Desert Island Discs (1999)
On 2nd April 1999 Luise was interviewed by Sue Lawley for the long-running BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs. The programme, which began broadcasting in 1942, takes as it’s central idea the fantasy that a celebrity has been cast away on a desert island and must choose 8 pieces of music to take with them, which will be all they have to listen to whilst isolated. The rules state they are also given a copy of the Bible (or similar religious or philosophical book) and the Complete Works of Shakespeare; they are then asked to choose one further book and one luxury item which they can also take with them. Each guest is interviewed about their choices and what each means to them.
Click on the image below to listen to the programme in full:
Luise discusses at great length some of the most memorable moments in her life; her reminiscence of the night she witnessed the burning of the Reichstag building in Berlin is especially moving as is the time she heard Hitler’s declaration of the invasion of Poland. The interview also touches on lighter moments and her acquaintance with Einstein, Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht and Louis B. Mayer, amongst others. She speaks especially movingly about the moment she met Clifford Odets and how she knew almost immediately that she was in love with him but recalls that the relationship was “fulfilling, terrible, tearing, complete.”
She goes on to talk about her second husband Robert Knittel and how her life is changed without him, “My life is full. I am alone but I’m not lonely.” She further discusses the people in her life and how she has lived through some turbulent and extraordinary times. The interview is both celebratory and melancholic but ranks as of one of the best she has given as it only briefly concentrates on her film career and rather spends much time dealing with Luise herself, her thoughts and, especially, her emotions.
Luise chose the following pieces of music:
Piano Concerto in F by George Gershwin, performed by Oscar Levant and the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra
– Luise reminisced about being a great friend of Gershwin who “liked me very much, he was not in love with me, but I think he liked me!”. He would often play and compose music at her home and she recalled falling asleep upstairs as he played downstairs.
Excerpt from the Farewell Prayer from Boris Gudonov by Mussorgky, performed by Feodor Chaliapin
– Luise tells a wonderful story of her first trip to America, heading for Hollywood and her new life, accompanied only by her Scottie dog Johnny. As the purser had taken her passport (as was the norm in those days) the crew knew that she would be travelling on her 25th birthday. She sat down to lunch that evening and opened her menu to see “Birthday luncheon for Luise Rainer” printed. She was astounded, “I am nothing!” she thought. Also on the same ship were the Russian opera singer Feodor Chaliapin and the violinist Mischa Elman…who both proceeded to serenade her with a rendition of “Happy Birthday”. She couldn’t quite believe this “great, great, great basso” did such a thing, and you can still hear the excitement in her voice almost 65 years later.
Moonlight Sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven, performed by Artur Rubinstein
– “It was my very first experience; my mother was a very beautiful pianist and my first memory actually is… I was lying in a bundle under her grand piano sobbing my heart out, crying, crying, crying… and it was very strange because she was above me playing… these sounds were incredible. I behaved like a puppy dog hearing church bells… I don’t know what it was, anyway it moved me to tears.”
Excerpt from the Lacrimosa from Verdi’s Requiem, performed by the NBC Symphony Orchestra with the Robert Shaw Chorale, conducted by Arturo Toscanini
– When Luise came to New York she met the Italian conductor Toscanini who was very kind to her. Sometime later they were both staying in the same hotel whilst visiting a music festival in Lucerne, Switzerland. Through a loudspeaker she vividly recounts hearing the broadcast of Hitler’s declaration, “We are marching into Poland”, effectively the start of the Second World War. That evening she attended a concert by Toscanini in a church in Lucerne where Verdi’s Requiem was performed. This defining moment had a lasting effect on her.
Beethoven’s 7th Symphony performed by the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Bruno Walter
– “My husband, Clifford Odets sent me the 7th Symphony and he said, “Listen to it carefully; it is what you mean to me.”
Crucifixion (Negro Spiritual) performed by Marian Anderson
– Clifford had an opening of a new play and he didn’t want me to come and I was very sad. I was in New York and I passed the Algonquin Hotel and a car stopped and out of it jumped a very tall, dark woman and she passed me, and I looked at her and out of my mouth came “Marian Anderson!”, she gasps. “Toscanini had called her the greatest contralto of our century and she looked at me and said “Luise Rainer!”… it was ridiculous but she had obviously seen me in films or something and we sat togther and she even sang one song for me!”
Second Movement of Bach’s Sonata #1 in G Major, performed by Sándor Végh
– Talking of her second husband, Robert Knittel, Luise recalls: “He was a mountain climber and he also taught me how to climb mountains. Robert went with a fiddle up to the Matterhorn and at the top of the Matterhorn he played a Bach sonata”
Excerpt from Haydn’s Creation, performed by Francisco Araiza and José van Damand the choir and orchestra of the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Herbert von Karajan
– “It says everything. Everything’s in it. You can’t say more than the word “Creation”, and no-one says it quite like Luise, with a crisp rrroll of the ‘r’. Without doubt, she says,
this is the one piece she would take with her if given the choice.
Finally, the interviewee must choose a book to take with them. Luise, after dismissing an encyclopedia (“Why clutter my little mind with Reader’s Digest statistics”) opts for Isaiah Berlin’s The Proper Study of Mankind. When finally asked what luxury she would take to her desert island she responds, enigmatically, “You can’t give me that”. When pressed she gives a brief chuckle… “To be missed by the many people I love.”