by Wiktor Łabuński [1]

translated by Maria Piłatowicz

A fairly large group of reporters is gathered on the platform of the train station. Extraordinary sensation: in just a few minutes Paderewski is to arrive in our town for tomorrow’s concert. The reporters know that Paderewski does not grant interviews – but still they persist, hanging out on the platform. Maybe one of them will get lucky? In case of complete failure they may have to resort to the description of the train, or the car the Maestro travels in (although, the car, at least outside, does not appear any different than other American Pullman cars), someone from his entourage – his chef or his valet. I personally know all of those reporters. I greet them with a traditional “Hello.” They’re smiling, chewing gum and spitting on the platform. Their hats tipped back, clean pads of paper and pencils in hand. Few are equipped with still picture or movie cameras, as well as reflectors.

The train backs into the station very slowly and then comes to a halt. The last car, the one that now pulls in first – is Paderewski’s car. A middle-aged American wearing spectacles descends from the car onto the platform – he’s a representative of Engels, Paderewski’s agent.[2] He recognizes me and waves. “I’m sorry, boys, no interview, no story,” he says to the reporters. I step aside and wait for him there. He comes to greet me and takes my arm. We walk towards the waiting room. When he’s certain there are no reporters close by he whispers: “Mister Paderewski wants to have supper with you and your wife, tonight, at eleven.” This is when the Maestro usually takes his evening meal.

We come to the station at the designated hour and approach the Pullman car which serves as Paderewski’s living quarters during his concert tour. Three persistent reporters still linger on the platform. They must have been here for several hours judging from the number of cigarette butts and the chewing gum scattered on the ground. I ring the doorbell at the entrance to the pullman. The Negro manservant, whom I’ve met while visiting Paderewski in another town, opens the door.[3] He leads us to the living-room, which also serves as a dining room and Paderewski’s studio. There’s a piano standing in one corner of the room.

Mr. Sylwin Strakacz, the Maestro’s personal secretary, cordially greets us.[4] We ask about the details of the tour and the timetable of the future concerts. After a while Paderewski joins us; he hugs and embraces us warmly, asks about our children and news from our homeland. At dinner he presides at the end of the table, we’re next to him on both sides. The rest of the company consists of Mr. Strakacz, the American wearing spectacles and the representative of Steinway, who also acts as a master piano tuner to His Majesty Paderewski’s court. Paderewski sets the tone of the conversation which is easy, cordial, playful and witty. He’s an ideal host keeping an eye on our plates and glasses. The dinner is a lavish affair, intended for a gourmet taste.

Paderewski asks about every detail of our life in America, work conditions and future plans. He rejoices in our good fortune and suffers over our setbacks; he inquires about our children. “You have to show them to me. How they must have grown, they must be giants! Bring them with you on Sunday afternoon, at two, for dinner. I absolutely must see them!” He admits he’s tired of the long journey, lack of air, and of the arduous regimen of the tour. On free afternoons he and his valet go to the movies – it’s both relaxing and entertaining. He especially likes westerns and stories of the colonization of the West. They are so full of romance and beauty, and primitive, pure and noble feelings, he says. Sometimes he plays a few rounds of bridge – to keep his mind off everyday troubles.

Paderewski doesn’t like to speak about his stunning successes. I take Mr. Strakacz aside and quietly inquire about the benefit concert for the jobless musicians in New York, at Madison Square Garden.[5] What happened there was unprecedented. The vast auditorium, which can seat twenty thousand people and has been filled, so far, only for the world boxing championship, was packed to the last seat during Paderewski’s concert. Many, many thousands of dollars of profit from the event were used to wipe off tears of the starving musicians and take care of their most urgent needs. Too bad it was enough only for some time. Paderewski has taken to heart the plight of his unfortunate colleagues, who, in his opinion, were forced out of work by the radio. I listen to Paderewski’s voice: its tone has a unique charm; his vocabulary is literary and elegant. No wonder his speeches inspired thousands of American hearts, when during the war he traveled across the United States to sway public opinion in favor of the Independent Poland.

It’s almost two in the morning. Unfortunately we have to bid farewell to our charming host. He repeats his invitation for Sunday dinner with our children and then sees us to the door. On our way out we have the opportunity to see the entire pullman in which Paderewski travels. It’s pretty cramped but cozy. Paderewski has a spacious private compartment with a wide, comfortable bed.

We step down onto the platform. All around there is silence. Two lone reporters still linger spitting on the ground. They see us from the distance. There’s no chance to get away. “Mister Labunski, what did you and Paderewski talk about? What did he say about our city? What does he think of your compositions? What was served for supper? Did Paderewski play? Did you play for him?”

“Well, boys, I’m very sorry but I can’t give you an interview because my visit with Paderewski was entirely private.” They give me hostile looks. If they could they would fry me over a slow fire to extract the entire conversation, word by word. It’s because what matters to them is “a story,” a feature article, earning a living, and, besides, they’re cold, the poor souls. What is there to do? Still, next day, they call . . .


[1]. Original publication data: Wiktor Łabuński, “Kolacja w Pullmanie,” in Życie muzyczne i teatralne vol. 2 no. 5/6 (May-June 1935): 28-29. The monthly was published in Poznań by Wieńczysław Brzostowski; copy in the PMC Collection. Wiktor Łabuński (1895-1974), composer and pianist; professor of the Kraków Conservatory, since 1928 in the U.S. An article about his brother, Feliks Łabuński (1892-1979) appeared in Polish Music Journal 4 no. 1 (summer 2001). [This and all subsequent notes are by the editor, Maja Trochimczyk]. [Back]

[2]. George Engels, Paderewski’s American agent, was very pleased with the virtuoso’s considerate and kind behavior, as well as with his musical prowess. According to a Paderewski biography by Charles Phillips, Engels stated that “there is no artist more reasonable, reliable and considerate of the local manager’s interests,” (Phillips, Paderewski. The Story of a Modern Immortal; New York: Macmillan, 1934), 148. [Back]

[3]. Paderewski’s black cook, James Copper, frequently gave interviews and was portrayed in various photographs and drawings, either with the Maestro or alone. He was just one of the many colorful personalities surrounding Paderewski during his tours. According to Adam Zamoyski, Paderewski’s staff in the early touring years consisted of: English manager, American manager, treasurer and bookkeeper, the valet – Marcel, the piano-tuner, two porters, Augustus and Charles, and the cook. The core of the group remained stable, joined later by his personal secretary, Sylwin Strakacz. See Adam Zamojski, Paderewski. A Biography of the Great Polish Pianist and Statesman (New York: Atheneum, 1982): 90. [Back]

[4]. Sylwin Strakacz (1892-1973) was Paderewski’s secretary since 1918. See Sylwin Strakacz and Aniela Strakaczowa, Za kulisami wielkiej kariery: Paderewski w dziennikach i listach Sylwina i Anieli Strakaczów, 1936-1937 [Behind the scenes of a great career, Paderewski in the memoirs and letters of Sylwin and Aniela Strakacz], ed. Małgorzata Perkowska-Waszek; Anne Strakacz-Appleton (Kraków: Musica Iagellonica, 1994). [Back]

[5]. The benefit for the Musicians’ Emergency Aid at Madison Square Garden was attended by 16 thousand people and is usually described as the largest live audience for which Paderewski performed. A program of this concert on 8 February 1932 may be found at the Boston Public Library. [Back]