March 24, 2019

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Redemption of a Lost Prodigy

Redemption of a Lost Prodigy
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Mr. Perlman, who is alive, said through a representative: “I don’t remember Mr. Lipshutz and I also don’t recall my jury grades from 50 years ago. I want to wish him well.”

By 1964, a promising future seemingly awaited Mr. Chandler at a world-class orchestra. He was 16, newspapers had chronicled his talents and he accepted an invitation that awaited only Mr. Galamian’s most gifted students: to study with him at the renowned Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. But within months, Mr. Chandler would be living with his parents in New Jersey, seeing a psychologist and vowing never to touch the violin again.

Mr. Chandler still dislikes discussing how he abandoned the violin, and the degree to which he opens up about it depends on his mood. “That’s when I found out what I was,” he said one night on his boat. “It was a nervous breakdown. I unraveled.” His most direct explanation of the crisis is that he felt robbed of time. “I didn’t see myself,” he said. “Childhood was lost. Time was lost. Then one day I finally saw myself and I thought: ‘That’s it. There has to be more.’ But I lost everything realizing that.”

“So many of us had talent, then we just disappeared,” he continued. “They never see who they are. They don’t know what they are. It’s the same reason child actors never grow up. We never see ourselves.”

Ms. Hulbert, the author of “Off the Charts,” called Mr. Chandler’s turning point a “kind of midlife crisis.” “A gift that once nurtured them suddenly becomes a big struggle,” she said. “Their crisis comes down to autonomy: What am I?”

Mr. Sortomme, his former Juilliard classmate, was not entirely surprised to hear of the turmoil. “I remember feeling there was not a lot of joy in Saul’s life,” he said. But he dismissed notions of Mr. Chandler as some fallen child wonder. “Saul is better off having stopped playing the violin to save his life instead of just keep going to give the world one more great violinist,” he said.


A shot of a boat Mr. Chandler sailed from the Caribbean to Connecticut in the 1970s. “The only thing that has ever truly been constant for me in my life is boats,” he said.

Ben Zucker for The New York Times

When Mr. Chandler was recuperating back at home, Ms. Pardee and Mr. Galamian pleaded with his parents: What can we do? What can we tell the school? Does Saul want to play something else? Mr. Chandler passed along his reply: “Tell them I never want to be on a stage again.” He put away his instrument and commenced his reinvention. First he became a truck driver, and then he went to New Orleans. “I lost my virginity there,” he said. “I think.”

He changed his name in 1969 from Lipshutz to Chandler. “I had to disappear,” he said. “I had to begin my metamorphosis.” He got a job around this time running a dodgy hotel in Times Square. “I knew all the hookers, and they knew me,” he said. He also started studying mathematics at New York University, where he found he was gifted with numbers. He would become a successful actuary, calculating risk for organizations like the American Cancer Society.

As he chased lost time, his passion for the sea was growing. His father had read him books about sailing as a child, and on days off from violin practice they built boats together. Actuarial mathematics didn’t necessarily thrill him, but the work let him finance his hobby, and he was sailing and building boats seriously by his 30s. “It was my therapy,” he said. He got married in 1983, moved to Washington Heights and had two children. He started keeping boats on City Island in the mid-1980s, and he said he has since crossed the Atlantic and sailed from the Bronx to Trinidad a dozen times. After retiring in 2002, he began commuting from his apartment to City Island practically daily. “The only thing that has ever truly been constant for me in my life is boats,” he said. “When I build a boat, at least I can make it better. I can fix it.”

I visited Mr. Chandler one winter night on his schooner, which is named Seraph and is dry-docked at Barron’s Marine. The boatyard was cold and ghostly. In his cabin, as the space heater rattled, he handed me a Budweiser. While he told me about recent repairs, I noticed a dusty CD case beside his radio. Classical discs were inside. I asked if we could put something on.

“Put on the Puccini,” he said.

The dramatic opening of the opera “Tosca” was soon booming through the boatyard from his little lamplit boat. “You fall in love with the voice when you get older,” he said. “Because you realize the human voice is all that matters.” I flipped through more CDs and noticed some violin recordings. Hesitantly, I asked to play one.

“Do I have the Brahms sonatas?” he said. “You can put that on.”

An elegant melody swelled from the speakers. He stood upright. “These are the most beautiful sonatas ever written,” he said. “He’s not playing the violin. The violin is playing him.” Mr. Chandler closed his eyes and drank more.


Mr. Chandler on the bowsprit of his schooner, Seraph.

Ben Zucker for The New York Times

“Nobody wrote music,” he said. “They heard something. Except Mozart. He wrote the same thing over and over.”

Bach was next. A dramatic crescendo played. “Stop,” he said. “This is amazing. Can you turn this up?” He swigged his beer. “Can you imagine being on this boat?” he said feverishly. “Out in the middle of the ocean? Millions of miles from anything? Listening to this?”

A few weeks later, he agreed to show me his violin, and we met at his apartment in Washington Heights, where he lives with his wife, Sula. The library was filled with books about sailing and Herman Melville novels.

The Chandlers raised their family in the neighborhood, and while music was around, his children grew up without having to practice an instrument for six hours a day. Mr. Chandler’s adult son, Fred, said his father’s musical past was never discussed when he was a boy. “Only thing I really remember is we had to play an instrument in grade school and I got the violin,” he said. “Right away, I got the sense he was uncomfortable with me playing it. He never tried to teach me. He went away while I was practicing. Except once in a blue moon, if he had been drinking, he might play a few minutes, and it was evident he was a real master.”

Mr. Chandler went and fetched a bag of old newspaper clippings. “My mother kept these,” he said. Then he retrieved a dusty case. “I haven’t opened this in 50 years,” he said. “I’m scared to see what’s inside.”

Mr. Chandler opened the case and a musky odor emerged. Inside was a dark red violin. Blue cursive ink on its interior indicated it was built by a Parisian luthier named Joseph Bassot in 1802. He dragged on a cigar as he considered the instrument in his hands. “Seeing this makes me think I made the right choice with my life,” he said. “I lived my life. Not the life of this violin.” Then he started putting it away. “I hate this thing,” he said. “I don’t want to see it anymore.”

He opened a beer and seemed happy to talk about anything other than music. But the violin’s quiet presence would not be denied. Eventually, he put down his beer and approached the case. “Doubt I can even play this thing anymore,” he grumbled, slowly tuning the instrument. Then he placed it to his chin and released his bow. A warm, glorious tone rose through the apartment. Then he bowed again, violently sliding his hand up the violin’s neck, and a graceful, thunderous sound filled the room. Then the note faded away.

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