by Warren M. Sherk
First of two parts
The rooftop view from a luxury apartment on the Champs-Élysées must have been pretty heady stuff for a twenty-year-old American student interested in a career in music. Barely two years had passed since Arthur Zepp left his family home in Indiana for New York City. A job there as an elevator operator brought him in contact with concert pianist Dimitri Tiomkin, who took him under his wing as his butler. And now they were in the City of Lights for a concert at the Paris Opera where Tiomkin would soon take the stage for the highly anticipated European premiere of George Gershwin’s Concerto in F.
It was March 1928 and the city was abuzz with the news that American jazz was coming to the rarified air of the Paris Opera. Over the course of the previous four years Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue had become a runaway hit with audiences of all types. And now Gershwin’s latest work, the Concerto in F, would be heard for the first time in France with the composer attending and Tiomkin at the piano.
Tiomkin was the toast of the town and Parisians were clamoring to hear Gershwin’s latest work. Jazz was an emerging force and Gershwin’s Rhapsody had hit a nerve by combining the sacred and the profane, concert music and popular music side-by-side in a free-for-all masterwork of undeniable genius. Concert halls in Europe were just opening up to the new sound. As a classically-trained pianist from Russia, Tiomkin contributed some measure of respectability to the scene. Tiomkin himself was fresh from his Carnegie Hall debut where he introduced American audiences to contemporary French music for the piano along with his own composition “Quasi Jazz.”
Tiomkin’s name appeared in large block letters on billboards throughout Paris proclaiming “TIOMKIN GODOWSKY BRAILOWSKY.” Concertizing at the same time were the Ukrainian French pianist Alexander Brailowsky (1896–1976), noted specialist in the works of Frédéric Chopin, and the highly regarded Polish American pianist Leopold Godowsky (1870–1938). Coincidentally, Godowsky’s son Leopold Jr. married George Gershwin’s sister, Frances. Notice the relative size of Tiomkin’s name compared to Gershwin on the left in the above photo.
The story of how Arthur Zepp ended up in Paris with Dimitri Tiomkin begins in the mid-West and hinges on an opportune meeting outside an elevator in New York.
Growing up in the mid-West, small town America
Arthur Thomas Zepp (1908-2001) was born in Holland, Ohio on January 3, 1908. In his youth, strong mid-Western roots seemed to keep the family home to a concentrated area of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.
(Left and above: Scrapbook pages with photos that show the Zepp family home that burned to the ground on Christmas Eve in 1912 along with the replacement home constructed at the same site. Courtesy Tom Zepp.)
Arthur often tagged along with his father, itinerant preacher Arthur C. Zepp, to play piano at tent meetings, revivals, and church services in the tri-state area, along with jaunts farther afield to Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. To supplement their income the family took in student boarders. Music came into the home by way of a Brunswick phonograph.
While the church provided an early music outlet for Zepp, his study of classical music with a local music teacher would considerably impact his future. The Zepp family lived in Upland, Indiana, near Taylor University where during his high school years Zepp took lessons from Dr. A. Verne Westlake.
Taylor University, a private evangelical Christian liberal arts college, is situated midway between Indianapolis and Fort Wayne. (Zepp’s father taught for a year at Taylor in 1905.) The piano department in 1920 rivaled the largest music schools in America with its rigorous standards and course of study. Under the directorship of Dr. Westlake, the piano department was one of the largest and most prominent departments at the school. Westlake, a pianist and organist, studied in Vienna with Polish pianist Theodor Leschetizky and several of his able assistants. Westlake left Taylor around 1923 to start the New York Piano Conservatory and School of Affiliated Arts with studios in Carnegie Hall and Nyack, New York.
In addition to the church, Tom Zepp recalls his father mentioning that as a teenager he played piano in a movie theater for a major theatrical film release. Given the time period, this may have been the 1924 re-release of the 1915 film Birth of a Nation.
After graduating from high school Zepp pursued his study of piano with Dr. Westlake in New York. Zepp made a favorable impression on Dr. Westlake, who in a letter to Arthur C. Zepp had kind words for the Arthur’s future.
During a break from school, Zepp joined a traveling music group. As the leading talent in the Wright Entertainers concert company, he appeared in a musical program at the Immanuel Church in Iowa with two other young men in January 1927. Billed as “Artistes Versatile,” the trio was sent out from Upland by the Programme Association management company whose motto was “quality makes the reputation.” One previous concert attendee raved it was the best concert they had heard in eight years. The program blended music, song, dramatics, and recitation. Zepp performed teh devilishly difficult “Feux D’Artifice” by Debussy. Of the piece, years later Zepp would remark to his son, Tom, with some embarrassment, “What was I thinking? Such a modern piece. I never should have played that!”
