Category Archives: Gravesites

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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Yakov and Yekaterina Knyazhnin gravesite, St. Petersburg

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There aren’t many of us left who can make sense of this one. Look at the first photo above. Even if you know Russian extremely well, you may not be able to make out that the name on this monument is Yakov Borisovich Knyazhnin (1742-1791). I wouldn’t have been able to read it had I not been informed about it by the map at the entrance to the Lazarevskoe cemetery (18th-century necropolis) at the Alexandro-Nevskaya Lavra in St. Petersburg. You see that map directly below – Knyazhnin’s grave marker is No. 49. Note that the No. 49 stands under the left of two columns. That is because this precisely is the monument to Knyazhnin, one of the most important playwrights and poets of the late 18th century in Russia.
The monument on the right, however, is also of interest to us (see second photo immediately below). It commemorates the life of Knyazhnin’s wife Yekaterina (1746-1797), who was not only the daughter of Russia’s first great playwright Alexander Sumarokov, she was, according to many sources, the first woman to have published poetry in Russia. It’s a hard story to follow on short-notice research, and I do not claim to present the gospel truth here. But it would appear that some of her work, usually with the support of her famous father, perhaps sometimes with the aid of her husband, did make it into print during her lifetime. Some claim these were actually poems written by Sumarakov, and, naturally, there are claims that her work was “edited” by her father and her husband. It was once believed that several of her songs were put to music by the Russia-based German composer German Raupach, but that apparently has been disproved. One can also find conjecture that Knyazhnina published several of her poems under pseudonyms – not at all unexpected for the late 18th century. We do know that she published a poem, “Oh, You, Who Is Always,” in the March 1759 issue of the literary journal The Busy Bee. This is the one that marks her as Russia’s first published woman writer.
Both Knyazhnin and his wife took it on the chin from Ivan Krylov, Russia’s first great writer of fables. In a comedy called Pranksters, Krylov satirized Knyazhnin as Verse-Stealer (Rifmokrad) and Knyazhnina as Babbler (Taratora). Supposedly it was Knyazhnina who insulted Krylov and pushed him to attack her family, although the details of the incident are not readily available to an internet-searcher. Most sources simply state that the attack was “probably” due to some personal insult.
The couple was originally buried in the Smolenskoye Cemetery in St. Petersburg, but were moved to the 18th-century necropolis in the 1950s, where their monuments are crammed in tightly and rather forlornly among other prominent personages of the 18th and early 19th centuries.

