Itzhak Perlman Is the Fiddler Going Through the Box Office Roof

Though he was crippled in childhood, Perlman’s polio couldn’t stifle his genius

Itzhak Perlman makes it all seem so easy. With almost eerie finesse, the protean Israeli-born violinist sails through the most challenging Paganini caprice as easily as if he were playing a scale. Describing his own struggle for success, he similarly glides over the difficulties. “I had a fairly normal childhood, considering two rather unusual elements,” he says. “I had polio and walked with crutches, and I practiced the violin two to three hours a day.” He pauses, then adds wryly, “Actually, the violin was harder to explain at the time.”

At this point, no further explanation is necessary. Still walking on crutches, though not practicing two or three hours a day, Perlman, at 35, has emerged as the world’s leading concert violinist. Lauded by both critics and peers, he won four Grammys last February and commands up to $10,000 a performance. Like Luciano Pavarotti, Perlman has moved from the rarefied world of the classics into the popular mainstream. He has fished with John Denver on the singer’s TV special and says that as a guest on Sesame Street, “I realized my dream—I got to play with Oscar the Grouch.” Blessed with prodigious energy, he makes as many as 100 appearances a year with major orchestras around the world. “I could probably book him every day of the year,” quips his manager, Sheldon Gold, “but he won’t play on the High Holy Days or his children’s birthdays.”

In fact, Perlman insists on maintaining a near-normal family life despite his frenetic schedule. “I don’t want to wake up one morning and find my children have grown up while I was on the road,” he says. “I miss my family whenever I’m away, and I will probably never completely get used to it.” To compensate, he spends most of his downtime with Toby, his wife of 14 years, and their four children, ranging in age from 2 to 12. “We have the traditional values of the 19th century,” says Toby, 38. “Maybe that’s why our marriage works.” Although his income has skyrocketed to seven figures a year, Itzhak remains loyal to his old, unchic neighborhood, the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where he and Toby both lived as adolescents. Their home is a spacious 11-room co-op that once belonged to the equally spacious Babe Ruth. “It’s comfortable,” says Toby. “I don’t want to move to a penthouse on Fifth Avenue.”

Though it is hardly the showplace Perlman could have if he wished, the apartment, with its view of the Hudson River, is a long way from the walk-up in downtown Tel Aviv where Itzhak spent his earliest childhood. “The window had a wonderful view of the traffic,” he recalls sardonically, “and the apartment was so small that the moment you opened the door, you were at the window.” The only child of Polish refugees who had met on an Israeli kibbutz, Itzhak was nourished on radio broadcasts of classical music. Transfixed by the violin playing of Jascha Heifetz, he persuaded his father to buy him a toy violin but, unable to duplicate the Heifetz sound, quickly gave up in discouragement. “I’m too young to play,” he complained. He was 4 years old.

A polio epidemic swept Israel that year and Itzhak was stricken. For more than a week he battled for his life in a hospital. “Then the doctor told us he was okay,” recalls his father, Chaim, 69, who now lives in Florida. “When I saw him, I realized that ‘okay’ only meant he was still alive. I carried him home in my hands.” Unable to move his arms or legs, Itzhak spent the next year in bed, but through exercise he eventually regained the use of his hands. “We had to support him, guide him, make him feel like a human being,” explains Chaim. “He was raised like a regular child. We did everything not to make him feel handicapped.” Because the stairs to their third-floor apartment were too difficult for Itzhak to manage, Chaim sold his barbershop and bought a self-service laundry in the suburbs, where the family moved into a first-floor apartment near the elementary school.

As soon as he was physically able, Itzhak revealed the iron-willed determination that he often masks with his humor. “Now,” he told his father, “I want to learn to play the violin.” This time Chaim bought a real instrument; amazingly, the 5-year-old found the correct fingering by instinct. At 13, Itzhak was already the first violinist at the Tel Aviv Academy of Music. The prodigy played for visiting dignitaries like Isaac Stern and Leonard Bernstein but got his big break from Ed Sullivan. When the TV impresario held international auditions in 1958 for an “Ed Sullivan Caravan of Stars” to tour the U.S., Perlman was among the first to be chosen. With his mother, Shoshana, he made the 23-hour flight to New York. “All I can remember is the lousy chicken served on board,” he says.

