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.