Reflections on Fame

I have always enjoyed following in the footsteps of the famous. I've been inside Mark Twain's house in Hartford, here in Connecticut, eight times. As a tribute to the valiant spirit of Winston Churchill, I drank a brandy and smoked a cigar on the side lawn at Chartwell, his country home in Kent. James Thurber's widow, Helen, allowed me to sit at his desk and draw a picture of a fierce bunny. And I once found myself in Goethe's mansion, trying not to think of critic Guy Davenport's remark, "Sometimes when reading Goethe I have the paralyzing suspicion that he is trying to be funny."

Not long ago, I stood in the doorway of composer Jean Sibelius' bedroom in his house on a hill in the country around Helsinki. A velvet rope was strung across the doorway, but I could have reached over the rope and touched the foot of the narrow bed. In fact, I did reach over the rope and touch the bed. To the right of the door hung one of his famous white suits. I touched the suit, too.

"This is exciting," I said to my wife, Gail. "I just love conducting Sibelius. The third and fourth movements of the Second Symphony, for instance. I think some of those passages are as emotionally satisfying as any that have ever been written."

There were only a few other tourists, but one couple leaned closer to listen to me. There were no guides and I was the only one who was talking. "I used to conduct while listening to the phonograph in my bedroom in Detroit," I informed them. "With a white baton my brother Carl got from Sammy Kaye." They glanced at each other and quickly moved away. Maybe they didn't speak English.

There was a desk close to Sibelius' bed.

"See that?" I said. "He probably worked in bed, just like Mark Twain and Churchill. Now you won't mind seeing me in bed when you go off to work every day."

"But you're not doing anything," Gail said. "You're looking at baseball scores and reading TV Guide. Anyway, Mark Twain should have been downstairs with his family at breakfast."

One night several years ago, I was still awake at 2 A.M., drinking beer and reading Twain's autobiography, when I came to a page that said, "Last night I was still up at 2 A.M., drinking beer and reading Dumas." I was so charmed that I had to wake Gail up to tell her, and she's had it in for Mark Twain ever since.

We admired Sibelius' piano, which was given to him by friends on his 50th birthday. People considered him a national treasure. He was a romantic who wrote mystical tone poems about his native land. Accordingly, they felt he ought to be protected, cared for, comforted, a sentiment with which he totally agreed.

As we left, our Finnish host told us a story that nicely illustrated this point. Sibelius sometimes spent the day in Helsinki, where he would be wined and dined. Someone would drive him home, but if it was winter and had snowed, the car could not get up the steep driveway. So his wife and daughters would wait patiently for him at the foot of the driveway with a wheelbarrow. Sibelius would be helped out of the car and into the wheelbarrow, and his wife and daughters would then push him up to the house.

I like that story because it puts an ordinary husband's mild desires and rather meager requirements into proper perspective. The great Sibelius makes the rest of us guys look like undemanding pussycats.

On the way back to Helsinki I thought of my own long driveway at home in Connecticut and asked Gail if we still had our old wheelbarrow. She pretended not to hear me.

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