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from Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters

Selected and edited by L. Brent Bohlke

Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1986

1922: NEW YORK

Although Willa Cather frequently claimed to have drawn only one of her characters from memory—in detail—her interviews and other remarks are continually turning up other characters who were modeled upon people whom she had known or met at various times in her life. The use of David Hochstein as a model for David Gerhardt in One of Ours is another of these examples.

David Hochstein was born in Rochester, New York, on 16 February 1892. He studied the violin initially in New York and later with Leopold Auer in Petrograd and Otakar Sevcik in Vienna. He received a scholarship and a first prize of a thousand crowns from the Austrian government. After his debut as a violinist in Vienna in 1911, he toured England and then was heard widely in the United States, appearing at Carnegie and Aeolian Halls and the Metropolitan Opera House and touring with Amoto and Frieda Hampel, well-known musicians of the day. When he was called to military service, Hochstein canceled his schedule of concerts and tours, which brought him an estimated $20,000 in 1918 alone. First stationed at Camp Upton, Long Island, where he was headmaster of the 306th Infantry, he organized an orchestra, which he directed, and continued his musical interest. On 10 March 1918, he reported to the New York Times that,

It has done me good in many ways. Physically—well, I feel like a different person. It is partly the outdoor life and the exercise—though I have always tried to take exercise and keep fit—but it has been even more, I think, the regular hours for sleep and the fact that it has been possible, really, to sleep in those hours. But it isn't only that; I'm better physically. There are other things that are just as important. I have learned the value of odd minutes, for one thing. I think what has impressed me more than any other single thing here is that no time is wasted. The odds and ends aren't thrown away; they all fit in. And we are all learning that out here. It is bound to make a difference to us afterward, (New York Times, 10 March 1918, sec. 7, p. 5, col. 1)

Hochstein's enthusiasm echoes that of Gerhardt and Claude Wheeler. Unfortunately, Hochstein's reaction to the news item that appeared in the New York Times on the following day was never recorded for posterity. On 11 March 1918, the Times reported that Hochstein's violin, a Stradivarius valued at over $25,000 had been ruined—"smashed to bits"—in a car accident at Mineola on the previous day:

The troupe left the train at Mineola, and Hochstein, crowded into a small auto bus, which was to take them to Rockville Centre. They had gone only a short distance when the front wheels of the car collapsed under the weight, and the windshield was smashed as it crashed into a telegraph pole.

Everyone in the car was shaken up, but the Depot Brigade Quartet began to sing, and the rest of the party recovered their composure and hurried off to find another car. A limousine was borrowed from a nearby estate, and the journey to Rockville Centre was finished in good time. Shortly before the matinee commenced Sergeant Hochstein called to his accompanist, Private Max Glazer, to rehearse one or two numbers with him. When Sergeant Hochstein opened the soft leather case which held his violin he found the instrument in pieces. When the accident occurred, Charles Wayland Towne, amusement director of the YMCA, who was in charge of the troupe, called out to Hochstein: "Is the Strad all right, David?" And Hochstein, finding the case apparently unscathed, replied that it was safe.

Hochstein was stunned when he saw the instrument broken. He closed the case on the fragments, and took the first train to New York on his way to Rochester, where he will leave the broken instrument. He intends bringing a less valuable instrument back to camp with him for use in future concerts.

The violin was valued by Hochstein at $25,000, and he carried $10,000 insurance on it. It is believed here that if he goes to France he may arrange for the purchase in Europe of a Stradivarius for the amount which the Insurance company will give him. Hochstein used his violin for the last time during a recital by Miss Margaret Wilson, daughter of the President, on Friday night in the YMCA Auditorium here. (New York Times, I I March 1918, p. 7, col. 3)

By 9 December 1918, the Times was running an article which proclaimed that Hochstein's friends were searching for any news concerning his whereabouts. His former managers, the Music League of America, or his mother were to be notified by anyone who had any news. He had gone overseas in April and had requested transfer to active service at the front. He was then promoted to first lieutenant with the 60th Infantry.

