In his 93rd year, nearly blind and an invalid, Arthur Rubinstein, perhaps the most renowned pianist of the modern era, left his longtime wife, Nela, for Annabelle Whitestone, a petite blond secretary 50 years his junior. “To get to be as old as I am,” Rubinstein said, “one must drink a glass of whiskey every day, smoke a long cigar and chase beautiful girls.” His wife, the maestro complained, “kept telling me what not to do—don’t eat this, don’t smoke that. I was fed up.”
Perhaps. But Rubinstein’s nonagenarian plaint (he died last December at 95) could hardly overshadow a relationship that lasted five decades. Rubinstein met Aniela Mlynarski, then an 18-year-old Polish student, in 1926, and married her six years later. Once he did, Nela began winning as many rave reviews as Arthur, delighting their countless guests with a movable feast in homes in Paris, Hollywood, New York, Geneva and Marbella, Spain. Arthur never complained then about what Nela told him to eat. Said restaurateur George Lang, “It’s just possible that Arthur Rubinstein played Chopin’s mazurkas better than anyone since Chopin because of his wife’s almond mazurkas [also the name of a sweet Polish pastry].” Rubinstein himself complained that everyone forgot his concerts because they were so busy praising Nela’s equally well-orchestrated postshow suppers. Says Nela with a laugh, “I think he was a little jealous.”
He’d be more jealous now that Nela, 75, has gone public with her talents. Nela’s Cookbook has just been published by Alfred A. Knopf, 37 years after the publisher’s late wife, Blanche, first encouraged Nela to write it. Its recipes—an eclectic mix of Polish, French and American cooking—have already received generous praise from such friends as Cary Grant and Zubin Mehta, both of whom have sampled her cooking on numerous occasions. Another fan was Princess Grace, who long ago incorporated Nela’s lemon Bavarian cream into her family menus. Grace, a longtime Paris neighbor, served as an eager taster as Nela put her known-by-heart recipes (“I never measured anything”) into publishable form. Now that the book is out, Rubinstein’s widow says with a sigh, “I’ve finally done something for myself.”
Indeed, she lived in Arthur’s shadow for what must have seemed like several lifetimes. Born in Ilgovo, Lithuania, Nela was one of five children of Emil Mlynarski, the illustrious conductor of the Warsaw Philharmonic. “There was music in our house always,” says Nela, though during World War I she recalls “eating bread that felt like glue between our teeth.” Then, in better times after the war, when Nela’s family was at the center of Poland’s cultural whirlwind, she helped her father receive such guests as Queen Marie of Rumania.
Nela met Rubinstein when he performed in a concert conducted by her father. Though it was “love at first sight,” she says, Arthur was 21 years her senior and “a bachelor with the worst reputation as a womanizer.” When he began dating an Italian princess, she married another prominent pianist, Mieczyslaw Munz, and moved with him to Cincinnati. Three years later she returned home to divorce Munz and study ballet. Soon Rubinstein came back into her life. With her sister as chaperone, she joined him on a concert tour of Europe. After they married, Nela says, “I kept meeting all his exes. Many of them even became very good friends.” Arthur traveled widely, while Nela was sometimes housebound in Paris with their children, Eva, now a photographer, and Paul, a stockbroker who is himself the author of three cookbooks. Aline, a psychiatrist, and John, the Tony-winning actor, were born in the U.S. in the ’40s. Starting on two small gas burners in their studio apartment in Montmartre, she began cooking for the family, working her way up from scrambled eggs to such challenging fare as a flawless cheese soufflé. “I was a frustrated artist,” she says, “and it was my way of creating.”
In 1941 she began creating in Hollywood, where the family moved into a mansion on five acres. The Rubinsteins surrounded themselves with friends like Katharine Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Charlie Chaplin and Edward G. Robinson, all of whom feasted on Nela’s clear borscht, pierozkis (Polish turnovers), chicken fricasee Andalusian-style and crème brûlée. Arthur claimed no one else’s cooking could do justice to his postperformance appetite.
When they weren’t settling down to eat, the Rubinsteins conversed in the seven languages they shared and played such games as bridge and pikieta. Those were the happy years. By 1975 Arthur, because of his weakening eyesight, was forced to stop performing. The couple began spending most of their time in Marbella, where Arthur worked on his memoirs with White-stone; their relationship created an uncomfortable threesome under the Rubinstein roof. But Nela refuses to surrender to bitterness. “I don’t want to say one nasty word about her,” she says, “or one good word either. I have to think about the good times.” Intensely loyal to her husband, she is making plans to spread his ashes, now in Switzerland, over a forest in Jerusalem renamed in his honor. It is rumored that Arthur left a portion of his sizable estate to Whitestone, but Nela has no comment. “Money,” she says simply, “doesn’t matter.”
What does matter is keeping busy. Even now with her cookbook in the stores, Nela rarely relaxes; she is a favorite guest of such Marbella regulars as the conductor Daniel Barenboim (who says he’s put on pounds as a result of her cooking) and Baron Guy de Rothschild. But after dancing the samba till midnight, Nela wakes at nine for a massage to soothe her arthritis, then heads to the local market to buy fresh provisions. Then she spends most of the day in her white-tiled kitchen, preparing lunch and dinner for her many guests. Among them is her nephew, Artur Gromadzki, 29, who doubles as her assistant. That means he almost always gets to eat her cooking. When Nela is away, the other Artur says, “I eat junk food to remind me what it could be like without her.”