Article published in Life Magazine, 31 October 1969

Jascha Heifetz can play better than anyone else ‑ but he won't

Fiddler on the Shelf



In the end we are finding out that Shaw was right. I am speaking of the playwright and of a time, so current and so distant, when Jascha Heifetz traveled to London as a boy of 19, with curly hair, a serious mien and a fiddle.

Shaw had been a music critic, a master of barbs, but hearing Heifetz overwhelmed his irascibility. Terribly moved, he went home to Ayot St. Lawrence and wrote an odd, touching, ominous letter.

My dear Heifetz:

Your recital has filled me and my wife with anxiety. If you provoke a jealous God by playing with such superhuman perfection, you will die young. I earnestly advise you to play something badly every night before going to bed, instead of saying your prayers. No mortal should presume to play so faultlessly.

G. Bernard Shaw

Heifetz presumed and today, a robust 68, he continues to play with a touch that would draw tears from an audience of stone. Such greatness exacts an incalculable price. I think that is what Shaw is saying. And Heifetz has paid for his genius with his humanity. The great violinist turns against friends and humiliates colleagues. He has lost two marriages and become remote from his children. Instead of entering an Olympian old age, his life is a hermitage. But worse, Heifetz, whose staccato is unmatched, whose legato choirs and whose left hand flashing on the strings remind his brightest pupil of Nureyev, refuses to give concerts any longer. He does not plan to play for an audience again.

"I have done it before," he says, as if it were that simple. "I have no need." Some suggest that Heifetz has known so many high pleasures ‑ wealth, the smiles of queens, the adulation of an age ‑ that be suffers from ultimate boredom. A concert, then, is simply too much trouble. Others are not so sure. "There are only two things that go on a great fiddler," one eminent violinist says. "That bow arm and the nerve. I assure you there is nothing wrong with Heifetz' bow arm."

He practices every day. Occasionally he performs chamber music before rigidly screened groups of five or 10 idolators. He even records some of the chamber music, often at a frantically rapid tempo. But what Heifetz avoids is the cut and bite and breathtaking excitement of confrontation with a real audience, which breathes and cheers ‑ and frowns.

Heifetz pursues secretiveness in all things. Approaching 70, he is still trim, agile enough for wicked games of Ping‑Pong and capable, when he chooses, of captivating anyone with his charm. But his overwhelming passion is for privacy, and he places a bewildering variety of barriers between himself and the world. Mishel Piastro, who became famous conducting the Longines Symphonette, was a student with Heifetz in Russia long ago. "I'm going to the coast soon," Piastro says. "I know that I will see Jack Benny. About Heifetz, one can never tell."  Musicians joke that Heifetz himself must now make an appointment to see Heifetz. ("And God forbid he should be two minutes late.")

Since his second divorce, in 1963, Heifetz has lived without family or friends in a retreat high above Beverly Hills. He spends weekends at a smaller house on a private beach in Malibu. To reach him one writes a letter, which may go unanswered, or one telephones his unlisted number. A service takes the message and sometimes Heifetz responds. But he will never identify himself on the telephone. It is one of Heifetz' rules of life that everyone recognize his voice.

Another rule is that he and no one else makes the jokes. He is an imperious man who has formulated rules governing almost every aspect of behavior from neatness to finance to respect.

Heifetz is a fastidious dresser. He is fond of ascots, sports jackets, wide pants and particular outfits for particular events. To record, he changes into a tailored shirt with many pockets, which he wears outside of the wide slacks. It is uninhibiting but dignified.

He demands and gets an annual retainer of $100,000 from RCA Victor and until recently an additional $30,000 to teach two days a week at the Los Angeles Music Center. His records no longer earn out, and he had to twist arms for his teaching salary, but he is convinced (along with many others) that both figures were fair. He is Heifetz, and $2,500 a week is a reasonable return.

His classes are conducted as absolute autocracies. "You will play the passage in this manner," he once said, demonstrating to tall, black‑haired Erick Friedman.

Friedman had been suggesting another approach. "But Mr. Heifetz," he said. "You don't understand."

The master stiffened. "Never say that. Say, 'I did not make myself clear.' "

To find Mr. Heifetz, one drives up Coldwater Canyon, a wrinkle in the Santa Monica Mountains glutted with movie people. There, the Heifetz redoubt stands behind a fence of redwood saplings and an electric gate, on which a sign warns, Beware of Dog. That is one of Heifetz' jokes on the rest of us. The beast within is a papier‑mache model of the RCA Victor puppy listening for his master's voice.

