In 1989 I interviewed Yehudi Menuhin after receiving a strong recommendation from Richard Ingrams. Several years before that I had struck up a friendship with his father, Moshe Menuhin, who was then living in California. Moshe had written to me after the publication in 1979 of The Palestinians, with a text by Jonathan Dimbleby and photographs by Don McCullin.
The book was virtually the first of its kind to describe the Palestinian side of the conflict from the years of the British Mandate to the creation of the Zionist state and its consequences. The tone of the book was temperate, well balanced and objective. Nevertheless the Zionist lobby attacked it mercilessly. Amid the vocal turmoil of the assault, one Jew stood apart to express the voice of reason.
This was Moshe. He sent me not only a warm letter of congratulations for having published the book, but also a tape-recorded interview he had done with Colin Edwards, a British journalist, about his life as a young boy in the city of Jerusalem. It was high time, he said, that someone stuck up for the Palestinian Arabs and gave their side of the story. The tape, when I came to play it over, moved me totally. After that, although I never met him face to face, we kept up a regular correspondence till his death.
In my view, the tape has subsequently lost none of its significance, and is of even more topicality today when the international community is renewing attempts to find an equitable solution in the Middle East. Earlier failures to resolve ‘the Palestinian question’ have undoubtedly shaped the world we live in and our fears for its future to a phenomenal degree. The voice of Moshe Menuhin takes us back to a basic understanding, buried under years of Jewish and Arab rhetoric, and for that reason alone I feel I should transcribe it in full. With this goes the hope that it may move people in the way it did me when I first heard it more than three decades ago.
When I was taken to old Jerusalem by my mother I was a little embarrassed because I had ear locks and was wearing a kaftan, like a long nightdress, so the boys of the Jewish colonists, who were already more ‘civilised’, looked down on this Jewish boy with his ear locks, though no one ever harmed me. The Arabs, I always found, were friendly, decent, kind people, entertaining me, talking to me. We used to hike from Jerusalem to certain places holy to the Arabs, the Jews, the Christians, to certain non-kosher areas where Jews were not supposed to go. Every summer I went to Rehovat to eat grapes on an uncle’s estate, eating them till I was sick, though it was supposed to be good for me. At the end of my stay one of the Arabs who worked for my uncle drove me to Ramallah, where in those days not a Jew ever lived. He would let me off the horse and buggy to sit around outside the railway station to wait for the train from Jaffa to take me back to Jerusalem. Nobody ever molested me, I wasn’t afraid, I wasn’t aware of being a foreigner. (I spoke Arabic fluently by the way.)
Under Turkish Ottoman rule, the officials, the judges, the working people were all Arabs. We about 35,000 of us when I arrived in Palestine were just a meek, quiet Jewish bunch. There was no such thing as oppression from the Muslims. I could never apply the word ‘oppression’. I cannot recall a single incident. The Arabs gave me more joy than the Jews ever did. They were nearer to life and the Jews had obstructing safeguards against mixing with the world. In those days there was no interest among the Orthodox in Dr Herzl and his Zionist movement. The insane political nationalism that would give rise to the First World War was meanwhile taking its hold in Europe and becoming the religion of the world, and the Zionists swallowed it. I would go to the House of the People in Jerusalem to hear when Zionists non-religious Jews gave lectures and used to arouse the people with the slogan ‘Our nation, our country, our homeland’ and of course people fell for the clever speaker.
Already there was the preliminary to warring from the Jews among themselves. You were told don’t go to an Arab dentist, don’t go to an Arab merchant, or a grocer or fruit trader, even though there weren’t enough Jewish traders to go round. People had to buy from Arabs, but there was this constant programme of preaching individually. We had good teachers at the gymnasium in Jaffa, but I would say, to summarise, that underneath the teachings there was one principle premise, repeated again and again, ‘Our country, our nation, our homeland’.
Yet I cannot recall one student in the entire gymnasium and they were all nice boys and girls who’d been born in Arab Palestine. We were all immigrants who’d come from Russia to escape the pogroms, or to get a Jewish education, or a Zionist education in most cases. Day after day we heard the slogan whenever a teacher could stick it in; even in science they somehow managed it. It was to subvert us, to poison us, into becoming Jewish nationalists. I never met a rabbi and there were no religious services of any kind they were all agnostics or atheists. The gymnasium became a hotbed for wild, insane political nationalism. We were taught to hate the Arabs, to despise them, and to drive them out from ‘our’ homeland, ‘our’ country, ‘ours’ not theirs, quoting the Bible, of course. For five years they were pumping into me the Jewish nationalism, Zionism, happily, for me as a civilised being who belongs to the world and not to any nationalist group, unsuccessfully.
