All posts by russianmonuments

I am a writer and translator living in Moscow since 1988.

Cathedral of Sergei Rachmaninoff farewell, Los Angeles

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The location of this neat, compact and beautiful Russian Orthodox cathedral is quite unexpected. Partially protected from the neighborhood around it by medium-height hedges, it stands in the middle of a mostly residential area at the corner of Micheltorena and Ellsworth streets in the Silver Lake region of Los Angeles. The official address is 650 Micheltorena.
According to an informational leaflet that you can pick up in the modest, but lovely front courtyard, the first liturgy was read here in 1923. The cathedral has played an active part in Russian emigre life ever since. As these photographs attest, it is in beautiful shape today.
We come to this cathedral today because this is where several services were observed in memory of Sergei Rachmaninoff after his death in 1943. (I have written about the house in which he died in Beverly Hills elsewhere in this space.) The cathedral’s website notes that the composer and pianist was a member of its parish. I do not know how frequently he came here during his relatively brief sojourn in Los Angeles. But, according to information contained in a short, but detailed piece on the Russian Novy Journal site,  there were actually three services for Rachmaninoff at this cathedral over the course of 39 hours. I draw this conclusion from the article, “At the Coffin of S. V. Rachmaninoff,” originally printed April 2, 1943, in the San Francisco-based New Dawn Russian-language newspaper. (The article, signed “V.K.,” is given as a facsimile on the cathedral website, but I couldn’t make out much because the image was so small.) It is packed full of information and I will refer to it liberally below. I would like to acknowledge George (Zhorzh) Sheron, who republished the article in Novy Zhurnal and wrote the commentary to it.
The chain of events begins at the end: Sergei Rachmaninoff died at 1:20 a.m. on Sunday, March 28, 1943, at his Beverly Hills home. He had been given the last rites on Saturday morning. A requiem was read at home over the body Sunday morning before the composer’s body was removed from his deathbed. The body arrived at the cathedral at 7 p.m. on the 28th, and at 8 p.m. a great requiem was observed. Incidentally, one of the wreaths presented at the coffin was from the vice-consul of the Soviet Union who attended the service. A second requiem was observed the following day, also at 8 p.m. It was followed on Tuesday, March 30, by a requiem Mass at 11 a.m. Newspapers, including the Los Angeles and New York Times (“Rachmaninoff Rites Held in Los Angeles,” The New York Times [March 31, 1943]; “Rachmaninoff Paid Tribute in Russian Services,” Los Angeles Times [March 31, 1943]) and San Francisco’s New Dawn, indicated that the body, now in a 2,000 pound zinc coffin (as New Dawn reports), was to be held at Rosedale Cemetery until such time as it could be returned to Russia for final burial. In fact, the burial took place two months later in Kensico Cemetery in the town of Valhalla in upstate New York. I have not seen an explanation why it ended up in New York, rather than Russia, but if one considers that World War II was then raging, it probably doesn’t take much imagination to figure it out.

On the burial in New York, Rachmaninoff’s widow Natalia wrote the following: “I could not go home to New York for an entire month because of various formalities. Sergei Vasilyevich’s coffin was temporarily placed in the city mausoleum. At the end of May Irina and I returned to New York and we quickly were able to purchase a plot for Sergei Vasilyevich’s grave in the Kensico cemetery. The burial took place on June 1.”
In her memoirs, Natalia also left a fairly detailed description of Rachmaninoff’s death and the aftermath (like the previous quote, this is drawn from a Live Journal blog entry titled “The Grave of Sergei Rachmaninoff.”): “…On March 26 Doctor Golitsyn suggested we call a priest for the last rites. Father Grigory (who also read the requiem) read the last rites at 11 a.m.. Sergei Vasilyevich had already lost consciousness.  The death throes began on the 27th, around midnight and on the 28th at 1 a.m., he died. He had a wonderfully calm and good expression on his face. People from the funeral parlor took him quickly in the morning and then transported him to the church. This was the marvelous little Holy Virgin Mary the Savior cathedral somewhere on the outskirts of Los Angeles…”
There is something touching about knowing the exact (or, in this case, almost exact) hour of someone’s death. It makes death not quite so abstract. It gives it a specificity that marks the precise, irreversible end of a life. It gives death itself an end, for death can only happen at that one moment when it happens. Everything afterwards is something else. Prior to that very moment Sergei Rachmaninoff (in our case) is a world-renowned musician and composer, however hampered he may be in his final hours. After that moment he belongs to history. His widow writes that he died at 1 a.m., which, since we have the more specific time of 1:20 a.m. from the San Francisco correspondent, encourages me to believe she was giving an approximation. I can’t help but think of a monologue from Nikolai Erdman’s tragicomedy The Suicide, in which a man contemplating taking his own life philosophizes on the difference between “tick and tock,” that is, the vastly different states of being that are separated by that brief, precise moment when death cuts life short. To paraphrase Erdman slightly, “I understand everything about ‘tick,’ I understand nothing about ‘tock.'” Thus it is that I am pleased in some deeply scholarly way to know that Sergei Rachmaninoff passed from one world to another at 1:20 a.m. Somehow it seems to provide a modicum of solace.
Our sources (V.K. and Rachmaninoff’s widow) tell us that the choirs sang beautifully at all the services. There were some celebrities in attendance (Michael Chekhov was apparently there), and the church was said to be packed, although it is a very small space and it wouldn’t take many people to fill it.
As V.K. sums up his account, “The funeral services of the great musician and a Russian man of great soul, were conducted simply but in a touching manner.”
Such was the farewell to Sergei Rachmaninoff.

