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The Crime Lady: "Truth" in True Crime; Violinist Unsolved Mystery; and More
Dear TCL Readers:
April is halfway over but it feels like it has encompassed a century. Perhaps it was Passover. Perhaps it was spending the Seders in my hometown with my mom and brother, then after a quick overnight city trip, the last days in Western Mass, then getting another booster (yep) and realizing I am about to juggle an intense work schedule and an intense social life and…I’m amazed I have a breath to catch to write this newsletter.
But I do! Because there has been a lot going on. Let’s get to it:
Last month, I decided to watch this new film Boston Strangler with Keira Knightley and Carrie Coon. I sort of enjoyed it but it also felt off, and because of one scene and a single line, I got curious, which led to the NYT finally writing an obit of one-time Strangler suspect George Nassar more than 4 years after the fact:
That whole weird episode got me thinking about the broader ramifications of true crime’s “truthiness” and the ways in which shaping real life trauma and pain into often mediocre entertainments — the IPification of crime — can cause lasting damage. It’s the subject of my first Guest Essay for the Opinion section, essentially a call to action for creators of true crime in any medium to remember that making stuff up is not, in fact, a viable option.
(By sheer happenstance I was also able to fold in mention of my favorite piece published this past week, David Gaubey Herbert’s expert NYMag evisceration of the fraud profiler Richard Walter, and the two nonfiction books I’ve loved so far (and blurbed), Alex Mar’s Seventy Times Seven and Roxanna Asgarian’s We Were Once a Family. Alex and I discussed our books for CrimeReads and I’ll be in conversation with Roxanna at Greenlight Bookstore on May 3.)
Truly blessed to have had a chance to work with Adam Sternbergh again. (His latest novel, THE EDEN TEST, is wonderful and out on April 25 and can be pre-ordered here.) I should also note that Guest Essays are thoroughly edited and fact-checked, and the whole experience was extremely excellent!
And speaking of pre-orders, here’s another link for EVIDENCE OF THINGS SEEN, the anthology out in early July.
70 years ago this month, Jascha Heifetz was attacked outside of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem by a still-unknown assailant. His crime? Playing one of his favorite pieces, the E flat major sonata by Richard Strauss, a composer ostensibly banned at the time in Israel for his supposed (and heavily disputed) Nazi collaborations. I wrote about the attack, its ties to a Holocaust survivor who later became Knesset Speaker, and the ways in which living memory can collide with making art, for the Arts & Leisure section of the Times, and it appeared in the print edition yesterday, on the exact anniversary of the attack:
How did this come about? Because my Crime & Mystery column is now monthly, that gave me some additional space to reach out to other editors I wanted to work with and sections I wished to write for. High on the priority list was the classical music desk because I love it so (WQXR became a constant audio destination for me during the pandemic) but also because its editor is Rachel Saltz, who used to edit the daily book critics and was beloved by them (and who was truly a dream to work with.)
As I say in the piece, “an unsolved mystery involving a world-renowned violinist, the State of Israel’s early years, the shadows of collective trauma, and the uneasy mix of art and politics — this story ticked all of my professional and personal boxes.” To help me navigate through a real thicket of topics — particularly the right-wing extremist parts — I owe a great debt to historians Tom Segev (quoted) and Na’ama Sheffi (not quoted, alas) for their books and their time.
But I also wanted to crack a different kind of mystery, that of the deeply, maddeningly complex personality of Heifetz, a true prodigy turned towering talent who was, at times, psychologically undone by the very gifts given to him. My deepest thanks to his biographer John A. Maltese (who is looking for a publisher for his magnum opus), Ayke Agus, Sherry Kloss, and Jay Heifetz, who had little memory of his father’s attack but was exceedingly helpful.
I’d also previously fallen into the common misconception about Heifetz, that his playing was “cold” or “remote”. By the time the piece was done, I was firmly in the opposite camp. Here are some of the pieces that helped me change my mind:
“Heifetz Plays Gershwin and Music of France” (1965) — George Gershwin inspired deep love and envy among other composers, pop or classical, and one of Heifetz’s main regrets is that he never convinced Gershwin to commission anything for violin (i.e. for him to play.) Instead, he transcribed a great many of Gershwin pieces, including An American in Paris, which Ayke Agus finished after Heifetz died. Anyway, I love this recording (with the ever-nimble Brooks Smith on piano) because it communicates Heifetz’s deep affection for Gershwin’s music.
“When You Make Love To Me” (1946) — Heifetz, in conversation with friends, brought up his distaste for most pop music of the time, and was dared to write something of his own. The two songs (with lyrics by Marjorie Goetschius) are pretty good! Bing really puts them over well. (Bonus: Heifetz himself playing it on piano.) Also, “Jim Hoyl” was more than just a professional pseudonym, but one Heifetz used often in his life, be it on plane tickets, hotels, and at the hospital in the final months of his life. It was a way for him to be both anonymous and deeply known, and to my mind, a clue to his many contradictions.
“Hebrew Melody” (1926) — obviously, the early Heifetz recordings suffer because of the limitations of the medium, but when you play like he did, it still comes through. Achron was someone he knew well (his brother was Heifetz’s accompanist for a time) and links Heifetz’s past (his father was a klezmer, and though he would disdain it later, there’s little doubt early exposure to cantorial music in Vilna helped inform his style) and present. Obviously, I’m also fascinated with Heifetz’s relationship with Judaism: not observant by any definition, and yet he still had mezuzahs on his doorways, faithfully attended Passover Seders, and fasted on Yom Kippur — the last time precipitating the fall that led to his death.
“Brahms Double Concerto for Violin and Cello” (1961) — here Heifetz plays with his best musical friend, Gregor Piatigorsky (Alfred Wallenstein is conducting) and the double performance is commanding but also at times kind of sweet?
“Tchaikovsky Piano Trio” (1950) — This recording, featuring Heifetz, Piatigorsky, and Arthur Rubinstein on piano, became *the* mainstay for me as I was writing/editing over the past few months. They called this group the “Million Dollar Trio” but it was also not fated to last beyond a few recordings because Heifetz and Rubinstein’s respective egos wouldn’t let them work harmoniously after a while. (Bonus: film footage of the trio)
“Chaconne from Bach’s Partita for Solo Violin #2” — Bach is a mood, one tailor-made for Heifetz, who prided himself on astonishing technical capabilities while also wringing out as much emotion as the pieces would allow (and then some.) The twelve-plus minutes will take you somewhere you’ve never been before, and the best thing is to just let it.
That’s plenty of newsletter for now — but before signing off, I’m also planning on spending less time on Twitter as it continues its slow implosion, and trying out Substack’s new Notes feature. Will it stick? Who knows? But why not try it? And if you know anyone who wants to subscribe to TCL, they can do so here:
Until next time, I remain,
The Crime Lady