Artist to Artist, Across the Years: Jade Snow Wong and the Budapest String Quartet

The following is a guest post from Heidi Kim, Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Kim was a 2015 Florence Tan Moeson Fellow in the Asian Division where she studied the Jade Snow Wong Collection. While researching, Kim came across interesting connections to the renowned Budapest String Quartet that served as quartet in residence at the Library of Congress from 1940-1962.

 

Heidi Kim,English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Heidi Kim,English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

One of the most engaging and charming anecdotes in Jade Snow Wong’s memoir Fifth Chinese Daughter, a bestseller of the 1950s, recounts how she, as a student at Mills College, cooked a Chinese dinner for a famous string quartet who her dean was hosting. From the point of view of the young Jade Snow, a self-declaredly modest Chinese narrator, these “four crazy Russians” took over the house, eating all the food with gusto, invading the kitchen, and appropriating her Chinese-style cleaver to cut up wood for a Russian samovar so that they could make tea properly.

Later, Wong dropped the extreme reticence of her early memoir and name-dropped these artists as the world-famous Budapest String Quartet: Joseph Roisman, brothers Alex and Mischa Schneider, and Boris Kroyt (Note that although Wong referred to the members as “four crazy Russians,” the Quartet was actually comprised of Ukrainians and Lithuanians). The Music Division of the Library of Congress is home to the Budapest String Quartet Collection, which includes manuscript and printed scores and parts, programs, photographs, and other materials relating to the ensemble. Some classical music fans might already have identified them, since the Budapest did a residency at Mills for several years before taking up their more famous residence as the Library of Congress’s string quartet. The papers of Jade Snow Wong, now held in the Library’s Asian Division, reveal the further relationship of the quartet and their young chef.

The influence of the Budapest on Wong, both as performers and as dinner guests, was enormous. She was struck by how informal and friendly these “internationally celebrated figures” were. In drafts of her last, unpublished book, she enlarges on the story told in Fifth Chinese Daughter:

On the appointed evening, they all had to sit on the floor because the furniture had been picked up that day! The dean was getting married and moving to Portland. Rolled-up rugs against the wall became backrests. But the dean as hostess and her guests of international fame laughed away merrily—their appetites were not impaired. They kept coming to the kitchen to look at “What’s cooking next?” and offered assistance. American informality amazed me. No Chinese host would have had the nerve to carry off such an evening.

Exposure to these kinds of experiences, which she never would have had in the confines of her cramped Chinatown home and her father’s denim clothing factory, was a key part of Wong’s education at Mills. Esther Dayman (later Strong), the dean whom Wong boarded with as a student housekeeper, had recognized this and given her tickets to the Budapest’s concert series at Mills. Wong saved these programs all her life (they can still be seen in her scrapbooks in the Library). Though she did not become a classical music lover, the Budapest led her to the other arts: modern dance, which she loved to watch, and ultimately to her career of pottery, metalwork, and writing.

When they next met in 1953, Wong had gone from an unassuming collegian to a nationally renowned artist in her own right, thanks to her pottery and Fifth Chinese Daughter. On Wong’s way to Asia for a goodwill tour arranged by the Department of State, Strong hosted Wong, her husband, and the Budapest for supper at her new home in Portland. Interestingly, Wong wrote home, “the Quartet had not before known of being written up in Fifth Chinese Daughter so while Woody [Ong, Wong’s husband], Esther (our hostess) and I stirred up the makings for an Oriental lamb curry, we heard them chuckling to read about themselves, two years after some perhaps hundred thousand others had already read about them.”

Tragically, Strong’s husband Stuart passed away quite suddenly later the same month. She wrote to Wong, “You and the Budapest Quartet, were the last delightful and great event which Stuart and I shared together.” It made Strong’s affection for the Budapests all the stronger. Telegrams back and forth when either Wong or Strong saw the Budapests kept the group friendship alive.

Four images of the Budapest String Quartet performing in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Four images of the Budapest String Quartet performing in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The most vividly described gathering was in 1958, when Wong and her husband hosted the Budapest members and their wives for a Chinese dinner—Strong could not be present, but telegraphed greetings to them all, which were read out at dinner. This was a particularly intimate and hilarious gathering, as Wong wrote to Strong:

We did not have any other guests but them, which so relieved and surprised them, that they were rather deliriously free and uninhibited. We had wonderful conversations as they let down their hair and did take-offs on people who entertained them or lionized them, etc. We covered such a wide and miscellaneous range of subjects as Mischa on Liberace, (Mischa: he stinks!), Boris on Borge, Alex on would-be hostesses or enthusiastic backstage fans. We laughed and laughed and ate and ate, and drank and drank.

 

We reminised (sic): the party we had at the student union when you and Mrs. Judd were still at Mills. Boris, who can’t remember half the people who come back stage to see him, still remembered that we had drinks at Rosalind’s at Graduate House, before the party. We remembered some other parties we had at Kapiolani. Alex told of Aurelia’s [Reinhardt, the president of Mills] remonstrating him for keeping an ice box filled with wine at Orchard Meadow. But she began her lecture after she had offered him a drink!

This flood of reminiscence may have been the best possible ending to their meetings. There are no further mentions of the Budapest in Wong’s correspondence, and they may never have met again. The quartet wound down their recording and touring in the 1960s, and the outgoing Kroyt, seemingly Wong’s favorite of the four, passed away in 1969. Nonetheless, the affection and influence remained undiminished; Wong wrote about them as late as 2003, shortly before her own passing.

In the 1950s, Wong wrote to Strong, “I think only you and I have that particular fondness for [the Budapest]. Others of course love them too, but ours is a special feeling.” She sounds just like any superfan, convinced that they alone understand the artist, but indeed, the Budapests seem to have been able to relax and enjoy themselves with their old friends, revealing their quirky and humorous personalities. It seems fitting that these artists and mutual admirers meet again in the collections of the Library of Congress.

 

 

The Boris and Sonya Kroyt Memorial Fund at the Library of Congress was established in 1980 by Yanna Kroyt Brandt and Nathan Brandt in memory of her mother, Sonya, and father, Boris Kroyt, the illustrious violist of the famous Budapest String Quartet, to present concerts each year featuring the talents of gifted but not yet widely known musicians and to support concert broadcasts and recordings.

One Comment

  1. Institute for the Arts and Humanitiesat UNC
    January 6, 2016 at 2:17 pm

    What a beautifully written piece of history.

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