There were few Jewish colonists: 35,000 Jews where there were 600,000 normal, healthy, hard-working, innocent, unknowledgeable Arabs. There were few farming cooperatives, though I always remember the kibbutzim with affection and admiration. Many a time I slept and worked on the kibbutzim in Galilee during my student days. The kibbutz was the one and only outstanding, eternal contribution that Israel might contribute to the world if it stops going back on itself, as it begins to do already now, and stressing political nationalism. There were 2,000 or 3,000 Jews among the cooperative farms of Galilee. The Arabs could have wiped us out in no time if there had been any organised scheme, but there was no group that planned to do anything among the Arab population. They were individuals. Zionist fanatics and Orthodox fanatics now kept going to Palestine, but most of the Jewish people chose to go to the United States, to Canada, to South Africa, to South America. Even ten or so years after the Balfour Declaration in 1917, Weizman had to go to Romania to plead with the Jews, ‘Look, we extracted the Balfour Declaration out of the British, and now they keep asking us, “Where are your Jews?” If we are to have a Heretz Israel, come to Palestine.’
There were 9,000 Jews who came in, though 6,000 emigrated. It was only when the Jews had to run away from Germany, or from Russia to work in Palestine, that they came in any numbers the Jews who were ghetto Jews, who had a hatred for the gentiles and then had it a hundred-fold for the goy in Palestine.
As a boy I suffered terribly from bad teeth. They were uneven and some of them protruded to cut my lips. At one point the pain became so unbearable that, when I was walking through a narrow alley in the old city and saw a sign indicating an Arab dentist, I stopped and went inside. After negotiating some narrow stairs I reached a crowded waiting room where people sat awaiting their turn to be seen by the dentist. I sat myself down in in a corner and stayed there till the room had emptied and the dentist treated his last patient. As he came out of his surgery he saw me sitting there, obviously in great pain. Although he was ready to leave for home, and I had neither appointment nor the money with which to pay him, he invited me to come into the surgery. As he examined my teeth he was horrified by the rotten state in which he found them. If I came to the surgery the same time each day, he suggested, he would attend to me and not expect to be paid for his services. At the end of the treatment I said the day would perhaps come when I could repay my debt to him. He simply replied, ‘Ask your people not to stir trouble so we can live side by side and share the land of our forefathers.’
Many, many decades later, when I was living in old age in California, I had occasion one day to see a dentist, and he was astounded at the good condition of my teeth. Then I told him the story of that kind and wonderful Palestinian dentist who had looked after my teeth as a boy in Palestine, and treated them with such love and dedication. That is the reason why I find it always traumatic to watch pictures on the television of scenes in the Palestinian refugee camps and the misery surrounding them, wondering whether any descendants of my noble dentist benefactor languish there with no hope of ever seeing their land again.
Moshe encouraged me to talk to Yehudi. His son was, he said, a great humanitarian and a man of peace. Although he had given his unconditional support to the state of Israel when it was first proclaimed, this had been modified and was now conditional on a pact with the Palestinians. Through his music, he had become an ambassador of good will, seeking to bring the two hostile camps together.
My interview with Yehudi was published in my collection, Singular Encounters, in 1990, but before Yehudi died, I also interviewed his wife, Lady Menuhin. This lengthy script, done for the Oldie magazine, was never published. Diana Menuhin became fearful that it might get Yehudi into troubled waters and pleaded with Richard Ingrams not to reproduce it. Richard in turn asked me to honour her request and I acceded with good grace.
But now that both Yehudi and his wife are dead, there seems no reason why it should not be published, especially since it spreads further light on Yehudi and his difficult relationship with Israel. In any case, Lady Menuhin had a particularly interesting life of her own and readers will be intrigued by her narrative and the way she came to devote her entire married life to being a stalwart pillar of support to Yehudi Menuhin, the great, but infinitely modest, man of music.
The following is a transcription of my interview with Lady Menuhin in December 1992.
NA: Lady Menuhin, it is sometimes difficult to remember that there must have been life before Yehudi. Do you see your life very much in terms of Before and After?