 

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Vladimir Bakaleinikov home, Moscow

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I have been chasing after Vladimir Bakaleinikoff (Bakaleinikov) and his brothers Constantin (Konstantin) and Mischa (Mikhail) for several years now. I have followed their traces all over Los Angeles numerous times, always armed with new locations. I have addresses for them in several places. I have information about their burial places in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale. And every time I come up empty. Every house that they occupied in the L.A. area – at least as far as I can determine – has been torn down and replaced since the time they lived there. And, as I suggested, even their grave sites turned out to be fictive. I have the plots for Vladimir and Constantin and I had the directions from the cemetery staff. My sister Margie and I even plugged the coordinates into the Forest Lawn internet app on her iPhone – and still no go. We went back to the office to ask again and they said there was nothing more they could do. They suggested that maybe the grave markers have not been maintained and are lost. Elusive guys, these Bakaleinikoffs!
But I am nothing if not tenacious. And one day when I was researching the homes in Moscow’s Arbat region, I happened upon a building that ties Vladimir Bakaleinikov to the earth on Bolshoi Afanasyevsky Lane, house No. 30. I would have preferred to locate a Los Angeles address for at least one of the brothers, because the U.S. is where their careers in music flourished. On the other hand, this location in Moscow was the site of at least a few of Vladimir’s formative years.
Let’s get past the Bakaleinikov/Bakaleinikoff dichotomy for those who may be confused. As I have pointed out many times in these pages, these are alternate English spellings which occurred often in the post-revolutionary years. Broadly speaking, though not exclusively so, the two “ff”‘s for the soft, final Russian “v” were used in Europe. Any emigrant who spent much time in Europe grew used to the “ff” spelling and kept it. To this day, for example, most people recognize the spelling of Rachmaninoff as “correct.” Having said that it would appear that the Bakaleinikovs chose to use the “ff” spelling without any European influence. in 1927 Vladimir headed straight from Moscow to Cincinnati, of all places. Constantin went from Moscow to Hollywood in 1929. (In this post I will use the “ff” spelling when referring to the family in the U.S., while I will employ the stricter, more “proper” “v” transliteration when referring to them in Russia.
Vladimir Bakaleinikov was actually quite an accomplished musician (viola), conductor and composer before he left Russia. Born into a poor clarinetist’s family in 1885, his talent allowed him to begin studies at the Moscow Conservatory at the tender age of nine. He was the conductor of the Theater of Musical Drama in Petrograd from 1914 to 1916, and was employed in the musical studio of the Moscow Art Theater from 1920 to 1927. He taught at the Petrograd Conservatory from 1918 to 1920, and at the Moscow Conservatory from 1920 to 1924.
Konstantin (1896-1966) was significantly younger, and appears not to have had much of a career until he left Russia. At least a moderate internet search turns up no major information about him in Russia other than the fact that he studied at the Moscow Conservatory, graduating in 1916, and that he emigrated to the U.S. with his brother Mischa (more about whom in a moment) in 1929. One Russian site states plainly in a cursory bio that he began his career in 1929 in the U.S. That debut was a film called Father and Son, although it was another four years before his second major Hollywood job came along – Only Yesterday (1933), for which he again served as composer. Over the years, Constantin was nominated for four Oscars for best original score – Something to Sing About (1936), The Fallen Sparrow (1944), Higher and Higher (1945) and None but the Lonely Heart (1945). Throughout his career Constantin (as his first name was spelled in the U.S.) was the musical director at Paramount Pictures, MGM and Grand National Pictures. At times he was associated with local symphony orchestras in the L.A. area.
In his book Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians, Harlow Robinson throws the emigration date of Constantin into question by claiming it was 1920, but also provides a nice anecdotal description of him: “…he played the cello briefly in the Los Angeles Philharmonic before being hired by the producer Sid Grauman as musical director for his movie theaters, conducting the orchestra for silent films shown at such palaces as the Egyptian and the legendary Grauman’s Chinese Theater. So familiar was he with movie audiences that they started calling him by the nickname of ‘Backy.‘”
I am pleased to report that in the game of six degrees of separation I am only a handshake removed from Constantin Bakaleinikoff. The great Pearl Bailey starred with Nat King Cole in Constantin’s last major motion picture, St. Louis Blues (1958), while Ms. Bailey was a Cub Scout den mother in my hometown of Apple Valley, CA, around 1960-61. I once won a 45 rpm record of hers from her own hands for performing some Cub Scout stunt that I have long forgotten. That lovely hand of hers figuratively could have reached out and touched Constantin Bakaleinikoff.