"You had better be there precisely when he says," John Pfeiffer, who produces Heifetz' records, suggests.  "If you're early, you drive around. You really don't want to intrude. And if you're late ...”  Pfeiffer smiles slightly. "He won't open the electric gate."

The estate, set on about four acres, consists of a large, handsome house of redwood and glass, an octagonal studio, a tennis court, a swimming pool and meadows. Business visitors are usually received in the studio. The building was designed by Lloyd Wright, a son of Frank Lloyd Wright, with Heifetz assisting on acoustics. This is where Heifetz keeps his violins and where he practices for the concerts he does not give. The studio is soundproof. It is immeasurably important that no one hear him prepare, that no one get behind the glacial image. When receiving a visitor, he is preoccupied with image, too.

He begins with a quick hello and an extended glare. Heifetz' cheekbones are prominent ‑ Tartar cheekbones, someone has called them ‑ and his face is ruled by the eyes. They are blue and darting and hooded. The lips are thin and the corners of the mouth turn downward. Heifetz presents a visage that seems to say, "What is it you want from me, and I'm certainly glad the silverware is locked." This is not a face at all. It is a mask.

Once in a while, in an old family snapshot, you can see the handsome, tender man that was. His head is thrown back. A cigarette rests on his lower lip. The face is lit with laughter. No longer. The mask has become Heifetz' norm.

One looks about the studio. There is a large monaural tape recorder, files and, in a spotless case resting on a long rosewood table, the violin. It is an earthy tan instrument completed in Cremona 227 years ago by Joseph Guarneri, and used by Ferdinand David in 1845 to play the premiere of the Mendelssohn concerto.

If Heifetz is not feeling depressed and the visitor has not offended him by prying questions, or by suggesting that Mendelssohn is no match for Brahms, he may allow himself to be drawn into conversation. But talk is another kind of mask. Heifetz beats off questions with other questions and holds off people with small puns and pronouncements that are as intimate as papal bulls. He has also became a lover of silences.

He led one recent visitor from the studio into the breezeway, where his Ping‑Pong table stands, and then on to a sweep of lawn rolling toward a copse. It was spring and the trees were loud with birds. "I remember spring mornings like this when I was a child in Vilna" Heifietz said.

"Oh?  What was it like to grow up there?"

Silence. Heifetz had revealed more than he intended, that he was thinking of his youth. He walked off quickly to inspect a hammock.

"You know," he remarked later on, "the three most important things are tolerance, humility and discipline. And I am not so sure about the third."

"But Mr. Heifetz. Your own discipline is phenomenal."


Other visitors are welcomed in the main house. Here, entering a large room, one passes cases of exquisite glassware, collections from Napoleonic France and czarist Russia. One wall, toward the meadow, is a window. On others hang paintings by Rouault and Soutine. The floor is cork. Here, before dining regally, Heifetz, Gregor Piatigorsky, Israel Baker and a few others sometimes make chamber music.

In the living room, Heifetz offers a drink. He loves bargains and he prefers a Scotch that costs a dollar less than the standard $7.25 a fifth. Then he may invite talk ‑ animated when he describes his gardening skills, his lamp wiring and his electric car, a costly personal protest against smog. Heifetz bought a $2,000 Renault Dauphine converted to run on batteries in 1966. The transformation ran $5,500.

On other subjects, even as Heifetz practices conversation as mask, talk can be stimulating, at least, a challenge.

"I notice you don't have stereo in the studio."

"Hystereo. I don't need it!'

"Do you like high fidelity, Mr. Heifetz?"

"High phooey? Why should I have anything against hi phooey?"

"Isn't it odd that no one has written a biography of you?"

“Here is my biography. I played the violin at 3 and gave my first concert at 7. I have been playing ever since."

"How do you feel about concertizing?"

"I have done it."

"Have some critics bothered you?"

"Critics are the words without the music."

"Don't you feel an obligation to bring your music to the public concert halls?"


"An obligation, then, to the generation or string players growing up without hearing you in person?

"So. When I am dead and gone will I have an obligation to them then?"

A favorite theme is equitability. "It is important," Heifetz likes to announce, "that everything be equitable."  But he is an artist and an individualist. He accepts only himself to judge his art. The same judge decrees equitability.


