Facing the Music

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Looking southwest across The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. Sunday, 11:00 AM. Photo: JH.

Monday, March 7, 2022. The weatherman forecast 70 degrees for midday yesterday in New York. Not quite here in Manhattan by the river, but very mild anyway. With enough rain to dampen and shine the streets and darken the grey pavement. I had my terrace door open all day. The avenue is always very quiet on weekends and especially Sundays.

Saturday night I was a guest of Gillian Miniter at Sette Mezzo which was very busy. Four gents; myself, Eric Javits, Di Mondo, Kevin Philip who was in from Los Angeles on business.

Eric wearing one of his own designs.

I asked Eric about his business — which is millinery/hats — and I learned a little about his professional background. As a college student, art was his calling and he started out to be a painter. The isolation was one of the reasons he ended up in the hat business. Actually making them, early on.

I asked him how the hat business was these days. Having once been active in the retail business, I continue to regard it as an important marker in many ways for our civilization. I knew Eric had been in business for many years, despite his youthfulness.

We talked about the history of wearing hats — for men and women. Eric pointed out that hatless began with Jackie Kennedy Onassis’ bouffant hairdo. It was the fashion. It was also true that JFK was noted for his lack of a hat when going out in public. He was the first. Every President followed.

However, Eric told me that his business is doing well, better than last year, and better than the year before. Big business in “collapsible hats.” I think he’s even trademarked it as The Squishee® hat. Good for keeping out the Sun, good for traveling, packing, and good for what ails ya, as my mother used to define the habit of fashion.

Eric’s Squishee classic fedora is a definite stand out. Perfect for those Palm Beach days, no?

I spent the weekend reading Peter Duchin’s new memoir, Face the Music. Peter and I are longtime social friends and have many acquaintances in common, the way people in New York often know people because of proximity and mutual acquaintances. He’s a few years older than I but we’re of the same generation.

As long as I’ve known him — the past three decades — he’s been a working man. He’s probably the handsomest orchestra leader-pianist there is. He looks like he could have been in the movies, and his easy social manner befits the role. His lifestyle or its appearance reflects his professional success, and his variety of friends runs the gamut on material wealth and social power. But he’s a worker/labor; kitten on the keys and it’s been that way since the beginning. That tells you something extra about that lifestyle: he lives in reality.

But I’ve known about him since I was a kid because his father Eddy Duchin was a very famous pianist and orchestra leader when my parents were young adults, from the late 1920s through the 1951, when he died of leukemia at age 42. In 1956 there was even a Technicolor musical biography The Eddy Duchin Story starring Tyrone Power as the man, and Kim Novak as Marjorie Oelrichs, his society wife who died six days after giving birth to her son Peter here in New York in August of 1935. Back then, the story was the tragedy of Eddie’s death suddenly ending a brilliant career.

Marjorie Oelrichs, photographed by Cecil Beaton. “My mother was a close friend of the superb artist, photographer Cecil Beaton who loved to photograph her. I’ve often wished the woman in this picture could stand up, stretch, show me her wonderful smile and put her arms around me.” — PD

The real tragedy was left in the arms (and the hands) of their only child, the boy, survivor who would never knew his mother, and who would lose his father by the time he was age 12. It is a tragedy that occurs to not a few children from a variety of causes including health. But each child’s loss is universally the tragedy. And yet, ironically, in Peter Duchin’s case, assisted by fame and celebrity, upshot of his own efforts, his professional exposure is three times as broad as was his father’s, as it has been among his experiences in life.

Peter’s parents Eddy Duchin and Marjorie Oelrichs Duchin, photographed by Cecil Beaton. “The newspapers feasted on the love story between the socialite and the bandleader. Cecil Beaton beautifully captured the happiness, intimacy and glamour that was abruptly cut off when my mother died.”
Kim Novak as Marjorie Oelrichs Duchin and Tyrone Power as Eddy Duchin in The Eddy Duchin Story (1956).

The newborn Peter Duchin was fortunate in that a friend of his mother and father, Marie Harriman, the wife of Averell, took over the care and ultimately the upbringing of the baby boy. That was a stroke of good fortune. Everything required for the child’s health and comfort was provided carefully and thoughtfully. Except No Mother.

When he was old enough he was sent away to boarding school, and when he was college material he went to Yale. The piano was already an important element in his future. And his mother, and who she was, and what was she like, was forever with him and his ultimate curiosity.

L. to r.: Marie Harriman, who brought up Peter, with Peter and Eddy Duchin at the Harriman’s summer house; Peter with his father Eddy Duchin, on leave from the U.S. Navy.

Just about everything I just wrote above about Peter Duchin, I knew before I read his memoir. In other words, I knew enough that might deter me from reading Face the Music. Or so I might think. However, I told the man, as well as his able assistant, the author/editor Patricia Beard that I would. And as it turned out I had much to learn about the man and his now long life. I’ve seen him so frequently when he was playing a charity social events, or a restaurants and dinner, and knowing generally about his life, his wife, his social friends, that I came to easily conclude I knew it all. Ha!

The boy playing a junk shop piano on a barge in Paris.

A few years ago, one morning I got an email informing that Peter had died in hospital. I had no idea he was ill. There was no explanation why. Shortly thereafter with more “reports” about his “death” his wife Virginia called to ask me what I’d heard — which I told her.

Peter was honored in 1996 as a ’Living Landmark’ by the New York Landmarks Conservancy, and he’s played at the Conservancy’s events ever since. Here, his vocalist and guitarist Roberta Fabiano is on the left, and his drummer and office manager Barry Lazarowitz is on drums.

Well, it wasn’t true. Peter had been in hospital, with Covid, where he had been put under with a ventilator for a number of days. But he was recovering, as Virginia informed me — which he did — and he was back home. Since then I’ve seen him dining with Virginia in restaurants but I didn’t know what happened until I started reading Face the Music.

Click to order Peter Duchin’s Face the Music.

This glamorous fellow, the international pianist and bandleader who is known, and knows everybody, and has played for all the greats and at the greatest parties of our age and generations, had a stroke. I was not aware of it until I read it. My reaction was to take it personally: my God what a horrible horrible …

But that was then, this is now. The man after his Covid ordeal had something potentially much greater, and in this book, we learn how the boy who never had a mother, who lost his father when he was still a child, not only survived a stroke in his eighties, but learned from it and grew from it, and turned it into a renaissance for himself. He would not only survive but he would learn and prosper. Even more impressive was how his music and his relationship to the piano, to his father, to his whole life, led to his own restoration as a victim of terrible health impairment at a senior age.

He also had at the lowest point of the motherless boy’s life, it should be acknowledged, a wise and devoted wife, Virginia Regan who was present, and saw him through it all, and back into the light. This book is worth the read of the man’s personal experiences and growth to this day. And while we’re at it, a private look into a world of glamour, wealth, and fame.

With that chapter you’re renewed and onward into the worldly life of the man and his music.

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