LM: Very much, because first of all I was a born believer. It sounds rather conceited to say this, but I was very much a metaphysical child, and I used to hear voices. I’m perfectly sure that I was born before, somewhere in central Europe, perhaps in Tashkent. I’ve certainly got a Byzantine face. One of the things Yehudi and I have in common is that we both were born knowing exactly we wanted to do. It wasn’t ambition; it was aspiration, which is something quite different. His was the talent of a genius, but mine was not a bad talent considering that out of all the dancers in England I was chosen by Diaghilev when I was 14 years old, and by Pavlova when I was nearly 16. Unfortunately I had a black fairy at my baptism, and they both died, Diaghilev one month before I was to join him and Pavlova ten days before I was to dance with her. Thank goodness that fairy doesn’t follow me when I’m working for Yehudi, which I’ve done for the last 45 years. As a child I used to be able to get outside myself. The only place of privacy for an English child in a household with nannies is the loo, and so when I had the longing to escape I used to go there, close the door and lock it. The loo, like all those in England in the 1920s, had a black and white chequerboard floor, and as I sat there and concentrated, the floor would rise up, and I would swing round with a terrible feeling in my heart, and I could see myself sitting there. And then I would have this shock, and come back again as myself. At that age one hadn’t heard anything about meditation; on the other hand my mother was a Christian Scientist, and we were all brought up in that religion, which gives you an enduring disposition at the price of a ruined constitution. If you’re born into it as I was, you know exactly how to switch off, but you do grow up without any sense of reality. The concrete, as one might call it, simply isn’t there. When people used to wonder how I could tour with Yehudi all the time I was pregnant and drop the baby wherever the violin was on the ninth month, I used to tell them that was the way I was brought up, never allowed to complain about anything physical. It gives you an extraordinary way of being able to separate yourself from what seems actual. On the other hand it separates you from what is actual and you always feel slightly apart, which if you’re going to go into a career like the ballet isn’t very helpful. I was brought up with three disciplines: my mother’s Edwardianism, which meant only the servants got toothache, the Christian Science religion in which toothache didn’t exist, and the Russian ballet where if you dared admit to illness your role went to another girl. These three solid disciplines have been very serviceable for life with darling Yehudi, who prefers to live on cloud nine, which he seems to have rented for the whole of his life.
Your childhood seems to have been characterised by a struggle against difficulties and disappointments. Do you remember it as a time you survived rather than enjoyed?
This is what I ask myself. All my life I’ve talked to myself, actually not to myself, but to God with whom I have been furious most of the time. I was quite a different child from my brother and sister. They were the intellectuals, both blond and blue eyed; my brother called me ‘battling Gould, the wild half-caste’, because I rushed around the whole time while they were cool and clever. I was a romantic, passionate, wild creature who was slowly beaten into English diffidence. It was the only way to keep out of trouble from nanny and from my mother, who was not cruel, just gloriously indifferent. Like my mother I’m an absolute professional, only I haven’t acted or danced since I married Yehudi, whereas my mother remained centre stage all her life. When you marry somebody like Yehudi, there’s no question of being centre stage; in fact I don’t think anybody even recognises me. When he was still conducting a great deal I was always in a corner of the dressing room putting the cap back on the thermos, and picking up his damp clothes. But I haven’t answered your question, have I? Michael Redgrave used to say of me that I had a mind like a crab; it always goes sideways, and it’s perfectly true.
We were talking about your childhood…whether it was happy or not…
What is a happy childhood? You can always complain, you can always blame your own mistakes and shortcomings on the rocking horse which frightened you when you were two, but what’s the point? We were brought up in the most marvelous way. The English mother of that period was still someone who came to the night nursery dressed beautifully to go out in the evening and just said ‘Goodbye darling’. When my father died we were left with practically no money, but we had a lovely house with beautiful furniture and £800 a year. It was the most wonderful upbringing, because we had beautiful things around us, and although there was not a penny of pocket money and we lived on bananas off the barrows, yet it was with style. I think this is what I miss very much these days – style and grace hardly exist anymore, and wit has become bitchiness and spite. Style is now called snobbism, and grace has dissolved. I feel quite alien to this world, and it is a feeling I passed on to my children. For example, I remember when my third child survived for only an hour or two because of all the touring when I was pregnant, and nanny brought Yehudi and the children to my bedroom. We told the boys that there wouldn’t after all be another baby and my elder son, Gerald, who was six at the time, suddenly said: ‘I don’t believe in death, I believe in a circle of lives.’ Yehudi asked him if he thought this was his first life and he said, ‘Oh no, I used to think that I would come back in the next world, or had been in the last one – I was a tree, an animal, anything – but now I know that I always have been and always will be a humour being’ – ‘humour’ being the nearest he got at six to ‘human’. So he had even in those days the same faculties I had as a child.
Presumably you have very little memory of your father, who died when you were very young. Do you have any recollection of the impact his death made on your mother?
Yes. It had the effect of making her withdraw even further. I don’t know that she would ever have been a very warm woman. She was enchanting, and I know that she helped dozens of young musicians with their careers, but in the home, you couldn’t say that she was an affectionate mother. I remember the exact time when I stopped kissing her. I was always very spontaneous, unlike Grizelda and Gerard who were self-contained, and I would rush into the room and fling my arms round mother. Once when I did this she said, ‘Oh, Diana, really, you’ve broken my watch chain.’ I was eight years old and I never ran and hugged her again.
There is usually a special bond between fathers and daughters. Was your stepfather ever able to fill that role?
I was very fond of him. Grizelda and Gerard were not, because he was very navy blue, a real sailor. He was away all the time at sea, but I always got on with him because I didn’t categorise people. When you grow up in the ballet world from the time you’re eight years old, you meet every kind of person. My stepfather was a simple straightforward utterly good man, and worshiped my mother absolutely. She had that extraordinary and enviable capacity to make men worship her, although my stepfather apparently said to Harold Nicolson, ‘Sexually, my little wife is an umbrella rolled up.’