While Chaim stayed behind to close up the business, Itzhak and his mother scraped by on sardines in New York. Surrounded by nonkosher restaurants and grocery stores, unable to speak English and yearning for his father, a dispirited Itzhak auditioned for Dorothy DeLay of the Juilliard School of Music. “I had never seen such fingers on a 13-year-old,” recalls the celebrated violin teacher. “The development of skill was so far beyond that of any other child, it was just startling. He had large hands, a fluent bow arm, exceptional coordination and superb timing. I could not believe my eyes or ears.” Soon after, he was offered a scholarship to study at Juilliard.

As Itzhak’s tone and technique improved, other listeners were equally incredulous, none more so than a young violinist who heard him perform at Meadowmount summer music camp in the Adirondacks. After she listened to his rendition of Maurice Ravel’s romantic Tzigane, 20-year-old Toby Friedlander rushed backstage and proposed before they were even introduced. Itzhak, who at 17 had never even been out on a date, looked at her as if she were deranged. “But as it turns out, I wasn’t so crazy,” says Toby. “God was on my side.” If so, He helps those who help themselves. “I plotted,” she admits. “I had to develop a friendship because I knew he wasn’t ready for marriage yet.” She wooed him by bringing classical albums to play in his Manhattan living room. But after three and a half years, she was ready to give up. “I decided no man was worth it and washed my hands of him,” she says. At that point Itzhak began courting Toby, and a year and a half later he proposed.

Fortunately, Perlman’s musical career advanced at a less sluggish pace. At 17, he made his Carnegie Hall debut. The next year he won the prestigious Leventritt Competition and made the front page of the New York Times—not for his playing, but because someone made off with his borrowed 200-year-old Guarneri violin while the young virtuoso was taking his bows. Fortunately, the instrument turned up the next morning in a seedy Times Square pawnshop, where the dealer had paid $15 for it. “The thief obviously wasn’t a musician,” notes Perlman.

Itzhak now owns a 1714 Stradivarius valued at $400,000, and a musical reputation that has vaulted him past his contemporaries and into the company of immortals like Heifetz, Rubinstein and Horowitz. “He seems to have just about everything,” wrote critic Peter Davis, “a fabulous technique, a string sound of ravishing tonal properties, a warm romantic temperament…a thoughtful musical intelligence, and an indefinable personal aura that makes audiences love him.” Adds Perlman’s longtime friend pianist Joseph Kalichstein: “He has that uncanny ability to always sound as if he’s improvising, as if he’s whistling a tune for the very first time.”

Offstage without his violin, Itzhak can be equally spontaneous. “He can produce a range of pops and explosions which seem to come out of him as if they were oral translations of his imagination,” says pianist Jerome Lowenthal. “All he has to do is imagine a sound and he can reproduce it. He picks up the intonations and melody of every language. His impersonations make Rich Little look one-dimensional.” An inveterate clown, Perlman thrives on regaling close friends around a restaurant table while he indulges his special fondness for Japanese food. No longer strictly kosher, he also enjoys cooking Chinese food, using techniques taught him by Danny Kaye.

Conspicuously paunchier than in his days as a prodigy, Perlman doesn’t hesitate to joke about his passion for eating. “I’m going on a seafood diet next week,” he says. “I see the food and I eat it.” Yet his humor is more compulsive than self-effacing and conceals a tough, competitive temperament. He enjoys being the center of attention and generally succeeds in commanding the role. Unquestionably the final authority in his own household, he is sometimes abruptly cold with outsiders. Yet to friends he has accepted as family, Perlman can be unstintingly devoted. He hurried to the bedside of his longtime accompanist Samuel Sanders when the pianist underwent heart surgery recently, and he insisted on sitting in the emergency ward for hours with Dorothy DeLay when her husband was rushed to the hospital. Publicly, Perlman lobbies energetically for better travel and architectural facilities for the handicapped. “I would like to see that every disabled person could enter any concert hall in the country with the same ease that a nondisabled person can,” he says. “And personally, I never want to have to take the garbage elevator to get to the stage.”

It is still beyond knowing, of course, whether the younger Perlmans will follow the musical path their father is blazing. Noah, 12, prefers sports to the violin, but daughters Navah, 10, and Leora, 7, are serious piano students. Of his youngest child, Rami, 2, Itzhak sighs, “He’s into everything, but no matter what we give him, he’s happiest in the chicken soup.” From infancy, the Perlman children have been surrounded by the circle of musicians, jokingly known as the Kosher Nostra, that includes violinists Isaac Stern and Pinchas Zukerman and conductor Zubin Mehta. It is a world in which music is so taken for granted, Perlman seems sometimes unaware of its presence. “It’s like oxygen to me,” he explains. “You don’t think about the air when you breathe.”

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