Van Cliburn on stage, at church and in private life

You know how, when you are growing up, that there is always some kind of music that you want to play late at night and it drives (Will you PLEASE turn that down?!) your parents kind of crazy? Well, for my parents, the music they had to endure for most of my teen years was Artur Rubinstein playing Rachmaninoff (piano concerto No. 2, of course) and Van Cliburn’s epic performance of the Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1.

Yes, it did help matters that Cliburn was a Texan, and a Baptist, when one is growing up in the home of a Southern Baptist minister on the Texas Gulf Coast. It also matters that I had a friend who, week after week, made the long, long journey north into East Texas to study piano with Cliburn’s mother. So I knew, secondhand, a few things about the Cliburn family and the son’s struggles to break out of the glorious box created by his historic 1958 triumph in Moscow. How does a young Texas Baptist recover from a ticker-tape parade in New York City?

I say all of this for a simple reason, after reading through quite a few obituaries marking Cliburn’s death, from cancer, at the age of 78. Cliburn was a very private man, yet there was more to the religious element of his life than what is shown in this stunningly blunt, rather simplistic passage in the USA Today report.

On the personal front, Cliburn was a devout Baptist but also quietly gay; in the late ’90s, his longtime partner, Thomas Zaremba, unsuccessfully sued the pianist over compensation claims.

And that is that. Really?

What really matters, of course, is what the journalistic college of cardinals at The New York Times elected to say. First, there is this:

Even as a personality, Mr. Cliburn began to seem out of step. In the late 1950s this baby-faced, teetotaling, churchgoing, wholesome Texan had fit the times. But to young Americans of the late 1960s he seemed a strained, stiff representative of the demonized establishment.

Followed, later on, by a crisp summary of the pianist’s brief moment in the glare of legal and social scandal:

In 1978, at 44, Mr. Cliburn announced his withdrawal from concertizing. Having earned large sums of money and invested wisely, he was a wealthy man. He moved into a magnificent home in the Fort Worth area with his mother. There he hosted frequent late-night dinner parties, his teetotaling days long behind him.

As a young man, Mr. Cliburn was briefly linked romantically with a soprano classmate from Juilliard. But even then he was living a discreet homosexual life. His discreetness was relaxed considerably in 1966 when, at 32, he met Thomas E. Zaremba, who was 19.

The details of their romantic relationship exploded into public view in 1995, when Mr. Zaremba filed a palimony suit against Mr. Cliburn seeking “multiple millions,” according to The Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Mr. Zaremba, who had moved to Michigan and become a funeral director, claimed that during his 17-year relationship with Mr. Cliburn he had served as a consultant and business associate, arranging promotional events and trips, managing some of the pianist’s finances, and helping to care for Mr. Cliburn’s mother, who died in 1994 at 97. The suit was eventually dismissed because Mr. Zaremba could not provide written validation of his domestic arrangement with Mr. Cliburn, as required by Texas law.

There is no attribution, of course, for many of these facts or the degree to which the sexual side of this partnership was documented.

My point is not, of course, to say that the pianist’s private life is irrelevant in this context.

My journalistic point is to say that, in explaining his image and career, it also helps to note the sincerity of his faith, which was a constant in his whole life. In short, if you are reading a story about the death of Cliburn and it does not include the faith element, then you are not getting an accurate picture of his remarkable Texan.

The piece at included a few more hints about the private, and public, man:

Over the years, he lent his name to charitable causes — and gossip columns. Chronicled were the natty navy blue suits, donations to the Baptist Church, his appearance at Madison Square Garden singing in Billy Graham’s choir, and a palimony suit against him (it was dismissed).

His Tchaikovsky Competition win spawned an event in his honor. The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, held every four years since 1962, has become an integral part of the circuit.

