Early in 1935, a blizzard blew through New York City. The storm was so fierce, it virtually emptied Central Park. But Willa Cather spent her morning there, sledding with the violin prodigy Yehudi Menuhin and his sisters.
Afterward, they all went to the Ansonia Hotel on the Upper West Side, where the Menuhins were living, for an intimate lunch — just the family, the violinist Sam Franko and Cather, along with her companion, Edith Lewis. “It was a lovely party, with the whole world outside lost in snow,” Cather, the author of American classics like “My Ántonia” and “Death Comes for the Archbishop,” wrote to her friend Carrie Miner Sherwood. “Inside, perfect harmony!”
This idyll gets a passing mention in Benjamin Taylor’s brisk new biography, “Chasing Bright Medusas: A Life of Willa Cather,” though it was one of many in the yearslong friendship of Menuhin and Cather, two titans of 20th-century culture — he a musician and she a writer whose works exude a passion for music.
Their relationship was an unlikely one. Menuhin was a famous child with a busy performance schedule; Cather, several decades older, was in retreat from the modern world and skeptical of celebrity (even her own). Yet across generations and backgrounds, they formed a deep bond. She gave him a literary education, while he fed her love of music. With both of their lives in motion, they were a mutual source of stability and support, whether he was storing his sled in her Park Avenue apartment building or they were leaning on each other through loss, heartbreak and infirmity.
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