Arrival in Savannah, Georgia, a town that seems to have at least seven syllables to its name. The heat is grey and sullen: the famous Spanish moss on the trees crackles at a touch. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is everywhere; the place gives a general impression of being quite pleased with itself, though both wealth and poverty are sharply obvious. An odd place, perhaps, to look for the pianist and social reformer Hephzibah Menuhin, whose biography I’m in the northern hemisphere to research, especially since she never came here. But Savannah is only a step away from Beaufort, South Carolina, and this is where Hephzibah’s daughter Clara Menuhin Hauser lives. Clara is very important indeed.
Beaufort is the heartland of the Gullah people, descended from African slaves. But you never see them. ‘God bless our troops’ signs, white antebellum mansions and American flags – not those of the Confederacy – are everywhere. Clara, who is married with two young children, runs a local family counselling service and tells me that the black teenage pregnancy rate is one of the highest in the South. Clara has been defensive about a biography of her mother, and part of my mission is to reassure her that I’m not one of ‘the leeches’ (see below). She holds an enormous amount of vital material, including letters between her parents (Hephzibah married twice, her second husband being the social planner Richard Hauser, Clara’s father), and an extraordinary quantity of other correspondence, and wants to be sure that everything will be used properly. What can I tell her? After a week’s talking and sorting out of letters, I leave feeling that there is goodwill on both sides, as well as shared perceptions of Hephzibah and her life and work. We also like each other very much. So far so good, though I know how fragile such trust can be.