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Yakov Knyazhnin doesn’t get a whole lot of respect in the historical record. Krylov’s attack on him as a verse-stealer didn’t help, although it is common knowledge that writers in the 18th century freely borrowed from others, particularly if the source was in a foreign language. Krylov himself, for God’s sake, honed his pen by copying/translating the fables of de La Fontaine. Pushkin called him “imitative.” Knyazhnin, like Sumarokov before him, leaned heavily on the great writing of Europe to provide him inspiration. Sometimes he called his work a translation, other times he took authorship for himself. In fact, Knyazhnin was highly educated and spoke French, German and Italian. His profession was translator.
His first play was apparently the melodrama Orpheus (1763), while his first genuine literary success was the tragedy Didon, written in 1767 (some sources 1769), eight years after his wife’s first published poem, by the way.
The 1770s were an eventful decade for the fledgling writer. While giving in to a passion for cards and losing enormous sums of money, he also wrote several works that were popular at the time – the tragedy Vladimir and Yaropolk  (a reworking of Racine’s Andromaque, 1772) and the comic work Misfortune from a Carriage (1779).  However, he was plunged into disgrace when he embezzled 5,773 rubles. He was originally condemned to death, but that sentence was commuted to a demotion to the rank of simple soldier. Catherine the Great,  also a prominent playwright of the time, took pity on the disgraced soldier, overturned his sentence and gave him the rank of captain. This was in 1777. He wisely chose to get out of the service while he could and retired immediately, throwing himself into literary work, translating Voltaire’s epic poem Henriade (1777) as well as several tragedies by Corneille and Claude Crebillon. He penned another tragedy, Rosslav, which I remember reading with some pleasure in grad school, in 1784. It was another hit, if we can speak of plays as “hits” in those years.
Over the last decade of his life, Knyazhnin turned out numerous works of note. They included three “serious” works, The Mercy of Titus (1778), Sofonisba (1786), and Vladisan (1786), and numerous light works – either comedies or comic operas – The Miser (1782?, music by Vasily Pashkevich), The Fisherman and the Spirit (1781), The Braggart (1784/5), The Honey-Mead Maker (1783), The Failed Mediator (?), Odd Fellows (1790), Mourning, or The Widow Consoled (?), and The Woman who Faked Insanity (?).
Knyazhnin, labeled as a Russian classicist, had the reputation of writing works on patriotic themes while remaining a bit of a freethinker. This became particularly apparent in his last work, the tragedy Vadim of Novgorod (1788/9), in which his sympathies lay not with the ruler Ryurik, but with the rebel Vadim. The play is sprinkled with attacks on the notion of tyranny and tyrants, which could not possibly have pleased Catherine. Understanding this well, Knyazhnin originally gave Vadim of Novgorod to a theater for staging, but changed his mind and stopped the production. When it was published after his death, Catherine had the copies hunted down and destroyed. Fortunately, she could not get to all of them, and the play text, like most of what he wrote, has come down to us.
One Russian source sums his work up this way: “One of Knyazhnin’s merits was that he developed what was, for his time, an excellent style, and, relative to Sumarokov, light, attractive versification. Knyazhnin, thanks to his translations, introduced the most relevant current works of Western literature into his cultural sphere. Additionally, his use of blank verse for the first time in Russian literature was innovative.

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Alla Nazimova grave site, Glendale, CA

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If you’re in the know, the name Alla Nazimova makes the blood rush a bit hotter and quicker. She was a fascinating and fabulous celebrity, a great actress, and an icon of both film and theater. I wrote a little about her already in this space when I published photos of a house she lived in late in the 1930s. (Thanks to a response to the blog from Jon Ponder of the wonderful Alla Nazimova Society website, many of my speculative claims there were put into a firmer factual context.) Nazimova (1879-1945) studied under Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theater, and became one of the great luminaries of early Hollywood.
Nazimova was born into a Jewish family that fell apart when she was still a young girl. She bounced around among relatives and friends in the Crimea until she made her way to Moscow. She was a restless, rebellious spirit, and, despite her success in Moscow and St. Petersburg, she headed off looking for more in the United States in 1905, long before the famed wave of Russian emigres who would have such an impact on Hollywood. With her companion, actor Pavel Orlyonov, she founded a Russian theater in New York. It quickly went bust and Orlyonov headed back to Moscow. Nazimova stayed and hit it big thanks to her tour de force performance of Hedda Gabler in 1906. It made her a star in New York. She made her film debut in 1916, and the next year she signed a deal in Hollywood for $13,000 a week. According to Saving.org, that would be over a quarter of a million dollars per week today.
We have moved on terribly far from the world that Nazimova inhabited. Who sees her films today? And yet, the lure is still strong. Actress Chloë Sevigny acknowledged both the plus and minus sides of what I just suggested in an interview, “I’d love to do a film about Alla Nazimova, the Russian silent film star.” However, she then immediately added, “but I doubt people would want to see it.”
In 2016 and 2017 New York actress Romy Nordlinger wrote, mounted and performed a piece called Places, which told the story of Nazimova, as the promo material claims, the “most famous star you never heard of.”
A recent article in Italian (thank you Google translator) discusses the story of Salome on screen and stage and adds this interesting tidbit that was new to me: “[Salome] is a character you hate. It is she, in fact, at the center of Oscar Wilde’s homonymous drama, which in 1923 Charles Bryant brought to the big screen with the striking Alla Nazimova, in what – legend has it – was one of the first films with a cast entirely composed of homosexual or bisexual actors.”
Nazimova was a lesbian in an age when it was relatively easy and desirable to hide one’s sexual preference behind a marriage of convenience. She did that, in fact, by marrying the actor Sergei Golovin at the end of the 19th century and – although they soon parted – she never divorced him. In the 1920s, her sprawling Garden of Alla home, later the Garden of Alla Hotel, was – if legends are to believed – the site of wild, semi-public sexual shenanigans involving half of Hollywood’s A-list of the time. The sexual stuff naturally continues to feed Nazimova’s fame, usually, if not always, to the detriment of her art.

