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I like to pay my debts, so let me say right here that I would never have known about Yevgenia Leontovich, known in Hollywood and New York as Eugenie, had it not been for Harlow Robinson’s book Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians. He quotes a great story there about how Eugenie got a big part on stage in New York thanks to her husband, a lovable rascal, shyster and a fine actor in his own right – Gregory Ratoff (Grigory Ratov). Robinson quotes a wonderful story as told by the Russian emigre actor Leonid Kinskey (the barman in Casablanca if you need to know). In it, Ratoff blows smoke in the faces of all the big actors and producers in New York, insisting that he’s a big producer himself and planning to do a big show that “you are just right for.” It apparently got him in several doors and even allowed him to befriend many of those that he was fooling with. I pick up the story midway through:
“…[Ratoff] became very close to [the producer] Shuberts [sic], and one day he learned that there was a play in which there was a wonderful part for his wife. And he stole the script. And she learned the thing thoroughly, the part, in the best English she possibly could master. And Gregory says to Shuberts [sic]: ‘Listen, I got some actress for you, a fantastic actress that fits the part. Nobody can play it better than she.’ He said, all right then, bring her in, let her read. Everything was prepared, you know, she pretended she was reading. “First reading like that? I never saw anything like this in my life!” He was absolutely fascinated. Leontovich got the part. From there on, Leontovich became a very important actress.”
In the West Leontovich’s universally accepted birth year is 1900, although numerous Russian sources suggest with more authority that she was born in 1894 (or possibly even 1890). She was born in Moscow, the daughter of a prominent naval officer. She began studying acting at the Russian Imperial School of Drama Art, later moving to the Moscow Art Theater where she studied under Vsevolod Meyerhold. She made her stage debut around 1912 in the famous summer theater in Malakhovka, where she performed in such plays as Faust, Tartuffe and TheTaming of the Shrew. During the Russian Civil War, she left Russia proper and performed for awhile in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov. The Revolution hit her family hard, as her father and her three brothers were killed by the Bolsheviks. As such, when she had an opportunity to go to Europe (Paris and/or Berlin, depending upon the source) in 1922, she jumped at the chance, leaving behind everything, but with everything to gain. That same year she made her Paris, and then New York, stage debut in a show called Revue Russe, which moved to the US from Paris where it was originally produced. Some sources say that it was in the company of this production that she first met, and worked with, Ratoff. She herself once wrote that they met in Moscow. In any case, they were married in New York in January 1923. The sources I have access to are relatively silent about the next eight years of Leontovich’s career, although she did join a touring company of the musical Blossom Time in 1922 and traveled throughout much of the U.S.
Leontovich’s career truly got underway in 1930, when she played the role of the Russian ballerina Grushinskaya alongside the Russian emigre actress Olga Baclanova (Baklanova) in Grand Hotel. This was a huge success that made Leontovich’s name in the US. When the play was made into a film sometime later, it was Greta Garbo who got Leontovich’s part. Her next major role was in Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s Twentieth Century, written expressly for Leontovich, which ran on Broadway for half a year in 1932-33. Firming up a tradition of preparing good roles for famous film actors, Leontovich played the female lead in Tovarich in London on the West End in 1935. When that piece went to the silver screen, it was Claudette Colbert who got the part. (This tradition was also observed in 1933 when her role in Twentieth Century went to Carol Lombard on the silver screen, and in 1954 when she starred on Broadway as the Dowager Empress in Anastasia, a role that went to Helen Hayes when the play was made into a film.) In 1936, in London again, Leontovich starred in a production of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra staged by Theodore Komisarjevsky (Fyodor Komissarzhevsky the younger).
Leontovich’s own film career began in 1940 with Four Sons, in which she starred opposite Don Ameche. LA Times critic Edwin Schallert wrote of this performance: “What she can say with eyes and thought registered in facial expression is naught short of momentous. Indeed, here is a discovery for the studios of the first water.” Over the next 20 years she played approximately a dozen parts in film and television. Her best known Hollywood role was as Maharani in The Rains of Ranchipur (1955) alongside Richard Burton, Lana Turner and Fred MacMurray.
None of this, however, does justice to the actress’s quite extraordinarily varied career. Over the decades she was an actor, director, playwright, producer, and managing director of her own theater (The Stage, or the Leontovich Theater, depending upon the source, in Los Angeles in the late 1940s and early 1950s). Perhaps as important as anything, she established herself as one of the great acting teachers in the United States beginning in the 1950s. She taught in Los Angeles, New York and at the Goodman Theater in Chicago in the 1960s. Like many other Russian diva teachers, her students reportedly referred to her exclusively as “Madame.”
Leontovich’s playwriting credits included the play Dark Eyes (written with friend and fellow actress Elena Miramova, 1943), and at least two adaptations, Anna K. (after Anna Karenina, 1972), and Jason and Medea (1974).
I tantalizingly found reference to a performance by Leontovich of Ranevskaya in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard which took place in a “storefront theater on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood that had no more than 60 seats.” This was probably around 1945. Based on the story told by Jeff Corey in his memoir Improvising Out Loud: My Life Teaching Hollywood to Act, Leontovich starred opposite Charles Laughton, who played Ranevskaya’s brother Gayev. I spent a good bit of time hunting where this storefront theater might have been located, but I found nothing conclusive. I’m guessing this might have been a production of the Leontovich Theater that I mentioned earlier. In any case, Santa Monica Boulvard has been substantively rebuilt in the last decade or two. I suspect that the location of The Cherry Orchard production is now long gone. (I would love to hear from anyone if I am mistaken!)
The house we see pictured here today stands at 510 N. Hillcrest Rd. in Beverly Hills. Leontovich lived here with husband Gregory Ratoff in the latter half of the 1940s, and definitely in 1947, because there exists a large 1947 correspondence between Leontovich and her “close friend” of the time, New York producer and press agent Robert Reud. All of Leontovich’s letters bear the return address of 510 N. Hillcrest. The two apparently became close after Ratoff left his wife for a new paramour. At least publicly, Leontovich held her head high. She is quoted in the New York Times obituary as saying, Ratoff “left me for a Georgian woman from Russia. She was beautiful. He left me our house in California, half of his money, and they went off to Italy.” (This is the house he would have left her.) Privately, however, Leontovich admitted all wasn’t quite as easy as that. She wrote to Reud on Dec. 3, 1947, “The force which draw [sic] me so close to you – is my believe [sic] that you are the person whom I need in the time of my life, when I was desperately in need for a friend, for a companion, for one who is as simple and complicated as you are my Lamb...” Leontovich and Ratoff divorced in 1949. She never married again. She died in New York in 1993.