51 years later, pianist Jan Paderewski will rest in peace in Poland

June 29, 1992|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

WARSAW, Poland -- Ignace Jan Paderewski liked to offer an exploding cigar. He had a foul-mouthed parrot that rode his foot as he pedaled the piano at home. He had striking wild hair that sometimes lured admiring women -- oh, there were so many -- to sneak up and snip off a lock.

Most Americans don't know those details about Paderewski; most probably don't even know the man's name. Sixty years ago, most did.

Yet now his story goes on. The pianist's remains, at Arlington National Cemetery since his death in 1941, were to arrive by plane today in Poland and then go on display at the Royal Castle in Warsaw.

He is to have a proper Polish funeral next week, with President Bush attending. Much will be said about all Paderewski did for Poland; his piano, his concern for his country and his diplomacy made him a Polish national hero. Beyond that, according to a biography by Adam Zamoyski, Paderewski led a fascinating life.

As a poor music student in Warsaw, he would tour small towns in the Russian provinces, find a rickety piano and play for the smallest of sums.

He went to Paris and London and did well, but when, in 1891, at 31, he arrived in New York, he was an unknown. There were so many good European musicians, most of them poor.

Yet he struck Carnegie Hall like a bolt of lightning. By his sixth New York performance, it was standing room only. Though his talent is disputed, he had a way of mesmerizing audiences. Part of it was a lack of self-esteem and an unending stage fright -- the lights were always low.

U.S. audiences, hundreds of thousands, disproportionately female, went crazy during his many tours. His hands sometimes swelled painfully from being shaken. Advertisers used and abused his name. His concerts were likened to religious experiences; the biographer Zamoyski says they were more like football games, so wildly did crowds react. Half a dozen encores were not uncommon.

On U.S. tours, Paderewski made hundreds of thousands of dollars, which was astonishing at the time. He was loose with money and spent much on himself and his various estates, more on a crippled son in Europe who died young, more on a woman he later married, but he gave away a fortune to various causes, in cash and charity performances. Much of his good will was for U.S. causes; as much was for Polish concerns.

When World War I broke out he began giving patriotic Polish speeches with every U.S. performance; in the course of the war, he gave 340. His oratory was as compelling as his piano. He leaned on his friends in the United States and around the world and raised millions of dollars for his devastated and starving Polish homeland.

After the war, Paderewski returned to Poland a hero. After an unsuccessful stint as prime minister, he went on to become a Polish elder statesman.

Paderewski fled to the United States at the outbreak of World War II and died in a New York hotel at 80.

His heart remains entombed in a jar in the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Doylestown, Pa., an important Polish Roman Catholic site. He is said to have told his sister that he wanted to be buried in Poland when it became a free country again.

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