He was with his company during the summer drive at Verdun and on October 8, when his regiment was in "rest billets," he played a concert in the city of Nancy. The day after that concert he wrote a letter to the Music League enclosing the notices of the concert and saying that his regiment would return to the front the following day. Since that time no word has been received from him either by his family or his managers, and their cables and telegrams have brought no reply. (NYT, 9 December 1918, p. 11, col. 2)

Word of his death in the Argonne Forest was finally reported in the New York Times on 28 January 1919 (p. 9, col. 4). Willa Cather recalls him in the following interview three years later. Incidentally, she speaks erroneously of the trout quintet as having two cellos. It is scored for cello, string bass, violin, viola, and piano.


An Interview with Willa Cather

David Hochstein was killed in the Argonne on November 10, 1918. He was a well known violinist, and echoes of regret for the cutting off of this recognized talent are still heard; reminiscences of the young artist by musicians and intimate friends have been published and so have poems composed in a strain of gentle sorrow. A stanza of one of the best known copy of verses inscribed to his memory is here given: O the fire of your violin melted us then, Till we granted your saying was sooth; That a man of the fiddle was not least of men When he fought as he sung for the truth!

And a character in a recently published novel seemed to embody the lost musician. The author, Miss Willa Cather, in her "David Gerhardt," by the circumstances of his enlistment in the A. E. F., his war experiences, and his death, appeared to have had David Hochstein in mind. Admirers of the violinist asked the novelist if this were true, and she replies in the interview that follows. It may be added that the words of the following explanation are Miss Cather's own:

"Yes," Miss Cather said, "I think that character must have been done from David Hochstein. It's not a portrait; it's not even an impressionistic sketch of him, for I met him in all just three times. But if I hadn't met him those three times Claude Wheeler's friend and fellow officer would certainly have been another person. He wouldn't have been a David Gerhardt; he probably wouldn't have been a violinist.

"You say you didn't know Hochstein well?"

"Not at all. But he was the sort of person to whom you gave your whole attention. One knew him as well as one could under the circumstances. The first time I met him as at Harold Bauer's apartment in the Wellington Hotel, one afternoon in the winter of 1916. A group of musicians had met together to play things they liked. Hochstein was among them. I had not heard him before, but when I asked who he was, Jan Hambourg told me he was a very gifted young American violinist. They played a lot of chamber music that afternoon, Schubert's Death and the Maiden among other things, but what I particularly remember was their beautiful playing of Schubert's Die Forelle (The Trout), a quintet not often played in public because it requires two cellos. That afternoon Boris Hambourg took one cello part, Maurice Dambois the other. Thibaud played first violin, Hochstein second, and I think Monteux, now conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was at the piano. I was very much interested in Hochstein from the moment they began to play, and in that quintet I thought his playing simply splendid. I had the feeling that he was playing at the top of his form and that he cared particularly for that composition. Thibaud had been playing a lot of Mozart and was tired.

"As I say, I had never heard Hochstein before, and I felt that he was a very poetic violinist and that he had the stimmung of that particular composition on that occasion more than any of the other players. He was enjoying himself thoroughly. To this day I cannot be sure whether his eyes were really yellow-brown or whether that color simply stays in my mind as a connotation—the yellow-brown of trout streams in sunlight. He was sitting by a window in a strong glow of afternoon sun that made his hair distinctly auburn. He looked very handsome—very young and fresh among the older men; he was then, I believe, about 24. His face and the shape of his head were distinctly intellectual, not at all the Toscha-Mischa kind. There is a certain drawing of Father Damien, one that used to hang in the rooms of college girls, which might stand as a portrait of Hochstein. The resemblance was quite remarkable. A friend of mine took him into a picture shop on Fifth Avenue one day to prove to him how like him this picture was. When he was confronted with the drawing he blushed and didn't seem to like it.

"After the music was over the musicians settled down to talk. Hochstein didn't care to talk apparently. He said he must be going and put on his hat and overcoat. We went down in the elevator together and up to Carnegie Hall, where I took my bus. We were talking about the Schubert things they had been playing. I found that, as I had suspected, he was a very thoughtful young man; that he had a great many ideas and opinions and rather kept them to himself. He was reticent, but what he had to say was extremely interesting; and you didn't feel that he had said it all before to a great many people. He hadn't, in short, yet acquired the professional manner which an artist must have to save his soul, but which is, after all, more attractive in the breach than in the observance. His manner in conversation with a stranger, even with his friends, was cordial but not effusive—distinctly not effusive.

