24 April 2010

Interview: Maria Callas

These days, you can’t even glance at The New Yorker without reading about another journalist or biographer fabricating interviews with famous people, from Philip Roth and Toni Morrison to Dwight Eisenhower. My fear is that these scandals in the publishing business will cast needless doubt on the many hundreds of interviews I conducted with the subject of my forthcoming biography, Maria Callas: The Best Friend a Boy Could Ever Have.

Maria looked forward to my visits,
and she would wait for hours at the window
until I arrived safely at her door.

Over the course of the interview process, Maria and I grew exceptionally close. Often, I would visit her at her apartment in Paris, sometimes staying as her personal guest for several days at a time. We took several vacations together, and I will never forget our trip to Disney World, in October, 1977: running and skipping, laughing and singing. Surely “It’s a Small World” has never sounded so beautiful as it did when Maria sang it; she insisted that we take that particular ride six times, because “I want to see the pretty little Greek children again.” Naturally, I indulged her. How could I refuse?

As you will see from the exclusive excerpts below (meticulously transcribed from tape recordings that were later eaten by my dog), our conversations covered a variety of topics, and Maria spoke with a candor and warmth that are absent from any other interview she ever conducted. Indeed, she is almost unrecognizably unguarded — a sign of the intimacy we shared.

“You are the only one who truly understands me,”
Maria often told me.

October 18, 1971
For our first interview, Maria flew me at her own expense to New York City, where she was conducting her now-legendary master classes at the Juilliard School. We met at the home of our mutual friend, Leonard Bernstein, and bonded instantly.

WVM: Thank you for agreeing to speak with me, Madame Callas.

Maria: Call me Mrs. Onassis, please.

WVM: Then it’s true that you were secretly married to Aristotle Onassis?

Maria: No, I just like the sound of the name. “Mrs. Onassis. Mrs. Onassis.” It has a nice ring, don’t you think?

“I felt a kinship with Monroe,” Maria said to me.
“She was screwed over by Jack and Bobby,
and I by Jacqueline.”

WVM: Well, anyway, thank you.

Maria: The pleasure is entirely mine. You are clearly a very intelligent, talented young man. Writing my biography is not enough. You should be running an opera company of your own — or at the very least, directing opera. You understand music, you trust it. You understand theater. Opera needs you, especially now that I am performing so rarely.

WVM: But I’ve never attended an opera! I’m only ten years old!

Maria: Ah, yes, but you have a great future ahead of you. I can recognize a great talent, and I know all about you. You see, I read your blog avidly.

“Oh, Bill! Nobody can make me laugh
the way you can!”

WVM: My parents won’t let me have a blog until I’m older — probably not until some time after the Internet is invented … a few years from now.

Maria: Well, how should I know where I read your work? I cannot be bothered with calculations and statistics! I am famously near-sighted, and a very busy woman besides. I can’t be expected to remember details! The point is that I believe you have talent, but if you are going to get all statisticky on me, like that old bore, John Ardoin, we can stop this right now.

This was the only display of “diva temperament” I ever saw from Maria. Quickly, I changed the subject, making fun of Renata Tebaldi’s hairdo, which as I would learn was a surefire way to restore Maria’s good humor. By the end of the afternoon, our friendship was launched. Already, she had taught me to sing “I’m a Little Teapot” in Greek.

Maria: You are adorable! Oh, how I wish that I had a son like you!

Maria delighted in preparing simple meals for me.
Here, she boils water for my morning oatmeal.

53rd Interview: November 11, 1974
Maria flew to Texas to spend a few days with me and my family.

WVM: …And this is my school.

Maria: It is very nice. I am sure you are the most popular boy in this school.

WVM: To tell the truth, some of them are kind of mean to me … calling me names … tripping me … stealing my lunch money.

Maria: What monsters those children must be!

WVM: Actually, that’s just the teachers. The kids are even rougher.

I explained the bullying that I endured. Although she attended P.S. 164 in New York City, Maria didn’t know what a “wedgie” was. She was horrified when I told her.

Maria: What are the names of these people who hurt and humiliate you? I will personally go to each of their houses and claw their eyes out. [She showed me her nails, which were indeed lethal-looking.]

WVM: No, please — there’s no need to do that.

When the weather was nice, Maria and I enjoyed gardening
and other outdoor hobbies.

Maria: You must understand that nobody may harm the best friend of a Greek woman without suffering terrible consequences.

WVM: Really?

Maria: Of course! It’s described in all the greatest tragedies.

WVM: I mean, do you really consider me your best friend?

Maria: Oh, darling, you are so wise in so many ways, and yet so innocent! [She kissed me then, for the first time.] I feel like eating ice cream — would you like that? And then, perhaps, we may go to the zoo. Now, tell me again about this novel you are writing. When can I read it? I feel sure you must have a great gift for fiction!


Stasiek said...

I'v read this post with pleasure. I am very fond of Maria Callas. Do you know any good resources about her?

William V. Madison said...

Thank you! I prefer those books that concentrate on Callas' work -- and especially those that include lots and lots of photographs. The late John Ardoin, who is referred to in this piece, provided us with a number of excellent books and articles. I find that attempts at biography and memoirs of friendships with Callas are much less satisfying; nobody can explain why Callas was so fascinating, but they do keep trying.

Anne said...

This is delightful. I mean delightful, like excellent ice cream on a hot day. I just fell in love with you all over again, Bill.

Mikebench said...

Great post, Bill! I can completely understand your close, personal relationship with Maria, because, you see, I was best friends with Pauline Viardot! All kidding aside, I agree with you that the books about Callas' work are definitely the most interesting. One that I find fascinating is the George Jellinek "Callas: Portrait of a Prima Donna", because I think he captured her essence as an artist while she was still performing (1960) and without any distance, time-wise...

William V. Madison said...

Thanks! I don't know the Jellinek book -- I admired so much of what he wrote (on so many subjects) that this is just about guaranteed to captivate me.

Janice Hall said...

I'll bet you interviewed Marlene Dietrich in HER Paris apartment, too, didn't you? Yes, I thought so...

Anonymous said...

This is beyond fabulous.

Mark Thomas Ketterson

bglife said...

I am just wondering if you could tell me more about the picture you have of callas by the windown with her back to the camera. Who took it? or where can I find more information about it?

William V. Madison said...

Thanks for writing, bglife. I'm traveling at the moment and don't have access to my big books on Callas, though I'm pretty sure the picture to which you refer is included in at least one of them. I'll try to remember to look it up and post again when I get home.