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A Talent for Genius, by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger

- Abstract

Oscar Levant is remembered chiefly for two things: his recordings of classical piano music—particularly the works of his friend George Gershwin—and his appearances as a lovably neurotic sidekick in several movies, among which the musicals An American in Paris and The Band Wagon are probably the best known. But in his heyday in the 1940′s, Levant was also among the most popular entertainers of his time, and one who helped to invent a new mode of celebrity.

Levant was born in Pittsburgh in 1906 to Russian-Jewish parents. His father was a watchmaker of rather stern though loving temperament. His mother was a lover of music, especially of the Romantic piano literature; she encouraged Levant to develop what she quickly perceived as a keen musical talent. Though his father wished him (and his brothers) to pursue a career in the professions, the restless young Oscar was not to be pinned down, and after his father’s traumatizing, early death, he was left to follow his musical muse. His mother dreamed that he might have a concert career like that of her idol, the celebrated pianist Paderewski. In part Levant shared her ambition, but in part he wanted to be freed from her smothering musical ideals—as well as from the religious strictures of his Orthodox household.

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