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Zubin Mehta & Nancy Kovack: a World of Music, Tv and Living Out of Suitcases

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Last week he was conducting Turandot in Berlin. Three weeks ago it was Tristan and Isolde with the Opera du Quebec in Montreal. This week Zubin Mehta, the dashing, Indian-born conductor, and his blond wife, actress Nancy Kovack, are in Tel Aviv for a month of concerts with the Israel Phil-harmonic. Not until midsummer will the itinerant couple be back on home ground—the elegant Los Angeles suburb of Brentwood—and a briefly relaxed way of life.

It has been that way since Mehta first stirred the musical world 14 years ago as the 25-year-old maestro of the Montreal Symphony. A year later he took over the Los Angeles Philharmonic as the youngest conductor of a major orchestra in the U.S. and began to commute between the two cities. Today, at 39, he is the musical director of two orchestras half a world apart, in Los Angeles and Tel Aviv, and of opera companies in Montreal, Berlin and Vienna.

Mehta and Nancy fashion much of their life around jet planes and hotel rooms. “We’re both great packers,” she says. He carries one suitcase for clothes and another filled with books, scores, records and a phonograph. She has one bag with pants, evening gowns and two knee-length dresses for embassies.

“We steam Zubin’s tails in the shower,” Nancy says. The routine in any city is much the same: ducking out of the post-concert reception in time to find a restaurant that is still serving. For Nancy there’s also the boredom: “I’ve seen every museum five times. I can tell you when they change a carpet or a light bulb. I hate to shop. So there’s nothing I can do. I take armfuls of books and read them all in five days.”

During the short entr’actes when the Mehtas are at home—they added up to just three months last year—Nancy picks up her acting career, reads TV scripts, makes an occasional film and travels the local lecture circuit. Holder of a master’s degree in languages from UCLA, she speaks without fee on such variegated topics as Moog synthesizers and People’s Lib, a subject she first heard about from Gloria Steinem in Europe. Nancy says it deals with “the manipulation of both men and women by sexual roles.”

She came to show business by way of Flint and Detroit, where her father was a minor General Motors executive, the University of Michigan (liberal arts) and the Jackie Gleason TV show. “I went to New York for the wedding of a roommate,” she recalls. “Somebody told me Jackie Gleason was having a ‘cattle call.’ It was held in an enormous gymnasium, and I took a number, 568. They looked me over and I was told, ‘Thank you,’ which meant I was to leave. I went into a bathroom, put on the swimsuit I had been told to bring, pulled back my hair, and took another number. It was 800. This time I was told to stay.”

After working as a Gleason Girl, Nancy went on to Broadway roles and summer stock, and appeared with Dave Garroway on the early Today show. Hollywood beckoned, and Columbia Pictures signed her to a five-year contract. “I just detested California,” she recalls. “I did little schleppy movies, and I used to cry a lot.” When her contract ended, she went to Iran, which she loved, made films for Iranian companies, then returned to Hollywood to become one of the most durable and decorative actresses in television. She has recently appeared on Mannix and Hawaii Five-O.

Mehta’s road to California was musical all the way, except for a brief excursion into medical school at St. Xavier’s College in Bombay that ended when he was asked to dissect a lizard. His father, the founder and conductor of the Bombay Symphony (now the director of UCLA’s orchestra department), introduced him to classical music when he was a baby, and Zubin eventually went off to Vienna to study conducting. There he married a fellow student, Carmen Lasky. After six years and two children they got a friendly divorce, and Carmen married Zubin’s younger brother, Zarin, an accountant in Montreal.

In Los Angeles, Zubin Mehta’s dark good looks soon won him a reputation as a swinger who attracted symphonic groupies. As a strict Zoroastrian Parsi, he does not drink or smoke, but he was rarely seen without some lissome beauty on his arm. He won a nickname: “Zubi baby.”

Nancy and Zubin met at a 1968 dinner party given by Vincente and Denise Minnelli. The attraction was instant. “I left immediately after the meal to catch a plane,” recalls Mehta. “When I came back, I called Nancy.” Nancy corrects him: “You called me from Canada.” After eight months of cross-country courtship, they were married twice, first at Westwood Methodist Church and then at the Bel-Air Hotel in a Zoroastrian ceremony attended by all 105 members of the Los Angeles Phil-harmonic and their spouses.

In their handsome, antique-filled stone chateau, Nancy has learned to cook the fiery Indian foods Zubin prefers. He is hopeless at finances. “My beloved husband doesn’t know how to write a check.” When the couple is traveling, their 3.2-acre estate is tended by friends, a maid and a gardener. “We like having dinner parties,” says Mehta, “but there is never time. People we really love tend to think that we are rude.”