The Toronto Star
Toronto Ontario Canada
Saturday 25 August 2007
The secret life of Glenn Gould
by Michael Clarkson
Special to the Star
BRIDGEHAMPTON, N.Y. -- When Glenn Gould died young 25 years ago, friends were stunned to find a love letter in his cluttered Toronto apartment, among the empty pill pots and records.
"I am deeply in love with a certain beautiful girl. I asked her to marry me, but she turned me down but I still love her more than anything in the world and every minute I can spend with her is pure heaven ..."
It was the curtain call of not so much a life as an opera for perhaps the greatest piano virtuoso of the 20th century, who moved millions with his spiritual renditions of Bach, but was so afraid of intimacy and germs he was reluctant to let people touch him.
"No supreme pianist has ever given of his heart and mind so overwhelmingly while showing himself so sparingly," said renowned violinist Yehudi Menuhin.
History tells us that Gould, like so many geniuses, attained musical nirvana by giving up earthly desires for his work and that he could not love unless his Steinway was in the room.
And yet, for four-and-a-half years, Gould allowed a beautiful, married artist to care for him, to caress him. In the words of his favourite Barbra Streisand song, "He Touched Me" – "Suddenly ... nothing was the same." To this day, Gould is remembered as a Canadian cultural giant, yet his private life remains shrouded in mystery. For most of his adult life, rumours abounded that he was asexual or gay.
Gould was so paranoid about exposing his private life, he would cut off any colleagues or friends who discussed it and once fired a cleaning lady for gossiping about him.
Now, for the first time, we know that the intensely private Gould carried on an affair for five years, beginning in 1967, with a married German-American painter named Cornelia Foss. She left her husband Lukas, himself a prominent pianist and conductor, and moved her two children to Toronto at the height of the affair. A year before her move, Gould had asked her to marry him.
This bold attempt at domesticity may have marked the most intense chapter in Gould's lifelong struggle with his demons. His phobias and pill-popping for a number of maladies, many of them imaginary, likely contributed to his early death on October 4, 1982, nine days after his 50th birthday.
At her summer home in the Hamptons, Foss spoke to me recently – her first published interview on the subject – about life with Glenn Gould.
It is a story of obsession and heartbreak. Most of all, it is the rarest of windows into the guarded inner life of one of the 20th century's most compelling, and mystifying, artistic figures.
"I think there were a lot of misconceptions about Glenn and it was partly because he was so very private," Foss said.
"But I assure you, he was an extremely heterosexual man. Our relationship was, among other things, quite sexual."
One night in 1956, the glamorous young Fosses – Lukas and Cornelia – were driving to dinner near their Los Angeles home when Bach's "Goldberg Variations" came on the car radio. Lukas, a dynamic pianist, composer and conductor, was so enraptured by the brilliantly unorthodox interpretation – by an obscure young Canadian named Glenn Gould – he stopped the car and pulled over to listen for so long they were late for dinner.
A short time later, Lukas was rehearsing for a show with Leonard Bernstein in balmy L.A. when a blond, baby-faced 24-year-old Gould showed up unannounced in winter clothes. "My husband looked up and saw a hat and scarf coming toward him," Cornelia recalled, chuckling. "(Gould) said to Lukas, `Hello, I'm Glenn Gould. I came to hear the greatest pianist in the world.'"
Lukas was 34 at the time and his wife 25. It was the beginning of a long relationship for all of them.
"I was drawn to his handsome looks and his huge intelligence," Foss said. "He had an original mind, was extraordinarily canny and had an enormous sense of humour."
Gould was attracted by Cornelia's striking looks, intelligence and independent streak. The daughter of an art-historian father and a mother who was also an expert in classical art, she had studied sculpture at the American Academy in Rome, where she was introduced to Lukas by the famous American composer Aaron Copland.
(The Fosses had both fled the Nazis in their native Germany and were educated in Europe and California.)
In Los Angeles, the couple lived in actor John Barrymore's old house and held parties for the heavyweights of the American music scene. "They were very social and we had fascinating evenings," said Cornelia's close friend, Edith Wyle. "Cornelia was always charming."
The Fosses first saw Gould perform live in 1956 in L.A. The Gould experience was a true novelty, both for the couple and the classical music world – he sat sidesaddle at the piano in a trance, swooning and swaying, humming while conducting himself with his free hand as his hair flew about.
"He was the James Dean of classical music," said Tim Page, Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic of the Washington Post and a friend of Gould's. "He made Bach swing."
And yet, prior to his concerts, fans were given cards, asking not to shake Gould's hand because he said he was afraid of hurting his fingers. Many people felt he was more afraid of intimacy and catching germs. "He almost certainly desired more physical contact than his anxiety permitted him to enjoy," wrote Kevin Bazzana, editor of Glenn Gould Magazine in his book Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould.
Much of Gould's intimate contact came in the act of musical collaboration, and he and Lukas worked together on some scores and on Gould's radio documentaries. He and the Fosses grew close. In 1962, when the couple's L.A. home burned down, destroying 27 of Cornelia's paintings, Gould consoled her and "was very kind to me."