You describe the ‘total dislocation’ you felt when your mother died in 1950 – this is in spite of the fact that you had never been particularly close. Do you think you were in part grieving for something you had never experienced in her lifetime?
I had so many awful things happen in my life, like Diaghilev and Pavlova dying, and a cruel ballet mistress who picked me out as a special victim, that I seemed to grow up with very little love, and had this strange fatalistic attitude that I couldn’t expect love. You may be right about my mother, but I didn’t analyse until it was too late.
In the context of your mother’s death you described the huge gulf which had opened up between your total commitment to Yehudi and the previous life which you had abjured on marriage. Were you able to reconcile the two in your own mind, or were you forever going to find it difficult to look back and come to terms with your past life?
I’ve always looked upon love as service. To me the two have been together ever since I can remember. Secondly, everything in my life has been a challenge. When I met Yehudi, my metaphysical attitude to life made me realise that he was my destiny. He fell in love with me, and I was in love with him, but as he was married with two small children I never told him. It took two and a half really terrible years for him to get his divorce, because he is so angelic that he can’t hurt anybody even if he knows he was not to blame for his first mistake. I may have been his second mistake, but he hasn’t found out yet.
The ballet conjures up images of beauty, elegance and glamour and one forgets that it can be a grueling, almost masochistic world of hard slog and bleeding feet. What attracted you in the first place to the world of dance and what made you determined to stick it out?
Because I never give up anything, and because I had to do something about the music inside me. I went to the Ballet Rambert for ten awful years. I came back, cried into my pillow every night, but accepted my fate, because there was a kind of terrible endurance taught in the religion I was brought up in, and the feeling of always being separate.
When you look back, were the rewards commensurate with the effort and applications required?
Always the rewards came and then fizzled out. I was chosen by Diaghilev, so what greater compliment could there have been? It was absolutely wonderful, I can see it to this day. He stood in the doorway watching us dance, and I didn’t even realise after an hour and a half that I was the only one in the class still dancing, the others had all gone. And then he turned to Rambert and said, ‘la belle jeune fille…’, and he was angelic to me for those ten days in which the ballet was there. I had seats every night and went with either Rambert or mummy to see the show, and he would come out of the pass door and take me by the hand and lead me backstage and introduce me to all the great dancers of that period. He designated someone to look after me and be my guide, in exactly the same way as happened to Markova about two or three years before me, but Markova didn’t have a black fairy at her back.
Were you very popular with men generally?
I was known as ‘the goddess’ but it wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I suddenly woke up sexually. I was the oldest virgin on the stage in London, because I couldn’t possibly have gone to bed for anything but love.
Was your first love affair with Yehudi?
Oh Lord no. He was the twelfth aspirant that year. I used to call myself a Foreign Office moll, because I had six proposals from young secretaries in the foreign office. I don’t know to this day whether if I were born again I would be the same, but I simply couldn’t bring myself to go to bed with Alexander Korda, with Gilbert Miller, with Charles Cochrane, or even with attractive men like Massine and Balanchine. When you’re brought up as asexually and primly as I was, when you live in a period where the contraceptive is very uncertain, and when you’re an incurable romantic, it’s easy to be revolted by having your dress torn off by Mr. Korda, as he was then, or by the others; but even with men like Massine or Balanchine, it would have been the wrong thing. I would only go to bed with a man I loved, and I fell hook line and sinker for a man who was a total monster but a wonderful lover, and of course when it was over I suffered all the agonies of a mature woman plus the silliness of somebody completely unpracticed. He was a stallion who had to seduce every beautiful woman – it sounds conceited, but I did win beauty prizes. Everybody said they’d never known him stay with a woman as long as he stayed with me, but in the end he just threw me out, which is a terrible blow to one’s pride, especially if you go into the relationship as a virgin.
Your account of the war years in London sounds impossibly romantic. You continued to dance, and the bomb which fell on your house during the blitz is described as ‘an irritation’. You must surely have experienced things differently at the time?
What I’m going to say is going to sound utterly callous, but I am intensely dramatic, and I was known by my sister as ‘the tragic fuse’. I was nearly killed in the bombing three times, and each time I was only furious, not in the least frightened. I couldn’t call myself brave, but I actually enjoyed drama. I’m not saying I enjoyed the war, but I didn’t suffer from fear.
In 1944 you went to Cairo and Alexandria which you described as ‘blissful’. Was it possible to forget the war when you were there?
No, because the place was full of soldiers on leave, and although the war was almost over, nonetheless it was still going on. What I meant by bliss was getting away from dried eggs and not having to queue up for one orange. I had a Zulkeika Dobson time. I did Frou Frou in The Merry Widow, rewriting the whole script in gutter French, and because the other language of the Egyptians is French, it literally stopped the house. I was sent for by Farouk in the royal box after the first night, and he asked me out for supper, but I backed away and said, ‘Je m’excuse’, and disappeared.
