Dorothy Helen Eustis was a child-prodigy pianist from Seattle whose precocious skills led to an astonishing performance with the Seattle Symphony as a mere youth in 1930. After studying at the Cornish School and at University of Washington, she went on to an acclaimed career presenting recitals at prestigious venues including Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. She was lauded by the likes of maestros Leopold Stokowski (1881-1977), Jose Iturbi (1895-1980), and Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961). Eustis performed on radio and television, and cut records and Hollywood movie soundtracks -- indeed, she has been credited as "the first woman pianist to record for the films" ("Miss Eustis In Person"). The nation's media enthusiastically tracked her career. But then, she effectively disappeared for decades. It was in 1995 that her sad saga surfaced: Eustis had quietly moved to Italy in 1988; fallen mute with dementia in 1993; and had been cared for since at Venice’s Giustinian Hospital. Tagged by the media as the "mystery patient," her estranged family in the Northwest suddenly discovered the fate of their long-lost member. Toward the end, a group of nuns volunteered to care for the fragile Eustis at their convent in Florence, where she died in 2001.
Dorothy Eustis was born on October 10, 1916, to Murray S. Eustis (1889-1968) -- a charter member of Seattle’s Teamsters Local 174 -- and Minnie C. Eustis (1886-1965), a long-time supporter of the Seattle Music and Arts Foundation. The family -- including Dorothy’s three brothers, Myron (d. 1983), Cliff, and Harold -- resided in their Green Lake neighborhood home (102 E 63rd Street).
Beginning piano at age 5, Eustis's initial teacher was Seattle's Sara Yeagley, who held lessons at her McKelvey Apartments studio. The Seattle Times once pointed out that the young reddish-haired pianist came from "a musical family, including her grandfather, who was a noted organist in Norway" (February 5, 1930). Her family's living room boasted three pianos and an organ, and by age 9 Dorothy and two of her brothers were performing publicly as a trio. By age 11 the gifted girl was already teaching her childhood pals how to play piano. Eustis was so committed to the piano from the outset that she typically practiced six to eight hours a day. Decades later she would explain, "Once you settle on your career, everything you do should be slanted toward that goal. You can never deviate, even though something at the moment is more tempting. The road to success is hard but, believe me, it does pay off in a tremendous amount of personal satisfaction" (Matulewicz). Asked years later if she was "ever disturbed by criticism," she "responded with a smile, 'I was the only girl in a family of four [siblings], and I learned very early, from my three brothers, that criticism is a part of life'" (Miller).
Ms. Yeagley was extremely proud of her star pupil and guided her through her first recitals, including one in October 1927 at the Green Lake PTA (where her mother also gave a lecture about education), and another on September 11, 1928, for the Optimist Club at the Olympic Hotel (411 University Street). On Saturday February 8, 1930, young Eustis made her live debut as a soloist with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra -- with Maestro Karl Krueger (1894-1979) -- in a concert at the new Orpheum Theatre (506 Stewart Street) where she played the first movement from Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto in G Minor. Although The Seattle Times's coverage of Eustis's participation in the show identified her as the "12-year-old gifted pianist of Seattle" she was, in fact, 13 (February 5, 1930).
Solo, Duo, & Artiste Trio
An eventual graduate of Lincoln High School (4400 Interlake Avenue N), Eustis would later attend classes at the University of Washington, at the Cornish School (710 E Roy Street), and at Oakland, California’s Mills College. Among her piano instructors over time were Harold Bauer, Marcel Maas, Artur Schnabel -- and Mme. Berthe Poncy Jacobson at the University of Washington's School of Music.
Eustis got a lot of experience performing for hundreds of recitals as a soloist and in duos all over town from University of Washington sorority houses to many types of social clubs. On January 26, 1937, The Seattle Times printed its first mention of Eustis's involvement with a new musical ensemble -- The Artiste Trio -- that also featured the pianist Kathryn Kantner (violin), and Juliet Brodine (cello). The news item mentioned their upcoming gig, on February 2, sponsored by the Music and Arts Foundation at the Rainier Chapter House of the Daughters of the American Revolution. In time, the Artiste Trio would be recast with new members, Beth MacDonald (violin) and Betty Clifford (cellist with both the Seattle and Tacoma Symphonies), and they would perform for the following few years in towns ranging from Yakima to Wenatchee to Everett -- and in Seattle, at venues including various churches, the Benjamin Franklin Hotel (1922 5th Avenue), and Roosevelt High School (1410 NE 66th Street).
