The Summer of 1997
1997 was a very difficult year, even before the summer’s events. Clara’s health was noticeably deteriorating; on good days, she could get out of bed and seem like herself, albeit an exhausted self. On other days, she would stay in bed, unable to get up. Painfully aware of her “other side”, she would openly speak to me about her constant struggle to maintain her own personality. She became increasingly afraid of and disturbed by, even angry at, what was happening to her, and felt helpless to forestall the bad days.
In March, the family gathered to celebrate Clara’s 86th birthday at Newta’s apartment, a big deal as Clara wasn’t going out much anymore and Newta wasn’t throwing as many parties anymore (her health was also slowly deteriorating). Newta was (gratefully) stubborn and never gave up, and insisted we all gather for the party, whether or not Clara would be well enough to attend. To our delight, Clara was in good shape that day and did attend, and it was a truly wonderful afternoon. But this was the uncertainty we lived with – Clara’s situation changed day to day, and it was clear that she was slowly losing her battle. It was during this summer of 1997 that the most unfortunate controversy with Reid Welch occurred.
This conflict was really a series of multi-layered events, beginning with Reid’s July visit with Clara and coming to a head in August and September. While many speak of the conflict as one between Reid and Steve Martin, and certainly some of it became that, it would more accurately be characterized as a reaction by Steve, our family, and ultimately Clara, to certain actions taken by Reid.
Reid Welch and Steve Martin occupied very separate and distinct places in Clara’s life, yet shared one important commonality – they were both non-family members who approached Clara with reverence and love, won her friendship and trust, and entered her inner circle. Steve of course had an 8 year track record of professional loyalty and personal devotion. Reid was by his own account “the newcomer”, welcomed in for his warm sincerity and camaraderie.
I was friendly and on good terms with both Steve and Reid, although much closer with Steve, and certainly trusted each of them with Clara. In fact, if there was ever any friction between them, it was mitigated by the fact that Reid and Steve never really crossed paths that much — as I said, Reid was not around that much. He would come up to visit periodically from Florida, and when he did, both Steve and I would back off to make room for them – or take a needed break, while Clara engaged with him. And when he left, we would step back in to our customary places as her primary companions and house groupies (only Betty and her cadre of nurses were there 24/7, then came us, and then certain other family members came and went, depending upon Clara’s mood).
On June 12, 1997, Reid passed through NY on his way to the 1st International Theremin Festival in Portland, Maine, and Clara was in good shape and happy to see her friend. He made a tape recording of Clara offering a greeting to the Maine Festival, which we (the family) thought was a lovely gesture. She was so devoted to getting the word out to theremin enthusiasts, and understood the power of her. She was delighted to be able to send this greeting, and I understand it was warmly received at the Festival (at which Steve was a speaker).
Following the Festival, Steve went off to California, sowing seeds for his Hollywood film, while Reid traveled around a bit before returning to NYC in early July, where he spent a week visiting Clara on a daily basis. Unfortunately, Clara was in markedly worse condition than she had been in June, and spending entire days in bed. Even in this condition, she was happy to have Reid visiting and did her best to welcome him back into her home. We too thought this was a very good thing – it helped her perk up.
During one of these visits, Reid asked her if he could interview her at length, and Clara was happy to acquiesce. She was determined to do whatever she could in supporting both the instrument and her legacy – as she said during this interview, “I don’t have that much time to live, so I’m not going to waste my time”.
From her first words on the tape, one can hear that she is not quite herself — her voice is measured, and some disorientation is evident. Having given interviews for decades, she was known to be an elegant and intelligent speaker, able to draw from those many years of interview experience to provide specific answers and well-worn stories by rote — yet for Reid’s microphone we hear her searching for words, repeating a story about Leopold Auer taking her to see Menuhin (the second time, confusing Josef Hofmann for Auer, but catching herself at the punch-line), and getting confused over a question about Curtis (where Nadia studied). On this tape, she is clearly not herself. After 18 minutes, she became too tired to continue and had to stop.
That said, the interview was a warm, sincere and courageous effort on her part, and there is much about it that is wonderful to hear, especially the moments when the “old Clara” shines through. And while not the definitive Clara as she would have wanted to be remembered, Clara’s own request about the interview was clear. As she ended the interview, tired and struggling for the right words, she still exuded her vintage self and her sentiments for her colleagues and for the future as she answers Reid’s question of what she wants him to do with this tape:
“What I want you to do with this tape is, it’s all given from me with my whole heart for use for people; it’s not to be reserved like a museum piece. I want it to be put into use, I want people to be able to, to benefit by it, to play, to do something further and to help other people. It’s all free, free, free, free, no price is expected and no money and no compensation is expected except to benefit people who will have the sensitivity to listen to it… It’s all given with my full heart. I want to leave something tangibly good to follow in my footsteps.”
