The Rehabilitation of Eugene Fodor : After a bout with drugs and a trespassing arrest, the ‘Cowboy Violinist’ regains control of his life and continues his concert career
“Would you mind taking your shoes off?” Eugene Fodor inquires of a visitor ushered into the violinist’s Upper West Side Manhattan apartment. “I have a white rug.”
He is relaxed and looks remarkably fit in black jeans, a Western silver belt and T-shirt, despite a wide-open window to the 27-degree temperature outside. At 39, he could easily pass for at least 10 years younger.
He is ready to talk about events leading up to his arrest on July 27 in a vacant hotel room on Martha’s Vineyard when he was charged with breaking and entering and possession of a controlled substance, cocaine. He says he had money to pay for the room, but because it was late at night with no hotel clerk on duty and desperately needing to “crash,” he broke in.
Fodor is luckier than most. A Massachusetts court dropped the drug charge, citing him only for trespassing, a misdemeanor, on condition he enter a drug rehabilitation program. He did, and his slate is clean.
His situation is a far cry from what it was in 1974 when he returned from Moscow after winning the silver medal (actually a tie with two other contestants) in the International Tchaikovsky Competition. The gold medal was not awarded, so it could be said in truth no one bested him.
Before that, he had won first prize in the International Paganini, the Merriwether Post and the Young Musicians Foundation of Los Angeles competitions, after study with Jascha Heifetz, Joseph Szigeti and Josef Gingold, among others.
While his win didn’t place him in the same league with Van Cliburn’s triumph in Moscow, Fodor still was something of a hero and was met at the Denver airport (Turkey Creek, Colo., was his home) by his parents, his girlfriend and his horse. He took to posing in jeans with his shirt open to the waist.
The media loved it. He was dubbed the “Cowboy Violinist,” and made the television national newscasts, going on to appear on “The Tonight Show” (14 times) and play at the White House. He signed a contract with RCA Records. Most of the major American orchestras and concert series wanted him. He was a Golden Boy, but many serious musicians and critics were irritated. He admits the image may have hurt him, and says he tried to shed it, but, “I guess it’s (fouled up).”
As time went on, however, and he was not so young anymore, the aura of success began to fade. He made the somewhat naive discovery that the music business was not an altruistic one, but one dominated, he says, by an exclusive troika of conductors, orchestra and artist managers. Disillusioned, he became increasingly frustrated and unhappy.
His reputation in the business then: He was not maturing as an artist, and was only interested in the virtuoso display pieces of such as Paganini and Sarasate, not the great repertory works of Beethoven, Brahms or Sibelius. Fodor insists that he had these big works under his belt, and indeed played them, but that the stories were an excuse by his manager, Harold Shaw, of his own “mismanagement and greed.”
The violinist claims he preferred to do smaller festivals for less money, which would give him an opportunity to grow and explore other repertory, but that Shaw was interested in dollars and cents.
“When I first appeared on the Great Performers Series at Lincoln Center in 1974, his coercion bordered on rage that I played the virtuoso stuff and not the Bach, Prokofiev and Beethoven I wanted. I tried to get out of my contract three years before it was up, but he wouldn’t let me go.”
Shaw, who was Fodor’s manager for eight years, would not accept phone calls. He stated through a spokeswoman that he would have no comment on Fodor.
Fodor also contends that the horse-at-the-airport idea was that of the publicity firm hired by Shaw, Gurtman & Murtha.
“I don’t remember whose idea the horse was,” James Murtha commented, “but let’s face it, Eugene was a cowboy and liked to show it off. He would come to an interview in cowboy shirt, Levi’s and boots. And he was quick to pull out pictures of his horse. We tried to counter the image with appearances at conservative festivals like Caramoor (where) we would have no press if it weren’t for that image. If he were just a regular classical artist they wouldn’t have cared less. Also, there was some resentment when we said he won top prize at the Tchaikovsky, which he did, but technically it was a tie for second.
“The whole thing is very unfortunate. The concert business in America is dying today. Only about 10% of the audience are committed serious music lovers. When once a university would have 60 events a season, now they have only six, and among those they want pop attractions.
“Eugene could have bridged the gap had he expanded his repertory. He still could bring people in, and if they liked him, they just might be curious enough to go, say, to the Cleveland Orchestra for a concert, even without a soloist.”
Fodor maintains he was not suffering burnout, that his love of music was a deep and renewing experience and always had been. Because of politics, he says, many good people are ignored. Since 1982, he has been managed by Vincent Wagner of the Hillyer International Agency.
