A really big fan of our White House String Quartet during its Washington years was the Honorable Justice Abraham Fortas. One of the nation’s most respected legal minds, “Abe”, as we learned to call him as our relationship developed, not only served as Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1965 – 1969, he was also considered one of President Lyndon Johnson’s closest friends and most trusted advisors.
His affinity for our quartet stemmed from his great love of classical music and musicians as well as his great enthusiasm as an amateur violinist. Some of his closest friends included violinist Issac Stern, cellist Pablo Casals and the members of the Budapest Quartet. Additionally Abe spent many years serving as a member of the Board of both Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center.
I can recall several instances when Abe, while attending a formal White House function as a guest, would come over and ask for the opportunity to sit in and play with our quartet for a few minutes. As a matter of fact, when he ultimately resigned from the Supreme Court the primary photograph used by the major wire services to enhance the news release of his resignation was a photograph of Abe playing violin along with Alexander Schneider of the Budapest Quartet, Danny Rothmuller and “yours truly” in the foyer of the White House. Our dear colleague, bassist Dave Wundrow, also joined in the fun and lends some depth to the ensemble! In this famous photo one can clearly see the President and Mrs. Johnson, future President Gerald Ford, Mr. and Mrs. George Meany and a number of additional notables looking on with expressions of enjoyment upon their faces. Andy Zaplatynsky, standing next to Abe, also appears to be pleased to be sharing his violin for the occasion. (See photo below)
As our friendship evolved with Abe and his wife, Carolyn, also a brilliant attorney, we would find ourselves receiving invitations from the Fortas’s to join them at their stately home in Georgetown (pictured below) for evenings which included wonderful dinners, great story telling …..and, of course…….readings of great works from the chamber music literature featuring our quartet……assisted by none other than our guest artist (and host), “Judge Abe!”
These evenings were great fun and often including sitting around the Fortas dining room table with such guests as additional Justices of the Supreme Court, key Cabinet members and Presidential Advisors. Little did we truly understand at the time the magnitude of the impact these individuals (with whom we were busy sharing such critical information as “Viola Jokes” ) were , in fact, asserting each and every day upon the world! For example I can remember rubbing elbows at dinner one evening with the likes of Secretary of State, Dean Rusk and yet at another with Justice William Douglas and his wife Kathy.
It didn’t dawn on me until much later in my life, probably around the time I began lobbying Congress on behalf of Private Property Rights as an elected representative of the National Association of REALTORS, the potential significance of each and every phone call my fellow guests received and would excuse themselves briefly for.
Interestingly, it was my daughter Manon, who while studying Criminal Justice at university, called my attention to references in the autobiographies of both President Lyndon Baines Johnson and Justice Fortas to evenings of chamber music at the Fortas home and how conscientious the President had been about respecting Fortas’s request to refrain from interrupting these musical happenings EXCEPT in the event of a true emergency!! (ie. major events related to the Vietnam War and the devastating riots and burning of Detroit, etc. etc.).
Following Abe’s resignation from the Supreme Court in 1969 he remained in Washington D.C. where he actively returned to his private law practice. I have always found it quite fascinating that the only two personal clients Abe continued to represent after his ultimate retirement was LBJ and Pablo Casals.
Well, guess that just about wraps up the VIOLABLOG for 2014. I wish each and every one of you a very safe and happy holiday season and a GREAT New Year! The blog is currently scheduled to resume on Wednesday, January 14, 2015. See you then!