'Green Book' Subject Don Shirley's Heir Speaks Out for First Time
Michael Kappeyne and John Scoulios were two young men who stumbled into the musician's life — and neither would be the same again. As the movie about their mentor nears Oscar immortality, they describe the man they knew and loved.
In the final decade of his life, Dr. Don Shirley, the musical genius played by Mahershala Ali in the five-time Oscar-nominated Green Book, faced an upheaval: He was being evicted from his loft above Carnegie Hall, a home he occupied for over 50 years.
Shirley, who died in 2013 at age 86, brought a zen-like perspective to everything he did. So he took a deep breath, considered his options — and enlisted the two people closest to him to figure it out.
Both were men he met randomly, faces in the Manhattan crowds drawn to him — and he to them — leading to a pair of unlikely lifelong friendships.
One is Michiel Kappeyne, a fifty-something Dutch financier living in New York City. When Kappeyne first moved to the city in 1995, he attended a Shirley concert. "It was riveting," he recalls of the classical performance. He patiently waited to meet the maestro after the show, "standing behind Liza Minnelli."
Kappeyne later dropped a thank-you note to Shirley in the mail, prompting Shirley to call and compliment Kappeyne on his "beautiful letter." From there, the two became mentor and protege: A gifted amateur classical pianist, Kappeyne began meeting with Shirley for weekly piano lessons that began in the mornings and frequently stretched into late afternoon.
The other confidante was John Scoulios.
Scoulios — who has never before spoken publicly about the music legend — met Shirley in the early 1980s, when he was an aimless twenty-something flipping burgers at a greasy spoon near Shirley's place. To Scoulios, "Doc was just another customer." After a few counterside chats, Shirley invited Scoulios to his home for some music and conversation.
"I didn't know people lived in Carnegie Hall," Scoulios recalls of his first encounter with Shirley's sprawling loft, faithfully reproduced in Green Book. "I was just in awe of that apartment, the chandelier, the grand piano... ."
"We spoke the whole evening," Scoulios recalls. "He kept telling me that I'm intelligent. I kept thinking, 'This guy doesn't even know me!'"
Shirley eventually convinced him to go back to City College of New York to finish a degree in mathematics. "Doc just had a way of making you feel guilty about things," says Scoulios, now a respected math professor.
When Scoulios went on to get married and have children, Shirley took an active role in raising them, teaching John's son Nicholas his first piano scales at nine months. "He was able to teach anyone at any age anything," says Scoulios. "It was remarkable."
But back to that big move: To get Shirley out of Carnegie Hall, Kappeyne and Scoulios made arrangements with the city to shut down all traffic on 57th Street. Why? Because they also hired a huge crane to hoist Shirley's grand piano out the window to the boulevard below.
"It was an arduous task," Scoulios says. "That piano! And there was so much stuff in the apartment. It was definitely hard, but we got it done. And he left on his own terms." Shirley relocated to Central Park Place and 57th Street, where he could see his beloved Carnegie Hall until his death.
"His health had been failing for some time," notes Kappeyne.
John Scoulios, left, and Dr. Don Shirley in the late 1980s.
That airborne Steinway now sits in a warehouse. Shirley's eclectic art collection, including "Orpheus and the Underworld," which he painted himself and which graces his 1956 album cover of the same name, currently resides in a storage unit.
The entirety of Shirley's estate, valued at between $500,000 and $1 million, was left to Kappeyne, who was also named executor of Shirley's will — with the stipulation that Scoulios take over if Kappeyne were unable to perform his duties.
Why designate Kappeyne the sole beneficiary? "He trusted me with his legacy," Kappeyne says. As for his next of kin, Shirley specified in his will, "I have my family and relatives in mind, but make no bequest for them as they are already taken care of."
Don Shirley giving Nicholas Scoulios his first piano lesson at age 9 months.
Kappeyne and Scoulios first saw the film at an intimate screening for friends and family held in New York City last August.
They had been consulted by Green Book producers during the making of the movie for little things: What pieces of music would Shirley play? How did he sit at the piano? Where did the other musicians sit?
Edwin Shirley III, Shirley's nephew, attended that first screening, later describing the experience of watching a Hollywood interpretation of his uncle's road trip through the segregated South as being "rather jarring."
Shirley's brother Maurice and his wife Patricia were not there, but later dismissed Green Book as a "symphony of lies," insisting the dynamic between Shirley and his driver Tony Vallelonga (played by Viggo Mortensen in the film) was never more than "an employer-employee relationship."
Kappeyne and Scoulios are far more forgiving of the movie, which both men acknowledge captures a slice of Shirley's life that occurred decades before either knew him.
"Going in, I looked at the film like, that’s right, that’s true, that’s false, that’s something Doc would do or say," recalls Scoulios. "I knew the guy. But the film is Hollywood and writers will add their writing privilege, so to speak."
Kappeyne has been a more vocal supporter of Green Book, what he calls a "very rich and very dense" film.
"It's wonderful," he says of Ali's performance. "Dr. Shirley was a very complicated figure. The solitude, the wariness — it was very much him up there on the screen. He would have been very pleased with the way Mahershala played him."
Kappeyne also thinks a much-discussed sequence, in which Vallelonga lectures Shirley on the art of eating fried chicken with your hands, has been misinterpreted: "Of course Dr. Shirley ate chicken. But he wasn't going to buy into the stereotype in front of Tony."
Still, one scene took both Kappeyne and Scoulios by surprise.
That was the one in which Shirley is arrested for soliciting gay sex at a YMCA, only to have Vallelonga bribe a cop into letting him go with a warning. Until they saw the film, neither Kappeyne nor Scoulios had so much as suspected that Shirley — who had been married to a woman and divorced — might have had gay inclinations.
"He was a very private man in many aspects," Kappeyne says.