Ivan Lebedeff is not exactly one of the household names in the Tinseltown pantheon. Nevertheless, the actor – often called “Hollywood’s champion hand-kisser” – had quite a career. That, in itself, is clear from the fact that his burial place lies in the rarified shadows of the grand tomb of Mary Pickford in the Gardens of Memory at Forest Lawn cemetery in Glendale, CA. The inscription on the bronze plaque is somewhat confusing. It states that Lebedeff was the “beloved husband of Wera [Engels-Lebedeff] and Mary’s devoted friend.” That and, which I put in italics, implies that Ivan was Mary’s close friend, when by all accounts, it was Wera and Mary who were close. Maybe the and was supposed to have been a comma, I don’t know. But the fact remains a fact – Lebedeff and his wife are both buried here in this hallowed ground.
Before launching into his life as a film actor, Lebedeff had already lived quite a life. He was born June 18, 1894, on his parents’ family estate in Ushpol (later known as Užpaliai) in Lithuania, which, at that time, was a part of the Russian empire. His father Vasily was well-placed in St. Petersburg society, by all accounts an advisor or confidant of the Tsar. This made it possible for the young Ivan to study at the Lyceum at Tsarskoe Tselo, the same lyceum where Alexander Pushkin was educated 100 years earlier. The young Lebedev (the double-F ending would become the norm only after emigrating to the West) was apparently headed for a life in the diplomatic corps, but World War I put a stop to that. I will let William Donati, author of The Life and Death of Thelma Todd, pick up the story:
“…At the outbreak of the Great War, he enlisted in the Corps of Pages, a privileged military school for future guard officers. He fought against the Germans and was decorated. In the revolution he fought against the Bolsheviks but was captured and imprisoned. He escaped to Paris where he survived as a stock broker, playwright, and actor. After making pictures in Vienna and Paris, he attracted the attention of D.W. Griffith, who hired him for The Sorrows of Satan.”
It is worth pointing out that Lebedev was one of those who suffered from mustard gas in the First World War and he received a St. George’s Cross, the highest Russian honor, from the hand of Nikolai II himself, and, also, that his escape from prison was something out of a fairy tale. It just so happened that his family’s former lackey was one of the guards in the prison and he helped his former master escape. He did so by going first through Constantinople, Turkey, and then on to Europe. Here, let me allow a Russian web biography pick up the story – it puts a bit of a different slant on things, particularly on the “stock broker” tidbit:
“…At the end of the Civil War, in August 1919 Lebedev boarded the French cruiser Tuareg to Constantinople. There [he made a living selling] antiques and works of art. He then went to Vienna and, in the hope of making big money, played the stock market. He became involved in a huge financial scandal, lost everything and became a beggar. From there he went to Frankfurt, Milan, Amsterdam, Paris and Zurich … His wanderings were caused by his desperate situation and his lack of money. Luck smiled on Lebedev in Berlin, where he met a director named Robinson in a tram. Robinson immediately offered his companion a role. In 1922, Lebedev starred in the silent film King Frederick, and beginning in 1924, in France in the silent films The Happy Death, The Artist’s Soul, 600,000 Francs a Month, and The Charming Prince.”
One can imagine both Robinson and D.W. Griffith hiring Lebedeff (as his name would have been spelled now) on short notice. He was a dashing, handsome man, who retained all the manners and mannerisms of a nobleman and an officer. He was everything the moving pictures of the time adored.
Once in Hollywood he launched into a relatively successful career as a character actor. The imdb website lists 67 credits between 1926 and his death in 1953. (They do not list his European credits, nor do they list at least one other Hollywood film, The Voice of Hollywood, No. 3, released August 2, 1931 (citation: Edwin M. Bradley’s The First Hollywood Sound Shorts, 1926-31). True, of those films, 16 were uncredited roles, one was a short and another was a film in which all of Lebedeff’s scenes were left on the cutting floor. You get a feel for the way he was typecast by perusing the characters he was asked to play – five Princes, five Counts, four Barons, four Marquises, three Captains, and so forth. At least one film seems never to have happened. In it he was to have played the lead in a script that he co-wrote himself with British playwright Benn Levy. According to a 1931 gossip column he was signed to play the lead in Strange Women, a tale based on his own life. The famed teacher Richard Boleslavsky was to have directed, and Irene Dunn was slated to play the female lead. Several years later he did play a small part in a film called Strange Wives (1934), but this would appear to be something else entirely – the director, screenwriter and stars are completely different. The extent to which Lebedeff’s career tumbled in the later years is borne out by a still photo of Lebedeff sitting with Mary Pickford in 1952. The caption identifies him not as an actor, but rather as the Los Angeles director for the National Economic Council of New York. Still, Lebedeff did play featured roles opposite Jean Harlow, Mae West and other top stars.
Thanks to a fabulous fan blog we have access to a marvelous three-page feature that Harry Lang wrote about Lebedeff in Photoplay magazine in November 1931. It is chock-full of the tidbits any Tinseltowner would love to hear – all about Lebedeff’s philosophy of kissing hands, his use of his monocle (his vision was actually so bad he could not drive), his shaving practices, his haberdashery habits, his likes and dislikes in women and food. I’d love to quote the entire article, it is that good. But, assuming you’ll go read it yourself, I’ll limit myself to this lovely bit about his walking cane:
“The reason he carries a stick is because, while in Russian military service in his earlier life, he formed the habit of holding in his left hand the hilt of his sword. When he abandoned the uniform, he felt so uncomfortable without something in his hand that he adopted the habit of carrying a stick, always. He owns half a dozen sticks – all bamboo and all alike. He does not swing the stick when walking. He carries it rigidly.”
In short, the more you read about Lebedeff the more you like him. And then you run across the fact that he was a close friend of Ayn Rand! Could there be anyone more loathsome? Ann C. Heller, in Ayn Rand and the World She Made, writes about a party that Lebedeff threw for his friend at the Russian Eagle cafe after the premiere of her play The Night of January 16th in 1934. Rand, of course, though we hate to acknowledge it, was another member of the struggling Russian emigre community at that time. Born Alisa Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, she would soon become a celebrated writer whose philosophy of extreme individualism poisoned American politics in the early 21st century. One is tempted to write the Lebedeff-Rand friendship off as unimportant, but then you run across another tidbit that makes you wonder. Lebedeff’s widow, Wera Engels-Lebedeff returned to her homeland of Germany after her husband’s death in the 1950s and lived out most of the rest of her life with a certain Erna Hoffmann, the widow of Adolf Hitler’s notorious friend and personal photographer Heinrich Hoffmann. Hitler and Rand; not the best of company to keep.
A few more details, beginning with Lebedeff’s first name. He was apparently known generally among friends by the diminutive “Vanichka” (which would be transliterated as “Vanechka” these days). His first name was pronounced in the American style as EYE-van, rather than in the Russian pronunciation of ee-VAHN.
The Russian site referenced above tells us that Lebedeff spoke eight languages fluently – Russian, English, German, Italian, Greek, Armenian, Turkish and French. And it quotes a Hollyood gossip columnist as writing in 1930 that, “Not a single social event is held in Hollywood without the participation of Ivan Lebedev. Men hate him, and women admire him, but Lebedev pays no attention to that!”