Maria Ouspenskaya grave, Los Angeles/Glendale

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“We increasingly live among the dead.”
The thought hardly belongs to Maksym Kurochkin, you can find all kinds of people who said it before I heard him make the comment one day at the Actors House in Moscow, probably around 1999. But it’s a fact of my own biography that the first time I was ever confronted by the notion stated so clearly was when Max uttered it during a post-performance discussion of some show I have long since forgotten. The show is gone from memory, the actors, the director, almost all of the audience around me – all familiar faces at the time – all of them wiped clean. Max’s comment continues to live on in me with that very tenacity of the dead.
It comes back to me as I post more photos of a gravesite, this one the final resting place of Maria Ouspenskaya, a Moscow Art Theater alumna who had a significant impact on American theater and film in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.
Ouspenskaya (1887-1949) was born in Tula, Russia. She died a rather grisly death, almost as if from one of the horror movies in which she acted – she fell asleep with a lit cigarette in hand and woke up amidst a fire. The wounds that she suffered from the fire, as well as the stroke it induced, were lethal. She died a few days later. I actually went in search of the house where she died, but, as far as I can tell, it no longer exists. My guess is that – if anything was left of from the fire in the first place – it later fell victim to the widening of the 101 freeway that runs through Los Angeles.
As some, rather empty, compensation, she now lies in a peaceful setting beneath the branches of a huge tree in the Forest Lawn cemetery in Glendale. Her marker lies about 30 yards to the left of the right border of the cemetery’s Eventide section. She is in the first row along Arlington Road, plot 3741-6, just to the left of the tree. Visitors can look up to a sloping hill behind her, and back down across segments of East Los Angeles below her. There is a legend out there that she demanded to be addressed, and credited in films, as “Madam Ouspenskaya,” and, sure enough, that is how she is identified on her grave marker – “our beloved Madam.”
This Madam was a formidable woman, actress and teacher despite, or perhaps, because of her slight build. One source tells us she never weighed more than 90 pounds in her life. Others point out that she was demanding as hell and could be extremely hard on students. She referred to her hard nose attitude in an interview in 1941: “All through my life I have been stubborn about my dreams! Nothing could ever stop me from dreaming. If there is determination – if the wish is strong and built on a foundation of joy – in one way or another it will come true.” (Quoted in Pamela Sue Heilman’s PdD dissertation, The American Career of Maria Ouspenskaya (1887-1949): Actress and Teacher [1999]. It’s a fount of information, I highly suggest you read it if you’re interested in Ouspenskaya).

Ouspenskaya (whose name would be transliterated as Uspenskaya were it done today) studied singing in Warsaw and acting in Moscow in Alexander Adashev’s private dramatic courses. She joined the Moscow Art Theatre in 1911 and remained in the company until 1924, when she jumped ship, metaphorically speaking, and stayed in New York to play her trade there. She performed in at least five Soviet short films, although there is something fishy about the fifth,  Tanya the Tavern Girl, which the iMDB site writes came out in 1929, at least five years after she settled in New York. I don’t know whether the film was just late in coming out, or if there is another explanation. Her first film was in the relatively well known screen version of The Cricket on the Hearth (1915), starring Mikhail Chekhov and the rest of the cast of the famed Moscow Art Theatre First Studio production. Ouspenskaya was a founding member of the First Studio.
Her first work in American film was William Wyler’s Dodsworth in 1936. She often played countesses or baronesses; in this case she played Baroness von Obersdorf. She spoke with a lovely Russian accent that Broadway and Hollywood loved – she was often the go-to actress for severe-looking European high society women. Her demeanor also made her perfect in the budding genre of the horror film, and, at least for armchair historians, she is now most famed for her performance opposite Lon Chaney, Jr., in The Wolf Man (1941). She figures prominently in the trailer for the film which, thanks to YouTube, you can watch right now. The Classic Monsters site says this about her performance: “As Maleva the Gypsy Woman, she played opposite Lon Chaney in Universal’s most important horror movie of the 1940s, The Wolf Man. Bela Lugosi also starred as Maleva’s hapless son Bela and, despite the film being one of the strongest of all the Universal horrors, not to mention the Wolf Man himself being one of their most iconic monsters, it is Maria Ouspenskaya’s superlative performance that adds an extra finesse, making an already excellent film outstanding.” Her character Maleva was reprised in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). She was nominated for Oscars in 1937 (Dodsworth) and 1940 (Love Affair).
In her time at the Art Theater, Ouspenskaya played numerous roles both as a replacement for other actors, and creating original roles. She was one of seven Art Theater actors to remain in New York when the company headed back to Moscow in 1924. She soon began teaching and performing – with surprising frequency and admirable success – in New York playhouses. Along with Richard Boleslawsky, one of those Art Theater actors to remain in the States, Ouspenskaya helped to found and run the American Laboratory Theater in New York. Her first English-language foray on the American stage captured a rave notice in the New York Times: “The cheers for Saturday night’s audience were rather for Maria Ouspenskaya, stepping from the ensemble of the Moscow Art Theatre to play her first role in English— and to play it, to the astonishment of everyone, easily and colloquially.” Chapters Five and Six in Heilman’s dissertation, whence this last quote, provide a wealth of information about Ouspenskaya’s work in the U.S. theater.