The choice of a contemporary, nearly atonal work, by a French composer is of interest since it is similar to music being programmed and performed by Tiomkin during this same time period. And it may also explain why Tiomkin was drawn to helping the young pianist after their chance meeting a few months later. The Wright Entertainers took the concert in a whole different direction when they all stepped up to a marimba for an encore finale by punching out “Near My God to Thee” with their fingernails on the wooden bars of the instrument.
Zepp returned to New York to continue his studies. To support himself he took a job as an elevator operator at The Osborne apartments.
The Osborne building, New York
Home to New York’s cultural elite, The Osborne apartments at 205 West 57th Street sat catercorner to Carnegie Hall which served as a magnet to those seeking to earn a living through performing serious music. In America, a recital at Carnegie Hall was an important stepping stone to establishing a career as a musician.
Living across the street from the famed concert hall had its advantages as the location attracted a diverse cross-section of those working in music, theater, and the literary worlds. The Osborne was one of the first high-rise luxury apartment buildings in New York, having been built in the 1880s. Today a two-bedroom apartment in the landmark building can be had for a mere $5.9 million.
Dimitri Tiomkin and his wife, choreographer Albertina Rasch, resided on the building’s fourth floor. The elevator operated by Zepp was a short distance from the Tiomkin apartment and the sounds of the piano could be heard wafting through the halls. It was 1927 and Tiomkin was preparing his solo recital for Carnegie Hall. Zepp would occasionally hold the elevator at the fourth floor to enjoy the music. As a result, Zepp became acquainted with Tiomkin, striking up conversation and expressing his own interest in music. One day Tiomkin invited the young student inside and Zepp played some Chopin and an original composition by his teacher.
Tiomkin quickly hired Zepp on as a butler and, as time passed, his wide-ranging duties grew to include ironing clothes, running errands, answering the telephone, and eventually even chauffeuring. There was some tension between Zepp and Albertina Rasch, who wasn’t as pleased with the arrangement as Tiomkin. Rasch would have preferred a European-trained butler, and felt Zepp should behave more like a servant.
When the Tiomkin’s relocated to a seven-room apartment in the building to allow for more entertaining possibilities, Zepp moved in to the servant’s quarters. (The floor plan was probably similar to above example. Notice the servant’s bedroom, number 9 in the upper right corner.) For dinners and evening soirees, dressed for the part by Albertina, Zepp would butler in formal wear and serve professionally-prepared food to the invited guests, which often included an assemblage of Europeans and Americans, such as composer George Gershwin, Polish-born pianist and composer Leopold Godowsky, French conductor Vladimir Golschmann, and French actress Lili Damita. The conversation and informal music further stimulated Zepp’s interest in culture.
At this time Tiomkin was preparing Gershwin’s Concerto in F for the Paris Opera concert. Tiomkin’s role was to introduce Gershwin to the classical world. During this time Gershwin would come over for dinner and Zepp, while butlering and serving, could observe the composer up close. To Zepp, socializing was not Gershwin’s strong suit and he did not appear particularly happy. His playing at social gatherings become so expected, the joke in New York was that Gershwin was at a dinner party last night and he didn’t play the piano. Zepp observed that when Gershwin did play at dinner parties he tended to play everything at a really fast tempo.
Zepp’s American idealism was attractive to Tiomkin, as the concert pianist wished to be Americanized, and to immerse himself in American culture and democracy. Zepp was bright and open-minded; however, he was naïve to European culture and class consciousness due to his insular mid-Western upbringing. For both Tiomkin and Zepp it was an exciting and vibrant time in the city, the Roaring Twenties were in full swing and the influx of Europeans and African Americans was having an impact as well as sparking excitement in the arts.
When the Tiomkins planned a trip to Paris, Albertina suggested they take Zepp, who was delighted at the prospect. “Indispensable,” Tiomkin later wrote, “He was invaluable, helping us pack, getting aboard the ship, looking after things during the voyage.”
First class on the high seas
“Well here I am sailing the blue Atlantic on one of the most magnificent liners afloat,” wrote “Art” to his mother back home. The Tiomkins were on their way to France for the previously mentioned concert featuring the Gershwin and Liszt concertos as well as a piano recital by Tiomkin.
To reach Paris, Zepp traveled in style with the Tiomkins aboard the SS Leviathan. The Leviathan became the property of the United States after the first World War as part of the war reparations from Germany. In its home country the ship was known as Der Vaterland (The Fatherland). Fellow passengers on this voyage would include violinist Fritz Kreisler and Will Hays. Indiana-born Hays had served as U.S. Postmaster General, chairman of the Republican National Committee, and would soon become a central figure in American film self-censorship, through what would become known as the Hays Code. Coincidentally the Hays Code would effect a future film (Duel in the Sun) to be scored by Tiomkin.
