Alexander Griboedov monument, Moscow

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This is the third or fourth time I have photographed this monument, one of Moscow’s most prominent. I have never been satisfied with the pictures and I’m not crazy about what I have to offer today. But I figured if I haven’t been able to do better than this by now, then I never will.
So, here is the monument to playwright and poet Alexander Griboedov which stands at the far end of the segment of the Moscow Garden Boulevard that is called Chistye Prudy (Clean Ponds). You pass Alexander as you walk from the Chistye Prudy or Turgenevsky metro stops on your way to the actual ponds, the Sovremennik Theater, the Tabakov Theater or many other attractions along the way.
One would think this is a fine monument. It is big, that is for sure. It dominates the area around it. It has a nicely classical feel for those who love that kind of thing. But I have a sneaking suspicion that I have had enormous difficulty photographing it for a reason. I just can’t put my finger on it yet. For one, it seems almost as if the sculptor Apollon Manuilov first checked out the monument to Nikolai Gogol on Gogolevsky Boulevard (erected in 1952 – read about that elsewhere in this space) and the Ground Zero monument in Moscow, Pushkin at Pushkin Square (originally erected in 1880 – read about that, too, in this space), before settling on how he would depict Griboedov. It looks like Griboedov, as far as we can tell at this remove; it is, as I’ve said, big; it’s done with all the reverence one could hope for; it’s location is about as good as they come. But I hardly ever notice it when I pass it by (as I often do, or, at least, used to), I don’t see much when I do look, and when I photograph it I seem to get mush.
The monument was erected in 1959, on the 130th anniversary of Griboedov’s death. It was a nasty and famous death. Griboedov (1795-1829), sent by the Russian government as an ambassador to Persia, never arrived. He was murdered – sliced up so badly that he could only be identified by a mark on his arm – while on the road in what we now know as Teheran, Iran.
There’s a fairly humorous story about the location of the Griboedov monument. In 1918 the young Soviet government chose to erect a monument to the famed anarchist Mikhail Bakunin here. But it was apparently so “avant-garde” that eye-witnesses swore that when it was unveiled all the horses nearby reared and tried to run away. So ugly and unloved was this monument to Bakunin that it was removed, some say in a week, some say in a year. (You can see the Bakunin monument here in the first seven photos. I rather like it.) My understanding is that this location remained empty until the decision was made to erect the monument to Griboedov.

Griboedov’s assassination put an end to a short, brilliant life.  He is usually called a one-play wonder, although that is not entirely true. He wrote several short comic plays for the Russian stage. He wrote a good many poems and he wrote a waltz, the Griboedov waltz in E-minor, that is still performed often today. You hear this piece as accompanying music in all kinds of Russian films and theater pieces. His great work, Woe from Wit, was a satire so biting and so true that its phrases were already being picked up and used in Russian society of the time (the early 1820s) because Griboedov or others would read the latest installments at society gatherings. The number of phrases from this play that entered common usage is enormous. Various folks have come up with various numbers, of course, but I have seen lists that go well over 50.

Call me a carriage! A carriage! is uttered by Chatsky when he has finally had enough. He’s outta here. That might be the English equivalent (which doesn’t mean I suggest translating it that way) – “I’m outta here!”
All calendars lie! uttered by a woman old enough to be certain of what she is saying.
Even the smoke in our Fatherland is sweet and pleasing, says Chatsky after he has just returned and before he becomes disillusioned with his hometown. These days the phrase is usually used with great irony.
Where is it best? Where we are not, is an exchange between Chatsky and his former beloved Sofya.
Evil tongues are more terrible than a pistol, says the dolt Molchalin in a moment of lucidity.
The happy don’t watch the clock, says Sofya.
The houses are new but the prejudices are old, says Chatsky.
And who are the judges?! asks Chatsky when he hears someone has been slandered. This is sort of, but not entirely, like the English “It takes one to know one.” That leads us in a similar direction anyway.
A hero, perhaps, but not of my novel, says Sofya of her former beloved Chatsky.
Am I odd? But who isn’t odd? / Only him who looks like every other fool, says Chatsky bitterly.
Ranks are bestowed by people, and people are prone to err, Chatsky observes pointedly.
Even a phrase like “Everybody lies,” takes its elevation to the level of “winged phrases” thanks to Griboedov and Woe from Wit.

