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I’m tempted to just quote Jack Anderson’s New York Times May 31, 1996, obituary for Tamara Toumanova (1919-1996) in full. I won’t. But I’m sorely tempted. It’s chock full of the kind of information I love. Let me provide some snippets:
“Tamara Toumanova, a child-prodigy ballerina of the 1930’s who became familiar to American audiences as one of the most glamorous stars of 20th-century dance, died on Wednesday at the Santa Monica Hospital in Santa Monica, Calif. She was 77 and lived in Beverly Hills…
“By the time she was 13, Miss Toumanova was internationally acclaimed as one of the three so-called baby ballerinas of Col. W. de Basil’s Ballets Russes. She and two other phenomenally gifted daughters of Russian emigres — Irina Baronova and Tatiana Riabouchinska — were discovered in Parisian ballet studios by George Balanchine…
“Adoring fans nicknamed Miss Toumanova ‘the black pearl of the Russian ballet.’ Even as a teen-ager, her beauty was as remarkable as her technique…
“A founding member of the de Basil Ballets Russes in 1932, Miss Toumanova inspired two of this century’s greatest choreographers. She created roles in Balanchine’s Cotillon and Concurrence and in Leonide Massine’s Jeux d’Enfants with the company…
“Miss Toumanova was born on March 2, 1919, in a boxcar in Siberia. She was the daughter of a czarist army colonel and his wife, who were fleeing the Bolsheviks. The couple settled in Paris, where their daughter became a pupil of Olga Preobrajenska, a Russian-born teacher…”
And on it goes. Wow. Born in a train car in Siberia (just outside the city of Tyumen, for those who like details), fleeing revolution… Does that sound iconic, or what? With a beginning like that, Toumanova simply had to become a Hollywood star. Hollywood exists to capitalize precisely on such extraordinary biographies.
I mean, look at this little story that Wikipedia carries:
“In 1936, while Toumanova was performing ballet in Chicago, an 18-year-old boy named Burr Tillstrom came to see her perform. Following the ballet, Burr went backstage to meet her. As they talked, Toumanova and Tillstrom became friends. Some time later, Tillstrom showed her a favorite puppet he had made and she, surprised by his revelation, exclaimed, “Kukla” (Russian for ‘puppet’). Burr Tillstrom went on to create a very early (1947) television show for children, titled, Kukla, Fran and Ollie.”
Now, how many of us who grew up watching Kukla, Fran and Ollie had any idea that Kukla was a Russian word (I only made the connection just now, having read this blurb) and that it had been suggested by the great Toumanova, who was all of 17 at that point?
She began studying with the great Preobrazhenskaya when she was still nearly an infant. She made her first memorable appearance at the grand age of six, chosen out of a group to perform by the great Anna Pavlova. She broke in with the world-class emigres Balanchine and Massine (Myasin, in its Russian form) when she was not yet a teenager (she was 12). Throughout the core of her career she dazzled audiences in Paris, London, New York, Monte Carlo, Milan, while touring to Central American, Canada, Spain and Cuba. She made her film debut in 1944 in a picture, Days of Glory, that featured Gregory Peck making his own debut. Through 1970 she played in five more films, always playing a dancer. Everything about Toumanova sounds like a fairy-tale.
Virtually nothing tied the dancer-actor to Russia itself. I don’t know how long she remained within Russian/Soviet borders after her birth, but it may have been only weeks, it may have been months. It doesn’t appear to have been a year. And yet, before she died, she donated what costumes she had in her possession to the Vaganova Choreographic Museum in St. Petersburg.
Ethnically, Toumanova was her own personal melting pot. Or so it would seem. You can find references to her alleged Georgian, Armenian, Polish, Ukrainian and Russian roots. The name Toumanova derived from her mother’s maiden name, Tumanishivili, which is a prominent Georgian name. There have been several great Georgian directors with that name. I don’t know if there is a relation or not, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find there is. On the other hand, one of Toumanova’s best friends apparently claimed she did not have a drop of Georgian blood in her. Sounds rather impossible with such a name, but I don’t make up the news here, I just report it. Her father’s name is usually given as Vladimir Khassidovitch. In a semi-backstage editing-war report at Wikipedia, you can read the following, which indicates how difficult it is to determine Toumanova’s blood heritage: “…She is of Polish/Ukrainian and Georgian descent, not just Georgian (or Armenian), her father was Khazidowich-Boretski, a Pole from Ukraine. Secondly, Tamara herself, her mother and her family and friends have stated that her mother is Georgian. These are primary sources and should be taken as facts, the rest is speculation and rumours.” I will add, as someone else does elsewhere in the long, often contentious report, that the name Khassidovitch or Khazidowich, might also indicate Jewish connections.
Whatever the sources that went into the making of this extraordinary woman, they worked. As the British ballet critic A.V. Coton is reported to have said, “she was the loveliest creature in the history of the ballet.”
Toumanova is buried next to her mother Yevgenia (Eugenie) Dmitrievna Toumanova, at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles. Eugenie was her daughter’s constant companion, manager, make-up woman, costume-lady and what-all throughout the younger woman’s career.
I will tell you that Toumanova’s grave is located at Section 8, Lot 111, grave 7 in the Garden of Legends section of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, although that will hardly help you find it. I walked back and forth on the little hillside overlooking an artificial pond, not far from Fyodor Ozep’s grave, for well over a half an hour before finding the site. I hate to say it, but all of those graves begin looking the same at a certain point. Most are not like the Johnny Ramone memorial (straight across the pond from Toumanova), with a cheap look-alike statue and a guitar. If you make the trek yourself, look out for Toumanova’s whispering cherub. That’s what will help you find her.