"I did not meet Hochstein again until after America had gone into the war and his number had been drawn for military service. There was, of course, warm discussion among his friends and fellow artists as to whether he ought not to get exemption from military duty. He was very low in mind about the matter. He hated the idea of giving up his work and going into the service; and he hated the idea of being a quitter. From the beginning of the war his sympathies had not been entirely pro-Ally. He had got his musical training in Germany and admired many things about German civilization. Moreover, he hadn't the kind of mind that easily takes sides, that adopts opinions and says, 'These opinions are right, and are the only right ones, because they are mine.' Hochstein was a nephew of Emma Goldman. He was a Socialist and had read and thought a great deal about economics and systems of government. His father, I believe, was a student. I got the impression that Hochstein himself had given a good deal of time to the study of philosophy. He knew too much about history to draw rash and comforting conclusions. He didn't believe that any war could end war; he didn't believe that this one was going to make the world safe for democracy, or that it had much to do with democracy whatever. He couldn't see any Utopia ahead. He didn't believe that the war was going to get the world anywhere, no matter how it came out. But he didn't like to see himself getting exemption. That picture didn't attract him. That role looked undignified to him. However, he applied for exemption. The Local Board looked into his case, found he was the only support of his widowed mother, and granted his discharge. After he got his discharge he was unhappy. He presented himself again before the Board, told them he had made arrangements for his mother during his absence and wished to enter the service. The chairman of the Board wrote that they were 'struck by his manly bearing and fine appearance,' and well might they be! He was too proud not to fight—too proud, at any rate, to accept the only alternative.

"I met Hochstein again after he had been in camp a few weeks, and he was a much discouraged young man. The drill, the wooden discipline, the apparent waste of time, the boredom, were very hard for him to bear. He terribly missed the companionship of men with his own interests. He said his mind felt heavy, as if it were going to sleep, as if he were drugged. And he couldn't but feel it was all for nothing. He was giving up everything to adopt a course of action which was mostly the deadliest kind of inaction and which led nowhere. He didn't talk about it a great deal, but he looked older; his face seemed frozen in a kind of bitter resignation. I couldn't believe it was the same countenance, so full of romantic feeling and delicate humor, that I had watched that afternoon when he was playing the Trout quintette. It was soldiers of his kind, who hadn't any simple, joyful faith or any feeling of being out for a lark, who gave up most, certainly.

"About three months after this I saw Hochstein for the third and last time. I had in the meantime heard from some of his friends that David was feeling very differently about everything that pertained to his military duties; that he had become quite reconciled to his life in camp. He looked, indeed, very different. He was not dejected; he bore himself as if he liked his uniform. Something keen and penetrating and confident had come back into his face. When he talked there was a glow of enthusiasm in his eyes. When I came upon the scene he was talking. Yes, he was saying, he wouldn't have missed it. The life at camp was a deadly grind at first, but now he wouldn't have missed it. He had found something there that he had vaguely felt the lack of all his life.

"Some one asked him if it was the exercise, the regularity, the lack of any personal responsibility. 'Oh, it's everything,' he said. 'It's difficult to explain.' He went on a little further. I don't remember just what he said; but those of us who were with him understood clearly that what he liked, what he got something out of, was his relation to other young men. He didn't mention the war, didn't seem to be dwelling on the larger issues of it. His whole attention now seemed fixed upon his company and what was going on at Camp Upton. We asked him if he wasn't bored. No, not at all now; the men were splendid.

"Splendid, no doubt, but not very stimulating, probably, and all a good deal alike. Hochstein laughed and shook his head. 'No, they're not alike. The men are all right, fine fellows. I'm learning a great deal.' Didn't he miss the kind of food and comfort and personal freedom he had always been used to, we asked him, and the company of other artists? At first, he said, but not now. 'For me there's something in that life, just as it is; something I've always wanted.'

"Really, Hochstein said very little more that day than that he particularly liked the young men he was with in camp; that they were a kind he hadn't known well before and he wouldn't have missed knowing them; and that he was 'getting something he had always wanted.' He didn't say what that something was, perhaps he couldn't have said. He was not loquacious, but by a few words he could indicate a great deal. His friends felt absolutely reassured about him. He had never looked handsomer, never seemed easier in his mind or more easily pleased and amused. He announced his intention of going to Hickses to get a large, possibly several large, ice cream sodas before he started for camp. He persuaded Mrs. Jan Hambourg to go with him in search of their refreshment.

