The Gibson

by Karra Shimabukuro

The Gibson cleaned up and at auction.

The Gibson cleaned up and at auction.

This is a morality tale, I’m just not sure what the moral is. Maybe it will come to me by the end? I’m sure all of you have at some point heard of Stradivarius violins. These violins are special because of their rarity: Antonio Stradivari crafted 1,116 instruments in his lifetime and only 602 survive. This, in addition to their unique sound, make them very valuable. A Stradivarius regularly sells for 1 to 2 million dollars. This is the story of the Gibson, a very special Stradivarius, if only because of the adventures, drama, and scandal that surround it.

February 28, 1936

It is here that I shall introduce the villain of our story: Julian Altman.  He had a job at the Russian Bear, a restaurant next door to Carnegie Hall. Being quite the accomplished young musician, he would often hang out backstage at Carnegie Hall when not working. Therefore, on this particular February night, the doorman stationed at the stage door thought nothing of letting him in. Nor did he find it strange that Julian walked in carrying his violin case. You see, Julian was often allowed to use the empty dressing and storage rooms to practice and, with his violin case in hand and dressed in the outlandish Cossack costume of the Russian Bear, Julian was a familiar sight around Carnegie Hall.

Let’s pause a moment here for a brief report on the weather. Trust me, it’s important. That night it was humid in the hall, and therefore, the evening’s performer, a Polish violinist by the name of Bronislaw Huberman, decided not to play his Gibson Stradivarius. Instead he played his second best violin. No one noticed when Julian walked into Huberman’s dressing room and replaced the Gibson with his own violin. In fact, Julian was such a friendly and familiar sight that even when it was discovered that Huberman’s Gibson Stradivarius had been stolen out of his dressing room, he was never even questioned. The next day, Julian took the violin to a pawnbroker who promptly informed him that the violin was too hot to sell. Julian, using his own twisted logic, decided to keep it as his own.

Julian 003

Julian playing for friends in Silver Spring, MD. The author is seated on the piano bench.

Time after that becomes unimportant. Julian spent the next forty years playing the Gibson in piano bars around Washington D.C, often leaving it at the bar when he went home drunk with some random woman. But he also played that violin in the National Symphony, for President Richard Nixon, and Vice President Hubert Humphrey, so maybe it all balances out. In all this time, no one once ever commented on Julian’s violin. Julian also played his violin for a little girl on her birthday — every birthday for as long as she could remember. It was always the same song: “Lara’s Theme” from Doctor Zhivago. It was something special to her because she was the only one (other than Julian) who was allowed to resin the bow and she learned more than you could possibly want to know about violins.

Julian, Marcelle, the author, her mother and her baby sister at her baptism.

Julian, Marcelle, the author, her mother, and her baby sister at her baptism.

Julian was often praised for his talent, for despite being a violent drunk, an asshole, and an all around bad person, God had blessed him with an amazing gift when it came to that violin. From 1968 on, Julian lived with a woman named Marcelle Hall. She was a good match: a drunk and an abusive woman. However, unlike Julian she had no God-given musical talent to redeem her; she was simply evil. Someone could have saved everyone a lot of trouble and simply dropped a house on her like they do to witches in stories.

Anyway, Julian had gotten himself into a bit of trouble because it turns out he was not a nice man to little girls (one little girl in particular, the one he played for on her birthday every year). Let’s just leave it at that, shall we?  He was put on trial, pleaded no contest, and was sentenced to a year at Bridgeport Jail.

When Julian was charged, Marcelle became very upset because, over the fifteen years they had been together, they had never married, but Marcelle had nevertheless managed to sign over everything she owned to him, including her house and her car. She was faced with losing everything it seemed. So, thinking quickly, she convinced Julian that she loved only him, and as a sign of her love, would fly to Vegas to marry him. He said yes, and two days before his sentencing hearing, they flew to Vegas and were married. Aw, isn’t that sweet? Okay, not really.

March 1985

Almost halfway through his paltry one-year jail sentence, in a scene that no writer could create, Julian was climbing onto the toilet in his jail cell one day (no explanation was ever given for this escapade) when he slipped and hit his head. Poor Julian. When he was taken to the doctor to be checked out for a bump on the head, it turned out that he had stomach cancer and had only months to live. Ain’t karma a bitch?

