Interlude In Eden

Yehudi Menuhin In Alma

In 1927, while Yehudi Menuhin was in Paris with his parents and sisters they were introduced to the artists, George Dennison and Frank Ingerson. “The Boys”, as they were called hailed from the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco. “The boys” talked liberally about their enchanting home, inviting the Menuhin family to come relax in their mountain home. Only eleven years of age, Yehudi was already considered a violin prodigy.

Born on April 22, 1916 in New York City to Russian Jewish immigrants, he debuted with the San Francisco Symphony at the tender age of seven. In 1926, his family traveled to Europe wherein his European debut took place in Paris in February of 1927. The family traveled and studied in Europe giving Yehudi the opportunity to spend the summer in Romania studying with Enesco. They established a family home at Ville d’Avray, outside Paris, and Yehudi continued to give concerts throughout the world.

In 1934 while playing in San Francisco, the family spent a day or two at Cathedral Oaks, the Los Gatos Mountain home, of their friends, George Dennison and Frank Ingerson. The family was so taken with the beautiful mountain terrain, the magnificent redwood trees, and majestic oaks and madrones. Not given to extreme weather changes, the sky was blue and it was sunny a good majority of the year. Yehudi was later to write in his memoirs, “I was not alone in cherishing special feelings for California. For all my family the Garden of Eden could very exactly be pinpointed in the Santa Cruz Mountains”.  They purchased one hundred acres of land, adjoining Cathedral Oaks, on Alma Bridge Road and began planning their dream home. Yehudi wrote, “Between the end of the American tour in 1935 and the beginning of the round-the-world tour which took us to Honolulu, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, we spent three weeks with the boys, talking, thinking, dreaming, eating and drinking house design and engaging and briefing an architect. When we finally returned from the other side of the world, it would be to take possession of our new home, the first we had owned since Steiner Street. Alas, although the vision of the Villa Cherkess in the hills sustained us round the world, we never lived there.”

Yehudi, his parents, Moshe and Marutha, and his two sisters, Hephzibah and Yaltah, traveled the world with the idea of returning to Alma and their beautiful Villa Cherkess. They were to take an eighteen-month hiatus. Uprooted since 1927 and the stress was beginning to wear on everyone, especially Moshe. According to Yehudi, his father “yearned for California” and “he sensed Europe’s impending collapse and wanted us well out of it”. The time off “was to usher in a year without travels, hotels, concerts, records, engagements or commitments of any kind, a year of idleness and staying put and enjoying ourselves”.

The first few months began rather tumultuously. They had received the architect’s plans, which had been so meticulously supervised by their dear friends “the boys”, months before the end of the tour. But, the reality of spending $60,000 of the family’s money set in and Moshe lost his courage. He halted the construction before the main house was started, leaving them to arrive home to “a little, hot, dusty, flimsy cottage, planned as an overflow for guests, without charm or even space enough, standing in bulldozed earth by the side of the road, with no expanse of garden, no trees or flowers to soften the crude nudity, miles from any shop.”

The family attempted to make themselves comfortable in the cottage, but after residing in a Villa in France, their cramped surroundings were unacceptable and the fear of isolation also frightened the family. Since the kidnapping of the Lindbergh’s baby in 1932, the fear of abduction was a real threat.  Marutha took charge and ushered the family back down to town to the Hotel Lyndon in Los Gatos. It only took her a few days to find a suitable house on the hill above the town. “A lovely family home which rambled in every direction, with flower beds and greensward framing an ancient oak, and a guesthouse in whose main room we could perform plays among ourselves, as the previous owner had built a stage there. Our terrace commanded the Santa Clara Valley and a far-distant San Francisco Bay. Behind us, extending to the very top of the mountain, were orchards tended by the brothers of the Sacred Heart Novitiate.”

After a difficult start, the time off proproved to be “happy and carefree as had been intended”. Yehudi’s violin went untouched during which time he drove his new Cadillac all over the countryside. “I would make expeditions to the sea at Monterey, to the observatory on Mount Hamilton across the valley or just up into the hills, always choosing the least used, most romantic roads.”

