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Van Cliburn, America's greatest classical pianist, dies at age 78

FORT WORTH, Texas – Van Cliburn, the American classical pianist who stunned the world in 1958 by winning the gold medal in the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow during the height of the Cold War, died today of bone cancer. He was 78.

Van Cliburn, at age 23, performed Tchaikovsky’s “Concerto No. 1” in the international competition and earned an astounding eight-minute standing ovation from the Russian audience. It would become his trademark selection.

“Van looked and played like some kind of angel,” the Russian pianist Andrei Gavrilov said at the time. “He didn’t fit the evil image of capitalists that had been painted for us by the Soviet government.”

Overnight, the tall, lanky Texan, with a luscious mane of big hair, became the most famous classical pianist in America and his totally unexpected victory launched a legendary career.

When he returned home, Van Cliburn was treated to a ticker-tape parade in New York and he became a superstar with groupies long before The Beatles ever washed up on our shores.

He was at the top of his career for the next five years, performing around the world and recording best-selling albums. But music critics began noting a decline in his skills, and Van Cliburn began withdrawing from performing live.

In 1962, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, held every four years in Fort Worth, was established in his honor.

In the late 1970s, Van Cliburn moved back to Texas, settling into a life of luxury in Fort Worth. He became heavily involved in the social scene, but rarely performed.

Van Cliburn was honored at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2001. President Barack Obama awarded Van Cliburn the National Medal of Arts during a ceremony at the White House in 2010.

In Fort Worth, it was no secret among socialites that Van Cliburn enjoyed the company of younger men, who flocked to him at parties and other social events. But Van Cliburn never publicly discussed his sexuality and dismissed gossip that he was gay.

Still, Van Cliburn was sued for palimony in the 1990s by Thomas E. Zaremba, who contended that he managed the pianist’s business affairs and ran his household from 1964 to 1994. The case was thrown out of court in 1997.

Also, the obituary notice mentions Van Cliburn’s longtime friend, Thomas L. Smith.

Born on July 12, 1934 in Shreveport, La., Harvey Lavan “Van” Cliburn Jr. grew up in Kilgore, Texas, the son of an oil executive and a piano teacher. It was his mother, Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn, who taught him the play the piano. They created such a close bond that Van Cliburn and his mother lived together most of their lives. She died in 1994 at the age of 97.

Van Cliburn never married and has no heirs.