Pianist Van Cliburn performs for the audience following the State Dinner for Dr. Josef Klaus, Federal Chancellor of the Republic of Austria and Mrs. Klaus,East Room, White House, Washington, DC. LBJ Library photo #9513-6 by Mike Geissinger]

Remembering Van Cliburn

Feb 27, 2013

World-renowned pianist Van Cliburn, who died today at age 78, was a close friend of LBJ and the Johnson family. In 1963, Mr. Cliburn performed in Frederickburg, Texas when West German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard was visiting the LBJ Ranch. In 1966, he served as Master of Ceremonies at a White House reception in honor of the winners of the Tchaikovsky Competition, which he himself had won in 1958 at the age of twenty-three. The following year, he performed in the White House following a State Dinner [photograph below].  

Notes from President Johnson's Daily Diary, which is a record of his activities, indicate that on one occasion, the President graciously allowed Mr. Cliburn to borrow his tuxedo after the pianist realized he had left his on the airplane. Here is a note from the President's assistant, Paul Glynn, describing what happened:

October 14, 1967

Around 6:00 p,/ I got a call from the White House operators. They were looking for one of us -- and they said that Ken had told them that the President had given him the rest of the day off to go to the football game. 

The President came on the telephone, and said, 'Paul, I sure need some help. I gave Ken the afternoon off, and Van Cliburn has lost his black tie, he left it on the airplane. Can we do something? What size am I?"

Paul replied that Van Cliburn was a young man and he thought that the President's dress outfit would be too large for him. The President said that he'd call me back.

The President called again -- and said, "Paul, come on in -- and we'll do it."

He called a third time and said, "Haven't you left yet?"

When Paul arrived at the White House, the President was in the swimming pool. Paul went to the second floor of the White House, and to the family quarters and there was Van Cliburn -- practicing on the piano there. He was in business suit.

Ken Gaddis arrived -- he was really worried, because the operators had been looking desperately for one of us. Ken and Paul began to fit Van Cliburn in the President's black tie outfit. 

We put the pants on him first -- and they were huge. We doubled them twice in the back and pinned them. The jacket was almost all right -- we just pinned a bit in the back -- but the white shirt front was very large, and we had a bit of trouble with it. After we got him all dressed and pinned into the thing, he changed back to street clothes for the trip to his hotel.

As he got ready to leave -- w/ President's suit in hand -- we took him to the pool so the President could see him. The President was curious and insisted that Van Cliburn put the outfit on again, so he could see it. 

Van Cliburn asked permission to tell the story of the suit --which the President readily gave.

As he departed, Van Cliburn said, "Mr. President, I'll return this suit, but I will not return this stud. I hope you'll hold it for a minute, and then give it back to me -- and it will be something for me to treasure the rest of my life. Departed 7:50

Serial #: C9500-22 Date: 04/10/1968
Event: Pianist Van Cliburn practices before State Dinner performance
Location: East Room, White House, Washington, DC
Description: Van Cliburn seated at the piano
Credit: LBJ Library Photo by Jack Kightlinger
Rights Info: Public Domain Item (No usage fees, no permission required.)
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