As you would expect, the man’s local newspaper devoted quite a bit of space to the death of this local legend. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram feature opened with the big-picture summary, as did so many, but with extra Texas zip:

FORT WORTH, Texas — Van Cliburn’s talent alone might have earned him a place among the 20th-century giants of his instrument, alongside classical pianists like Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz. But after a magical Moscow spring in 1958, Mr. Cliburn’s fame eclipsed even those musical contemporaries, rivaling that of another young superstar of his time, Elvis Presley.

Mr. Cliburn was “The Texan Who Conquered Russia,” according to a Time magazine cover. At the height of the Cold War, the lanky 23-year-old from East Texas traveled to Moscow and won the first Tchaikovsky International Competition, an event created to showcase Soviet cultural superiority. Mr. Cliburn’s unlikely triumph was thus said to bring a thaw in tensions between the rival superpowers and created a mythic parable about the power of art to unite mankind.

A journalist can, when writing the hometown readers, include the kinds of details that would mean little in the concrete canyons of Manhattan. Also note that, in this story, the faith element was taken seriously and — this is crucial — Cliburn’s own words were included in the text.

High up in this obituary, readers were reminded:

While the world mourns a cultural icon, many in North Texas remember a friend — a shy man of uncommon graciousness.

A friend to American presidents, foreign leaders and Hollywood celebrities, Mr. Cliburn also became a fixture in the life of Fort Worth. In the 1980s, he moved from a New York City apartment to a mansion in the exclusive Fort Worth suburb of Westover Hills. In the decades since, he was often seen at local cultural events or handing out medals to winners of the prestigious Fort Worth piano competition that bears his name.

A famous night owl, Mr. Cliburn was well-known for his off-hours visits to the Ol’ South Pancake House on University Drive, always dressed in his trademark dark suits. A man of deep Christian faith, he was a member at Broadway Baptist Church, sneaking into a back pew just before services began each Sunday he was in town.

“One of the most profound truths that has characterized my life is St. Paul’s advice to ‘pray without ceasing,'” Mr. Cliburn told Brent Beasley, his pastor at Broadway Baptist, shortly before his death. “That’s how I have lived my life.”

Beasley and others who spent time with Mr. Cliburn after his recent diagnosis described a man bent on reminiscing from the moment he woke up daily, but a person unafraid of the end.

“He actually made the comment, ‘I’m more afraid of living than dying,'” Beasley said.

Yes, the locals would know that Broadway Baptist Church is a doctrinally progressive, culturally liberal Baptist congregation — one that has made headlines, through the years, as it struggled to be more gay-friendly, while retaining its Baptist roots. That’s valid information, in this story.

And his private life? The Star-Telegram focused on his impact on music and the world, perhaps making a journalistic choice to only print information that could be attributed to on-the-record sources.

There are simply too many amazing details in the piece to mention them all. Here is the summary that hits the big themes:

The triumph was front-page news around the globe and earned Mr. Cliburn a ticker-tape parade in New York City on his return to the United States, the only classical musician ever afforded that honor. He eventually performed for every American president from Harry S. Truman on. He began every performance by playing The Star-Spangled Banner. In 2003, Mr. Cliburn was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush. In 2004, Russian President Vladimir Putin presented Mr. Cliburn with the Order of Friendship. In another White House ceremony in 2011, President Barack Obama presented Mr. Cliburn the National Medal of the Arts.

“He understood the role music could play in the lives of diverse people,” said Robert Blocker, dean of the Yale School of Music. “He just saw music as a vehicle of hope. He lived that out, whether it was with [President] Carter or Khrushchev. I see him as being one of the world’s great cultural leaders. The message he carried to presidents and to children was that music is important.”

But as a classical music lover who grew up feeling weird in East Texas, here is the moment in the story that I felt truly captured the beginning of Cliburn’s remarkable career and his dream of being a concert pianist. This part put a tear in my eye.

When he was 5, Mr. Cliburn’s parents gave him a child’s picture book of the world. When the boy came to the photograph of the colorful, onion-shaped domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square, he gasped.

