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Virgil Thomson's Musical Milieu

The American composer flourished along with the luminaries of Paris cafe society

By Jamake Highwater / July 19, 1990



FOR 10 years I visited the eminent American composer and music critic Virgil Thomson at his bohemian apartment on New York's 23rd Street, fascinated by this entirely ordinary man. I occasionally dined with him and his circle of friends, listening to his flat Midwestern voice as he recalled his remarkable past, as he affirmed his equally noteworthy present, and as he waited - with a good deal of optimism - to celebrate his 9th decade of life. Virgil Thomson's greeting at the door of his Chelsea Hotel apartment was always completely unceremonious. But that's the way he was: He didn't waste time on niceties. He got to the point.

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``Here, over here,'' he would say with the kind of friendly impatience that he claimed as a right of age. ``For goodness sake, do sit down.'' And with a gesture of his short arms he directed me to take a seat on his ``good side.''

Once seated, Thomson gave me a look that mixed affection with disapproval; he rarely allowed anyone to feel secure about his friendship. But he was always kind. He would smile his puckish grin and sit back in his favorite armchair, his small hands lying on his bulbous belly, and recount to me and others his days in the celebrated Paris caf'e society of the 1920s.

Virgil Thomson was born in 1896 in Kansas City, Mo. (not Kansas) - and heaven help anyone who mislocated his place of birth! He grew up in a sturdy, devotedly Protestant family of Midwestern farmers, taking piano and organ lessons while he was still a child. Eventually he studied composition at Harvard University. After completing his studies, he visited Europe and fell in love with Paris. For 50 years - from 1927 until 1977 - he maintained a residence there.

Thomson was fond of filling our ears with candid tales of Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and other upstarts of the great Paris years of America's so-called Lost Generation. Some of these reminiscences made their way into Thomson's own writings, and I jotted down things I remembered from our dinners in a journal I kept at the time.

``James Joyce and Gertrude Stein were rivals in the sense that they appeared as planets of equal magnitude,'' he explained. ``The fact that they were both in Paris in the 1920s and '30s gave the city the position as world center of writing in English. American writers flocked to Paris: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Ford Madox Ford, Djuna Barnes, Ezra Pound, e.e. cummings, Hart Crane. They were all there!''

Thomson pointed out that the rivalry between Joyce and Stein was polite but intense. Their friends were not allowed to be neutral; they had to take sides. For instance, when Joyce's now-famous novel ``Ulysses'' was about to be published in France, Picasso was asked to illustrate it. He declined however, because he valued the friendship of Gertrude Stein and did not want to alienate her by taking up with her rival.

So Picasso politely returned the manuscript of ``Ulysses.'' He admitted to Stein that he had read it (``a thing,'' Thomson confided, ``he rarely did for any book!''), but Picasso comforted her by saying, ``Yes, now I see what Joyce really is - an `obscure' [writer] that all the world will understand - un obscur que tout le monde pourra comprendre.'' It was a catty remark, and of course Gertrude Stein was delighted.

Virgil Thomson adored the friendship of celebrities. ``Lots of people visited my Paris flat in the first year I lived there. I remember Scott Fitzgerald delivering some kind of speech on top of a little stove I had. And there were all kinds of rich American women, looking for adventure. Novelist Andr'e Gide used to visit. But not Ernest Hemingway, whom I never asked. He was part of the Montparnasse hard-drinking set. Not much fun if you weren't as drunk as they were.''