 

Nazimova was enthusiastic about the new form of cinematic art that she became involved in. A wonderful site called Bizarre Los Angeles posts a myriad of quotes, in which, over and over again, Nazimova extols the importance of film and her excitement about it.
If the actor or actress hopes to live beyond the little span of years in which they appear on the stage, they must place their art upon the screen. It is the only way that we can be saved from oblivion” (1916).
“[French actress Gabrielle} Rejane, too, has glimpsed the future, and several of her most famous impersonations have been preserved to posterity by the celluloid films” (1912).
It will not be long until the individual Moving Picture machine will be found in as many home as the phonograph is today” (1912).
She had plenty to say about the art of acting as well. One of my favorite comments is this one, undated and copied from Brainy Quotes:
The actor should not play a part. Like the Aeolian harps that used to be hung in the trees to be played only by the breeze, the actor should be an instrument played upon by the character he depicts.”
Nazimova died at her home on Sunset Boulevard in 1945, slightly less than two months after the end of World War II. She was buried at Forest Lawn in Glendale. Even with the added aid of my sister Margie and a helpful administrative staff, I had a hell of a time finding the grave marker. It was the first grave we went looking for that day, but was the last we found, almost on a lark, as we were already on our way out and decided to give it one more try. But we did finally come upon it. As were so many of the great Russian actresses in Hollywood, she is honored on this plate as Madame Alla Nazimova. For some reason she was given two plots adjacent to each other: 1689-4 and 3. One of them, as you can see in the photos, remains empty to this day. The grave is located on the western downslope of a hill that rises gently on the northern section of the cemetery’s Whispering Pines section.

 

Dimitri Tiomkin interment place, Los Angeles

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Dimitri Tiomkin (Dmitry Tyomkin) surely is one of the greatest success stories among those refugees from the Russian Empire who found a life and fame in Hollywood. There are a lot of these stories – enough to ask seriously what Hollywood would have been without Russia – but I always come back to Tiomkin as the one who holds the banner for the rest. It’s a subjective call, but this is a space for subjective opinions.
Tiomkin (the spelling he used in the U.S.) was born in the small Ukrainian city of Kremenchug (now known as Kremenchuk) in 1894. His family was Jewish – his father Zinovy a prominent doctor, his mother Maria Tartovskaya an amateur pianist. She taught her son to play the piano in his earliest childhood and by the age of 13 he had entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory. There he rubbed shoulders with some of the greats of Russian classical music, including Alexander Glazunov (under whom he studied harmony). But his heart was drawn to the Stray Dog cafe, one of the most famous bohemian hangouts of that time in Russia. As he put it later in his memoirs, “I began living a double life – I spent my nights in the Stray Dog, and in the mornings I would appear at the conservatory.” It was here, at the Stray Dog, that he would have become acquainted with the avant-garde poetry, literature, painting and music of his time. All the greats hung out here, and Tiomkin, who played the piano all night to pay off his debts for food and drink to the owner, heard an earful and saw an eyeful. After the Revolution, he went to work for the political administration of the Petrograd military district. It was his job to provide music for special occasions, the most memorable of which was the famed re-staging in 1920 of the Storming of the Winter Palace. Directed by Nikolai Yevreinov, this theatricalized, mass public event, provided the film clips of frenzied soldiers overrunning the palace walls that, even today, we still see in place of non-existent historical films of the real event.
Things got a little hot for Tiomkin in St. Petersburg, however, and he soon realized it was time to get out. He was living in the town of Gatchina, a Petrograd suburb, in the home of a family friend, who happened to have been a general in the Tsar’s army. One night the Soviet police came and took him away to prison. Tiomkin, perhaps not knowing better, visited his friend in prison a few days later, but got stuck there for several days when a new set of guards, following a change in shifts, refused to believe that Tiomkin was not a prisoner himself. He finally was able to get a note out to his teacher Glazunov, who extricated his student from his predicament. It was not long before the budding pianist chose to join his father in Berlin, where he stayed from 1921 to 1923. He made his concert debut in Berlin, performing Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 at the Berlin Philharmonic. He moved to Paris with his friend Mikhail Khariton in 1924, where he began writing foxtrots and waltzes, and made the acquaintance of Fyodor Chaliapin. Tiomkin and Khariton, who formed a piano duet that had no little success, then made the leap across the Big Pond to New York in 1925 upon invitation from the Ukrainian-born, American impresario Morris Gest.