Over the years, Clara had carefully collected and kept her professional and personal documents, her archive, in various living room cabinets and her living room closet. Containing legal contracts, deeds and wills, technical diagrams, old concert programs, publicity photos, extra tubes, letters, autographs, and personal materials. Clara’s archives were always meticulously kept safe and secure. I personally looked inside those cabinets maybe a handful of times in my life, although certain family members, including my father and uncle, had worked with Clara on various business matters, on researching for publications or just putting things in order. As far as I know, Bob Moog, Mike Jasen and Steve Martin were the only non-family members ever invited to look into the archives with her, seeking specific documents, and each went in with a healthy Clara at his side. Clara knew the value of this material, and protected her archive accordingly; after all, she had been married to a lawyer for 30 years…
During the summer of 1997, we entered negotiations with the International Piano Archives of University of Maryland (IPAM) to contractually bequeath Clara’s entire archive to them, as we had done with Nadia’s archives. So it was at this most sensitive time that Reid involved himself in Clara’s archives, and thus set into motion the events that would ultimately bring his relationship with Clara to an end.
Reid has written that during a phone call prior to his visit, Clara had invited him to photocopy her instrument’s schematic (Clara did not recall this). Reid’s July visit with Clara offered him such an opportunity, and again according to Reid’s account, he and Clara went through her closet, presumably looking for the schematic (such documents were not kept in the closet). In the closet, they found her old violins, and a reel to reel tape recorder and an old tape reel. According to Reid, Clara was unsure what was on the tape and suggested they just throw it out; Reid assured her he could both fix the tape recorder and find out for her what was on the tape, and she agreed to allow him to take these things home with him to do so.
Later, when we learned of this, we appreciated Reid’s gracious offer to fix Clara’s tape machine and find out what was on the tape (although Clara would never have suggested they throw the tape out). We had no reason not to believe Reid’s account that she accompanied him into the closet, and gave her permission for him to borrow these specific items for the reasons stated. Clara herself didn’t remember.
However, after going through her closet, Reid continued to look through her materials; Betty reported that Clara retired back to her bed, and Reid began looking inside her living room cabinets where she kept all her personal and professional papers and documents. Over the course of the next few days, Reid then carted out boxes and boxes of her private papers and original documents, and proceeded to photocopy over a thousand of them. In an April 2006 posting on Theremin World, he said, “To my disappointment, after sifting through and copying a thousand pieces of historical paper, there was no primary schematic to be found… I copied so much else, for sound reasons, in multiple runs to the copying shop across the street from #357 W. 57th.” (Note – for the record, Clara’s address was 350 W. 57th St).
Reid has written that he had Clara’s explicit permission to look through and photocopy her complete archives. While it’s always possible that he misunderstood her and/or she him, and it’s also possible she did in fact give him permission to photocopy the schematic, it is very unlikely (and would have been totally uncharacteristic of her) that she granted any such permission for her full archive. While she would have been wary of anyone photocopying all her papers, she never would have allowed anyone to remove her archives from her home.
Betty, who was the only eye witness to this event, was a consummate professional – she strongly felt that it was not her place to meddle in Ms. Rockmore’s affairs or second guess Ms. Rockmore’s guests, but equally sensed that something was very wrong here and called me to quietly and privately express her concerns over what Reid was doing. Betty told me that Clara was in bed during this time, and while aware of Reid’s presence, was completely unaware of what he was doing or what was happening in her living room with her archive.
Adding another twist, there’s also a distinct possibility that Clara thought Reid was Steve Martin’s brother Doug — when Steve returned from LA, Clara told him that his brother had been in her home.
All we know as fact is that Clara was elderly and ill, and that Reid, fully aware of the historical value of her archives, removed and copied thousands of Clara’s private and professional documents without recognized permission, and without informing anyone in the family of what he was doing or to confirm his right to do it.
Needless to say, my family was very concerned. I immediately contacted Reid and asked him to meet me for lunch, which we did on July 12. I told him he must put an immediate stop to this; that these materials belong to Clara, and it was completely unacceptable that anyone would remove anything from her premises, let alone make photocopies, without written legal authority. He insisted that Clara had given him permission to do this, and said he was just doing Clara’s bidding. I told him that we have serious doubts that she knowingly gave such permission, but that even if she did, why did he not at least alert us to what he was preparing to do, or even request that a family member work with him, if for no other reason than to avoid the inevitable perceptions of impropriety or even opening himself up to potential legal trouble. I suggested that he was not qualified to judge her state of mind, and therefore showed extremely poor judgment.
In this lunch, and subsequently in numerous phone conversations, I demanded that he immediately return all original and copied materials – I was not inviting any negotiation or discussion on this matter. Within the next few days, Reid did return some original materials to Clara’s home, and at least two large boxes of original documents and photos directly to my office. He also agreed to return the photocopied documents, and the original tape recorder and Nadia’s practice tape.
