Bill Clifton and His Modernist Moment

By Jeff Hart

        I met Bill Clifton in 1947, the summer before I went to Dartmouth when we both joined the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills. He had sandy hair, was tall, and handsome, looking a bit like Bob Hope with his ski-jump nose. And he used his cigarette holder, sometimes tilted up, in a way reminiscent of FDR.

        Clifton was once a famous man, one of the pioneers of modern jazz. Dixieland jazz had been emphatic and exciting, but modern jazz developed more power through precision and understatement. Clifton alternated with Cy Walter at the Drake Room at the Drake Hotel at 56th Street and Park Avenue in Manhattan. His impatience was ill concealed when asked to play tones he considered banal, even repulsive. He even refused to play the Whiffenpoof Song when a Yalie offered $5. He also sought to develop his own tone or signature in modern jazz, but never achieved it.

        Clifton was an excellent tennis player too, tall, powerfully built, and hit his forehand especially with murderous power. He was always played in pressed white tennis trousers and white monogrammed polo shirt. He was popular at the club though his elegant clothes, French cuffs and expensive tailored suits were a bit over the line for some members who also sensed his impatience with the clichés of club life. “Square” the term he often used for people untouched by art.

        Some men at the club sensed that even their wives thought he was more urbane and attractive than they were. Indeed, I knew one marriage that broke up because the man dimmed in his wife’s eyes because of Clifton. Yet on late Sunday mornings a lot of members regularly gathered around the television set in the main lounge as he performed on CBS, playing the piano and occasionally commenting on the piece he had played and how he interpreted it. He was the star on that show, with such other famous piano players as Cy Walter, Earl Wild, Errol Garner, Oscar Peterson and the blind George Shearing coming as guest performers. Several times he invited me to the CBS studio to see the show as well as hear it, and after that we took a cab from Manhattan out to Forest Hills, not my usual mode of transportation. Clifton lived in Tudor City, gave advanced lessons to accomplished pianists and had affairs with numerous willing women who were his piano students.

        During the annual National Championships at the Club he presided elegantly over the gate to the Marquee at the open end of the horseshoe Stadium. Covered with a blue and gold-striped awning, the Marquee had reserved seats for important people, and Clifton behaved imperially. He got me a good seat. Two if I had a girl along, which I especially appreciated. Sitting in the Marquee you were almost courtside, and could see exactly how the best players hit their strokes. Great players from the past also sat in these privileged seats, Vincent Richards, Welby Van Horn, Frank Shields

 

ii.

 

        One Saturday afternoon during the 1950s Clifton and I played a memorable doubles match on a grass court against Alice Marble and another man who was a club member. People stopped playing to watch. Marble never played against other women. She was tall, blond, and had wide shoulders and long legs. Her serve was

Professor Hart tried lobbing to tennis great Alice Marble during a doubles match with Bill Clifton. Bad idea.
remarkable for a woman, not only powerful but often an American twist. Now in her forties she was still a powerful player whose game reminded everyone that she had once been the best woman tennis player in the world.

        I will never forget one exchange. Both Clifton and I often played casual sets with good women players. Few women hit overhead smashes as effectively as the better men players. Sometimes I could lob to a woman and move forward to volley her smash. I tried this against Marble as she stood at the net. She backed up quickly as I moved forward to volley. Her smash sounded like a pistol shot, whizzed past me and I was surprised it did not make a divot in the grass court. I looked at Marble and she grinned back.

 

iii.

 

        What Clifton and I had in common beside tennis was modern literature. Bill had grown up in Toronto, which he utterly despised as the squarest place in the world. To him the word Toronto meant provincialism, bad taste and boredom. What he knew of literature was self-taught, or, rather, taught by the criticism of Edmund Wilson who followed the modernists, Eliot, Joyce, Yeats, and also Mann, though he came to Mann independently since Wilson paid little attention to him. Of course he was powerfully drawn to Mann’s central contrast between the bourgeois and the artist, blonde Hans Hansen and dark Tonio Kröger, banality and longing, the ordinary and the inspired, at their extremes health and death as in Gustav von Aschenbach in “Death in Venice.” At the extreme the artist must die to life in order to create. No doubt Bill Clifton had his own polarities represented by Art and Toronto.

        It was through Clifton that I had a brief position as a male model. He was on good terms with his former wife Beverly. She ran a model agency and for a while I modeled expensive preppy clothes. It paid very well. But I hated it. The makeup. Move your chin a bit up and to the left. Try putting you right hand in the coat pocket. It was boring and demeaning.

        In a comical episode I acquired my copy of Finnegan’s Wake through Bill Clifton. He had read Dubliners, then gone on to Portrait of an Artist and Ulysses. He told me that he had gone to his regular bookstore and asked if they had anything else by Joyce. “Only Finnegan’s Wake,” the salesman said, so he bought it. Of course he found it impenetrable. I doubt that he got much beyond the opening sentence:

riverrun, past Even and Adam’s, past swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Enviorons.

 

        Maybe he staggered a few inches further and hit this:

 

Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunnrovarrhouvarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurronntuinntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoordenthurnuk!

 

        That’s how I got my copy of Finnegan’s Wake. What Bill Clifton sought and sometimes found in modern literature was a new sound, something . . . he searched for the right word, “cold,” beyond the cliché “cool” musicians used, something new and impersonal. For that he frequently turned to the coldness Yeats evoked in “The Fisherman,” a sort of manifesto for his new style in poetry, Yeats’ rejection of a soft romanticism:

             Before I am old

             I shall have written him one

             Poem maybe as cold

             And passionate as the dawn.

