Michael Chekhov home, Los Angeles

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Folks in the western hemisphere know him as Michael Chekhov. His fame at home in Russia is still so strong that he will always be known there by his given name of Mikhail. Michael or Mikhail, this nephew of Anton Chekhov remains one of the most revered figures of Russian theater 60 years after he died in Beverly Hills, CA. To this day his book To the Actor: On the Technique of Acting remains one of the most popular how-to books among actors the world over. Many performers consider his advice to be more practical and useful than Stanislavsky’s, and Stanislavsky himself once said that Chekhov embodied all the theories and exercises that he had developed up to a certain point.
Chekhov was born in 1891 in St. Petersburg, the son of playwright Chekhov’s older brother Alexander. It was a family full of drama. Alexander never married his first wife Anna, a woman who loved vodka as much as he did and who was eight years older than he. After her death, Alexander married the governess of his two children and it was she, Natalya, who gave birth to Mikhail, named for the youngest of the Chekhov brothers.  Alexander was a talented man, a published writer, but his status as the “brother of Anton” was a burden he could not bear. By some accounts, he recognized that his youngest son Mikhail was unique, but never found great love in his heart for him. When little Misha was four years old, Alexander reportedly said of him: “His eyes sparkle with nervousness. I think he will be a talented person.” (I pull this quote and some tales from Yelena Gushanskaya’s article about Alexander in Neva magazine in 2011.)
Mikhail studied acting in St. Petersburg and in 1912 was invited to join the Moscow Art Theater. The following year he began to work with Yevgeny Vakhtangov in the famous Art Theater First Studio. He wrote his name permanently into Russian theater history in 1921 when he delivered a legendary performance of Khlestakov in Konstantin Stanislavsky’s production of Gogol’s The Inspector General. It was his first major role there after having played several small parts, including that of Yepikhodov and Waffles in his uncle’s plays The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya, respectively. The success of his performance of Khlestakov led to him being named the director of the Second Moscow Art Theater, originally intended as an experimental version of the mothership. He played several memorable roles there – including Hamlet (1924) and Apollon in a famous dramatization of Andrei Bely’s novel Petersburg (1925 at the Second Moscow Art Theater).
However, as life, politics and art became increasingly difficult and dangerous activities in the Soviet Union, Chekhov followed the lead of many others in his era: He left the Soviet Union in 1928, moving through continental Europe on to England and, eventually, the United States, where he worked first on the East Coast and then achieved a certain insider’s fame in Hollywood as Michael Chekhov, the coach to the stars.

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The house seen in these pictures is located at 1310 San Ysidro Drive in Beverly Hills. This is where Chekhov settled in to live and this is where he resided at the time of his death in 1955. It is a relatively modest, but very cozy and attractive, home. It looks across the street at one of those steep, earthen cliffs so common in the hills of Hollywood and Beverly Hills.
While living here Chekhov became Hollywood’s favorite acting coach. Together with his great friend George Shdanoff (Georgy Zhdanov) he ran his acting laboratory and staged shows at the Las Palmas Theater (expect a post about that in the near future).  The number of the great and famous who worshipped Chekhov for his guidance was enormous. It included Jack Palance, Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, Marilyn Monroe and many, many others. Chekhov himself did some acting in Hollywood, earning an Oscar nomination for his performance in Alfred Hitchckock’s Spellbound (1945). You can see the entire film on YouTube (with French subtitles, even). But if you want to know my opinion, the film to see Chekhov in is The Man from the Restaurant, a silent from 1927 by the great Russian director Yakov Protazanov. Chekhov is absolutely brilliant as the put-upon waiter in a hifalutin eatery.
It took a village for me to find the exact location of Chekhov’s last home, although once things began coming together, they did so quickly. Various roles were played by Lisa Dalton, President of the National Michael Chekhov Association, and Jessica Cerullo, a pedagogue with the Michael Chekhov Association, both of whom sent me leads. I finally nailed the address down when I happened upon an internet publication of a July 18, 1950, letter from Chekhov to the pianist Vladimir Horowitz in regards to help the actor was soliciting for his friend, the sculptor Arkady Bessmertny. It’s quite a story, actually. Let me turn the gist of it over to Chekhov himself in this excerpt from the published letter:
“…I appeal to you almost in despair. My old, good and dear friend, the sculptor Arkady Bessmertny lives in Paris. He is handicapped – his legs have been paralyzed since childhood. When Hitler entered Paris, Bessmertny, as a Jew, had to escape. He then had a three-wheeled motorized invalid chair with hand controls. When I worked and I had money I helped him, but I now am helpless myself – my health is gone, I have no work, and my friend Bessmertny is begging me for help. He needs to buy a motorized chair and it costs $300. Vladimir Semyonovich [sic: Horowitz’s patronymic was Samoilovich], I am tormentedly ashamed, but I see no other way out of this, although I’ve thought a great deal. A few days ago I awoke with the thought: perhaps Vladimir Semyonovich might want to help! Forgive me for God’s sake, but it is so hard for me to think about my friend’s inescapable plight! If you would like to help, dear Vladimir Semyonovich, then here is my address:
Mr. Michael Chekhkov
1310 San Ysidro Dr.
Beverly Hills, Calif.
Yours ever and ever,
Mikhail Chekhov