With this pledge of cooperation, we were willing at the time to accept that this was a misunderstanding, and quell our doubts about Reid’s integrity and motives – maybe he was simply over-excited to be inside Clara’s world, and had naively interpreted Clara’s wishes vis-à-vis the tape machine and the schematic in an overly broad manner to include other parts of her archive, and that his actions, while foolish, were not malicious.
Unfortunately, we don’t think that today. While Reid returned most (although almost certainly not all) of the original documents, 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.”
Further raising eyebrows in the family, during this visit Reid made a number of comments to various members of our family, and Betty, casting aspersions about Steve. Ironically, Reid informed us that Steve had “dipped into” Clara’s archives and accused him of taking a lot of her papers. Clearly designed to denigrate Steve’s standing with us, they had the opposite reaction as we began to wonder what Reid was really up to.
Reid also asked the family about the disposition of Clara’s theremin, and to find out if there might be some way to obtain or even buy the rights to this instrument from Dalit Warshaw or the family (one of the documents he presumably photocopied was her will, which bequeathed her primary theremin to Dalit). He suggested, naively and incorrectly, that Clara wanted her theremin left to the IPAM archive; he wrote that she, “being of forgetful mind at the end, and often confused as to details, had never updated her will”. Quite the contrary, Clara was always very clear on the details of her will – the family had discussed this with her many times over the years, and during this very period, she had given Dad numerous handwritten instructions for things not specifically included in the will; documentations about her violins, even evaluations of her own recordings. We therefore dismissed Reid’s inappropriate contention and dispelled any further discussion of Clara’s Theremin or her will.
By mid July, Reid was back in Florida, Steve was back in NY, and we the family were trying to figure out what had happened and reconstruct the archive (and determine what was still missing). Steve, having been informed of what happened in his absence, entered the fray with unapologetic anger; he was furious at Reid for taking advantage of Clara. Reid, in turn, blamed Steve for standing in between him and Clara and deliberately poisoning his well, and the friendship between the two evaporated in recriminations.
Steve told Clara about some of what Reid had said and done, and needless to say, Clara was very upset. When I told Steve how angry I was that he had done that, he told me he also told Clara that he had exaggerated, that this had apparently been a misunderstanding, and that Reid was still the same loving self. He told her that Reid would probably write to her to “apologize”, and she seemed satisfied with this. Steve then told Reid that she was expecting such a letter.
None of this was helpful to me — I was trying very hard to get Reid to return the materials and cooperate with us, while still trying to allow Reid to save face and specifically shield him from assertions of misconduct or theft, words being used by some of my family members to describe what had happened.
In late July, Reid started sending out cassette tapes of the “Clara Rockmore Gift Tape” as he called it; the Clara interview on side A and the contents of the reel-to-reel tape he had found in Clara’s closet on side B — a practice tape that Nadia had privately made for Clara, just the piano parts to aid Clara when practicing.
Even on the heels of the archive photocopying, the family did not have a problem with the Side A interview – we did not have an issue with Reid making it or distributing it as Clara herself requested (Reid sent me a copy as well). Steve Martin, however, did have a problem with the interview and it’s dissemination, because he felt it was in potential violation of the terms of the Sony agreement of 1996 (of which Clara and he were both signatories), and was concerned that the release of this interview tape so soon after that agreement was ratified could cause Sony to declare Clara in breach of the agreement. He voiced this directly to Reid, as well as to us.
At that time, the family’s position was that any agreement Clara signed must be upheld, that Steve was within his rights to protect the integrity of this agreement, and we urged Steve to seek legal counsel to verify if his concerns were well founded.
However, the family did have a problem with Reid putting the Nadia Reisenberg practice tape on the flip side of the cassette he was sending out. In introducing this tape, Reid narrated the following introduction, inadvertently admitting to the very reasons this was a problem for the family…
“Going through her archives, well, while digging through the contents of her living room closet, I found an ancient tape recorder – a Brush Soundmirror from c.1950. This machine hasn’t been used in so many years that Clara didn’t really remember it and she said, Well, maybe we should throw it out. And I said, no no on no. I can, can fix this thing – I know about electronics, and maybe there is something on the tape, maybe you or maybe, ah, your sister. And she said Nadia? Nadia, yes, Nadia could be on this tape. Can you fix it? And I said, well, I’ll take it home if you don’t mind, and she said Please do. So I brought the machine home, and I fixed it the other day, and I made a dub of the contents of the tape. It is entirely Nadia Reisenberg, but, ah, it was designed for Clara to play along with. In other words, it’s the piano portion of these, ah, theremin and piano duets with which we are all familiar, so if you have a theremin and you play as well as Clara Rockmore, you can use the tape as, ah, practice material. Like I say, it was made on an ancient tape recorder with a very primitive microphone, so there’s a good deal of distortion in it, ah, however it is, ah, I think a charming document and I hope you all enjoy it.”
