Fiddlin’ Around with Lenny and Jascha: A Reminiscence

Although we shared the same last name and many friends called us the “Cohen Brothers,” Lenny and I were not related. We enjoyed a close, warm friendship and shared many ideas and ideals, not the least of which ran something like “life is beautiful and new adventures lay just around every corner.”

In our thirties Lenny and I were big men, and both having a thirst for whatever life had to offer. Lenny was six feet two inches and weighed about 210 pounds. He had an almost childlike innocence about him with a shock of Huck Finn blond hair that denied his worldliness. He had been a frogman in the U. S. Navy and an alternate on the Olympic swim team. I was then about three inches shorter than he and five to ten pounds heavier with, as I described it, “a layer of fat to protect the muscles.” I was the runner and ball player; he the swimmer.

We never competed in the other’s territory. Neither of us cared much for alcohol, although we would have an occasional drink together, especially when we attended shows in Las Vegas. One cold evening we sat in a bar each nursing a cocktail while waiting for another friend to join us for dinner. At the time we both were involved with a national organization that had “Union” in its title, although it was a loose confederation of institutions that had nothing to do with labor unions.

One of us remarked that the “Union” had made a mistake doing something long since forgotten. The man next to me at the bar angrily shouted out, “What the hell is wrong with unions?” When he aggressively turned toward the two of us wearing topcoats and looking like hitmen, his facial expression said, “Oh, dear, I just committed suicide.” We assured him that we were both pro-labor and that our “union” was a different kind. Although he offered, we bought him a drink and the “confrontation” ended quietly.

At the time I lived in Hollywood trying to become rich and famous as an actor—neither worked out—while Lenny lived on the apartment side of Beverly Hills, as opposed to the mansion side. Our favorite restaurant was Cantor’s Deli on Fairfax and we met there at least once a week. When a party was seated at Cantor’s, the server, then called a “waitress,” would place a basket with a variety of breads and rolls on the table. When Lenny and I sat down, they would place one basket in front of each of us.

One evening while chatting with a friend named Jack, we informed him that we were going to get some pie for dessert, asking if he would like to join us. He thanked us, but said he would rather go home. As we started to leave, and without any signals, Lenny walked by Jack’s right side while I walked by the left side, both of simply lifted 5′ 8″ Jack simultaneously under his arms and the three of, Jack in the air, left the building with Jack saying, “Hey, guys, how about we go get a piece of pie for dessert?” We did.

Lenny was a magnificent story teller, so good that some of us wondered if the stories were authentic. Years later by accident I discovered that both his war stories and his romantic exploits were, indeed, factual.

In the 1960s I was youth director in Southern California for an umbrella organization, while Lenny was the youth director for one of the affiliates. I was just a tad skeptical when I received a phone call from him saying that he had gotten Jascha Heifitz to speak to his youth group on two conditions: no publicity and the only adults who would be there would be adults who might normally attend such a group—namely Lenny and I.

For those who do not know or who may have forgotten, Jascha Heifitz was unchallenged as the greatest classical violinist in the world during the mid-20th Century. He was from the Russian school of music that emphasized three things: technique, technique, and technique. When Fritz Kreisler, another great violinist, heard Heifitz’s debut concert, he reportedly said about himself and other fiddlers, “We might as well take our fiddles and break them across our knees.” Although Heifitz was older than the “Cohen brothers,” he and I shared a birthday, February 2; he and Lenny died within a few months of each other in 1987. He is still considered one of, if not the greatest violinists of all time.

Man's hand holding a violinHeifitz at the time was teaching master classes in violin at U. C. L. A. A few weeks later, however, I received another call from Lenny: “Heifitz broke his leg and cannot appear.” Although the L. A. Times ran stories about the broken leg, I could not help wondering if this were a Lenny fantasy. Then, a few months later came the next call: “Heifitz will be at the youth group” on a specific date.

On a cold, rainy, windy March night, the maestro appeared with a violin case which held a Guarneri and a Stradivarius. The teenagers would have been vastly more impressed if a famous pop singer or guitarist appeared, but they had to settle for the best in the world. The youth group was composed of children from Beverly Hills—not the apartment side—and one youngster had the temerity to ask what the two violins were worth. Heifttz answered about $300,000. (In the early 21st Century I heard that the Guarneri was worth about $2,000,000 and the Stradivarius about $4,000,000.)

After a demonstration of the difference in sound between the instruments and two short pieces played to perfection, of course, it was time to leave. Heifetz still used a cane, and to get to the exit, we had to cross a marbleized floor that was fine in dry weather, but our shoes were wet. In one of my many less than intelligent moments, I offered to carry the violins for the maestro. He handed me the case and thanked me. I started to cross the marbled floor when I had a vision that is as vivid today as it was some fifty years ago. I had become Curly, the fat, bald one of the Three Stooges, and was carrying a violin case when I slipped, did a 360 in mid-air, and landed on my derriere atop $300,000 worth of violins. I froze. Mr. Heifitz asked if I would rather he carried the instruments. I apologized, and he said he understood.

Occasionally today, I will see and hear Jascha Heifitz on the Arts Channel, on video, or on the radio. I think to myself, “I carried that instrument.” Then my now eighty-five year old face gets a warm, nostalgic grin and I think to myself, “Yeah, Cohen; for about fifteen feet!