In 1992, the mail received by La Jolla native Coleen Jan Paderewski drove her postal carrier insane with curiosity. He had never delivered an actual envelope from the White House to anyone before, much less two dozen in two weeks.
Finally, the guy just blurted it out: “Who are you?!!”
It can be safely assumed that the carrier was neither a big fan of classical music nor an American of Polish descent.
Born in Kurilivka, Poland on Nov. 18, 1860, Ignacy Jan Paderewski (pronounced pad-uh-REV-skee) was a superstar composer and pianist who also served as the first prime minister of modern Poland.
“Cross Chopin with George Washington and that gives you some idea,” said Coleen, his second cousin, speaking to the Light from her home in Salt Lake City.
In the era before air travel, Paderewski was the first performer to play to capacity crowds the world over, crossing the Atlantic by ship 30 times in a career spanning 50 years. He played brilliant renditions of Chopin and Liszt compositions, beside which his own (such as “Minuet in G major, Op. 14 No. 1,” one of the most recognizable piano tunes of all time) fit snugly.
And he was compelling to watch perform — his lanky arms pounding aggressively beneath a shock of curly, unkempt red hair.
“Paddymania,” as the phenomenon was dubbed, gripped America beginning with the pianist’s first tour here in 1891. One night in 1902, Paderewski performed for a sold-out Carnegie Hall at the same time his opera, “Manru,” played to a sold-out crowd a few blocks away at the Metropolitan Opera House.
“When I grew up, everyone in La Jolla said, ‘Oh, are you related to the famous Pederweski?’ ” Coleen recalled. “And I always said, ‘Ohhh yes!’ ”
Coleen lived at 7055 La Jolla Scenic Drive, a house her parents built in 1952, right near what was then called the Easter Cross. She attended Stella Maris and All Hallows academies, then Muirlands Middle School and La Jolla High School. She left La Jolla in 1972, a year before her parents sold the house. (“Some ding-dong demolished it to put up more homes,” she said, “My dad was devastated.”)
Poland’s George Washington
The arts were not even big enough to contain Paderewski’s exceptionality. During World War I, he used his star power to lobby for Polish independence, which U.S. President Woodrow Wilson made among his famous “14 Points” required to achieve peace in Europe. This led to both the Treaty of Versailles, which Paderewski signed, and to his ascension to prime minister. He served from January to November, 1919.
“He was very effective as a statesman,” Coleen said. “He eliminated a lot of famine and established an educational system. But he wanted to get back to music, which was his priority in life.”
Paderewski died in New York on June 27, 1941, following a bout with pneumonia at age 80. His funeral in St. Patrick’s Cathedral was attended by a capacity crowd of 4,500 with 40,000 outside the church. But, as per his wishes, he wasn’t buried afterward.
Paderewski left instructions for his body to be returned to Poland once his homeland became free again. (It was under Nazi control when he died.)
So President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a decree allowing his coffin to be laid temporarily to rest inside Arlington National Cemetery’s U.S.S. Maine Mast Memorial. (Paderewski could not be buried underground at Arlington, since he had never served in the armed forces of the U.S. or its allies.)
Poland went right from Nazi rule to Soviet rule, however. So every president up to George H.W. Bush signed an extension of Roosevelt’s decree. John F. Kennedy even added a plaque to the U.S. Maine Memorial in May 1963, stating upon its dedication that the day “has not yet come” when he can be returned to a free Poland, but “but I believe that in this land of the free, Paderewski rests easily.”
Paderewski’s wish had to wait out half a century of cold war, but a democratic transition finally established a stable end to the Polish People’s Republic in 1991. The next year is when the letters and invitations started flooding Coleen’s house.
Since Padereweski had no children with either of his wives, she and her father, a San Diego architect named Clarence, were his closest living relatives. (After Clarence died in 2007, that honor fell to Coleen, who describes herself as “happily divorced” with three children of her own.)
Clarence Paderewski, who was in his late 80s at the time, was flown to L.A. to meet with U.S. President George H.W. Bush and Polish president Lech Walesa at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where they mapped out plans for the relocation of Paderewski’s remains. (Clarence requested that the brown cedar coffin be draped by a Polish flag at all times.)
Coleen got to meet both presidents at the disinterment ceremony at Arlington, where Paderewski lay in state for a second time as approximately 100,000 members of the public filed by his coffin for a day and a half.
“My son, who was 10 at the time, was seated right next to Dan Quayle in the chapel,” Coleen remembered, “so I told him to sit up straight and behave.”
After a week of celebrations and ceremonies, Coleen and Clarence were flown to Poland and met back up with the delegation at Warsaw airport. Along with Bush and General Edward Rowny, they turned their cousin’s remains over to Walesa, and Paderewski was laid permanently to rest at St. John’s Cathedral on July 5, 1992.
“It was such a surreal experience for all of us — especially for my father,” Coleen said. “He was ecstatic because he never thought that the freedom of Poland would occur during his lifetime.”
These days, Coleen runs the annual Paderewski Festival in Salt Lake City. (This year’s festival runs Jan. 22-23).
“I want to make sure that history lives on and is not lost,” she said. “A lot of young people today have no idea who this great man was and what they can learn from him.”
Coleen wrote a book about the surreal experience of bringing her cousin’s body home. Paderewski: His Journey Home is available at paderewskibook.com