by Mark N. Grant. The number of living people who actually knew Percy Grainger is shrinking every year. But former Grainger Board member Lucinda Hess, a pianist, and her brother Rick, a fine singer, still recall Percy and Ella vividly from their childhood visits in the 1950s to both 7 Cromwell Place and Ella’s Pevensey Bay house in England, as well as Percy’s many visits to their hometown, Cincinnati. (Rick and his wife Pat now live in Riverdale in the Bronx. Cindy lives in Putnam County. Her longtime partner, Edward Hogan, attended Grainger Board meetings with Cindy for years until his death in 1998.)
Percy gravitated to the Midwest and in the 1930s played concerts with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. After the war he returned to perform not only with the CSO under Thor Johnson’s baton but with semi-professional chamber music groups in the city. One of his prize students was the fine pianist Dorothy Payne (1904-1992), with whom he sometimes rehearsed his two-piano works. Mrs. Payne was the piano guru of Cincinnati and the doyenne of the city’s amateur music groups Matinee Musicale, which took place at the Netherland Plaza Hotel in the middle of the day, and the Keyboard Club. Rick and Cindy Hess’s mother, Lucinda Robb Hess (1912-2005), was a fine pianist herself and a student of Dorothy Payne (as well as of Claudio Arrau and Robert Goldsand). Their father Elmer owned the Hess Blueprinting company in town and was a gifted amateur pianist who couldn’t read music but could play anything by ear.
Rick remembers during his college years at Miami University of Ohio singing Ella’s composition Farewell to An Atoll (arranged by Percy) in Mrs. Payne’s living room with Percy in the audience; Percy warmly complimented Rick on his singing. Rick and Cindy also witnessed Ella performing on the Solovox during one of these concerts. “Percy was so patient; a lot of the pianists in the club weren’t the best musicians but he was very nice to everybody,” recalls Cindy. He was informal, she adds: “One time the pedals sort of fell down suddenly from the piano, and Percy stopped playing and got up and raced over to prop the pedals up with a book he found in the room.” Rick confirms that Percy was kind and patient. “I remember Percy accompanying the locals Pete and Louise Wilshire on the clarinet and violin. They were terrible!” he grins, adding “I also heard Percy late in life play his 4-hand arrangement of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess with Mrs. Payne at the Women’s Club in Cincinnati. He must have missed half the notes!” But in earlier performances Rick says he found Percy’s energy and fire larger than life (and his accuracy better).
Mrs. Hess met Ella through Mrs. Payne and thereafter she would visit 7 Cromwell Place every year in January or February. She must have met Elsie, Ella’s daughter from a previous liaison, too, because in 1953 or 1954 she insisted on taking Cindy and Rick during a trip to Europe to meet Elsie and her husband Robert Bristow at Ella’s cottage on Pevensey Bay, a seaside resort on the southeast coast of England. Teenagers at the time, Rick and Cindy were told that they were meeting Ella’s “ niece” (as Ella herself referred to Elsie). They visited only for the day, and remember Elsie and Robert as being lovely hosts, although they recall being told that Robert had recently gotten rid of a nice garden there and replaced it with stones.
Later in the 1950s Mrs. Hess brought Rick and Cindy to visit 7 Cromwell Place. During lunch on one visit, Ella opened a six-ounce bottle of coke and meted out four single glass servings to Mrs. Hess, Rick, Cindy, and Percy, admonishing Percy, “Don’t drink it all at once!” while she herself drank Vichy water. Another time, while Ella was chatting with Cindy on the front stairs to the porch, Cindy remembers “Percy suddenly appeared from behind after doing a pirouette over the top of the wood balustrade to the porch” – he was about 75 at the time– to which Ella quipped, “He’s showing off for you, young lady.” Indeed, Percy was still energetic; during one practice session in the music room at Cromwell Place, with Cindy and her mother at one piano and Percy at the other, he stopped suddenly, jumped up and crossed to the other piano and said, “You missed a note!” But on later visits, Percy increasingly looked “spaced out”: in the terminal phase of his cancer, they recall, he just stared a lot.
Cindy also recalls that during those visits to Percy and Ella at Cromwell Place in the 50s, Burnett Cross, the physics teacher who worked with Percy on his Free Music machines, was there a lot of the time. “The Free Music machines took up the whole living room,” says Cindy now. She remembers that “Ella seemed very gracious and kind. She struck me as both elegant and delicate.”
Another musical Cincinnatian who visited Percy at 7 Cromwell Place in the 50s was Ramona Helfer (1909-1972), who as “Ramona” was a popular jazz singer/pianist who appeared on radio and with the Paul Whiteman Band in the 1930s. (Her third husband was the well-known baseball broadcaster Al Helfer, whom Rick Hess met and remembers as being a huge bear of a man; Al sometimes stayed over at the Hess home in Cincinnati.) In the late 1950s Burnett Cross made several home recordings of Percy and other musicians playing the pianos in the Cromwell Place music room. Percy had recently seen the 1957 film The Bridge Over the River Kwai and made an arrangement for six hands at one piano of the film’s theme, the “Col. Bogey March.” Here is a recording of a 7 Cromwell Place rehearsal of that piece played by Dorothy Payne, Ramona Helfer, and Ella, with Percy coaching the threesome in the background.
Mrs. Payne and Mrs. Hess continued to visit Ella at 7 Cromwell Place for some years after Percy’s death in 1961. During one visit in the late 1960s, while they were sitting in Ella’s bedroom upstairs, Ella confided, “I’m in love!” She was referring to Stewart Manville, our late archivist/curator. Stewart and Ella got married in 1972.
Postscript: Dorothy Payne wrote a memoir of her life and career that contains several chapters on Percy Grainger. It has recently been updated by her daughter, Rebecca Shockley and republished.