The basic notion of the play is also one that has remained acutely timely ever since – an intelligent young Russian man (Chatsky) returns home to Moscow to find that all his old friends are such ignoramuses and bores that Moscow itself seems hostile to him. It is one of the most perfect Russian plays ever written about deep disillusionment. It was written in impeccable verse and, despite its wicked intent – to put the eternal hurt to high Moscow society – it is uproariously funny. In short, it is one of the great Russian plays. And please note: it was written before Pushkin wrote his great plays, before Gogol began writing plays… It is the first play in the Russian canon that still reads and watches today as if it were written by one of our contemporaries.
Like many great Russian plays it took awhile to work its way past the censor. Shortly after it was completed in 1824, an attempt by students to perform it in St. Petersburg in 1825 was banned. That ban remained in force throughout Russia proper for decades. It was first performed in its entirely in Yerevan, Armenia, in 1827 with the author present. It was revived in 1828 and 1832 in Tiflis (Tbilisi), Georgia, at the Nersisyan Seminary. Censored versions of the play were performed in 1831 in St. Petersburg and Moscow, while an uncensored version was performed in Kiev (far from the capitals)  the same year. Although it was forbidden to be performed in full, truncated productions were mounted in Kharkov, Kazan, Astrakhan, Kaluga, Yaroslavl, Voronezh, Nizhny Novgorod, Odessa and Kronshtadt from 1840 to the mid-1860s.  It was first published – with serious cuts – in 1833 and did not appear in  published form in its entirety until 1861. One of the great productions – perhaps the first great production – was mounted by Vsevolod Meyerhold in Moscow in 1928 under the title of Woe to Wit, which was Griboedov’s first choice.

 

 

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Alexander Ostuzhev house, Moscow

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Alexander Ostuzhev (1874 to 1953) is one of those rare individuals whose great career in art spanned large portions of the pre-Soviet and Soviet periods. He was a huge star at the Maly Theater by the time he went completely deaf in 1910, while some of his most famous roles were performed between 1935 and 1940 when he was in his 60s. I can measure his longevity against my own experience – he was one of the finest partners of the great Maria Yermolova at the turn of the 20th century – seemingly a million years ago – and he was a contemporary of actors who have been contemporaries of mine. It’s a small thing, to be sure, but it does make time shrink incredibly, at least for me.
Ostuzhev was born Alexander Pozharov in the city of Voronezh in 1874. His father was a train engineer. The young man was a bit of a handful for everyone, getting himself kicked out of school for insubordination, and later, being fired from the Maly Theater for getting into a fight with a fellow actor. He began his life working odd jobs around Voronezh until he decided, in 1894, to try his hand at acting. He began in amateur theatricals, finding himself in demand because he had a beautiful voice and was quite a physical specimen – handsome and well-built. He did not have to wait long for his big break. Just one year later the popular Maly Theater actor Alexander Yuzhin (see my piece on Alexander Sumbatov-Yuzhin elsewhere in this space) happened to come through Voronezh and see Pozharov in a bit role. The fare that night was Victor Hugo’s Hernani and, despite his brief time in the spotlight, Pozharov made a huge impression on Yuzhin. In a letter to the playwright Pyotr Gnedich (quoted on the Memoria website), Yuzhin wrote:
In Voronezh I discovered a treasure whom I believe is a major future force, and boldly for the first time I take responsibility for his entire life, extracting him from service on the southeastern railroads and bringing him to the stage. He is twenty-one years old, handsome. He has some intangible way of making you listen to him, watch him, and appreciate every sound of his voice that vibrates with authenticity and every gaze of his wonderful deep gray eyes.”
If that isn’t an account of Yuzhin falling in love, I don’t know what would be. In any case, Ostuzhev’s life had changed. Yuzhin brought him to Moscow and enrolled him in acting classes at an organization that today would be called the Shchepkin Theater Institute – back then it was the Dramatic Courses at the Moscow Theater Institute. Pozharov was given a stipend of 300 rubles while he matriculated and he was finally admitted into the company of the Maly in the 1898-99 season. It was apparently at this time that the provincial boy took the pseudonym of Ostuzhev. There are a few reasons hanging around as to why he did that. One is that the name “Pozharov” comes from the word for fire, “pozhar,” and the folks at the Maly were afraid that if his fans began shouting his name in the theater, unsuspecting patrons might actually believe a fire had started on the premises. Perhaps a more convincing explanation is that Pozharov’s teachers and handlers were looking for a way to calm down his hot temper and so, in place of his fiery name, gave him one, Ostuzhev, that is built around the root for “cold” or “frost” – “stuzha.” Or maybe it was just a name game of the young man enjoying going from hot to cold…
Whatever the case, Ostuzhev played no less than 16 roles in his first season at the Maly (that’s not a typo), at least four of which were major leads. By the time summer rolled around he was a star in Moscow. In 1902 he played Romeo and critics dubbed him the “perfect Romeo.”