William Primrose, an unassuming Scots‑born viola player, has been an outstanding master viola instrumentalist, which extends five notes lower than the violin. Primrose met Heifetz in 1934, and began recording with him in the 1940s.  To Primrose Heifetz stands alone. “He has a panache, an elan," Primrose says, "that makes the simplest sonata tremendously exciting. And he can break your heart." Listening to the slow movement of Mozart Symphonie Concertante, a sort of double concerto for violin and viola, both Heifetz' violin and Primrose's viola sing long‑lined melodies, now one following the other, now together, and if your spirit is open and you are not afraid to surrender to great art, you will find yourself moved to a sadness beyond tears.

The recording was made in 1956, A year later, Primrose began to lose his hearing, but he continued to perform with Heifetz, quietly proud of associating with the master. The relationship stopped when Heifetz and Primrose were to make a record of the Dvorak Piano Quintet. Listening to the tapes, Heifetz decided that Primrose was playing out of tune. He ordered RCA not to release the recording.

Soon afterward Primrose left California; he now teaches at the University of Indiana. One of Heifetz' champions says, "What Jascha thought was equitable was for Primrose to come to him and admit, 'I cannot play with you.' When Bill didn't Heifetz had no choice. To him, music is music and long associations are irrelevant."

The affair that Heifetz sycophants find most difficult to defend ended with his loosing a sheriff on his closest friend. The late Rudolph Polk, a string player of comparatively modest attainments, traveled with Heifetz, ran errands for him and testified at Heifetz' first divorce. In 1949, Polk convinced Heifetz, Piatigorsky and Artur Rubinstein to form a corporation and make movies. "Unpretentiously," Rubinstein says, "we called our company 'World Artists, Inc.'".  Polk became president and World Artists corporation produced 11 short subjects. Heifetz, Rubinstein and Piatigorsky starred in two and as principal stockholders were to share in the profits from all. They were paid the first year, but no money remained to honor later contracts. Polk appears simply to have been an inept businessman.

Piatigorsky, whose wife is Jacqueline Rothschild, dismissed the matter. He is a man of means and compassion. Rubinstein felt that there was nothing to be done since "We were all friends, partners and above all artists." Heifetz handed the case to his lawyers. With Heifetz' full knowledge, while he was still playing in gin rummy games with Polk, the lawyers garnished Polk's bank account and sent the sheriff to nail a writ of attachment onto Polk's house.

These stories are upsetting, but by themselves incomplete. One needs to consider the other side. Dr. Raymond Kendall, a former chairman of music at USC and the Music Center, worked with Heifetz for eight years, "enough to learn that he is tortured by a thousand demons." When the Music Center was completed shortly before Christmas 1964, Heifetz played the Beethoven concerto on the opening night. His performance, one critic was to write in the Los Angeles Times, "was a view from the summit. The tone soared with unequaled Heifetz purity. The phenomenal Heifetz technique was awesome.” In short, one more apparently natural, apparently inevitably superhuman performance from Heifetz.


A few weeks earlier Kendall had come into the redwood studio unannounced. Heifetz was practicing seated, in an open‑collar shirt. The score of the last movement laid open. It is a rondo, fired with an insistent, quickening rhythm. Studying every note and every marking Heifetz was playing the rondo at one third his concert tempo. The man had played the Beethoven at least 300 times. He had practiced it at least 5,000 hours. He has total musical recall, and every note of every bar has fused with his being. But here at the age of 63 he was able absolutely to discipline mind, nerves, body, spirit. He was able to practice in slow motion.

The stories of Polk and the others are one with the story of his practicing. There is no way to explain such discipline because there is no satisfactory way to explain genius itself. No one really understands Heifetz' art, any more than one can comprehend how deaf Beethoven created the late quartets or how Shakespeare sat down and wrote Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, Antony, Lear, one after another, or how Einstein, in a little room, conceived a universe.

When we consider Heifetz we are contemplating both a man and a phenomenon. The man is all flesh and foibles. The phenomena – genius ‑ is set apart, Freud sought the keys to genius; so did Melville and Yeats and so do contemporary geneticists. But as genius holds us, it holds us off. We establish general guidelines; drive, individualism, concentration, discipline, endurance, courage, pain. Then we stop. The sum of all these qualities does not add up to what we want. We remain on the outside looking in. As Frost observed: "We dance round in a ring and suppose, /But the Secret sits in the middle and knows."

Heifetz is a specific genius, out of a specific time and place; close in however, he probably brings us close to all genius as most of us would ever care to get.

Daniil Karpilowsky, who studied with Heifetz 60 years ago, remembers the late Fritz Kreisler walked onstage believing that he is about to perform for 2,000 friends. "Heifetz," Karpilowsky says, "always came out like a killer. He believed that of the 2,000 people in the hall, 1,999 had come to hear him play a wrong note.”

