- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 21, 2006

In a clearing near the peak of one of Cuba’s Sierra Maestra mountains is a three-foot marble monument noting that on this spot “Commander in chief Fidel Castro Ruz met with the North American journalist Herbert Matthews on February 17, 1957.”

A monument to a meeting! Yet the articles by Matthews that came out of that interview did much to shape world opinion toward the young guerrilla leader who was about to seize power in Cuba. Matthews himself is now the subject of a thoughtful biography by a fellow reporter, Anthony DePalma, The Man Who Invented Fidel (PublicAffairs, $26.95, 299 pages, illus.).

Matthews of the New York Times was the first foreign journalist to interview Castro, a mysterious guerrilla chieftain whom the Batista regime claimed to have killed. Matthews wrote three articles, each prominently displayed in the Times, and his judgments carried with them the prestige of that paper.

“Taking [Castro] by physique and personality,” Matthews wrote, “this was quite a man — a powerful six-footer, olive-skinned, full-faced, with a straggly beard.” Matthews did not challenge Castro’s statement that “You can be sure we have no animosity toward the United States and the American people.”

Even after Castro had established himself as a Marxist dictator, Matthews never completely lost his admiration for Fidel — a fact that made Matthews a welcome guest in Cuba and one of the most vilified journalists in America.

Born into a middle-class New York City family, Matthews graduated from Columbia University in 1922. He went to work for the Times almost immediately and would be on its payroll for 45 years. His first important assignment was the Spanish Civil War, where he rubbed shoulders with Ernest Hemingway and identified with the Loyalist cause.

During World War II, Matthews was a respected member of the Times editorial board, but he was never quite “one of the boys.” He would later be described as “a tall man, thin, half bald, a simple dresser, silent as a tomb, precise as a Swiss watch.” He traveled widely in South America, and soon regarded it as his beat. His colleagues found him insufferable in debate.

Matthews was proud of his mission to Castro in the Sierra Maestra. He criticized other journalists for getting the Cuba story “wrong,” and boasted that the Times, thanks to him, had helped bring down the murderous Batista regime. Castro agreed. On a visit to the Times offices in 1960 he praised Matthews effusively, stating that without Matthews’ help, “and without the help of the New York Times, the revolution in Cuba would never have been.”

As Castro allied his country with the Soviet Union, Matthews modified his admiration, but only slightly. He conceded that he had overstated the number of men and weapons controlled by Castro at the outset of the revolution, and that Fidel had gone over to the Soviets in the 1960s. But he insisted that for Castro communism was not a deeply held ideology but a means of tightening his grip on Cuba. He allowed that Castro had been foolish to invite the Soviets to install nuclear missiles in Cuba.

Matthews retired from the Times in 1967, moved to Australia, and died there in 1977. Mr. DePalma concludes that Matthews’ “most egregious error was not misidentifying Castro. Everyone did that. Rather, it was in persisting in his perception of Castro as an idealist long after he had transformed himself into a demagogue.”

If ever there was a biography that reads like a Tolstoyan novel, Stephen Walsh’s account of the latter part of Igor Stravinsky’s life is it. Stravinsky: The Second Exile: France and America, 1934-1971 (Knopf, $40, 720 pages, illus.) picks up the composer’s life at age 52, more or less in Paris — Stravinsky was peripatetic — and carries the story through countless perils.

The narrative follows his family’s angst (his tubercular wife and daughter and his mother die almost simultaneously); the conflicts between relatives and Stravinsky’s surrogate son and alter musical ego, Robert Craft; the role of Stravinsky’s long-time mistress and second wife, Vera, whom he married in America to quiet the ruckus caused by their seeking to register in U.S. hotels as Mr. and Mrs. Stravinsky — not to mention Stravinsky’s musical life.

Mr. Walsh is a gifted writer whose first volume on Stravinsky was hailed as “based on a comprehensive knowledge of the sources (published and archival) in every relevant language, infused with musical intelligence, and written with an engaging mixture of human warmth and dry, epigrammatic skepticism” (Sunday Telegraph). The second volume does not disappoint, and you need not have read the first to follow the story. All you need is an interest in musical genius and its manifestations, and the foibles of those gifted with it and attracted to it.

As World War II broke out in Europe, Stravinsky’s early ground-breaking compositions — including “The Firebird” (1910) and “The Rite of Spring” (1913) — were long behind him, and he came to America to cash in on his fame. He settled in Los Angeles for the duration, mingling with fellow Russian emigres and the likes of Christopher Isherwood, Walt Disney, W. H. Auden and Dylan Thomas. Commissions eventually materialized, though Stravinsky didn’t always understand quite what he had agreed to produce (e.g., “Circus Polka,” a ballet for baby elephants).

Stravinsky was in no hurry to return to Europe’s hardships after the war ended, but in the late 1940s he gained a new lease on life — musical and otherwise — when a talented, well-read, young Juilliard composition/conducting student who had been addicted to Stravinsky’s music since the age of 12, Robert Craft, insinuated himself into the household and soon made himself indispensable.

Mr. Craft got things done, from handling correspondence and interpreting Stravinsky’s mishmash of Russian, German and French into eloquent English to sorting manuscripts, driving the Stravinskys on multiple cross-country peregrinations, serving as an intermediary with the recording industry, conducting rehearsals and standing in as conductor when Stravinsky’s health failed him, as it often did.

Mr. Walsh is particularly adept at explaining the extent — and the limits — of the influence of the helper on the master’s creativity. Mr. Craft kept Stravinsky composing — or rearranging his compositions — when the composer suffered from writer’s block. And Mr. Craft also stimulated Stravinsky’s interest in new musical directions, particularly through Mr. Craft’s own enthusiasm for Webern’s and Schoenberg’s use of the 12-note scale.

Mr. Craft became so much the spokesman for Stravinsky that it’s hard to find Stravinsky’s true voice, but midway through the book there is one page of a tape-recorded interview that escaped Mr. Craft’s control. As the author points out, it demonstrates Stravinsky’s “deep Russian accent, the idiosyncratic, not always quite accurate, use of English, and the vivid, always surprising wit and concreteness of imagery.” Here is some authentic Stravinsky:

“To receive music you have to open the ears and wait, not for Godot, but for the music; you must feel that it is something you need. Some let the ear be present and they make no effort to understand. To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.”

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.


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