The last great role Ostuzhev played before going completely deaf, apparently from Ménière’s disease, was the False Dmitry in a 1909 production of Alexander Ostrovsky’s False Dmitry and Vasily Shuisky. Deafness, at least at first, had little effect on Ostuzhev’s work. The following year he played three new roles – including Khlestakov in Nikolai Gogol’s The Inspector General. According to Kino-teatr.ru, Ostuzhev played four new roles in 1911/12, seven in 1912/13, two in 1913/14, three in 1914/15, and so on. Perhaps not the load that he carried in his first season, but, still he was anything but out of work. He was able to perform because he would show up at the first rehearsal already having completely memorized his role, as well as most of the others in every play. It is said that he was often able to help other actors during performances when they would forget their lines – because he knew them and would whisper them to them.
Still, it is the received opinion that Ostuzhev, by the 1920s, was in serious decline, at least in popularity, if not in talent. Increasingly he played smaller roles and lesser amounts.
But a fortunate meeting with director Sergei Radlov revived Ostuzhev’s career in a serious way. Radlov was not concerned that he could not communicate by voice with the actor; he would write out his directions in long letters and give them to Ostuzhev who studied the letters with the same diligence that he did roles. As a result, when Radlov cast Ostuzhev in the role of Othello in Shakespeare’s tragedy, he unwittingly wrote a new page in the history of Russian theater. Ostuzhev’s Othello stunned spectators and critics alike, returning to him the same kind of mass popularity he had not enjoyed for several decades. The always-interesting Chtoby-pomnili website tells the story this way:
In the opinion of the critics Ostuzhev’s interpretation of Othello gave particular resonance to the topic of offended justice. His Moor was not an unbridled, primitive savage, but a man of exquisite culture and feelings. In the very image of the hero Ostuzhev masterfully emphasized the solemnity of the commander’s appearance, his gestures and features. This made the terrible and terrifying catastrophe all the worse as a great human world collapsed because of insignificant intrigue. Ostuzhev’s Othello not only inspired admiration among spectators – it was a genuine triumph. Alexander Alekseevich could not hear the applause and shouts of ‘Bravo!’ but he saw, and felt the delight of the audience. The building of the Maly Theater was literally filled with flowers.”
Othello, however, was no mere swan song. Ostuzhev followed it up with two more of his most famous roles, helping him to fashion one of the great career “comebacks” in Russian theater, if one dares use such a word. His performance of the Baron in Alexander Pushkin’s The Covetous Knight (1936/37) and the title role in Karl Gutzkow’s Uriel Acosta (1939/40) were also highly acclaimed. Ostuzhev performed his last new role in the 1941/42 season, but he often took the stage during World War II to entertain Russian troops at the front lines. He died five days before Joseph Stalin on March 1, 1953.
The house pictured here today served as Ostuzhev’s home from 1905 until his death. The address is 12/2 Bolshoi Kozikhinsky Lane, more or less in between Patriarch’s Pond and Pushkin Square.

