Thursday, August 22, 2002

PULFER: James Levine

Who put a smile on his face?

        Lawrence Levine would sing his son, Jimmy, to sleep. The next morning, the little boy would hop out of bed and move his chubby hands over the piano keys, picking out the tune he'd heard the night before.

        “Jimmy was the first baby I ever held,” his mother, Helen, says. “I thought they were all this way.”

        Of course, they are not. They do not grow up to be James Levine, world-famous conductor. Jimmy was fun, she insists. Fun? I think it would be scary to have a kid who gets a perfect SAT score, never mind one who — at the age of 12 — refused to play a passage as printed in widely distributed sheet music. “Mozart never would have written it that way,” he said. And he eventually proved it.

        His mother practiced the piano with him, “until he passed me by.” And when he “passed by” teachers, she found somebody on the next level. She listened when he begged for more time with his music, engineered an abbreviated school day. But he had to come to the dinner table. Even geniuses need to eat. And to be with family.

James Levine
        When he auditioned at Juilliard School of Music, one teacher said, “How can we get this boy away from his parents?”

        Well, they couldn't.

A knockout

        Home was in Avondale. High school was Walnut Hills. He was not like all the other kids, that's for sure. But “he was always beaming, happy as a clam. Still is,” Helen says.

        As for his astonishing talent, “He was born with it. We just tried to provide a normal life with his brother and sister.” Tommy — abstract painter Tom Levine — was born when Jimmy was 2. Janet, a clinical social worker, came along four years later.

        “I think life here helped to make Jimmy a good person, a nice person.”

        This nice, good person who turned 59 in June will be honored for his “lifetime contribution to American culture” Dec. 8 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

        “If I hadn't already busted my buttons,” Helen says, “I would now.” She pauses, considering, “Although, the celebration of Jimmy's 25th anniversary with the Metropolitan Opera was mind-boggling.” With a throaty laugh, she says she bought a “really lovely, mother-of-the-bride dress for that one.”

        I'll bet she was a knockout. Tiny with luminous ice-blue eyes, she was acting in a hit Broadway play when she met the late Lawrence Levine, a handsome singer and bandleader. “We both knew. Right away,” she says. “The fifth time I saw him was at our wedding.”

        She left Manhattan where “my name was in lights taller than I was.” From high school in Cleveland to the New York stage to motherhood in Cincinnati. She skipped college, but “I fixed that later,” graduating from the College of Mount St. Joseph when she was 72.

        In 1996, she was back in New York, at Madison Square Garden, to receive a medal for her decades of work for the blind and vision impaired. At 87, she still serves on the board of the Clovernook Center.

        The miracle that is James Levine may have begun with an exceptional confluence of genes. A cantor in the family. Ancestral painters and musicians on both sides. His genius was tuned by other geniuses all over the world. But I think he got his smile in Cincinnati.

        From his mother.

        E-mail Laura at or phone 768-8393



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