June 01, 1987 12:00 PM

In July 1985, as violinist Julian Altman lay dying in a Connecticut hospital, a woman visiting another patient asked him to play her something soothing. Ashen-faced and barely able to lift the bow, Altman feebly propped his violin under his chin and managed just three bars of Sentimental Journey. Once a violinist with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. and in later years a well-known nightclub performer, Altman would never play again.

That same day, only a few weeks before his death from cancer, the 69-year-old violinist asked his wife, Marcelle Hall, to take special care of his old, grime-darkened violin. “Take it home, put it to bed,” he said insistently. Sensing the urgency in his voice, Hall took the instrument from his hands, returned to her Bethel, Conn, home and immediately searched the violin case. Tucked away inside the canvas cover were some yellowed, crumbling newspaper clips about the mysterious disappearance of a Stradivarius violin. The missing instrument, made in 1713 in the Cremona, Italy, workshop of Antonio Stradivari, history’s greatest violin maker, was among the finest in the world. It had been stolen in 1936 from the Carnegie Hall dressing room of Polish virtuoso Bronislaw Huberman.

Puzzled, Hall gently asked the dying Altman if his violin was the missing Strad. Altman nodded, then explained how he had bought it for $100 the night of the theft from a man who—as Hall recalls her husband’s description—bore an uncanny resemblance to Altman himself. “Whether or not he actually stole it, no one will ever know,” she says. “Maybe it was just his way of telling the truth, for once in his life.”

In the course of her turbulent, 17-year relationship with Altman, Hall, 69, had come to think of him as a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde character—at times a charmer, at times an untrustworthy, womanizing scoundrel. Still, she was stunned by the realization that he had left her holding a precious piece of stolen property. Fearful of the legal complexities, she consulted violin experts and lawyers before concluding a deal for return of the Strad this spring, which includes a substantial reward for herself. Since violinist Huberman, the rightful owner, had received a $30,000 insurance payment for his loss (he died in Switzerland in 1947), the Stradivarius belonged to the insurers, a Lloyd’s of London syndicate. Charles Beare, a British Stradivarius specialist, traveled to Hall’s home to identify the long-lost Huberman Strad. “It’s like looking at a Rembrandt,” said Beare. He later carried the million-dollar instrument back to London for restoration and eventual resale.

With the Strad rediscovered, Altman’s former colleagues and admirers are wondering anew about the man whose career rested on a crime that, as music lovers, they found abhorrent. For five decades he had brazenly played in public, dazzling concertgoers, nightclubbers and countless notables with the pure tones of his stolen treasure. Former Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, one of Alt-man’s many fans, even wrote to him, “You make your violin talk, sing and radiate happiness. I’m proud to be your friend.”

Why, with his talents earning such accolades, did Altman have to risk disgrace? “He was a man with two faces,” says Hall of the husband who first wooed her in 1968 by playing Lara’s Theme from the movie Doctor Zhivago. Hall says the dark side of his nature was fully revealed in a Connecticut courtroom five months prior to his death, when he was sent to prison for sexually molesting Hall’s granddaughter.

She recalls Altman telling her that even as a child, going to violin classes, he felt different from other kids. One of three children from an immigrant Russian-Jewish family, he was raised in Washington, D.C. and then New York City by a strong-willed mother who was determined to propel her son into the music and stage limelight. She was forever pushing him to practice the violin, once even breaking one over his head because he wouldn’t play.

At 9 he entered a school of music in Washington, later performing in recitals and winning several competitions. His parents were divorced when he was 12, and though he continued to study classical music under various teachers, he was also gambling small change in back-room card games. Several years after the 1936 Stradivarius theft, Altman won a spot with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington. “He was an excellent musician, maybe virtuoso quality,” says Robert D’Arcy, a former band leader who knew Altman after he left the symphony to play in nightclubs. “Who knew what kind of violin he was playing? He was such a friendly guy, it’s the last thing anyone would have thought about.”

Other musicians recall Altman as a smiling ladies’ man with a peculiar, and sometimes nasty, streak of humor. “He once set me up with a blind date,” says TV producer and director Fred Von Stange, “and she really was blind. But that was Julian.” Hall thinks that Altman’s first wife of 35 years probably ignored his infidelities. The marriage ended in divorce, and Altman’s conduct “should have warned me about his true nature,” says Hall, “but I was either in love or obsessed with the man and his music.”

Hall believes Altman traded a serious concert career for a table-hopping club performer’s life because, she says, “He couldn’t stand being second fiddle. In the clubs he could get all the applause for himself.” Altman’s tragedy, Hall suggests, was that he “never really knew if he was a great violinist or if it was just his mother telling him he was. Maybe he should have stuck with a cheaper violin. He might have been happier. Perhaps he never grew up himself, was never truly fulfilled, even with the Strad,” Hall muses.

Sometimes he seemed to be tempting fate to rob him of his irreplaceable Stradivarius. After running through his hackneyed repertoire of pop and gypsy tunes, Altman would leave the violin on tables and piano tops, practically inviting people to verify his boast that it was “a great violin.” No one believed him, and perhaps such lighthearted remarks were his best cover. Still, at night he would always sleep with the violin by the side of his bed. “He had horrible nightmares about it being burned, stolen, forgotten or broken,” Hall remembers. “Another odd thing was that he never practiced, hated it. And after we started seeing each other, he never wanted to play or listen to classical music. He’d just say, ‘I’ve played all that stuff.’ ”

In the late 1970s, Hall says, his drinking and gambling, especially with stocks, became a major problem. Once, in a stupor, he beat her, breaking two of her ribs. She says that by the time they moved to Connecticut with her daughter and two granddaughters in 1982, Altman was reduced to a shabby shadow of his former self. He played for a while with regional orchestras and at home could still wow the children with the Brahms Lullaby or another favorite, Sunrise, Sunset, from Fiddler on the Roof.

It was during this period that Altman began molesting the oldest grandchild, then 6. After she told her mother, he was arrested, tried and sentenced to one year in jail. He had served only three weeks when he was hospitalized, terminally ill. Hall’s anger at her treatment has not abated with her husband’s death. She buried his ashes “in a $5 golf trophy I bought at a rummage sale.”

Despite their bitterness toward Altman, Hall says she and her family can at least point to a final, generous gesture in his will. In accordance with his wishes, Hall donated his remaining five violins and an extensive music collection to the Harlem School of the Arts. “His last words on the subject,” says Hall, “were that someone truly worthy should have what he left behind.”

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