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Face the Music: a Memoir, by Peter Duchin with Patricia Beard


Face the Music: A Memoir

Peter Duchin with Patricia Beard
Doubleday, pp.282, $28

“Let me tell you about the very rich,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a short story in 1926. “They are different from you and me.” So they were, and so they remain, but not quite in the same way. Close to a century ago, when Fitzgerald wrote those famous lines, the affluent classes in America certainly led lives distinct from the farmer, the factory worker, or the housewife, but a common culture yoked the high and the low together. 

Ordinary people got an idea of what the beautiful people were like and what they were up to thanks in large part to the popular culture of the era. Screwball comedies such as Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night and Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby invited the public to laugh with, and not at, the wacky heiresses played by Claudette Colbert and Katharine Hepburn, and the so-called “society pages” that once appeared in major daily newspapers documented the comings, goings, debuts, and departures of those whose money was inherited, squandered, or gifted in the manner of Brooke Astor. The elite endeared themselves to us by simply being true to themselves; these were the days in which Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio was touted by his wife as an attractive candidate because he was not, nor did he pretend to be, a “common man.”

Yes, the upper classes led lives more elegant, refined, and luxe than the rest of us, but they modeled habits of behavior—good manners, grace under pressure, and taste in all things—that could be easily emulated. In those days, homegrown well-heeled types were familiar to Americans in the manner that members of the British Royal Family are familiar to British subjects. Instead of a queen, we had Marjorie Merriweather Post; instead of the Prince of Wales, we had William F. Buckley, Jr. 

Today, the situation is far different. Of course, there are plenty of super-rich people, but the glamor, the high spirits, and the sense of humor among those who possess all that money has largely dissipated. Somehow, Jeff Bezos launching himself into space, or Nancy Pelosi presiding over the wedding of a pair of hip rich kids in San Francisco, lacks the old-fashioned charm of the Kennedys taking a yacht for a spin or Kitty Carlisle Hart appearing on To Tell the Truth

A touching reminder of the allure of the old American aristocracy can be found in the new memoir of Peter Duchin, the eighty-four-year-old pianist and bandleader whose musical talent and genteel demeanor have added style and savoir faire to countless parties, get-togethers, and other occasions since he made his official debut at the Maisonette Room at the St. Regis Hotel more than sixty years ago. To prepare for the occasion, he solicited advice from another Society bandleader (the term is always capitalized in Duchin’s telling), Meyer Davis. “I play for rich people all over the country and I’ve found that they have one thing in common,” Davis told Duchin. “Most of them don’t have rhythm, but they can walk, so I play everything to, or close to, march tempo.” As an illustrative example, Davis proceeded to play “It Was Just One of Those Things” to the tempo of the march from the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai

Not that Duchin needed much of a roadmap to this world. Born in New York City in 1937, Duchin was the only offspring of pianist and bandleader Eddy Duchin (the subject of an eponymous 1956 musical starring Tyrone Power) and his gorgeous, well-connected wife, the former Marjorie Oelrichs. Cecil Beaton called Marjorie, “for her integrity, loyalty, courage and sensibility . . . the best American girl I have known.” Eddy was, of course, an icon. But, in a twist of fate that rivals the “poor little rich girl” childhood of Gloria Vanderbilt, Peter began life in a state of virtual orphanhood: Six days after she gave birth to her son, Marjorie succumbed to a case of peritonitis. Bereft but ill equipped to be a single parent, his father Eddy agreed to deposit his lad with his mother’s friends, diplomat W. Averill Harriman and his wife, Marie. After distinguishing himself overseas during World War II, Eddy reentered Peter’s life but, just as quickly, was diagnosed with cancer and died in 1951.

In a testament to his own character—and whatever values he absorbed at the Hotchkiss School and Yale University—Duchin did not become bitter, resentful, or rebellious. “I’m a firm believer that, except in extreme situations, the job is to move on, take responsibility for oneself, and get over it,” Duchin writes here, offering sensible advice that anyone, high- or low-born, should consider heeding. Instead of wallowing in unhappiness, Duchin made the best of life on, ahem, the Harriman estate and, following a smashing introduction to the American public on Ed Sullivan in 1959, threw himself into his father’s profession. In Duchin’s telling, the early days of the Kennedy administration revived America’s appetite for the finer things. “The Kennedys’ ‘Camelot’ bewitched the country with its charm, talent, and style,” writes Duchin, who, even after his gig at the Maisonette ended, could count on bookings at debutante parties, cotillions, and presidential functions. To perfect his persona, he took lessons with acting coach Wynn Handman. “The difference between the way I felt when I started and when I finished studying with Wynn wasn’t as much gestures or a pose, but confidence,” Duchin writes.

