The extraordinary story of Maryla Jonas, who crossed hell and high water
to Carnegie Hall—and sudden fame, riches, and glory.
THE date was February 25, 1946, and
the place was Carnegie Hall in New
York. Even close observers of New
York's musical scene paid little
attention to the announcement that one
Maryla Jonas would play the piano in
that hall on that evening. Who had
ever heard of Maryla Jonas?
Apparently no one. The New York
manager putting on the recital knew
only that she had come up from South
America ten days before, and had been
born and trained in Poland. Could she
play the piano? The manager didn't
know; he'd never heard her.
Carnegie Hall, which seats almost
3,000, was grim and cavernous and
virtually empty. The ushers had
nothing to do. A handful of critics
wondered how long they would have
to sit through another dreary debut. A
few friends and relatives of the pianist
huddled in a couple of boxes, bitter at
the big city's coldness. No one bought
admission at the box office, and the
people who had received free tickets
didn't bother to use them. It looked like
a public wake, with precious little
The lights were dimmed and the
pianist walked out on the big stage.
She was about five feet six and well
padded in the wrong places, or so the
ill-fitting gown-made it seem. She
looked like a caricature of a suburban
"Good Lord," whispered one of the
long-suffering critics to a companion,
"what makes people like that try
Miss Jonas sat down at the big
Steinway and began to play. As she
lost herself in the music, she forgot that
this was almost a private recital. All the
emotions and understanding that had
accumulated within her over the years
came through, under the perfectly
controlled fingers. The tiny audience
listened in amazement, then in
absorption. The ushers stopped
whispering in the back of the hall. The
critics stayed to the end. There was
something irresistibly compelling about
this woman's music. The lady could
play—and how! The notices the next
morning were ecstatic.
Maryla (pronounced Marie-la)
Jonas found herself on February 26 an
overnight sensation. F. C. Coppicus,
vice-president of Columbia Concerts,
Inc., hastily signed her to a long-term
contract and booked her for another
recital at Carnegie Hall on March 30.
Tickets this time sold out, and every
pianist in town was in the audience.
The great hall was tense with one
question: Could she do it again?
This time Miss Jonas no longer
looked like a caricature. Her appearance
was en grande tenue, and so was her
playing. The question was answered
for all time. A new star was made.
Managers throughout the country
clamored for a date for the following
season. Artur Rodzinski, then music
director of the New York Philharmonic-Symphony
Orchestra, who had arranged
for all his soloists for the season, made
room for her to appear on the orchestra's
opening night—a signal tribute, since
the orchestra rarely has soloists at its
opening. Miss Jonas played just as
many concerts during the season as she
had time and energy for. Her earnings in
her first full season in this country, at
$1,000 an engagement, should be over
$50,000. Her manager has her booked
solidly into 1948. Next season her fee will
go as high as $2,000 a date. Columbia
Recording has given her a fat contract.
If there were nothing more to Maryla
Jonas' story, it would still rank as one of
the most vivid success yarns in years.
But there is more—much more. And it is a
story of and for our times.
Maryla was born in Warsaw in 1911
in a comfortably well-to-do family. At
seven she began to study the piano,
and at nine she was so good that she
made her debut with the Warsaw
Philharmonic, playing a Mozart
concerto. At eleven she was invited to
play for Paderewski. Her father, a
physician, didn't want his daughter to
seek a virtuosa's career; but when
Poland's greatest musician invited, one
did not decline. Maryla was a heavy,
self-conscious little girl. Her mother
dressed her in a short pink dress and
pink socks, and the young pianist
fretted over the way her legs looked
rather than how she would play.
was impressed; he offered to teach her.
Her father was worried.
"Patience," Paderewski consoled
him. "In a few years she may turn out
to be a mediocrity like most other
Paderewski's influence was the
profoundest in her life. She worked with
him periodically for many years. One
day he took her gently by the arm and
led her to a great window. Pointing to a
slum section of the city, he said, "Do
you see that street over there? You see
how it winds down into that alley?
