When I first joined the SPCO as a twenty-something-year-old, way back in 1980, Eddie was quick to greet me.
“Welcome, darlin’,” he said, putting an arm around me. We stood backstage following the first rehearsal of the season. White-haired, balding, his sun-pink face was split in a grin, squinty eyes dancing. He wore an Adidas tennis warm-up suit and white court shoes with the air of a man defying age, convention, a categorical box of any kind. In that brief, friendly embrace, I caught the whiff of cigar smoke and aftershave. An interesting character, I thought, moving away.
After more than two decades of being colleagues, I can’t say I really got to know him. There was always a divide between him, a musician from an earlier generation, and me, one of the new kids on the block, and though we buffed the unspoken, undefined separation between us with friendly, joking exchanges, mimicking intimacy, it remained impermeable. Though we played in the same orchestra, shared taxi cabs on tour, searching for tennis courts and hit against one another, we never shared a meal, or visited each others’ homes.
At the time, I didn’t think much about it, accepting that Eddie and I were simply very different people. He was from Texas, I the East Coast; he was a cellist, I a violist. But, in retrospect, I wonder if it was due to the kind of wariness with which one generation regards another. We had, after all, joined the orchestra under very different circumstances, he, with other founding colleagues, through invitation and a handshake, when the SPCO was brand new and its future trajectory unknown, whereas I, along with my younger colleagues, had been hired following a grueling audition process by Pinchas Zukerman. As players in a chamber orchestra, we worked in unnaturally tight quarters where scrutiny was close, instantaneous, and opinions formed under conditions of stress. Under similar circumstances, animals have been known to attack and eat one another.
Eddie seemed to revel in his role as the orchestra eccentric, making no secret of packing multiple teddy bears to take on tour, laying them out on his hotel bed so they would make him feel at home. Or gleefully entertaining us on the bus during our endless tours through the midwest, singing the Finale of Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony at the top of his lungs, accentuating the chop of the last chords of the opening phrase by slamming the toilet lid, then the toilet door, of the bus: Bam! Bam! He scraped quarters across the corrugated metal ceiling of the bus roof, crowing “All this, and per diem too!” And there was his joyful announcement of the dawn of “Hump Day,” the middle day of the tour, when we embarked on the other side of the itinerary toward the end, and home.
Eddie was the orchestra’s blue note, as well. During a friendly softball game against members of the Minnesota Orchestra, he paraded along the first base line in satin short-shorts, fishnet stockings and high-platform mules. He had the most stunningly shapely legs, which I’m convinced distracted opposing batters. I believe it was due to Eddie’s comely strutting that we won the game.
Eddie was a conscientious cellist. He practiced backstage, onstage. There are only two stands of cellos in our orchestra, and as a second stand player he frequently stood up to ask questions of his principal, most often during harrowing segments of modern music. Our principal at the time would tell him to sit back down in his chair. Eddie acquiesced, but you could tell, even though there was joking in their tone, that serious business existed between them.
Tennis was Eddie’s passion, and he played with intensity and focus. A novice at the time, I asked him to teach me the game, and he consented to hit with me while on tour when the only other alternative was to search out the town’s Pamida store to try out fishing rods, shop for bait. While warming up he hit balls softly, near enough for me to retrieve them easily, but during points his eyes narrowed and he laced shots into the corners so that in no time I was panting, heart bursting, ready to collapse. At the time I thought , (Silly me!) that this was the way of tennis lessons, that one learned by being thrashed. Looking back, I realized the lessons were a different kind, tennis being the least of it.
One day, as I was reading a book during a break in rehearsal, I looked up to see Eddie watching me.
“You’re ambitious, aren’t you?” he said.
The lack of mirth in his tone took me by surprise. His face looked set, stony.
“What do you mean?” I asked, confused.
He seemed about to say something, then changed his mind. But from that day on, my understanding of of Eddie widened, so that I began to see him, like most people who clown around, as a deeply serious man with complexity at his core.
In the early 1990’s, Eddie cut back his schedule in the orchestra to be with his wife, Mary Lou, who had developed health problems. They had no children. He no longer toured with us, and we missed his light touch that helped make the long days in Bemidji and Brainerd fly by.
When Eddie finally retired at the age of 72, in 1994, we thought we’d still see him at concerts, at the stage door, as he seemed such a fixture in our lives, and because his life seemed to revolve around the orchestra, but he never appeared again. I only glimpsed him once, when, departing town on our tour bus to the flatlands, someone called to tell him we were approaching downtown Minneapolis. We all leaned to look out the east windows of the bus to see Eddie standing on the balcony of the 21st floor of his condo at 400 Groveland, bare-chested, waving his shirt in salute as we drove by, a cigar clenched in his teeth.
Colleagues close to Eddie kept us informed of him, how he still played tennis, how his beloved Mary Lou had developed dementia. Being her primary caretaker kept him busy.
Mary Lou died, and Eddie died on April 15, 2008. Perhaps a year or so after he passed, I received a check for a small amount from a lawyer who had dispensed Eddie’s estate. Other colleagues reported they had received checks, too. I was shocked by how moved I was from this unexpected gift from Eddie, by how he continued to touch us from afar.
Goodbye, Eddie. I wish I had gotten to know you better. I wish I hadn’t presumed to know you the way I had. If there is a heaven, I can imagine seeing you there now, proclaiming, “All this, and heaven too!”