          Walking onstage in concert, he moved briskly, carrying himself very straight and with great dignity.  He is a graceful man and he could set his feet lightly, draw his lips back across his teeth once or twice and, with the slightest of smiles begin to play. Grappling with a difficult work, some violin­ists toss heads, grimace, break into a sweat and fill the stage with des­perate gesture. Heifetz played the most terrifying passages without a change in expression beyond the arching of his left eyebrow. Nature has even endowed him with a system that does not perspire easily.

          There is no way to put his sound into words. Critics have called the tone "seamless," which means that there are no breaks between up-bowing and down‑bowing. They say it is rich and soaring and strong and virile and that it has an incred­ible line; that a Heifetz low G and high E, almost four octaves apart, possess identical musical quality and timbre. Others complain that his tone is insufficiently varied, but even his detractors ‑ and it is heady fine for a young critic to patronize Heifetz ‑ concede that "for certain things" he is not likely to be equaled. The way to appreciate the tone is to listen to certain works where the recording has captured significant portion of the magic. Bruch's Scottish Fantasy is one; the Vitali Chaconne is another; the Sibelius concerto is a third.

His ability mystifies musicians. William Primrose says, "I hear the Mendelssohn concerto and say, Ah, there's Isaac [Stern]. Then a few bars later I say, No, that's Nathan [Milstein]. With Heifetz I can always tell. He's wholly unique." David Oistrakh, the Russian virtuoso, says, "There are many violinists. Then there is Heifetz."

The violin, like a woman, has a soprano voice and like a woman is difficult to play well. A fiddle is constructed of spruce and maple and has, in technical terms, a waist, a button, a neck and even a back (the underside) and a belly which faces up. Four strings of sheepgut stretch from adjustable pegs across a bridge to a tail box. They are tuned to E, A, D and G. The violinist strokes the strings with a bow of horsehair, simultaneously depressing (or stopping) them with the fingers of his left hand. The point at which a string is stopped determines the note it will produce. While the four fingers of the left hand move about finding stops, the right hand and arm guide the bow at infinitely variable speeds and infinitely variable rates of pressure and at any number of angles. The necessary dexterity is such that one either trains neural paths very young or not at all. Cecil Aronowitz, one of the finest viola players in England, laments that he did not take up the instrument until too late. "I was already 12 years old," he says.


Heifetz drew beautiful sounds from a violin when he was 3. He was born with absolute pitch and perfectly proportioned hands. He has a supreme musical memory and a temperament that for a long time enabled him to play without panic, to make the handsome hands respond to the most severe demands. "It was," says Karpilowsky, "as if God took the requisites of the one supreme violinist and gave them all to a single child."  Heifetz was also fortunate in the time and place of his birth.

"In Vilna," Isaac Bashevis Singer recalls of the Lithuanian capital, "there was a style in the houses and a style in the people. Even the waiters read books."  Ruvin Heifetz of Vilna was a theater violinist, a fiddler on the roof, scratching out a living when Jascha was born on Feb. 2, 1901. The father had been dreaming ambitiously and when Jascha was less than 5 months old began a series of tests. As the baby lay in the crib, Ruvin approached fiddling. The infant appeared to listen. Deliberately Ruvin played dissonances. The baby wailed. Ruvin Heifetz did this many times, until he convinced himself that his new son was crowned with promise.

Before Jascha was 3, his father bought him a small violin. Then he taught Jascha bowing and simple fingering. On day on the street Ruvin told Elias Malkin, the premiere violinist of Vilna, "I have a genius in my house." Reluctantly, and skeptically, Malkin accompanied Ruvin home. There, as he would tell in wonder for the remainder of his 79 years, "Jaschinka, with long blond curls, not 4 years old, picked up the violin, put his eyes in the sky and just played."

At 7 Heifetz performed the Mendelssohn concerto in the city of Kovno. When Heifetz was 9, Leopold Auer, the supreme violin teacher of the age, granted him an audition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Heifetz passed and within a few years developed an easy and unprecedented given-and‑take relationship with the professor. Auer, a short, bearded man, once dismissed a pupil by breaking a violin over his head. He treated Heifetz with unique respect, "because," he later explained, "Jascha always does everything right"

In 1912, Auer arranged for Heifetz' Berlin debut. That ended with Fritz Kreisler asking if he might accompany the 11 year‑old on the piano. Five years later, with Kreisler as advance man without portfolio, Heifetz made the American debut of the century.

