1990 to 1996.
The release of the Delos LP “The Art of the Theremin”, and later its’ release on CD (1987), introduced an entirely new generation to her artistry. These were renaissance years — Clara was delighted and exhilarated with such a resurgence in her career and rekindled interest in the theremin “for the right reasons”.
In October of 1991, just prior to the fall of the Soviet Union but after all travel restrictions had been eased, Lev Sergeyevitch Termen came to America for the much anticipated reunion with Clara. While Clara and Bob Rockmore had visited him clandestinely in Moscow in 1962 (they met in a metro station to avoid detection), and while I and family members had visited him in Moscow in 1985 and again in 1987, this was the first time he had been back to America since 1938. Steve Martin arranged this visit with help from John Chowning, head of the electronic music department at the University of Stanford; after a week in California, Steve brought Termen to NY, knowing how much this would mean for Clara and Lev, and for his film. True to her nature, Clara welcomed Lev Termen into her apartment yet quickly kicked Steve and his cameramen out, preferring the privacy of a long-overdue reunion. In the film, this is Clara’s famous unscripted line “CUT!”
An unfinished version of the film “Theremin; An Electronic Odyssey” premiered on Channel 4 in Great Britain on November 3, 1993; ironically, that same night Lev Sergeyevich Termen died at the age of 97. He never saw the film that carried his name.
In 1994, Steve Martin premiered the final version of his film to critical acclaim; it quickly hit the charts, gathered accolades and generated quite a buzz. At the Sundance Festival, it won the Filmmaker’s Trophy for best documentary. Steve took it to the Berlin, Munich, Vienna and St. Petersburg Film Festivals, among others, and then was invited to show it at the famed NY Film Festival. Nominated for a British Academy Award, Clara could not have been more proud, and while she teased Steve about “our” movie, always was quick to praise him and give full credit and honor for the job he did. In fact, after showing the film at the NY Film Festival in October, Steve invited Clara up on stage and she received such a long, raucous and jubilant standing ovation that she would later speak about this as one of the greatest moments in her life.
Between “The Art of the Theremin” and “Theremin; An Electronic Odyssey”, Clara was once again an international celebrity. Her phone was ringing off the hook, media were clamoring for interviews, and offers to perform were coming in from around the globe (for example, Tomita, world renowned electronic music composer and performer, wanted to bring Clara to Japan for joint performances and recordings). Clara, while thrilled with the surge of interest in her instrument and her musicianship, was in the unenviable position of needing to balance all of this with her own personal life and needs for some sanity and privacy. Needless to say, she handled it like a pro — she granted many interviews, refused all offers to concertize, and marveled at the whole thing. Without a secretary or assistant, she would often call me, Dad or one of our family members, or even Steve Martin, to come for tea or to accompany a news crew, meaning that someone she didn’t know was coming over for the first time and she wanted one of us to be there. Other times, she would ask us (and especially Steve) to handle her correspondence when she didn’t have the time or energy to respond.
In June of 1994 I married Dorothy Lawson, a superb cellist in whom Clara found a deep and fulfilling kindred spirit. Clara referred to Dorothy as a true musician who “gets it” and has the chops to prove it. Clara, who always stayed current with details of my love life, was thrilled that I had (finally) found a truly wonderful and beautiful life-mate “whom we both loved”, and the two of them developed a real affinity for each other. Clara would later credit Dorothy with saving her life, and she meant it most literally.
That same summer, Reid Welch entered Clara’s life. A piano tuner by profession, and an amateur thereminist (and accomplished electrical technician), Reid anonymously sent Clara a dozen red roses “from an admirer in Miami”, and when she contacted the florist to try to thank her admirer, Reid was given her number and called her (she was, by the way, always listed in the NYC phone book). They had a number of conversations, more flowers were sent, and Reid finally came to NY and met Clara in December of 1994. He was a charming, suave and generous person, and he offered to tune her piano for free. She enjoyed his gifts and his warm style, his doting attention and clear desire to get closer to her, and he soon won her friendship. Living in Florida, Reid was only in NY periodically and mostly stayed in contact by phone and mail. We the family were delighted, and Reid went on to become a trusted friend and Clara looked forward to his letters, calls and visits.