Tiomkin and Khariton played vaudeville gigs and classical recitals at Carnegie Hall, and played in the orchestra of a ballet company. There Tiomkin met his second wife, Albertina Rasch, the head of the ballet troupe. In 1928 Tiomkin performed the European premiere of George Gershwin’s Concert in F at the Paris Opera. His life continued to unfold as it had way back in St. Petersburg/Petrograd – wavering back and forth between serious and “frivolous” music. And, while by the end of the 1920s, Tiomkin could look back at a varied and accomplished decade in his musical career, nothing could come close to comparing what was still in store for him ahead.
Chased by the bad times brought on by the Stock Market Crash in 1929, Tiomkin and his wife ended up in Hollywood. Tiomkin’s career in Tinseltown got off to a slow start, with several uncredited jobs. That would change very quickly, however. Tiomkin would soon become one of the greatest Hollywood composers ever. Imdb.com lists 126 credits for Tiomkin as a composer. It lists 163 in the soundtrack category and another 144 in the music department division. But that doesn’t come close to painting the complete picture of this man’s work, his influence on American cinema and on American culture. Let me drop one tidbit here: Tiomkin was the composer of the Rawhide TV series, all 217 episodes. Yes, that’s right, the music to that “Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’, Rawhide!” song was written by Tiomkin. If you are of my age or older, Tiomkin’s music was in your household every week of every year from 1959 to 1965.
The Rawhide connection brings us to, perhaps, the most amazing feature of Tiomkin’s career as a composer. He almost single-handedly created the sounds of America for Hollywood in its great golden age. From his very first Hollywood job in 1929, to his last in 1979, he was the composer who found the music and sounds that made America believe that it knew itself. This gentle, friendly, easy-going Jewish man from Ukraine created our musical perception of ourselves. His work on westerns and noir detective tales set the standard for the genres, two of American cinema’s greatest. He was nominated for 17 Oscars, winning four. He wrote the music for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1944), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), High Noon (1952), Dial M for Murder (1954), Giant and Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), The Old Man and the Sea (1958), The Alamo (1960), The Guns of Navarone and Town Without Pity (1961). The list of directors he worked for is a who’s who of the profession: Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock, John Wayne, John Huston, John Sturges, Howard Hawks, George Cukor…
Upon his death in 1979, Dimitri Tiomkin was interred in the wall of the Columbarium of Memory in the Memorial Terrace of the Forest Lawn Mausoleum in Glendale. Next to him are his second wife Albertina Rasch and a Maria Tiomkin whose only identified date is 1960. I am guessing that this is his mother, who might have died in 1960, but I do not know that for a fact.
If you look for the Tiomkin urn, don’t follow the directions given in the Forest Lawn office. In fact, as soon as you enter the Columbarium of Memory, turn immediately to your left and look down. The urn is right in the left-hand corner of the long hall.