Twenty years old, Yehudi needed to gain some freedom and independence from his parents. His friends describe his parents supervision as “something excessive, almost offensive” This time off was essential to his maturity. Yehudi stated, “It was our fling, our time of freedom, of unconcern, of letting duty slide, of summer excursions with young friends come to stay.” Long walks exploring the hills, sometimes with friends from Europe and New York revitalized Yehudi.

Twenty-one when he re-emerged from his sabbatical, Yehudi was looking for another dimension to his career, and his personal life, as well. After a concert in London, he was introduced to two young Australian siblings, George Nicholas, then 22, and his younger sister, Nola, a beautiful vivacious, auburn-haired nineteen year old. Yehudi was captivated by Nola, who swam, played tennis and drove a white Jaguar. Within two months, after many late night phone calls, Yehudi was married, Hephzibah was engaged to George Nicholas, and Yaltah, only 16, was engaged to a friend from St. Louis, William Stix. Their lives were evolving and changing. Never again would they travel as a family.

Hephzibah’s wedding took place under the oak tree in the garden of the Los Gatos home in July of 1938. Shortly thereafter, she moved to George’s 21,000-acre sheep ranch in Australia. With Yaltah in St. Louis, only Yehudi and his new bride, Yola, were left at home. Upon reflection, Yahudi did not understand his reluctance to forge out on his own. “Only I was to blame for my failure to grasp independence more wholeheartedly.” Moshe had given them the Alma house as a wedding present (although, it was technically already Yahudi’s since his earnings originally purchased it) and Marutha encouraged them to move into the unfinished, never inhabited, isolated cottage. “It was large enough for two, and when the children came I had it extended – spending more in the process than the Villa Cherkess would have cost, had it ever beenbuilt – and called it Alma after the railroad station at the bottom of our land.”

Zamira, his only daughter was born in 1939, followed by Krov in August of 1940. Yehudi reminisced, “In his and Zamira’s early years, constant touring prevented me from seeing much of them except in the summer and my interventions in their upbringings may well have seemed sporadic and theoretical.” Nola sometimes came on tour with Yehudi, but more often they were separated for extended periods of time. The war was raging in Europe and Yehudi’s concerts became more sporadic, with more spare time then he was ever to know again in his career. During this time, he initiated regular music sessions with several of his friends who would come down weekly from San Francisco. He called his band “The Alma Trio”, after his beloved home.

Yehudi continued to make improvements to the Alma property. He added a guest cottage, swimming pool, and landscaping. The Jesuits gave him twenty pine trees, which were planted around his house. But, Yehudi and Nola, such different people, were growing apart. “There were many warm and happy moments, but they could not ease or conceal the growing strains upon our home.” 

The United States entered the war and Yehudi gave hundreds of performances for the Allied Troops and relief organizations, in America, the Pacific, and in Europe. He had never played small clubs before, to men unfamiliar with his music. He had been so protected throughout his entire lifetime, now he had the please his audience. He confessed in his memoirs, “ More effectively than marriage, war cut me adrift from the past, depositing me in situations which the wildest prophetic skill could not have foreseen.” Seriously affected by his experiences, Yehudi continued to do a large amount of philanthropic work throughout his lifetime.

By 1944 it had become painfully clear that Nola and Yehudi had grown apart. Often physically apart, they had grown apart emotionally, as well. Nola was the first to acknowledge a problem. “She suggested we hadn’t enough in common to build a marriage on.” Yehudi admits, “I had built a fantasy on an insecure base and given what might have been a perfectly good affair a weight of permanence.”Nola confessed to having fallen in love with another man in Yehudi’s long absence. Unfortunately Yehudi drug his feet, not wanting to be the one who took the first step. “There was nothing in my past to teach me how to cope with failure, and between my indecisiveness and her long refusal to divorce me, there ensued very painful years, the most troubled and mismanaged of my life.”