         For a while Bill Clifton was enthusiastic about the opera of Gian Carlo Menotti, also Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone scale, music far beyond me, as incomprehensible to me as Finnegan’s Wake had been to him.

        It didn’t occur to me at the time that there might be peril in his evoking as models for himself some of the greatest artists of the twentieth century.

 

iv.

 

        We both belonged to the indoor tennis club at the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue, where we played on the polished wood courts of the drill floor. The ball came off those courts like a rocket. If you could return serve off those boards you could return it anywhere.  I had joined during the winter of 1947 as part of their junior development program and Bill was good enough to play that winter in the Men’s National Singles Indoor Championships, where he survived for two or three rounds. That year Jack Kramer, unbeatable then on any surface, won easily, Bob Falkenburg’s big serve giving him little trouble, but a good many European stars also showed up, including Jean Borotra, the famous “bounding Basque” of the late 1920s “Four Musketeers,” still astonishingly agile, dashing around the court, and a superb diving net player. In a practice match Borotra split sets with Clifton.

        Practicing on those boards, Bill Talbert showed me how to hit a backhand. To make it a solid offensive shot, practice lifting the left foot as you hit the ball, thus tilting your weight forward. Talbert had one of the best back hands in tennis.

        During that tournament play stopped and everyone watched as Douglas MacArthur and his wife walked in and took their place in a box seat. The general had a grandeur about him, Julius Caesar there right in front of me.  He had beaten the Japs all along the coast of New Guinea, liberated the Philippines and had signed the peace treaty with Japan on the deck of the battleship Missouri. Astonishing. His shattering defeat at the Yalu River in Korea was only a few years away.

        Bill Clifton and I corresponded a bit while I was in the Navy but lost touch but when I returned to do graduate work and teach at Columbia, I found his phone number and called. A vast change was about to be revealed. He no longer belonged to the West Side Tennis Club. He no longer played tennis. And he no longer lived in Manhattan at Tudor City. Or played at the Drake Room or on television. He lived somewhere in distant New Jersey, which once he would have regarded as Nebraska. Over the phone he asked me out for dinner.

        I drove out into New Jersey and managed to find his place after bumping along a dirt road, a small but exquisite house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and deep in the woods. Thoreau. The house was authentic Frank Lloyd Wright, with moving screens providing flexible space and a large stone fireplace. The whole architectural composition was harmonious with greens, browns and grays blending with the surrounding landscape. Of course Bill Clifton’s Steinway was there.

        My only, really my salient reservation was that Clifton was not Thoreau. He had been the ultimate cosmopolitan sophisticate, the total New Yorker.

        Frank Lloyd Wright’s best architecture, like this house, represented a romantic rejection of the city. A rejection of what Clifton had been. Though, indeed, Wright was a modernist.

        Clifton observed as if in passing that he had found the new sound in music.

        We took a swim in a lake on his property, returned to his house for cold martinis, and he cooked a steak. After brandies, it was time for the new sound. I expected a musical composition of some sort. Maybe brief. Had to be a solo. A touch maybe of Schoenberg. Menotti. Berg. Clifton’s mood became solemn. He seated himself at the Steinway. He seemed to mediate for a long time. Then he played a single chord. Pung.

        Silence.

        “Okay,” I said. “Go ahead.”

        Silence.

        What the hell was this supposed to be? Did it mean he’d found the damned Lost Chord?

        “That’s it,” Clifton said, some anger in his voice. Clearly I didn’t dig it, a jazz expression he used.

        In fact, I thought I did dig it, sort of. This was about silence. The single chord was heroic, wrenched out of the nothingness of the silence around it. It was about those empty places between the stars that terrified Pascal. It was the cello G dying last note of the dying composer Adrian Leverkühn’s final cantata in Mann’s Doctor Faustus, a note of despair but then of hope beyond despair reverberating in the mind despite the silence closing in. Bill Clifton meant the chord he had played to be the yes within the immense no.

        But this was all wrong.

        Leverkühn had earned that reverberating G surrounded by silence, earned it with all that had gone before it in the cantata. An amazing musical performance very well described by Mann. You must have, so to speak, the crucifixion before the resurrection of that single chord.

        We discussed some of this, but clearly Clifton wasn’t into music any more. The philosophy of Martin Buber kept coming up: “I” and “Thou.” Clifton had left music behind and was searching for another language, into those spaces between the stars where there is no language. And no art.

        Much later I regretted that I did not explore that last point with him, that there is something unnamed and unnamable where there is no language, beyond language. I’m afraid I was impatient with his damned chord, all the way out here in New Jersey. I now think he had realized that he never would scale the heroic heights he had aspired to, Joyce, Stravinsky.

        I promised to visit him again, but, as things go, did not. Teaching at Columbia, busy. About a year later a tennis friend from the Club phoned me in my office at Columbia. He asked me if I had heard about Clifton. Had I read about him in The New York Times? I had not. He read me the obituary over the phone. It gave a good summary of Clifton’s career in music. Conservatory in Toronto. Fame in New York City. Professional teacher of advanced piano composition. Then:

        Clifton had evidently run out of money. He had sunk back into playing the piano on cruise ships. That was what new performers did before they joined the union, apprenticeship really, but professionally the pit for a man like Clifton. People wanting him to play, “I want a girl just like the girl…” and maybe play “something like Xavier Cugat.” One night he had played as usual, then gone to his cabin and taken an overdose of sleeping pills, leaving instructions that he be buried at sea.

         Instead he went home to Toronto.