02 March 2008

Onkel Kurt

Weill and Lenya

Today is Kurt Weill’s birthday. Had he lived, he’d be 108. But he didn’t live; he died at 50, and it’s with surprise that I calculated this morning that I’ve nearly surpassed him in age, if nothing else. Because of my early employment at the Weill Foundation, I got to know several people who knew him very well: Lys Symonette, Maurice Abravanel, Burgess Meredith, und so weiter. But they were all quite old by the time I knew them, and they’re gone now, too.

Each of them tried to share Weill with me, in pictures, letters, anecdotes, even imitations. Lys used to say that Weill always had a particular little smile on his face, which she found in very few of his photographs, and which she tried to demonstrate for me. But because she looked nothing like him, I’m not sure I got the right impression.

Weill had no children. Which made of us at the Foundation heirs in the legal sense but also in the sense of family. The things you might know about an uncle, even if he died long before you were born, are things that I know about Kurt Weill. Pointless, random bits of information that no biographer could ever use. But they are his legacy, as much as his music, and they make of him my uncle — Onkel Kurt.

For instance. When presented with a problem, I sometimes find myself muttering, “Wir miiiiiissen das Biiiiiiiischlein befragen” — “We must look it up in the little book,” with a heavy, whining southern accent. Some schoolmaster of Kurt Weill’s used to say that, and it became first a schoolboy jest, then a constant refrain when Onkel Kurt played Scrabble. From him it passed to Lotte Lenya, his widow, and from Lenya to Lys, and from Lys it’s been passed on to me. Just like family.

A little anecdote. One night, Weill went to the Metropolitan Opera to hear The Barber of Seville. (Why? It’s hardly the kind of music he ordinarily sought out. Maybe Abravanel invited him.) During intermission, he overheard a couple of women talking.

“I hear Rossini wrote the overture last,” said one.

“Oh,” replied her friend, “I’m glaaaaad.”

And that’s the punchline to the story. What’s the point? I don’t know — excepting perhaps that it reveals the sorts of things that amused Weill. I share the story with you so that it will not be lost.

On another evening at the theater, Weill noticed two other ladies staring at him and whispering. “It’s him!” “No, it’s not!” “Yes, it is!” Finally, one of them approached him.

“Oh, Mr. Romberg, could we have your autograph?”

And Onkel Kurt dutifully signed the program: Sigmund Romberg.

Somebody still has that, I’ll bet.

In matters more consequential, Weill exerts a huge influence on me. His music hit me like a thunderbolt, and it still does. No matter how many people try to copy him, that sound belongs to him alone. And because of it, I’ve gotten to know some extraordinary people, at the Foundation, at the opera house, and in my dreams, where Lenya still makes occasional appearances — checking up on me, giving me news of our mutual friends.

Onkel Kurt himself is a bit more elusive. He’s never once appeared in my dreams. But not unlike the narrator of Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, I keep trying to track him down. Years ago, I met his last mistress, who broke down sobbing at his funeral and had to be carried away. (“But you see,” said Lenya as she watched, “I loved him, too.”) By the time I met her, she was a dignified upper-middle-class matron, and officially I wasn’t supposed to know of her amorous past. She didn’t tell me anything about anything — but I studied her minutely.

With David Farneth, I visited Brook House, Weill and Lenya’s home in New City, New York, and I reflected on the fact that my Onkel was a short little guy. People had told me this, of course, but it’s not until you bang your head on the rafters of his house that you really understand.

I used to stay up late at night in the Foundation archive, reading Onkel Kurt’s old letters. They’re wonderfully stylish, in English as in German, and I admire especially his ability to describe his every work as “something completely new and original”: he was shy in many circumstances, but not when it came to self-promotion. An artist needs to know how to do that. Now whenever I write a pitch, I think of him, offering a temporary antidote to all the modesty I was brought up to believe in.

I’d leave the archive and walk up Broadway in the midnight darkness. I’d see old men on the street, and I’d look for Onkel Kurt in them. Sometimes I found him, a little.


Curiously, what may have told me the most about him was a little packet of tiny photographs I found in the archive. They’re pictures of Kukla, Fran and Ollie, the stars of Burr Tilstrom’s puppet show for children. Weill was a fan, and as he was dying in the hospital, he watched the program faithfully, and wrote asking for pictures. And here they were.

He looked remarkably like Kukla, as he must have realized. I can see him taking the pictures out of their envelope — and smiling. The way Lys remembered him.

How better to explain his music than to tell you that I hear that smile in every song? Playful, ironic, secretive.

I’m not an ideal nephew. Tante Lenya’s beautiful Chinese desk has a big scratch across one side, and I’m the idiot who put it there. But that’s how it is with family. And I love Lenya — and Onkel Kurt — as truly as if I ever knew them.