The woman napping in the lobby of the Friendship Heights Community Center snaps awake shortly before 3 p.m. She grabs her walker and makes her way steadily, and quickly, down the hall and into a bright community room. About 30 seniors have gathered, many queuing up to the coffee and snack table. The woman ignores the treats and guides herself directly to a piano in the corner. At 3 o’clock on the dot, she sits down and starts playing.
The light classical music and Great American Songbook selections are played with authority and without sheet music. What sets this performance apart is that the pianist is 99 years old. Also, she’s about to self-release an album of her songs — 15 of the 130 she’s written. And her enthusiasm for the project is no different from that of any 22-year-old hoping for a shout-out on Pitchfork.com.
At a table in the community center, a pair of Helens and a Lucy express delight with Marianne Arden Cook’s efforts. “We come every Tuesday,” Helen Huntley says. “We have our blood pressure done, then we come here.”
For the past decade, Cook has spent her Tuesday afternoons here at the community center playing for her Chevy Chase neighbors. But during the ’40s and ’50s, as Marianne Arden, she toured Europe and America — singing, playing and tap dancing at top nightclubs and on the radio.
Born in 1913 to a colonel and a baroness in Vienna, Cook retains a slight accent with an imperial Austrian edge that brooks no foolishness. But it’s countered by a girlish spark. “Will you come to me and cuddle?” she asks a visitor to her apartment in a Chevy Chase high-rise, and she squeezes close on the sofa to talk about her music.
“They say I’m unique. I’m 99. I write songs, words and music — and in four languages,” she says, adding brightly, “That’s better than Cole Porter.” Many of her songs alternate verses in German, English, French and Danish. She calls her song “Liebe Means Love” — in which she sings, “Whatever language I speak, I always say ‘I love you’ ” — a “language lesson.”
Cook’s singing is reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich’s, but without the campy quality. Cook sings it straight and sincere. Pianist Robert Glenn, leader of a jazz quintet that regularly plays the senior-center circuit, met Cook at one of his performances. “I was truly shocked at how good a singer she was,” he says. “Not a bad pianist, but a world-class singer, in my view — clear as a bell.”
A leather-bound copy of “Who’s Who in Music” from 1953 sits atop the baby grand in Cook’s living room; she says she practices every day. The “Who’s Who” calls her a “song stylist and chanteuse.” Her entry comes one page before Louis Armstrong’s.
“Oh, Louis Armstrong — he was a fan of mine,” she says. “He stayed at the same hotel where I entertained. And, once, we were on a radio program together. Yeah, we were very good friends.”
Cook came to America in 1940, part of a female vocal group that was booked at the Rainbow Room in New York City, a premier nightclub at the time. “And then, Hitler came,” Cook says. She returned to Vienna, but Cook had found a benefactor during her stint in the United States — Bernard Davis, of Ziff-Davis publishing fame. “Mr. Davis, he read that the beautiful Viennese girls are being thrown out of the country, and he called me up and he said, ‘If you ever need an affidavit, let me know.’ ”
“It’s a twist-around, that a Jewish man sends an affidavit to a Catholic girl!” Cook chuckles. So she returned to the United States and launched her solo singing career, driving herself from show to show, town to town, years before the interstate highway system. The Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago, the Chase Hotel in St. Louis, the Pierre in New York. It was the era when hotels weren’t just drab settings for conventions but had high-class nightclubs featuring big-name entertainment.
“At the Lombardy Hotel in New York I stayed two years,” she says. “So that was nice.”
By 1942, she was married to a doctor, the first of her four marriages. Pressed, she scolds, “You want to know all about my lovers and all of that? How many lovers did I have? I don’t know, I didn’t count.” She huffs, then winks and says, “I am ready for another one!”
She says she preferred playing in Europe, where she performed after World War II. In Copenhagen during the 1950s, she had her own radio program. Cook recalls writing one of her songs in Denmark, inspired by “a young lieutenant who I met after I left my very stern and overpowering genius Hungarian husband, who gave me everything under the world, but I was just choked up.” The song is called “He’s Nobody Much.” Cook begins singing:
He’s nobody much, but I really don’t care
He has nothing else but a love I can share
He can’t give me rubies like the other one did
But he makes my lips burn
She stops and exclaims proudly, “You see, everything fits!”
Cook has transferred some of her records and reel-to-reel tapes onto three CDs. “The Classical Marianne Arden” has solo piano versions of Ravel, Debussy, Rachmaninoff and others; “Marianne Arden Sings and Plays for You” contains her original compositions; and “Marianne Arden Still Sings and Plays for You” is a collection of radio shows and homemade recordings. But the one she’s releasing is the collection of her originals.
On the cover of each disc is a different glamour shot. “I was very photogenic,” Cook says matter-of-factly. The pictures were taken by “a very famous photographer. It was Nickolas Muray, who did all the Hollywood stars,” she boasts, then dismisses him as “another Hungarian. A friend of my second husband’s.”
But Cook doesn’t like the photos. “Because you don’t show your pretty face, to heck with the pretty face,” she scowls, concerned that a picture that shows “bust and everything” suggests she isn’t a serious musician. “I am Viennese. And all Viennese musicians are very talented,” she states. So the final disc will use a photo that a press photographer took years ago in Copenhagen, a close-up of her “piano hands.”
“I don’t want to sell myself; I want to sell my songs!” says Cook, voicing the eternal songwriter’s lament. Cook sold her first song, “Please Don’t Go Away,” while she was performing in Scandinavia, many years ago.
The music business has changed several times over since the heyday of the traveling chanteuse, to the point where some people suggest that there isn’t a music business anymore.
But the thrill of seeing your work collected in one shareable form is timeless. So if “Marianne Arden Sings and Plays for You” isn’t a Warner Bros. or Sony release but a product of Cook’s checkbook, that’s par for the course for today’s musicians, be they 99 or 19. Cook doesn’t seem to mind. Instead, she speaks excitedly of getting “padded envelopes” and “sending [her CDs] out to the TV stations.”
Cook points to one of the discs and declares that her favorite track is “I Wish I Were Foolish.”
“It is a very philosophical, good song,” she says, “because that is real life.” Asked why she wishes she were foolish, Cook begins singing again:
I wish I were foolish as I was long ago
I was happy and trusting and thirsty to know
What makes the world round and what makes us tick
And what kind of chemicals make lovers stick
The sun was a beautiful bouncing ball
And for a good measure, some rain had to fall
To believe and to hope was a wondrous thrill
And a friendly word took away winter’s chill
“And then I grew up!” she shouts.