Instalment 19

Chapter 10

High Society and Le Train Bleu

Eddie spent Christmas 1934 with the large house party at Horwood House in Buckinghamshire as a ‘performing guest’ of Maude and Frederick Denny.

Horwood House

It appeared to him as if nothing had changed for him socially and professionally as he began to take up the threads of his life and altered career. Time to renew old friendships. His fears of performing in London alone without the moral support of George were set at rest.

A remarkably detailed in Country Life article on Horwood House with superb period photographs creates the forever lost atmosphere of England is dated 10 November 1923 :

The greatest musical shock the Dennys provided for Eddie were the astounding new recordings of Liszt by the virtuoso Russian pianist Simon Barere.* Early in the New Year of 1935, Eddie drove the sixty miles to London for the Musicians’ Fund Dinner given in honour of Maude’s brother, the English art song composer Roger Quilter. Eddie started the Alvis that had been in storage without difficulty, negotiating the narrow, snowy English lanes at speed, wildly sliding the car just for the amusement of it.

Before her marriage to the poet Robert Nichols, the Dennys’ daughter Norah had been taught music by a musical friend of   the Quilters, the Australian composer and virtuoso pianist Percy Grainger. Eddie loved the originality, the relative lack of intellectual complication of much of Grainger’s piano music. He admired his eccentric athleticism, his entertaining personality and his complete eschewal of atonalism in his compositions. They both wore their Australian heritage as a badge of pride.

* * *

The original Iwo Jima monument sculpture by Felix Weiss de Weldon
Felix Weiss (1907-2003) and the sculpted head of John F. Kennedy
King George V by Felix Weiss 1935
Felix Weiss sculpting the head of Edward Cahill
‘The Royal Head
Felix Weiss bust of Edward Cahill 1935
Author Personal Collection

At the recital for King George of Greece, Eddie had made the acquaintance of the largely forgotten sculptor Felix Weiss de Weldon, who was considered in his day ‘the Michelangelo of American sculpture’. He was commissioned by governments, presidents, royalty, artists and  religious  leaders,  but  would  only sculpt figures he considered outstanding in their fields. He asked Eddie to sit for him. The fragile plaster head survived the bombing of Central London during the Second World War stored in a hatbox. Eddie had put it under the bed of ‘a certain lady’. Her house was severely damaged, almost completely destroyed, but the head survived. Eddie always subsequently referred to it as ‘The Royal Head’.

Simon Barere

*Simon Barere (1896–1951) was born in Odessa. His legendary and stupendous bravura is now unaccountably neglected. In a similar way to Edward Cahill he began his astounding virtuoso career playing for the silent cinema in order to support his family.

He first studied at the Odessa Imperial Musical Academy with Benno Moiseiwitsch as a fellow student and then with Annette Essipova (one of the most brilliant pupils of Leschetizky) and Felix Blumenfeld (who taught Neuhaus and Horowitz). On 2 April 1951, Barere suffered a cerebral hemorrhage during a performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto at Carnegie Hall. Eugene Ormandy was conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. Barere collapsed and died shortly afterwards in the artist’s green room. His ‘supercharged virtuosity’ is once again being recognized through historic recordings.

Horowitz was reputed to be envious of Barere. Violinist Berl Senofsky was seated near Horowitz while Barere performed Liszt’s Reminiscences de Don Juan at Carnegie Hall.  “As Barere launched into his trademark supersonic chromatic scales in thirds,” Senofsky remembers hearing, Horowitz stood up and silently mouthed: ‘I cannot stand this any more’, and left in the middle of the piece.”

† Percy Grainger (1882–1961) was a highly original Australian composer, arranger and concert pianist. Known to Eddie who championed his work, he shared rather similar aristocratic audiences for concerts in London but somewhat earlier than Cahill. A fine interpreter of Chopin.

‡ The Austrian sculptor Felix Weiss de Weldon (1907–2003) created more than 1,200 public monuments including busts of Elvis Presley, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy and Simon Bolivar. He is the only artist in the world with a masterpiece on all seven continents, including one of Richard Byrd at McMurdo Sound in Antarctica.

