Category Archives: Musician’s Homes

Dimitri Tiomkin house, Los Angeles

Click on photos to enlarge.

And now we come back to Dimitri Tiomkin (1894-1979). This time it is to show the house into which he moved in the spring of 1950. This ethnic Jew, Ukrainian-born pianist and composer was already one of Hollywood’s top names by now, but he still had a long, successful, creative life ahead of him. More or less as he was moving his furniture into this home he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture for Champion (1949). Just three years on he would win the first two of his Oscars – one for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture for High Noon (1952), and another (with Ned Washington) for Best Music, Original Song for High Noon (1952) for “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’,” as sung by Tex Ritter. Also in 1953 he would win the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Score for High Noon (1952). It was a man at the top of his game who brought his life and family into this house. He had previously lived in Beverly Hills (about which I will write in the future), but if one can move up by leaving Beverly Hills, Tiomkin did so by purchasing this mansion in the Windsor Square neighborhood of Central Los Angeles, near Wilshire. Virtually all of his neighbors were famous – all of them were rich. The official address of this home was, and still is, 333 S. Windsor Boulevard.
Tiomkin had grown up in what was known during the Russian empire (and later in Soviet times) as the Ukraine – a place out on the edges, the far limits, so to speak. His town of birth was Kremenchuk, near Poltava. He was taught the piano by his mother Maria Tartakovskaya, who had plans of him being a concert pianist one day. She surely expected those dreams to come true when Tiomkin was admitted to the St. Petersburg Conservatory to study under the great Alexander Glazunov and Felix Blumenfeld. What she did not expect was the Revolution that would come along in 1917 and shake the Russian empire to the core. Tiomkin left Russia for Berlin in 1921 then moved on to Paris in 1924. He struck out for New York as a member of the Dimitri Tiomkin/Michael Khariton piano duo in 1925. However, with the US economy taking a dive in 1929, Tiomkin headed west in search of better pay. In short, Hollywood was calling, and by 1929 he hit upon several small jobs. According to the imdb website, Tiomkin wrote the ballet music for Devil-May-Care and Pointed Heels, both uncredited, and the music for a short called A Night at the Shooting Gallery, all in 1929. By 1930, his career was off and running.

The house in Windsor Park can’t help but remind one of a Russian estate. The stately, columned entrance, the decorations on the walls, the classical box of a many-roomed mansion, all bear a resemblance to places Tiomkin might have seen in his childhood, or, certainly, in St. Petersburg. One of the first things Tiomkin did at the new house was to add a swimming pool, the total cost of which was $2,550.
In the end, however – in the course of one night, in fact – this house was darkened by evil and Tiomkin sold it and left it without ever looking back.
It happened on the night of the funeral of Albertina Rasch, his second wife, in early October 1967. A small report in the Los Angeles Times (republished here) puts it as follows:
Several hours after his wife’s funeral Thursday, composer Dimitri Tiomkin was attacked by thieves in his home at 333 S. Windsor Blvd. 
Three men and a woman forced their way into the home, police said, and one of the intruders struck Tiomkin over the head with a gun. He was not seriously hurt. 
Tiomkin and his secretary, Martha Harrington, were tied up and the intruders searched the house. However, they obtained only $13 in cash, police said. 
Inurnment services for Mrs. Tiomkin, the former Albertina Rasch, had been held at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park. 
Mrs. Tiomkin, who was a former ballerina, died Monday at Motion Picture Country Hospital after a lengthy illness. The composer is her only survivor.”
Almost immediately, Tiomkin sold the house and left Los Angeles. He spent the last 12 years of his life living in London (where he died) and  in Paris. After his death, Tiomkin’s ashes were brought back to Los Angeles where they were interred in a mausoleum at Forest Lawn in Glendale.

asdfasdfasdfasdfasdf

Nikolai Beloborodov house and plaque, Tula

Click on photos to enlarge.

