He was, almost without argument, the violinist of his century. Jascha Heifetz, virtuoso, was heard by the world but known by only a few, perhaps the most unlisted man in a privacy-seeking community. His homes in Malibu and Beverly Hills were gated; there were private phone numbers and secretaries and recording devices between him and his audience. Violinist Heifetz usually hid when offstage, unless he was teaching the next generation of violinists.
Citizen Heifetz had his moments, however. Concerned about the polluted air we breathe, Heifetz converted a Renault to battery power around the turn of the '60s, convinced that human life needed an alternative to the fossil fuels moving so many automobiles and spawning so much smog. Troubled by the overlapping jurisdictions and distances within Los Angeles County, Heifetz was an early champion of the 911 emergency telephone number, hectoring police chiefs and politicians until the bureaucracy answered up.
A courtly Heifetz also sometimes performed. He called a Times colleague one night--he made himself heard at odd hours--to advance the 911 cause, but the reporter--call him Greeley--was not at home. Heifetz left his message and politely told Mrs. Greeley that he enjoyed meeting her a year ago at his July 4th party. She apologized and said that she had married the journalist only a few months ago--he was talking to the wrong Mrs. Greeley. Heifetz, never losing a beat, responded, "Then you must be the right Mrs. Greeley."
Heifetz died on Thursday at age 86. The violinist leaves the world richer for his recordings and his effect on future musicians. The recluse--cranky, courtly, impatient--leaves Los Angeles richer for his uncompromising standards in the arts, the academies and even the environment.