Isaac Stern, Across the Hall, In Apt. 19F

In 1963, the

building where I lived with my family went co-op. We were renting an apartment

on the seventh floor, and my wife, Phyllis, wanted us to buy another, larger

apartment on the 19th. As a child of the Depression, the expenditure of any sum

greater than $1.50 has always plunged me into a state of blind panic, flooding

my mind with images of jeering crowds thronging the Rialto to spit upon my

Jewish gabardine as a constable leads me in handcuffs to debtors’ prison. The

purchase of New York real estate seemed to me the height of folly-after all,

how much could a duplex with a terrace overlooking Central Park possibly be

worth? In the end, it wasn’t the magnificent views that won me over, nor the

fact that the apartment cost less than I currently spend every month on dinners

at Shun Lee West. The clincher was simple: Our next-door neighbor would be

Isaac Stern.

For the next 35 years, we

lived across the hall from each other, the Greens in 19E and the Sterns in 19F.

Our building has only two apartments to a floor, which not only guaranteed a

certain level of intimacy, but meant that all one had to do was open the door

to hear the rich tones of Isaac’s Guarnerius as he practiced, a glorious sound

whether he was working on a Bach chaconne or just running his scales. One grew

used to the steady stream of great musicians-Eugene Istomin, Yefim Bronfman,

Emanuel Ax, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zuckerman, Jaime Laredo, Yo-Yo Ma-who would

daily emerge from the elevator, seemingly ordinary citizens until they walked

into 19F and started to play. I have a recurring image of running into Isaac in

the hallway surrounded by piles of luggage: I’d be on my way to the grocery

store to buy a carton of orange juice and some cream cheese; he’d be on his way

to Vienna or Paris or Moscow to perform Haydn or Saint-Saëns or Tchaikovsky. As

a classical-music fanatic, I couldn’t have been much happier if I’d discovered

that the Mozarts were looking at the junior six with two baths on the 18th

floor.

Luckily, Isaac turned out to

be much more than the fiddle player next door. Over the years we grew to be

great friends, and the lives of our two families became intertwined. The first

person to stop by and say hello after we moved in was Isaac’s wife, Vera, who

gave us and the place a formidable once-over before breaking into a warm smile

and welcoming us to the neighborhood. Vera is an unstoppable force of nature,

whose energy, resolve and organizational skills, along with her generosity, gemütlichkeit and Talmudic skepticism,

created a loving, stable family life in the midst of Isaac’s whirlwind comings

and goings.

The Sterns’ children were

uniformly well-mannered and spoke perfect French; our kids had a more

roustabout quality, and their argot tended toward that found in the pages of Variety . Nevertheless, they spent

endless hours together, indeed grew up together. When our son, Adam, told us he

wanted to be bar-mitzvahed, we were surprised to learn that the idea had been

planted by the Sterns’ elder son, Michael, rather than by the strict religious

upbringing we’d given him. It was widely assumed that our daughter, Amanda, and

their son, David, would get married: They took baths together, went to grammar

school together and held a joint graduation party that ended as a sleepover,

with the girls at our apartment and the boys across the hall-or so we hoped.

Their daughter, Shira, a few years older, always watched over the brood with

infinite patience and understanding, a trial by fire that may have indirectly

led to her becoming a rabbi. Some years ago, after Phyllis had undergone

surgery, the first person she saw when she came to was Shira, who happened to

be assigned to that hospital as part of her ministerial training.

Although I’d known Isaac

socially over the years, I got to know him in a different way as his neighbor.

When he was in town, he would often ring the bell after dinner and invite me

over for a drink. He loved to talk over an icy glass of vodka (he pronounced it

“wood-ka”) or a rare cognac, which I invariably failed to appreciate

sufficiently. He claimed to posses the secret to the perfect martini: the substitution

of scotch for vermouth. He would watch with an air of almost paternal pride as

you sipped his creation, exclaiming “Aha!” when you told him it was wonderful.

At Isaac’s funeral, Eugene Istomin finally expressed what none of us ever had.

“O.K., Isaac,” he said, “now the truth has to come out: You made a lousy

martini.”

Our conversation wandered from family news to gossip to world

events. Isaac was no neurasthenic artist, too fine for this world, but a man

deeply engaged in what was going on around him, caring, concerned and active.

And, of course, there was our

shared love of music, a topic either of us was happy to talk about endlessly. I

will always cherish the evenings we spent singing snatches of favorite

compositions to each other, sometimes testing each other’s knowledge, sometimes

just reveling in our mutual enthusiasm. Isaac always believed that he didn’t

have the same level of technique as some of the other great violinists (a

contention that many, myself included, would argue with), that his strength as

a performer came from his insight, passion and almost sensuous feel for the

music. Though he didn’t have a mellifluous voice, when he sang a Beethoven

scherzo or the slow movement from a Brahms violin concerto, the source of his

genius was clear.

Isaac took a similarly

sensuous-if not quite as profoundly felt-delight in good food and drink. He was

aware of the figure he cut, and proud of it. Once, at a recital, he turned to

audience members seated on the stage behind him and said, “Pardon my back.”

Then, facing the auditorium again, he added, “And pardon my front.”

Despite his weight, Isaac was

remarkably, improbably agile and a fiercely effective (if unconventional)

tennis player. I have a clear picture of him on the court at Lenny Bernstein’s

house in Connecticut, dashing from the baseline to the net and back like a

nimble and very aggressive bowling ball.

Many of my memories of Isaac are connected with Lenny, who was

probably my best friend. I went to Israel with them in 1967 after the Six-Day

War and I remember their going from town to town, from hospital to hospital,

visiting wounded soldiers, comforting scared civilians, unconcerned about their

own safety. They gave a concert with the Israel Philharmonic on Mount

Scopus-Lenny conducted Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony, Isaac played

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto-in the midst of a sandstorm, exploding land mines

and a fierce wind that knocked over music stands. I have no doubt that, if they

were alive, they would both be giving concerts for the victims of the World

Trade Center attack and their families, and would play a large part in helping

to heal our wounded hearts.

In 1982, we had a group of

friends over to celebrate New Year’s Eve. After dinner, the Sterns, who had

been somewhere else, stopped by for a drink. I’m not quite sure how it

happened-though it may have been at my indelicate suggestion-but at some point

Isaac went across the hall to get his fiddle (he never referred to it any other

way). When he returned, Lenny sat down at the piano, a cigarette dangling from

his mouth, and they dove into Mozart’s Sonatas for Violin and Piano. Over the

next three hours, they worked their way through the music, playing like

possessed angels, pausing only to refill their drinks, until they finished the

last sonata at four in the morning. It was as happy as I’d ever seen either of

them, or any of the rest of us, and it made me glad that I hadn’t let Phyllis

talk me out of buying the apartment.

On Yom Kippur, Vera, who now lives on the sixth floor, came over

to break the fast. David, who is a conductor and lives in Paris, was there with

his wife, Katta, and their children, Talia and Sophia. Shira was in New Jersey,

where she and her husband are the heads of different congregations. Michael had

just flown to Beijing to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic-Isaac would have

insisted on it-and would be returning two days later for his father’s funeral.

We were, of course, reminiscing about Isaac, and at one point we talked about

how he’d wanted to be buried on the grounds of his house in Connecticut. In one

of those moments of dark humor that inevitably arises during sad times, Vera

said, “Imagine, you buy the house and then you find out-bonus-you get Isaac

Stern!” We were lucky enough to have had that bonus for 35 years. Isaac, you

will be missed all over the world, and nowhere more than on the 19th floor.

-written with Adam Green