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Tad Szulc, reporter, political analyst, and biographer (his diverse subjects: a Cuban dictator, a Polish pontiff, and now, with Chopin in Paris, a Romantic composer), speaks as he writesin long sentences swollen with dates and facts and cross-references. Ask him why he chose Castro, for instance, and you almost wish “yadda yadda” were part of his vocabulary:
“My acquaintanceship with Fidel Castro goes back to the very beginning of the Cuban Revolution, 1959, while I was in Havana as a correspondent with the New York Times, which is what I did most of my life. And, having met Castro there, we maintained the acquaintanceship professionally for years and years. Then, in 1984, by which time I had left the New York Times and was writing books and doing magazine work, I began searchingas many people dofor someone interesting enough to devote so many years to for a biography, and Castrobecause I had known him for such a long time because I was very familiar with Cuba and Latin America because of my New York Times assignments” (At this point, Szulc takes a deep breath.) “Well, to make a long story short, I went to Cuba in 1984 on a magazine assignment, he and I spent a lot of time together, one thing led to another, and he agreed to be cooperative, which meant accessible, if I would come back to write the biography, which my wife and I did. We spent 1985 in Cuba.”
Obviously, the man can talk, andgood thinghe has a lot to say. In 1979, after an audience with the newly elected Pope John Paul II, Szulc wrote a cover story about him for the New York Times Magazine; it was the first major news article about the pope to be published in the American press. Out of that meetingand because Szulc, who was born in Poland and has a deep appreciation for its culture (not to mention powerful friends both there and in Rome)sprang the idea for his second biography. “In 1993, which was five years ago, in a mysterious sort of way, he, the pope, decided to be cooperative, which again meant granting me personal access, which was unprecedented and remains unprecedented,” remembers Szulc, who settled permanently in Washington with his wife in 1969.
For his third biography, Chopin in Paris, Szulc depended on a lifelong fascination with the composer’s music to see him through years of research and writing. Focusing on the 18 years the young composer spent in Paris before his death in 1849, Szulc re-creates the Parisian salon scene, detailing Chopin’s interactions with such luminaries as Hugo, Balzac, Delacroix, and Dumas, and highlighting the composer’s tumultuous eight-year love affair with novelist George Sand. Szulc traveled to Paris to visit the places Chopin lived and found many of them blessedly unchanged. He pored over correspondence from, to, and about the composer, much of it unpublished and even untranslated; he read newspapers of the day, memoirs, and journals. He cites Sand’s diary of the miserable winter she and Chopin spent in Majorca, living in a monastery, as particularly helpful.
In the end, as Szulc finished stringing together the facts of Chopin’s life, the portrait that came into focus surprised the biographer. “What struck me most is that Chopin was a man who was absolutely against any form of personal commitmentemotional, psychological, you name it. He was always surrounded by friends, he was very sociable, but no one really got close to him,” Szulc explains. “What you find is that this manwhose music is so romantic, whose life sounds so romanticwas totally and completely self-isolated, unable to show gratitude, emotion, friendship, or warmth to other people. He was, simply, someone who never had time for anyone except himself.”
Next year, Chopin fanatics the whole world over will go gaga celebrating the 150th anniversary of the composer’s death; Szulc hopes that Chopin in Paris will serve as appropriate prelude.
Szulc will be lecturing on Chopin on April 15 at 6 p.m. at the National Museum of Natural History, 10th & Constitution Ave. NW, followed by a performance of some of Chopin’s compositions by pianist Eugene Istomin. For information call (202) 357-3030.