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Musin-Pushkin house, Moscow

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I am definitely going to get into trouble with someone over this post. Because, whether you know it or not, the name Musin-Pushkin in Russian culture is one nasty hot potato. I don’t know how great a statesman and archaeologist Alexei Musin-Pushkin (1744-1817) was, I can’t judge; but in my world his fame is made by the fact that he did, or did not, “discover” the so-called Lay of Igor’s Campaign, a text that is, or is not, the oldest known text in a Slavonic language lacking elements of Church Slavonic.
I’ve surely already sinned against the living and dead, just by having said that. Surely my great and renowned linguistics professor Horace Lunt is turning over in his grave about some detail I have already distorted. If Lunt is paying me no attention, then, perhaps, another of my professors, Edward L. Keenan, who died just a few months ago, has already found something to pick at. Keenan was knee-deep in the Musin-Pushkin controversy, or, more properly, the controversy caused by Musin-Pushkin. Anyway, if neither of them care any more, so be it. But surely still another of my linguistics professors, Olga T. Yokoyama, currently a Distinguished Professor of Applied Linguistics, University of California, Los Angeles, will have reason to find fault.  All I can say is, come at me with the criticism folks. But, before I can dig myself out of this, I have no choice but to burrow in a few feet deeper.
The Lay of Igor’s Campaign is a chronicle of events that date back to 1185. Most Russian scholars, who have a deep interest in this being the oldest authentic text pointing the way forward to contemporary Russian literature, culture, history and language, tend to believe that the text was written down perhaps 100 years later, in the late 1200s, based on oral versions that sprang up shortly after the failed military campaign described in the text. Several Western scholars, having no national attachment to the story of the tale, have suggested that the text is a forgery concocted sometime between the 15th and 18th centuries. I don’t know anything about that, frankly. I defer to Lunt and Keenan and the great Russian scholar and humanist Dmitry Likhachyov, who was one of the most convincing voices defending the authenticity of the text. Let their opinions stand, even if they are diametrically opposed.

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But enough of that! I am not writing about The Lay of Igor’s Campaign, I am writing about the striking home that was occupied by the man who claimed to have discovered this lost text in a monastery at the end of the 1780s. I don’t care that Musin-Pushkin most certainly lied about that. And I don’t particularly care that Musin-Pushkin, along with a few others, was the first to publish this text and make it available to Russian readers for the first time in 1800. (The impact was enormous, as the text – truly or not – pushed back the veil of pre-history by several hundred years for contemporaries.) I am a little more interested in the fact that this manuscript – found, forged or stolen – was held for nearly two decades in the building that you see pictured here – the Musin-Pushkin palace, as it is called in Russian. I am definitely interested in the fact that The Lay of Igor’s Campaign, along with the thousands of other rare manuscripts collected (?) over the years by the occupant here, was burned to a crisp when much of the building and all of the archive went up in a conflagration in 1812. This fire, if I may put it so, has poured gas on the flames of the Musin-Pushkin/Lay of Igor’s Campaign controversy ever since. It was that “Oops!” moment in history after which no more real research could be done on the text. It had been the only remaining copy, or so said Alexei Musin-Pushkin…
When Musin-Pushkin lived here, this was a three-story building. The top floor you see was added in the Soviet period. The building’s address is currently 2/1 Spartakovskaya Street and it stands looking askance at a tiny square that bears the name of Razgulyai. The first and third pictures in this post were taken with Razgulyai just behind me and to my right. It is relatively common knowledge that this is a historic structure – there is plenty of information to be had in the internet – but there are no markings on the building itself to let passersby know that.
For me it is an odd place to walk past. Stately as it is, it is rather benign these days, wrapped ignominiously in trolley and electrical lines swinging this way and that all around the building. The street now comes much too close to the structure, making it look a little like an eye popping out of a head. But this is the place, right here, where that whole nasty argument began – Was The Lay real or was it not? Sitting in various Harvard University classrooms I listened to Horace Lunt make ironic comments about it; I heard Keenan, a man who loved a fight no less than Lunt, rail on about it. And now, here is ground zero, a rose-colored building in the middle of modern Moscow. The place where the most famous Slavonic text once spent about 20 years on a shelf somewhere inside.
And that, folks, is true, no matter what you believe about The Lay of Igor’s Campaign. Fake or not, the text that gave rise to one of the great, ongoing controversies in Russian literary and linguistic history once briefly collected dust here.

