BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Whether headlining Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball or sharing the stage with the Supremes for a deb party at a Lake Forest country club, in the six decades he’s played the dance floors world’s most exclusive movies, Peter Duchin has always lived up to his theme song, “Make Someone Happy”.
Conductor and elegance incarnate, Duchin did it again last Friday, an evening that began with a call from one of his favorite friends, Abra Prentice Wilkin (who regretted not being there but wished him good luck). He soaked the room in cheer and shared fond memories with the stylish crowd, revealing his most memorable party wasn’t Capote’s or even a night at the White House – it happened right here in Chicago. “I was asked to bring my 10-piece orchestra to the Palmer House by the hostess who shared no other details,” Duchin recalled. “When we arrived, we found no only one table laid for two in the center of the room. We played all night just for the couple celebrating their 60th birthdayand anniversary. She told me it was the happiest night of their lives.
Having entertained presidents, kings and queens, and having served as Audrey Hepburn’s chosen date for the Paris Opera Ball, no one knows café society better. He has performed at over 5,000 events around the world, from civil rights organizations to major galas, his dazzling smile drawing thousands to the dance floor over the years.
In town to publicize his second bookFace the musictells the legendary Duchin Classic Chicago how he used his signature song to make another group of people happy: those who couldn’t get up and dance. Duchin is a two-time legend, doing the unimaginable, not just recovering from a 2013 stroke, but an astonishing 47 days on a ventilator with COVID from March 2020. He used his recovery time to encourage other patients undergoing physical therapy to make themselves happy no matter what.
“That’s why I wrote the book, to tell people not to give up,” he shared. “After the two recoveries, I was throwing balls with the wheelchair patients, then when the doctors came in, we were all throwing balls at them. Soon we were all smiling because they had hope.
Duchin wrote: Face the music with Patricia Beard, former editor-in-chief of City & Country and Mirabelle plum and author of 11 non-fiction books and one novel. Beard interviewed Duchin for the aforementioned program that evening and, like the audience, his admiration for his subject matter was evident.
In his own recovery, Duchin spent several months placing pennies in a piano-shaped bank to strengthen his left hand, which was affected by the blow. “I can move it but somehow the message is not reaching my hand from my brain to play but we have found a solution. I play with my right hand and our bass player reproduces the sound that the left hand would make. We play gigs almost every week,” he explained.
Along the way, it wasn’t just his wife Virginia and his amazing assistant Adelle that drove him to recovery, but also the parental power he lost at such a young age. His pianist father, Eddy Duchin, died when Peter was 12, and his mother, socialite Marjorie Oelrichs, died when he was just 6 days old.
During his recovery, his bed was moved to his downstairs office, with his wife placing Cecil Beaton’s beloved photos of his parents right on the bookcase for him to look at daily. “Imagine, if you were walking down the street, and you suddenly passed your mother and you didn’t recognize her, and she didn’t recognize you? That’s how I felt. I always visualized her and I always missed her,” he shared. “It was during this period that I finally got to know them in a way. Although I don’t remember anything from the time I was on a ventilator, I think I sensed their presence.
Duchin lived with Averell Harriman and his second wife, Marie, until he was nine years old. Best friend of his mother, Marie was very much like a mother for him: “My own mother was not only beautiful and charming, she was atypical. She was a society girl, raised at Rose Cliff in Newport, but she wanted to work. She had a boutique in New York and also posed for Lucky Strike.
While at Yale, Duchin decided to spend a junior year abroad to study French at the Sorbonne. He lived on a barge on the Seine and had a wonderful time. “One day when I was undressing with a young woman, I heard knocks on the hatch of the boat. When I opened the tailgate and looked up, I saw well-polished shoes, then pinstriped dress pants: there was Averell. He was a little 19 years oldand century, a bit out of the way, and not the type you’d want to arrive at a time like this. He had my ticket back to New York in hand. I think he had heard that I was having too much fun in Paris,” Duchin recalls.
His immensely popular father had been one of the first pianists to conduct an orchestra and was particularly known for his jazz music. The story of Eddy Duchinstarring Tyrone Power, was the heartbreaking 1956 film chronicling the Duchins’ great love story and then their untimely deaths.
“I took some of my friends from Yale to Central Park where they were filming to see Kim Novak who played Marjorie,” Duchin said. “She was doing her makeup and was a little surprised when I came up from behind and gave her a hug and said, ‘Hi, mum.’ I had never met her before.
He continued: “My father was in the navy during World War II, fighting on several battlefields in the Pacific. When he came back, he wanted me to take piano lessons and set up two pianos so we could play together. He wanted to make a big effort to get closer to me, but that never happened. My dream has always been that he didn’t die and that when I played in the Maisonette Room at the St. Regis, he would play at the Waldorf.
He recalled that during the heyday of café society, people came from many walks of life – they were joined by notables, people from the entertainment business, and more: “today you often find that manners fail,” he noted.
We asked Chicagoan Jay Tunney, whose book about his famous boxer father Gene Tunney and his father’s close friend, author George Bernard Shaw, is being adapted into a play called Shaw vs. Tunney, to talk a bit about Duchin: “Peter is my oldest friend, he came out of childhood when we were playing on the beach in Hobe Sound, Florida during World War II, and he never changed. One of Peter’s most endearing qualities has always been that he’s the kind of guy who can talk to anyone and most importantly is interested in almost anyone’s conversation, no matter what. his rank in life, his job, his origin or his social or social status. political relationships. It may be because he finds that he is often asked questions about himself that he prefers to divert the conversation away from himself and listen to other people’s stories about himself.
He added: “He is a rare friend who listens well. He is intuitive and observant and has this natural curiosity. You rarely hear Peter refer to himself unless you ask, and he’s loyal to the bone to those he loves. We have been together often as brothers, many meals, trips and discussions over the past eighty years and even though there is a time lapse, I still feel that Peter and I start where we had stopped before, whether it was hours, weeks, or even years.
Tunney said they were similar in that they both had famous fathers and grew up in privileged homes, but that didn’t define them. Although Duchin is treated in public as a celebrity, he is much more complex than this identity alone.
“When I moved to Asia, he came to visit me and he was the first to greet me at home. When I decided to write a book about my father, he was the first to greet me. encourage, as I encouraged him when he wrote his first book,” he recalls. “His dazzling talent as a musician is well known and he deserves worldwide recognition for his music, but Peter is more than a musician is an extraordinary man with the priceless gift of sharing life itself with a common touch.”
Duchin’s books, including his latest, Face the musicare available wherever fine books are sold.