Century Club: Yehudi with his mom at her 100th birthday party in 1996. Photo by Kirsten Radasch
Yehudi Menuhin, who died Friday in Berlin, Germany, at the age of 82, was profoundly influenced by his early years in Los Gatos. He maintained his connection to the area even though he lived in London, had taken on British citizenship and been knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.
Although he lived here only a short time as a youth and considered himself a citizen of the world, the renowned violinist developed a special love for the town and its surrounding hills that lasted more than 60 years.
His wandering parents had fled the anti-Semitic pogroms of Russia as youths, then escaped the stifling social strictures of Jewish religious orthodoxy in Palestine as young adults. They came to New York, then crossed the river to New Jersey, but cared little for the ghetto mentality of what the senior Menuhin referred to as “Elizabethdump.” In 1918, when Yehudi Menuhin was 2 years old, the family traversed the continent by train and settled in California. They first lived in San Francisco and later moved to Los Gatos, where Moshe and Marutha Menuhin spent their remaining years.
Menuhin used biblical metaphor to describe his special feelings for Los Gatos. “For all my family the Garden of Eden could be very exactly pinpointed in the Santa Cruz Mountains,” he wrote.
The memories were not without a touch of sadness at what had become of the idyllic backdrop of his formative years. “The California of the 1970s is but a poor plundered ruin of my childhood paradise,” Menuhin wistfully observed in his 1977 memoirs, Unfinished Journey.
“Neither the United States nor any other country puts back what it takes from the earth, and in the last decades we have begun to measure the gap. We Americans have begun to appreciate how well the Indians preserved their inheritance before it was delivered to our rapacity.”
His appreciation for California’s natural beauty had its roots in family history and his people’s tradition. “If anyone felt more strongly than I did, it was my father. Like every Jew, he longed to restore contact with the land, to plant a tree and see it grow to bear blossom and fruit,” Menuhin wrote. “It was a biblical urge become a Zionist urge in Palestine, but Aba [Hebrew for father] took it to root in California one day in 1934.”
The Menuhins purchased more than 100 acres in the mountains for a reported $7,000, an estate called Villa Cherkess, though they never lived there. Moshe Menuhin backed away from a plan to build a family home there after sticker shock from the architect’s $60,000 estimate. “Mammina saved the situation,” Yehudi recalled. “Without waste of time or emotion she marshaled us into a hotel in Los Gatos and scouted the countryside for available properties. It took her three or four days at most to find one to her taste, on a hill above the town, a lovely family house which rambled in every direction, with flower beds and greensward framing an ancient oak, and a guesthouse in whose main room we could perform plays among ourselves as the previous owners had built a stage there.
“Our terrace commanded the Santa Clara Valley and the far-distant San Francisco Bay. Behind us, extending to the very top of the mountain, were orchards tended by the fathers and brothers of the Sacred Heart Novitiate.
“No sooner had we become his neighbors than Father Dunn introduced himself, welcoming us to use the novitiate’s trails and tennis courts whenever we chose.”
The Menuhins enjoyed the tolerant and welcoming Los Gatos ambiance. Yehudi described the year he spent here as “happy and carefree. … It was a blithe, young, joyful, golden time, careless of tomorrow.”
He made the most of it in his first car, a used Cadillac V-12 with white-walled tires which he “drove in triumph to Los Gatos.”
Menuhin’s carefree days ended with a recital in October 1937 in San Francisco, after which career, marriage, fatherhood and World War II occupied his thoughts. During the war he performed 500 concerts for Allied soldiers and war-related charities. After the war, he performed in Germany as a gesture of reconciliation.
Despite his international stature, his love affair with the Northern California hills never ceased, and he returned at least once a year to visit. His parents gave him the land in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which was located near Lexington Reservoir, off Alma Bridge Road.
A 162-acre parcel was sold “at a bargain price” to the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District in May 1988, according to L. Craig Britton, the district’s general manager. “He was very easy to work with,” Britton said. “He wanted to help us. He liked the idea of his land being preserved as open space.”
An adjacent parcel of 23 acres was acquired from Lord Menuhin around that time by the Peninsula Open Space Trust and sold in May 1991 to MROSD for preservation as open space. A home on the property, damaged by the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989, was demolished.
The original family home owned by the Moshe and Marutha Menuhin was sold to the Sisters of the Holy Names Convent. In 1954, the couple purchased a home at 191 Kimble Ave. at Prospect, near Reservoir and College avenues. Marutha Menuhin lived there until her death in November 1996. On Jan. 7 that year, some 60 guests, including her son and his wife, celebrated her 100th birthday. The event was photographed by Berkeley photographer Kirsten Radasch.
Los Gatan Jeanne Wood, a friend of the Menuhins since the 1960s, recalls that “Yehudi would get here about once a year. He came in May 1997 to receive an honorary degree, and we had lunch with him at the Huntington after Marutha passed away.”
The lunch invitation of his mom’s close friends following her passing was a touching gesture. “Yehudi was a very considerate person,” Wood recalled. “He was kind and thoughtful. He always made us feel very welcome.”
While Menuhin inherited his deep love of the land from his father, it is a safe bet that his mother contributed to his genial nature. Wood pulls out a note, torn from a small note pad, left by Marutha on her door on one of Yehudi’s birthdays, which they regularly celebrated together.
“Good morning!!! Yehudi’s Birthday–let us go to Martinelli’s if they are functioning. If Martinelli’s is open. Today let us go there for brunch,” the nonagenarian wrote. “Whenever you wake up, I will be there ‘with rings on my finger and bells on my toes.’ ”
“Marutha. I miss her,” Wood says.
This column is from the Los Gatos Weekly-Times archives. Originally published on March 17, 1999.