 

 

Yusupov theater site, Moscow

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I am prompted to write about this structure located at the corner of Bolshoi Kharitonyevsky and Bolshoi Kozlovsky Lanes in Moscow thanks to the latest prank pulled by the City of Moscow under the leadership of Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. Sobyanin will surely go down in history as one of the mayors who most hated the city he ran. He was installed by Putin then kept there several years ago in a phony election. Under the guise of “beautification” and “progress,” Sobyanin has lorded over the destruction of many historical Moscow sites. He has also “beautified” Moscow by redoing the streets and sidewalks in such a way that makes it impossible to drive/park in the city, while pedestrians stumble over badly-laid new walkways. I mention that because I wrote about this phenomenon a year or so ago on this site; you can find the piece by seeking links to Pushkin and Gorky.
So, before getting around to today’s main topic, let me begin by saying that the Sobyanin wrecking crew ripped down one of Moscow’s most prominent buildings yesterday at 15 Malaya Bronnaya Street in the city center (not pictured here). This structure, known as the Neklyudova estate, was built in the 1840s and played an important part in the history of the city. It was here that the pianist Sergei Taneyev in 1906 opened a People’s Conservatory. Many important musicians of the time taught or studied here. It’s now gone. The men with the bulldozers showed up at 4 a.m. – isn’t that enough to convict them all of evil in itself? – and before long there was nothing left but rubble.
Okay, I mention this because who knows what will happen to the building I share today, a very old building rich in history that some sources say is located at 17 Bolshoi Kharitonyevsky Lane and others put at 13 Bolshoi Kozlovsky Lane? A stone’s throw from today’s Chistye Prudy, it was in the woods when originally built. (There are unsubstantiated rumors and speculation that the first structure here was a hunting hut or lodge belonging to Tsar Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century.) The building we see today – not in particularly good shape – is one of a series of old structures running a full city block along Bolshoi Kharitonyevsky Lane. If we call ours the first structure, the second and third have been restored quite nicely. You see the reddish-orangish walls of the second building to the right of the white one in some of today’s photos. The white building originally belonged to a deacon Andreyan Ratmanov when it was built in the 17th/18th centuries. According to some sources (including the official Moscow cultural map), it once housed one of the first theaters in Russia, the Yusupov Theater. An official federal government document granting protected status to several buildings in 2013 lists this building as such: “House (Yusupov Theater), end of 18th century, wings of 17th century. Moscow,  13 Bolshoi Kozlovsky Lane.” (Some sources put the theater at 24 Bolshoi Kharitonyevsky Lane.) Whatever the reality, there is no theater left here now. A website dedicated to the Ratmanov estate, where the theater may have been housed, writes: “But in 1812 almost all the wooden homes on this lane and in the Yusupov garden burned down. Also gone was the Yusupov Theater where female dancers tossed off semi-transparent clothing and appeared before the public entirely nude. For this reason we can call Kharitonyevsky Lane the birthplace of Russian striptease.”

A webpage dedicated to the structure at 24 Bolshoi Kharitonyevsky Lane (not pictured here) writes the following about the theater:
In all likelihood, it was here that the new master built the famous Yusupov Theater, which was inferior in importance and popularity only to Sheremetevsky’s theater. Supporting this version is the fact that concerts of opera singers were organized in the hall located on the second floor in the ’60s of the last century. It is unlikely that this theatrical stage was built after the Yusupovs. The responses of contemporaries to the Yusupov Theater were enthusiastic. Their comments were often colored with expressions such as “unprecedented” and “fabulous” in describing “… an extensive hall, illuminated by a chandelier and fringed with a triple belt of boxes.”
I am a little confused by this source’s reference to the “’60s of the last century.” One assumes that means the 1960s, but I find it suspect that opera concerts held in some hall in the 1960s would be proof that this was the location of the original theater. I don’t deny it, I just find it weak as proof. I’m also wondering if we may be talking about two different theaters. Perhaps after the destruction of the first in the War of 1812 with Napoleon, a second was built across the street? I don’t know and I find very little information to go on in the internet.
The respected and reliable Know Moscow site tosses things into deeper confusion by placing the theater in the building now bearing the address of 21 Kharitonyevsky Lane. Here is what it tells us:
The manor was significantly expanded in the 18th century under Prince Nikolai Borisovich Yusupov. A garden with greenhouses was laid out and the Yusupov Theater, famous throughout all Moscow, was built. High society routs were organized in a special house across from the palace. Pushkin’s father Sergey Lvovich rented an apartment on the second floor of the left wing of the Yusupov house in 1801-03. The future poet spent time walking in the Yusupov garden. Pushkin always maintained good relations with Nikolai Yusupov throughout his adult life.”
The Yusupov Theater aside, this building is interesting for another reason – Vasily Sukhovo-Kobylin  purchased it (or a section of it) in 1800. 17 years later his son Alexander was born – the future famed playwright. Sasha Sukhovo-Kobylin, the author of one of the blackest, most bitter dramatic trilogies ever written in any language, lived here for the first 13 years of his life.
To return to my starting point today, I must assume that this building is safe from the marauders. If the two neighboring buildings have been saved, surely this one will be too. But if there’s one thing you learn to do in Russia, particularly in a town run by the people who currently lord over Moscow, it’s that you take nothing for granted. So here are these photos – offered up while I had a chance still to take them.