When you left Egypt you say you wept for the lover you left behind…
Yes, I had my coup de foudre in Egypt. He was an English poet. There were a lot of poets there, because they were either not serviceable as soldiers or they were conscientious objectors. This particular one had gone to the Quaker ambulance service in Syria. He was asked to stay on at the embassy in Athens because he wrote the ambassador’s speeches, but he wouldn’t dream of it, and said he would not get out of killing people to have an easy life, so he went to drive ambulances instead. The coup de foudre is something you don’t know anything about; it comes right out of the blue.
You have described your love for Yehudi as ‘service in the highest sense’, and have said many times how very lucky you are to have married someone you could serve. The notion of service seems to include the idea of one person being subservient or subordinate to the other, rather than the idea of a partnership, but perhaps you don’t see it that way…
I think that’s a good point, but my infinite capacity for turning away from any kind of analysis of myself would make that difficult to answer. Sometimes when Yehudi was playing in the theatre, I would go backstage to the dressing room and when I saw the fourth wall, as we call it, the blackened theatre, then my heart would give a turn. There I was, no longer coming out centre stage, no longer embracing the public, no longer giving what I had to give; but then I would remember the bleeding toes, the glass in my powder and the tin tacks in my shoes, the intrigues and horrors, the disappointments, the exhaustion, the lack of pay, and all of that was enough to stop me being sentimental. I have a capacity to undertake whatever the job is, and that’s why diplomats fell in love with me. But I never really analysed. Harold Nicolson said that’s what kept the English from succeeding in anything other than literature were all those upper class shibboleths such as don’t advertise yourself, don’t boast, die with your boots on, stiff upper lip, and so on. They are so automatic in my generation that you immediately close up when other thoughts occur to you. I’ve always been a worker: my sister Grizelda used to say that whenever Diana has nothing to do she spills soup down her clothes and cleans them. I’m an incurable, incorrigible worker. I think that’s what Yehudi liked so much, and he recognised with great relief that we had a tremendous amount in common, that we’d both had aspirations since we were born; that I had enormous experience because I hadn’t been protected by wonderful parents who had given up everything for me. He remains to this day the most incredibly modest man, and I think that’s what the audience feels. Yahudi’s a medium…the music comes through him; he feels a responsibility to the composer, dead or alive. He was very sad and very lonely when I met him, because his marriage had really broken up, and Yehudi wouldn’t admit it; and if he had admitted it he would have blamed himself. Yehudi never blames anybody else, ever, for anything. But he told me that when he first saw me at my mother’s house, he went away to sit on a pouffe at the end of the drawing room, and thought, ‘I am going to have her.’ I said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, it was your daughter’s fifth birthday.’ For I didn’t know then that the marriage was already no good, but Yehudi has a way of knowing what he wants, and he gets it.
You married on October 1947, a day on which you said ‘the dark years finally fell away’ – a reference to the difficulties of the break-up of Yehudi’s first marriage. Did those years continue to haunt you after you were married?
I didn’t let them. Now, in old age, however, it comes back more, and I wonder how in the world I stood those two and a half ghastly years; I won’t talk about all I went through, but it was total agony. One of the men who was in love with me at one time said, ‘You will always be badly used by men; we will always fall in love with you, and we will always use you.’ I was then about 23.
Did you feel used by Yehudi?
I wanted to be used by him. I can’t feel that one has any right not to help. I’d love him to have more rest, I’d love him not to become an institution, but it is Yehudi, so what can I do? All I can do is to help, to have very little life of my own, no social life whatsoever. I even read the newspapers in order to be able to regurgitate like a mother eagle for Yehudi. Any energy I have left I use for resting, and I would like him now not to do everything at high speed.
In your autobiography you say: ‘the blackness and bleakness of stolen love are private pain, and were to be transmuted into a love the more sensitive and valuable for its near loss.’ You must have agonised a great deal before your marriage. Did you ever doubt it was the right thing to do?
No. I knew, just as I knew that whatever it cost I was going to dance. I never lost faith, however many terrible disappointments and cruelties I had to endure. I never raised a finger to help him get rid of his first wife. I never told him I was in love with him, because I didn’t want him to feel any obligation towards me. Of course he knew, but I never said it, and when he told his wife about me and mentioned the word marriage, she just said no, although she had god knows how many lovers herself. And Yehudi, who is utterly good and sweet, but can also lack a certain will, blamed himself for everything.
In an interview, your husband spoke of his ‘reprehensible behavior…bordering on the criminal’ during these two years when he was separating from his first wife. It seemed as if he carried a terrible burden of guilt. Did you share in that guilt?