Looks sordid, doesn't it? Well, there is
life. Go out and find out for yourself.
You'll be a better pianist."
Eventually she found out about the
bitterness and tragedy and ecstasy of
life. But she was only in her teens then,
a brilliantly successful youngster, and
her budding career was life enough.
AT fifteen she made her debut in
Germany, then a republic where art
and human generosity were valued.
For three years she worked there
with Emil Sauer, the famous pianist.
When she was sixteen and
seventeen she gave a series of
Mozart Festival recitals in Salzburg
and Bayreuth which earned her
tremendous acclaim. In 1932 she
won the International Chopin Prize
against all comers, and in 1933 she
walked off with another gaudy
award, the International Beethoven
Prize of Vienna. She toured Europe
and conquered wherever she went.
Here was one prodigy who had not
turned into a mediocrity. Her father
was reconciled to her music. But she
made him happier when she married.
Her husband was a distinguished
When the Nazis invaded Poland in
1939, Maryla and her husband, her
parents and her three brothers were in
Warsaw. Her sister, who had married a
Viennese Jew, had migrated to Brazil
when the Nazis moved into Austria the
year before. Maryla and her family lived
through the daily bombing of their
capital. They huddled in cellars and
shelters, changing their refuges as one
area after another was pulverized.
It was not long before resistance
was crushed and the Nazis moved into
Warsaw. Maryla's home was gone. Her
husband and brothers had taken up
arms and were somewhere with the
retreating Polish forces. Her father's
house still stood, but the Germans had
requisitioned it. She and her parents
drifted from one place to the next.
Finally, in one of the Germans' periodic
round-ups, they were hauled in.
They were questioned by the
Gestapo. The man who cross-examined
Maryla recalled that she had played in
Germany. He turned agreeable and
persuasive. "Why don't you go to
Berlin?" he suggested. "We'll send you
there in style. There you can play—and
Maryla shook her head—and was
locked up. She remained under arrest
for many weeks. One day a high
German officer who had heard her in
Germany had her released. He was
genuinely helpful. He advised her to
make for Berlin and apply at the
Brazilian Embassy for aid.
Maryla started for Berlin—on foot. She
walked the several hundred miles from
Warsaw to Cracow. From Cracow she
walked to Katowice, near the German
border. Somehow she got to Berlin. It
took weeks and weeks; she doesn't
remember how many. She seldom ate.
She slept in barns, under trees by the
The Brazilian Embassy in Berlin gave
her asylum and fixed up a false
passport that made her out to be the
wife of the Ambassador's son. With
him she flew to Lisbon, whence from
Lisbon she made her way by ship to
Rio de Janeiro and her sister.
ONCE safely in the Brazilian capital,
late in 1940, her nerves broke from the
strain. She spent months in
sanatoriums. When she seemed to be
mending, she received word that one of
her brothers had been killed. This was
followed by the news that her husband
and parents had perished.
Her sister, searching for some way to
reach through the haze of misery,
urged Maryla to resume playing the
piano, which she had not touched
since the attack on Poland. She could
not bring herself even to sit down
before a keyboard. Her mind was numb,
her fingers were stiff.
About this time Artur Rubinstein,
another illustrious Polish Pianist, came
to Rio in the course of a tour of South
America. He had known Maryla in
Warsaw, and called on her. He urged
her eloquently to resume playing. He
told her she was now a representative
of Poland. It was her duty, he said, to
keep reminding the world that her
country had stood for something, and
to work and earn money to help rescue
other Poles from their Nazi-dominated
homeland. She agreed with every word.
But she could not play.
Rubinstein is a man of character.
One morning he phoned and asked her
to come over to the Municipal Theater
to hear him rehearse his program for
that evening. She didn't want to go, but
her sister argued that she could not
insult Rubinstein by ignoring his
She went. Rubinstein played with
more fervor than a great pianist needs
to expend in a practice session. She
listened. Vague memories brushed her
mind, but they did not rouse her from
her apathy. When he finished,
Rubinstein asked her to try out the
piano while he went to the back of the
hall to test the acoustics. Miss Jonas
recalls that she was too inert to
remember that Rubinstein had often
played in that theater and knew
everything there was to know about it.