For the record, Vladimir and Konstantin had two other talented brothers, Nikolai (1881-1957) and Mikhail (known in the U.S. as Mischa Bakaleinikoff, 1890-1960). Mischa performed in the Columbia Studios orchestra and scored over 20 films in a career that ran from 1930 to his death in 1960. U.S. Wikipedia claims he left for the U.S. in 1926, while I find the 1929 departure date in other sources. Since he apparently began his Hollywood career in 1930, and since his brother Constantin (apparently) made the move in 1929, I’m tentatively sticking with that date.
Vladimir’s career in the U.S. was full, if not quite as spectacular as that of his oft Oscar-nominated brother. He was chief conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra from 1927 to 1937, at which time he followed his brothers to Hollywood. However, after two years, he apparently felt the pull for more serious work and accepted an invitation to head up the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (1948-1952). He was a well-known teacher and one of his prize pupils was Lorin Maazel, who began studies with Vladimir at the age of seven. Vladimir wrote a book, Elementary Rules of Conducting for Orchestra, Band and Chorus (in English, 1938), and memoirs under the title of The Notes of a Musician (in Russian, 1943). 
Aside from a stint with Sergei Diaghileff’s Ballets Russes before the Revolution, the eldest brother Nikolai Bakaleinikov spent his entire life in Russia or the Soviet Union. He was a noted flutist, a conductor and a composer. Not surprisingly, with three brothers skipping out of the Soviet Union in the 1920s, Nikolai found himself moving to Sverdlovsk – far from the cultural centers of Moscow and Leningrad – in 1931. One wonders if the move was voluntary. He remained in Sverdlovsk (today’s Yekaterinburg) until his death.
I have not been able to pin down what, if any, connection Nikolai, Konstantin, and Mikhail might have had to the building that is pictured in today’s post. I do find a tantalizing link on the Russian net which seems to connect Nikolai to this address, but the link will not open. In any case, we know that Vladimir lived here, and, since the family was apparently quite close-knit, at least early on, I’m guessing every one of the brothers was here at one time or another, even if they didn’t live here.
Vladimir wrote in his memoirs that, “My father earned very little. We, the children, helped him earn money by playing at weddings, in restaurants, and by giving lessons, and, subsequently, concerts. We children did not scorn any kind of work. It was shameful not to work, seeing how our mother did the washing, cooking and sewing for everyone, while serving us all.
It is worth noting that this remembrance would not have been connected with the home I show here. An apartment in this house, built brand new in 1906, would have been out of the reach of the younger Bakaleinikov family. This would have been accessible to them only after Nikolai and Vladimir’s careers in Moscow had taken a significant upturn.
P.S. Some additional information on emigration dates for the brothers. FamilySearch.com tells us that “Mihail” Bakaleinikoff arrived as an emigrant in Los Angeles harbor in 1930 and that he was naturalized in 1931. For Constantin I find he was naturalized in Los Angeles in 1927, and that he was married in Cincinnatti, Ohio, on Dec. 23, 1925. I don’t find an immigration date for him. Finally, the information on Vladimir is somewhat confusing. FamilySearch offers several different immigration dates, the earliest of which might be 1924. A notation suggests that a border crossing into Vermont may have happened as early as 1924 (although the actual date given is 1924-1952). Another notation, giving the spelling “Bakaleinicoff,” suggests a 1925 arrival (“immigration”) to New York in 1925. A third posits a Sept. 2, 1930, arrival in Detroit, although this may simply have been a return trip from abroad. I’m guessing that the 1925 date is pretty close to correct.

 