 

Ivan Lebedeff gravesite, Glendale, CA

 

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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.

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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!”

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Leo Tolstoy grave, Yasnaya Polyana

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The first time I visited Yasnaya Polyana it was in the dead of winter. Shoveled snow was piled up shoulder-high and higher alongside the walkways and paths around the sprawling gardens of Leo Tolstoy’s former estate about a half hour’s drive south of Tula. It was one of those wonderful Russian winter days when the temperature had dropped below -10C (14F), which meant the snow underfoot was giving off marvelous squeaky crunches with every step Oksana and I took.  If I remember correctly, the temperature that day was around -13C or -14C (8F), so the crunchy briskness around us was downright delicious. I might add that this is not at all a cold temperature. When the temp falls below -10C pretty much all of the moisture is frozen out of the air, so that the air is very dry and quite comfortable. Naturally, you’re well dressed and that takes care of it. But back for a moment to the crunchy briskness all around us: you see, one of the marvelous things about Yasnaya Polyana is that you rarely run into other people, and the noises of the city are far, far away. Sure a few people pass here and there, a handful of other pilgrims like yourself, or gardeners or tour guides making their way from one place to another. But for all intents and purposes, Yasnaya Polyana provides you a one-on-one experience. You are virtually alone with your thoughts and with whatever nature has to offer you that day. On my first trip that made the crunch and the crackle of the snow underfoot (as well as of the tree branches bending and occasionally groaning under the weight of heavy snow) all the louder. It was more than enough to throw one into a state of revery.
There was much that was remarkable about my first trip to Yasnaya Polyana, but the unequivocal highlight was our long walk through the woods to Tolstoy’s gravesite. I would guess that it is at least a 15 minute walk from the house, maybe 20. The entire way takes you through wild woods, apple groves, small, grassy glades, and gorgeous, winding pathways. On that winter afternoon in the early 2000s, there was a special quality to the day’s waning light. The trees, as I have said, were laden down with snow, thus cutting out much of what was left of the available sunlight. Everything around us seemed dark and mysterious, making the beauty it commanded even more powerful. The walk is long enough that you are lulled into thinking you might never reach your destination. You become so attuned to the sounds and sights around you – constantly changing and monotonous all at once – that you become one with the road. The journey becomes the destination and you accept the fact that what you are doing – walking down a winding path – is entirely a self-sufficient activity. You give yourself up to the moment and to the specific location that you occupy at each passing moment, understanding that this, in itself, is what you have come for.
And then it happened. We turned a slight bend in the path and both Oksana and I gasped together. We both saw it, it hit us both. Up ahead of us, around a small patch of snow-covered ground, light was emanating from below, from the earth itself. This was not light coming from above, it was light shining as if coming up out of the earth. A few steps more and we realized: this is where Leo Tolstoy is buried. There it was, a long, narrow mound of earth stacked with pine branches all covered in snow. We could not help but ask – and I did ask Oksana out loud – can it be possible that Tolstoy’s burial place gives off light? Well, of course it doesn’t, and, of course, there is an explanation. We recognized it quickly enough. Throughout the forest the entire way to the gravesite no one bothers to clear away thick, old dead branches that clog up the light from the sky, especially when they are covered in snow. You feel you are making your way through an enchanted darkness. All around Tolstoy’s grave, however, gardeners are careful to keep the tree canopy at a minimum. They also clear away fallen branches and other natural debris that might fall near it. The result is that more sunlight pours down upon the grave in this small spot than anywhere around it. Furthermore – and this is the key to the magic – the brilliantly white, snow-covered ground all around the mound where Tolstoy’s body was laid to rest fully reflects all of the light that reaches it from above. In short, the gardeners at Yasnaya Polyana work hard and meticulously to be certain that, during snowy weather, it will seem as if the earth Tolstoy is buried in gives off light.
Believe me. It doesn’t matter that it is a kind of sleight of hand. The effect is stunning and lasting. In my mind, ten or more years later, I still see that light emanating from the earth around Tolstoy’s grave.

