Visiting Scott Joplin
Armed with the Rolex Ragtime King, 33 year old Wilsdorf and a young associate Mr. Petherbridge, set sail for New York sometime in late September 1914.
In the event, the greater surprise was in store for Mr. Wilsdorf and his travelling companion. They were greeted at New York harbour not by John Stark, but by a representative of the company, sent from their offices in St Louis. He escorted them by motorcar to their hotel.
Above is an artist’s impression of Wilsdorf and Petherbridge arriving at the port with Mr. Wilsdorf on the right. As can be seen from his photograph taken a few years earlier in 1908, the artist’s impression was accurate.
After refreshing themselves at their Park Avenue hotel, the Stark assistant drove Wilsdorf and Petherbridge in a Moyer touring car to the home of Mr. Scott Joplin.
We can only imagine the look on the faces of Wilsdorf and Harrow educated Petherbridge as the respectable white populated avenues of Manhattan slowly gave way to a poorer black neighbourhood.
When the door was opened to two finely attired British gentlemen from the Rolex Watch Company, it took both Joplin and his visitors several moments to overcome their mutual dismay.
Before Wilsdorf stood a red eyed black man with a shuffling gait, prematurely aged and clearly in the grip of a wasting illness. Clearing his throat, Petherbridge said: “Good afternoon my man, is your master in?”
It was quickly indicated by the embarrassed John Stark representative that they were in fact talking directly with Mr. Scott Joplin. The pair were duly ushered into the ramshackle apartment. No one had ever thought to inform Wilsdorf that Joplin was a coloured gentleman.
Sheets of musical notation were everywhere; on the floor, on the table, on chairs, stacked on shelves. They had definitely found their man, even though their man was nothing like what they had expected. There was no Google in 1914, indeed there were hardly any pictures in the newspapers.
Presentation of the Rolex Ragtime King
Recovering quickly, the ever polite Hans Wilsdorf congratulated Scott Joplin upon his wonderful music. After an awkward silence, Petherbridge handed Wilsdorf the fine leather watch box containing the Rolex Ragtime King and, after a short speech, duly presented it to Scott Joplin.
Wilsdorf probably wasn’t the first, and is definitely not the last fan boy to find his musical hero to be a crushing disappointment in the flesh. Joplin opened the box and stared blankly at the watch – known as a wristlet at that time – an innovation soon to become cherished by British soldiers in the trenches of France in World War 1.
Scott Joplin was stunned that something as small as a wrist watch could tell the time. Petherbridge had to show him how to strap the watch to his left wrist, which shook as he buckled it.
Joplin loved the ‘Ragtime King’ insignia on the wristlet and admired the timepiece on his wrist for several moments. Joplin, recognising Wilsdorf’s accent, asked if he spoke German. Joplin spoke a little German, having learnt the language under his piano tutor Julius Weiss.
After exchanging a few faltering sentences in German, Joplin, spotting a man of means clearly in awe of his music, made his pitch. Would Wilsdorf sponsor his new ragtime opera Treemonisha? Joplin grabbed several sheets of hastily scrawled musical notation from a table and showed them to a bemused Wilsdorf who exuded polite enthusiasm.
An impromptu concert
In honour of the occasion, Wilsdorf requested a piano recital and Joplin obliged. Shuffling to his upright piano in the corner of the room, Joplin’s hands hovered unsteadily above the keys. It seemed momentarily as if Joplin had forgotten what to do with a piano.
But then he started to play, and the familiar strains of Joplin’s greatest hit Maple Leaf Rag sailed across the room. Joplin followed it up with Paragon Rag, a lively lilting tune, and a personal favourite of Wilsdorf’s.
When the musician did what he was born to do, the magic for Wilsdorf quickly returned. In no time the founder of one of the world’s most iconic watch brands was tapping his toes to what to this day remains America’s most pre-eminent black musician of ‘serious’ music.
Joplin premiered his latest work, Magnetic Rag and by the time he finished with Swipesy Cakewalk and a rousing version of another cakewalk ‘Les Poissons d’Avril,’ Wilsdorf was putty in his hands. He gifted Joplin 100 hundred American dollars towards his new opera – a small fortune in those far off days equivalent to $2000 in today’s money.
With the impromptu concert finished, Joplin was completely drained, and emotional at the gift of the Ragtime King wristlet and the money. Wilsdorf and Petherbridge made their excuses and left the dirty, cramped ramshackle apartment, stepping over sheets of music as they did so.
“No further mention of this episode”
As soon as they were safely ensconced in their Park Avenue hotel, Wilsdorf turned to his aide and solemnly declared: “Petherbridge, we will make no further mention of this episode to anyone, ever, do you understand me.”
And there we have it. Wilsdorf went on to build one of the world’s most famous watch brands while Joplin slowly descended into madness from tertiary syphilis. He died on April 1st 1917 in Manhattan State Hospital believing that his life had been a failure.
Rolex moved its offices not to America but to Switzerland where they remain to this day.
As for the Rolex Ragtime King, it was pawned and re-pawned by Joplin as failing health made it increasingly difficult for him to earn a living. In 1967 it was bought for $220 by a Rolex collector from the same pawn shop where Joplin left it half a century earlier.
Were he alive today, Joplin would be astounded to learn that, a century after his work was first printed, he is the most successful African-American composer of serious music that ever lived – by far. For your listening pleasure, below is one of the last rags he wrote – Magnetic Rag from 1914.
We leave it to the reader to decide whether Rolex or Ragtime is the greater gift to humanity.
Listen to Magnetic Rag as played by Joshua Rifkin