cover image Beethoven's Hair: An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and a Scientific Mystery Solved

Beethoven's Hair: An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and a Scientific Mystery Solved

Russell Martin. Broadway Books, $24.95 (288pp) ISBN 978-0-7679-0350-9

Six years ago an improbable pairDretired real-estate developer Ira Brilliant and a Mexican-American doctor named (remarkably) Che GuevaraDgot together to buy a lock of hair that was snipped from Beethoven's head on his deathbed by a young musician. The hair, enclosed in a glass locket, passed through the musician's family, then, during WWII, into the possession of a Danish doctor who helped smuggle Jews through Denmark into safety in Sweden. When the doctor's daughter put the locket up for sale through Sotheby's in London, Brilliant and Guevara, ardent collectors of Beethoven memorabilia, pooled their resources to buy it. They acquired it for a little over $7,000. After recounting these events in detail, Martin moves on to the ""newsy"" last third of the book: the two collectors submitted the hair to the most up-to-date DNA analysis, with results they and their publisher regarded as so earth shaking that the book was originally embargoed, lest word of its revelations should leak prematurely. The results, however, do not seem particularly startling, though they shed an interesting light on Beethoven's artistic integrity and the cause of his lifelong ill health. For one thing, the analysts found no trace of morphine, suggesting that the composer, often in great pain, foreswore its use so as to keep his mind clear for his work. They also found abnormally high concentrations of lead, indicating that at some time in his life Beethoven may have been subjected to lead poisoning, which would account for many of his health problems, including his deafness. That's hardly enough to make a book, however, and Martin's account is padded with a great deal of repetitious material on the collectors themselves, a long passage on the Jewish escape from Denmark and familiar tales from the composer's life. Ultimately, the book comes off as a scholarly article that got out of hand. (Oct.)