I was twenty-four years old that summer. I'd never been to Venice, never intended to go. Yet, somehow, it became a recurring theme in my life during those yawning months of youthful indolence.
I had seen the Luchino Visconti film Death in Venice, which has since become one of my favorite films. At the time, I didn't grasp the significance of the theme. I saw Gustav von Aschenbach merely as a perverse older man lusting after the fourteen-year-old boy Tadzio.
It wasn't until I read the novella by Thomas Mann that I considered the story with a new perspective. Tadzio represents the youth that Aschenbach is so desperately trying to recapture. In pursuing Tadzio, he is pursuing his own elusive youth which - in the end - proves to be a pathetically futile effort.
Later that summer, I read the book again, in the original German from a copy loaned to me by Clara. Clara spoke German fluently. I could speak and read it, but only with heroic effort.
Clara was the sister of my best friend Anton,
a musician who was in several of my classes in college. He was an enthusiastic admirer of my pianistic virtuosity and later became a staunch and shameless promoter of my compositions.
Anton and his sister came from an extremely wealthy and influential European family and their father was well-known. For many reasons, I'm hesitant to say exactly who their father was - but I will reveal that he had a highly esteemed personal connection with the Pope at the Vatican.
The entire family liked me immensely and I visited them often. I was a frequent guest at their Los Angeles home and also at their weekend house in Newport Beach. I played the piano at the family's private soirees. We would spend pleasurable hours reading poetry, discussing music, art, literature, philosophy. I treasured those blessed times of intellectual stimulation and escape from my often tumultuous existence.
Clara was frequently present during my visits and we began a casual friendship. I didn't know, until Anton finally told me, that Clara had secretly fallen in love with me. She was six years older than myself but looked very young and was extremely attractive. She was also highly sophisticated, had been educated in Switzerland, and spoke four languages. Her parents adored me (God knows why) and the entire family undoubtedly thought that - with a little spit and polish - I'd make a suitable husband.
I was talented, reasonably intelligent, occasionally charming, and - some thought - good looking.
I was also extraordinarily emotionally immature, wild, unpredictable, and promiscuous. I wasn't good husband material - - and I knew wholeheartedly that I wasn't ready for marriage and probably never would be. I dated Clara occasionally. We went to concerts, museums, art galleries, upscale social functions.
Clara and Jon
at an event in Beverly Hills
That September Clara and her parents went to Italy and spent a month in Venice. They invited me to come along but I declined. I had resumed my college classes and started performing publicly again. I received letters and postcards from Clara, long descriptions of an enchanting place that (according to her) would have been enhanced by my presence.
Ironically, one of the piano pieces in my concert repertoire that autumn was the Gondoliera from Annes de Pelerinage ( The Years of Pilgrimage) by Franz Liszt. It is a beautiful song depicting the gondolas on the Grand Canal - - sentimental, quite haunting. It still invokes echoes of sadness when I play it.
Later, after her return from Italy, Clara surprised me by proposing the idea of marriage with earnest seriousness. I panicked and declined. That was always my instinctive reaction to all serious relationships. I balked at the idea of permanent unions. I never realized (or cared to consider) how deeply hurt she was.
There is a lot more to this story, but it's too long to relate in a blog.
Was I in love with Clara? No, but I did like her immensely. Were we ever sexually intimate? Don't underestimate my sexual potential. And she was eager.
My sexual past is an intricate complication that would have baffled Freud. Trying to simplify it is a daunting task . I've been in love with women. And I've been in love with men. Tip the scales and my male conquests have far outweighed the female ones. Think what you like.
In a rash, very thoughtless rebound, Clara married one of her best friends - - her gay hairdresser. If you're looking for some kind of irony, don't strain yourself. I knew it was a big mistake. She did, too. It would be a spring wedding. Clara had serious doubts and begged me to attend the wedding. She said that she desperately needed me "for moral support".
Never one to valiantly face unpleasant situations, my instant reaction was to escape. I went on a wild drinking binge. Borrowed a boat from a friend. Sailed to Catalina Island. Didn't return to Los Angeles for a week.
Later that winter, I was attending a gala ballet performance of Tchaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty at the L.A. Music Center (Cynthia Gregory was dancing the title role). In a major fluke of fate I accidentally ran into Clara and her husband. It was a profoundly uncomfortable moment. She was warm and gracious. I was wickedly delighted to see that her husband was short, unattractive, and completely charmless.
I also had profound guilt, because I had inadvertently been the cause of their loveless and peculiar union.
There's an interesting dimension to this endless story:
Clara's brother Anton had a semi-crush on me. He had gotten married at a young age, but the marriage lasted only a few months. I strongly suspected his wife was a gold digger and nothing more. After the divorce Anton had an increasing interest in bisexuality. He surprised me by saying that if he ever wanted to have sex with a man, I'd be the first person he'd call.
I wasn't about to encourage him. And, in case you're wondering.......no, we never did.
I lost track of Anton and his family when I moved from California.
Today I only have memories, old letters postmarked from Venice, my worn, dusty copy of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice.
And a tattered piano manuscript of Franz Liszt's Gondoliera, which I occasionally still play on the piano.