The following year, in 1963, Lukas found work as conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Fosses couldn't have been happier. Gould lived just 90 minutes away in Toronto.
"Glenn phoned my home a lot. It started out as a friendship with Lukas and Glenn and me, but slowly Glenn and I began a love affair," Cornelia said. "Our life together moved slowly forward and was carefully planned."
Suddenly, she found herself swept away by a second blue-eyed pianist with a strong face who looked deeply into life. But Gould's personality couldn't have been more different than Lukas's. Gould bordered on reclusive, whereas Lukas did not meet a person he did not want to embrace.
They were both highly driven though. "They were very passionate, had enormous ability and had great love for what they were doing," she said. "I think Lukas was even more passionate and driven than Glenn."
Lukas became suspicious of the pair when Gould began phoning their home, pretending to be someone else, as he often did for fun, introducing himself as one of his many fictional alter egos: Sir Nigel Twitt-Thornwaite, the dean of British conductors; Theodore Slutz, a New York cabbie; or Herbert von Hochmeister, sage of the Arctic. Gould would sometimes have his calls answered by the Fosses's Chinese maid, but he didn't realize that the maid was Lukas, returning the strange joke. Cornelia says in 1966 Gould asked her to marry him. And she considered it.
Then, in 1967, she left Lukas. "There were a few problems in our marriage, but that's not why I left – I fell in love with someone else," she said. Cornelia put her two young children, 9-year-old Christopher and 5-year-old Eliza, into their station wagon and left Buffalo.
"I'll never forget Lukas standing by the station wagon and smiling," she recalled. "I said, `Why are you smiling – I'm leaving you for Glenn.' He said, `Don't be ridiculous, you'll be back.'"
Cornelia bought a house in Toronto near Gould's penthouse apartment at 110 St. Clair Ave. W. and Avenue Rd.
In some ways, Gould and Foss made an odd couple. She, socialite artist in pearls; he, forever wearing a battleship grey expression, British driving cap and winter gloves – even in summer. Yet both were intense intellectuals into mind games.
She also fell for his sense of humour. One day he rolled on the floor laughing because the University of Toronto had started a course: "The Mind of Glenn Gould." "`Imagine how ridiculous!' he said. He wanted to go to a class, disguised in a wig, but he never did."
The couple took her kids on trips to hotels in Muskoka and spent a lot of time at Cornelia's house because Gould guarded his messy penthouse.
Those close to Gould say that, even before Cornelia, there were many groupies and a number of relationships with women, including an English piano student who tattooed the main theme from Gould's String Quartet on her back; a woman from Texas who said she was going to start shooting people at the corner of Yonge and Bloor Sts. if Gould didn't marry her; and the wife of a magazine editor who Gould said "gave me bad reviews because he was jealous."
But Marilyn Kecskes, the superintendent of Gould's building, said he brought precious few women to his apartment, which at the time was his studio for practising and writing.
"I don't know any woman who could have lived in that apartment with Mr. Gould – he was so terribly messy," Kecskes said.
Gould and Cornelia made a rare appearance together in 1967 at a private screening in New York for one of the television programs he had begun producing. "It was a different Glenn Gould that I saw during that day," Andrew Kazdin, Gould's record producer for 15 years, wrote in his book Glenn Gould at Work. "Instead of the self-absorbed centre of attention, I witnessed an attentive escort to Cornelia. `Was she comfortable?' `Could he get her anything?' There was no doubt that Cornelia Foss held a special place in his life."
Although she holds back some intimate details of their affair, Foss says Gould was very romantic.
Gould never talked about having children. "I was in my 30s by then and in those days it was considered too old to have children," Foss said. "Anyway, he had Christopher and Eliza and he was wonderful with them, playing puzzles and helping Chris with his math."
But Cornelia saw disturbing signs in Gould as early as 1967, just two weeks after she had left her husband.
Gould, she said, had a serious paranoid episode. "It lasted several hours and then I knew he was not just neurotic – there was more to it. I thought to myself, `Good grief, am I going to bring up my children in this environment?' But I stayed four and a-half years."
Foss did not discuss details, but others close to Gould said he was convinced someone was trying to poison him and that others were spying on him. There was no evidence of that, although other women sought him romantically and people tried to break into his mailbox (the screwdriver marks are still there).
The late psychiatrist Peter Ostwald, a violinist and friend of Gould, founded a health program for musicians and wrote the book Glenn Gould: The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Genius. Ostwald believed that Gould's personality, lifestyle and narcissism made it "unendurable" for any woman to live with him. According to the psychiatrist, who briefly treated Gould, he could be a control freak, inflexible and manipulative (although Gould could also at times be giving and sympathetic, friends said).
