Two items of GetReligion biz (prayers for George, please)

Let me share two items with readers this weekend, both of a personal nature.

The first is personal, in that one of your GetReligionistas has been missing for a few days and his readers need to know why. Father George Conger recently had some serious spinal surgery and, while it went well, this is not the kind of thing that one recovers from quickly. He faces some pretty serious rehabilitation and it may be some time before he is his usual erudite, spunky self near a keyboard and a mouse.

So, those of you who feel comfortable with the word “prayer,” please offer a few invocations on our brother’s behalf. He has enough high-church blood in him to appreciate a few requests for the heroic prayers of St. George, I would think.

We will keep you posted, but know that this is not the kind of situation that you rush. Until then, your GetReligionistas will be working shorthanded (we’ve been down one scribe after the loss of Sarah Pulliam Bailey, as it was) for a while. So expect some days when there are only two posts, especially since I will be traveling for about a week, including a visit to New York City to lead a few seminars at this year’s spring College Media Convention.

Also, thank you for those who wrote kind notes appreciating my recent rather personal post about the coverage of the death of the great pianist (and Texas Baptist) Van Cliburn, one of my classical music heroes as a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid growing up in East Texas.

Thus, I thought I would share a big chunk of reflection on the pianist, published in The Washington Post Style section. It concerns an encounter with Cliburn in the late 1950s, when the father of writer Patricia Dane Rogers was dying of cancer in the family’s New York apartment. Her parents met the pianist at their doctor’s office soon after his world-shaking victory in the international Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow, which made him one of the most famous musicians in the world.

Months later, when it was obvious that her father’s illness was terminal, Cliburn offered to come over and play for him.

Did they have a piano?

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Van Cliburn on stage, at church and in private life

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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.

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