Fiddling Around With History

Jacques Gordon in Chicago in 1930
Jacques Gordon in Chicago in 1930 (Jun Fujita - Chicago Evening Post / Courtesy Gordon Family)
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By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, June 29, 2008

You may like or dislike my columns. You may think I am a fine fellow or a jackass. But there is one fact you may no longer dispute: I am a brilliantly original thinker.

I would not say it if I didn't have proof, namely, the Pulitzer Prize. I won it for an article I wrote last year about what happened when a world-famous violinist played for spare change, incognito, for three-quarters of an hour outside a subway station. Playing his priceless Stradivarius, violin virtuoso Joshua Bell, a onetime child prodigy, made a few measly bucks and change. Most people hurried past, unheeding. It was a story about artistic context, priorities and the soul-numbing gallop of modernity.

The stunt, which I had ginned up, was judged to be completely groundbreaking. The rush of adulation from inside my profession was immediate and intoxicating; suffice it to say that at the Pulitzer ceremony in New York, a beautiful and talented young journalism student was clearly disappointed to learn I am married.

Quite pleased with myself, I returned home to find waiting for me an e-mail from a man named Paul Musgrave. Paul works in Yorba Linda, Calif., at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, a fact that is irrelevant to this story except that, wafting as it does from the grave of the man The Washington Post did so much to destroy, it smells faintly but ominously of payback. Besides, as you will see, every last thing you are about to read, in some measure, relates to everything else.

Musgrave told me that he'd been scrolling through microfiche while researching an unrelated project when his eyes fell on a story in the Indianapolis Times from May 1930. It was a wire account of a remarkable thing that had just happened in Chicago. In a stunt ginned up by a newspaper named the Post -- the Chicago Evening Post -- violin virtuoso Jacques Gordon, a onetime child prodigy, performed for spare change on his priceless Stradivarius, incognito, for three-quarters of an hour outside a subway station. Most people hurried past, unheeding. The violinist made a few measly bucks and change. It was a story about artistic context, priorities and the soul-numbing gallop of modernity.

I immediately fired off a return e-mail to Paul Musgrave. It consisted of two four-letter words, both in capital letters, the first of which was HOLY.

In the days that followed, I obtained a copy of the original article from the long-defunct Evening Post. The main story, bylined Milton Fairman, was on Page One, under the headline "Famous Fiddler in Disguise Gets $5.61 in Curb Concerts." The story began: "A tattered beggar in an ancient frock coat, its color rusted by the years, gave a curbstone concert yesterday noon on windswept Michigan Avenue. Hundreds passed him by without a glance, and the golden notes that rose from his fiddle were swept by the breeze into unlistening ears ..."

We learn from this story that two of the handful of songs played by Jacques Gordon were Massenet's "Meditation" from "Thais" and Schubert's "Ave Maria." Two of the handful of songs played by Joshua Bell last year were Massenet's "Meditation" from "Thais" and Schubert's "Ave Maria." Of the hundreds of people who walked by Gordon, only one recognized him for who he was. Of the hundreds of people who walked by Bell, only one recognized him for who he was.

I telephoned Bell -- he, too, had not heard about this other street corner stunt. But, though Jacques Gordon died two decades before Bell was born, Bell knew of him. The two men had shared something intimate. From 1991 through 2001, Bell played the same Strad that Gordon had once owned, the same one Gordon had played on the Chicago streets that day in 1930. For 11 years, Bell's fingers held the same ancient wood.

There were differences between the two impromptu performances; Bell played indoors, but Gordon did not, meaning that some of Gordon's music evaporated into Chicago's frisky winds. Eventually, Gordon drew a small crowd; Bell never did. But the biggest difference is that the Evening Post's story -- the brainchild of Michael W. Straus, the paper's brash young city editor -- was a one-day minor curiosity. Mine, kept alive and aloft by the might of the Web, went global.

I'm sitting here looking at my Pulitzer Prize, which is awarded in part for "originality," and I'm laughing. Is ignorance a defense? Is there a statute of limitations on originality? Is 77 years okay? Mostly, I'm thinking that around the year 2085, a writer -- someone who hasn't been born yet -- is going to wake up one day with this really terrific idea ...

Gene Weingarten can be reached at weingarten@washpost.com. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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