“Take me there,” he said.

Read it all.

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  • The Old Bill

    “Mr. Cliburn was “The Texan Who Conquered Russia,” according to a Time magazine cover. ”
    Aha! When the Berlin Wall came down, I just knew a Texan was behind it!

    The Fort Worth Star-Telegram piece might have been more hometown, but it fleshed out the man – including his gayness – much better than the NYT. But I wonder what his being more afraid of living than dying.

  • mollie

    I really enjoyed that Star-Telegram piece — thanks for highlighting it.

  • Martha

    tmatt, please excuse the digression, but as a native speaker of English, I must vent or I will explode. What verb does “The New Y ork Times” ( a newspaper that one presumes has some aspirations to write and print correct English) choose to use to describe the activities a professional musician engages in?


    I leave the wretched thing naked as you see, since only a festoon of exclamation and question marks would properly express my incredulity, distress and disbelief, and then I would have to descend to “ZOMGWTFBBQ!!!!” to finish up.

    But please, for the love of all the Muses on Mount Helicon, tell me your nation does not think that “to concertize” is a usage that exists in reality? Not even in the pages of “I Can Has Cheezburger?” have I seen this kind of torture of harmless nouns, warped into verbs by means of a suffix bolted on the end.

    • northcoast

      You drove me to check my Webster’s New World College Dictionary (3rd Edition). The word is in there. It is not to be found in my older New Collegiate Dictionary.

      • Martha

        Now we know the reason for the decline in college education. O Webster’s, have you no shame? Or sense of duty towards safeguarding the English language? Or are you still annoyed about 1776 And All That?


  • tmatt


    A classic comment. Vent on, dear heart.

    • Martha

      Well, you know, tmatt, when I sitterize down to readerize the writerizings of the “GetReligion” bloggerizers and commentatorizers, I knowerize I will finderize something good.


      • Jonathan

        I nearly spit out my drink reading that! 😉

  • Suburbanbanshee

    Truly do I love thee, my friend, and truly do I sympathize with thee about word choice… but “concertise” dates back at least as far as the 1850’s and comes from your side of the Atlantic.

    “She has given Paul Jullien a great benefit concert, and proposes, after concluding her third operatic season, to concertise in New York, Baltimore, Washington, &c.” 1853, The Musical World.

    • Martha

      It is still a barbarism, and the gentlemen of “The Musical World” should have been rebuked for not, at the very least, enclosing it in quotation marks to mark it as a neologism or dubious usage 🙂

      While I’m mocking American media, let me share this clip with you where the 2012 Olympic gold medal winner of the men’s 10,000 metres and 5000 metres is asked, after he won the New Orleans half-marathon, has he ever run before?

  • FW Ken

    What kills me about The Fort Worth Star-Telegram is that they can produce some excellent pieces, including this obit for Van Cliburn. I’ve commented before on the good work done on the local Episcopalian schism. But the paper is slowly dying, partly because it usually dissolves into the sort of mindless populism that doesn’t have the nerve to be left or right wing.

    This article may or may not “get” Van Cliburn (I mean, how could an obituary be complete without mentioning his gayness!), but it gets Fort Worth. Molly Ivins wrote once that in Fort Worth, you tell people how to go with something like “turn left where the green water tower used to be”. Fort Worth is a place of places. Ol’ South Pancake House is one of them. I remember when it was the only all night place in town. A gay friend was recently laughing about how in the 70s he and his friends went there after the bars closed. We do Shrove Tuesday there (actually on Monday, since Terry teaches on Tuesday nights). The Startlegram article is full of little things like that, which I so much appreciated.

    The New York Times, on the other hand, seemed more political, including, of course, the obligatory bit about his quiet homosexual life. Yes, sources would have been nice.

  • FW Ken

    Mean to say to Old Bill –

    If I had cancer, I can imagine that life holds more fear than death.