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Rich Little Poor Boy : A GHOST OF A CHANCE. By Peter Duchin with Charles Michener (Random House: $27.50, 380 pp.)

August 04, 1996|Georgia Jones-Davis | Georgia Jones-Davis is an assistant editor for Book Review

There is a soundtrack to this book review. Start reading while you listen to a rendition of "I'll Take Manhattan."

Movie buffs and older baby boomers will recognize Eddy Duchin as the popular pianist and orchestra leader of the 1930s and '40s who was portrayed by Tyrone Power in a maudlin tear-jerker, "The Eddy Duchin Story." Peter was the young son Tyrone Power so awkwardly tried to warm up to. Here is his story.

Today, Peter Duchin is a society orchestra leader who entertains for those who summer in places like the Hamptons, Westport, Grosse Point, Jupiter Island or Newport, R.I. His autobiography, "Ghost of a Chance" is a breezily written story co-authored with Charles Michener. It's chock-full of name-dropping--but it's more than a simple-minded celebrity bio.

There's a whiff of old-time romance here and a few scraps of meaty gossip (the juiciest about Pamela Harriman in her more mercenary days). But what you really have is the autobiography of a working musician who has interesting thoughts about his heroes, jazz and popular music and about running the "orchestra business." It is as much the story of a young bandleader's education as the tale of an arrogant young man rubbing elbows with some of America's most famous social and historical players, from World War II to the present.

Much of the time the writing is bland, but sometimes a truly amusing and not always tasteful bit emerges; there's little to match the excruciating horror of the time Duchin stepped on and crushed a date's pet Yorkie.

Are you with me so far? Segue to Eddy Duchin's signature tune, Chopin's Nocturne in E-flat.

Peter Duchin was born in New York City in 1937, the only child of his handsome father, Eddy, and his attractive socialite wife, Marjorie Oelrichs. Duchin the elder, the son of Jewish immigrant parents, was a musical genius who began leading his own orchestra in 1931 when he was only 22.

During the years he performed at the glitzy Central Park Casino, Eddy Duchin entertained the cream of New York society, but he was never "of it." He married Marjorie, a tall, brainy and extroverted society girl who didn't complain that she was kicked out of the Social Register when she married Eddy. "Who cares?" she said. "It's only a telephone book."

In 1937, however, Marjorie died a week after having given birth to Peter. Eddy, devastated, couldn't handle being physically or emotionally close to his infant son. He took his band on the road for months at a time, and Peter, a near-orphan, was taken into the household of Averill Harriman by his wife, Marie, a close childhood friend of the boy's late mother. The Harrimans became his family.

In 1947, Eddy Duchin remarried and young Peter moved in with him for the first time. But it was too late to establish warm ties. Four years later, the famous bandleader died of leukemia at age 42.

The odd thing about Peter Duchin's book is that he provides little, if any, information about his father's family. He mentions Duchin relatives but provides no real picture of what his relationship with them was like or how they felt about his being raised by friends of his mother. They certainly couldn't argue that the child lacked opportunities, being brought up in the home of an Protestant American prince. But he wasn't raised by family.

The Harrimans provided roofs over his head; a governess; a pony; lessons in riding, shooting, fishing and skiing; education at the best schools; and opportunities for travel and socializing with a brilliant array of thinkers, politicians, artists and society types.

Indeed, Duchin grew up feeling entitled to these luxuries. He graduated from Yale and moved to Paris, meeting the greatest jazz musicians of the '50s and frittering away what was left of his funds. Then, fresh out of the military, Duchin returned to New York, where he exhausted every social invitation tossed his way. Finally, Marie Harriman took him aside and told him to "get his ass in gear."

It was time to earn a living, she said. There was no trust fund waiting for him, no inherited position at a Wall Street law firm or investment bank. All along, he had just been a rich little poor boy, whose trust from his father was barely enough to cover basic expenses and fine schooling.

Let's conclude the soundtrack with "Make Someone Happy," the theme song of Peter Duchin's orchestra.

In the final section, Duchin reveals how his career and public celebrity were made possible by his brilliant social connections. But his ultimate success could not have come without real talent and the one legacy he did inherit from his father: a genuine passion for music.

Duchin provides touching and vivid portraits of Eddy and Marjorie Duchin's glamorous, doomed lives; the penny-pinching "Ave" Harriman and his tough but tender wife, Marie. Everyone from Frank Sinatra and Ernest Hemingway to Jackie and Ari Onassis makes an appearance in the course of Duchin's star-studded story.

Sure, the rich and famous are different from you and me, as F. Scott Fitzgerald might have put it: That's because their friends have excuses to write gossipy books like this. And we can forgive them because they pass the good times on to us.

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