The winter of 1938 saw Eustis providing piano accompaniment to Seattle’s Amphion Society male chorus. One review praised the choir and then simply gushed over Eustis: "As good as the chorus was, the assisting artist, Dorothy Eustis, surpassed it with her polished presentation of four of the most difficult pieces composed for the piano. Miss Eustis’ fingers seemed to be all over the keyboard at the same time" (B.R.H.). Eustis's increasing skills caused her to win the Northwest portion of a Young Artists of America contest sponsored by the National Federation of Music Clubs, allowing her to compete in the finals in Los Angeles in June 1941.
The Symphony Beckons
During that summer of 1941 Eustis studied and performed chamber music at the University of Washington. Then, with the United States' entry into World War II on December 7, 1941 -- and newspapers suddenly chock-full of war-related news -- Eustis's activities didn’t receive much media coverage for a period. Except on December 8, 1941, when it was noted that she had been serving as accompanist for a Northwest regional tour by the mime and dancer Miriam Marmein (1897-1970).
But, by late 1942 her public profile had risen to the point that the Seattle Symphony Orchestra's esteemed British conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, invited her to appear with them at the Music Hall (710 Olive Way) on November 9 as guest-soloist on Cesar Franck's Symphonic Variations. That show was extremely well received: "This young pianist plays with authority and facile technique. She revealed resourceful musicianship in her performance ... with the orchestra, and, when she was recalled again and again, returned to break an orchestra rule, much to the pleasure of the crowd, playing Chopin's Etude in C Minor ... with brilliance and power" (Hays, 1942).
The Big Apple (Pt. 1)
When the famed music impresario Ray Halmans invited Eustis to visit New York City and perform at the prestigious Town Hall venue, she jumped the offer. Heading out with her on March 6, 1943, was a local, Sarah Truax Albert, who would remain her friend for decades. The concert itself occurred on April 10, and she wowed the crowds with numbers by George Gershwin and Frédéric Chopin. One attendee tipped off The Seattle Times that the concert was sensational: "It was a delightfully responsive audience ... Lovely flowers -- several encores -- a long stream [of well-wishers] backstage, and the young artist was so charming and so talented" (April 16, 1943). Furthermore, Eustis's performance "won praise from hardened critics and hundreds of music lovers who heard her piano recital" (April 25, 1943).
The New York Times reported that "Her fingers were agile, even and accurate" and the performance was, according to critic Noel Stross, done with "the brilliance of a real virtuoso" (Angelos and Jackson, "Listening..."). Among those who went backstage to greet the new star were the famed actress Nance O’Neill (1874-1965) and the noted dramatist John Garrett Underhill (1876-1946). Other New York luminaries who entertained Eustis while she was in town were the movie actress Elissa Landi (1904-1948) -- and a singer with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra: Dorothy Eustis, who it turned out happened to be a distant relative who shared the same name (not to be confused with the other Dorothy [Harrison] Eustis, famed for founding the Seeing Eye Dog movement).
On July 6, 1943, Eustis appeared at Seattle's Meany Hall on the University of Washington campus, where she reprised her winning Town Hall set of 14 compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach, Johannes Brahms, Frederic Chopin, Claude Debussy, Franz Liszt, Maurice Ravel, and Alexander Scriabin. Throughout the summer months of August and September she performed a regular series of live shows at 7:15 p.m. on Seattle’s premier radio station, KJR.
Then after returning to New York to teach piano at the Manhattan School of Music that winter, Eustis came home again to join her family for Christmas. On January 19, 1944, friends feted her at a luncheon at Seattle’s Sunset Club. The next day she headed north to Vancouver B.C., Canada, where she performed at the Gershwin Festival, and then departed for Montreal and Toronto where she was booked for radio broadcast engagements. On February 2 she returned to her New York home. Another career highlight occurred when Eustis was invited by the famed conductor/pianist Jose Iturbi to perform with his orchestra.
In the early summer of 1944 Eustis embarked on cross-country tour, playing for USO camps, hospitals, and military bases. It must have been a rather grueling tour -- she explained in one media interview how during one stretch of the fast-paced schedule she wound up performing on 11 different pianos in three days.
