Bad-Mouthed No More, Harmonica Whiz Larry Adler Returns to U.S. Concert Halls
Joe McCarthy drove Adler into voluntary exile 29 years ago; Sir Georg Solti brings him home again
I’ve never been more nervous,” said Larry Adler before he went onstage to play his silver harmonica with Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony. “This is the most important concert of my career.” The 63-year-old expatriate, who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, need not have worried. The audience loved him (four curtain calls). The critics were enchanted. “What he can’t do on the harmonica simply can’t be done,” wrote one.
Adler confesses that he is surprised to get such reviews. “I expected someone to go way past me long ago,” he says of his virtuosity. “Instead, no one has even caught up.” What about Bob Dylan? “He can’t play the harmonica for nuts,” snaps Adler. John Sebastian? “No good, but Sonny Terry plays well,” he adds.
“I would never have made it on a conventional instrument,” Adler confesses, “because I don’t practice.” At the age of 14 he discovered that a newspaper in his hometown, Baltimore, was sponsoring a harmonica contest, taught himself to play in three weeks—and won. “I wasn’t the best in the competition,” he says. “But I was the one who played classical music.”
The stagestruck teenager, son of a Russian Jewish plumber, ran away to New York. “Kid, you stink,” a musician told him. Undaunted, Adler auditioned for Rudy Vallee, was hired on the spot and moved on to vaudeville. In 1933 he teamed up with dancer Paul Draper in a spectacularly successful partnership that lasted 16 years. By 1949 Adler was earning $150,000 a year.
His world began falling apart after he went to Washington to protest the House Un-American Activities Committee. “I was a left-winger,” Adler explains. “I didn’t join the Communists because I couldn’t take orders from the Central Committee.”
His politics enraged a Greenwich, Conn. housewife, who got his local concert canceled in 1949. Other cancellations followed. “I could either deny her accusations or sue her for libel,” Adler recalls. “I sued. The trial ended in a hung jury. But the publicity put me out of work.”
Adler’s first wife, Eileen Walser, insisted they move with their three children to England. Adler agreed, but they broke up after 22 years. “I married much too young,” he says, “and didn’t understand the responsibilities.” Adler describes a second marriage to English journalist Sally Cline, by whom he had a daughter, as “a mistake.”
His current companion is Lady Selina Hastings, 32 years his junior, with whom he has lived for the past six years in London. In 1976 Adler announced publicly that for the love of Lady Selina he was undergoing a vasectomy. “For the years I have left,” he explained, “we want to share them alone without another person along.”
In London Adler is known as a skillful self-publicist, a regular at literary, theatrical and society parties. He was a restaurant critic for British magazines until his column was dropped for too many references to Lady Selina and not enough to food. In addition to his concerts and royalties from Adler harmonicas (he prefers the term “mouth organ”), he writes a column, “A Yank in London,” for a weekly guide to the city. He also does book reviews for newspapers and Punch, and is working on his autobiography, From Hand to Mouth.
Adler will continue living in England: “They don’t mind an eccentric.” All in all, he is pleased with his lot. “It’s nice to know you’re the best in the world at what you do,” he says. “Very few people can say that.”