Monday, March 23, 2009

Amazing Stories - Philippa Schuyler

Philippa Schuyler, 1946
Amazing - encompassing the strange, curious, tragic, pathetic (her parents, it would seem), and, in the end, the somewhat ironic. I first encountered the name Philippa Schuyler while reading The Time of our Singing by Richard Powers just a few weeks ago. He brings her into his story, briefly, on a single page, writing about a particular concert performance, and then about Mayor La Guardia's interest in her many talents (so much so that he proclaimed a Philippa Schuyler Day in New York City). This is the better part her Wikipedia entry:
Philippa Duke Schuyler (August 2, 1931-May 9, 1967) was a noted American child prodigy and pianist who became famous in the 1930s and 1940s as a result of her talent, mixed race parentage, and the eccentric methods employed by her mother to bring her up. Schuyler was the daughter of George S. Schuyler, a prominent black essayist and journalist of pronounced conservative views, and Josephine Cogdell, a white Texan and one-time Mack Sennett bathing beauty from a former slave-owning family. Her parents believed that intermarriage could "invigorate" both races and produce extraordinary offspring. They also advocated that mixed race marriage could help to solve many of the United States's social problems.

Cogdell further believed that genius could best be developed by a diet consisting exclusively of raw foods. As a result, Philippa grew up in her New York apartment eating a diet predominantly comprising raw carrots, peas and yams and raw steak. She was given a daily ration of cod liver oil and lemon slices in place of sweets. "When we travel," Cogdell said, "Philippa and I amaze waiters. You have to argue with most waiters before they will bring you raw meat. I guess it is rather unusual to see a little girl eating a raw steak."

Whatever the efficacy of Cogdell's dietary program, her daughter was indubitably gifted. Recognized as a prodigy at an early age, she was reportedly able to read and write at the age of two and a half, and composed music from the age of five. At nine, she became the subject of "Evening With A Gifted Child", a profile written by Joseph Mitchell, the celebrated correspondent for The New Yorker, who heard several of her early compositions and noted that she addressed both her parents by their first names.

Schuyler began giving piano recitals and radio broadcasts while still a child and attracted an enormous amount of press coverage. New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia was one of her admirers and visited her at her home on more than one occasion. By the time she reached adolescence, Schuyler was touring constantly, both in the US and overseas.

Her talent as a pianist was widely acknowledged, although many critics believed that her forte lay in playing vigorous pieces and criticised her style when tackling more nuanced works. Acclaim for her performances led to her becoming a role model for many children in the United States of the 1930s and 1940s, but Schuyler's own childhood was blighted when, during her teenage years, her parents showed her the scrapbooks they had compiled recording her life and career. The books contained numerous newspaper clippings in which both George and Josephine Schuyler commented on their beliefs and ambitions for their daughter. Realisation that she had been conceived and raised, in a sense, as an experiment, robbed the pianist of many of the illusions that had made her earlier youth a happy one.

In later life, Schuyler grew disillusioned with the racial and gender prejudice she encountered, particularly when performing in the United States, and much of her musical career was spent playing overseas. In her thirties she abandoned the piano to follow her father into journalism.

Schuyler's personal life was frequently unhappy. She rejected many of her parents' values, increasingly becoming a vocal feminist, and made many attempts to pass herself off as a woman of Iberian (Spanish) descent named Filipa Monterro. Although she engaged in a number of affairs, and on one occasion endured a late and dangerous abortion, she never married.

In 1967 Schuyler traveled to Vietnam as a war correspondent. She was killed in a helicopter crash off the coast near Da Nang while engaged in a mission to evacuate a number of Vietnamese orphans. Schuyler, who could not swim, survived the crash but drowned in the sea about 70 yards from shore.
 

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