* * *

Following the death of George and the house fire, Eddie practised the Roman Catholic religion more fervently than ever. As an altar boy, the aesthetic theatre of the Tridentine Mass had appealed to him perhaps above the spiritual content. He had always dreamed of visiting Rome. Before sailing to England he made strenuous efforts to realize his fantasy of meeting Pope Pius XI. During his work in musical education in Brisbane he had befriended the legendary Irishman Sir James Duhig, Archbishop of Queensland.*

Archbishop Duhig with Mrs Power and Mrs Scott Fletcher, June 1929
Letter from Archbishop Duhig to Edward Cahill,5 October 1934

Before sailing for England the Archbishop had written Eddie two letters of introduction to influential priests in Rome and the Vatican. An audience and brief recital were arranged for 24 February 1935.

* Sir James Duhig (1871–1965) was Archbishop of Queensland for almost sixty years – the longest-serving bishop in the Roman Catholic Church. Known as ‘Duhig the Builder’, in fifty years he added over 400 major buildings to the Brisbane cityscape – religious, educational and charitable institutions, as well as hospitals. (T.P. Boland, Australian Dictionary of Biography.)

28 South Street, Mayfair. Home of Lady Gwynedd Quilter

Before this ‘pilgrimage’ he had spent much of January practising in the deserted London residence in South Street, Mayfair of Lady Gwynedd Quilter, the wife of Roger Quilter’s eldest brother Eley. She wrote to him: ‘Use the flat to your heart’s content if you would not mind the furniture being covered up.’

Travelling to Rome by train from London was an adventure in 1935. From the reports by his friends who raced cars at Brooklands, Eddie knew of the famous Blue Train Races and was particularly excited at the prospect of this journey.

He took his reserved seat in the Pullman car of the boat train from Victoria Station to Dover. Not being a particularly good sailor, he had organised a private cabin on the boat for the Channel crossing to Calais. He had booked a sleeping compartment as far as Menton in the exclusively first class, chic and luxurious Le Train Bleu (the steel ‘Grand Luxe’ carriages of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits were painted cream and dark blue). Passengers on ‘the millionaires’ train’ had the advantage of avoiding French customs delays at Calais before the 750 mile onward journey to Paris, Nice and the Côte d’Azur.

The train set off from the Gare du Nord for Nice in the early evening. Shortly after departure from the Gare de Lyon a great ringing of bells announced that dinner had been served. The long hours until bedtime were eased by a meal in the sumptuous haute cuisine restaurant followed by a leisurely coffee, cognac and a cigar in the mahogany-panelled salon bar.

Piano Salon Bar on Le Train Bleu (Simanaitis Says)
Dining Car – Le Train Bleu (Simanaitis Says)

During dinner he had made the acquaintance of a mysterious young Russian, the ‘Countess Maria Z ’ who was much taken with his playing of Chopin Nocturnes on the upright Bechstein that stood in one corner of the lounge. A romantic intimacy became quickly established between them. This was often the case with women when the handsome concert pianist played Chopin.

On returning to his compartment he noticed the attendant had already turned down his bed. Soon after retiring there was a gentle knock on the door and to his surprise the Countess appeared dressed in a spectacular creation by Schiaparelli, her throat adorned with Cartier jewellery and carrying a Pekinese. He spent an unexpectedly erotic night with her as the train haltingly made its way south.*

After a fitful sleep of broken rhythms he awoke the next morning to the dazzling sunshine of the Côte d’Azur. Palm trees and a riot of yellow mimosa lined the shore of the glittering Mediterranean as he poured coffee from the chased silver pot and broke open the feather-light croissants.

The Countess had silently quit his compartment during the night and he never saw her again. Eddie felt something almost deliciously sinful in this encounter as he journeyed towards the Vatican and his audience with the Pope. At Ventimiglia he changed trains to board the majestic Rome Express which travelled along the picturesque Ligurian coast across Tuscany to Florence and finally down to Rome.

*Eddie often did not note or even remember the names of his ‘acquaintances of the night’, a phrase he used when describing such brief encounters to the author during intimate conversations later in Monaco in 1968.

† The Blue Train inspired many writers and artists. In 1924, it inspired Serge Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes to create a ballet entitled Le Train Bleu.

