A Baby Grand Gift

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Lights, Camera, Action in front of the Fletcher mansion on 79th and Fifth Avenue. Photo: JH.

Wednesday, June 23, 2022. A beautiful early Summer day, yesterday in New York with temps around a comfortable 70 degrees, and a light rain beginning in the late afternoon and forecast through the late evening.

Meanwhile, out here in real life the greenery and the flowers and the trees all of which are noticeably taller and a richer green in their freshness, showing us Mother Nature’s array of beautiful abundance. After an often-grey and cool days in May, the temperature warmed up in June. And so has the action on the streets.

A little Hollywood in Manhattan at the Fletcher mansion on 79th and Fifth Avenue.
And more movie magic around the corner on Madison Avenue between 78th and 79th Streets.

On a Tuesday in this Nature’s environment, I went down to Avra to lunch with Marc Rosen. Firstly, I’d never been to Avra before. Although I’ve seen it many times on my way down East 60th Street. It’s a Greek restaurant, a huge space, both wide and deep. Whenever I’ve passed by I could see the place was packed. Always. On this day, it was crowded inside and out.

The lunch scene outside Avra on 60th Street where on a warm sunny day in Manhattan, it’s always interesting.

Mark’s wife, Arlene Dahl, left us last November after a long and amazing life beginning with her Hollywood career where she starred in 31 films and married five times. The first four were relatively brief, although she became the mother of two sons and a daughter.

But 38 years ago she met and married a young entrepreneurial products designer who was a vice president of Elizabeth Arden. And about a year later, they married on a yacht in the Mediterranean, and remained together for 37 years, until Arlene’s departure.

Aside from Marc’s devotion to his wife, Arlene brought the world of movie stars, fame and a vast world of major celebrity into his life. His experiences with the Hollywood side of fame and fortune is endlessly interesting, and he’s never lost his appreciation of personages that came his way. Among his souvenirs is his piano – which he learned to play after they married. This is his recollection of The Piano and Arlene’s influence on his pursuit:

In 1951 Arlene Dahl married her first husband, actor Lex Barker. As her mother had died when she was only 15, Lex’s parents, wealthy and prominent New Yorkers, hosted the pre-wedding dinner at their Park Avenue apartment. Mrs. Barker had called Juilliard and asked them to send a student to play their piano after dinner.

Lex and Arlene.

Arlene and Lex were the beautiful golden couple of the day and after one or two break-ups they decided to tie the knot. Their picture was in the New York papers that morning. After dinner the party withdrew to the Barkers’ drawing room for coffee where a tall redheaded young man was playing the piano.

Arlene was so moved by his playing that she walked over to the piano and sat down on the bench next to the student.

“You are so talented, you will be a great star,” she proclaimed.

He turned to thank the lady only to find that he was face to face with Arlene Dahl whose picture he had seen in the morning papers.

Fade out, several years later his teachers at Juilliard entered him into the famous Tchaikovsky piano competition in Moscow in 1958. It was the height of the Cold War and although the judges (and Russian fans, many of whom waited outside in bitter cold for as long as three days to get tickets) thought that the young American deserved to win, they needed Khrushchev’s permission to give the distinguished prize to an American.

Khrushchev’s reply: “If he’s the best, give it to him.”

His name was Van Cliburn and he became a national hero back home, credited for creating the first thaw in the Cold War. On his return from Russia, he was given a ticker tape parade down Broadway.

Van Cliburn at the ticker tape parade in New York after winning the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958. (NEAL BOENZI / NYT)

Fade In. A few years later, Arlene was a guest at a party given in Hollywood by Norma Shearer. A tall red headed man comes up to her and says, “Hello Miss Dahl. You don’t remember me, but I played the piano at your wedding dinner when you were marrying Lex Barker. My name is Van Cliburn and you told me that I was going to be a star!”

In Marc’s words: Well, they became lifelong friends. Shortly after I married Arlene, I had the privilege of meeting Van and we dined with him whenever he came to New York over the years. When the TV station A&E decided to do a biography of Van, he asked Arlene to be interviewed to tell the story of how they met.

A year later I decided that since we had a vintage piano in our country house, I would take lessons on Saturdays when we were there. I had never learned to play a musical instrument and was deluded into thinking that since I have talent as a designer, I might have some in music. Not at all!

I realized that I would need to practice during the week.  So I began looking for a used Steinway baby grand and cleared a space for one in our NY apartment.

Marc Rosen, Arlene Dahl, and Van Cliburn.

One day, Van called to say he would be in town and asked if we were free for dinner. The next day, Arlene invited him for lunch at Doubles. At the lunch she told him that I was taking piano lessons and looking for a used piano. He exclaimed that I should buy a Steinway as that was the only piano he played. Arlene said that I was, in fact, shopping for a used Steinway Model S.

When I came home from work I went to say hello to Arlene in the bedroom. “How was your lunch with Van” I asked.

“Go into the living room,” she said.

“Why,” I asked.

“Just go!” she insisted.

And there in the empty space allotted for my used Steinway was a brand new one gifted to us by Van Cliburn. It was like receiving a painting from Monet. Van even came to play it.

The Steinway gifted to Arlene for Marc from Van Cliburn himself.

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