outsider, or a perfect being – I was deeply involved and deeply upset by the events as they unfolded, and try as I will to temper my own personal biases, inevitably something may leak through. Finally, I am also very aware that I am telling this story to Levnet, of whom Reid has been a long time friend and respected member. You have all heard his version of events many times over; for some it’s become woven and inculcated into the accepted history. How will you assimilate and integrate my version where it inevitably veers from what you’ve long been told, and believed?
I can only hope you will hear me out with the same fairness and openness that I am trying to bring to this essay. And I think we will all agree that I am neither judge nor jury – I am a witness, one man who saw what he saw and felt what he felt, yet unable to see into another man’s heart or mind to truly know his inner intent.
5 thoughts on “In Clara’s Home – Her Last Years, and the Summer of 1997”
Steve, greetings. Long time, no talk.
I have read only part of the first page of your side of the story. Of course, I’m upset, still, and old wounds are reopened here. I hurt.
I withdrew from the hobby, and from contact with theremin people in the years after Clara’s death.
I knew in the months leading to that last visit in the summer of ’97, that both her physical self and her mental state were fading.
Periods, then moments, of lucidity. The old Clara would come through. But, more and more, she would speak to me by phone with evident paranoia—her fear that she was being ignored, or mentally abused. Somehow, she always trusted me.
Even at that time, that spring and summer, when even YOU were not allowed to see her. No-one in your family could see her, she would see me.
In fact, she demanded, by phone (I did not record the date), probably in the late spring of that year. It rang.
First, let me say that as a piano technician and also as a theremin-tone expert and electronics technician, and also because I’m known as pretty sweet guy, she trusted and admired my mix of personal qualities. Her instinct for adjudging people, she thought was without fail. Of course, that was not true.
But she called, and I can only paraphrase closely as memory allows:
“Reid! This is Clara. WHEN can you come to New York? I need you! I have here the schematics for my instrument. I want you to copy them. It’s vital that you come as soon as you can come. They are right here in a drawer. YOU can make the sound. YOU can make more instruments like mine. Come!
And so, that was Clara, with a new obsession: get the plans to Reid.
So, the theremin convention was, by coincidence, scheduled.
I was to attend. I had decided to drive, make a road trip, and see Clara on the way up, and then spend time with her when I swung back through New York.
She agreed, was delighted, when I offered, “I’ll come up on June, I’m going to the convention. You know, it would be grand if you would speak a few words of introduction to my tape recorder, for the benefit of the opening session of the convention in Portland.
Clara was thrilled at that opportunity, “But of course!'”
Steve Martin was there. Bob Moog, when he heard the short address, which we played through a theremin stand-speaker,
Bob exclaimed, ear-to-ear grin, “My GOD, man! How did you do that? How did you convince her to give you her voice? Why, she hasn’t even returned any of my calls or letters for years now.”
She did this for me because she trusted me. In her shrinking opinion of the good-vs-bad world, all of you were rats, to be shunned. Senile dementia, definitely.
Here’s where and when I fell afoul with Martin. That night, out of doors to have a smoke, I came across Steve Martin. We were alone. Paraphrased, small talk: “Damn sun. Eats my face.” (skin cancer trouble for Steve. And then, and this is not paraphrased, he said to me (quite surely concerned that I was an interloper and a threat),
“You know, Reid, you should know, that I own Clara Rockmore.”
That was it. I bid him goodnight. I now knew I was in for some shit to come. I knew that when I went back to NYC, and was slated to stay for a week, that I’d be interviewing Clara for the last time.
I got that recording. It was pitiful, touching, and showed only the essence of the real Clara: the Clara who would give her very life, if only that would save her instrument from obscurity.
I knew, already, from the first swing-through on the way to Portland, that Clara was confused. “Where are the schematics?”
“Over there, in the drawer”, she waved from her seat at the table.
I looked for half an hour. Drawers and drawers and shelves full of entirely mixed-up memorabilia, records, clippings. NO schematic.
I realized that on the way back I’d need a week to be safe, to sift through every paper I might find. And that I did. And as I begain, I found fascinating documents from the start.
Across the street, just right across the street, was a self-service copy place. I decided, with Clara’s clear permission (though she would forget things instantly, if we explained what-and-why, she fully understood)
“I would like to make photostats of everything I find here of interest, to ensure there is back-up for everything.”
“Of course, fine.” All of it was to go to the IPAM. I knew the IPAM. I even met the director and the founder on my drive up from Miami. I had a formal meeting with those two men, one of which is named Gregor Benko (founder). I forget at this time the Director’s name.
Because Clara had assured me time and again, “All of my papers are going to the IPAM.” And your instrument? “It’s going there with all of my papers. It’s all going to the IPAM.”
I related all this to the two principles of the IPAM.
I was upbeat, happy to know that Clara’s unique instrument would not be lost from public view.
I’d done so much to help her with that instrument, buying and mailing to her home, boxes of spare tubes of the type that it used.