On September 29, 1944, Lady Harcourt had a luncheon for Yehudi at her London flat. The actor Michael Redgrave, and film director Anthony Asquith were also guests, as well as her daughters, Diana and Griselda. George and Frank had told Yehudi about Lady Harcourt and her daughters 17 years earlier, back in 1927. They had many friends in common and she had attended several of Yehudi’s concerts throughout the years. So, it is a mystery as to why they never met before, but Yehudi’s life was about to change dramatically. He fell in love with Diana at first sight. He later recounted “From the pouffe where she was seated the most beautiful woman I had ever seen rose to greet us, a tall, dark, slender girl whose grace, intelligence, ardour, vitality and depth of feeling so completed one another that each was the other’s aspect. Diana, from a well-bred  Irish family, who extradited to France in the 1830’s, was living in London with her sister, not far from her mother and stepfather. Music had always been an integral part of Diana’s life. Her mother, Evelyn Stuart, had been one of the foremost pianists in England before her marriage. Diana’s first love was the ballet, having received her first ballet slippers at the age of eight. She was herself considered a prodigy. As of late, Diana had migrated into acting.  She was worldly, accomplished, and well educated. Yehudi was leaving England the next day, with plans not to return for a while.

Yehudi wrestled with what his heart wanted and what the Jewish tradition of monogamy had taught him. Upon his return to California, he confronted Nola,  “When I first told her about Diana, which was immediately when I returned, she has said, ‘Well, I’m in love with somebody else, so it should be all right.’  I had the impression that she was ready to give me my freedom as I would give her hers. But, then she rather wanted to remain my wife…” Yehudi was to volley back and forth between the two women for years before Nola finally asked Yehudi for a divorce freeing him to marry Diana, the love of his life.

A deciding factor was Diana’s visit to Cathedral Oaks in December of 1946 to spend Christmas with “the boys”.  Both Hephzibah and Yaltah were spending the holidays with their parents, so Yehudi decided to come to Alma, leaving Nola and the kids in New York. It didn’t take long for Yehudi to come visit Diana, then staying next door. He introduced Diana to his parents and even brought her to his parent’s customary Christmas Eve party. Although Yehudi was in love with Diana, he couldn’t bring himself to ask Nola for a divorce, it had to come from her. Finally, Nola got a real tough attorney, hammered out an excellent divorce settlement and left Yehudi free to marry Diana.

In October of 1947, Yehudi and Diana were married in a rushed ceremony in London. By the time they flew to America on November 8, Diana, 35, was with child. They moved into the Alma house, which had been shut up for months. Diana immediately took it upon herself to remove Nola’s presence from the house. “Every drawer was stuffed full, every hanger dripping with clothes such as I had not seen in a decade, to say nothing of eighty pairs of shoes and a bathroom closet bursting, as were the dressing-table shelves, with quarts and

pints of scent, eau-de-Cologne, lavender water and other more practical and less savory adjuncts to the art of living as a luxurious female.” She went on the say, “Folding these lovely clothes with envious care and masses of tissue paper….[I] dispatched the lot to New York. In their place I hung my two coats, three dresses and one pair of trousers, filled about half a row of shelves with my spare jerseys and shirts and lingerie and shamefacedly hooked four pairs of battered shoes on the racks…they spoke of the war and the Blitz and of an extraordinary epoch.”
Gerald, born on July 23rd, nine months after their marriage, and Jeremy born November 2nd of 1951 were often left with the nanny while their parents traveled the world.  In 1950 alone, Yehudi and Diana visited 5 continents in 5 months, taking 75 separate flights, and playing 147 concerts. Alma was beneficial for Diana who had suffered the ravishes of war. The beautiful mountains and fresh air help restore her health and well-being. They lived an idyllic life when the boys were young, but decided to move to Switzerland when they reach school age. They wanted the boys to have all of the educational advantages they had, and they had become increasingly displeased with the construction of the new Lexington reservoir below their home. The noise from earthmoving equipment disturbed their peace and the prospect of speedboats appalled them. Adding Yehudi’s increasing fear of flying, in 1955, they permanently moved abroad.   Yehudi was forty when he abandoned Alma to live in Europe. He resided in Switzerland before moving to England, where he lived until his death on March 12, 1999, while on tour in Berlin. He received many honors and awards in his life, but his greatest accomplishment, by his own judgment, was the founding of two music schools, one in Moscow (1963) and the other in Gstaad, Switzerland (1957). Besides being knighted by the British Government in 1985, he was made a baron in 1993, and he has received honorary doctorates from 27 universities and awards from many European countries.
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