Nikolai Beloborodov ran a dye business in Tula. His father had been the manager of a rich man’s estate. His mother came from a family that had made its living working in the famous Tula armory factory. None of this gives us a hint as to why we remember Beloborodov today – which is because, in the first half of the 1870s, he invented the first accordion (button box, squeeze box) that was equipped with half-tones.
A paragraph on a very nice Tula-based website tells the story with both brevity and interesting detail:
At the age of 11 he became fascinated with playing the accordion, for which endeavor he independently learned to read music. Possessing extraordinary abilities, he achieved notable success in his mastery of the instrument, but the primitiveness of the harmonies existing at the time severely limited his performing abilities. Therefore, in 1875 (according to other sources, in 1870) he commissioned a fundamentally new instrument from the renowned Tula master Leonty Alexeevich Chulkov.  The novelty of the instrument consisted in the construction of a right-hand keyboard consisting of 23 keys, which included all 12 sounds of the chromatic scale.”
Still, apparently, the difficulties of the new instrument were such that it required further development. Beloborodov, who was now fascinated by new plans and ideas, did not continue work on the new instrument. At first his thoughts were occupied with the idea of putting together the first accordion trio – which he found relatively easy to do, since he took up one of the places, while his daughters Maria (Kuvaldina by marriage) and Sofya Beloborodova took up the other two places. Then he was inspired to create an entire orchestra of accordions. He gathered amateur musicians (for the notion of a “professional” accordionist was ahead of its time) and rehearsed them at his home on Sunday afternoons and evenings. All of them played on the new-fangled chromatic-scale accordions.
Ah, but our hero was not even close to being finished. Presumably somewhat taken aback by the roar of an entire orchestra of identical accordions – no matter how many half-notes they could play – Beloborodov began to realize that a whole array of different accordions was needed. As such, he commissioned the creation of a series of accordions “of different ranges and timbres: piccolo-accordion, prima-accordion, alto-accordion, cello-accordion, bass-accordion, and double bass-accordion” (I’m quoting from the same site). Even I, as I sit here and write 150 years later, can hear the drastic changes taking place in Beloborodov’s living room as he gathers each week with his musician friends. All of a sudden a monotonous wall of sound begins morphing into a nuanced pattern of sounds that begins to sound like sophisticated music.

And yet, and yet… Beloborodov was not done. Now that he had put together such a versatile combination of accordions, he began commissioning works written or adapted specifically for accordion or an accordion orchestra. Thus his orchestra was able to play not only sophisticated versions of folk music, but it could also play popular classical works by Mikhail Glinka, Franz von Suppé, Johann Strauss and others. When this greatly enlarged repertoire was not enough to satisfy Beloborodov, he began writing his own works. His “Fantasia” polka, “The Hunt” quadrille and his Waltz were, therefore, the first works ever written for chromatic scale accordion. If that wasn’t enough, Beloborodov also wrote the first instruction manual for this new instrument.
Once again, that Tula website provides a nice description of the orchestra’s activities:
The orchestra’s first performance took place in the hall of the Tula Assembly of the Nobility in 1897. Further, the collective repeatedly demonstrated its skills not only in Tula, but also in Kaluga, Serpukhov, Aleksin, and Yefremov. Great events in the life of the orchestra were a concert at the Moscow Conservatory, a recording session, and, in the summer of 1893, a performance for Leo Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana, where the orchestra presented the great Russian writer with an honorary address and a membership card at the Tula Society of Music and Dramatic Artists.”
Beloborodov was born February 27, 1828 and he died December 28, 1912. He lived his entire life in Tula. His mother died shortly after he was born; his father wanted his son to be educated, but not too educated. He saw to it that a priest taught Nikolai to read in Old Church Slavonic, but one the pupil began making progress at that, the father stopped his education. He considered that that was enough to get him through life. His father also died when he was relatively young, and the young man set up his dye business in his home. It brought him precious little money and he and his family were often short of necessary funds.
The point here, of course, is the extraordinary nature of Beloborodov’s fascination  with, and dedication to, his chosen – it was never really a profession for him, but rather more an obsession.
The plaque at the top of this post reads: “Nikolai Ivanovich Beloborodov (1828-1912), the inventor of the chromatic scale accordion, and the organizer of the world’s first accordion orchestra, lived in this building.”
This building, located at 16 Lenin Prospekt, was turned into a museum commemorating Beloborodov’s life and work in 1995.

 

 

Vladimir Bakaleinikov home, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

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.

 

2nd Igor Stravinsky home, Los Angeles

Click on photos to enlarge.