"In the winter of 1917, 1 think it was on a holiday of some kind, the Hambourgs telephoned me that Hochstein would be in from camp to march in the parade on Fifth avenue and that, as he expected to sail soon, it would probably be the last chance to see him before he went. It was a very stormy day; heavy slush under foot and snow falling in big wet flakes. I stood at the window and deliberated for some time, but I decided it would be dreary to stand on Fifth avenue waiting for a parade and that probably there was small chance of picking out one man on foot among so many marching men, all uniformed alike. Late in the afternoon Jan Hambourg and his wife came in for tea and said I had made a mistake not to go; the men had looked splendid, marching in the snow, and when the band came down the avenue they had recognized Hochstein at once; he was playing a slide trombone! Jan caught his attention in some way, and he smiled and waved to them. That was their last glimpse of him. He sailed soon after.

"The next autumn the news came that Hochstein had been blown to pieces by a shell in the Argonne Forest. On the night of the 14th of October Hochstein and a fellow officer had brought a small wagon train of hot food over almost impassable roads, under shell fire, up to men who were to make an important attack in the morning. The next day, Hochstein, in command of the headquarters runners, was killed during the action.

"Letters to his mother, some of which were published, show how seriously he took his military duties. Soon after he got his commission he wrote her:

"'You don't know (I don't yet) what it means to be a platoon commander. It means having the lives of fifty-eight others in your control. And they must be cared for. It isn't just commanding. I never before (even after ten months in the army) realized what it did mean. I have no military ambition, but I know how few can lead; and I know that I would rather lead than be led.

"'The first of October will mark a year service for me, and I will be granted my commission as Second Lieutenant on that date.

"'I shall at last have a raincoat that shuts out rain. I shall have many material comforts I never before had in the service but much added responsibility. I shall write you, however, soon again. The future is unknown and many things may happen.'"

"Again he writes his mother:

"'When you have seen and met men who have been through the inferno many times, every belief you ever held is either destroyed or tempered more strongly, and I have had many to destroy—in whose place I find newer, better, and stronger ones. Every one finds his belief, his religion—here I have found mine. I adhere to no creed, no more than my father did, nor to any particular kind of God, but, dear mother, I believe. I have faith. I know that for all these heroic souls gone to the beyond there is some future. There is much that is materialistic about the war—too much. But those who died, be it recklessly or by the most unexpected exploding shell, have a compensation more than a mere title of hero or a posthumous service cross. You don't try to explain it—but you know it in France.'

"Any one who knew Hochstein would know that these were not conventional platitudes reeled off to soothe his mother. From a very thoughtful young man, critical by habit, a doubter of governments and religions and schools of thought, such statements mean something. They mean that something very revolutionary had happened in Hochstein's mind; I would give a good deal to know what it was!

"In the days when I met David Hochstein I was not writing One of Ours. I was busy writing My Ántonia, and this latest book of mine was no more in my thoughts than it is in yours. An event which touched my own life rather closely, and which came later, produced the book. Afterward, in 1920, when I was deep in this story, I wanted my red-headed soldier from a prairie farm to 'get some of his back,' as the phrase is, through a fine friendship; so many splendid friendships grew up between young men during the war. I wanted him, in daily life, at last to have to do with someone he could admire. I had the good fortune to know a great many fine young soldiers, some of them very well, so I had a wide latitude of choice.

"But when I came to that part of the story, it was the figure of Hochstein, whom I had known so little, that walked into my study and stood beside my desk. I had not known him well, but neither would Claude Wheeler know him very well; the farmer boy hadn't the background, the sophistication to get very far with a man like Hochstein. But there was a common ground on which they could know and respect each other—the ground on which Hochstein had met and admired his fellow soldiers at Camp Upton. And Claude would sense the other side of David and respect it. Hochstein's comrades sensed it. Lately several of them, non-commissioned officers, have taken a good deal of trouble to look me up and arrange an interview, merely to ask me whether Hochstein, 'amounted to much' as a violinist. In each case these were men who knew nothing and cared nothing about music, and they apparently knew no musicians to consult. But they seemed to need this fact to complete their memory of him, to pull their mental picture of him together, though it was merely as a soldier that they had admired him."

New York Herald, 24 December 1922, sec. 8, p. 4, cols. 1-4; p. 12, cols. 3-4. Reprinted in the Commercial Advertiser, 3 September 1923, p. 2, cols. 1- 4; p. 3, col. 1.