 

Alexander Nemirovsky plaque, Voronezh

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Chances are my introduction to Alexander Nemirovsky will be yours as well: Scholar, PhD, Professor, founder of Etruscan studies in the Soviet Union, founder of the Department of Antiquities at Voronezh University, author of 70 books of prose, monographs, historical novels, novellas, children’s books, poetry, popular science and textbooks.
Enough for you? Enough for a life?
Alexander Nemirovsky (1919-2007) was a remarkable man who lived a remarkable life, to put it lightly. He managed to mix being one of the most important scholars of his time in his field with writing several best-selling historical novels, translating some of the great European poets and leaving behind an impressive collection of original poetry as well. He had a sense of humor about his voracious appetite for work and writing:

Between scholarly bruises and the muses
I wasted the heat of my soul.
I raced around between pockets
Like a cueball smacked by a cue

Nemirovsky introduced the Soviet Union to Rainier Maria Rilke when he published the first Russian translations of the great German poet in the Voronezh magazine Ascent in 1958. But that is barely the start of the writer’s work as a translator. From the German he translated Rilke, Herman Hesse, Hugo Huppert and Johannes Becher. His translations of writers from antiquity included Virgil, Catullus, Ovid, Martialis, Horatio, the Gilgamesh epic, “Song of Songs” from the Bible and more. He translated Giogos Seferis from the Greek, and he spearheaded the rediscovery of the forgotten, “repressed” poet Boris Zubakin, as well as being one of the first scholars to publish “lost” poetry by Osip Mandelstam in 1966.
The Mandelstam connection is interesting, and not only because the poet German Getsevich called him a “poet of a Mandelstamian nature.” He also wrote poetry dedicated to Mandelstam, who coincidentally or not, had, during one of his periods of exile in the 1930s, lived directly across the street from the apartment building Nemirovsky would call home between 1957 and 1978. Mandelstam lived at 13 Friedrich Engels Street (see my piece about that location elsewhere in this blog); Nemirovsky at 14 Friedrich Engels Street.
In a fine internet essay about Nemirovsky (from which I have culled many facts), Getsevich wrote:
Alexander Iosifovich Nemirovsky wrote not only with words but with feelings, and he translated not just the words, but the meanings of many foreign languages. Poetry lovers responded well to his collections, Scroll, Memory of War, Immersion, The Year of Verse and others. The last collection that the author was able to prepare was First Snow. … I personally see a book collecting his poetry and his translations in a format no less than the Literary Monuments series, accompanied by good scholarly apparatus.”
I am particularly enamored of one quatrain Getsevich quotes:

Life never showed us any comfort,
For that we were too lofty.
It just whacked our heads with pleasure
On massive door beams hanging low.

I can’t help but notice that in the two small, virtually random, quatrains that I chose to quote, we encounter the notion of getting smacked around. Is this incidental? Is this a theme of Nemirovsky’s work? Or is it mine? I’m too much a novice to know.

