Face the Music: A Memoir

Face the Music: A Memoir

Face the Music: A Memoir

Face the Music: A Memoir


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In this poignant memoir, the internationally celebrated bandleader reflects on family, illness, grief, and a bygone era of glamour, contemplating not just his career but the history of midcentury music and nightlife—and the enormously important role that the bandstand played in his life.

The internationally-famous bandleader Peter Duchin's six decades of performing have taken him to the most exclusive dance floors and concert halls in the world. He has played for presidents, kings, and queens, as well as for civil rights and cultural organizations. But in 2013, Duchin suffered a stroke that left him with limited use of his left hand, severely impacting his career.

Days of recuperating from his stroke—and later from a critical case of Covid-19—inspired Duchin to reconsider his complicated past. His father, the legendary bandleader Eddy Duchin, died when Peter was twelve; his mother, Marjorie Oelrichs Duchin, died when he was just six days old. In the succeeding decades, Duchin would follow his father to become the epitome of mid-20th Century glamour. But it was only half a century later, in the aftermath of his sudden illnesses, that he began to see his mother and father not just as the parents he never had, but as the people he never got to know; and at the same time, to reconsider the milieu in which he has been both a symbol and a participant.

More than a memoir, Face the Music offers a window into the era of debutantes and white-tie balls, when such events made national headlines. Duchin explores what “glamour” and “society” once meant, and what they mean now. With sincerity and humor, Face the Music offers a moving portrait of an extraordinary life, its disruptions, and revitalization.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385545877
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/07/2021
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 1,140,140
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

PETER DUCHIN was educated at Hotchkiss and Yale. He made his professional debut at the age of 24 and became one of the preeminent pianists and bandleaders in America, performing for every president from Lyndon Johnson to Bill Clinton. He is the author of four books, including a previous memoir, Ghost of a Chance.

PATRICIA BEARD is the author of eleven non-fiction books, one novel, and hundreds of magazine articles. A former features editor of Town & Country and Mirabella, and former contributing editor of ELLE, Face the Music is her first collaboration.

Read an Excerpt


A Stroke of Bad Luck


I was hanging on to a railing to keep from falling overboard into the filthy Seine. I had somehow made it back to my beloved barge, after a wild mixture of jazz, pot, and booze, a night I vaguely remembered. The constant jolt of the barge bumping against the quay and the lapping of the waves nauseated me, and I was irritated by the raucous sound of the seagulls. I opened one eye and squinted against the sun blasting on my face, but the light came from a lesser sun, a large industrial lamp above my head. I was lying on a gurney in a bone-white room. My scream for help—the seagull sound—was silent. I could hear a conversation between a gray-haired man in a white coat with a stethoscope dangling on his chest, and several white-clad women, but I couldn’t understand them. Fifty years had passed since the last time I was on that barge.

The Middle of the Night

My wife, Virginia, and I had been returning from a play and dinner at Orso, the popular Italian restaurant in the Theater District. Orso stays open late, because Broadway actors often come in for dinner, sometimes before they’ve even taken off their stage makeup. In the cab, I suddenly felt a sharp pain on my left side. I pressed on my chest to try to ease the pain, and lurched out onto the street in front of our apartment building. Upstairs, when I eased myself into bed, I felt as though a fist was clenching my lung. I tried to roll over, but I could hardly breathe.

I have atrial fibrillation, “AFib,” for short, which causes an irregular heart rhythm. Virginia and I were both afraid I was having a heart attack, but neither of us mentioned the possibility. Maybe we were trying to avoid scaring each other.

“I’m calling the doctor,” she said.

“Don’t bother him. It’s the middle of the night.”

Men don’t complain.

Virginia tapped our doctor’s number into her iPhone. When she hung up, she said, “We’re going to the emergency room now.”

My wife is organized, keeps her cool, and always appears to be under control, even when everything seems uncontrollable. She’s also tall and slim, with dark hair, fair skin, knockout legs, and impossibly elegant posture. The way she stands and looks at anyone trying to get in her way makes it clear that she isn’t kidding. If Virginia wants something important, she usually makes it happen. What she wanted now was for me to get help.

As we rode downstairs, I was practically doubled over. The large night doorman looks formidable, but he’s polite and friendly. I’m a baseball fan, and he usually updates me on the Yankees and Mets scores, but it was late November, the season was over, and we were on to football. He unlocked the heavy front door, and stepped into the street to look for a taxi.