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Osip Mandelshtam monument, Voronezh

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This full-length statue of Osip Mandelshtam in the south corner of the Orlyonok Park in Voronezh is something of a sleeper. When I first approached it I had just spent quite awhile standing outside one of the homes in which Mandelshtam had lived on Fridrikh Engels Street for a short while in 1936. (I wrote about that home and the plaque that hangs on one of its walls earlier on this site.) That proved to be a fairly emotional experience and maybe I just wasn’t ready yet for more when I walked across Tchaikovsky Street to the monument in the park. At first it seemed underwhelming. It seemed ignorable. It seemed not to have much of a presence. But then I began photographing and I could not stop. I shot from every angle, from a distance, from close-up, from below, from behind… The more I shot the less I wanted to leave. The image changed and took on new nuances when people walked by, when they stopped and looked. In short, this monument by Lazar Gadaev turned out to be very much alive.
There is something incredibly vulnerable about it. Mandelshtam seems to be wounded and in pain, although he is bearing it. He is holding out. He’s giving that tie a bit of a tug, he lifts his face up. He’s struggling for a position of dignity. This is the poet that the authorities hounded from about 1932 until they finally succeeded in killing him on Dec. 27, 1938. He spent a couple of years here in Voronezh in exile, having to move from apartment to apartment, never able to settle down into a normal life. He was ripped out of the literary life he had chosen for himself, and was ripped out of life itself, left to die in a prison camp outside of Vladivostok. Gadaev sculpted a man who is still alive but probably knows he will die, if not this year, then next, and if not next year, then surely the following year – and this death will not come by natural causes.
The emotion that visited me when wandering around outside the poet’s apartment building across the street returned to me when I went in for the close-up photos. From a distance you clearly recognize Mandelshtam’s face. But the closer you come to him, the less defined he is. He becomes more abstract, more of a suggestion, more imperfect. There is something right about that. The closer you come to greatness, the less clear you are about what it is.
There is also something moving about the very public placement of this monument. There are people walking by all the time – it’s a public park, after all, and the sculpture is located at a crossing of streets and paths, and just over a fence from a kiddie playground. At least in the time I was there, virtually no one paid Mandelshtam any attention. Everybody just walked on by, lost or buried in their own worlds, their own conversations, inner or shared. And this makes the poet’s sculpted loneliness even more cutting. He’s right here, ready to be wounded, open to hurt, but even that isn’t enough to make people notice. Ahhh!!!
A sculpture, if it’s any good, is always something that exists in a symbiotic relationship with its surroundings. And that sense of open vulnerability combined with a seeming indifference around it gives this sculpture a truly devastating effect. I was barely able to keep my composure by the time I was taking my last photos.

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This monument was unveiled Sept. 4, 2008, two weeks before the sculptor died. Lazar Gadaev was born in North Ossetia on June 20, 1938. He died in Moscow Sept. 21, 2008. He was one of the most famous and accomplished sculptors ever to come out of Ossetia.
The popular satirical poet, scholar and playwright Dmitry Bykov lambasted this monument when he traveled to Voronezh in 2009. He was there to promote his recent books about Bulat Okudzhava and Boris Pasternak and, when asked about the Mandelshtam monument, he, well, he unloaded.
I like the fact that it was put up,” he told Komsomolskaya Pravda. “But the monument is horrible. Don’t take that as ‘Ah, a Muscovite comes to town and unloads on our local tourist attraction!’ I don’t want to insult anyone, and, of course, I understand nothing about sculpture. But I don’t like the fact that it is done in an aesthetic that is diametrically opposed to that of Mandelshtam. It has nothing to do with him. Mandelshtam was a subtle poet. The monument is rough-cut. Maybe it symbolizes the poet’s rough fate and the way he was dealt with?”
A few other celebrities dissed the monument, too. Maybe they had too many people around them? Maybe they weren’t as lucky as I was to have a camera in hand, which forced me to see this work better? Maybe they spoke before they thought? Or maybe I’m just wrong. Although in this particular case, that is the last thing I would believe. Whatever the case, I love this sculpture. I think it does just what a sculpture should do: it makes us think; it makes us see its subject in and out of the usual context; it uses the surroundings to expand the effect of the work. There is an open wound “walking” the streets of Voronezh – the sculpture of Osip Mandelshtam by Lazar Gadaev. It remains one of the most memorable “visits” I paid to “friends” during my short time in Voronezh.