After traveling to Yasnaya Polyana in mid-October 2017, I can say that the “special effects” of the walk to Tolstoy’s grave are different in fall, though no less stunning. The golds and reds and greens and yellows and browns shimmering against a milky gray sky offer a sensory overload of visual pleasure and spiritual calm. This time the sounds are of rustling and shuffling as your feet traipse over a bed of fallen leaves and the wind ripples gently through the hundreds of thousands, or millions, or billions, of branches and leaves. As you see from the photos here the gardeners are fast at work in autumn, too. They keep the grave covered in fresh pine branches, while making sure that falling leaves do not blot out the green mound standing amidst a sea of yellow.
As I walked around the grave taking photos, I was fascinated to find that my camera refused to let me place the grave front and center in the frame. I am a fan (though not a fanatic) of purposeful “flat, frontal” photography. Especially in urban settings. I like that simplicity. I like to take measure of a thing centered in its surroundings, shown front on, with its face able to speak to us. But Tolstoy’s grave simply would not “go” to the center of my viewfinder. It wanted to be in a corner, it wanted to be a part of an ensemble of figures (whether that be trees, carpets of leaves, green spots, ravines or walkways wandering away). It wanted to be modest, though not necessarily shy. Now is that not another aspect of the magic of which I wrote above? I believe it is. Of all the photos I took of the grave only one (the first in the block above) allowed me to bring the grave close to center (although not entirely). This was only because I was already walking away and was already at some distance. But look at the first photo I took upon seeing the grave for the first time (the first photo at the very top): even there my camera lens wandered off to the left of the grave. The focal point point was the road leading us to the grave, not the grave itself. Although in my mind I was photographing the grave, not the path.
Two facts:
1) Tolstoy himself chose this site for his grave. It was one of his favorite spots in childhood, a place he called “the place of the green wand,” where his beloved brother Nikolai and he used to come to play.
2) Tolstoy insisted that there be no marker over his grave. He reportedly said (I am paraphrasing, not quoting), “A rich man will spend much money to erect a grand monument to himself, but no one will come see it. A righteous man will do nothing to mark his final resting place, but if he has deserved it, people will come.” His long-suffering wife Sofya was adamant that her great husband should be honored with a fitting gravestone. She even went so far as to have it designed. But her children prevailed and stopped her from having any marker erected. It’s a good thing. Leo Tolstoy’s gravesite provides an astonishing spiritual experience.
Epilogue: I have written at length elsewhere on this site about the influence that Tolstoy and, specifically, War and Peace, had on my life. I won’t repeat that now. But I will add this: when I was preparing to leave for my first trip to Russia in 1979, it was entirely a result of having read War and Peace and then Anna Karenina and then Resurrection, and then… and then… By that time, Dostoevsky and Gogol and Turgenev and Pushkin and Lermontov had all made deep impressions, but it was always Tolstoy, and War and Peace, that brought me to that moment in my life that my bags were packed and I was to head to the airport the next morning. That evening, on the eve of my departure, I stood in the dining room of my parents’ house and talked to my mother. I wasn’t much of one to open up emotionally to my family, but at that moment, I was compelled to say, “Mom, you know, I feel very strongly that I will not come back from Russia the same person. I will come back a different person.” Mom, with the wisdom and understanding that she always had, looked at me as if I didn’t even need to have said that. “I’m sure you will, JEF,” she said, calling me by the name everyone uses for me in my family. “I don’t doubt it.”
Mom was right, as she always was.