Well, the lessons took: In print, as in his recordings and, presumably, in his live act, Duchin is smooth, low-key, self-deprecating, grateful for his advantages, and unafraid of his challenges. He describes his nonplussed reaction at having been set up on a date with Audrey Hepburn while still an undergraduate at Yale. “Are you my date?” Duchin asked the star of Roman Holiday. “Poor guy, you’ve got me for the evening,” replied the screen goddess. Class is contagious. Duchin amiably guides the reader through accounts of the clubs of the era, such as El Morocco, and remembers, with some astonishment, having been booked to play at Truman Capote’s famed Black and White Ball, given in honor of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, in 1966. “Truman’s coveted invitations arrived at last, or for the unlucky they didn’t arrive at all,” remembers Duchin, adding that, while the occasion was billed as a masked ball, most guests removed them. “Few beauties were eager to hide their faces,” he writes.

Most charming is Duchin’s detour into the world of debutante parties, a specialty that won him the nickname “The Debs’ Delight”—“My friends often kidded me about that, and called me ‘Duch, the DD’”—and a name-check in Whit Stillman’s comic memory of that world, Metropolitan. “The party should be of some sociological interest—Peter Duchin, the Plaza ballroom, et cetera,” says one of the film’s debutante heroines as an inducement to a male outsider to attend their next shindig. Duchin describes co-writing a song for the party of a Tennessee debutante named Sally Johnson—“Clouds may come and by and by rains may come from out the sky / but Sally makes the day seem sunny . . .”—and recounts the proceedings at the annual Blue and Gray Colonels debutante ball in Montgomery, Alabama. “One of the debs is chosen as queen, and introduces the other young women, who proceed toward her with their escorts and parents,” he writes. “For their first dance, I usually play ‘Thank Heaven for Little Girls.’”

Yet Duchin shows signs here of not being as comfortable in his own skin as one might expect, or hope. Duchin certainly laments the decline of Society—the transition of what is now known as the Met Gala from a fundraiser spearheaded by Pat Buckley to a decadent extravaganza where “nearly all the women (and the occasional man)” wear shoes with five-inch heels—but he feels the need to defend the very concept of Society music, which he does in rather strained terms: “Society music is simply one of the ways to satisfy a basic human instinct, and nearly every social and cultural group has listened to and moved to its own sounds and rhythms.” Worse, Duchin becomes touchy when recounting his presence at the infamous party Leonard and Felicia Bernstein threw for members of the Black Panther Party, an occasion brilliantly parodied by Tom Wolfe in “These Radical Chic Evenings.” “He damned us all, claiming that we were just socialites who had stopped by out of curiosity, on the way to better parties,” Duchin writes. Well, what can one say—if the shoe fits? Later, Duchin lists some of the civic organizations for which his band plays, including Citizens for Clean Air and Friends of the Earth, and, despite his persistent capitalization of the word, comes to dismiss the very idea of “Society” as a fiction dependent on “a kind of tribal exclusivity and exclusion.”

In reciting these rather tired anti-elite talking points, Duchin misses much of his own appeal. Like his father before him, Duchin worked for and represented the crème de la crème, but he has given pleasure to thousands less well heeled than he through the very image he projects: casual, confident, fun loving. There’s something appealingly aspirational about imagining Duchin seated at the piano, tapping out tunes from the Great American Songbook while assorted notables dance before him. 

For all of its author’s pleasure in describing his life and times, this book also serves as an answer to the question: what happens when a member of the well-to-do loses his moxie? In Duchin’s case, it results in the sort of sheepishness too often evident in this book—a loss of confidence also reflected, in a way, in Duchin’s decision to devote considerable space to recounting a pair of health crises: a stroke in 2013, which served as the impetus to revisit his life after having already written an earlier memoir, and a case of COVID-19 in 2020, which complicated what was to be a comeback story. 

Of course, we applaud Duchin’s determination to overcome these setbacks (the stroke impaired his left hand) and cheer his convalescence from them. But can we also slightly regret his apparent compulsion to “overshare” all the nitty-gritty details in print? It’s just another sign of how Society has been replaced by other things, including memoirs about medical struggles. Reading through these passages, we wish that Duchin had opted to retain a bit more of his mystery, a touch more of his rarefied public persona. We miss the days of the Maisonette. We miss that song for Sally Johnson. Duchin is a fine memoirist, but we miss The Debs’ Delight. 

Peter Tonguette contributes frequently to the American Conservative, National Review, and the Wall Street Journal.

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