A tall (5 feet 8 inches) woman, Eustis also quipped that: "This tour has made me a finished pianist. I can play anything, anywhere -- even with my shoes off" ("Army Hospital..."). The latter reference was to the fact that some hospital pianos were so short that she had to go barefoot in order to sit at the instrument properly. The former likely had to do with the fact that musical tastes were changing and that "Sometimes the boys keep asking for swing [jazz] .... So I suggest they let me play 'The Blue Danube' instead. And most of them will continue to listen if I go on to the 'Moonlight Sonata' or some Scarlatti" ("Army Hospital...").
In 1944 Eustis also gave a recital in the Coleman Room of the YMCA, and on June 28 she performed her earlier Town Hall set of songs again in Seattle for the Sunset Club. Then on July 10 she appeared in downtown Seattle at the Victory Square stage where she was interviewed about her USO tour at a patriotic rally. On September 3 she also played a Red Cross benefit concert at the Seattle Art Museum (1400 East Prospect Street). That same week made a public plea for musical clubs across the nation to work to supply military hospitals with better instruments, especially pianos as some of the wounded soldiers are "fine musicians, and some of them confided that they themselves would like to play now and then, but that the pianos were generally of such quality that it discouraged their performing on them" and that music "will become increasingly important as a means of healing the wounded" (Huntington).
Eustis gave her very first solo concert in Los Angeles on April 25, 1945, at the Wilshire Ebell Theater. Then on August 5 she made a huge splash as a spotlighted soloist performing at the Hollywood Bowl with the Standard Symphony under Leopold Stokowski in a show broadcast via national radio. [Note: This concert broadcast was recorded and many decades later was released on a private label compact disc (Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra, Vol. 3 CD 65).]
One eminent artist impressed by Eustis was concert singer John Charles Thomas (1891-1960), who exclaimed "Here is the pianist who can make the piano sing" (Miller). It was on February 19, 1946, that Eustis was attending one of his concerts in Oakland when Thomas suddenly interrupted his own show in order to introduce Eustis to his audience, stating that he'd heard her perform at the Hollywood Bowl show, and "I believe Miss Eustis to be the greatest American instrumental artist since [America's first international violin virtuoso] Maud Powell [1867-1920]. Jose Iturbi himself told me he believes she is one of the greatest women pianists of this generation" ("Mystery Patient...").
Eustis proceeded to take to the stage and performed Scriabin’s Etude in E Major, an etude by Edward MacDowell, and an Etude in A Major by Chopin. Hometown pride was evident in The Seattle Times's glowing coverage headlined "Surprise Concert Performance Spells Fame For Seattle Girl" ("Mystery Patient..."). Eustis spent the summer of 1946 in Los Angeles under Thomas's wing, and he invited her to join him on a West-Coast tour -- including a concert in little Eugene, Oregon, where a huge crowd of 6,600 attended. During the tour he enthused that "It is not often that I have an opportunity of presenting a new and young artist, but here is a pianist I want you to hear" (Hays, November 11, 1946). He predicted "a brilliant future for her in the concert world" (Hays, November 11, 1946). Thomas later wrote that "She is one of the most exciting young pianists of our time. In my opinion she is destined for a great artist’s career" ("Young Pianist...").
The opportunity to tour at such a high level thrilled the pianist. She reveled that to have "found the thing I love to do, and be privileged to do it; to have friends like John Charles Thomas; to travel about and find that it is fun to 'live out of a suitcase' -- it is all joyousness and happiness, to me, and I try to give it out to others through my music" (Miller).
On September 1, 1946, Eustis returned to the Hollywood Bowl, again with Stokowski, and "was given a tremendous ovation by the bowl audience" ("Young Seattle Pianist..."). One Seattleite witnessed the show and informed The Seattle Times that "Seattle has every reason to be tremendously proud of her. You should hear the way people speak of her! She is now under contract with one of the biggest concert managements in the country" ("Strolling Around..."). Indeed: she was picked up by New York’s National Concert and Artists Corporation, and then news broke that Eustis had been signed contractually to play a concerto for The Chase, a film starring Robert Cummings and Peter Lorre. "Hollywood contends that she is the first feminine pianist to be signed for such a chore" ("Young Seattle Pianist..."). Following that United Artists production, she took on the same task for a Federal Films release, Carnegie Hall (1947), which also included performances by Stokowski, and the famed Metropolitan Opera star Lily Pons (1898-1976).
