At the ripe old age of 13, Ruggiero Ricci was a has-been. “When you are a teenager, you are not a prodigy,” he recalls feeling at the time. Just two years earlier he had stunned New Yorkers with a flawless Mendelssohn violin concerto. As a pint-size wunderkind he toured the world, attracting such fans as Benito Mussolini, Franklin Roosevelt and Jean Harlow. Albert Einstein hailed him as a fellow genius, receiving Ricci at his home in Germany, where he served tea and stale cookies before taking the fiddle from his young guest and noodling it himself. For all that, it was a miserable youth.
Today, at 61, the durable Ricci says justifiably: “I have made more comebacks than Houdini.” He just celebrated his golden anniversary on the same Carnegie Hall stage where he received a standing ovation in 1929. In the interim, the 5’4″ virtuoso has logged more than 5,000 concerts on six continents and is the most prolifically recorded living violinist. He still books 125 engagements a year, with solo fees starting at $5,000. There is probably no more popular American artist behind the Iron Curtain. Fans in East Germany have been known to kiss his clothing, and in Moscow an audience once demanded—and got—nine encores.
Born in San Francisco, Ruggiero was the third of seven children. He asked to learn the violin at 5, when he saw his Italian immigrant father, a day laborer, playing it. Obsessed with music, the older Ricci even had all of his children playing for coins onstage. Then, under the tutelage of the great violin teacher Louis Persinger, Ruggiero made a triumphant debut in San Francisco in 1928 and the next year was hailed as “the greatest musical genius since Mozart” by Fritz Kreisler. “Ruggiero,” recalls his brother Giorgio, a retired cellist, “was the sole support of our family for 10 years through the Depression.” His audiences may not have known that the little boy with the Buster Brown bob and velvet Lord Fauntleroy suit had been signed over (along with brother Giorgio) by their father to Beth Lackey, who was Persinger’s pretty assistant. As legal guardian, she was alternately strict and coquettish with Ruggiero and his brother. “I was afraid of her and at the same time I had a crush on her,” he says now. A bitter seven-month court battle in 1930 ended with the boys being returned to the custody of their parents.
Maturity and discipline put Ricci back at the top of his profession after his adolescent eclipse. But until his third marriage, to the 28-years-younger Julia Whitehurst Clemenceau, personal happiness eluded him. Julia, the stepdaughter of a retired U.S. admiral, met Ruggiero in 1976 on a cruise. “He was so vulnerable and lonely,” she recalls. She became as dear to him as his 1734 Guarneri, and after both won difficult divorces, they were married in 1978.
Seven months ago the Riccis bought a $500,000 mansion in Palm Beach, but are seldom in residence. (His five children from earlier marriages are now 18 to 36; two are professional musicians one an ex-ballerina.) Julia, who always travels with her husband, can sometimes be seen in the pool giving Ruggiero swimming lessons. But such leisure time is rare for them. “When he’s not playing,” she says, “he’s miserable by the second night.” “I have to ask myself,” says Ricci, “why do I enjoy this torture of performing?” Then he adds, “The violin is a slave instrument. The more you practice, the more you enjoy it.”