When Cho-Liang Lin said goodbye to his mother at the Sydney, Australia airport a decade ago, she had every reason to worry. Her 15 year old was set on going to New York City, and she could afford to give him only a one-way ticket and $300 (sewn into his pocket), which was not enough for a return trip. Her main comfort was knowing that her only child carried his treasured violin with him. If Cho-Liang played it well enough to impress teachers at the great Juilliard School, he would win a scholarship and a student visa. If he failed, he’d find himself adrift in a foreign country.
Today Cho-Liang “Jimmy” Lin is an international star. Not only did he conquer Juilliard with the sweet sounds of his violin, from his first day in the U.S. he made friends who have helped launch his career. Lin has already performed with nearly every major symphony, earns about $7,500 per concert and last year beat out Cyndi Lauper and Placido Domingo for the Stereo Review Record of the Year.
Like his close friends and fellow young stars, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Lin wins audiences even before he plays. People quickly take to his laughing eyes and easy, confident manner. “The beauty of his tone and technique,” says violin virtuoso Isaac Stern, who chose Lin to perform for his 60th birthday, “is matched only by the warmth of his smile.” But while he is remarkably unassuming offstage, Lin throws his soul into 120 concerts a year. “A musician has to have the concentration of a monk,” he says, “the stamina of Rambo, the hand-eye coordination of John McEnroe. It leaves very little time for tennis.”
Lin, who spent his first 12 years in Taiwan, started playing a toy violin at 4, sawing on its nylon strings night and day. His father, Guo-Ging, a radiation research physicist and classical music buff, bought him a quarter-size violin a year later. “He made me sight-read the Mendelssohn concerto at home. Horrible. I couldn’t cut it,” recalls Jimmy. “They used to describe the scratchy sound of my practicing as like killing a duck.” Nonetheless he won Taiwan’s National Youth Violin Competition at 10.
Lin’s elation was tempered a year later by the death of his father from cancer. But the boy kept playing. Dissatisfied with Taiwan’s music training, his mother, then an English teacher, sent him to Australia’s Sydney Conservatorium. Soon after she joined him there, Lin heard an inspirational performance by Itzhak Perlman, and it changed his life: He insisted that he had to study with Perlman’s teacher, Dorothy DeLay, at Juilliard.
Lin’s Juilliard audition required pure skill, but spending his first U.S. weekend with friends of a friend was pure luck. “They looked like the quintessential American family,” says Lin of Porter and Susan McKeever. “Sort of like the Brady Bunch, except their kids are older.” Well, not exactly the Brady Bunch. Porter McKeever was an adviser to John D. Rockefeller III and an Asia Society trustee. Susan, who met Jimmy at the airport, and Porter McKeever took such an instant liking to their houseguest that they gave Lin a permanent room in their Pelham, N.Y. home and paid his bills for the first few years. “He never seemed ill at ease with us,” McKeever remembers. “Our family would have loved him even if he’d been tone-deaf.” Says Jimmy: “It was like falling into a plot of Dynasty. I did a cameo appearance and became a permanent character in the McKeever family.”
It wasn’t his only role in a family show. In 1977, to be closer to Juilliard, Lin moved to the palatial apartment of McKeever’s friend, former New York Times editor John Ochs. “I have all these different families,” he says. “My blood family in Australia, the McKeevers and the Ochses. That’s not bad for an only child, is it?”
McKeever says the only time he ever saw Lin depressed was on his 16th birthday. When asked what the problem was, Jimmy buried his face in his hands and blurted out, “Here I am 16, and I haven’t played Carnegie Hall!” Lin soon collected enough other honors to raise his spirits. He won the Queen Sofia International Competition in 1977 and signed a 10-album contract with CBS Masterworks before graduating from Juilliard in 1981. He also won the kind of fans who are usually attracted to rock stars. “On his last tour of the Far East,” says Lin’s harried manager, Lee Lamont, “I think he was backstage for about two hours signing autographs and fending off girls. I received cables worded: ‘Desperately Seeking Jimmy.’ ”
All but abandoning his two-bedroom Manhattan apartment as he tours, Lin loves the attention—especially from dancers. He’s been in love with about eight in the past three years. Once, spotting Jennifer Beals in his hotel, he sent her a note inviting her to his concert but was too shy to call her. “She’s as beautiful in person as she was in Flashdance,” he says, but he still doesn’t know whether she came to hear him.
Lin wishes his father could share his successes. “I play all the things he loved so much, and he’s not able to hear it,” says Jimmy. “At least as far as I know.” But the thousands who have bought Lin’s recording of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E Minor can hear his fingers moving with inhuman speed—and sounding not at all like he is killing a duck.