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Mr. Schuyler Chapin—former general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, dean of Columbia University’s School of the Arts, and New York City Commissioner of Cultural Affairs—passed away yesterday, March 7. He had recently turned 86 and died peacefully at home in the arms of his wife Catia, whom he adored without bound.
The New York Times’ obituary, which does not do him justice, may be read here:
For the past four years, I have had the honor of serving as Mr. Chapin’s secretary, assisting him with his business affairs, letters, and writing projects. I want to say how personally important it was for me to know him, and to place on record what a special and great man he was.
What young person would not admire a man who had served both as a pilot in the Second World War, and as the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera? Who would not admire a man who would tell you, at lunch, a wide range of the most unbelievable and fantastic stories—which were absolutely true? He would tell you how he had been spared a recall to the military by meeting the dependents requirement—because his wife had unexpectedly had twins just before he was scheduled to report. He would tell you of speaking to Glenn Gould in his office when he received a phone call that resulted in Gould leaving absorbed in a plan to record Strauss’s unusual setting of Tennyson’s Enoch Arden. He would tell you of Horowitz and Bernstein, of exchanging “opera gossip” with then-new Mayor Giuliani; he would tell you of princesses, Presidents, and playing cards with Rachmaninoff.
Schuyler Chapin’s life was itself a history book.
When the world recently lost Beverly Sills, Luciano Pavarotti and Brooke Astor (three of Mr. Chapin’s many illustrious friends), I felt much the same as I do now: that their deaths represented a loss of the living links to the sensibilities of a prior era, to the values and culture of the pre-counterculture, pre-modernist world.
I wrote that Beverly Sills was “of a generation that had grown up at a time when the sense of life, and the standards of the nineteenth century were still strongly present in American culture, and she was the kind of person to take them up, propagate them further, and add her own artistry to the sum.”
I feel similarly about Schuyler Chapin.
I grew up in post-counterculture, post-60s America, and have never liked the nature or results of the counterculture upheavals or the ideas behind them. Rather, I have for a long time admired the art, manners, and many of the basic values of pre-WWII culture. The 19th century had nevertheless been distant for me; the era was something I learned about from books and film, not something I had had firsthand contact with.
Schuyler Chapin was for me a direct link and immediate manifestation of that world. I cannot tell you how important this was for me personally, particularly given the kind of music I write. Knowing Schuyler was a concretization and affirmation for me of a part of myself.
What I want to communicate is, simply, what kind of man he was.
It may seem strange to focus on his manner as something of great importance, but you must know what an unusual and strong impression Schuyler made on the people who knew him.
Schuyler Chapin was an aristocrat in the best possible sense of the term. He was a man of arts and letters (which fact came across immediately upon meeting him), and one of the most educated and erudite people I have ever known. He had become so on his own, he had had very little formal education (a fact which interestingly was the bit of common ground that led to Schuyler’s friendship with Peter Jennings).
For most of his retirement, Mr. Chapin read more books than I (and I read a lot of books). Keeping up with him became a good challenge—and, of course, he always had good books to recommend.
His letters are models of personal expression—of his unique blend of articulateness, directness, purposefulness, charm and politeness. In assisting Mr. Chapin with his letters and other writings, I learned a great deal about using the English language. Above all, I was impressed by his florid, fluid prose. When I first started working for Mr. Chapin, he had one bone to pick with my typing from dictation: “Too many commas.” That was quickly corrected.
I don’t think it was a coincidence that Mr. Chapin especially loved Wagner’s “endless melody”—his favorite opera was Tristan und Isolde.
Mr. Chapin published three books, all of which are fascinating reading:
his autobiography Musical Chairs: A Life in the Arts;
the story of his experiences with opera stars, Mezzos, Sopranos, Tenors, Bassos and Other Friends;
and the testament of his experiences with the great conductor, Leonard Bernstein: Notes from a Friend.
Schuyler could be piercingly direct, and one would sometimes see the merciless incisiveness of his wit (he was a fan of Oscar Wilde). Yet he had the irreproachable correctness and politeness of a genuine gentleman. When I discussed with him some of my students at the Mannes College, one of the first things he asked me, with a pointed tone, was: “Do they have any manners?”
He was a man of demanding standards; he was delightfully charming and lighthearted, and at the same time, beneath that, quite serious. He had a way of inclining his head to look at you with a direct (and I must say, riveting) gaze from below his brow—that simply made you pay attention. And what he said, you would not forget.
He was an unassuming but natural and formidable leader.
He had a brilliant dramatic flair (witness the storytelling in his books). He was utterly unpretentious, had no trace of pompousness or affectation, and hated any type of obsequiousness. I remember every once in a while Mr. Chapin would receive a visit from some person or other who was fawning or ingratiating, and I could see his manner change immediately. He got a little squirmy at first, became quieter and more withdrawn from conversation with the person, and after not too long would put an abrupt yet perfectly polite end to the visit.
Schuyler Chapin was a consummate hero-worshipper, a lover of human competence who was impatient with anything less. He loved art, which he repeatedly dubbed “the signature of man”—a concept that he had seen inscribed on a new arts building and which he attributed importance to—and he loved artists.
If I had to sum up Mr. Chapin in a word I would say that he conveyed, quite unmistakably but totally unselfconsciously, that mark of moral greatness which is personal dignity.
Looking back over his life, Schuyler was able to make a statement rare, beautiful, and the very proof of a life well-lived: he told his family that he had done in life everything he had ever wanted to do.
Schuyler was a prolific and skillful letter writer, a man of the age of letters who had mastered the form; when he faced the task of writing a letter of condolences he was fond of referencing a line from Thomas Campbell’s beautiful poem “Hallowed Ground.” It is with a heavy heart that I quote that stanza now, in memory of Mr. Chapin himself:
“But strew his ashes to the wind
Whose sword or voice has served mankind,—
And is he dead, whose glorious mind
Lifts thine on high?—
To live in hearts we leave behind
Is not to die.”
During these past years of his retirement, I was Schuyler Chapin’s secretary.
He was my hero.
I consider having known him to be one of the great honors of my life.
Matthew Zachary Johnson
Secretary to Schuyler Chapin
with Mr. and Mrs. Chapin at Steinway Hall in 2005.
P.S. The Mayor ordered that flags in New York be flown at half mast this week in honor of Schuyler.
P.P.S. Schuyler Chapin as impressario knew the art of getting a packed house. I think he would have been pleased to know that even his funeral was "standing room only."