Cornelia was one of Gould's obsessions. "He'd tell me she did this, and she said that. He couldn't seem to get her out of his mind," said Dr. Joseph Stephens, a fellow pianist and professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University. Perhaps she filled a void for Gould after he quit a hectic schedule of public performances in 1964 because he considered audiences "evil" and distracting.
"He didn't like being showcased on stage," Cornelia said.
Gould once said during an interview, "All love relationships are addictive – just as much so as alcohol and tobacco." Indeed, Gould had a lot of addictions and obsessions – he often worked seven days a week, worried constantly about his body and his health, and ate just one meal a day – scrambled eggs at neighbouring Fran's Restaurant, usually in the middle of the night.
But he continued to play piano in recording and television studios and was a successful producer of radio and television documentaries. Away from the keyboard, Gould was as strange as ever, wearing winter clothes in summer and hankies over his face to shield himself from germs, as his overprotective mother had advised.
(During his years with Cornelia, Gould was estranged from both his parents, she said.)
Cornelia got so involved with nurturing him, her name was found on his pharmacy bills. Her care seemed to have a positive effect because at about that time, Gould told an interviewer that, as far as his health was concerned, those years were "the best of my life."
At Cornelia's house, the couple would sometimes invite friends and colleagues for dinner and corny games such as Twenty Questions. "It was a trial at domesticity," Ostwald said.
Certainly it was the longest relationship of its kind for the pianist, who usually balked at romance, according to the late Greta Krause, a pianist and harpsichordist, a friend of Gould and confidante to some of his female friends. "He could not accept love," she said. "I had the feeling that any expression of affection would cause him to panic."
Cornelia had her own distractions. A talented artist, she had to put her career on hold and she never painted Gould's portrait. "In those days, I didn't have the peace of mind to be able to paint. I was taking care of Glenn and Lukas and my two children," she said. "I went back to Buffalo for Lukas every weekend."
In Toronto, Gould and Foss looked at real estate and planned to buy a house if they married, but he refused to get treatment for his emotional problems, she said, "or even admit that he had them."
Many biographers claim that Gould never married because his mistress was music, but Foss calls that nonsense. "Apart from the paranoia, he would have been a good husband and father ... but his phobias got worse. He was just too ill."
Cornelia ended their affair in 1972, rejoining Lukas in New York, where he was appointed conductor of the Brooklyn Philharmonic.
But Gould didn't give up so easily, driving 950 kilometres to the couple's summer home in the ritzy Hamptons to convince her to return. That was out of character for Gould, who usually cut women off when they rejected him.
They were still in love, but Foss could not expose her children to Gould's phobias and paranoia any longer. "We talked in a bungalow on the beach and it was very painful for both of us," she recalled. "We still had strong feelings for one another and it was sad to see him in so much pain, and that I was part of that pain."
Even when she sent him home, Gould refused to give up hope and phoned Cornelia practically every night for two years, she said, until she finally convinced him to stop.
Gould became even more reclusive into his 40s. "People are as important to me as food," he grumbled. "As I grow older, I find I can do more and more without them ... monastic seclusion works for me."
Gould died of a stroke on Oct. 4, 1982, with anxiety and high blood pressure as possible contributing factors. About 3,000 people attended his funeral, but not Cornelia "because I didn't think it would be appropriate."
After his death, friends found a note by Gould, yearning for a woman he code-named Dell, which puzzled Gould's many biographers, some of whom believed it was fictitious. But they overlooked Cornelia's maiden name – Brendel. To this day, she seems uneasy with the note and doubts it is about her.
Now an art instructor known for her sea and landscape oils, Cornelia, 76, turned down an offer to have the note read to her."He was so private, he'd roll over in his grave, worrying that someone might find writings with his emotions on them," she said. Cornelia's daughter grew up to be an actress, her son a corporate strategist. And she takes care of Lukas, who has Parkinson's.
"Most of my life has been lucky," she told an art reviewer recently. "There's nothing sadder than to do something you don't want to do, or not knowing how to go about getting what you want."
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Michael Clarkson, a former Toronto Star reporter, has written five psychology books, four on fears and phobias. He is now writing a screenplay involving Glenn Gould and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
© Copyright Toronto Star 1996-2007
Born in Berlin, Germany, Cornelia Foss spent her formative years studying with various sculptors and painters in Rome, including John Roden, Mirko Basaldella and Stephen Green, who was resident at the American Academy in Rome. After settling in Los Angeles, she studied at the Kann Art Institute with Rico Lebrun and Howard Warsaw.
In addition to the National Academy, Ms. Foss teaches at the Art Students League where she originated a lecture series featuring painters, art historians and critics of note, including Larry Rivers, April Gornick, David Rosand and Michael Kimmelman.
She had her first solo show at the Ferrus Gallery in Los Angeles and later exhibited at the James Goodman gallery, Buffalo, and is currently represented by the DFN Gallery, NYC, where she had a recent solo exhibition in May, 2005. Featured in numerous solo and group shows both nationally and internationally, her work is also featured in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, The Brooklyn Museum of Art, the National Museum for Women and the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. among many other public and private collections.
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