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

Click on photos to enlarge.

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.

 

Alexander Vertinsky plaque, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

dscn0873

Few individuals in the history of Russian culture have lived more dramatic lives than the great singer and songwriter Alexander Vertinsky (1889-1957). It all began before he was born.
Vertinsky was the second child born scandalously in Kiev to Nikolai Vertinsky, a lawyer, and Yevgenia Skolatskaya, the daughter of the head of Kiev’s assembly of nobility. Vertinsky, Sr., was married and nothing he could do would convince his wife to agree to a divorce. The situation – this was the end of the 19th century, after all – was, indeed, dramatic. Alexander’s sister Nadezhda was separated from her brother and given to an aunt in the father’s family. Alexander was turned over to his maternal aunt, a severe woman who hated Alexander’s father, was extremely strict in her dealings with the young boy, and who told him that his sister was dead. His mother died when he was three; his father, who apparently spent much of his last years sitting by his lover’s grave, died when Alexander was five. Not the easiest start in life far a young boy, although this was just a prelude.
The story that follows is packed with details that I could never have collected without the help of a few good websites, Know EverythingPeoples.ru, and Russian Wikipedia. I doff my cap to them all. (Although I should point out that the sources differ on dates occasionally, with some claiming he moved to Moscow and began his film career either in 1912 or 1913. In unclear instances, I tend to side with Wikipedia, rightly or wrongly.)
Vertinsky received a good education, at least at first, studying at the No. 1 Gymnasium for aristocrats. His classmates included the future writers Konstantin Paustovsky and Mikhail Bulgakov. But Vertinsky’s independent nature was not to be tamed. For kicks he began stealing money that pilgrims left as honors on the graves holding the remains of saints at the Kiev-Pechersky monastery. He was caught and kicked out of school, and, when he refused to quit doing it, his aunt kicked him out of her home. His saving grace was a love for theater and music. He tried out his acting chops first and, when that failed, he took up singing. A chance meeting with an old friend of his mother gave him another “in” to high society. She took him under her wing, inviting him to her house where he met such individuals as Marc Chagall, the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, the poet Mikhail Kuzmin,  and the painters Kazimir Malevich and Natan Altman. This, apparently was an environment that began to serve and feed Vertinsky’s talent. His new benefactress helped him get a job as a theater critic and he turned out to be very good at it. He became well-known in Kiev with his notices about performances by Fyodor Chaliapin and others. He also began publishing short stories. When he had saved up enough money by the age of 24, he set out for the bright lights of the big city of Moscow. His primary goal was to make a career in literature, but first he made an astonishing discovery – his sister Nadya was not only still alive, she was an actress in the theater! Alexander began performing and directing, all the while continuing to write stories, poems and short plays, often under the influence of Alexander Blok and the Symbolists. An attempt to enter the Moscow Art Theater school ended in failure when the auditioning master Konstantin Stanislavsky complained that Vertinsky could not properly pronounce the letter “r.” This hardly stopped him. He made his debut in silent film in 1913 and, when World War I began, he volunteered as a medic. There he applied some 35,000 bandages to wounded soldiers before he was wounded slightly himself and sent back to Moscow where he learned that his beloved sister had died of an overdose of cocaine. Nevertheless, Alexander wasted little time getting his career going again, continuing to act in films and making his Moscow debut as a singer in 1915 at the Miniature Theater. A crucial choice was made to dress and make Vertinsky up as Pierrot, and it stuck, becoming his own personal image forever after. His early repertoire was based on the poetry of others, but he also began slipping in a few of his own songs, too. Before long he had become a star in his own right.

