FORT WORTH, Texas -- Van Cliburn's talent alone might have earned him a place among the 20th-century giants of his instrument, alongside classical pianists like Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz. But after a magical Moscow spring in 1958, Mr. Cliburn's fame eclipsed even those musical contemporaries, rivaling that of another young superstar of his time, Elvis Presley.
Mr. Cliburn was "The Texan Who Conquered Russia," according to a Time magazine cover. At the height of the Cold War, the lanky 23-year-old from East Texas traveled to Moscow and won the first Tchaikovsky International Competition, an event created to showcase Soviet cultural superiority. Mr. Cliburn's unlikely triumph was thus said to bring a thaw in tensions between the rival superpowers and created a mythic parable about the power of art to unite mankind.
The man at the heart of that parable died Wednesday morning at his mansion near Fort Worth. It had been announced Aug. 27 that Mr. Cliburn, who turned 78 in July, was suffering from advanced bone cancer.
"In 1958, he proved to the world that music is a transcendental force that goes beyond political boundaries and cultural boundaries and unifies mankind. He was a very concrete example of that," said Veda Kaplinsky, head of the piano department at the Juilliard School in New York. "Beyond that, his legacy is that of a person who personified grace, humility, talent, kindness and sincerity. He was a human being first and foremost. He never lost that."
While the world mourns a cultural icon, many in North Texas remember a friend -- a shy man of uncommon graciousness.
A friend to American presidents, foreign leaders and Hollywood celebrities, Mr. Cliburn also became a fixture in the life of Fort Worth. In the 1980s, he moved from a New York City apartment to a mansion in the exclusive Fort Worth suburb of Westover Hills. In the decades since, he was often seen at local cultural events or handing out medals to winners of the prestigious Fort Worth piano competition that bears his name.
A famous night owl, Mr. Cliburn was well-known for his off-hours visits to the Ol' South Pancake House on University Drive, always dressed in his trademark dark suits. A man of deep Christian faith, he was a member at Broadway Baptist Church, sneaking into a back pew just before services began each Sunday he was in town.
"One of the most profound truths that has characterized my life is St. Paul's advice to 'pray without ceasing,'" Mr. Cliburn told Brent Beasley, his pastor at Broadway Baptist, shortly before his death. "That's how I have lived my life."
Beasley and others who spent time with Mr. Cliburn after his recent diagnosis described a man bent on reminiscing from the moment he woke updaily, but a person unafraid of the end.
"He actually made the comment, 'I'm more afraid of living than dying,'" Beasley said.
For all his local familiarity, Mr. Cliburn largely belonged to the world. Through much of the 1960s and 1970s, he was among the most sought-after soloists and recording artists of his generation. But he would always be, first and foremost, the humble young man of the Tchaikovsky triumph, which came when the cloud of nuclear confrontation hovered over the world.
From childhood, the musician born in Shreveport and raised in the East Texas town of Kilgore seemed to channel the Russian soul, an affinity that was quickly obvious in that first trip to Russia. Max Frankel, then a Moscow correspondent for The New York Times, began to hear of Russian audiences at the competition that were completely enthralled by the one known as "Cleeburn."