When I was a child, I would study the photos on the cover of my parent's Van Cliburn albums & I would get that familiar & perplexing tingle of recognition & arousal. I mistakenly thought he had one name- Vancliburn... like Liberace. I sometimes got them mixed up, except that Van Cliburn's photos really held my attention. My mother explained that he was a brilliant classical pianist, & also a cowboy. I swooned, then diligently practiced my piano lessons, looking forward to the day we would play 4 handed piano & ride the range together.
Harvey Lavan "Van" Cliburn Jr studied at Juiliard at 17 years of age, & his talent took him to Moscow at 23 years old which propelled him to international stardom.
The first International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958 was put together to prove to the world the Soviet cultural superiority during the Cold War, after the USSR’s technological victory with the Sputnik launch in October 1957. Van Cliburn's performance at the competition finale of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto #1 & Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto #3 earned him a standing ovation lasting 8 minutes. When it was time to announce the winner, the judges were obliged to ask permission of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to give first prize to an American. Kruschchev stated: "Is he the best? Then give him the prize!"
Cliburn returned home to a ticker tape parade in NYC, a first for a classical musician. Time magazine’s cover dubbed him "The Texan Who Conquered Russia." He appeared on TV shows- Person To Person, What's My Line? & The Tonight Show. His recording of Tchaikovsky's 1st Piano Concerto shared the top of the pop charts with Johnny Mathis's Greatest Hits album & the soundtrack of South Pacific. It became the first classical music album to sell a million copies.
In 1998, Cliburn was named in a lawsuit by his domestic partner of 17 years- Thomas Zaremba. Zaremba claimed entitlement to a portion of Cliburn's income & assets. He charged that he had been exposed to HIV from Cliburn & claimed emotional distress. Each claim was subsequently dismissed, holding that palimony suits are not permitted in the state of Texas unless the relationship is based on a written agreement.
Cliburn called the accusations "salacious" but said little else about the case. Described as gracious & polite, Cliburn is also known to be notoriously difficult to interview. Music insiders had long been aware of his homosexuality. He & Zaremba had appeared together at public functions in Fort Worth, but in Cliburn's 4 decades as a celebrity, the press had never linked him romantically with anyone.
The public's image of him was still that of the All-American Boy. He lived with his mother until her death at 97, & was a lifelong Baptist who attended regular church services. He did not drink or smoke. He began his concerts with The Star-Spangled Banner. He seemed to me to be a more masculine, more talented Liberace... minus the glitz. I never slept with him, in fact, I never met Van Cliburn.
In December 2001 Cliburn was among the artists feted at the Kennedy Center Honors. Condoleezza Rice, herself a pianist said: "Van Cliburn possesses grace & power, the power of his music to build bridges across the cultural & political divide."
News agencies have reported that Cliburn died this morning at his Fort Worth home that “he shared with Thomas L. Smith, who survives him”. While the news reports today mentioned correctly that Cliburn was deeply religious, few mentioned that he was also gay, making him one of our most honored but under-recognized Gay Icons. Cliburn was 78 years old when he left us on Wednesday morning for the big curtain call.