Horowitz biography stirs controversy; author defends even-handed approach


NEW YORK -- An unauthorized biography of pianist Vladimir Horowitz, which may well be the most important musical biography of the year, has its young author shrugging off charges of sensationalism.

Glenn Plaskin insists his 607-page book (Morrow, $19.95) is a balanced portrait of the 79-year-old virtuoso musician whose troubled private life and eccentricities have been the stuff of legend for decades.


The slender, intense author interviewed more than 600 of Horowitz's friends and associates and said he was careful not to use information from people who obviously disliked Horowitz and 'had an ax to grind.' He cited the late pianist Glenn Gould.

'The bottom line is that I like Horowitz very much and identify with him,' said Plaskin, 30, himself a pianist. 'I was chagrined when a reviewer said I'd done a discreet hatchet job. I've tried to show Horowitz's humanity -- his strengths and his weaknesses. It's very rare to read a truthful book about a living musician.'

Plaskin aproached Horowitz and his wife, Wanda Toscanini Horowitz, by telephone several times to obtain their cooperation in writing the book but he was turned down. He said Horowitz told him, 'Forget it! I'll write my own.'


Now Plaskin is not so sure that wasn't a bit of good fortune.

'It would have been difficult to write it with him and to have the book resemble what really happened,' Plaskin said. 'In his taped interviews, Horowitz tells the same anecdotes over and over, and they may be true or he thinks they are true.

'I'm sure he wouldn't have told me any more. He's a master at protecting his public image and grooming that image.'

Horowitz has been an obsession with Plaskin since he heard a Horowitz recording of a Scriabin sonata in gradaute school. Plaskin began his keyboard studies at age 6 in his native Buffalo, N.Y., He later studied at the New England Conservatory and the Peabody Conservatory.

'I gave a few recitals a year and I was better than good. I did my three doctoral recitals at Peabody. But after 20 years of practicing, I was tired of the grind. I needed refueling, a change of gears. The idea of the book came to me and I could see there was no time to be wasted because people around Horowitz were old and dying off.'

Plaskin left Peabody four years ago and got a job with a New York concert booking agency. He began phoning publishers with his proposal of a Horowitz biography and finally got the William Morris Agency to represent him. Morrow won publication rights in a bidding contest and Plaskin got a $55,000 advance, unheard of for an 'author' who had never written anything before.


Research and writing took three years, longer than it should because many of Horowitz's friends, associates and onetime students, such as Byron Janis, were reluctant to talk. Plaskin had to be a detective, ferreting out the correspondence of Horowitz's onetime personal representative, Alexander Merovich, at the University of Oregon.

'Often I was lucky and people would pass me on to other people who knew Horowitz,' Plaskin recounted. 'His cousin and only relative in the United States, Natasha Saitzoff, was very helpful, although I'm sure she was asked by the Horowitzes not to cooperate. His onetime traveling companion, Lowell Benedict, got in touch with me or I might not have known he existed.'

Gradually a complex picture of Horowitz emerged -- one of the greatest performing talents in music history, driven by self-doubt, phobias, sexual conflicts and a troubled marriage. Out of the 58 years since he emigrated from his native Russia, Horowitz did not play the piano in public for 22 years due to ill health, nervous breakdowns, and electroshock therapy.

Horowitz last played in London in 1982, a benefit for the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, at the invitation of Prince Charles. He has no concert bookings at present, although he commands the highest fee of any classical music artist, as much as $45,000 a concert.


'He lives much to himself in New York, and Wanda spends most of her time in Connecticut,' Plaskin said. 'I think they are very lonely people. Everyone has drifted away from him. It's a shame because he can be charming. And as an artist there is something quite demonic and magical about his playing. He thinks like an orchestra. You can almost hear the violins.'

With 'Horowitz, a Biography' behind him, Plaskin would like to get a job as a reporter with a news magazine. He says he is finished with music as a career and does not want to do another musical biography because 'this is the one music biography I have in me.'

'George Cukor asked me to Hollywood before he died and suggested that I work with him on a biography about his careeer as a great film director, but I don't know what will happen now,' Plaskin said. 'I'd like to do a Lena Horne book but she wants a black woman writer, and I don't qualify.'

Plaskin said he has sent Horowitz a copy of the book but there has been no response. The author says he doubts the pianist will ever write his own life story or that anyone will write another biography.


'If they do, I wish them luck,' he said.

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