A Brief Personal Background
The three Reisenberg sisters, Nadia (born 1904), Anna (Newta), born 1907 and Clara (born 1911), were born in Vilna, Lithuania, grew up in Vilna and St. Petersburg, Russia, and came to New York in 1922. The three sisters were inseparable; each was strong willed, powerful, talented, righteous, politely irreverent, debonair and worldly, and their homes were always full of love, laughter, music, champagne and roses – and all in Russian. Our family was always very close and very strong. All three sisters had brilliant marriages, yet all lost their husbands tragically early – Nadia married Isaac (Sasha) Sherman in 1924 and he died in 1955, Newta married Meir Sherman (Sasha’s nephew) in 1938 and he died in 1970, and Clara married Robert Rockmore in 1933; he died in 1963.
I do not need to tell this audience about Clara’s professional history, from her childhood days as a violin student of Professor Leopold Auer at the St. Petersburg Conservatory to her six decade career as the world’s greatest virtuosa thereminist. I also don’t need to tell this audience about the incredible, even magical, musical relationship that Clara had with her sister and soul mate Nadia, or about Nadia’s own amazing career; certainly, the many recordings still available will attest to that.
In 1928, 17 year old Clara Reisenberg met the Soviet scientist Lev Sergeyevich Termen in New York, and soon began working with him on his electronic instrument, later to be called the theremin. Professor Termen fell madly in love with Clara (and remained in love with her to his dying day), but Clara was also being courted by a dapper, charming and renowned entertainment lawyer and Broadway producer named Robert Rockmore. In 1933, Clara and Bob, very much in love, were married. They led a charmed life; they were music lovers, art collectors, theater benefactors, high society intellectuals and pioneers in the American civil rights movement. Bob included among his many clients and close friends Eugene O’Neill and Paul Robeson, whom Bob represented throughout his career. Clara performed with and toured with Paul in the 1930s and early 1940s, defying and breaking racial barriers across the nation. When Paul had to flee from the Peekskill riots of 1949, he took refuge at our family’s summer compound on Stillwater Lake in New Castle (Ossining township), NY.
Clara was a very proud and dignified person, who cherished love, integrity, honesty, decency, trust and loyalty. She was a hopeless romantic, a happy and spirited woman who delighted in chivalry. She abhorred vulgarity, although was not afraid of it. She had a sharp and highly refined sense of humor, and she was as feisty as she was charming – the life of every party. Clara was petite, and beautiful, and had many admirers. A natural performer, she was a diva who never let you forget it. Well versed in art, literature, languages, politics and of course, music, she had a strong will and was as determined as she was open to alternative. She defied many of her generation by readily accepting and embracing eccentric or alternative lifestyles in others, as long as they were true and honored themselves and those around them.
Clara was completely devastated when her beloved Bob died in early 1963 from head injuries suffered after slipping on ice. Forever more, Clara detested the winter. Clara and Newta were again profoundly saddened by the death of their beloved sister Nadia in 1983. Newta died three months after Clara’s death.