The train is featured in the Agatha Christies novel The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928). The Blue Train Races were a series of record-breaking attempts between cars and trains in the late 1920s and early 1930s. It saw a number of motorists and their own or sponsored automobiles race against ‘le train bleu’. The Blue Train Bentleys (two Speed Six Bentleys) owned by the dashing ‘Bentley Boy’ Woolf Barnato took part in these races.

* * *

Eddie wrote an account of the Papal audience on 25 February 1935 published in the Australian Women’s Weekly. The description by ‘Mr Cahill, who has played before almost every crowned head of Europe’ was breathily introduced as being ‘as exciting as any film story or a novel of the sixteenth century.’

Pope Pius XI (1857-1939)

‘The Glory That Is Rome!’

by Edward Cahill

All this glory seems to be concentrated in that one vast and palatial dwelling – the Vatican. The special suite where the Pope holds audience is a dream of splendour. One enormous salon leading into another. The public reception salon, the Throne Room, and the more exclusive and smaller Thronetta where the private audiences are usually held and where I was privileged to have a personal conversation with His Holiness.

Thronetta at the Vatican

Massive bronze doors, decorated with beautifully wrought panelling lead from one room to the other, and the rich claret-coloured carpet tones with the purples and wine-shades of the tapestries which cover the walls, and the brocade covering the massive gold furniture. Pomp and ceremony are everywhere.

The young noblemen who form the special Papal Guard are sumptuously attired in papal blue and gold with dazzling brass helmets and long swords. It is a special honour to be appointed to the Throne Room guard, and the highest born of the young Roman nobles vie for the honour.

While I waited in the Throne Room I saw the guard being changed, and a very impressive sight it was. All the ladies present who were awaiting the ordinary public audiences wore the customary veils and high-necked dresses. I wore full evening dress, tails and a white tie, which is the correct attire, although it was only one o’clock in the afternoon. I was received by Father P. Murray, Superintendent General of the Redemptorists, who  a couple of years ago came out to Australia and was the guest of Archbishop Duhig of Brisbane. Archbishop Duhig had written to them. That was how I was able to have the honour of un’udienza speciale.

I must confess to feeling more excited here than I have ever felt when faced with my greatest concert audiences. The Pope is a majestic figure although, apart from the enormous emerald ring on His Holiness’ first finger, he was dressed in great simplicity. The Pope talked with me in German, as he doesn’t speak any English. He showed me the gold watch which he always wears, and told me it was presented to him by His Grace the Arch- bishop Duhig, of Brisbane and the pupils of All Hallows Con- vent. He pointed out that it was made of Australian gold. He sent his blessing and good wishes through me to all Australian musicians.

After the udienza speciale Eddie lunched with Father Murray at the Redentoristi and afterwards in the concert hall gave a piano recital to over 100 priests, one of them an Australian. He continues:

I was still feeling the reaction of this rich, emotional experience as I descended the noble marble staircase and made my way out to the piazza. Suddenly I heard my name called, and turned to find a young friend from the Scandinavian Embassy. I felt, and probably looked, somewhat unusual, bareheaded and in formal evening clothes on the clear winter afternoon. Besides I was in a hurry to get to the opera.

Glancing at the clock I realized how little time there was, and calling good-bye to my friend I started to dash down the street. Suddenly I felt a grip on my shoulder. I was under arrest. Mus- solini was to pass that way in a few minutes. There had been a warning that a dangerous character was around and I was a suspect.

‘Where are your papers?’

‘Why are you glancing at the Vatican clock so furtively?’

‘Who are you?’

I searched for my papers. Of course, I had left them at the hotel when I changed into my dress clothes for the audience. I was taken to the police-station, and kept there for some hours until my identity was proved. Of course, I missed the opera.

Even so, my adventures were not over. My train, the Rome Express, was the ill-fated train which just missed a terrible avalanche. All the passengers had to get out and drive through the Alps by car to connect with another train.*

Eddie remained in Rome for a week or so, attending the opera and sightseeing. Early in March 1935 Sabine had agreed to meet him in Berlin to begin their short concert tour of Germany.

The inveterate traveller made his way back to Cannes once more on the Rome Express and then joined the luxury Riviera Express to Berlin. After the loss of George he was greatly looking forward to performing once again with a sympathetic and talented musical partner, quite apart from the fact she had once been a distant inamorata. The Russian Countess was already a distant memory.

*Australian Women’s Weekly, Saturday 30 March 1935.

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