MEMOIR: The child prodigy who lived across the street
Leon Fleisher is one of the great concert pianists of our time. Critics have compared him to the likes of Artur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz. Now 79, Fleisher made his public debut at eight in San Francisco, where he was born, and at 16 performed with the New York Philharmonic.
His illustrious career was interrupted at 36 when he lost the use of his right hand due to a debilitating ailment known as focal dystonia. But he continued performing in public, limiting his repertory to selections for the left hand. He also became a renowned orchestral conductor and teacher at the Peabody Conservatory of Music. Over the past decade, he has regained the use of his right hand and has resumed his regular concert and recording career.
My own personal impression of Fleisher goes far beyond his international eminence as a concert pianist. I remember him as the child prodigy who lived across the narrow street from my family's apartment in the Bronx when I was growing up. He lived on the fifth floor of 1325 Grand Concourse and I lived on the third floor of 1299 Grand Concourse.
Both our apartments had windows facing Clarke Place, which was a block north of 169th Street. Weather permitting, our windows were always open. Young Leon practiced constantly, and it may well be that the gorgeous sound of his piano helped foster my lifelong love of classical music.
But we both had some far less worldly neighbors who did not share my love of Leon's music and who failed to recognize that we had a child prodigy in our midst. They regarded Leon's playing as an annoyance, and I can still remember them often calling the police to complain about the "noise" from Leon's apartment.
I recall that the Fleisher family moved to our block when he was about 10. I also recall that Leon's father had been a taxi cab driver in San Francisco. According to neighborhood lore, a wealthy patroness of the arts in that city recognized that young Leon was an exceptionally gifted child.
She arranged for the family to move to New York City so that Leon could study with the legendary pianist, Artur Schnabel, and have private tutors for his general education. I do not recall that Leon had any playmates or that he ever played outside on our street which was always packed with hordes of boys and girls at play. When he was seen outside, he was always dressed in an extremely formal style that was probably the fashion of boy prodigies.
Leon had an older brother, Ray, who was close to me in age. (I am three years older than Leon Fleisher.) Ray was a popular member of our "social and athletic" club, initially known as the Mohawks and later as the Eagles. I don't know whether he had any musical talent, but he was one of the best stick-ball and touch-football players in our gang.
I was inducted into the Army in 1943 and never saw Leon Fleisher again until about 15 years ago when I attended a concert in Trenton, N.J., where he was appearing as a soloist with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Over the years, of course, I had closely followed his career, deriving vicarious satisfaction over his reputation as one of the world's most prominent pianists.
When the concert ended, my wife and I succeeded in being allowed back stage, where I introduced myself to Fleisher as having grown up on Clarke Place, where I had been his brother Ray's friend.
Fleisher was extremely gracious as we tried to recall our early lives on "the block." (I don't know whether he was aware that he was not the only musical celebrity produced in our neighborhood; opera soprano Roberta Peters and pop singer Edie Gorme were our contemporaries.)
Fleisher told me that his brother Ray lived in California and had been a chemical engineer before his retirement. The only name that he could recall from his brother's gang of friends was a boy he called "Sluggo." I had to correct him that the nick-name had been just plain "Slug," and that the boy's real name was Seymour.
Neither of us could figure out why, after so many decades, that Slug was the only name he could recall from Clarke Place. Perhaps it was because it was an exotic one for a Jewish kid of that era.
I did not tell Fleisher that after my discharge from the Army in 1946 my mother urged me to take out her friend's daughter Beverly on a date, and that Beverly informed me that she was also dating Leon Fleisher. I recall being glad to learn that the boy prodigy, who had had such a seemingly restrictive boyhood, had successfully entered into the social whirl as a young adult.