On Oct. 27, 1917, Carnegie Hall was sold out. "When I hear this boy," Kreisler had been announcing in New York musical circles, "I want to throw away my fiddle. "Heifetz, then slim 16 and with fair wavy hair, walked out on the stage calmly and began to play the chaconne composed by the l7th Century Italian Tommaso Antonio Vitali.

In form, a chaconne is a stately folk dance, three beats to the measure. Heifetz sounded the opening measures with transcendent power and assurance and one of music's most famous witticisms followed.

          'It's rather warm in here," Mischa Elman, another Auer prodigy remarked to the piano virtuoso Leopold Godowsky.

"Not for pianists," Godowsky said.

          The reviews were variations of the superlative. Sigmund Spaeth summed up in the late Evening Mail, "He is a perfect violinist."

Perfect, perhaps, but not affluent. Impresarios at the Wolfssohn Music Bureau had brought the entire Heifetz family to the United States ‑ Jascha, his parents, and his sisters Elsa and Pauline ‑ and guaranteed Jascha $5,000 for 50 concerts. Although $500 a performance seemed generous in Russia, where the revolution was heating up, it was hardly generous in America. Annie Heifetz, Jascha's mother, counted a few houses. For $500, Jascha was drawing $10,000 into the box office. She promptly told the impresarios that Jascha would "get sick" if new contracts were not drawn. Annie, hard‑eyed woman of peasant stock, was used to getting her way. The impresarios yielded.

Ruvin balanced Annie's acumen with artistic demands. Before each concert in America, papa Heifetz bald and bouncy, coached his son, the manager talking to the fighter. "Make the pizzicati clean. Be careful of the fingering, And not too fast, above all, not too fast."

Jascha moved into his own apartment as soon as he was 21. The family, particularly his mother, was furious, but there was a world beyond, wild and bountiful and simply by doing this thing which he had done since boyhood, it was his. In 1928 he married Florence Arte Vidor, a doe~eyed star of silent movies. The couple had two children, but Heifetz, constantly touring, saw them infrequently. He conquered London, Paris, Rome. He fiddled in Ireland during Sinn Fein uprisings, in Japan after an earthquake, in Java during riots, in India after Gandhi was arrested and in Tientsin as the Japanese invaded Manchuria. Musicians and critics found his performances "transcendent, effortless sublime," but musicians and critics had said all that before. Sycophancy troubled him. He developed a persistent sarcasm, a net harshness.

After one concert a young man exclaimed with tears in his eye "Mr. Heifetz, you have played so beautifully, what can I say?'

Heifetz glared. "That is your problem."


He eased himself away from the New York crowd and based in southern California. He made two movies but spurned Hollywood social life. By the 1930s, the man and the legend were tending to fuse and he began to care about the legend. Press releases that he approved emphasized not only command of the violin but his wit and poise. Once, a release reported he played for royalty, drawing warm smile from the queen.  Afterward a courier said, "The king commands your presence at the palace".

"Certainly," Heifetz is supposed to have said, "but before the  king commanded, the queen smiled.”

Heifetz wanted to project the sense of one always in command. But sometime the real man became visible. In 1945 he sued Florence for divorce on grounds of extreme cruelty.  “Every time we went out together in social gatherings," he testified in Santa Ana, "my wife belittled my musical abilities."

In 1947 he married Francis Spigelberg, an admiring divorcee 10 years his junior. He meant for things to be different. He fussed over Jay, who was born in 1948 and read to him every night when he was home. Friends thought he was becoming more comfortable with himself. They were surprised when, after the season of 1955‑56, he decided that "I will sharply curtail my concert activity."


“I have been playing for a very long time."

He tripped in his kitchen one afternoon in 1958 and fractured his right hip. A staphylococcus infection developed and for some time he lay near death at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. A year later, he was invited to play the Beethoven at the United Nations General Assembly and it was shocking to see him appear in the great hall. The commanding entrance was no more. To walk he had to lean on a cane. Acoustics are flawed at the U.N., but even allowing for this, the verdict of musicians was that the performance was good, but not great, Heifetz. The secondary reaction shocked him. "It was amazing” Erick Friedman recalls, "how many people could hardly wait to offer consolations. And the musicians who claimed they admired him most were the first to say, never mind, they remembered how he used to play."

In the 1960s concerts began to make Heifetz nervous. He had seldom been tense when he played for audiences 200 times a year, but as he withdrew and he grew older, each solo performance became more of a challenge. A new fear took hold and fed itself.

