Monkey Business | part two of three (Nicolette)

When my grandmother, Lea, arrived at the Curtis Institute of Music as a faculty member in 1928, the Director, Josef Hofmann, made it clear that she should only accept extraordinarily talented students.  Curtis was not the place to “experiment” with candidates whose musical gifts were not obvious.  Only proven talent at the highest level, he insisted.

Lea complied and for many years, there was no question about the musical level of those she accepted.  But on one occasion, she quite uncharacteristically decided to take a chance on a youngster who was not even a violinist. This exception was occasioned by her admiration for her beloved mentor, the violinist Eugene Ysaÿe.  Lea decided to take on Ysaÿe’s granddaughter as her personal protégé.

The girl’s name was Nicolette Alice Harisay.  Her mother was Ysaÿe’s daughter. Her father, Vino Harisay, was a violinist who had inherited one of Ysaÿe’s violins.  Indeed, that is how Lea met Nicolette.  Lea wanted to see the instrument again so she arranged to visit the family during the winter of 1940-1941 while on a concert tour in Canada. Lea was introduced to Nicolette, who had been born in Budapest in 1923, moved with her family to Antwerp, and then moved again to Montreal in 1938 where, as a result of her great gift for painting, she attended the Ēcole des Beaux Arts.

Lea was impressed by Nicolette’s paintings – the girl obviously had great talent as a visual artist.  And when Lea learned that Nicolette also liked to sing, she made a leap of faith. If Nicolette was artistically inclined and was also Ysaÿe’s granddaughter, therefore, just as one plus one equals two, Nicolette must be musically gifted.  Lea agreed to finance a trip to Philadelphia for Nicolette’s vocal audition at the Curtis Institute with Elizabeth Schumann, a famous retired soprano who was on the faculty.  Some say that despite Schumann’s deserved fame as a great singer, she was not a distinguished pedagogue and certainly Lea knew very little about assessing vocal talent.  But together, they agreed that Curtis should accept Nicolette. Shrewdly, Lea persuaded her to change her surname to Ysaÿe for the obvious advantages it would bring at Curtis, where everyone held the name in awe.

Lea not only welcomed Nicolette to Curtis, she also welcomed her into her summer house in Maine beginning in 1940, making her part of the family.  But it soon appeared that Lea may have misjudged.  True, Nicolette had a nice voice but her career at Curtis ended before graduation, as she was unable to progress to the satisfaction of her teachers.  Always one to turn a bad situation to her advantage, Lea commissioned Nicolette to paint for her – first paintings of the Rockport lighthouse, the harbor, and various local nature scenes, then cooking scenes painted on the walls of Lea’s kitchen, and finally an image of a monkey that Nicolette painted directly onto the walls of Lea’s bathroom.  This painting was intended to compliment Lea’s growing monkey collection of painting, prints, statues, figurines, and toys that occupied many parts of the house.

Once /Nicolette was out of Curtis, Lea did not give up on her. There was a brief stint in New York when Nicolette did some private study, sang in an opera chorus, and got to enjoy the tickertape celebration of the World War II victory of the Allies in 1945.  In 1946, she returned to Maine for one last summer and Lea arranged for her to appear with some other young musicians in a concert on September 1st.  Lea continued to hope for a bright musical future – after all, vocalists generally develop much later than instrumentalists.  But after that concert, Nicolette abandoned her musical career and returned to Canada where she worked as an art therapist with patients infected with tuberculosis. She married, had many children and grandchildren, and continued painting, living a long, full life until age ninety. 

As the years went by, Nicolette may have disappeared from Lea’s life but Lea never regretted the years they spent together.  She loved Nicolette and, while many young women went on to singing careers, Nicolette’s contribution to Lea’s life was unique and memorable – treasured paintings, especially the amusing monkey.  And as she made clear to her family in her later years, these paintings were there to stay.  This posed something of a dilemma each time interior of the house was repainted.  Successive groups of local workmen were told that they had to paint carefully around these images, as the paintings had become like talismans.  Two successive generations of Lea’s family would inhabit the house after she died and, as of this writing, Nicolette’s monkey and other images still grace the walls, to the puzzlement of visitors in what is otherwise a traditional 19th century New England cottage.