I collated through boxes of taken-out “junk” (but original components) and centralized all that stuff, along with the tubes,
and so it would all be together with the instrument, not lost nor discarded as trash.
The IPAM officials were beaming by the time I left.
It wasn’t until I spoke to you in NYC, Steve, after I finagled and wrangled Clara to even let you and your bride set foot in her doorway, that I learned the truth: Her instrument was not slated to go to the IPAM. Clara had never updated her will. The instrument would go to Dalit Warshaw, daughter of Clara’s friend.
I knew, by the time of the Martin meeting in Portland Maine, that I was marked for excision from Clara by Steve. If ever there were a modern Rasputin, he is or was that Steven Martin I knew then.
I knew Steve from late ’94 onward. I had been, one time in his apartment, along with my mate, and he was gracious to us.
And he had lots of Clara memorabilia, including the gift he gave to us: a spare, original copy of her Town Hall performance broadside.
So, that is the only original Clara Rockmore archive document I hold today.
I also hold a tiny contact-print snapshot of Clara in ‘thirties street dress; saucy hat, glamorous look. She presented that to me herself, “THIS is for you to have, and for no-one else. This is how I want you to think of me. ”
But I should share it, alright? “NO! There are hundreds and hundreds of other pictures of me. Share all of them as you like, but this one is for you.”
You know, Steve, I never lie. Sometimes I’ll fail to recall correctly,
but, here you say:
“Unfortunately, we don’t think that today. While Reid returned most (although almost certainly not all) of the original documents,”
ON WHAT BASIS, on what authority, on what “fact” can you say that I did not return every scrap that I trotted across the street and back, in dozens of trips to copy all that stuff? Your statement terms me to be a thief.
And why did I feel the need to copy it all?”
Because! Steve Martin was about to excise me from her life.
And oh! Yeah, now I recall (this is written in real time, I’m not proofing or editing).
==Back to Portland, June, the convention, my conversation with Steve.
Me: “She called me, insisting that I have a good copy of her theremin schematic. I spent an hour looking through drawers on my visit to her the other day, but no schematic was to be found.”
Steve: “Oh, don’t worry. I have that at my place.”
And it went on from there. Steve was most worried, apparently, that I was going to supplant him in Clara’s affections.
All that I ever wanted was to comfort, calm her failing peace of mind; to settle her down, to know that I would carry on after her, technical explorations, and share all that I learned from her instrument.
But, I was about to be axed.
Two people insured this would happen.
Steven Martin, after I’d left with my boxes of -her- memorabila in photostat form,
Steve Martin conferenced with Clara, and told her to this effect,
“You know, people are not what they seem to be. Reid has raided your archive and stolen your papers and now he is selling them on the internet.”
And you, Steve Sherman, did nothing to disabuse Clara of that filthy lie.
And you, Steve, you would’nt have gotten your foot in the door, to meet me in Clara’s home, had I not worked so hard toward that end.
You, know, you remember how I spoke to you on the phone, to your father, too, and that I pledged to break the ice in her mind,
and get your family back into Clara’s life.
The trip I made across the park, to bear a note from Clara to Newta. I met Newta. I recall her like yesterday, tears in her eyes,
because even Newta was being shunned from seeing Clara.
And I did my damndest to get all of you back into her life.
I made some repairs in that direction, for I got you back inside.
You did not take me to lunch, but, perhaps I forget.
I only know today, that I left a big envelope with all of her loose photos with you, you promising to copy them and share them with me so we could put them online. You were humoring me.
I was your fool.
I kissed Clara a last goodbye that summer. A month later, less, I was poison, so far as she was concerned.
You participated by inaction, in a character assassination.
You exploited the situation, let Steve Martin, the crook and liar, destroy Clara’s trust in me.
And today, I have all those boxes of archive photostats, untouched, even by myself. I can’t bear to look through the data.
I’m a sensitive person. Read that again: I’m a sensitive person.
Clara said so, and noted, that’s why she had me in her life.
I could not tell her that Martin was “borrowing” from her archives.
All I could do, in the days that I had, was to copy every last damn bit of it that I could handle.
I did not find the main schemantic. I only found the power supply schematic. I told that fact to Steve, before his “I own Clara Rockmore” statement in Portland. Steve, interested, said,
“Really? I’ve never seen the power supply drawing. Now just which drawer is that in.”
Reid as the grrreat Predicto (I need fun, even during diatribes):
Prediction: Your family, in bundling Clara’s papers, never came across her instrument’s power supply drawing. Now you know why.
And you never found the main schematic.
And you didn’t find a half-dozen or so original letters of Lev’s, in Russian, to Clara (I have photostats, so does Glinsky).
You never found a lot of things because you know, Steve always had fingers that clutch better than they let go.
If you would like the entire 1000 plus pages (all numbered) that I have in photostat form here, you’re welcome to them.
It has been ten years. No sale of any Clara document has ever shown up, has it? So, so much for that lie you let Martin put into Clara’s head,
that damnable lie which you chose to perpetuate in your March essay above.