From his own words, we know that Reid understood the contents of this practice tape and what it was intended for, that Clara did not know what was on the tape, and that Reid never went back to Clara or the family after discovering what was on it and asking anyone’s permission to copy and/or distribute it — his distribution was without consent or authorization.
We drew the line, morally and legally, when Reid took it upon himself to distribute Nadia’s practice tape. The family, as well as the Nadia Reisenberg Archives at IPAM, was adamant and resolute that this practice tape not be distributed – it was our private family’s domain, and never intended by either Nadia or Clara to be made public, lest it inadvertently damage Nadia’s legacy and become a bootleg (and a bad one at that) at a time we were re-releasing many of her recordings in anticipation of her centennial.
So in early August, I, on behalf of the family, asked Reid to immediately stop distributing this B side Nadia tape, and to collect any tapes he has sent out – the infamous “recall”. I was very clear that the family was only contesting the B-side, and that while we didn’t actually expect all the tapes to come back (or not be copied by recipients), we were nonetheless giving legal notice. However, with the additional concerns Steve raised concerning the interview, and given what had transpired with the archive, we were very willing to have the entire tape recalled until further legal clarification – for most of our family, patience with Reid was running out.
Steve contacted Reid separately and told him in no uncertain terms that the Clara interview was in violation of his Sony agreement, and must also not be distributed. Reid agreed to cooperate; he asked for both Steve and my input as to how to properly word the recall of the tape, and asked for some sort of proof of Steve’s legal agreement. I sent him a full statement to put out, but Steve did not respond. Consequently, Reid accepted his obligation to recall the Nadia portion of the tape, but announced his intention to continue to distribute the interview.
According to one of Reid’s Levnet postings, Clara then called him on August 3rd saying “I made a mistake. We must not hurt Steve’s Hollywood movie. Promise me you will do whatever he says”. Reid then agreed to stop distributing either portion of the tape, and although we never received any of the tapes back, we were satisfied that at least this specific incident was concluded satisfactorily.
At this point, Reid had gone public on the Levnet, and Steve responded in kind. Back and forth, the accusations and recriminations played out with soap-operatic fury. Details of Clara’s private condition suddenly became public, but not in context or in a dignified manner.
Even so, Reid and I managed to maintain a respectful dialogue. Responding to previous emails and defending himself point by point, Reid emailed me on August 5, “I am a newcomer in Clara’s life. In some ways this presents an awkward situation.” I responded on August 6, “This is true, maybe more than you realized. However, you must understand how this situation presented itself to us – put yourself in our shoes for a moment, and see if you can’t understand why you raised some eyebrows in the family. You came in and spent a few days with Clara. During this time, you expressed concerns to a number of family members about Steve (he has been there for Clara for 10 years now, and has earned a special place in her heart and in ours) and then proceeded to photocopy most of her archival and confidential papers and even take a few items home, which then were distributed publicly. Reid – Clara is 87 and not well. Her papers are historically important and valuable. How would you feel about this if you were in our shoes? How did you expect us to react? These are the things I meant when I said that you used bad judgment.”
On August 5, I wrote a private letter to Reid and Steve in which I scolded both for their harsh and flagrant accusations against the other, and demanded that they stop. I reminded them of the important place each holds in Clara’s life, and the contributions they had made to Clara’s happiness. I said that this “stupid feud” was getting out of hand, and that they must “not say anything to Clara that might turn her against the other in any way, and you must both recognize that her health and other concerns outweigh ALL of our individual needs, careers and egos. She must never be placed in the middle of any dispute, feud or argument.”
Unfortunately, by this time, Steve had already discussed the archive situation with Clara, who then sought confirmation and additional details from both Betty and me. We had no choice – we told her exactly what we knew. Clara felt betrayed by Reid, and felt her trust and friendship had been violated. Reid wrote letters to her, defending and explaining his position, expressing his love for her, even apologizing, but to no avail; Clara left a message on his phone machine saying “I will never forgive you for making me betray the trust that Professor Termen gave to me. I will never trust you or your judgment again”. To me personally, she said she never wanted Reid to step foot in her house again; after one of Reid’s letters that she felt was notably inappropriate, I watched her refuse to open any more of his letters.
As Reid sadly and bitterly understood (and posted all over Levnet), his friendship with Clara was over.
Ironically, it was also on August 5 when I informed Clara that we had just reached a deal with IPAM, and the Archive people asked us to begin organizing and cataloguing the archive items. Clara responded by ignoring the raging controversy and wrote me a few pages of notes on half size yellow legal pads with some specific instructions and some general thoughts. She ended by saying, “Needless to say, I am proud and greatly comforted, now in my old age of 87, in knowing that Nadia and Clara will be together forever.”