There are some unusual books coming my way these days. The latest is an autobiography (more or less) of David Tucker; the middle son of the late Richard Tucker; a fixture at the Met for thirty years until his death in 1975. I found it fascinating but I’m not entirely sure whether that’s because it’s a good book or because of the many places where it has a lot of personal resonance for me. Both I suspect. I also found myself having very ambivalent feelings about David (and perhaps even more so Richard) Tucker but I don’t think it’s the purpose of a reviewer of an autobiography to make moral judgements about his subject. The reader can do that for him/herself.
The book falls into quite distinct sections. The first concerns growing up Jewish in Brooklyn in the 40s and 50s; a period before Tucker senior was really famous. Indeed one of the “what ifs” of the book concerns what the odds of a Jewish cantor from Brooklyn getting a Met audition, let alone a debut, would have been had the Met not been cut off from it’s usual supply of European singers by the war. Anyway, young David is a tearaway, always in trouble and ending up getting kicked out of Jewish school for assaulting a rabbi. It’s a vivid account of the life lived in the teeming “ethnic” quarters of New York in this period.(1)
Then comes reformation and the beginning of the epic struggle between father and son. David Tucker aspires to follow in his father’s footsteps. His father is determined that he go to medical school. The kid may be a delinquent but he’s not stupid and he does well at school, especially after the family’s move to Long Island following his father’s rapid rise to stardom.(2) There’s a degree of determination and stubbornness on both sides that’s truly epic. This is one of the points where I become very uncomfortable. One could attribute the highest of motives to both father and son but some of the incidents described are so mean spirited that I struggle to find much sympathy.
Then comes university (Tufts) and medical school (Cornell) and somehow managing to fit in carrying on with voice lessons with the sheer grind of medical school in the 1960s. All this is made even more complicated by an early marriage and children. It becomes clear clear that David Tucker is going to be a doctor, not a singer, and he’s good at it. His National Service (these are the Vietnam years) is spent at the National Institutes for Health and he moves on to a residency in ophthalmology (3) at the Baskin Palmer Eye Institute; becoming senior resident and studying in Colombia and Europe along the way. There’s also a near death experience. It’s a story full of incident. In Canada such an early career would have led inevitably to an appointment at an academic hospital. In the US though private practice offers a more lucrative option (and there are now four little Tuckers!) and that’s the route that David Tucker takes. He joins the practice of an older Jewish doctor in Cincinnati.
The early Cincinnati days are tumultuous. Tucker breaks up acrimoniously with colleagues in two practices while simultaneously rising to become a very young chief of ophthalmology at Cincinnati Jewish Hospital. It’s clear that this is the result of incredibly hard work based on brutally long work weeks plus a fair bit of schmoozing of the Cincinnati Jewish elite who aren’t necessarily dead chuffed about the rise of an outsider. There’s not so much about how Lynda Tucker copes with a mostly absent husband and four children but as I write they are still married! (4). This goes on for 35 years before Lynda’s desire to return to the east coast prompts (semi) retirement and a move to Connecticut. Also, of course, the relatively early death, in 1975, of the father.
Besides family, opera and medicine, the other theme that runs throughout the book is the whole complex of issues and attitudes around Jews, being Jewish, the Holocaust and Israel. Anybody who spends time with Jews (and especially people with Jewish families) will know that it’s a subject that, as the State of Israel and its politics have evolved, has become deeply emotive with very strong views on the key issues. David Tucker is definitely of the school that takes Jewishness very seriously and regards buying Israeli bonds as a sacred duty. It’s one way in which he is like his father; a man who on principle never sung in a German house.
So, The Hard Bargain is an eventful and powerful story. It’s well written with clarity and a certain elegance (Burton Spivak, Richard Tucker’s biographer is credited as co-author). I found it compelling but not altogether easy to read. Indeed I was rather torn at times between being desperately keen to read on and wanting to jump up and down on it!
The Hard Bargain; Music, Medicine, and my Father by David Tucker and Burton Spivak is available from Amazon in soft cover, hard cover and electronic formats.
- First personal intersection point. The lemur’s late father was a New York Jew a decade or so older than David Tucker. In a curious inversion of the Tucker story he chose to become a painter rather than the more conventional paths his family would have chosen for him.
- Ok so Richard Tucker was very much an “A list” singer but even those at the very top of the heap today don’t lead the life of first class flights, suites in top hotels and chauffeur driven cars that Tucker enjoyed. It’s hard to imagine Richard Tucker bicycling to rehearsals!
- There is lots of fascinating detail about developments in ophthalmological practice in the period. This is also where it gets personal as I would likely be blind by now if it wasn’t for some of those advances.
- I was mostly “on the road” working in international management consulting when my children were small. I’m not still married to their mother. I doubt that many women of my generation or younger would have relished the role that Lynda took on.