No, this is not a review. It's a rant. You can also find it on Goodreads. But first, some thanks.
I thank Bob Fazakerly, the long-serving keyboard accompanist at my church, for lending me this not-quite-biography. When I first joined the church, our backup accompanist was Jimmy Mathis, a dear friend of Van Cliburn from their Juilliard days, who is quoted extensively in the book.
I also thank Cliburn himself for recording My Favorite Chopin while still hale and hearty, basking in the afterglow of his inaugural Chaykovskiy Competition victory. His Polonaise in A-flat still gives me spinal shivers of awe. Like Cliburn, Freddy Chopin was a skinny, neurasthenic kid who kept his orientation hidden for years and could get crowds swooning with his playing. Legend has it that, by the time he had finished writing that particular Polonaise, he was too weak from consumption to perform it. (Thanks to you as well, Freddy.)
It is not nostalgia for the original Cold War era that made reading about the mass government-induced paranoia in both the US and USSR such dark fun. All the recollections of listening devices planted in hotel rooms, KGB agents shadowing the performers, and J. Edgar Hoover dithering about whether to blow the whistle on Van Cliburn's sexual orientation seem quaint today. I would never want to return to that time or revive the circumstances. I would also love to see the current kinder, gentler surveillance state demolished in the US, Russia, and wherever it exists, thank you very much.
With his sentimentalized approach to Romantic concerto repertoire, Cliburn won the hearts of Russian/Soviet music-lovers and First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev in 1958. Isacoff and his various interview subjects give Cliburn credit for beginning the Great Thaw that culminated in the 1980s with Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost i perestroika.
It spoils nothing to emphasize that Cliburn was gay; as was Sviatoslav Richter (supposedly), his greatest advocate on the Chaykovskiy Competition jury; as was Pyotr Ilyich Chaykovskiy himself, Russia's most celebrated composer for piano and for orchestra. And yet, after all this time, after all these events, Russian society has never really warmed to its LGBT+ population; in fact, today there is a revival of official institutional homophobia there—as there is in the US, but here we see more pushback against the homophobic agenda.
A more salient point for me is that, although he was born just across the Louisiana line in Shreveport, Cliburn was a gay Texan. After living and studying for some years in New York, where the classical music scene was one big convivial closet, he chose to move back to Texas, settling in Fort Worth. Texas is not known for its acceptance of LGBT+, as our GOP-dominated state government has amply illustrated in recent years.
Cliburn is merely the most internationally famous of many non-straight celebrities who have called this state home. Sadly, his name is less known here than in his second home, Russia. Nine out of ten Texans, when asked "Who was Van Cliburn?" would reply either "I don't know" or "Wasn't he a football coach?"
It irks me no end when bigots of all stripes refuse to recognize that what we call "American culture" has been cobbled together from Black, Italian, Jewish, and Gay/Lesbian components. Anyone who is proud to be a Texan, an American, or a Christian should know that Cliburn was too. With all his eccentricities, addictions, and repressed stage-fright that gnawed at him for years, he loved people, irrespective of national origin, orientation, faith tradition or lack thereof. He was generous in the extreme, so sincere and earnest as to appear naive, and deeply concerned that children and youth with musical inclinations should have the same opportunities he had. To my mind, that all makes him a better Texan, American, and Christian than all the bigots who would push him back into the closet.