 

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Ivan Lebedeff home, Los Angeles

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I’ve written about Ivan Lebedeff here in the past; he was a marvelous character, one of the defining figures of the so-called “White emigration” in Hollywood in the early years. Never famous in the direct sense of the word, he was ever-present on the star scene. He always had a starlet at his arm, his mustachio, like his monocle, was always in perfect position, and he himself was always at the hottest premiere or the coolest bar and restaurant where the tinsel shimmered and glittered in the warm Southern California summer breezes. Looking for something new to write about him today, I happened upon a web book called Who’s Who in California (Volume 1942-43), which has a wealth of details I had not previously discovered. In addition to confirming that Lebedeff lived at 8888 Appian Way in the Hollywood Hills, it provides many specifics about his life in Russia before he emigrated.
He received a Master of Literature degree at the age of 20 at the University of St. Petersburg in 1914, following that with a Master of Law degree from the Imperial Lyceum of Alexander I (St. Petersburg) in 1917. It was a propitious time for a nobleman to receive such a status, since just months later the Russian Revolution swept the standing government out of power.
Lebedeff was a much-decorated soldier. His military service began when he enlisted as a volunteer in the 3rd Regiment of Dragoons, with which he participated in the East Prussian campaign. In 1915 he was appointed Commander of Guerilla troops in the Pinsk Marshes, and, in that capacity, led his men on over one hundred raids. 1916 was an active year for Lebedeff as World War I continued to unfold. That year he received the commission of 2nd, then 1st Lieutenant, participated in the capture of German Lieutenant-General Von Fabarius (read more about that here), and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Captain. In 1917 he fought on the Rumanian front and was promoted to the rank of Major. His awards and medals included: St. George Medal, 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Class; St. George Cross, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Class; St. Stanislaus, 2nd and 3rd Class; St. Anna, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Class; St. Vladimir, 4th Class; and the Order of the Knight of St. George, 4th Class.
One has the feeling that Lebedeff himself provided all this information for the book; it’s otherwise too detailed and complete to believe that some researcher would have unearthed all this for the book on his or her own. As such, one can almost picture Lebedeff pulling down a dusty old box from a high shelf somewhere in this house at 8888 Appian Way, and looking over all his medals as he carefully jotted them down in a list to send to the editors. Even though most refugees from the Soviet Union left with little on their backs, one feels certain that Lebedeff, who clearly put a great deal of stock in his years as a soldier for the Tsar, would have left behind much, but not those medals. In fact, Lebedeff only lists two organizations of which he was a member in these years, and one of them was the Russian World War Veterans (an honorary membership). The other was the Motion Pictures Actors Guild.

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Unexpected for me was the fact that Lebedeff was an oft-published author of fiction and non-fiction.  He wrote the original story for The Gay Diplomat, a 1931 film in which he performed as an actor. He was also the author of a novel titled Legion of Dishonor (NY: Liveright Publishing Co., 1940). The book can even be had today online for a very reasonable $10. A rarer copy is available for $85 should you be a collector. His interest in foreign affairs led to him penning an essay titled “Japan will swallow China” for the Los Angeles Times (Dec. 6, 1931). Lebedeff had been inclined to test his powers as a writer even before he left Russia. He wrote the short stories “Temple of Beauty,” Nurse Natasha,” and “Woman and Tiger” in the years 1915-16. (The source suggests these tales were published in “Lyceum Monthly,” although my brief internet research does not turn up any reference to such a historical publication.) (Add note: see comment below by LanguageHat to clarify this publication.) On military affairs Lebedeff published “Psychological Strategy in Guerilla Warfare” (New Time; St. Petersburg, 1916), and the apparently prescient “Second World War Inevitable” in the Revue de Deux Mondes (Paris, 1923).
To fill out the wealth of information provided in this book, we shall add that Lebedeff enjoyed horse-riding and hunting, he was a member of the Russian-Orthodox Church (it actually says the “Greek Orthodox Church”), and the Republican Party. I provided information in the last blog about Lebedeff that he was a close friend of, God forbid, Ayn Rand, and that he had friends among fascists in Germany. Times were tough, we do need to remember that.
Finally, the book lists 8888 Appian Way as Lebedeff’s home and business address.
The Movieland Directory puts Lebedeff in this house from 1944 to 1948, based on voting records. It puts him at other addresses, including 8419 De Longpre Ave. in the 1930s and up to at least 1940 (again, as per voting records). But we know from the book referenced so heavily above that that he was resident at 8888 Appian Way at least as early as 1942-43. Lebedeff, born in 1894, died in 1953. I do not know if he was still resident here for those last five years of his life. At present (2018), the home on Appian Way has four bedrooms, one bath, and consists of 1,690 square feet of living space on a lot of 6,842 square feet. As you can see in one of the last photos below, it looks out over the Los Angeles basin from the Hollywood Hills.

