Measure by Measure

Out of the Closet

Print

The strange case of Erica Morini’s Stradivarius

Library of Congress/Bain News Service

By Sudip Bose

April 13, 2017


 

 

Seven years ago, a 31-year-old violinist named Min Kym was at London’s Euston Station when she sat down at a café, placing her instrument—a Stradivarius dating to 1696—beneath her table. By the time she had finished her meal, the violin was gone. The theft of such a treasure was distressing enough, yet any violinist will tell you that one’s instrument is something more than an inanimate object, an artifact carved from maple, willow, and spruce that can be insured and subsequently replaced. For Kym, her violin lived and breathed. It was her closest companion. It bore the imprint of her soul. So intense was her depression in the aftermath of the crime that she found herself unable to play any instrument at all. A promising career had stalled, and three years would pass before transport police recovered the violin.

I must admit that I hadn’t heard of Kym until last week, when I read a review of a memoir she has written (Gone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung), in which she tries to come to terms with the feelings of betrayal and loss that accompanied the incident—not to mention a host of other emotionally crippling matters. Kym’s story did, however, remind me of another, more baffling tale of a stolen Stradivarius, involving one of the musical giants of the 20th century: Erica Morini.

Born in Vienna in 1904, Morini was a child prodigy whose earliest performances included an appearance before the Emperor Franz Joseph; as the story goes, the wunderkind so charmed the emperor that he gave her a life-size doll as a reward. At eight, she became the youngest student admitted to the Vienna Conservatoire (and the first female, at that), just a year before she made her concert debut, with the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, led by Arthur Nikisch. A sensational debut with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall followed at the age of 16, after which, an international career flourished for more than half a century. During most of that time, Morini played a Stradivarius—known as the Davidoff Strad—which her father had purchased for her in 1925.

That Morini isn’t mentioned today in the same breath with Nathan Milstein or Jascha Heifetz might have something to do with the paucity of her recorded output. Yet at a time when the solo violin game was played almost exclusively by men, she persevered, squaring up to a music business that was largely chauvinistic and that made her increasingly bitter over the years. How strongly would she have recoiled from one posthumous description of her as the “most bewitching woman violinist of this century.” She had no patience for patronizing phrases such as “woman violinist”; she was either a violinist or she wasn’t, she once defiantly said. Anyone who listens to her recordings will hear that she was every bit the artistic equal of her more famous male counterparts. Her tone was big and velvety, her vibrato vivid, her bow arm something of a marvel, allowing her to cleanly articulate the most devilish of passages. Morini’s repertoire spanned a wide range—from Baroque sonatas, which she played with great taste and finesse, to chamber music from the Classical era, to the warhorse concertos of the Romantic age. I can’t recommend highly enough her accounts of the violin concertos of Brahms and Tchaikovsky, and especially those of Max Bruch (a leisurely, poetic reading that rescues this work from the realm of banality) and Alexander Glazunov (a high-wire interpretation full of fantasy and rhythmic vitality). She excelled in more than just the big-boned classics, however, playing Fritz Kreisler’s miniatures, for example, with elegance and charm. After performing Pablo de Sarasate’s virtuoso works in Madrid, she was presented with the handkerchief that Sarasate had worn in his breast pocket during concerts—he had stipulated in his will that the handkerchief should only be bestowed upon “the finest exponent of my Spanish dances.”

Morini became an American citizen, making her home in New York City, in a two-bedroom apartment on Fifth Avenue and 98th Street. She continued to live there after retiring from the concert stage in 1976, and after her husband, a jeweler and businessman named Felice Siracusano, died. There, in that opulent Upper East Side setting, a bizarre crime took place in 1995, as Morini herself reached the end of her life: the theft of her Davidoff Strad. I remember reading about it in The Washington Post a few years later, a long, detailed report by Amy Dickinson that chronicled the heist in the form of a classic whodunit.

What is known is that after Morini’s final concert, she locked her Stradivarius up in a closet, along with her silver and china, where it remained, never to be played again. As the years went by, she suffered from multiple ailments: heart disease, severe arthritis, near blindness. Mentally, she began to spiral inward, recoiling from the outer world, becoming paranoid and unpredictable. By mid-October of 1995, at the age of 91, Morini seemed ready to die. She’d been hospitalized at Mount Sinai, but was refusing to eat or take any medication. It was decided that she should spend her final days in the comfort of her home, and on October 18, a friend of hers named Erica Bradford and Bradford’s daughter Valerie made the short walk from the hospital to Morini’s apartment, having taken the key from the table beside Morini’s hospital bed. As Dickinson wrote, the women wanted to make sure that the apartment was ready to accommodate whatever medical equipment might be necessary for the dying violinist’s return. The door was locked, just as it should have been, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary as they let themselves in. But when they proceeded to inspect the closet, unlocking it with a key Morini kept in her bedroom, the women discovered that the Stradivarius was gone. There was a violin case resting in that closet. But it wasn’t Morini’s, and besides, the case was empty.

Given that investigators found no traces of forced entry, what could it have been other than an inside job? At any rate, what kind of a burglar, even one who prowled about the elegant precincts of Fifth Avenue, carried around an empty violin case, just in case he might happen upon a Strad? Only those within Morini’s orbit, Dickinson reported, knew the location of the violin and could have gained access to the necessary keys. The FBI learned that several people had called on Morini in the weeks before her hospitalization, and that two years before, other items had gone missing from the apartment, including a diamond and some money. Yet the exhaustive investigation led only to dead ends. The violin is still at large, and the case remains on the FBI’s list of top 10 unsolved crimes.

The FBI never named a prime suspect, but it did identify several “interested parties”: the two women who discovered the theft, one of Morini’s brothers, a violin dealer, an accountant, a Romanian gentleman who resided in the building, any number of staff members, aides, and maids in the violinist’s employ—an intriguing gallery of intimates and hangers-on. But what was the motive? Did the thief feel betrayed by Morini, who had left most of her considerable fortune to various charities? Even if that were plausible, the idea of cashing in on a stolen Stradivarius appraised at $3.5 million would seem to be pure folly, and most of the interested parties would have known that. It’s not like you can dump a famous instrument on the market when every violin dealer in the world knows the thing is hot. History shows that money isn’t always the motive when it comes to a stolen violin. In 1936, the Stradivarius owned by the violinist Bronislaw Huberman was taken from his Carnegie Hall greenroom. It turned out that another violinist was to blame, and he played the instrument on the sly all his life, confessing his crime to his wife only upon his deathbed. (Joshua Bell owns that violin today.)

Morini may not have played her Strad for years, but that doesn’t mean she loved the instrument any less. As Erica Bradford told The New York Times in 1995, “It was everything to her. There was nothing in Erica’s life that meant more to her than the violin. Nothing.” Ensconced once again in her apartment and passing away, Morini entered into a world of delirium. Where is my violin? she repeatedly asked. Nobody attending to her in those last hours had the heart to tell her what had happened to her beloved Stradivarius. The theft may have been the perfect crime, but revealing the truth to Erica Morini in her final, confused hours would have been a far more criminal act.


Sudip Bose is the managing editor of the Scholar.

More Posts from Measure by Measure:


Comments powered by Disqus