May 29, 1909: “Betzabel” (later Charles) Naginski is born in Cairo, Egypt, where there is a substantial community of East European Jewish immigrants who benefit from the comparative liberality of the Sultan’s regime. His parents, Abraham and Nahema Naginsky, speak Yiddish at home. As a child, Betzabel studies piano with his father and begins composing at an early age.
1925: Abraham and Nahema Naginsky emigrate to the U. S. with their children, but Betzabel remains in Egypt, perhaps to finish his education.
March 30, 1927: “Betzabel Naginsky,” age seventeen, “an artist,” emigrates to New York City from Alexandria, Egypt. He travels alone on the ship Roma, enters the U. S. at Providence, Rhode Island, before joining his parents and four siblings at 1242 Intervale Avenue in the Bronx.
1928: As Charles Naginski, “Betzabel” wins a fellowship to the Juilliard Graduate School. In coming years he impresses influential members of the modernist music community such as Rubin Goldmark and Roger Sessions.
1930: Census records describe the Naginsky family as living in the Bronx. “Abram” Naginsky’s occupation is listed as musician.
1933: Charles Naginsky completes his studies at Juilliard where, at the suggestion of the Dean, a fellow student, the vocalist George Newton, helps him with English grammar. In exchange, Naginsky accompanies Newton on the piano. Newton, a Princeton graduate, remembers Naginski as a “nice fellow” who came to a tragic end.
March 15, 1934: Charles Naginsky successfully petitions the court for citizenship. His race is listed as Hebrew. He signs the document as “Betzalel Naginsky.” His witnesses are Ruth Bluestone, a dancer, and Nathan Gold, a musician. He is living at 1061 Simpson Street in the Bronx and is unmarried. He attests to his loyalty to the U. S. Government and disavows any possible claim on his allegiance by the State of Russia or the Republic of Poland or His Majesty King Fuad of Egypt.
1936: Charles Naginski declines an invitation to Yaddo. In a letter to director Elizabeth Ames, he explains that he is the only one at home just then who can earn a living and that his younger sister has lost her WPA job. After hours, he works on a Sinfonetta commissioned by the League of Composers. From June 10 through August 5, he is composing at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire.
1937: Lincoln Kirstein commissions Charles Naginski to write The Minotaur for the American Ballet Caravan, a New England touring company. Naginski begins composing The Minotaur in late December and hopes that if all goes well it will be produced in April.
1938: On February 14, the openly gay composer David Diamond urges Naginski not to give in to resentment and depression. Diamond urges on him the solidarity of loneliness, explaining, “We are, you know, a Miss Lonelyhearts Club.” On May 19, the Columbia Broadcasting Company airs part of The Minotaur and on May 20, the New York Times announces Naginski as the winner of the prestigious Prix de Rome, a two-year fellowship with an annual stipend of $1400, plus free residence and studio and the opportunity to meet the foremost composers of Europe (see photo ). The jury consists of Rogers Sessions, Aaron Copland, Eric De Lamarter, and Philip James. In the summer, Naginski accepts an invitation to Yaddo, where he drinks too much and is desperately lonely (see photo). On September 15, he writes to Eleanor Clark, “Yaddo seems like a vast cemetery with a few mourners left behind.” His Rome fellowship begins on October 1, but he remains in the U. S. as long as possible because of Clark.
October 1938: Eleanor Clark breaks off their affair. He also receives a letter from composer Hunter Johnson warning him that the director of the Academy in Rome is a fascist and incompetent to boot. In response, Naginski describes himself as crushed.
January 1939: Naginski is in Rome when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax have a historic meeting with Mussolini. In a letter to Clark, Naginski describes himself as unconcerned but mentions not having heard from Muriel Rukeyser about their Houdini ballet. He worries that she may have lost interest in the project.
May 30, 1939: Rukeyser writes to Elizabeth Ames from Chicago on Coronet Magazine letterhead. She explains that she is in Chicago temporarily and mentions the Houdini ballet she is doing with Charles, which has a chance of being produced at Radio City Music Hall, she says. Naginski “sounds sad” but is probably hard at his work.
June 1939: While Italy tightens its laws against Jews, Naginski is in France, where he lives outside of Paris and on the Côte d’Azur, supported by the American Academy. Although he believes that the arts should have nothing to do with politics, he is disgusted with the “stinking” political situation.
July 2, 1939: In a letter to Clark, Naginski says he played the music to one of Muriel’s poems over and over the other day and was very moved by it but hasn’t had a word from her. He worries about his poor mother and the gang at home, says he can’t afford Eleanor’s expensive tastes, and wonders if she is coming to Paris to be with him.
1940: In January, he writes to Clark on an envelope postmarked Garrison, New York. He was hoping to have a drink with her in the city but she stood him up. In Garrison, he completes the music for “Boy with his Hair Cut Short.” His father, “Abram” Naginsky, is listed on the 1940 census as “on relief.”
Summer, 1940: At Tanglewood, Naginski studies with Paul Hindemith, who is known as a harsh taskmaster. On August 4, discouraged about his career and his personal life, Naginski drowns in the Housatonic River (Stockbridge Bowl). On August 6, he is buried from Park West Chapel in New York City.
1944: In February, Rukeyser submits the manuscript of Beast in View to Doubleday, Doran and departs for California. She dedicates “The Minotaur” to Naginski.
1958: Rukeyser publishes “Exile of Music” in Body of Waking and dedicates it to Naginski.
July 1973: Houdini: A Musical is produced by the Lenox Arts Center, with music by David Sheridan Spangler, who does not list it on his current CV. It receives a mixed review in The New York Times and closes after several performances. The reviewer claims that it is pointed and forceful in the first act, aimless and weak in the second.
2004: Houdini: A Musical is published by Paris Press. In the “Introduction,” Jan Freeman states that Rukeyser wrote it over decades but does not mention Naginski.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Diamond, David. Letter to Charles Naginski. In Letters of Composers: An Anthology, 1603-1945, 413-14. Edited by Gertrude Norman and Miriam Lubell Shrifte. New York: Knopf, 1946.
Hughes, Allen. “Stage: ‘Houdini’ in Lenox.” The New York Times, July 7, 1973, 10.