Anna Sten home, Los Angeles

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Anna Sten, the star that wasn’t. At least that is the impression one gets by reading up on this Kiev-born actress who actually had a pretty remarkable career. She was discovered by Konstantin Stanislavsky, performed in film for husband Fyodor Ozep, Yakov Protazanov, and Boris Barnet in the USSR in the 1920s before having an impact in Germany, again with Ozep, in the early 1930s, and then moving on to Hollywood where Samuel Goldwyn famously or infamously planned on making her the “second Garbo” in the mid-1930s.
Sten (1908-1993) can be found under a host of different names. Her maiden name was Fesak, but she also appeared at one time or another with the last names of Stenska and Sudakevich. Her mother was a Swedish ballerina; her father a Ukrainian theater producer. In addition to the numerous names under which she was known, she also had a large number of birth years to choose from. Although most sources now use December 3, 1908, as the correct birthdate, some documents claim the year was actually 1906 or 1910.
Sten (the name came from her first husband Boris Sten [Bernstein]) got her feet wet in cinema in Boris Barnet’s classic comedy Miss Mend (1926) where she played an episodic role. But she obviously made an impression on the director for he chose her to star in his next film, The Girl with the Hatbox (1927). This was followed by several starring roles in films that, to one degree or another, left a mark on the history of Soviet cinema. They include Ozep’s The Earth in Captivity and Protazanov’s The White Eagle, both made in 1928. The White Eagle, especially, is historic for Vsevolod Meyerhold’s performance as an imperious dignitary. It is one of the few examples of the great director captured on film. In one of the most memorable duets in early Soviet film, the great Moscow Art Theater actor Vasily Kachalov played opposite Meyerhold as a star-crossed governor. Sten played the governor’s wife.
Ozep and Sten (who were a married couple between the years 1927 and 1931) went to Germany in the early 1930s to ply their careers there. Ozep’s film The Murderer Dmitry Karamazov (1931) was a major release in that year. (He also released a French version called Les frères Karamazoff.) Over the next year she played leads in three more German films, including Robert Siodmak’s Storms of Passion (1932) where she starred opposite Emil Jannings.
But it was Sten’s starring turn as the femme fatale Grushchenka in the two Dostoevsky adaptations that attracted serious attention in the cinema world. Variety raved about her.
Anna Sten brilliantly performs Grushchenka on screen. With her a new heroine has arrived in the German cinema. She is Russian by origin, but at times she appears to be a double for Marlene Dietrich. That should not be taken literally; we are talking only about external similarities, the correspondence of her appearance, face and figure to the standards of continental beauty.” (I’m quoting this excerpt back from the Russian where I found it on the kino-teatr film website.)
This is the moment when Samuel Goldwyn entered the picture. Smitten by Sten’s beauty and presence on screen (to say nothing, perhaps, of the review in Variety), he resolved to put her under contract in the U.S. and to make her the next great foreign star in Hollywood.

On one level it is clear that Sten never became the star that Goldwyn envisioned. The name Sten is hardly an equivalent of Garbo, Dietrich,  or Bergman. And yet one also wonders how much of a “failure” she was? Perhaps she was more a victim of a system trying to plug her into slots that did not suit her?
Whatever the case may be, Sten starred in three consecutive Hollywood films that were intended to make her a star, but did not. The first was Nana (1934), based on the novel by Emile Zola, which was considered a major flop. It was followed by We Live Again (1934), an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection that was directed by the Russian emigre director Rouben Mamoulian. Next up was The Wedding Night (1935), a comedy directed by the legendary King Vidor and starring Gary Cooper in his debut. Her next film, A Woman Alone (1936) was made in England by her third husband, Eugene (Yevgeny) Frenke. They were married in 1932 and remained together until his death in 1984. This was, however, the end of Sten’s attempt to become a major Hollywood star. She was tagged with the weighty moniker of “Goldwyn’s folly” and did not make another film until 1939.
In fact, Sten worked with some regularity throughout the 1940s and 1950s, performing in 11 films over that period (albeit, with a seven year hiatus between 1948 and 1955). She made her last appearances on film in 1962 and 1964. Four of her last six performances were in television projects.
As is fitting of a star – or is it a non-star? – with three birth years and at least four names, there is a bit of confusion surrounding this house where Sten apparently lived in the early 1930s. I say “apparently,” because the Movieland Directory, which puts her here in the 1920s, is clearly mistaken. Sten did not live in Hollywood until the early 1930s. Perhaps this house at 601 N. Rexford Dr. in Beverly Hills was a temporary place of residence before she settled into a more stable existence with her new husband Eugene Frenke. This house, which Movieland Directory posits as Sten’s first Hollywood address, was, indeed, built in 1921. Judging by its appearance today it has undergone a facelift or two since then, but it is clear that this very structure was there to shelter Sten when she arrived in Hollywood around 1932 or 1933.
A final tidbit. The flop of Nana, which premiered February 1, 1934, had such resonance that its star even made her way into Cole Porter’s 1934 song, “Anything Goes”:

If Sam Goldwyn can with great conviction
Instruct Anna Sten in diction
Then Anna shows
Anything goes.”

It must have been a bitter pill.