Nemirovsky’s historical novels (primarily written for teenage readers) included The Elephants of Hannibal (1963, reworked 1992), Purple and Hell (1973),  Behind the Columns of Melqart (1959), Pythagorus (1998), I am a Legionnaire (1968), Tiberius Gracchus (1963), The White Deer (1964),  The White, the Blue and Nix the Dog (1966), The Etruscan Mirror (1969), Ariadne’s Thread (1972), In the Circle of Lands (1995), and Carthage Must Fall (2010?). (Dates are curiously hard to come by for his novels – I offer with a grain of salt the dates I pulled together from various sources.) Wikipedia states there are approximately six million copies of his historical novels in print. However, it’s possible that this number is low by now, for, if you look for his work on the net, you’ll find his books everywhere, virtually all of them appearing in new editions over the last few years – many in 2017.
As hinted above, Nemirovsky hardly limited his work to the field of antiquity. He also wrote essays of one kind or another on Alexander Griboedov, Nikolai Gumilyov, Marina Tsvetaeva, Georgy Ivanov, Valentin Kataev, Mikhail Bulgakov and Boris Pasternak. He was truly a man deeply bitten by the bug of curiosity.
Nemirovsky was born in Tiraspol, Moldavia. Shortly afterwards his family fled from advancing Ukrainian Jewish pogroms, slipping into what was then called Bessarabia (Romania). When he was seven years old, the family crossed the Dniestr River illegally and made their way back into the Soviet Union, ending up in Moscow where they remained. In the Soviet Union’s crucible year of 1937 – the commencement of the Great Purges – Nemirovsky began attending Moscow University in the history department. Both his parents were arrested that same year but, by some trick of luck I cannot explain he was not only able to continue his studies at the university, he was able to enroll in the Literary Institute in 1938. This was unheard-of for a child of “enemies of the people” and a Jew to boot. I would love to learn some day how it all came about. For now we skip ahead to 1941 and the beginning of World War II. Nemirovsky volunteered to go to the front and he spent the entire war in various hot spots. After the war he completed graduate degrees in history at Moscow University and began his teaching career in Penza. He moved to Voronezh in 1957 when he was hired to teach at Voronezh University. He founded the Department of Antiquities in 1966 and remained in Voronezh until he quit teaching and moved to Moscow to write in 1977 (or 1978 according to the plaque). In his remaining 30 years in Moscow Nemirovsky published over 300 works – do the math on that, folks! His writings were translated into English, Bulgarian, Lithuanian, Moldovan, German, Serbian and Ukrainian. He published 11 collections of poetry in his lifetime; that number has grown by several volumes since. 

 

Tamara Toumanova home, Beverly Hills

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We have discussed Tamara Toumanova (1919-1996) previously in this space. Today we’ll narrow the topic a bit, but not before doing a few preliminaries.
The future great dancer, a protege of George Balanchine, was born in the Siberian city of Tyumen, where her mother was located while searching for her husband, with whom she had lost contact during the Russian Civil War. The family was finally reunited and made their way out of Russia via Vladivostok, China, Egypt and Paris. Jason Edwards and Stephanie L. Taylor describe the situation briefly, but with flavor, in their book Joseph Cornell: Opening the Box: “Toumanova, like the ballet Sleeping Beauty, is also a relic of Russia and France. Tamara was conceived in the thick of history and born in a manger on railway tracks. Her father Vladimir was an army colonel and her mother Eugenia, gave birth to her on 2 March, 1919, among cavalry horses in a cattle wagon shared with army officers making a retreat through Siberia.”
This quirk of fate allows us to place this ethnic Armenian-Pole in the sphere of Russian culture. As a dancer whose early career was closely connected to Russian emigres – including Balanchine, Sergei Diaghilev and the great Russian dance teacher Olga Preobrazhenskaya, the Russian influence was strong anyway. In fact, at the end of her life, Toumanova donated some of her famous costumes to the Vaganova Choreographic Museum in St. Petersburg.  She made her first appearances on stage in Paris beginning in 1925 (yes, when she was six years old), later adding Brussels, Geneva, Monte Carlo, London, Mexico City, Barcelona, Havana, Montreal, and New York. Her U.S. debut in 1934 took her to Chicago and Philadelphia. Her final performances on stage were in 1956 at La Scala, in Milan,  with the exception of her absolute last performance, which was in Monte Carlo for a gala celebration of the wedding of Prince Rainer and Grace Kelly.
Today we look at the Beverly Hills house at 525 N. Foothill Boulevard, which Toumanova occupied at least in the early 1940s. (My cursory research does not turn up further dates.) She most probably lived here in 1944 when she made her first of six American films, Days of Glory. Debuting on screen with her in that picture was Gregory Peck.

