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The headline in the Pittsburgh Press says, “Rachmaninoff Dies at 69 in Home at Beverly Hills: Wife and Princess at his Bedside.” I don’t know what that sounded like on March 29, 1943, but it certainly sounds silly now. The princess was his daughter Irene Wolkonsky. Surely it could have read “daughter” in place of “princess.” But it’s a little late to argue this point now. And, anyway, were it not for this notice, it is possible we would never have known that the great pianist and composer loved to read detective stories in between performances and that he had a specially-made pair of electric gloves to keep his valuable fingers warm when they were cold. More generally known, I assume (although I did not know this myself), is that Rachmaninoff travelled with his own pianos when on tour. He did not use whatever the given venue had to offer.
But why so much about an obscure obituary of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)? Because in this small photo gallery you are looking at the location at 610 Elm Drive in Beverly Hills where he lived and died. This is precisely where his wife Natalie, his daughter, the Princess Wolkonsky, and his sister-in-law Sophie Satin sat by to attend him as he expired.
This building actually has a good presence on the internet already. Six years ago a Rachmaninoff blogger posted a wonderful series of photos that he took when he toured the empty home in 1987. At that time it was up for sale and so our intrepid researcher went through the house taking photos, even grabbing an angular shot of the very room where Rachmaninoff died on March 28, 1943. Those photos, as well as the detailed real estate information on the house make for fun reading. You can peruse them on the Rachmaninoff Network website.
The IMDb film website has a nice graph attaching the composer to this address, too, so let me offer that here:
“At his home on Elm Drive in Beverly Hills Rachmaninov had two Steinway pianos which he played together with Vladimir Horowitz and other entertainers. His love of fast cars was second to music, and led him to occasional fines for exceeding the speed limit. Since he bought his first car in 1914, Rachmaninov acquired a taste for fast cars, buying himself a new car every year. His generosity was legendary. He gave away 5000 dollars to Igor Sikorsky to start an American helicopter industry. He paid for Vladimir Nabokov and his family’s relocation from Paris to New York. He sponsored Michael Chekhov and introduced him to Hollywood.”
I can’t help but add that my friend Vladimir Ferkelman, who drove me around Los Angeles one fine summer day this year to photograph Russian addresses in Hollywood, also once had an encounter with Rachmaninoff’s beneficiary Igor Sikorsky. Volodya happened to have reason to call Sikorsky’s offices in the 1980s, and the man who answered the phone recognized his Russian accent. They got to talking and it turned out that it was Sikorsky himself who had picked up the phone. He explained to Volodya that he had turned over most of the business to others by this time, but “it’s still my company, so I still come in to see how things are running.” I find it far-fetched, but satisfying that Volodya would have told me that story on the day he drove me to photograph the home of, among others, Rachmaninoff, whose investment made the Sikorsky helicopter a possibility…
Rachmaninoff first visited the U.S. in 1909 but was not enamored of it. But he was less thrilled by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and, when he received an offer to tour Scandinavia, he jumped at it. Officially he was merely heading out on a concert tour with his family in tow, so he left behind all of his belongings. Each member of the family took 500 rubles and some clothes. He spent much of the next 20 years touring and composing in Europe. But when the Second World War loomed large on the horizon in 1939, he again made his way to the United States. He settled in Beverly Hills in 1942 and he took U.S. citizenship in 1943 just one month before he died of cancer.
Rachmaninoff performed his last concert a little over a month before his death. This was in Knoxville at the University of Tennessee, as an article by Jack Neely tells us. The claim there that a statue commemorating Rachmaninoff’s concert is the only one in the world is erroneous – you can see a fine Moscow monument to the composer elsewhere on this blogsite – but more interesting is the circumstance of that last performance. Rachmaninoff expected to complete a tour that would take him to Knoxville, Atlanta, New Orleans and then on to the West Coast. He had already been in Chicago, where he came down with a cold. Not realizing just how ill he was, he courageously performed in Knoxville even though an eye-witness expressed the fear that his frail body would slip off the pianist’s bench.
“Rachmaninoff played some Bach, some Wagner, some Schumann, some Liszt and two of his own etudes tableaux. He also played Chopin’s somber ‘March Funebre’ – the funeral march. Despite his apparent pain, Rachmaninoff played three encores, closing with one of his greatest hits, his grave, stern Prelude in C Sharp Minor. [Eye-witness Harold] Clark told me Rachmaninoff knew an American audience wouldn’t leave until he played it. The composer confessed backstage that he was tired of playing it, but it’s an effective coda for a serious life. Then he went back to the Andrew Johnson [Hotel] and, the next day, caught the train for Atlanta. Over the next few days he would come to understand how ill he was. A fast-growing cancer had advanced to his spine. He cancelled the rest of his tour. He died in Los Angeles 39 days after his Knoxville show.”