The Big Apple (Pt. 2)
On December 8, 1946, Eustis's second Town Hall gig won kudos from the New York Herald Tribune: Eustis "plays scales superbly. She can run up and down the keyboard as fast and as smoothly as anyone this reporter has ever heard. And she can play with a delicate flute-like tone that is charming." The New York Times agreed: She "revealed as her outstanding asset a brilliant technique, agile, facile and fast, with an effective bravura in exceedingly difficult pieces" ("Dorothy Eustis Wins Praise...").
Perhaps the one Town Hall attendee who was most impressed by Eustis was a New York industrial engineer, Philip Farnsworth Cannon. In the spring of 1947 Eustis married him -- an event that saw Lily Pons singing at their reception. Over the following years Cannon worked out of Chicago as a business management consultant and the busy couple struggled to cross paths as often as possible. Later, on December 5, Eustis gave her third (of an eventual six) major recitals at the Town Hall. The pianist’s life was a seemingly a dream-come-true and at one point a columnist pointed out that "There are many who believe this healthy, happy-hearted, handsome and courageous West Coast girl is destined for great things" (Montalbano).
Interviewed by The Seattle Times, Eustis noted that "I love playing for the people of the Pacific Northwest. There is always that feeling of freshness and of friendliness" (Miller). Indeed, on February 1, 1948, she returned to a rapturous homecoming concert at Seattle's grand Moore Theater (1932 2nd Avenue) and The Seattle Times followed up, noting that incoming media reports from the East and California of her "increasing artistry were glowingly confirmed last night ... when the young pianist performed a difficult program with certain skill. Although she has a definite style, one of clarity, strength and sureness, Miss Eustis consistently sublimated theatrics to the music she played" (Lund). The crowd evidently agreed. Reportedly they "insisted on six encores" (Lund).
Following that triumph, another show was scheduled there for February 25. The Seattle Times also crowed that "In reviews of her programs, New York newspapers used such phrases as ... 'substantial artistry,' 'a brilliant technique, agile, facile and fast,' 'speed combined with grace and ease brought out nicely the sparkle and sun in the ... music'" (Miller).
Records, Concerts, TV
Eustis's debut commercial recording was a 12-inch disc featuring two classical gems: Camille Saint Saens' Etude In Waltz Forme and Chopin’s Polinaise in C Minor. By the summer of 1950 Eustis had acquired her own audio gear and began recording her practice sessions for self-critiquing purposes. That same season -- beginning on the evening of July 11 -- Eustis made her multi-night triumphant return to the Hollywood Bowl’s Symphony Under The Stars concert series. This time it was as a First Soloist who was in rather good company as the other soloists included Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987), Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982), José Iturbi, Oscar Levant (1906-1972), Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999), Helen Traubel (1899-1972), and Isaac Stern (1920-2001).
On August 5, 1950, Billboard magazine noted the release of her Dorothy Eustis Plays Bach Father and Son 10-inch LP in their "Advanced Classical Record Release" section and two weeks later reviewed the disc saying that "Miss Eustis plays them with warmth and affection -- and the necessary technique. The sonata is a perky, airy piece, on which the pianist plays a clean, nimble attack and robust, strong phrasing." Eustis's career was in full bloom. On October 11, 1950, she gave another recital at the Town Hall, and a bit later The Seattle Times would report that she was making many television appearances in Los Angeles, and playing concerts all across the Southwest. Then on December 19, 1957, Billboard reviewed her Dorothy Eustis, Piano album, which featured various works by Beethoven and Chopin. At some undetermined point in time Eustis recorded the Hungarian composer Ernő Dohnányi's Opus 1 (for quintet) along with the Connecticut-based Berkshire String Quartet. The AEC label also cut some acetate discs of her performing with the Shostakovich Piano Quintet.
Trouper Supports The Troops
Life in New York City was both exciting for Eustis and Cannon and comfortable: The couple had settled into a fine brownstone home (324 E 18th Street), which she took to calling "Eustis Hall" to reflect the large number of recitals she gave for friends there. They also eventually enjoyed owning a "country home" out in the wilds of Connecticut. In early 1956 The Seattle Times society page gossiped about how Cannon had just given his wife a new grand piano -- so now both of their homes featured one!
But Eustis was not reluctant to leave that lifestyle behind in order to lend support to America’s military. In June 1956 she headed out for a month-long overseas tour performing for U.S. troops stationed in exotic locales like North Africa, Germany, France, and Italy. The following month it was reported that, while on tour in Turkey, Eustis wrote her old friend, Sarah Truax Albert, informing about the rigors of travel there: "If I thought I was a trouper, I didn’t know the first thing about it. Any prima-donna tendencies that might still have been clinging to me, quickly fell away" (Brazier, July 12, 1956).