dscn0874 dscn0877 dscn0879

dscn0971Vertinsky’s songs reflected the age in which they were written – one of violence, uncertainty and fear. The usual characters that he wrote about found themselves alone and vulnerable before a hostile world. There was a note of fatalism in Vertinsky’s voice that, together with his unique, personal sound of deep regret and profound understanding, gave his songs enormous emotional impact. It is not surprising (I say as I leap-frog over all kinds of interesting biographical details) that Vertinsky would increasingly feel himself an outcast in Moscow in the years after the Revolution. Even though the rhetoric was not even close to what it would become in the next decade/decade and a half, it was plenty to alienate Vertinsky almost immediately. Here’s a little story worth repeating from Peoples.ru:
Following the Bolshevik Revolution Vertinsky came to the conclusion that he would never get along with the new government. His romance titled ‘What I Must Say,’ written under the impression of the deaths of three hundred cadets in Moscow, aroused the interest of the Cheka [secret police], which summoned the actor to explain his sympathy for enemies of the Revolution. Legend has it that Vertinsky responded to the Chekists indignantly: ‘It’s just a song, and anyway, you cannot forbid me to pity them!’ He received a clear and concise answer: ‘If necessary, we can forbid you to breathe!‘”
Shortly thereafter Vertinsky – who was now a nationally famous singer – set out on a protracted tour through the southern regions of the new Soviet Union, as far from Moscow as he could get. In 1920 he slipped out of the country on the good ship Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, and set foot in the safety of Constantinople. He began performing there with success for the growing emigre population, but, being a restless soul, he kept moving, visiting in coming years Romania, Poland, Austria, Hungary, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Libya and Germany. When in Poland he made an attempt to return to the Soviet Union but was refused a visa. He settled in France from 1925 to 1934, where he, once again, became an enormous star. Yes, he was supported by the huge Russian emigre community, but the French, with their love of style, art and literature, took him in as well. He continued writing his beautiful, sad songs of longing, regret and stoicism, creating one of the greatest oeuvre of popular songs in the world.
In 1934 Alexander set sail for New York on the good ship Lafayette. He never felt comfortable in America’s financial capital and set off on tours that took him to Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. There was an attempt to get him started in Hollywood as an actor, but his lack of knowledge and deep dislike of the English language were a barrier that could not be breached. There is a tale that Marlene Dietrich, seeing how Vertinsky struggled with English, suggested that he just “get a grip on himself” and learn the language. He couldn’t, however, and ended up turning down the offer to act.
Disillusioned with the States, Vertinsky set sail for China in October 1935. It was a decision that would change his life, and the history of Russian/Soviet performing arts.
He set up base in Shanghai where he continued to perform, and, even, for a short while was the owner of a cabaret. But life was getting more and more difficult, and when he unexpectedly received an invitation from the Soviet consulate in Shanghai to return home, he was intrigued. He even began writing for a Soviet newspaper. Still, the road home was not easy. His final papers from Moscow were delayed, in large part because of the beginning of World War II, and so, when he married his second wife Lidia Tsirgvava in 1942, he was still in Shanghai. Vertinsky was then 53; Tsirgvava, the daughter of a Soviet official in China, was 20. Their first daughter Marianna was born several months later. When Japan invaded China Vertinsky made still another, now desperate, attempt to return home. He wrote Stalin’s right-hand man Vyacheslav Molotov, who immediately made arrangements for Vertinsky and his family to receive traveling papers. They were given an apartment in a prestigious building on Tverskaya Street (occasionally and exaggeratedly called Moscow’s Fifth Avenue or Champs Elysses) in building No. 12. You see that building here, as photographed in the fall of 2016.
Just a few months after arriving here in Moscow in 1943, the couple’s second daughter Anastasia was born. Both Marianna and Anastasia would become successful actors themselves, Anastasia, especially, becoming one of the Soviet Union’s most popular actresses in the 1960s and 1970s.
Vertinsky himself found an uncomfortable mix of success and alienation upon his return to a nation that had nothing to do with the country he left in 1920. He was allowed to act in films and to give concerts, and yet, he was kept on the outside of mainstream Soviet cultural life. His songwriting muse pretty much dried up in this period. One source claims he wrote barely two dozen songs over the last 14 years of his life.
In 1956, the year after Nikita Khrushchev launched his de-Stalinization campaign, Vertinsky wrote to his wife:
Look at this whole story with Stalin. It’s false, base and disingenuous, At the convention Khrushchev said: ‘Let’s stand in honor of the 17 million people who were martyred in the camps.’ How do you like that?! Who, when and how will the ‘mistakes’ made by these scums ever be repaid? How long will they continue to  mock our Motherland? How long?

dscn0878 dscn0876 dscn0875

dscn0970

 

