Monkey Business | part one of three

I always thought it odd that my grandmother, a famous violinist, loved monkeys.  In the various places she lived, there were no native habitats for monkeys and she must have been an adult before she saw a live one. But in her homes, there were always paintings, prints, photographs, toys, carvings, statues — you name it — monkeys everywhere. And it was certainly not an animal I associated with music. 

One day, in my grandmother’s summer house in Maine, I asked my mother about one of the items in my grandmother’s collection, a framed print by Currier featuring a color image of two monkeys playing violins. It was titled “The Power of Music.”

The Power of Music, Currier

My mother laughed. “Is there any doubt which monkey is Lubo?” (Lubo was our affectionate name for my grandmother.)

Sure enough, the monkey-violinist on the left was an all-powerful leader.  Dressed elegantly, with beautiful tailcoat and silver buckled shoes, this monkey’s deportment bespoke a creature of the highest class, someone born to lead. This monkey glances haughtily at the music and might well be thinking: “Given who I am, why would I be anything but perfect?”  

Then there was the other monkey — the lowly second violinist.  Awkward, clumsy, incompetent — this monkey is clearly born to follow. Attired in a poor robe of cheap cloth, his near-sightedness causes this creature to bend a small, round body in order to see the notes.  Nervously attentive, this monkey is trying to stay with a haughty partner who hardly notices him.

No doubt about it.  My grandmother was monkey number one. It was her to a T.  If she had ever played second fiddle to anyone, I never knew about it. All of us expected her to lead — our job was to follow.

Of course this was just a single monkey artifact out of scores in her collection.  It was an assortment that had started long before she would have acquired this particular American print.  It didn’t really explain everything that must have predated it.

Half a century later, I made a first discovery of the possible origins of Lea’s monkey fascination.  I had gone to St. Petersburg in Russia as part of a research trip for my book.  On a particularly beautiful summer afternoon, I was walking in Tsar Peter the Great’s Summer Garden and came across the monumental statue of Ivan Krylov – the man considered the greatest Russian fable writer and often called the Russian Aesop. Sculpted by Pyotr Klodt in 1855, the statue must have seen familiar to Lea from her many trips to that city. 

Around the pedestal of the statue on which the great man sits, there are many small figures, extraordinary reliefs designed by Alexander Agin, representing scenes from the various fables.  And as I was enjoying them, there it was — a monkey with a violin.  When I got home, I searched out Krylov fables and found the one that had inspired the sculpted monkey. The original Russian and a translation can be found here.

I was quite content that this discovery was the explanation for the monkey fascination until after my book appeared and I heard from Gregor Benko, the world’s greatest authority on my grandmother’s colleague and lover, the pianist, Josef Hofmann.  What Benko told me was that Hofmann, a musician my grandmother admired almost above all others, also had had a fascination with monkeys dating back to his childhood. Here is what Benko wrote:

It's entirely possible that Lea’s interest in monkeys was completely separate from Hofmann’s, but also possible that there is a connection.  In Hofmann’s case it is, I think, part of a very complicated equation related to prodigal talent and split personality.  He had already created a fantasy world peopled by monkeys that he anthropomorphized by the age of ten.  There were other animals as well, but the monkeys were the key inhabitants of this world. His innermost world of these monkeys was very vivid and he shared it only with his closest intimates.  There was an entire zoo of them with names like Monikiki – a penguin was named Pengrooch.  In his most intimate letters…we find astonishing evidence about his multiple personalities – on the outside was the eminent august accomplished Josef Hofmann, but on the inside there was a rascally monkey, who curiously split into two…I think it possible Lea and Hofmann soon were sharing a world others couldn’t enter, of which we have only traces.

Thinking about Benko’s words, I am convinced that Lea’s monkey fascination came at least in part from Hofmann’s and this special world only enhanced what they shared in so many other ways.