We (thanks to the internet) have three artifacts that provide a glimpse into Toumanova’s life while she lived in this gorgeous home in Beverly Hills. (You can even take a look inside the place in a recent video tour posted by an L.A. real estate agent. Obviously the interior has been updated numerous times since Toumanova lived here, but you still get the old-time Hollywood feel for the Spanish-style home.) Toumanova was a friend of the ground-breaking American artist Joseph Cornell, and she had an enormous influence on his work. He dedicated numerous of his works to her, and included her image in many of them. He was an innovator in using found/stray objects in his work, and Toumanova, as we see in a letter she wrote to Cornell May 16, 1942, was willing to feed his need for objects. In a typed letter that bears the return address of 525 N. Foothill Boulevard, she writes:
Dear Mr. Cornell: I was so touched by your charming present and letter. I am simply crazy about it! It is really beautiful and very interesting. I am enclosing few (sic) bits from ‘Capriccio’ and I hope you will be able to use them. I am always glad to hear from you, and please do drop me a line or two, as I am permanently here. Thanking you once again, I am, Gratefully yours, Tamara Toumanova.
This letter, available online, reveals quite a bit. Clearly, this is not their first correspondence, and since we know about the beautiful boxes Cornell made under the influence of Toumanova and ballet, we can assume it was one of those boxes that he sent her. We also appreciate the comment that she is now “permanently here,” since it does suggest this remained her home for some time.
In a short letter of August 11, 1942, Toumanova acknowledges yet another gift, this time, specifically, a box: “This little box really looks like a bit of magique!” she writes.
A third letter dated March 11, 1943, this one handwritten on Tamara Toumanova stationary, but without a return address, provides a few more details of the Cornell-Toumanova friendship. He had sent her yet another gift, this time for Christmas, and this time consisting of a poem and, apparently, another box. In this letter she calls herself “your Snow Queen or Princess Aurora,” referring, of course, to two of her most famous roles which Cornell had reflected in his work.
Some, though not all, of Cornell’s boxes are quite like what we know as the art boxes made these days in Palekh and other Russian cities. One, Untitled (for Tamara Toumanova, 1940), can be seen on the website of the Art Institute of Chicago. The description tells us: “Like Hommage à Tamara Toumanova, this box (also known as Feathered Swan) was made for the ballerina Tamara Toumanova. Cornell saw Toumanova perform Swan Lake in 1941, and he subsequently often associated her with this role.”
Hommage à Tamara Toumanova may also be seen on this site, and the description gives us some nice details about the Cornell-Toumanova relationship:
Toumanova was “the subject of more than two dozen boxes, collages, and objects created by Cornell between 1940 and the 1960s. Introduced to Toumanova in 1940, he found in her the living counterpart to the Romantic ballerina Taglioni, as well as a woman with whom he remained deeply enamored until his death.” (Washington, D. C., National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Joseph Cornell: An Exploration of Sources, 1982-83, exh. Cat. By Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, p. 34)
The text continues: “He met Toumanova through Pavel Tchelitchew, a friend and fellow artist on the fringe of Surrealist circles in New York, who designed ballet sets and exchanged gifts with her (see Dickran Tashjian, Joseph Cornell: Gifts of Desire, Miami Beach. Fla., 1992, p. 111). This collage incorporates a photograph of Toumanova with printed images of butterflies, and sea plants and creatures, evoking both an aerial and underwater world. Cornell thereby suggested that Toumanova is a star who may take her place among the constellations, alongside such mythical figures as Andromeda.”