 

 

2nd Igor Stravinsky home, Los Angeles

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Igor Stravinsky spent 28 years in Hollywood. I don’t know how that sounds to you, but it sounds like something out of science fiction to me. Especially when you consider that during his last years there, we almost, almost, almost shared the same sidewalk a time or two. I used to hang out on Sunset Boulevard a lot in the early 1970s. Stravinsky bailed out, moving to New York City, in 1969. Virtually the entire LA sojourn was spent on N. Wetherly Dr., just few hundred feet above Sunset. (N. Wetherly turns up off of Sunset just west of the Roxy Club.) Some time ago in this space I shared photos of Stravinsky’s first property at 1260 N. Wetherly. Today I share a few photos of his second address on this street at 1218 N. Wetherly. I think it’s interesting to note that Stravinsky lived in LA longer than in any other city.
Do you think of Stravinsky as an “LA composer”? I surely don’t. Just imagine it, Stravinsky’s driver Edwin Allen driving him home past the Whiskey A-Go-Go in the mid-1960s as Jim Morrison and the Doors are warming up. It doesn’t fit into my head.
It would appear that the great maestro moved into the house at 1218 N. Wetherly in 1963. In any case we know that he moved into his first house in LA in April 1940 and that he spent 23 years there. This would leave him six years at the home you see pictured in this space today.
He wrote several major works at 1218, including his four preludes to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, and his Requiem Canticles. It was at this home in 1965 that a film clip was made by CBS of Stravinsky playing part or parts of his The Rite of Spring.
It was here, also, that his health began to fail.
Stephen Walsh’s Stravinsky: The Second Exile: France and America, 1934-1971 contains a detailed chapter about the last days at this home. It pictures the composer as quite unwell, perhaps not even fully cognizant of what is going on around him. Meanwhile, his wife Vera apparently never took a particular liking to the new home, making her uncomfortable. “Now Vera was exhausted and depressed, hated Hollywood more than ever, and disliked the house as much as before,” Walsh writes.
Not sparing Angelenos’ ego, Walsh writes about the hurried departure from  N. Wetherly Dr., “…a move to New York was being planned. Europe had not worked out; Los Angeles, quite apart from its social and cultural desolation, was impossibly remote from the first-rate doctoring the composer needed.”
Obviously, Walsh is no fan of the Doors or even Buffalo Springfield, but, still, his attitude to LA would make Woody Allen sound like a fan. “Impossibly remote from first-rate doctoring”?
Whatever the case, here is what one eye-witness said about Stravinsky at that time, as reported by Walsh:
“…We did not expect the sight which faced us when we were admitted to his bedroom. He had lost so much weight that he seemed transparent. […] He looked like a ghost, his eyes so deeply sunk in a face which was but skin stretched on bones. Still, he found the strength to bless me in Russian with a sign of the cross over my chest. We left in a state of utter desolation.”

We glean a little more information about this residence from Neil Wentborn’s Stravinsky: The Illustrated Lives of the Great Composers. “…The Stravinskys moved house after 23 years at 1260 North Wetherly Drive. Their new home was in the same street – No. 1218, the house, until her death in 1959, of their old friend the Baroness Caherine d’Erlanger, a one-time backer of Diaghilev – but it was much better adapted to Stravinsky’s decreasing mobility. It also had more space than the old one, and the couple set about expanding it still further, adding bathrooms, a guest room and a swimming pool, and converting existing rooms into a library and a studio. It is indicative of the changes age and sickness had wrought in Stravinsky, however, that he found the move disorientating and never really settled in the new house.”
I was fortunate to get two shots of the house itself (pretty much the same shot from different distances) because the current residents’ gardener just happened to be watering and mowing as I arrived. As a result, both gates to the otherwise hermetically closed property were flung wide open.
I am not a paparazzi in fact or in spirit, and I must admit, I was disconcerted to be shooting my subject furtively while the gardener did his work and wondered what the hell I was up to. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t bring myself to actually step onto the inner driveway in order to get better shots – I didn’t feel it was proper.

 

