Piatigorsky: Her Triumph Was an Identity of Her Own

Times Staff Writer

For someone who claims that fear is the story of her life, Jacqueline Piatigorsky seems unintimidated by the incredibly heavy Carrara marble sculpture that needs to be moved.

“Don’t touch it,” says the 77-year-old white-haired woman curtly as she eases her cumbersome, dusty work in progress from one platform to another. “You don’t know how to handle it.”

It seems she has conquered fear, the fear she writes of extensively in “Jump in the Waves,” an autobiography that traces her life, from birth into the superrich Rothschild clan to a loveless first marriage and happy second marriage to the late, renowned cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, with whom she had two children.

But readers hoping to find this a poor-little-rich-girl story or a gossipy tell-all book will be disappointed. This is Jacqueline’s story, simply told, of her struggle to find an identity that wasn’t tied to someone else.


She had been the daughter of and the wife of for decades before coming into her own as a pianist, sculptor, an accomplished tennis and chess competitor, and now an author. While classical music aficionados may be attracted to the Piatigorsky name, the book is definitely her story.

“There were two groups of people,” she explains. “One wanted the Rothschild story, and one wanted the music, the Piatigorsky story. But nobody wanted my story. And I was writing my story. I wasn’t interested in commercializing it. This is me, take it or leave it.”

Her story begins with bitter, angry childhood memories of being raised by competitive, sadistic nannies (there was one for each of the three children) who belittled her talents. She rarely had contact with her parents while growing up in palaces in France, cut off from the world.

With no friends to speak of, shy and withdrawn, she was never encouraged to do anything but marry well. Through her first marriage--sidetracked by an obsessive pursuit of pianist Alfred Cortot--and a second marriage, she felt compelled to achieve at something.

Eventually, through chess, tennis and sculpting, she did. All three she continues today, competing in tennis tournaments and carving the massive blocks of marble and alabaster into strong, fluid, spare shapes.

Several unfinished sculptures, including busts of her husband, cello scroll on his shoulder, stand in the airy studio off the main house. Piatigorsky’s Brentwood home of about 40 years looks more like a country house with its wide expanse of yard, back-yard tennis courts and three friendly dogs.

Piatigorsky admonishes the animals to behave, then gives each a pat. She is a sturdy woman, obviously athletic (she runs to the telephone when it rings) with kind eyes and a warm smile.

Strangers sometimes find her brusque at first but that’s probably leftover shyness. During an interview, she stops and asks, “Am I doing all right? I’m afraid I’m not very good at this.”


Writing the book wasn’t even her idea: 40 years ago, she wrote 100 pages about her childhood, put it in a drawer and promptly forgot it. “I had some garbage to get out of my system,” she says. “I did it to free myself from my childhood. I think it always helps to write things down.”

When brother Guy de Rothschild’s memoirs (“The Whims of Fortune”) were published in 1985, she hunted for those pages and showed them to a friend. “She said, ‘It’s very good. You have to finish it,’ ” Piatigorsky recalls. “By then, I was working with the stone and had no intention of finishing it. But she pestered me for two years, almost daily, and I was so tired of being pestered and said, ‘All right, I’ll try.’ ”

Central Part

Piatigorsky had written the central part of the book on Cortot when she was 18 or 19. “It was a little bit like a letter,” she explains, “from a girl with a teen-ager’s crush.”


The anger apparent in her early years is gone now. “I used all those strong feelings toward a creative purpose, which is working with stone, and sports, which is much better than being bitter. I think one of the important points in the book I wanted to show is that one can use any kind of feeling in a creative way, rather than dwell on negative feelings. I got one interesting letter from a woman who had had a bad accident. She said it was really the right book because it gave courage and showed how to rebuild . . . I think that anybody who feels depressed or squashed or doesn’t quite succeed at first should be able to feel that if one sticks with it, one can achieve what one wants.”

The book is being used as a supplemental text in a humanities course at Stephens College in Missouri. Prof. Erwin Wright says the book fits in with his “Arts in Historical Perspective” class because "(Jacqueline Piatigorsky) has experienced art first-hand throughout her life, through her art and music, and her contact with famous people like Cortot, and (pianist) Artur Rubinstein. Also, Stephens College is a women’s college, and they are interested in role models, in women who have overcome certain things, as she did.

“You get a strong sense of a powerful woman who started out in a number of directions and accomplished goals in each of them,” he adds. “She wasn’t single-minded and one-directional throughout her life.”

Wright, who has seen her sculptures in photographs, calls it “very powerful . . . and very minimal in lots of ways. It strikes me very much like her; she’s avoided any kind of excesses in her life, and I see that in the sculpture too.”


Benjamin Horowitz, owner of the Heritage Gallery in Los Angeles, where Piatigorsky sculptures are on view through the month, says her works “flow--they are poetic. Basically it’s a sort of freedom she’s seeking, I think. She told me that when she was a child she was very restricted, but she lived in a palace that had a big lake, and she used to watch the birds with their head in the water. She started doing birds in sculpture, and other things began to flow. Subconsciously she’s flying free with her sculpture.”

Piatigorsky’s own enjoyment of her art is “not exactly relaxing,” she says. “It’s hard work, physically and mentally. There are different ways of working. Many people look at a stone and see something in it. I can’t do that. I have to feel something from within. I’ll sketch something, and then find a stone which will fit it. Like the book, too, it came from within.”

Is there another book within her? “I’m not planning to write one,” she says lightly. “But one never knows.”