Alexander Scriabin house, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

IMG_4963 IMG_4960

Alexander Scriabin (1871-1915), the pianist and composer, rented rooms in this house at 11 Bolshoi Nikolopeskovsky Lane, just north of the Arbat, for the last three years of his life. He died on the very day that his rental contract expired. (His landlord was Apollon Grushka, a prominent philologist, a specialist in historical Latin grammar and Roman poetry.) Thanks in large part to the efforts of Scriabin’s common-law widow Tatyana Shlyotser, the building was turned into a museum honoring Scriabin’s memory in 1922 – just as Shlyotser herself died. Today it continues its life as a museum and a cultural center where concerts and other cultural events are often held. The plaque that hangs on the second floor of the building (a rare enough occurrence) is probably one of the oldest in Moscow. It was surely made and first displayed within two or three years of the composer’s death for it uses the pre-revolutionary script, including the so-called hard sign that is added to the end of several of the words. The plaque reads: “Here lived and died Alexander Nikolaevich Scriabin.”
Scriabin’s reputation has gone up and down over time. I doubt that means much; I mention it as a fact. During his life, especially in the later years, Scriabin was hugely famous. More importantly, his influence on other musicians, Russian and otherwise, was significant. As Arnold Schoenberg was developing his form of atonal music in Europe, Scriabin was independently performing similar experiments in Russia. I have never had a close personal connection to his music and so I asked my wife Oksana Mysina, a musician by education, what she might say about him. “He is an elemental storm,” she said. “His music comes crashing at you like a storm at sea. His compositions are for pianists what Paganini’s are for violinists.” Scriabin was and remains an enigmatic figure, a mystic, a symbolist, a Theosophist. A Russian biography site begins with a nice, if somewhat florid, description of the man and musician:
“Scriabin’s works embody ideas of ecstatic aspiration for unknown ‘cosmic’ spheres, as well as the idea of art as a transformative power. His music is characterized by great tension and a range of images from inspired idealism to the expressively heroic. He was a brilliant innovator of musical methods of expression, particularly in the field of harmony. He developed the notion of light music [see below] and was the first to introduce a part for light into musical practice – this in his symphonic poem “Prometheus”…
Alexander was a very suspicious and religious man. His abrupt mood swings frightened his family and friends, as did his views on current events. In addition to his unique music, he was also the first in history to employ and popularize color music. According to doctors, Alexander suffered from schizophrenia…”

IMG_4961 IMG_4959 IMG_4971

Scriabin’s work with color and light in music is much better known in Russia than in the West. You can find all kinds of writings on the topic in the Russian netsphere (go here, for instance). I did find one source, originally written in Russian, but translated into English, that offers views on some of the complexities of Scriabin’s experiments. This piece, titled “Was Scriabin a Synaesthete?” goes into much detail about topics that are translated variously as “colored hearing”; “color tonal”; “color sound”; “light-music synthesis”; “light-sound synaesthesia” &cetera.
There are geniuses,” the poet Konstantin Balmont wrote, “who are not only brilliant in their artistic achievements, but who are brilliant in their every step, their gait, in every aspect of their personal being. You look at one of these individuals – they are pure spirit, beings of  a complete other kind, from another dimension. Of all the particular people who are no longer entirely human, or who have, at least, gazed deeply and often into the non-human, into whatever is done outside the three dimensions – it was Scriabin who gave me the impression of being the most complete and inexhaustible genius.”
Balmont, incidentally, lived two doors up from the house pictured here. I wrote about it some time ago on this site.
Scriabin himself wrote the following in regards to the “moment of truth” when an individual would awaken to the full potential of the world:

Let’s be born into a whirlwind!
Let’s awaken into the heavens!
Let’s mix feelings in a single wave!
And in the luxurious splendor
Of the final dawn
As we appear to each other
In the naked beauty
Of glittering souls
We shall disappear…
We shall melt…

He was not of this world, either as a man or as a musician,” said Scriabin’s biographer Leonid Sabaneev.
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov called Scriabin “a star of the first magnitude.”
Upon hearing one of Scriabin’s piano miniatures, Leo Tolstoy is said to have proclaimed, “Very sincere. Sincerity is valuable. This one piece alone allows us to call him a major artist.

IMG_4964 IMG_4966 IMG_4965