Vladimir Vysotsky guest home, Fountain Valley, CA

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I’ve been sitting on this one for two years. I’ve done that on purpose. I wanted the dust to settle a little from the kerfuffle that arose in the Vladimir Vysotsky world when my old colleague Carl Schreck dug up and collated a ton of heretofore unshared information about Vladimir Vysotsky hanging out in the LA area in the 1970s. I say “kerfuffle” because Carl’s article for RFE/RL knocked my own personal hat off. And, since I know a thing or two about Russian culture, I guarantee you that nobody had ever come up with the deets that Carl scared up. So if his article did not cause a ruckus at the time, it will in the future, when the rest of the world catches up to it. Because Vysotsky is one of the great Russian cultural figures of all time – that’s not hyperbole – and any off-the-map episodes in his much-studied life are worth their weight in gold.
In his piece “When the Legendary Soviet Bard Vladimir Vysotsky Hit Hollywood” Carl outlines a few well-documented evenings and instances when Vysotsky encountered the Hollywood elite at cocktail and swim parties in the second half of the 1970s. You should definitely go and read the whole thing, it’s a fun ride. But I’ll provide a few excerpts here anyway.
On a balmy summer evening in the posh Los Angeles neighborhood of Pacific Palisades, movie stars and industry players mingled around the pool and on the veranda, nursing drinks and clouding the air with plumes of expensive cigar smoke.
The partygoers, according to witnesses, included Hollywood royalty and rising talent alike: Gregory Peck, Natalie Wood, Liza Minnelli, Robert De Niro, Anthony Hopkins, Michael Douglas, and Sylvester Stallone, whose film Rocky would make him a worldwide star after its release four months later in November 1976.
A stranger dressed in pale blue maneuvered his short, sturdy frame through the crowd as well. His intense eyes ‘glistened with excitement’ on that evening, and an implant of the antialcoholism drug disulfiram had helped liberate him temporarily from his bondage to the bottle, his wife would later write.
At some point during the evening, the host of the party, Hollywood producer Mike Medavoy, introduced the man, who had brought his own seven-string guitar to the star-studded gathering.”
The guest, of course, was Vysotsky. His wife, who would later describe this evening in her memoir, was the famous French actress Marina Vlady.
The producer Mike Medavoy graciously and loquaciously shared his memories of Vysotsky with Carl, providing some of the juiciest sections of the article. For example:
“‘It was a typical party in Hollywood with lots of people in the business, some who knew each other and others who didn’t,’ said Medavoy, who has been involved in seven Best Picture Oscar-winners and at the time served as head of production at United Artists. ‘And the thing that was different was having Vysotsky. Obviously, nobody knew who he was.’
That was something that Vysotsky, who died 35 years ago this week, had hoped to change in what turned out to be the final chapter of his short, hard-lived life. Vysotsky’s iconic status in his homeland derived from his poignant, ironic, and cleverly subversive songs — delivered in a passionate, guttural rasp — that circulated hand-to-hand on underground recordings across the Soviet Union’s 11 time zones. But he was also a Soviet stage and movie star. And having already conquered the hearts of his compatriots, in his last years Vysotsky turned his ambitions toward Tinseltown, where he hobnobbed with celebrities and ultimately sought to make a splash on the silver screen. For Vysotsky, the concert at Medavoy’s house would become a launching point of sorts for this mission, his inaugural plunge deep into the exclusive world of Hollywood stardom with his wife, the French actress Marina Vlady, by his side.”

I contacted Carl the day his piece came out two years ago and asked if he had addresses for any of the stories he told. He didn’t, but as a man properly obsessed with his topic, he shot me several internet links that led me towards one of the lesser locations that Vysotsky lived at during his LA trips.
One particularly was a blurry photo of a man named Dick Finn standing next to Vysotsky and Vlady  in front of a typically nondescript LA suburban home. The Russian caption reads: “Dick Flinn, Vladimir Vysotsky, and Marina Vlady in America, August 1976.” If you look carefully you can make out the house number 9876 on the facing of the roof. Carl put that together with a Google Maps image of a house at 9876 Sturgeon Ave. in Fountain Valley, CA. The resemblance was good. Then a note from Flinn confirmed that he had lived in this house and that Vysotsky had visited him there.
Boom. So here we are. One of the places where Vysotsky hunkered down while looking for ways to become a part of the Hollywood machine. The house has been spiffed up and modernized since Vysotsky was there, but the brickwork, the chimney, the large front window and the main entrance with its narrow walkway are all still there to bear witness to Vysotsky’s presence.
Carl brings Finn into his story at one point:
Vysotsky’s singular growl reverberated through Medavoy’s house and drifted out into the California night, drawing the attention of guests milling about in the backyard.
‘As he kept singing with his rough voice and delivery, others were coming in [saying]: “Who is this guy singing like this?” said Dick Finn, a retired Los Angeles-based businessman and a friend of Vysotsky’s, who attended the party. ‘They were mesmerized by his performance.’
Finn, 74, hosted Vysotsky and Vlady several times in Los Angeles. He recalled in a recent interview with RFE/RL that De Niro and Minnelli, who were shooting the Martin Scorcese-directed film New York, New York at the time, came to the party straight from the set, still wearing their costumes.”
So, the big parties with all the stars may not have been at this house. But Vysotsky himself was, who, for our purposes, outweighs all the Tinseltown lovelies put together.
My purpose in this short piece is not to tell the story of Vysotsky in LA. Carl Schreck has already done that beautifully. My goal is more modest – to share images of a location in the greater Los Angeles area that is connected with the great actor, singer-songwriter’s life. Enjoy. There is Russian cultural history even in the wastelands of the LA suburbs. As for the whole story: Go to Carl’s article and read it. It’s a wonderful tale.