No. Yehudi had two visits here, one in the spring when he was doing a film. That was when he fell in love with me, and we had these marvelous talks together about what it was like to be born with an aspiration; what it was like to know that you simply had no other life but that. Then the first fine careless rapture suddenly becomes a conscious one. He came back in the winter of ’45 and rang me up suddenly and said, ‘Will you marry me?’ I said, ‘You’re mad, Yehudi, never let me hear you use that word again – you’re already married, and you have two small children.’ But I was in love with him, the way I’d hoped to be in love ever since I can remember. I hadn’t met his wife, though I had heard rumours about her behavior and of course I’d seen the results in him. He was completely broken by it and had even decided he would give up playing the violin. I agonised about what to do. I remember saying to him – we spoke mostly in French those days – ‘Yahudi, j’ai peur’. Finally his wife told him that he had to stay with her and the children. It trailed on and on with her promising divorce and then breaking her promise over and over again. Then, thank God, one day she realised that from a practical point of view it would be better for her to marry whichever lover she had at that time, and so after two years she let Yehudi go.
Yehudi was attacked in the Jewish press for marrying outside the faith…was that an added pressure on you at the time?
Oh no, I didn’t bother about that. In any case the whole of that cabal was not because he’d married a gentile, but because he had insisted upon going to Germany. He has incredible courage, Yehudi, immense courage. He went to Germany and played night and day for every cause, Jewish and German. When we were there we heard that Furtwangler had had to run away in the middle of the night because the Gastapo had come for him. He had done nothing except get on with his job and stay in the country. I knew Furtwangler because my mother had a musical salon to which every musician in the world came, and Furtwangler would have lunch with mummy when he was over to conduct the opera, but Yehudi had never even met him. Furtwangler was decent and had helped Jewish members of the orchestra to get to America. He also wrote very dangerous letters to my sister from Denmark. He was mad about her, adored blondes, and he wrote: ‘When I think I am writing from this country, occupied by my people, it makes me ill.’ One night his friends came to him and said, ‘Run, because the Gestapo is coming for you,’ and he escaped at night with his second wife, the lovely Lizavet. Yehudi was told that the Americans wouldn’t give Furtwangler his purification trial, so Yehudi sent off a two page telegram to American – Yehudi’s telegrams are full of notwithstandings and neverthelesses – saying it was a disgrace to the Americans that they hadn’t at least given him the chance to clear his name. Furtwangler got his purification trial, he passed 100% clean, but of course you can imagine what the cabal in New York did about it: the ones who were jealous of Yehudi were heard to say, ‘At least we’ve got Menuhin.’ So the press attacks were not really because he had married a gentile but because he had defended a German.
What has been your attitude over the years to the vexed Jewish question and the complexities of Yehudi being a famous son of Israel? Have you influenced his own attitude in this regard?
Influence is a word I don’t like. I have counseled. I’ve lived in a far broader world than he has. Before Hitler one didn’t analyse Jewishness or non-Jewishness. For-example, I realised only afterwards that many of the musicians who came to my mother’s house were Jews, but to me they were Russian, or Hungarian, or German, or Austrian. Until the time of the Hitler incitement, one wasn’t Jewish conscious. On mummy’s Sundays when sometimes 100 people would be there, I remember once an Englishman putting a small union jack in the middle of the drawing room floor, just to remind people that this was England, because every language could be heard there. I had a very broad spectrum, but it was different for Yehudi. His father had sensibly taken him away from Europe when Hitler came to power, but his American experience was very limited because his parents simply didn’t go out anywhere.
Your father-in-law was an outspoken critic of Israel, a man who extolled his universalism and humanity rather than his Jewishness. Did this ever make for tension between father and son, or create difficulties in Yehudi’s public life?
That’s a complex question. When I first married Yehudi he was more or less estranged from his family because they very foolishly condemned his first wife, the last thing to do to a man who refuses to condemn anybody. So when I first went out to California I told Yehudi that no Jew was ever separated or estranged from his family, above all from his mother, and I persuaded him that we should go and visit them. Abba loved America because he felt he could trust the people; everywhere else in the world he thought everyone was cheating him. Mamina is a completely emancipated Jewess, totally and absolutely Russian, though she speaks six languages beautifully. When Yehudi made his incredible debut at the age of 9 and 10, all the Jewish community in New York naturally wanted to claim him as their star. She held them off, which led to the feeling among the Jewish community that she didn’t want to have anything to do with them. Abba was an inspector of Hebrew schools, but they didn’t often go to synagogues, and Yehudi was brought up with no sense of what is kosher; there was nothing kosher at home at all. So there was no question of their being ritual Jews. She would never touch Yiddish, and in fact spoke good German, which laid the foundation for Yehudi’s assertion that his entire culture came from Germany and Austria. After that the Jews saw their opportunity to murder him. Yehudi’s father was only anti-Israel because he had divided loyalties. He was very proud to be American, yet he was of course a Jew, the grandson of a rabbi. When they first went to look for rooms in New Jersey when their baby was about to be born, they found a very nice landlady who must have found them an attractive pair – Abba was extremely handsome, blue eyes, blond hair, and Mamina was quite incredibly beautiful with golden hair she could sit on and Tartar blue eyes. As they left, the landlady said, ‘Well, I’m very glad to have you two young things, because I simply hate Jews, and I won’t have them here,’ whereupon Maminka turned and said, ‘Well, you won’t be having us because we are both Jews.’ And as they walked away, she tapped her tummy where Yehudi was prenatally stored and said, ‘This child is going to be called Yehudi, the Jew.’ And yet that was the last Jewish gesture she made. For Abba, the greatest thing on earth was his American passport; it made him feel that he was somebody, because Mamina certainly didn’t make him feel that. Zionism threatened to break apart the feeling of being an American; it was going to demand a dual loyalty, so he joined the Philadelphia lot, a group of very distinguished Jews. It was called the American Council of Judaism, and it was made up of all those first and second generation Americans who felt that it was terrible to be asked to be less that 100% loyal to their American naturalisation; and this was the basis of his anti-Zionism. Secondly, the Menuhins were Jews who had never suffered. Abba didn’t know how important it was for the Jews to have a homeland. I talked to them and explained what it must have been like to be have been a Jew in Europe. I had lived amongst it all. The Menuhins didn’t know how necessary it was for the Jews to try to escape the pogroms; they had never been through a pogrom.