Of the many people who called with renewed interest in Clara, one was most poignant. In October 1994, I got a call from David Harrington, first violinist of the Kronos Quartet – he had just learned that Clara was my aunt, and wanted very much to meet her. He had been introduced to her music when his teenage son Adam, who was fascinated by the theremin, gave him Clara’s Delos recording. David said that while he was curious about and intrigued by the instrument, he was totally swept off his feet by her musicianship. In her playing, he heard the most magnificent violin playing he ever heard – phrasing, breathing, bowings, things he had not heard from any living master, and yet would most want to emulate in his own playing. For Clara, these were the “right reasons” to appreciate her music, and the three of us had a wonderful tea at her home. As she often did when she really liked and respected someone, she played for him and he came away smitten. We talked at length; he wanted to produce her Lost Album, wanted to get her music out there and had all sorts of ideas that we began discussing in earnest, but that was not to be, as personal tragedy was to strike them both in the spring of 1995.
For David, it was Adam’s sudden death at age 16 from a coronary thrombosis, and for Clara, it was a bout of pneumonia that became so severe that on March 7. 1995, just two days before her birthday, she was taken to Beth Israel North Hospital. Clara hated hospitals with a passion, and had long ago made me promise that I would NEVER let her die in one. Unfortunately, Clara was put into a double room with a cancer patient in her last hours of life, wheezing and moaning and gasping for air. Clara was freaked. I immediately went to the admissions office and with checkbook in hand, asked for her to be transferred immediately to a private room. I was told there were no rooms available – I did not accept this, knowing they always have rooms set aside for VIPS, and informed them that Clara was just such a VIP. Finally I was able to get Clara assigned to a private room but before she could be moved, she suffered a heart attack — congestive heart failure almost killed her. She was put into the ICU – and when her condition stabilized a few days hence, she was moved to a private room. Her doctor said she had suffered substantial damage to her heart, and was still battling pneumonia.
In the days following, we visited Clara daily. She was quite scared by her close brush with death, and became increasingly agitated about the indignities of hospital life. A certain medication she was given altered her taste buds and made everything taste bitter, or salty – and she stopped eating. She hated the callous treatment she was getting, and found the whole experience humiliating and depressing. Following an accident in which she was hit in the head by a heavy metal bar while being weighed, she just gave up and stopped fighting. We would come see her, and she would lie unresponsive in her bed, eyes closed, limp and not moving, her skin grey and her breathing labored. We would plead with her to fight, that she should be able to go home soon, that this was not her time to go, but all to no avail. I reminded her of my promise to never let her die in a hospital and told her I would forcibly remove her and take her back home if necessary – no response.
My wife Dorothy had an idea, and we brought a boom box into Clara’s room. Setting it on her bed (Clara’s tiny frame left plenty of room at the foot of her bed), Dorothy began playing one of Clara’s favorite chamber works, the Tchaikovsky Trio, in a version Dorothy had just recorded. Just minutes into the first movement, we literally watched in awe as color began to come back into Clara’s face. Her right hand began tapping the rhythm, then air conducting, then she was humming along, and soon her eyes were open. It wasn’t long before she was smiling, and commenting on a passage or remarking about a particularly good phrasing, as if nothing at all had changed in her life. At the end of the trio, she let tears run as she said, pointing to the boom box, “This is my life, not this” as she waved her hand at the room. She hugged us, and by that evening, was already looking forward to going home. She did so less than a week and a half later, telling everyone who would listen that Dorothy and Tchaikovsky had saved her life. I remember as I helped her from her car and escorted her back into her apartment, she hugged me and quipped that I had indeed kept my promise to her. I thought she had forgotten…
But her life would never be the same again. Her heart was weakened, and she required bed rest daily, constant medications and daily home care. Her taste buds were forever changed, and she became malnourished – not that hard for someone who never reached the weight of 100 lbs. a single day in her life. Betty Baldwin became her head nurse and trusted companion – Betty was with Clara on a daily basis, managed her domestic needs and medical schedule, and would remain with and devoted to Clara until the end.