 

Fyodor Dostoevsky plaque, Wiesbaden, Germany

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And now back to Wiesbaden, Germany, where we are able to travel in our minds thanks to my wife Oksana Mysina, who shot these photos when she was on a theater tour there last fall. This, according to legend, anyway, is the casino at which Fyodor Dostoevsky came up with the idea of writing a novel, The Gambler, which would save him financially. The plaque that hangs on the wall of the casino and spa (for it was originally built as such) indicates that is true, noting that the writer depicts Wiesbaden as “Roulettenburg” in his novel. The plaque also adds that the building was erected in 1808-1810, was the center of Wiesbadian haute société, and that Johann von Goethe lived here in 1814-1815. (If my rusty German has failed me, feel free to let me know, just don’t tell my old professors at Harvard who, probably, generously passed me on my German reading exam.)
In actual fact, Dostoevsky’s “Roulettenburg” was most likely a composite portrait of several casino cities that he knew – Wiesbaden, Baden-Baden, and Homburg (today known as Bad-Homburg). We know his first trip to Wiesbaden took place on June 12, 1862. Return trips were made in late summer 1863, the second half of 1865, and again in 1871.
The visit of June 12 was apparently the first time he gambled. He did not lose much that night, but was fortunate he had to move on soon in his travels. For he could tell that the gambling bug hit him.
His second trip to the casino we see pictured here came at a dramatic moment in his life. He was on his way to Paris to meet withAppolinaria Suslova, his lover and the model for many of the femmes fatales in his later novels. He did not know it yet, but it would be the end of his affair with Suslova. When he did finally make it to Paris, she was informed that it was all over, she had fallen in love with another. One can, perhaps, imagine one of the reasons why: Chances are Dostoevsky arrived looking like something the cat had dragged in, because the gambling bug had hit him hard this time. He had gone to the tables believing he had discovered a foolproof system to beat the croupier. And, indeed, he won big at first – 10,400 francs. He did have enough presence of mind to take half and send it to friends and family – even after he had lost the rest. Frankly, that’s no small sign of character. Here is how he described it in a letter to a friend (as quoted in the Delphi Complete Works of Fyodor Dostoevsky):
I have, dear Varvara Dmitriyeva, won 5,000 francs; or rather I had won at first 10,400 francs, taken the money home, put it in my wallet and resolved to depart next day and not go into the gaming rooms again. But I did not hold out and played away half the money again…
He actually sent the 5,000 that he had the wherewithal to hang onto to friends and relatives. Still, he arrived in Paris with nothing in his pocket, which can’t have made him look very attractive in Appolinaria’s eyes.

His third trip to Wiesbaden was even more dramatic. After his brother’s death, he had taken on his sibling’s debts and had no way to clear them up quickly. Presumably recalling the quick win on his last trip (and not quite remembering how quickly he lost the second half of his winnings), he set out for Germany precisely to win a large amount of money and correct his financial situation. Naturally, the opposite happened. He blew everything he had brought with him and was not even able to pay his hotel bill. To add insult to injury (as well as to make his situation totally unbearable), the hotel owner essentially put him under house arrest until he paid up what he owed. From his room Dostoevsky began shooting letters out to friends and acquaintances, asking for money. Ivan Turgenev, God bless him, was among those who sent him small sums. But it was a local priest who finally came and bailed him out, paying up the entire amount owed and even providing enough to send Dostoevsky home.
This, of course, is the incident to which the plaque on the Wiesbaden casino refers. For when Dostoevsky returned to St. Petersburg he was faced with signing a brutal contract by which he would have given away the rights to everything he had written for nine years, in return for having all his debts paid up. He was given a month or so to write a new novel that the publisher could sell, in order to avoid having the bad contract take effect.
As bad as Dostoevsky’s luck may have been on the roulette tables, his luck in life, at least this time, was significantly better. It was precisely at this moment that he hired a young woman, Anna Snitkina, to whom he would try to dictate his new novel in the small amount of time given him. Anna was modest, a hard worker, smart and organized. And, largely thanks to her, Dostoevsky delivered his novel, The Gambler, in 26 days. At 57 pages, it was more a novella than a novel, but it was enough to save him from a most humiliating fate. Anna Snitkina, became Dostoevsky’s third wife and, to the extent that it was possible, she was the one who tamed the tiger in him. One might even go so far as to say we have her to thank for the great novels. Would Dostoevsky have been able to write them had he lost the rights to his work for a nine year period? What might have happened in those nine years? No one can know that, of course, but one thing is certain: the impact of Snitkina on the great writer was enormous.
One more visit to Wiesbaden finishes off this little story. It came in 1871 – six years after Dostoevsky’s last debacle. He had sworn off gambling and, with the support of his wife Anna, had held true to his oath. But there is no victory without a fall. Dostoevsky just could not deny his desire to try his luck again, and so headed out for Weisbaden. When he blew the first amount he had taken with him, he wrote his wife and asked for a small sum that he would use to come home with. She sent it. And, what did you really expect? He blew that too. However, Anna finally got him home, and Dostoevsky would never gamble again.
So, there, in short, with a few corners cut and a few frills added, is the tale of Fyodor Dostoevsky and the casino at Wiesbaden.