Zepp filled the pages of his letter home with details of the ship and splendid voyage. The Tiomkin party, including “Mr. Dimitri Tiomkin and valet,” left New York on March 23, 1928. Zepp’s stateroom, steps away from the Tiomkin’s first class suite, was connected by phone and Zepp could easily be summoned. That turned out not to be necessary as the ship provided all.
How ‘ya Gonna to Keep ‘em Down on the Farm, After They’ve Seen Paree?
The party hit the ground at Cherbourg and hopped on a train to Paris. There, the Tiomkin’s checked into the Hotel Majestic, one of the most expensive in the city, at Rue de Kleber near the Bois de Boulogne. Before long they took up residence in a leased apartment, first at the aforementioned 77 Champs Elysées, followed by 9 Rue Boccadore. Accustomed to American cities laid out in a grid, Zepp wrote the Paris streets ran “here and there in the most confusing fashion.”
(Arthur Zepp’s mapbook, courtesy Tom Zepp.)
At the Tiomkin’s apartment a professional French chef added to the homey atmosphere. The cook, Mme. Elise Forrestier, taught Zepp enough French to get by.
Zepp’s job was to set the table, serve dinner, and to collect, wash, and store the dishes, glasses, and silverware. After each dinner party, Mme. Forrestier would exclaim, “Compter l’argenterie!” (“Count the silver!,” to be sure that all pieces were accounted for and no guests had pocketed any valuables.)
The fringe benefits were tough to beat. George Gershwin gave impromptu concerts of his own music, including the Rhapsody in Blue, and Tiomkin’s two pianos were available to Zepp for practice. Tiomkin himself spent hours at one of the Gaveau concert grands practicing the Liszt Concerto in A and Gershwin’s Concerto in F.
One memorable errand had Zepp hand delivering Aaron Copland’s “Cortege Macabre” in manuscript form to the apartment of famed teacher M. Boulanger. (Charles Fox, Quincy Jones, and a bevy of other American composers later made the trek to Paris solely to study with Boulanger.) Copland’s work was to be featured on the concert along with Weber’s Ouverture d’Euryanthe and the two works of Gershwin and Liszt featuring Tiomkin.
A week prior to the big night, the Tiomkins hosted a reception to honor Gershwin. Among the guests were Opera director M. Fouquier, conductor Vladimir Golschmann, composers Arthur Honneger, Maurice Ravel, and Alexander Tansman, actor Maurice Chevalier, and Gershwin’s siblings, brother Ira and sister Frances.
Tiomkin had a special visitor of his own when his mother came to Paris from Russia. When Zepp was enlisted to give Marie Tiomkin a tour of the city he promptly lost her, an embarrassment that he never forgot. His son, Tom Zepp, remembers that his father was gifted Marie Tiomkin’s veneer suitcase that she brought from Russia, now unfortunately lost to the passage of time.
The May 29 concert was a resounding success. Zepp later recalled that the Liszt concerto provided an interesting contrast to the modern jazz Americanisms of Gershwin.
When the classically-trained first trumpet player refused to “play in the hat” as required by Gershwin’s jazz score, the Americans went into action. Years later, Zepp retold the story for a Clavier magazine article he penned.
A suitable mute could not be found for the important blues trumpet solo in the slow section of the Concerto. Gershwin was discussing this with the Tiomkins in the music room. Yank ingenuity suggested solving the problem by using a derby hat. Tiomkin called me in and handed me a large bill of French money. My assignment was to accompany Gershwin to a nearby men’s store to purchase a derby…That evening Mrs. Tiomkin cut the rim off the derby. I was instructed to purchase some gold paint (bronze probably) and put on the finishing touch. With a small paint brush I finished the job late that night in my upstairs room. The result looked quite authentic.
Home sweet home
After four months the trip of a lifetime came to an end. Gershwin was so inspired he would soon pen “An American in Paris” based on his experiences in the city.
The Tiomkins returned to New York with Zepp in tow, this time listed as Tiomkin’s “manservant.”
The term manservant is now synonymous with a present-day personal assistant. In the 1920s, a manservant’s chief responsibilities included maintaining his employer’s wardrobe and accompanying him on trips. When Zepp left the Tiomkins he was referred to as a “private secretary in a large household” where “his duties involved a large amount of detail work with many responsibilities.” (See Albertina Rasch’s letter of recommendation, November 8, 1929, below.)
Leaving Cherbourg on August 2 for the return to New York, they sailed on the SS Olympic, the fourth largest ship in the world at the time.
Fellow passengers included American socialite Virginia Fair Vanderbuilt and her son William Kissam Vanderbuilt and Fife Symington. One of the nightly programs apparently included stage actress Eleanor Joyce performing a recitation.
