Three musicians walk into La Côte Basque…

(Only a little bit of language in this one.)

Long obituaries for Elliott Carter this week, celebrating a very long career — he was still composing almost up to his death at 103 — characterized by, among other things, great independence of mind. The New York Times gave Allan Kozinn a huge amount of space to reflect on Carter’s life and works (“Elliott Carter, Composer Who Decisively Snapped Tradition, Dies at 103”), including some anecdotes (it’s easy to catalogue the Pulitzer Prizes and other awards, not so easy to give a feel for what someone was like and what moved them).

Which brings me to a story that was in the print version of the obit but was snipped out of the on-line version. Carter and Igor Stravinsky are joined by a third man…

From the print edition:

Speaking to a reporter in 2012, Mr. Carter told a story in which he was having dinner, and speaking French, with Stravinsky and Stravinsky’s wife at La Côte Basque when a man approached and said – “in rather good French” – “Will the maestro please give me an autograph?”

Note 1: The reader is expected to understand the significance of La Côte Basque. From Wikipedia:

La Côte Basque was a New York restaurant. It opened in the late 1950s and operated until it closed on March 7, 2004. In business for 45 years, upon its closing The New York Times called it a “former high-society temple of French cuisine at 60 West 55th Street.”

… Famous patrons included Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Babe Paley and Frank Sinatra.

The original provided a bit more context:

[Interviewer:] What was your favorite restaurant?

Carter: La Cote Basque, now sadly closed. I took Igor Stravinsky and his wife there. We got a table in the middle of the room, speaking French, and a man came in, and said in rather good French, “will the maestro please give me an autograph?”

Note 2: Either Carter didn’t recognize the man, or he was concealing his knowledge from the interviewer (perhaps to improve the story). Of course, this wasn’t just some random guy off the street, but another patron of the elegant restaurant, so Stravinsky might have been expected to treat him politely.

Note 3: The man was speaking “rather good French”, and this was in some way notable in the context. Speaking French at La Côte Basque would hardly have been remarkable, but something in the man’s manner or appearance suggested otherwise to Carter.

Stravinsky was bluntly dismissive: “Certainly not.”

The version quotes Carter on what ensued:

His wife did a great deal of talking in Russian and finally he agreed, but took forever to write out his name. The man waited and waited and by this point the whole room was watching.

In the NYT, Kozinn boiled this down to:

After first refusing, and as the whole room watched, Stravinsky relented.

After that the two accounts don’t differ in any significant way. From

Finally Stravinsky was done and the man thanked him and walked away. We asked Stravinsky if he knew who he was and he said, “Certainly, I see him on television all the time.” The man was Frank Sinatra.

(Recall that Sinatra was a regular patron of the restaurant.)

My first reading was that Carter didn’t recognize Sinatra, and that surprised me, given Sinatra’s fame and Carter’s background as a protégé of the American modernist Charles Ives and as someone with distinctly populist leanings (and an occasional patron of the restaurant himself). I would have thought that Carter would have been an admirer of Sinatra’s performances.

But then I saw the possibility that in asking Stravinsky if he knew who the man was, Carter wasn’t asking for information on his own behalf, to remedy his own ignorance of the facts, but was asking about the state of Stravinsky’s knowledge, to find out if Stravinsky’s knowledge matched his own. Do you know questions can go either way: they merely ask about what the addressee knows, but that inquiry can have different reasons or purposes, depending on the speaker’s state of knowledge.

So now I think Carter’s question to Stravinsky could have been reported with an interrobang: Do you know who that man is?!


One Response to “Three musicians walk into La Côte Basque…”

  1. Jack H Says:

    What surprises me about that story is that Frank Sinatra spoke “rather good French”.

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