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My Van Cliburn Story

By Rich Heldenfels Published: February 28, 2013

By now, you have undoubtedly heard that the pianist, once considered the Elvis of classic music, has died. (A particularly clear-eyed obituary, from the Washington Post, is here.)  I actually crossed paths with Cliburn once, in 1989, when he was part of an event promoting various Mobil-financed TV programs like "Masterpiece Theatre" and "Mystery!" I have no recollection of what Cliburn was promoting. I do remember there was a detached elegance about him, and a distinct lack of pretense. But mostly I remember that night because Diana Rigg was there -- although that, as you will see, has something to do with Cliburn as well.

You have to remember, for men of a certain age, Diana Rigg, who was succeeding Vincent Price as host of "Mystery," was it. (Still is.) I was happy to see recent Bond tributes include clips from "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" because Rigg was in it. One of the kicks about interviewing the delightful actress Rachael Stirling in 2003 was that she's Rigg's daughter.

Anyway, Rigg was in the house, and we men were agog; one reporter not known for neckwear had put on a tie to meet her, while others were sharing anecdotes about what they said and how she replied, or took note of Rigg's chilly replies to some questions (her personal life was off limits) and a warm anecdote about Price. After the formal Q&A, I wrote at the time, "she smoked and shook hands and did her duties" with the press.

Then (I wrote at the time) Van Cliburn slipped through the crowd, greeting Rigg. They chatted a few moments, and posed for photographs. They started to walk away together, as if the event were officially over.
 

But that's not what Cliburn had in mind. Instead, he took Rigg to another table, to meet his 93-year-old mother.

 

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