Delightful, De-Lovely and Deconstructed: Cole Porter’s Piano Is Being Rebuilt ~ NYT

At the Steinway factory in Astoria, Queens, technicians dismantle Cole Porter’s pianoCredit Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

 

The piano arrived with a scrap of paper inside, a relic from when it did cocktail-hour duty. On the torn-off page, “Misty” was written in large letters and “please” in smaller letters below.

The man who sat down at the keyboard obliged, even though “Misty” was not what one expected to hear from this particular piano.

This particular piano belonged to Cole Porter from the mid-1930s to his death in 1964, when he lived atop the Waldorf Astoria. It has a plaque that says, “Some of the loveliest songs in America’s musical history were composed on this Steinway.”

It was delightful, except for a badly out-of-tune middle C.

It was de-lovely, with a scene by a British landscape artist painted on the mahogany lid.

 

So the last song played on the Cole Porter piano was not a Cole Porter melody like “Night and Day” or “You’re the Top.” Oh, well — it was just one of those things.

The man playing it was Ron Losby, the president and chief executive of Steinway & Sons, who joked later that there should have been a tip jar. The piano, which became a fixture in the Waldorf lobby after Porter’s death, had been relocated to a warehouse in 2017 when the hotel closed for renovations. It had only recently ended up at the Steinway factory in Astoria, Queens, a place of wood and felt and cast iron and the mechanical parts needed for music to happen: agraffes, backchecks, sostenuto rods and dozens of others.

The piano was there for what another Steinway executive called “sleep-away camp for pianos.” Actually, it is more like a spa where pianos can go for a few months for freshening up or maybe even intensive care.

The Waldorf, too, is having a lot of work done. The hotel was bought by the Chinese-owned Anbang Insurance Group for nearly $2 billion in 2014, which then announced plans to turn much of the building into luxury condominiums. It is scheduled to reopen in 2021.

An old song request tucked inside the piano from its cocktail lounge days. Credit Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

When the work on the piano is completed, the instrument will go to a temporary home at the New-York Historical Society, along with the nine-foot-tall clock from the Waldorf lobby and what the Waldorf calls John F. Kennedy’s rocking chair, from the presidential suite.

 

Before long Mr. Gonzalez, who has worked at Steinway for 29 years, and Mr. Guarascio, who has worked there for 16, slid the entire keyboard out, along with the hammers that strike the strings. They loosened the tuning pins and snipped the thick, copper-wound bass strings. They lifted out the cast iron plate, exposing the soundboard.

Eventually, they will cut that out, leaving the familiar curved rim and the legs, the skeleton of the Cole Porter Steinway, No. 129281. Steinway has numbered every piano it has made in its 165-year history. The Cole Porter piano, finished in 1907 and sold in 1908, was the 129,281st.

Where the piano was for its first 28 years is a mystery, at least to Steinway, whose records show that it was delivered to an address on West 81st Street in Manhattan in 1908. The next date in Steinway’s handwritten ledger is from 1945, when the piano was sent back for repairs.

The Porter biographer William McBrien did not explain the gap but did explain how Porter came to have No. 129281. It was a gift from the Waldorf’s management after he moved in, in the 1930s.

Porter lived a grand life, and his suite at the Waldorf was, appropriately enough for the composer of “You’re the Top,” near the top. Mr. McBrien described the room the piano was in as “cathedral-like.” It must have been, not just because No. 129281 is almost seven feet long but because it was not the only piano on the premises. “Porter decorated the suite with two grand pianos placed curve to curve, the players facing,” Mr. McBrien wrote.

But Porter was also sensitive about waking up other residents in the middle of the night, when he often played. “With his inclination to settle into work after midnight, he had acoustical ‘mud’ installed to deaden the sound of his piano so as not to disturb his neighbors.” One of those neighbors, McBrien reported, was former President Herbert Hoover.

Andrew Horbachevsky, Steinway’s vice president for manufacturing, pointed out that No. 129281 was made at the company’s original factory on Park Avenue, a couple of blocks from where the Waldorf opened in 1931.

Mr. Porter playing the piano next to his dog, circa 1956. Credit Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Mr. Horbachevsky said he had taken his daughter Natalie to tea at the Waldorf in the 1990s, when she was 8 or 9 years old. “I’m not a tea drinker,” he said, but he wanted her to see the piano.

What they saw was a mahogany case painted by the British-born landscape artist Arthur Blackmore. The scene on the lid shows people in powdered wigs and three-cornered hats outside a villa. One is playing an instrument that looks like a clarinet.

Blackmore worked for the director of Steinway’s art department at the turn of the century, Joseph Burr Tiffany, a cousin of the stained-glass artist Louis Comfort Tiffany, whose father started the jewelry company.

So many generations, so many family connections. And there are others. Mr. Youse, who presides over piano restorations as Steinway’s director of technical services and special projects, is a fourth-generation Steinway employee. His grandfather, who was blind, was a tuner there. Mr. Youse’s father drove him to work once he was old enough to do so, and was hired in the 1950s.

Mr. Youse himself, the current director, arrived in 1973. “My son is upstairs,” Mr. Youse said. “He’s got 12, 13 years here.”

After a lifetime around keys and soundboards, Mr. Youse is something of a piano detective. He can eye a piano and guess at the life it lived — how it was treated, whether it had been knocked about or pampered and how it was cared for.

 

Later he would conclude that the ivory keys were not original.

For now, the Cole Porter piano is silent, unplayable. But just watching Mr. Gonzalez and Mr. Guarascio work brought back the sound of music so tender, maybe even a night of tropical splendor.

“Night and Day” seemed to play itself on that piano, said the pianist Daryl Sherman, who played it for years at the Waldorf. “It was like a Ouija board,” she said during a phone call from Tokyo, where she was on tour. “It would just happen by itself.”

It made one wonder all the more about that scrap of paper left inside of the instrument.

“Nobody,” she said, “ever asked me to play ‘Misty.’”

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