Our building overlooks the East River. It’s as far east as you can go in Manhattan, and traffic is pretty sparse. At night, good luck.

A lone taxi with a lit topknot finally meandered along. The doorman waved it down, and we were on our way to what would turn out to be a very long trip.

The ER was predictably busy. I was subjected to the usual drill: wheelchair into a curtained cubicle; lie on a gurney; vital signs taken; doctor comes in; doctor leaves. Nurse says the doctor will come back soon. He doesn’t.

l still hadn’t received a diagnosis in the morning, but I was moved into a nice room with a sofa, a sitting area, and a wide window that overlooked the river. Flowing water has always appealed to me, as I love to fish. To avoid thinking about what might be covered by the ooze and concrete blocks on the bottom, I imagined a monstrously large striped bass swimming by.

The surgeon who arrived to talk to me looked very young. His hair was such a bright red that I wondered if he’d been teased at school. I was in pain, he said, because of a blockage in my right lung. I needed an operation to clear it out, but they couldn’t operate until I stopped taking the blood thinner that controls the AFib. If my blood was too thin, I could bleed out on the table. After I was off the medication for a few days, I would begin to clot, and he could operate.

While I waited, orderlies wheeled me through the halls for tests. I saw an open door to a room where doctors and nurses were frantically performing CPR on a patient, taking turns to press forcefully on his chest. I’ve heard that to get the heartbeat right, it helps to push in time to the rhythm of the Bee Gees’ 1977 song “Stayin’ Alive.” Other members of the team pinched the patient’s nose closed and breathed into his mouth to force oxygen into his lungs. I asked the orderly what was going on. “Gunshot,” he said. On the way back, I asked him what had happened. “Died,” he said.

Verdi’s Requiem

The doctors decided my blood consistency was in balance, and they were ready to go. I was lying on the operating table when a man wearing a mask and scrubs leaned his face close to mine, as though he were about to tell me a secret. He briefly described the way I would feel as I went under, and remarked, “You’re a musician. Think of a great piece of music.” I suggested that Verdi’s Requiem might be appropriate. He smiled, and after a couple of bars, I slipped into oblivion.

The Sudden Death of Brain Cells

I was still unconscious when Virginia came into the recovery room, and saw that something was very wrong: my face was out of kilter and my jaw drooped. She asked one of the nurses to get help immediately. Doctors crowded in, diagnosed a severe stroke, and rushed me to the intensive care unit. The sooner a stroke is identified and treated, the better chance a patient has of recovering, and I was already in the hospital.

When I first awakened, I didn’t understand what had happened. All I knew was that I was caught in a nest of tubes and plastic bags, with wires attached to my fingers, my arms, my legs, and my chest. That should have made it clear that something very bad was going on, but the idea of a stroke didn’t register. I wasn’t tracking much, except for the sound of a machine that constantly emitted an intensely irritating beep-beep, just off A-flat.

A doctor whose face was a blur came over to my bed. In a matter-of-fact tone, he explained about the stroke, and told me it had damaged the right side of my brain, and the left was also affected. Whichever part of the brain is most severely “stricken,” the opposite side takes the hit. That meant that my left side was out of commission, and might never recover.

A stroke causes the sudden death of brain cells, due to the lack of oxygen caused by a blockage of blood flow to the brain, or the rupture of an artery. When I could understand more, I learned that the right hemisphere of the brain is sensory and absorbs feelings. The left is used for organization, language, understanding, and process. The corpus callosum is located between the hemispheres and transfers information between the two sides. If one side isn’t fully functioning, it limits what the brain can instruct the body to do. Among the symptoms are loss of speech, weakness, and paralysis of one side of the body. I would learn that I had them all.

I tried to ask the doctor how serious my condition was, and how likely I was to recover, but I could only make meaningless noises.

Much later, I would contact neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor, who described her own stroke and recovery in her memoir, My Stroke of Insight. Dr. Taylor was kind enough to take time from writing her next book to email me an explanation of how the kind of brain damage I suffered can affect a musician:

Music is a great example of how our two hemispheres complement each other in function. When we methodically and meticulously drill our scales over and over again, when we learn to read the language of staff notations . . . ​we are tapping primarily into the skills of our left brain. Our right brain kicks into high gear when we are doing things in the present moment, like performing, improvising or playing by ear. . . . ​Playing an instrument requires precise bilateral motor skills, so both hemispheres are creating refined movement.