It’s true, isn’t it, that Yehudi was very pro-Israel in the sense that he couldn’t see anything wrong with whatever the Israelis did…
Yehudi was not really pro-Israel. He hated militant Zionism, yet he realised the necessity for a land for the Jews, while at the same time refusing to talk about it. Yehudi was not one of your pro-Israelis at all, and that is why they tried to kill us when we first went to Israel. With a certain amount of counseling from me he realised that something had to be done about the Jews, what was left of them, but he never wanted to be a militant Zionist. He played at concerts to raise money for the Jewish fund of course…that was the least he could do. But because we had already been to Germany, there followed a period of Jews being told to boycott his concerts. His concerts were always sold out, but only gentiles were sitting in Carnegie Hall. The Jews were told by all the Jewish newspapers to send their tickets back too late to have them resold, and that Menuhin was anti-Israel. It wasn’t true. He was only anti the militancy which was being shouted from the rooftops. He went everywhere where the Jews had really suffered, where they had been taken out and burned. He even gave a concert in Berlin for the displaced persons camp. Unless you’ve seen what had befallen those wretched Jews who had survived, what was done to them by the Germans, you wouldn’t believe it. They came crowding round the car in a wave of hate such as you’ve never seen. The military police accompanied us into the hall where people were literally hanging on to the pillars, and the howl of rage was really quite terrifying. But Yehudi has a radiance that makes people suddenly understand what he is trying to be. He got up on to the platform, with a huge policeman each side. There was an agent provocateur with a club foot, and he was trying to incite the crowd even more. Yehudi said, ‘Let me speak, let me speak.’ And he spoke to them in excellent German, telling them that Jews did not go begging to others because they had been maltreated – ‘We are a great race and nothing can extinguish us.’ Then they clapped, they applauded, they said, ‘Yehudi, Yehudi, you are wonderful…’ He changed the whole mood of the crowd and when the agent provocateur got up, he was booed. When we left people were crowding round the car, saying, ‘Yehudi, please come and play to us again, please.’ It was the most moving thing you can imagine. Yehudi hates talking about this and he may be angry with me if this comes out, but it was a wonderful moment in his life.
Did you get on well with Moshe Menuhin? I couldn’t help noticing that in his book of some 250 pages, you are mentioned by name only twice, and in your own book he does not feature very prominently.
I’ll tell you why that is. Firstly in my own book I was allowed only 200 pages to write this palimpsest of a life. Secondly, the reason for my not featuring in Abba’s book is that I didn’t realise that by marrying Yehudi I had displaced Abba. I didn’t even take it in, because I don’t think of myself particularly. Abba did everything for Yehudi, went through all his bank accounts, and so on, but when we married I told Yehudi that he had to be independent, he had to have his own lawyer, his own financial advisers. Yehudi didn’t even have stocks and shares; all the money was put into bonds, and although I don’t know much about finances, I felt it was better if he managed his own. I didn’t realise that this was doing Abba out of the one job he passionately loved; all his energy had gone into being Yehudi’s chartered accountant, Yehudi’s lawyer, Yehudi’s everything.
Your childbearing years were fraught with difficulties…two live children out of five pregnancies. How did you cope with the cumulative grief of the miscarriages and the baby who died?
Again I coped for Yehudi’s sake, because I didn’t want to make him feel guilty for having let me stay with him under all circumstances. Yehudi doesn’t analyse at all, and with my upbringing it never occurred to me not to accept illness, even death, as long as you were doing what was right, which was to keep by Yehudi’s side. As time went on it was difficult with the children too. They resented my being so much with their father and so comparatively little with them. Every time I came back from a tour, I spent every day with them, never taking a rest; I read to them, took them for walks, but I did have to put up with being a scapegoat, the aunt sally at the fair whenever there was a coconut to be shied. I used to ask the children if they would rather have a father who put his bowler hat on in the morning and took his umbrella and went off to the office at 9 and came back at 6 and read the evening paper; or would they rather have their father, an extraordinary and complex man. I also told them, ‘This man does not belong to me either, darlings…he belongs to the world.’