Marcelle was ecstatic. Soon all of her property would revert back to her.  However, there was more good news heading her way. One afternoon, as she visited him in the prison hospital, Julian confessed a deep, dark secret of his. He told her to go home and check the space between the hard and soft cover of his violin. Marcelle rushed home and found dozens of articles about the theft of Huberman’s Stradivarius from almost 50 years before. She went to see Julian the next day to ask about the articles, although, knowing him to be a sneaky bastard, she had a good idea that he was behind the famous theft. Julian’s story changed several times: his mother put him up to it, he bought it for $100, but eventually, he confessed to it all.

Julian 001

Gibson in case.

Alas, on August 12, 1985, poor Julian died. It was not a sad affair and no one mourned him. Marcelle lost no time in contacting her cousin, who was a lawyer, and having him contact Lloyd’s of London. You see, the Gibson, like all Stradivarius violins, was considered a work of art, and had been insured by Lloyd’s. After the theft, Lloyd’s paid Huberman, which meant they now owned the Gibson Stradivarius.

Julian 008

Charles Baere’s visit to Connecticut to appraise the Gibson.

Soon, Marcelle’s Connecticut home was jammed with newspaper reporters from the New York Times, Newsweek, local papers, hell, even Connie Chung made an appearance to interview her. Charles Baere flew in from Lloyd’s of London to look at the violin. He declared its authenticity and took it back with him to be restored and auctioned off later in Milan. Lloyd’s sold it for 1.2 million dollars to Norbert Brainin. Marcelle was invited to the auction and given $263,000 as a finder’s fee, which she blew in a few years. Marcelle died, alone in a trailer park in New Hampshire, under the sad care of her religious, schizophrenic son who cremated her before her daughter could make the trip.  Again, ain’t karma a bitch?

Marcelle at the auction in Milan

Marcelle at the auction in Milan.

June 2003

But, dear folks, that is not the end of our tale.  Our tale has a happier ending. Years later, the Gibson was bought by the attractive and talented Joshua Bell, who loved the drama and scandal that surrounded the violin almost as much as he loved its sound when he played it. The little girl, from way back in our story (remember, “Lara’s Theme”?) happened to see that Joshua Bell had bought the Gibson. On a whim, she emailed him, explaining her relationship to the violin. It turned out he was playing a concert in town the next week, and would she want to come and hear and see the Gibson?

The girl showed up a week later and picked up her VIP tickets, not sure how she felt about this. Then Bell began to play. The sound was as beautiful as she remembered.  As the concert ended, she waited backstage as she had been told, and reflected that Bell was like a modern day rock star: there were droves of women waiting to meet him, and she actually saw several slip him their phone number. Tacky, but true. However, he separated himself from the crowd of groupies and came over to her and took her to a private space over the side and asked her if she wanted to see the Gibson. She nodded yes, almost not trusting herself to speak. He opened the case, and as if sensing her emotions, turned his back on her with the Gibson. She simply stared at it. It looked different now that it was loved.  The layers of cigarette smoke from Julian’s years in cheap bars had been removed and it glowed a lovely red. She touched it gently and remembered the time she had spent with it growing up, and how it had been a bright spot in so many dark years.

She thanked Joshua for this. He said she was welcome and that someday they would have to sit down so he could hear the whole story.

We haven’t yet, but I have no doubt one day we will.

About the author:

Karra Shimabukuro is a 37 year old independent scholar and soon to be PhD student at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. She is the proud mom to the puppy, Nehi. She is obsessed with tv, movies, books. And violin music. You can read her blog here: http://scholarlymedievalmadness.blogspot.com/

 

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5 Comments

  1. Karra, thanks so much for sharing this story with us. It was only after you sent this to us that I started to research the Gibson and I was surprised by how much press coverage the story received. The violin has its own Wikipedia page!

    But what is missing from all of those accounts is your voice and your perspective. This violin must represent so many mixed feelings for you.

    Thank you for telling us a story.

  2. There are several renditions to this story. The NY Times rendition is a bit different in that Altman bought the violin from the thief at the Russian Bear the night it was lifted for one hundred dollars. I dug around a bit and found this story and would like to know if any literary license was applied to the story line. If not, where are the facts of this rendition located?

  3. Pingback: Survival (Part 2) | Tell Us a Story

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