Some artistic careers blaze brightly like meteors before being snuffed out, leaving nothing behind but a crater. Such was the short but brilliant musical career of Van Cliburn who went to Russia at the height of the Cold War, and performed in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory during the first Tchaikovsky International Competition, which he won handily. After getting an eight-minute standing ovation, Van Cliburn reminded Russian pianist Andrei Gavrilov o “som kind of angel.” In The Ivory Trade (1990), Joseph Horowitz wrote:
His lanky six feet four inches, his blue eyes and mop of frizzy blond hair, were recognized everywhere. People hugged and kissed him on the street, calling him “Vanya” and “Vanyushka.” He was showered with flowers and personal mementos. Women wept when he played, and students shouted “First prize!” Outside the conservatory, militiamen were used to maintain order. His pandemonious victory, announced April 14, confirmed the popular verdict of days before. The Cliburn furor was of unprecedented, unrepeatable, incomprehensible proportions.
And then what? Cliburn went back to Texas to live with his mother, performing occasionally—but with considerably less éclat. After the ticker-tape parade through Manhattan, and a few concerts with diminishing returns, that was just about it.
What his fans did not, could not know at that time, was that Cliburn was gay. Had that become publicly known, he would have been reviled by the same public that seemingly adored him. It is such a pity. Today, his sexual preference would be met with a shrug (though perhaps not in Russia). In 1998, he suffered the indignity of being sued by his long-time domestic partner, mortician Thomas Zaremba, for palimony. The case was thrown out of court as palimony is not recognized by the State of Texas, He died in 2013 in Texas at the age of 78, years after his last successful concert.
Stuart Isacoff, in his book When the World Stopped to Listen: Van Cliburn’s Cold War Triumph and Its Aftermath calls his Moscow concert “perhaps the best concert of his life … an instant of artistic grace.”