Do the children consider themselves Jewish?
I don’t think they consider themselves anything. You know what children are nowadays…they’re secular, and of course, when children are in trouble these days, they turn to the psychiatrist.
People are naturally suspicious of perfection and undiluted harmony within marriage. Has that been difficult to deal with?
As I told you, I’ve always kept in the background. No one knows I am Yehudi’s wife. I know my place, as the English servant says. We have practically no social life. We work very hard. I help with Yehudi’s huge correspondence, help edit his articles because Yehudi never went to school and never got the blue pencil through his schoolwork. We think alike although we have, thank God, enormous arguments, usually about certain things that he either is going to write or has written. Sometimes I win, and sometimes I don’t, but I couldn’t bear a sort of sugary marriage.
Yehudi is a genius; he’s adored and worshipped by his followers almost like a pop star. Have you ever been jealous? A man like Yehudi must attract women…
First of all Yehudi is of such an extraordinary quality that the attraction to him is semi-religious. He doesn’t present himself as a sexual object, and that is the difference between a pop idol and Yehudi. I myself have had many lovers – I’m not saying that I’ve slept with them all – but he’s had nothing other than one collapsed marriage. I must be ready to take it if it happens to him late in life, if he falls for someone. He won’t seek it at all, because we have such a full life, and we have so much in common. In the past there have been one or two – not that he had affairs with them – but they were all extremely gifted women who were not in any way trashy, to whom, in his wonderful way, Yehudi did respond. And it gave him something. They were what the French call amitiés amoureuses. And I did my best to be understanding; if I felt at all displaced, I reasoned with myself that that it could have happened in a really horrid way and didn’t; and that Yehudi was getting something out of this relationship. And why shouldn’t he have it? Why should I be mean? I’ve never been mean in my life.
When I spoke to you ten years ago, on the subject of fidelity in marriage, you said, ‘I think infidelity can be carried out with great love and sweetness, that it often refreshes a marriage when one or the other has some little affair, and feels just enough guilt and shame to love the other more.’ Was that a generalisation, or was it something you had both worked out in terms of your own relationship?
What I said, I still stand by, but since I married Yehudi, there’s been no time or place for me to have an amitié amoureuses, and I’m not likely to have one now.
The sacrifice you have made for the sake of Yehudi in terms of career, family life, privacy and so on, has been enormous, and although it has been willingly and lovingly made, without a doubt, I somehow have the impression that you maintain this in part because you dare not contemplate anything which would destroy your image of perfect harmony nurtured over the years. Is there any element of that, do you think?
If you do it chemin faisant, as the French say, then you don’t suddenly have to make a great effort in later life. Yehudi just goes blindly on his flight, playing too much, conducting too much, working too much or undertaking too much, while I constantly, like a good yachtsman, change the sails to catch the wind so that the boat doesn’t capsize. The question of harmony is something I’ve put a certain amount into all the way along, when, for example, it was necessary for him to enjoy the homage of some woman. I wanted to give up my life because to me being with Yehudi is the natural prolongation of what my ballet career meant to me. I don’t mean to say that marriage is a career in that common sense, but it is in a way.
If I may pursue this question of sacrifice…when I interviewed your husband in 1989 he said of you that you had an extreme protestant sense of not giving yourself pleasure, a feeling that you could never indulge yourself. He described it as a kind of self-denial and said, ‘As soon as anything can be turned into obligation or duty, she’ll do it straight away.’ Have you ever tried to analyse these impulses in yourself?
Yes. My darling stepdaughter who ran away from her mother to me when she was 12, said to me, ‘Diney, you’ve simply got to lose a little pride and a little control. It’s inhuman.’ And I said, ‘No, I daren’t, I simply daren’t…and anyway it’s too late.’ I sometimes think of my crazy side, the dotty side, when everything was ghastly and we were underfed and underpaid; I was 16, 17, and Freddie Ashton was 22, and we would do a comic act between the two shows, the matinée and the evening. I would be the male partner and he would put on my shoes and be Anna Pavlova, and I was known as the funniest dancer when I did that…I have sometimes blamed Yehudi for not giving me the opportunity to be my old wild self. And that I do miss.
Looking back on your life now, are there any unresolved difficulties or regrets?
Regrets that I wasn’t the dancer that I hoped to be when Diaghilev chose me, and Pavlova chose me…that, yes, of course. The original expression of my own self was denied. That’s why, when Weidenfeld asked me to write a book, I thought, I must take care, because I think I’m feeling dried out, and I’m determined never to be bitter. I was once very much a person, I was somebody in my own right; and I gave up every talent I had to looking after Yehudi, tidying up the awful mess I found him in, poor lamb…