 

George Blagoi gravestone, Los Angeles

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You almost can’t find this guy under his real name – Yury Blagoi. Even on most Russian sites he is listed as George. And even when you do find information about Yury/George Blagoi, it is of the skimpiest kind, often just a name in long lists of actors who performed in some film, appeared at some party, or were part of some Hollywood hotshot’s entourage.
I tracked Mr. Blagoi down at plot 119 in the Chandler Garden of the Hollywood Forever cemetery at 6000 Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles. The birth-death dates there are almost correct. That is, his birth date of August 27, 1895, in Moscow is true if you consider that it is in the so-called Old Style. This was still 20-some years before Russia joined the rest of the world by jettisoning the Julian calendar and embracing the more accurate Gregorian calendar. So on the day that Blagoi was born it was actually September 8 in most of the world. The gravestone indicates that the date listed is by Old Style, but does not offer the true contemporary date. Virtually all internet sources pick up the date off of the gravestone, therefore providing for posterity an incorrect date of birth for this Russian emigre actor. His death date of June 24, 1971 in Los Angeles is not in dispute.
It is interesting that this man, who appeared in close to four dozen films over the span of his career, chose to identify himself in death as a military Major and a Prince with the full last name of Blagoi-Obolensky, a member of the Imperial Army and Navy before the Revolution, and a descendant of the noble Smolensky and Zabolotsky families. At least by the end of his life, these aspects of his biography clearly had become the most important.
For those interested in the full scoop in regards to what is written on Blagoi’s grave marker – the phrase at the top is a quote from John 11:25: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”
One of the longest descriptions I found about Blagoi’s biography is a single sentence in a Russian Wikipedia article about his older brother Dmitry, who was a well-known literary scholar and specialist in the works of Alexander Pushkin. Here it is: Dmitry’s “brother Yury Dmitrievich Blagoi, a participant in the Civil War, abandoned Russia with the Whites, and lived in Hollywood where he performed in the cinema as George Blagoi and Lieutenant Blagoi.”
It’s not much to go on, but it’s something.

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It’s no easy task even coming up with a good list of the films Blagoi acted in, although the always-reliable imdb.com site is the best. This listing suggests Blagoi was in at least 31 feature films and at least 14 television programs or serials. Over the years he worked with some major directors, including John Ford and Josef von Sternberg. With the exception of his very first film, Into Her Kingdom (1926), where he was credited as Lieutenant Blagoi, virtually every other one of his roles was uncredited. Could this be why we have such a difficult time scaring up information about this actor? On the other hand, he was there hands-on at the making of many of American TV’s best early serials. Get a load of this, he appeared (again, uncredited) in I Love Lucy (1956, where he played a passenger on a ship), Perry Mason (1957), The Untouchables (1959-60, three episodes – one credited!), The Twilight Zone (1961), The Andy Griffith Show (1963), Dr. Kildare (1963), Rawhide (1963), The Fugitive (1964), Bonanza (1965) The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1967) and It Takes a Thief (1968). I and a couple of generations grew up watching every single one of those shows.
A Russian site suggests that he worked on the 1959 feature film The Buccaneer where he was a stand-in for Yul Brynner.  He was an extra in Around the World in 80 Days (1956). The kind of roles he played can pretty much be summed up as follows: bar/cafe patron, clerk, officer/sailor/soldier, party guest, judge on a panel, juror, courtroom spectator, medicine show spectator,  barn fight spectator, mourner at wake, dinner patron, club patron, customs man and the like. It’s a great working man’s resume! That made me particularly curious when I ran across a site that promised to tell me George Blagoi’s net worth – just to see what a small-time working man in Hollywood made back in the day. I clicked on the bait and found that “George Blagoi’s net worth is under review.”
Blagoi was married to Tina Blagoi, apparently born as Valentina Ivanova (imdb.com writes “Ivanovna” but that is a patronymic, not a last name), also in Moscow, in 1900. She died in 1986. She had a short career in film, too, with at least seven credits. She too was uncredited in all her roles.
And on that note, ladies and gentlemen, I have exhausted what I have to say about Major Prince Yury Dmitrievich Blagoi-Obolensky, a man who appeared to live a life as unusual and unexpected as any in Tinsel Town. That’s an achievement and I take my hat off to him. If you think I’m being facetious, you don’t know me.

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