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Maximilian Voloshin apartment, St. Petersburg

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Three people come together in today’s brief and fragmentary tale: Maximilian Voloshin, Oksana Mysina, and Konstantin Olonovsky.
I never met Kostya Olonovsky, although his role in, and influence on, my life has been enormous. Kostya was a film director, an experimenter who loved to play with images, music, poetry and the intersection of art and life. My wife Oksana performed in a couple of his films; his last – unmade – screenplay was written for Oksana; and he made music videos of at least two songs by Oksana’s band Oxy Rocks (The World on Edge, and The Sky Above Me). When Oksana and I were looking for advice on where to travel in Greece a few years ago, she called Kostya and asked him because he – with partial Greek heritage – had lived and worked there for a time. His answer was that we should go to Chania, Crete, because “Chania is like a living film location.” We took his advice, we immediately fell in love with Chania and the island of Crete, and it has now become an integral part of our lives. A few years ago Kostya made a film called Whisper. The Silver Age, for which, among others, Oksana recited the work of several Russian Silver Age poets. As he prepared to enter the film in a European festival he wrote and asked me to look over some internet translations of the poetry – he needed to submit the film with English subtitles. I immediately came back to him with the offer to translate the poems myself. I do not consider myself particularly adept at translating poetry, but I knew I could surely do better than Google. The poets whose work I Englished for Kostya were Alexander Blok, Vyacheslav Ivanov, Andrei Bely and Maximilian Voloshin. I don’t know if he ever inserted the subtitles, I don’t know if he ever submitted the film to the festival. (The internet version of the film which I link to above does not have subtitles.) I do know that at about that time he was diagnosed with a virulent strain of cancer that soon after stopped him from working, stopped him from leaving his bed, and finally killed him in late summer 2017. He was 33 years old. Oksana, with Konstantin’s creative team, and the blessing of Konstantin’s widow, is currently preparing to make a film based on the director’s last screenplay. To do so, she has removed herself from the cast of actors and will take on the task of directing.
I thought about a lot of this the last time I was in St. Petersburg. Among the many landmarks I happened upon was the one pictured here today – the first building in which Maximilian Voloshin lived in St. Petersburg. The address is 153 Nevsky Prospect and it is located almost at the very end of that famed thoroughfare – not far at all from the Aleksandro-Nevsky monastery, and on the same side of the street. Voloshin was 26 when in 1903 he took up residence in apartment No. 61, one of the living spaces high up under the roof. Voloshin wrote and published his first poetry while living here, although at the the time he was more inclined to see himself as a future painter. He apparently only spent a few months here before moving on.
When one reads the excerpts of the Voloshin poem that Olonovsky included in Whisper. The Silver Age, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that he already sensed danger in his near future. Even more than that, however, one sees in the verses the sensibility that marked Kostya as a director. Kostya clearly had a kinship with Voloshin. I’m grateful for everything that Konstantin Olonovsky brought to my family – including the opportunity to allow even just a little bit of Maximilian Voloshin to pass through me into English.

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Maximilian Voloshin
A fragment chosen by Konstantin Olonovsky from the “Rebellion” segment of the poem cycle “In Cain’s Footsteps” (more literally, “By the Paths of Cain”).
Translated by John Freedman

The world is a ladder on whose steps
Man rose.
We can feel
What he has left along his way.
Animals and stars are the toxins of flesh
That burned in the creative fire:
They all in their turn served man
As footing,
And every step
Was a rebellion of creative spirit.
Only two paths are open to any being
Caught in the trap of equilibrium:
The way of mutiny and the way of conforming.
Mutiny is madness;
The laws of nature do not change.
But in the battle for the truth of the impossible
The madman
Transubstantiates himself,
And, having conformed, stops still
On the step that he passed.
The beast adapts to the inflections of nature,
While a man stubbornly rows
Against the waterfall that carries
The universe
Back to ancient chaos.
He affirms God by his mutiny,
Creates by lack of faith, builds by denial.
He’s an architect:
His model is death,
His clay – the crosswinds of his spirit.

A man’s flesh is a scroll on which
All the dates of being are noted.

They are waymarks, leaving on the road
His brothers fallen by the side:
Birds and beasts and fish.
He walked the way of fire through nature.
Blood is the first sign of earthly mutiny;
The second sign
Is a torchlight blowing in the wind.
In the beginning there was the only Ocean,
Smoking on a white-hot bed.
And from this heated womb there sprang
The inextricable knot of life: flesh,
Shot through with breathing and beating.
The planet cooled.
Life caught flame.
Our progenitor, the one from the cooling waters
Who dragged his fishy carcass onto land,
Kept with him all that ancient Ocean
With the breathing of the swaying tides,
The primordial warmth and salty water –
Live blood coursing through its veins,
The monstrous creatures multiplied
On the beaches.
The sculptor, ever the perfectionist,
Wiped from the face of earth and made anew
All likenesses and forms.
Man
Was nowhere seen amid the earthly flock.
Sliding from the poles, great icy masses
Pushed out the life that teemed in the valleys.
Only then did the blaze of a bonfire
Inform the beasts about man.

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