If the instruments she had to play during her USO tour a decade prior had been a challenge, well that was nothing: "Am hoping I will still know what a real piano tone is when I get back to my own. At [Diyarbakir], the temperature was 135 degrees and the only available piano was a box affair called an electric piano with 66 keys [rather than the usual 88]. No pedals. It was placed on a crate. I did the best I could. Never possible to play a number through. I’d play one piece until I ran out of keys and then skip to another theme or piece" (Brazier, July 12, 1956). Another day in another venue "The boy who helped move the piano told me after I had played that it had been slid down four flights of stairs, fallen on its back and all the keys had fallen out. He said they were numbered and he put them back in order. Thank goodness!" (Brazier, July 12, 1956).
La Dorothy in Italy
From this point on, Eustis's saga gets a bit sketchy. It is believed that she was still residing in New York into the late-1960s -- but when, why, and how Cannon dropped from the picture remains unknown. Her live performance schedule tapered off -- with rumors later swirling about how she had experienced "this serious vehicular accident ... . It damaged her hands and her ability to play as a concert pianist" (Angelos and Jackson, March 11, 1995).
Eustis appears to have relocated to London, England, by about 1983 -- and it is known that in 1987 she visited Venice, Italy, for several months, staying at the Canal Hotel. The following year, she returned there to stay, renting her own second-floor apartment. Eustis was outgoing and easily struck up friendships with various locals. "New friends became her family, and she became 'La Dorothy,' a familiar figure striding through the Cannaregio neighborhood in her blond wig and white raincoat; cheerful, outgoing, the perfect lady" (Montalbano). But still, she remained a bit of an enigma. There were hints that she’d lived elsewhere in Europe, but she never explained any details about her marriage. One new Italian friend later explained: "She was mysterious about the past. She never talked about herself, except the music, and if you'd ask about her family, Dorothy would make an ugly face. Neither did she have any interest in going back to the United States" (Montalbano).
After acquiring a small piano, Eustis began giving new students lessons, and even playing parlor concerts for friends. One of those lucky few, Venice hotel clerk Giuseppe Visentin, would, years later, recount how "It was a dream to hear her play" (Montalbano). She never, however, told her Venice friends that she’d once been famous or anything about how her career had ended. Another friend stated, "I had the impression she had not played for many years. Still, she was very afraid to hurt her hands" (Montalbano).
In the End
As the Los Angeles Times aptly put it "Eustis became accepted as a retired woman of refined taste and independent means" (Montalbano). Until, that is, she began to suffer from dementia. She became paranoid, carrying a can of pepper-spray, increasingly convinced that bad people were after her. Finally, one day in 1993, she simply shut down mentally: Although she could hear and understand what others said to her, she never spoke another word. She was taken by friends to a Venice hospital -- the Ospedale Giovan Battista Giustinian -- a facility that kindly took care of her though they had no idea how to contact her family. In early March 1995 a Venetian newspaper broke the story of the town’s silent American "mystery patient" -- one whose medical chart reportedly stated that she hailed from Washington D.C. -- and whose care over the past two years had cost the hospital about $300,000 (Angelos and Jackson, March 10, 1995).
The hospital, a court-appointed attorney/guardian, and the U.S. State Department had all labored to discover more about Eustis, but failed in that quest. But then, the American media picked up on the story and suddenly her relatives in Washington state realized that their long-lost -- and far-flung -- family member was still alive, even though none had heard from her since 1968. By late-March it was reported that a niece, Barbara E. Cooper of Federal Way, Washington, had forwarded a vintage photo of herself as a toddler being held by Eustis, along with a letter that she asked be read to her ailing aunt. That letter expressed love and an offer to help out in any way if Eustis so wished. In reply Cooper was informed that Eustis wished to live out her days in Italy. Soon after, it was announced that an Italian judge ruled that Eustis could be moved to Florence’s Villa del Rosario clinic, which had offered to take her in. Later, in 1995, some Roman Catholic nuns -- Piccole Sorelle dei Poveri ("the Little Sisters of the Poor") -- volunteered to care for the fragile Eustis, and she was transferred to their convent’s nursing home in Florence, where she finally died on May 20, 2001.