“The performance of music is a whole-brained activity,” she wrote, and only one side of my brain was working.

Dr. Taylor also believes in the plasticity of the brain, and its ability to repair and replace its neural circuitry. That was her experience; I hoped it would be mine.

Yet for months—for years—as I recovered, one function eluded me. I couldn’t ignite the part of the brain that sends messages to my left hand. Without two functioning hands, I would be deprived of my greatest pleasure; and my long career as a pianist and bandleader would be over.

With more than fifty years in the profession, I have a bursting “file cabinet” of music in my head, and I searched for a piece written solely for the right hand. The great pianist Leon Fleischer had a neurological condition, lost the use of his right hand for a time, and played concerti written for the left. Paul Wittgenstein, the older brother of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, had his right arm amputated after he was shot in the elbow during World War I. He commissioned some of the best composers of the era to write music he could perform. The most famous is Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand.

For the right hand alone: nothing.

I was only conscious on and off, and sometimes I hallucinated. The fantasy I liked best was that I was back in Paris on my Yale junior year abroad, living on a barge on the Seine, and playing on a junk shop piano.


Fugues, Dreams, and Hallucinations

The Lady in Black

In the early days after my stroke, I often couldn’t tell the difference between reality—whatever that was—and dreams. After a week in the ICU, I was moved into a double room. As I was rolled in, I saw an old lady wearing a shapeless black dress. She was sitting in a chair on the side of the curtain that separated the patients, fingering a rosary, humming, or maybe praying in a language I couldn’t identify. The man in the bed was coughing, with a horrible thick sound. I heard him again and again during the next days.

I never saw the lady in black again. Maybe I had been hallucinating. Was she a priestess, who could predict whether I would live or die?

I was wheeled past the woman who may or may not have been there. Nurses and orderlies heaved me onto the bed and placed a rolling machine under my feet to keep the circulation in my legs going. I could see the sheets moving and had a flash of the motels where I sometimes stayed when my band was on the road, places where you put a coin in a slot and the bed shakes and jiggles to give you a massage, or whatever.

A television was mounted high on the wall. To my relief, it wasn’t turned on, but the screen saver showed a field of poppies. The image reminded me of the second act of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Wagner’s Parsifal, the story of the search for the Holy Grail. I thought fondly of the great diva Jessye Norman, who stood an imposing 6’1.” She was hardly a sylph, but she brilliantly gave the impression of tiptoeing through the poppies. In my mind I could hear the extraordinary music from that scene.

Nuns in White

Nurses bustled around, and after one of my many naps they seemed to briefly transform into nuns, like the ones I encountered in France when I was in college, bicycling through Europe with friends. We had found a pleasant stretch of grass to make camp for the night, unpacked our sleeping bags, and exhausted, we slept. At daylight, we were awakened by a cluster of white-clad nuns, standing over us and tittering: we had settled on the lawn of their convent. They took us up the hill to the chapter house, invited us in, and fed us breakfast. Unfortunately, they neglected to offer us much needed baths.

Paris, 1956–57

Sometimes when I woke up, I had to remind myself where I was. Maybe I was dying, and my life was flashing by. I wanted to slow down the reel and relive my time in France.

I was on my Yale junior year abroad, living on a barge while I studied musicology in a private class, French at the Sorbonne, and political philosophy at Sciences Po, the famous Paris Institute of Political Sciences.

My music instructor was Andrée Vaurabourg, who had often played piano duets with her late husband, the pianist and composer Arthur Honegger. The Vaurabourg-Honeggers had an unusual arrangement: he insisted he would only marry her if they lived in separate apartments. He said he needed complete solitude when he was composing. That’s one reason I’m not a composer: it’s a lonely life, and I like to be with people.

Mme Vaurabourg was probably about sixty, and her fame had been well earned: Pierre Boulez, the composer and international conductor, was one of her students. She was selective, her classes were small, and her students were expected to annotate the score as she played a piece of music. I began to understand the great French composer, conductor, and teacher Nadia Boulanger’s dictum: “A great work of art is made out of a combination of obedience and liberty.”