By the time the Tiomkin party returned from Paris “talkies” had invaded New York. The summer of 1928 saw the release of the box office sensation The Singing Fool, Warner Bros. follow-up to The Jazz Singer. Albertina immediately sensed that her livelihood in vaudeville was threatened by the latest technology and that Hollywood movies were the face of the future.
Back in New York
Back home, the Tiomkins decided to purchase a new car and Zepp was sent to search for Cadillacs, Pierces, and Arrows, receiving sixty dollars for his efforts. With the purchase of a spanking new Packard automobile, the Tiomkins were in need of a driver, so Zepp added chauffeur to his duties.
At the time, the automobile had not completely superseded horse-drawn carriages and when Zepp was involved in a fender bender, even the police arrived on horseback. That night at the apartment, Zepp overheard Tiomkin covering for him while exaggerating the circumstances to Albertina and saying something to the effect, “it’s no miracle we no killed!” and explaining how Zepp “saved the day.”
The Story of Walter
“But I must tell you the story of Walter.” So begins eight full pages of anecdotes devoted to Walter the butler in Tiomkin’s autobiography Please Don’t Hate Me.
Walter is none other than Arthur Zepp. (For reasons unknown, Tiomkin’s tome did not use the actual names for some participants in his life story, pianist Michael Khariton became Raskov, Arthur Zepp became Walter, and so on.)
One evening, upon returning from dinner out, the couple found Zepp practicing at the piano. Albertina was not pleased and said something to the effect that “servants don’t play piano.”
When Tiomkin heard a black musician—identified solely as “Henderson”—playing jazz piano on the radio he asked Zepp to contact the musician, which he did.
When Henderson arrived at the apartment, Tiomkin sensed his social discomfort. “Artur.” “Make sandwich.” “Bring Ginger Ale.” Henderson came by two or three times to give Tiomkin lessons.
Tiomkin would play something he wrote and Henderson would then show Tiomkin how to “jazz up” the same passage. Zepp reveled in the richness of the cultural moment.
Hooray for Hollywood!
With the onset of the Depression the Tiomkins set out for California, hoping Hollywood and the burgeoning field of sound films would embrace the Albertina Rasch girls along with her choreography. For the cross country journey to Los Angeles by train, Tiomkin used a portable dummy keyboard for practice purposes.
The Tiomkins took up temporary residence at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. Coincidentally, the Blossom Room in the hotel was the site of the first Academy Awards on May 16, 1929. In a little more than 10 years, composer Dimitri Tiomkin would pick up his first Academy Award nomination for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Albertina signed on with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in Culver City and Tiomkin soon followed suit. Tiomkin felt it would be undignified to audition his music for the powers that be at MGM, so he placed an ad in the newspaper and auditioned several players. Unsatisfied, Tiomkin ended up asking Zepp to do the honors.
Even with the MGM contract, it would take a number of years before Tiomkin established himself as a composer in Hollywood. In fact, in the early 1930s he became bi-coastal, traveling often between California and New York.
Midwestern roots run deep
The return trip to New York took Tiomkin and Zepp through San Francisco and Chicago, where Zepp may have exited the train.
Zepp’s son, Tom, recalls that his father became ill at some point while in Tiomkin’s employ. By November 1929, Zepp had left the Tiomkins to settle in Chicago, where by January 1930, his parents were living with him.
In Chicago, Arthur Zepp supported himself and his parents by working at an A&P supermarket. In the beginning the store thrived under Zepp’s management—even though it was the height of the Great Depression; however, when the 1933 Chicago Worlds Fair closed at the end of October 1934, Zepp got sacked due to the decline in sales. (Ironically, by 2012 the A&P—Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company—which had been in operation for more than 150 years and managed to survive the Great Depression couldn’t survive the current economic environment in the United States, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in July 2012.)
During this same period Tiomkin’s own career path was a bit muddled, since the transition from concert pianist to Hollywood composer was still a few years in the future. Deciding to embark on a two-week concert tour, he sent a telegram from the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Los Angeles to Zepp in Chicago offering him $75 per week and all expenses paid for his services during the trip.
Due to his family commitments in Chicago, Zepp was not able to swing the trip and he would not see Tiomkin again until after the Second World War. Chicago did have something good to offer; however, it was there Zepp met Olive King, marrying her in April 1934.
With Olive, Arthur was about to embark on the next chapter of his life as a musician in Spokane, Washington.
© 2013 Volta Music
Telephone interviews with Tom Zepp, December 3, 2011, July 7, 2012, and August 27, 2012. Thanks to Tom Zepp for providing the visual documentation for this article. And thanks to Bob McGregor for his help in scanning the material.
“I Was There: A View from the Servant’s Quarters,” by Arthur Zepp, Clavier (February 1971)
Please Don’t Hate Me by Dimitri Tiomkin and Prosper Buranelli (Doubleday, 1959)
A complete list of sources can be found at the conclusion of part two.