Clara, determined to reclaim normalcy, struggled on; by mid summer, my wife and I were able to resume our tradition of taking Clara to a Sunday Champagne brunch at a local eatery, and by the end of the summer, she was strong enough to make the one hour trip to Ossining to attend Newta’s 90th Birthday. In November she traveled to Caramoor, former homestead of Lucy Bigelow Rosen, for the Theremania Festival; she was in fine form as the honored guest on a dais that included her dear friends Bob Moog and Steve Martin, and moderated by my dad. This was her return to some semblance of normal life.
Clara, never a fan of the medical profession but even less a fan of pain and discomfort, closely followed her doctor’s advice and tried to force food down, but as the year ended, her weakened heart and undernourished body (which also weakened her teeth and bones) began to take a further toll on her. There are still conflicting medical theories about whether or not she suffered from a series of mini-strokes; often virtually undetectable but widely known to effect people in adverse ways, altering personalities, changing moods, and affecting a person’s sense of self. I watched these mini-strokes wreak havoc on my maternal grandmother (Bronia Gershuni) and her personality, and saw many of the same signs in Clara — although it was never diagnosed.
With full time nursing care, lovingly headed up by Betty, Clara was comfortable and well cared for, but she struggled with demons she could not properly identify, understand or control. At times she would become fearful and angry, even paranoid – how dare this whatever it was change who she was, and force her to act like someone she didn’t recognize. At other times, she was her normal self. Unable to control it, and unsure how she would come across to people at any given time, she began to shut her door and soon was isolating herself from everyone except family and close friends, so that, in her paraphrased words, “people will remember me as I was, not as I’ve become”.
Following the success of Steve Martin’s movie, he began working to create a Hollywood feature film based upon the lives of Lev Sergeyevich and Clara, and on January 30, 1996, Clara signed an agreement with Sony assigning all rights to license her name, image and likeness for commercial exploitation – a prerequisite for major studios before they consider your material. Clara was still in relatively fine shape on good days, and struggling through bad days, but for the most part able to continue with our Champagne brunches and visits from family and close friends. While some days she would stay in bed, other days she would move freely around her apartment, or even take short walks outside or sit in the lovely garden in her building’s courtyard.
On July 31, 1996, she allowed me to bring a photographer, Chris Kahley, over for tea. Earlier, he had called me asking permission to photograph her. He was genuine and respectful, and I agreed to put them in touch while telling him not to get his hopes up. Yet he was so sweet to her on the phone, that to my delight (and surprise) she not only said yes, but she dressed up and put on makeup. She was completely her old radiant self that afternoon – telling stories and serving the tea herself, shooing away a delighted but cautious Betty. Not wanting to step on Chris’ toes, but unable to contain myself, I too took out my camera and photographed her that day – one of these images is included on page 3 of the “Lost Album” CD booklet.
Yet this period saw some sad episodes as well, and the family too fell victim to nerves and her mood swings – Clara would sometimes turn on family members as well as outsiders, and even her relationship with her beloved sister Newta began to show signs of strain. Newta was often asking me to come by and pick up bags of homemade food to deliver to Clara, all of her traditional favorites, yet Clara’s taste had changed so that it did not help and she could not eat much of it. For many reasons, nerves began to fray and other rifts threatened to open in the family. Clara tried so hard to control her moods, being aware of and not liking who she had become when under their spell. Some days she just didn’t want to see anyone, and she isolated herself more and more, once or twice refusing even me.