 

Pyotr Tchaikovsky plaque, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

This is quite a place, the so-called “house of three composers,” which will be explained in due course. But first, the reason we’re looking at this place today is because Pyotr Tchaikovsky (composer No. 1) was a frequent guest here. At the time of his visits and stays, the building belonged to Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky’s close friend and benefactor. This would have been in the 1880s. Von Meck discovered Tchaikovsky, if you will, in 1876. A friend gave her the sheet music to a new work by the virtually unknown composer and she fell in love with it. Soon she was playing little else beside Tchaikovsky on her piano. Von Meck was born into a good family but she had high hopes for her future. Her marriage to Karl von Meck started off badly. He didn’t earn much as a civil servant and their growing family (13 children of which 11 survived) meant they needed more. Von Meck pushed her husband, who was a talented engineer, to invest in Russia’s railroads, and that changed their lives drastically. They became fantastically wealthy.  As such, when Karl died as Nadezhda was just entering her 40s, he left her with so much money she literally had no idea what to do with it all. Her own father had instilled in her a love of music and wanted her children to know it and play it. She hired Claude Debussy (composer No. 2) to tutor her daughters. She began to support the young Nikolai Rubenstein (composer No. 3) and other lesser known composers and musicians. Thus began her life as a well-known benefactor in the world of Russian music.
When she resolved to offer Tchaikovsky a stipend of 6,000 rubles a year, she apparently was afraid his pride might make him turn it down. According to one source, although this was less than a drop in the hat to von Meck, it was actually the kind of money that Russian generals received as yearly salaries. Tchaikovsky gratefully accepted the offer and their relationship began to develop. It did not, however, develop in anything that we would call a normal way. When the two entered into their pact, they agreed never to see each other. Von Meck, by all accounts (mostly contemporaneous to her, but also in modern-day sources) was an extremely difficult, imperious woman who breached no dissent and ran her family’s affairs and her children’s lives with an iron hand. But she did most of it from a distance. For instance, she might arrange her children’s marriages, but she would never meet any of their spouses, and would not attend the weddings. She was something of a hermit who could afford (at first at least) to bring a world, if not the whole world, to her wherever she might be. Von Meck continued to pay Tchaikovsky a stipend for 13 years, until 1890, and in that time they, indeed, never formally met. There were, however, at least three accidental meetings.

I don’t usually quote from Wikipedia, because it is such an ubiquitous source, but its description of the von Meck/Tchaikovsky meetings is admirably concise, fact-filled and interesting. So, here it is: The first  meeting…
“...happened on 14/26 August 1879, while Tchaikovsky was staying at the Meck estate at Simaki. He had gone for his daily walk in the forest somewhat earlier than usual, unaware that she was late for her daily drive through that same area with the rest of her family. As a result, they came face to face for a few moments; he tipped his hat politely, she was nonplussed, but no words were spoken. He wrote to her the same evening to apologise for the inadvertent breach of their arrangement. She responded, saying there was nothing to apologise for, and she even invited him to visit her home to see her new paintings, but at a time when she would be away. The previous year, while staying at her villa in Florence, Tchaikovsky had seen her and her entourage pass by every morning;  and they also glimpsed each other once at the opera, but only from a distance. Alexander Poznansky says of this last encounter: ‘It is not clear whether their both being at the theater was wholly accidental or arranged by Mrs. von Meck in order to see him, as seems not unlikely’.”
This, of course, makes Tchaikovsky’s connection to this building at 44/1 Myasnitskaya Street rather odd. (The short side of the building, where the plaque hangs, is on Maly Kharitonyevsky Lane, as the first picture in the second block of photos shows.) That is, this structure belonged to von Meck; Tchaikovsky stayed here with some frequency; yet never were the two here together at the same time. Or, if they were, they were aware of when the other would be coming and going and were careful not to cross each other’s path. I suppose that would be easy enough in a building this size, but it still must be one of the more wonderful quirks in the quirky story of these two individuals.
Throughout the years of 1877 to 1890, the friends exchanged some 1,200 letters. They are generally known as the von Meck/Tchaikovsky love letters, because the two, Tchaikovsky especially, increasingly let down their guards and shared many intimate secrets with each other. Of course, at least as many secrets remained behind seven seals. Von Meck was concerned that the letters might one day fall into the wrong hands – or, even worse, horrors! into the hands of the public – so she asked Tchaikovsky to destroy them. He did what any sane person would do in this situation: He said he had, but, in fact, he did not.
A few more words on this building, which is rich in history. Built in the 18th century, it was owned by a large number of major state figures. One of those families, the Urusovs, is worth noting because their extended family include several individuals of an artistic bent, including the novelist Yevgenia Tur and the playwright Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin in the 19th century, and the actress Eda Urusova in the 20th. In the late 1820s it is said that Alexander Pushkin may have visited this home, although there apparently is no hard proof of that. Franz (or Ferenc, if you are Hungarian) Liszt stayed here in 1843 when touring Russia.

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