I had bought the barge I was living on at a terrific bargain. I found it after my godmother, Ginny Chambers, who lived in the wonderful house she and her husband, Brose, had bought from Cole Porter, decided that I wasn’t going to be their houseguest for the duration, and I needed someplace else to live. (Ginny did tell me that I could bring over my laundry, which I tried to do around lunchtime, in the hope that I’d be invited to join the guests, and I often was.) I was settled on the barge when my great friend George Plimpton suggested that I take a roommate. George was an American patrician with an East Coast drawl and an unparalleled sense of humor and adventure. He and some friends had founded what was then the fledgling literary magazine The Paris Review. George, who was planning to return to New York—eventually—hired Robert Silvers to replace him. Bob didn’t have a place to live and George decided that my barge was the solution, and it was a fine one. Both of them would be ushers at my first wedding.

Table of Contents

Introduction xiii

Part 1 Stricken

Chapter 1 A Stroke of Bad Luck 3

Afloat; The Middle of the Night; Verdi's Requiem; The Sudden Death of Brain Cells

Chapter 2 Fugues, Dreams, and Hallucinations 13

The Lady in Black; Nuns in White; Paris, 1956-57; George; All That Jazz

Chapter 3 Alone 25

A Soppy Mess; Painting My Room with Music; Two People I Hardly Knew and a Dog; "Someone to Watch Over Me"; The Snow Globe

Chapter 4 Zero Out of Ten 35

"You'd Better Talk to the Devil Yourself"; Scrambled Eggs; "We'll Darn Well Do It"; Picking Up Pennies; At the Starting Gate; Other "Guests"; My Left Hand

Chapter 5 The Happy Chemical 47

"You Want Us to Play Something for You, Boss?"

Part 2 Absent Presences

Chapter 6 Fragments 55

Playing the Blues; My Picture Gallery; My Other Family; Licking the Ivories; A Boy's Life; My Father's Hat; Impressions

Chapter 7 The Mystery of Marjorie 69

If We Passed on the Street; I Begin My Search; The Aunts; Lucky Strikes, Pond's Cold Cream, and Cecil Beaton; "A Beautiful Friendship"; A Postcard and a Diary; Nearly Touching

Chapter 8 Eddy, Here and Then Gone 91

A Different View; The Music Gene; Cousin Harry; A Pharmacist Manqué; "The Night Spot That Roared"; The Night Mayor; The Day the Music Stopped; "Buck, Buck, Bucket …"; The Ladies in His Life; Hollywood 1946; Good Times; The Last Tune; A "Real" Father

Intermezzo 117

My Cane; Old Friends, New Stories; Getting Around; Camp Harmony; Back into the Void, November 2014; The Boxes

Part 3 Reflections in a Rearview Mirror

Chapter 9 Becoming Peter Duchin 129

"T.V: Eddy Duchin's Son"; A Pianist in Uniform; A Place of My Own; A Lucky Encounter; The Maisonette

Chapter 10 Nightclubs, the Last Dance 143

The Dreamers; Jerome Zerbe's El Morocco; Balloon Night at the Stork Club; Over and Gone; Doubles, The Last Outpost

Chapter 11 Glamour 155

"I Know It When I See It"; Magic and Enchantment; Audrey

Chapter 12 A Society Bandleader 165

Musicophilia; "Society"; Tessie's "Party of the Season," Newport, 1904; Society Animals; The Social Register; Society Music

Chapter 13 "The Debs' Delight" 179

Sally's Party; Cotillions; Nights to Remember

Chapter 14 Truman Capote's "Party of the Century" 189

The Black and White Ball; A Publicity High; November 28, 1966

Chapter 15 The Discotheque Revolution 201

Dancing to Records?; The Digital Sound

Chapter 16 Social Action 207

Dancing with Danger: Yale in Mississippi; "Radical Chic": Lenny and the Panthers; Playing for Free

Chapter 17 From Society to Celebrity 217

The Met Ball and Pat Buckley's Bedroom; "Suzy"; Anna Wintour's Party; The East Coast Academy Awards; "Heavenly Bodies"; "Camp"; What Killed Society?

Chapter 18 Peter Duchin Is Back 233

Onstage Again: The Viennese Opera Ball; Gigs

Afterword 239

Gasping for Air; Forty-seven Days; The Rip Van Winkle Effect; Getting Over It; The Reset; Back in Action; The Writing Life; The End

Acknowledgments 257

Notes 259

Index 267

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