SHE shook her head. He insisted,
and made a great show of being
offended. So at last she went indifferently
to the piano. She recalls that it
was 2.30 P.M. when she sat down at the
keyboard. Her fingers drew out of the
hazy past precise recollections of
Mozart and Beethoven and Chopin and
Paderewski. She didn't notice the
minutes and hours slipping by, nor was
she conscious that the hall was filling
with the audience for Rubinstein's
concert, which was to start at 8. It was
7.30 P.M. when she arose from the piano.
There were tears in her sister's eyes.
Rubinstein was still there, too. He had
barely time to dress, and he had
not eaten. But Maryla had played. The
spell was broken.
A few days later Rubinstein arranged
for her to play at a private
gathering of musicians and critics. This
introduction led to a recital in Rio. She
was now awake, determined to build her
career anew. But building a career takes
time and money. In those days she
knew want. She lived in one small room,
hardly large enough for a piano.
Ernesto de Quesada, a manager,
began to book her, and in the next three
years she played all over South and
Central America. She did well, but her
fees were small. Quesada kept telling
her she must brave New York and click
there; otherwise she would not
command any real money in the rest of
Maryla figured she would need $2,000
to pay for the trip and the recital. Finally
she induced a Mexican friend to hire her
for eight radio concerts for that sum.
Her estimate was correct. She spent
$1,400 on the debut recital, and the rest
on traveling expenses.
For three days and night before the
Carnegie recital she could not sleep.
That did not alarm her; she thought it
was nerves. She had known more
sleepless nights than most people.
After the debut she took time to see a
doctor. It turned out that she had a
badly infected tooth.
And on the morning after her
debut a cable from Poland informed her
that one of her two surviving
brothers had been found dead—another
Miss Jonas has a distaste for
making herself out a tragic figure.
When I saw her in her small hotel room
shortly after her first New York recital,
she refused at first to tell her own
story. She insisted on talking about
the difficulties that face other young
musicians. She herself did not reveal
that dozens of fellow Poles were
thronging to her, seeking help and
advice. I got that story from those she
Several months ago she managed to
bring her last surviving brother, George
Jonas, to this country. The once
successful physician arrived here a
broken man. He had spent five years in
a concentration camp; the Nazis had
forced him to watch as his mother and
nine-year-old daughter were murdered.
His wife, also in America at last, had
been interned for three years.
THERE were, of course, many details to
take care of before Miss Jonas was
able to arrange for her brother's
passage. Last October, after they
had spent a long evening signing
papers and ironing out problems,
her lawyer, Joseph Sharfsin,
suggested that they go to a night
club for a relaxing hour.
"I don't like night clubs," Maryla
Sharfsin told her he would take her to
a small, quiet club. Too tired to argue,
she went. They met some friends of
his—another couple and their friend, Dr.
Ernest G. Abraham, a distinguished
endocrinologist. As Maryla tells it, they
sat at the same table for three hours,
and she and Dr. Abraham did not
exchange a word.
The next morning he phoned and
said he had to see her. She was leaving
that evening to start her concert tour,
and answered truthfully that she had
not a moment to spare. He insisted,
and she finally let him call. They talked.
As an amateur cellist, he understood
music and appreciated her art.
Somehow, he understood her, too.
She was deeply touched.
While she was on tour, Dr. Abraham
wrote to her and proposed marriage.
In December she was married to him.
Her husband puts her career first, she
"I think sometimes," she says, "he
loves artist first, woman in me second.
He says he knows I must travel. He will
be happy if I am home a few weeks a
year. And look at the apartment he
brings me to! Ten rooms! I feel like
Cinderella, and I worry—comes midnight,
She needn't worry. Dr. Abraham
understands the temperament of an
artist. Before a concert, as she puts it, "I
become monster." After a concert she
wants good food and good company
and doesn't fret about tomorrow's