Ivan Lebedeff gravesite, Glendale, CA



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!”






Vasily Zhukovsky bust, Tula

Click on photos to enlarge.

Vasily Zhukovsky is the guy who came before Alexander Pushkin. Talk about getting thrown into the shadows. If you’re a baseball fan, call him the Wally Pipp of Russian literature. Or, if American music is your thing, call him the guy who set the stage for Bob Dylan. These are all silly comparisons, of course, intended solely to get a grin or a groan, either of which is fine. The fact of the matter is that Zhukovsky was the greatest Russian poet for awhile, until Pushkin came along… He had only recently surpassed the previous “great Russian poet” Gavriil Derzhavin, thus taking over that coveted place. Of course, there wasn’t much in it at that time. The stakes were raised, a tradition was solidified, a national literary heritage was established once Pushkin came on the scene. The writers who preceded him were stepping stones, of a sort. Still, having said all that, Zhukovsky was, and remains, one of the great Russian writers. He had every right to wear the laurels of “the greatest” in his time. Listen to this lead-in to an article in a Tula online encyclopedia: “Vasily Andreevich Zhukovsky went down in the history of Russian literature as a poet, prose writer, journalist, publisher, editor, critic, artist and educator.” I’ll bet he did windows, too.
Zhukovsky was born in the village of Mishenskoe in the Tula region on January 29, 1783. He was the illegitimate son of a provincial landowner (Afanasy Bunin) and a Turkish slave houseworker (Salha – I don’t find her true last name, although she apparently told her son she was from a family of pashas from the Silistra region of Turkey. When forcefully christened, she was given the name of Yelizaveta Dementyevna Turchaninova). Zhukovsky’s last name and patronymic were “lent” him by a neighbor friend. Despite the uncomfortable circumstances of his birth, his father’s wife (and other family members) welcomed him into the family. He was given a good education in Tula and, later, from the age of 14, in Moscow. While still in Tula, he attended school while living with his aunt, who often organized literary and artistic salons, thus awakening in the boy his earliest interest in the arts. In 1817 he was appointed to teach language and literature to the children of the Russian royal family. He was tutor to Alexander II. He continued to work in this capacity until 1841, at which time he moved to Germany where he married the 18 year-old daughter of one of his friends and sired a son and a daughter. He  died April 12, 1852, in Baden Baden.
Zhukovsky’s first published poem was “With Thoughts at a Tomb” in 1797. Throughout his early years as a student in Moscow, he published many other poems, most of them exhibiting the popular youthful sentiment of melancholy. After completing his education at the Moscow University Pansion, the future poet returned to the village of his birth for a full six years (1802-1808). Here he did not publish much, but clearly used his time to work on his craft. As noted in a Tula website, he wrote a letter to his friend Alexander Turgenev at this time, relating that he was continuing a program of self-education, studying world and Russian history, while also acquiring other “serious and weighty” knowledge. During this time he translated and adapted several works from European languages, and tried his hand at prose, also adapting the works of others, including Mikhail Karamzin’s short story “Poor Liza.” Zhukovsky considered the great Karamzin to be his mentor.

The first half of the second decade saw Zhukovsky fight in the war against Napoleon only to be mustered out when he fell ill with typhus. At this time he experienced an unhappy love affair that was blocked by the mother of his intended. Both young people suffered long and terribly from their failure to unite. Although it came too late to solve his romantic sufferings, Zhukovsky’s place in the world was settled in 1814 when he wrote “Missive to Emperor Alexander.” This work came to the attention of the Empress Maria Fyodorovna (whom, incidentally, my wife Oksana Mysina played in Vitaly Melnikov’s great film Poor, Poor Pavel) and she reportedly declared on the spot that she wanted this poet to come to St. Petersburg. The poet, indeed, picked up and went to the Russian capital, leaving behind his unhappy love, but not before writing her a beautiful, heart-wrenching letter of farewell.
I will never forget that all the happiness I have in life is due to you, that you always offered the best intentions, that all the best in me was bound up in my affection for you, that, in sum, I owe to you the most beautiful act of my heart, which was compelled to sacrifice you… I shall try to be worthy of you in my thoughts and feelings! Everything in life is a tool for the marvelous!
These years – roughly the second decade of the century – were arguably Zhukovsky’s peak as a writer. His value as a translator was enormous, especially when you take into account the fact that his translations of Shakespeare, Schiller, La Fontaine, Goethe, Homer and dozens other major writers, made these works available to the Russian reader for the first time. Consider that Zhukovsky introduced Russia to the world. So good were his translations of classic literature that great numbers of them are still published and read by readers today. It is no wonder that Zhukovsky has always been one of my favorite “characters” in the pantheon of Russian writers.
The bust shown here stands in the courtyard of the former Lugin Palace (now the Leo Tolstoy Pedagogical University in Tula), a place that is connected to many of the great cultural figures in Tula. Sculpted by the prolific Moscow sculptor Alexander Burganov, it was unveiled on February 14, 2014. I’m not often happy with Burganov’s work, but I am pleased that he chose to show Zhukovsky in his youth. The usual depiction of Zhukovskys is as a rather rotund, balding, aging man. This likeness (we can hardly know if it really is a likeness, of course) allows us to see Russian literature in its youth, which is precisely where it was when Zhukovsky came along to help it mature.