I was in error. She was right to have kicked all you Shermans from her life. She was mentally feeble, but by god, she was not crazy after all.
I’m upset, Steve. You can tell, I guess?
3901 Hardie Ave
Miami Florida 33133
The strong rule after all. One,thug in particular, did a fine job of hastening Clara Rockmore’s death.
“He betrayed you Clara. He only did that so he can sell your stuff on the internet.”
And you, Steve Sherman, reinforce the lie.
What unmitigated gall.
unproofed draft, composed in composition box, surely rife with typos, rambles, rancor.
I do not have the stomach to go through all this again.
and ultimately returned the tape recorder and tape, to this day he has never returned a single photocopied document. In an April 2006 Theremin World post, Reid admitted, “It was very small but exciting consolation to have boxes of fresh Xeroxes of her career’s memorabilia. Those boxes remain undisturbed here today.”
Ammendment. I took a dose of Pepto and read what I just posted.
The IPAM has had nine years now to catalog whatever papers they got.
I won’t give the stuff to -you-. No, the better plan is to let the IPAM have the lot of it, and let them sift and collate and see what they did
-not- get of Clara’s archives. I suppose they did not get the Lev letters, nor the schematics, nor a fat envelope of her personal photographs.
They can make arrangements to pick up these boxes from me at their convenience.
There’s no rush.
But one addition will be made: Copies of these postings, to go with the record,
and so, a balance, a weighing of inept and avaricious humans can be added to her record.
first was “Dialog” (well, that’s a mis-title in retrospect)
second entry, “Ammendment”
now, for this third entry, at this writing I’ve finished reading the balance of page one.
It is so distorted, and seems to try to sew up a story, the making of which result (the destruction of Clara’s peace of mind) you yourself were the number two instigator.
I note that you do not relate that you were an outcast from her life,
along with the entire family. Only three people had ready access to Clara: Betty, me, Steve and perhaps Dalit’s mother; I don’t know her.
I do know that by mediating with Clara to let you in,
you speedily aided Martin in kicking me out.
And towards the end, SHE DID take my calls, and we did have several good-toned conversations, weepy and sincere and we
both made our peace.
And never did I speak to her a bad word about you or about Steve Martin.
I was a gentle as a broken feather can touch.
I did touch her again. But, by then it was too late.
Thanks for nothing, Sherman. Thanks for airing in excruciating detail your evident ‘care’ for Martin’s rep, by reopening a long fading
set of memories on all sides.
Bottom line: I never made things up. I never lie. My name is know on the ‘net as a writer, poet, and enemy of public bullies.
Butter won’t melt in your mouth. In my hands, it melts and is gone, as it should be, I suppose.
I’m sorry to have to call out the truth. What did I ever gain?
I got to know and love Clara in a kinship you never had.
Steven, you quoted me out of context from this page:
I ask readers to read that page, and see also the sentimental poem
(I don’t call the poem “good”, I call it genuine)
And let anyone, please, who would like to believe your version of the picture, do as they like.
I think, though, that from the first day I spoke to her,
I think that I was honest with her. It was her life,
her memoribilia, her aim to share it freely, so long as
no-one made a buck from it. She said so in her final interview,
and I think, in the poem, that the essence comes through,
that she only wanted what was best for her legacy,
and best was to be open, share, disseminate.
I followed her wishes. The practice tape, of which you feign caused “injury”, could hurt nothing. It was presented in context,
and gave a rare chance for thereminists to -just try- to learn to play,
as if Nadia were there in the next room, and Clara, even closer.
The poem again, but see the page for the context.
(apologies for filling up this page with so much of “me”. It’s for Clara)
Self introduction to Clara Rockmore, 1994=
I met Clara Rockmore by playing intuition
like she phrased the theremin,
by changing phases in the air.
High priestess of that instrument,
“It’s not for schpooky music!“,
she took little contact with a world
old age, suspicion, shut her in.
When I’d learned that Clara
was still alive (though barely),
a dozen roses teleported
to her New York City home
from an anonymous admirer in Miami.
She was piqued. She could not phone.
The florist called instead, “A nag
is pushing for your name and address.”
I looked up Clara, always listed;
telephoned her then and heard
her music–myself as her muse.
“Oh! You’re the one who sent these roses?
They’re so lovely, lasting well.
How did you know red is my color?
Red roses are my favorite flowers.”
Honesty declaimed— “I guessed”.
“Professor Termin courted me;
he sent red roses every week.
That was many years ago.
Now you send me roses—so
I must ask, I need to know
WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?”
“Nothing, Mrs. Rockmore, nothing but to say
your music makes my mornings last the entire day.
I listen to your album
put down years ago.
I think you are immortal
but none of us are so—
so blessed to have your soul
and the taste you evidence.
So I sent some roses as
reminders of the lives you touch.”
And nearly every-after month
I’d send a fresh red dozen.
But, Clara couldn’t love
forever—lost in May of ’98.