The last time Heifetz played a concerto with a major orchestra was on August 13, 1967. Moved by the Middle East war, he agreed to perform with the Israel Philharmonic in the Hollywood Bowl. He chose Max Bruch's 100‑year‑old Concerto in G‑minor, which contains moving passages but is no masterwork. The Bruch succeeds or fails with the performance.

Heifietz invited his housekeeper, Tatiana Michurina, and as they drove to the Bowl he kept making nervous chatter. Studying Heifetz as he started toward the stage entrance, Tatiana suddenly saw a face and not a mask. "He looked," she says in surprise, "stricken with fright." Impulsively, Taliana, a devout Greek Orthodox, clutched Heifetz' arm and stroked it. "God will look after you," she promised.

The performance that followed, before 17,000 people, "made bravura and musicality one and the same," a critic wrote. After Heifetz fiddled triumphantly through the last movement, a woman seated next to Tatiana in a box embraced her, not knowing who she was, and cried at the beauty of what she had heard.

Back at the house, Heifetz was weary and Miss Michurina was jubilant. "How wonderful," she exclaimed, echoing Shaw, "never to fail."

"I have failed many times," Heifetz said. He dismissed his housekeeper with a nod.

One can only surmise the ways in which he feels he has failed. His marriage to Frances ended acerbically in 1963. Jay, to whom he read, now will not discuss his father. In Jay's record collection at UCLA, there is nothing by Heifetz.

The violin classes, successively at UCLA, USC and the Music Center, are disappointments. Of all Heifetz' pupils, only Friedman is a soloist. The others who have remained in music are orchestral players. In Heifetz' phrase, they "contribute to the noise."

Auer, a violinist of minor artistic attainments, had a supreme gift for selecting candidates, then for developing them with a mixture of autocracy and warmth. Heifetz, the infinite performer, is an imperfect instructor. "Heifetz," says one famous violinist, "is intuitive, and it is impossible to communicate intuition."

"To be honest about it," Erick Friedman says, "the class has deteriorated. It's become a sultan and his court."

Everyone is anxious to explain this somber, mysterious, touching man. "When he was young," says Daniil Karpilowsky, "he never had a friend, never a companion, only the family and the fiddle. It is a hard thing not to have been permitted a childhood."

“He's very humble about his ability," says Friedman, "the way Russians are humble, and he doesn't understand the sources of his own genius. That is a part of his dilemma."

"No one understands such sources," the Russian Piatigorsky insists. "No one understands how to reach such a very uniqueness."

"Without question he is a genius," says a lady in Heifetz family. "He always has been, and he has wondered about it. But tell me, why do you think he will not play?”

Clues come from Heifetz himself, couched cryptically to be sure, but still discernible. "There is no such thing as perfection," he says. "There are only standards. And after you have set a standard, you learn that it was not high enough. You want to surpass it."  It is lonely on the peaks, beyond most people's knowledge of loneliness. He has felt the loneliness all of his life, set apart from his fellows by the sound he could make, until, as years moved past and the curls were cut and the austere lines showed pouches, he became the victim of his own genius. You and I have heard the Heifetz sound; we expect nothing less. When it is Heifetz, we will not settle for the gifted fiddling of Stern or Oistrakh or Christian Ferras. Heifetz knows it; he himself will not.


Inevitably the musician, driven first by his father and then by Auer, should turn against audiences. Ruvin Heifetz and Leopold Auer are dead. We audiences have become the demanding ones. We want superhuman playing, after which some of us may find fault. Wasn't the adagio tempo somewhat brisk.

Beyond his responses to others, there is something else, inner and supremely private. His Alexandrian journey of conquest is done and Heifetz at last is embarked on the campaign that even he cannot win. He is waging the struggle of genius against old age. We know the end: so, one is certain, does he. The contest now is between the man and his mortality.

What he enjoys these days, as much as he still enjoys anything, is a weekend by the Pacific at Malibu. There he puts on a floppy hat and makes a drink or two and plays the records of a fat‑toned jazz pianist on a $90 phonograph. The very mediocrity appeals to him. That and the sea. His lifetime has been matched to tempo. The changing, constant sea-rhythm consoles.

Sitting with him in the pink house at Malibu, it is almost possible to forget that this is a genius whose humanity has been sacrificed on an altar of perfection. But then he will suddenly cry, "All right. Go out, please, and walk." Then Jascha Heifetz closes the windows, draws the blinds, clamps a mute on the Guarnerius and, having made certain that no human can hear him, the greatest of all violinists begins to play.