Meeting Winifred Atwell

Back in 1981 when I received news that Winnie was contemplating leaving Australia and returning to Trinidad, I thought that if I never made a move to try and meet her, I probably never would.

 I knew her husband’s surname was Levisohn and she lived at Narrabeen, so I looked up the only Levisohn, which was an “R” Levisohn, listed in the Sydney Telephone Directory at Narrabeen back in 1981;  and nervously dialled the number.

 Winnie unmistakably answered the phone and while trying to compose myself I told her that I was 23 years old, a big fan and would desperately like to meet her at a convenient time and place before she left Australia for Trinidad.

 To my surprise, she didn’t hesitate to invite me over to her beautiful High Rise Beachfront apartment at Narrabeen the following Saturday at 1.00pm in the afternoon.

 That whole week seemed to drag but finally that Saturday arrived on June 20, 1981.

 I remember distinctly that it was a rainy, overcast day, but I was not going to let that deter me from catching a bus to my local railway station at Punchbowl, then a ferry to Manly from Circular Quay and then a bus to Narrabeen from Manly if it meant meeting Winnie.

 My parents were both big Winnie fans too and decided to tag along, somehow not really believing that Winnie would actually take the time and trouble to meet us at her own place.

 We finally arrived at Narrabeen and I rang the intercom to her 6th floor apartment.

 Winnie answered on the intercom and unhesitatingly released open the security door to the main building for the lift leading up to her apartment where she promptly met us as the lift doors swung open.

 She invited us all in to her luxurious apartment with old English style wooden and fabric furnishings and with her famous Steinway Grand, a centrepiece in the loungeroom overlooking her balcony which in turn directly overlooked wide sweeping views of Narrabeen Beach.

 Winnie was the perfect hostess offering us coffee and gladly signing some LP sleeves I took along. My mother was so overwhelmed that tears of happiness welled up in her eyes.

 During the course of conversation I asked Winnie how the Other Piano was actually “detuned.”. She explained that all strings on the piano lower than the C below Middle C were tuned to concert pitch. One string from each set of two and three above that was detuned and all the remaining strings were tuned to concert pitch. This is how her “other piano” actually sounds out of tune because the majority of strings were still tuned correctly to concert pitch.

 I also remember a pleasant smell of some herbs bubbling away on her stove.

 I guess I was surprised at her relatively short stature.

 My father asked her if she liked having a bet on horses, to which I cringed, but she jokingly said she likes horses “but she doesn’t play them.”

 Out of the 2 LPS I took along for Winnie to sign, namely the Australian releases of Queen of Honky Tonk and It’s Ragtime Winnie said her favourite track from both albums was The Portrait Painter of Paree.

 As she knew I played and studied piano she even asked me to play something on her Steinway, so without any hesitation I played her concert arrangement of the Black and White Rag which she seemed quite impressed by.

 Then, she asked me to play some classical pieces, so I played the well known Chopin Waltz in G Flat Major and a Bach Two Part Invention in A Minor – and it became clearly evident that Winnie held “the classics” very close to her heart despite her Honky Tonk successes.

I told Winnie I always played along with her recordings on my piano and she said: "...oh, just like I used to do, with my Fats Waller records..."

 My mother felt it best to leave at this point and I often wondered if Winnie would have played for us had we stayed on, but Mum felt it best not to overstay our welcome and so we headed back for home.

 I really don’t remember the trip home very well because my head was still somewhat up in the clouds at having met Winnie.

 A few days after meeting Winnie, a parcel arrived unexpectedly in the mail from her, which contained an autographed picture of her sitting at a white grand piano, a custom made pair of cuff-links with a piano keyboard etched on them and a short Thank You note for coming to see her and wishing her goodbye.

 Thankfully, she never did leave for Trinidad and I sometimes hope our visit may have had some impact on her changing her mind.