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Konstantin Stanislavsky home and plaque, Moscow

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I am always taken aback when I encounter this building at 6 Leontyevsky Lane. This is where Konstantin Stanislavsky lived from 1921 until his death in 1938. He is identified on one of the plaques on the front wall as an “actor and director.” Nowhere does it say that he was a co-founder of the Moscow Art Theater, but maybe that would be superfluous. A little bit like labeling the summer sky blue. Soviet scholars, armchair or otherwise, will immediately note the curiosity of the date: 1921. This is when the Russian Civil War was still underway. Muscovites of all walks and professions at this time were being forced to give up their individual apartments as strangers, sometimes couth, sometimes un-, were moved into “spare” rooms. The word in Russian was ‘uplotnenie,’ that is, ‘packing-them-in.’ If you had a three-room apartment you could expect the state to move in at least two other families into the ‘extra’ rooms. It was the way the young Soviet government solved the housing crisis. What does this have to do with Stanislavsky’s home? Well, look at it. It’s huge. And it all belonged to Stanislavsky. I haven’t made it a point to study this topic, but the only other person I know of who received this kind of treatment was Maxim Gorky, to whom Stalin, in 1932, gifted a spectacular art-moderne home on Spiridonivka across from the church where Alexander Pushkin was married.
This building that was put at the service of Stanislavsky has quite a history. Parts of it were erected between 1650 and 1670. It was expanded in or around 1777, and then again at the beginning of the 19th century. There are not many buildings left in Moscow  that are that old. Fires and wars have seen to that. And most of the ones left are not residential structures. So this is really something. It is kept in beautiful condition, as you can see. The powder yellow is one of my favorite colors in Moscow. The first two photos in the block immediately below show the structure from the inside courtyard.  The second photo, which looks out the gate at the building across the street, shows how well the powder yellow combines with another of Moscow’s common colors – powder blue.
Russian Wikipedia tells us that just a few doors down from here, at 2a Leontyevsky Lane stood the building in which Maria Lilina, Stanislavsky’s leading lady, lived before the couple was married. According to Moscow lore, it was there that Stanislavsky popped the question and Lilina accepted. I mention that building here because it can no longer be photographed or perused. It was torn down in 2003 to make way for a modern apartment building “with an underground garage,” as Wikipedia puts it.

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The first year of Stanislavsky’s life in this home must have been hectic. As I have said, there was a Civil War raging all around. Not that bullets constantly flew freely in the skies over Moscow, but as a new book called The Soviet Theater: A Documentary History indicates, there were, indeed, days when bullets flew freely enough that the Art Theater had to think about canceling performances so as not to endanger actors and spectators. That, surely, is one of the reasons that Stanislavsky and a large group from the theater struck out on a world tour in 1922. They played in Europe and the U.S., although they were in the U.S. for much of the time between 1922 and 1924. If you know anything about human nature, you know full well that Stanislavsky was using that time to decide whether he should bother coming back at all. Many in Russia assumed that he and his troupe would not return. Just imagine Stanislavsky getting up in the morning somewhere in New York, Chicago or Philadelphia, sitting down to his orange juice and scrambled eggs that were served on a crisp, white linen tablecloth and thinking – “Do I go back? Do I not go back?” That quandary lasted for over two years. “Do I bail or do I not bail?” Meanwhile, the popularity of the Art Theater’s shows in the U.S. made Stanislavsky a god in the West. It was here that he wrote and published the first of his books which have come to be looked upon in theater circles as bibles.
In the end Stanislavsky did not bail, although not all of his actors returned with him. He returned to Moscow and his still-new home at 6 Leontyevsky Lane in 1924 at about the same time that his My Life in Art was published in English.
Long before moving into this home, Stanislavsky and Lilina had three children, two daughters and a son. The first daughter, born in 1890, died as an infant. The second, Kira (1891-1977), married the great painter Robert Falk and was the first director of the Stanislavsky House Museum when it was opened in this building in 1948 on the 10th anniversary of the great director’s death, and the 85th anniversary of his birth. Their youngest child, a son named Igor (1894-1974), married Alexandra Tolstaya, the granddaughter of Leo Tolstoy.
The museum displays the rooms in which Stanislavsky and his wife lived. There is a small auditorium which, on occasion, is used for performances by contemporary companies. Actually, I say that and then recall that it’s been years since I saw a show there. I did often attend performances there in the 1990s, but it’s been a long time since then…

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