Arthur Gelb, fabled New York Timesman and man of many words, grows oddly reticent when the subject of his youngest son, the Metropolitan Opera’s newly minted general manager Peter Gelb, comes up these days. It’s not that he isn’t proud—“We’re very proud; we think about him all the time,” he said—but he doesn’t want to “intrude,” to get in his son’s way as he tries to find his footing.
But on a recent Friday morning, the father couldn’t resist offering up an old family tidbit about the mysterious origins of his son’s musical inspiration. Mr. Gelb’s wife, the elegant and witty Barbara Gelb, was the niece of the violin virtuoso Jascha Heifetz (her mother was his younger sister). After the young Jascha’s father famously discovered his son’s genius when he was still in his crib, the father made a practice of bringing his tuning fork to the curbside of all Heifetz descendents, including both Gelb children, to test their response.
“So when Peter was born,” recalled Mr. Gelb, “he went to test Peter to see whether there was a prodigy there, and he took his tuning fork with him. And he was very disappointed that he didn’t get the same reaction from Peter that he got from Heifetz.”
“But,” he said, “Peter has some pretty interesting musical, creative genes in him!”
As well as literary and dramatic genes.
In August of this year, the younger Mr. Gelb took over as general manager of the Met, one of the grand, coveted perches in contemporary opera. He announced his arrival with a splashy, new Anthony Minghella production of Madama Butterfly that had the critics, and his father, gushing: “Oh, I thought it was remarkable, didn’t you?” he said. It also sent a clear message that the former Sony Classical president would not just be running the Met, but also revamping it.
With his ascent, the younger Mr. Gelb brought some serious naches to his parents—but, on a grander scale, he also torqued his family out of the realm of the annoyingly, respectably successful into the world of the genuinely intriguing, even dynastic.
It’s a dynasty that traces its creative roots all the way back to Mr. Heifetz and then helixes its way through each of the succeeding generations: through the elder Mr. Gelb’s career as a venerable New York Times figure, his wife’s career as a writer and co-author (with her husband) of the definitive Eugene O’Neill biography, and now on to their son, Peter.
The Gelb story begins, as so many do, in the Old Country (Vilna and the Carpathian Mountains), where the respective Gelb ancestors were born, and then moves to New York—to the immigrant streets of Harlem and the Bronx, where the elder Mr. Gelb grew up, and to Manhattan’s tony uptown precincts, where his future wife’s family (including her stepfather, the famed author-playwright S.N. Behrman), lived in posh, if chilly, comfort.
Both were the children of immigrants, which may explain some of their drive. But for Mr. Gelb in particular, his rise through the journalistic ranks would become a classic boy-makes-good story, the kind that still fills him with “the constant amazement of coming from immigrant roots and being thrust suddenly into a world of great culture and achievement.”
The thrusting began in 1944, when Mr. Gelb, expecting to be drafted, dropped out of the City College of New York and landed a job as a scrappy Times copyboy. Within 18 months, he had fallen in love with a pretty, quick-witted copygirl, Barbara Stone, and after a terrifying, if occasionally thrilling, baptism of snootiness by her family—New Year’s at Arturo Toscanini’s house, a frightening experience with a finger bowl—he married her. (The couple, still apparently inseparable, just celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary.)
From there it was up, up the masthead, to city-room reporter and drama critic, where Mr. Gelb discovered Woody Allen and Joseph Papp, among other then-avant-garde types (a probing quality that his friend Frank Rich suggests was passed on to his son), and ever more influential editorial posts. He would eventually land the plum post of managing editor, but in some ways it was his role in revamping The Times during its financial crisis in the mid-70’s—of expanding it from two slender sections to four plump ones—that breaks him out of the ranks of so many other iconic Times editors.
“The idea,” Mr. Gelb said, “was to see, without lowering the standards—and this was the big challenge—of the assignments and the writing of the stories, to see whether we could lure to the paper young readers who were not reading The Times, who were reading Newsweek and Time magazine and getting their news from radio and television.”
It was an idea that garnered a good deal of controversy as well as praise, that sparked grumbles that The Times was dumbing itself down even as it lured in 35,000 new readers a section (according to Mr. Gelb) and rebuilt its ad base.
All of which sounds remarkably similar to the situation in which Mr. Gelb’s son now finds himself: remastering a creaky old institution with brash and popular new productions, while staving off the critics’ barbs that he is diluting a grand old operatic tradition.
When asked about this career parallel, and whether he had ever noticed the similarity, the elder Mr. Gelb—coy as ever—simply chuckled.
“If you want to say that,” he said, “you can.”
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