I have what in Vicwardian times was quaintly known as “a weak chest,” meaning not that my figure is less than Greek (though it is, it is!) but that respiratory ailments are harder on me than on most people. When I get a cold, it has a way of sticking around, and it didn’t help that I hit the road for Massachusetts and Washington a few days after coming down with my most recent one. As a result, it didn’t go away, and soon I was laid low again. So I did something I normally find almost impossible to do: I took last Wednesday off. I didn’t write, didn’t blog, didn’t set foot out of my apartment, not even to go downstairs and pick up the mail. Surrounded by the temptation to work, I succeeded in putting it behind me for a whole day, and the better part of two more besides.
What do you do when you’re too sick to go out but not sick enough to sleep around the clock? Me, I like to reread familiar biographies, and this time around I opted for Peter Heyworth’s Otto Klemperer, His Life and Times: 1933-1973, the second volume of one of the few really first-rate biographies of an orchestral conductor. I’m sure it won’t strike most of you as promising sickroom fare, but Klemperer’s life was unusually interesting. In addition to being a great conductor (as this 1955 recording of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony makes surpassingly clear), he was a full-blown manic depressive who converted from Judaism to Catholicism and back again, which makes for quite a tale. On top of all that, Klemperer is also the answer to one of the all-time great trivia questions, for his son Werner grew up to become an actor who carved his name into the tablets of history by playing the part of Colonel Klink in Hogan’s Heroes. A refugee from Nazism who had a well-developed sense of irony, Otto lived long enough to see Hogan’s Heroes and find it amusing.
Rereading Heyworth’s book, I ran across this wonderful letter sent to Klemperer by Arnold Schoenberg, who may well have been the most arrogant person who ever lived. “After Klemperer had failed to accept an invitation to visit him,” Heyworth writes, “Schoenberg wrote a letter of rebuke.” Here it is:
I find it inappropriate that the extent or our meetrings should be determined by you…Anyone should consider it a pleasure as well as an honour if I enjoy seeing him often…Do not suppose that I am not aware of the gratitude I owe you for your many successful efforts concerning my material affairs. I am very conscious of that, do not and shall not forget it, and will seize every available opportunity to express my thanks practically. But my sense of order tells me..that every Kulturmensch [that is, “civilized person”] owes me tribute for my cultural achievements.
Isn’t that a hoot?
When I feel really lousy, so much so that I’m not even up to the challenge of letting my eyes glide passively over the pages of a thrice-read book, I stick to movies. Last Wednesday night, for instance, I watched Howard Hawks’ Red River, which I know well and love, and Only Angels Have Wings, which I’d never seen. Both of them hit the spot. I suspect there’s something about Hawks’ combination of exquisite cinematic craft and charmingly adolescent pseudo-stoicism that appeals strongly to a middle-aged man with a runny nose.
My day of rest was blissful, and it put me back on the slow road to recovery. But I knew well–too well–that so long as I stayed at home, my obsessive attitude toward work would sooner or later trip me up. Instead, I decided to do something even smarter and get out of town. I’d had such a good time on my first trip to Cold Spring that I figured I might as well do it again, so I called the Hudson House Inn and made a reservation. As soon as I sign off on this week’s Wall Street Journal theater column, I’ll be catching the next train north from Grand Central Station, and I won’t be back until Thursday afternoon. A two-day break may not sound like much to you, but it’s a big deal to me, so wish me luck at relaxing.
And so…goodbye. I have a rendezvous with a park bench by the Hudson River. See you around.