As for his recording career, after four years and six records Fodor was dropped by RCA. That this happened was not entirely Fodor’s fault. Since RCA had struck gold with Van Cliburn, RCA over the years often signed up the latest boy wonder or contest winner, and when the Cliburn lightening did not strike Fodor, the record label let him go. Efforts to reach RCA officials over the holidays were unsuccessful.
In the meantime Fodor’s personal life was being affected. He was divorced from his wife, a former Denver resident who now lives in Washington with their three children, a boy, 5, and two girls, 8 and 9. In February of this year Fodor said that he began to experiment with cocaine on social occasions but that the habit soon escalated. What about heroin? “I don’t remember if I tried it. It was mostly other drugs, but chiefly cocaine.”
His friends began to notice a physical change, particularly weight loss. One who hadn’t seen him in a number of months was shocked at his skeletal appearance. Fodor knew he was in trouble, and tried to get help. He even went to a few meetings of a rehabilitation program, but as he puts it, “I couldn’t get a grip on myself.”
“The day I was arrested, I never felt so alone in my life. I called both my parents, and while they knew I had a problem, they both were shocked. We believed in discipline at home, particularly my father.” He has not tried to blame them for anything, and says he bears no resentment.
His mother, Antoinette Fodor, says she and her husband, Eugene Fodor Sr., visited their son a month before the arrest and were distressed by his appearance. They knew something was wrong but had no idea it might involve drugs.
She reminisces with some pride: “When he was little, he begged for the violin when he saw his older brother John playing. We didn’t know it then, but he had a genius IQ. He was an overactive child. By the time he was 11 or 12 he told us he was going to be a star. Of course the discipline was more than ordinary, it had to be. The worst punishment we could give him for not practicing was to take the violin away from him. After a while, he would practice five or six hours a day without being told to.
“We tried to even things out with recreation. He learned to scuba dive and took boxing lessons, since the other kids taunted him about being a sissy.
“We don’t see each other too often but we keep in touch by telephone. When he was arrested we didn’t come back to see him because that was a lot to spend for airfare, but he knew we supported him.”
The musician entered what he prefers to call a “recovery program” at Conifer Park Facility near Schenectady, N.Y., which offers a 12-step plan described as a “lifetime process” based not on a religious (he says he has no religion) but a spiritual way of life, “a fellowship of humanity and caring, which is the most profound I’ve ever witnessed.”
“I was at the facility for 28 days. I attended 90 meetings after I got out. Now I go a couple of times a week. Only last night I spoke at one. Our experiences give strength and hope. We have telephone therapy all the time, discussing getting better. You stay clean one day at a time. It is an open-ended treatment.
“I’m living a completely normal life now, and the desire to use cocaine has been lifted. If I saw drugs being used at a party, I would probably object to it and leave.”
He has a girlfriend who, he says, has been very supportive. He has no plans for marriage at this time.
The music business has been supportive of him, and no engagements have been canceled because of his arrest. His first concert was in Peekskill, N.Y., and he played 11 other dates since he left Conifer Park, the most important of which was a solo recital without even an accompanist on Martha’s Vineyard.
“I wanted to face my demons there,” he explains. “When I was arrested I was treated with utmost dignity. The audience gave me strength, and I wanted to give something back in gratitude for the clean life I have now. The proceeds of that night went to a drug rehab program on the island.
“I’ve appeared at a couple of schools in Texas on behalf of rehab, and when I do one of my artist-in-residence appearances, I always speak for the last 10 minutes on the dangers of drugs.”
His manager, Wagner, admits there were problems after the arrest. “Of course it was a detriment for a while. People were not sure of his availability because of the mandatory drug sentencing laws in Massachusetts. Since a wire service story, which was positive, however, and the ’20/20' television program (Dec. 15), things have begun to break, really in the last few weeks.
“Eugene always wanted to play the big pieces, and we try for him, but when someone like Riccardo Muti asks for the Paganini, as he did a couple of years ago, you do it. At that same time he performed the Beethoven with the Beethoven Society in Carnegie Hall, but he wasn’t even reviewed. He played Mozart with Lukas Foss and the Brooklyn Philharmonic, and it was beautiful. I think some people are envious that he could do the virtuoso pieces so easily, and that’s why stories go around. His fee has remained consistent the last few years, in the $7,000-$10,000 category.”
Fodor speaks of the future. “I have orchestral dates with the Warsaw Philharmonic and one in Sofia, a festival in Switzerland and concerts in England and France. In the States, I have orchestra dates in Phoenix, Denver, Sioux City, Burlington, Vt., and others I don’t want to comment on until contracts are signed. There have even been some nibbles from recording firms.
“I lift weights, ride my bicycle and am otherwise physically back to normal. And I’ll tell you one thing, I’m not afraid.”