Category Archives: Theater Artists’ Homes

Eugenie Leontovich home, Beverly Hills

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I like to pay my debts, so let me say right here that I would never have known about Yevgenia Leontovich, known in Hollywood and New York as Eugenie, had it not been for Harlow Robinson’s book Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians. He quotes a great story there about how Eugenie got a big part on stage in New York thanks to her husband, a lovable rascal, shyster and a fine actor in his own right – Gregory Ratoff (Grigory Ratov). Robinson quotes a wonderful story as told by the Russian emigre actor Leonid Kinskey (the barman in Casablanca if you need to know). In it, Ratoff blows smoke in the faces of all the big actors and producers in New York, insisting that he’s a big producer himself and planning to do a big show that “you are just right for.” It apparently got him in several doors and even allowed him to befriend many of those that he was fooling with. I pick up the story midway through:
“…[Ratoff] became very close to [the producer] Shuberts [sic], and one day he learned that there was a play in which there was a wonderful part for his wife. And he stole the script. And she learned the thing thoroughly, the part, in the best English she possibly could master. And Gregory says to Shuberts [sic]: ‘Listen, I got some actress for you, a fantastic actress that fits the part. Nobody can play it better than she.’ He said, all right then, bring her in, let her read. Everything was prepared, you know, she pretended she was reading. “First reading like that? I never saw anything like this in my life!” He was absolutely fascinated. Leontovich got the part. From there on, Leontovich became a very important actress.”
In the West Leontovich’s universally accepted birth year is 1900, although numerous Russian sources suggest with more authority that she was born in 1894 (or possibly even 1890). She was born in Moscow, the daughter of a prominent naval officer. She began studying acting at the Russian Imperial School of Drama Art, later moving to the Moscow Art Theater where she studied under Vsevolod Meyerhold. She made her stage debut around 1912 in the famous summer theater in Malakhovka, where she performed in such plays as Faust, Tartuffe and TheTaming of the Shrew. During the Russian Civil War, she left Russia proper and performed for awhile in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov. The Revolution hit her family hard, as her father and her three brothers were killed by the Bolsheviks. As such, when she had an opportunity to go to Europe (Paris and/or Berlin, depending upon the source) in 1922, she jumped at the chance, leaving behind everything, but with everything to gain. That same year she made her Paris, and then New York, stage debut in a show called Revue Russe, which moved to the US from Paris where it was originally produced. Some sources say that it was in the company of this production that she first met, and worked with, Ratoff. She herself once wrote that they met in Moscow. In any case, they were married in New York in January 1923. The sources I have access to are relatively silent about the next eight years of Leontovich’s career, although she did join a touring company of the musical Blossom Time in 1922 and traveled throughout much of the U.S.

Leontovich’s career truly got underway in 1930, when she played the role of the Russian ballerina Grushinskaya alongside the Russian emigre actress Olga Baclanova (Baklanova) in Grand Hotel. This was a huge success that made Leontovich’s name in the US. When the play was made into a film sometime later, it was Greta Garbo who got Leontovich’s part. Her next major role was in Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s Twentieth Century, written expressly for Leontovich, which ran on Broadway for half a year in 1932-33. Firming up a tradition of preparing good roles for famous film actors, Leontovich played the female lead in Tovarich in London on the West End in 1935. When that piece went to the silver screen, it was Claudette Colbert who got the part. (This tradition was also observed in 1933 when her role in Twentieth Century went to Carol Lombard on the silver screen, and in 1954 when she starred on Broadway as the Dowager Empress in Anastasia, a role that went to Helen Hayes when the play was made into a film.) In 1936, in London again, Leontovich starred in a production of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra staged by Theodore Komisarjevsky (Fyodor Komissarzhevsky the younger).
Leontovich’s own film career began in 1940 with Four Sons, in which she starred opposite Don Ameche. LA Times critic Edwin Schallert wrote of this performance: “What she can say with eyes and thought registered in facial expression is naught short of momentous. Indeed, here is a discovery for the studios of the first water.” Over the next 20 years she played approximately a dozen parts in film and television. Her best known Hollywood role was as Maharani in The Rains of Ranchipur (1955) alongside Richard Burton, Lana Turner and Fred MacMurray.
None of this, however, does justice to the actress’s quite extraordinarily varied career. Over the decades she was an actor, director, playwright, producer, and managing director of her own theater (The Stage, or the Leontovich Theater, depending upon the source, in Los Angeles in the late 1940s and early 1950s). Perhaps as important as anything, she established herself as one of the great acting teachers in the United States beginning in the 1950s. She taught in Los Angeles, New York and at the Goodman Theater in Chicago in the 1960s. Like many other Russian diva teachers, her students reportedly referred to her exclusively as “Madame.”
Leontovich’s playwriting credits included the play Dark Eyes (written with friend and fellow actress Elena Miramova, 1943), and at least two adaptations, Anna K. (after Anna Karenina, 1972), and Jason and Medea (1974).
I tantalizingly found reference to a performance by Leontovich of Ranevskaya in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard which took place in a “storefront theater on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood that had no more than 60 seats.” This was probably around 1945. Based on the story told by Jeff Corey in his memoir Improvising Out Loud: My Life Teaching Hollywood to Act, Leontovich starred opposite Charles Laughton, who played Ranevskaya’s brother Gayev. I spent a good bit of time hunting where this storefront theater might have been located, but I found nothing conclusive. I’m guessing this might have been a production of the Leontovich Theater that I mentioned earlier. In any case, Santa Monica Boulvard has been substantively rebuilt in the last decade or two. I suspect that the location of The Cherry Orchard production is now long gone. (I would love to hear from anyone if I am mistaken!)
The house we see pictured here today stands at 510 N. Hillcrest Rd. in Beverly Hills. Leontovich lived here with husband Gregory Ratoff in the latter half of the 1940s, and definitely in 1947, because there exists a large 1947 correspondence between Leontovich and her “close friend” of the time, New York producer and press agent Robert Reud. All of Leontovich’s letters bear the return address of 510 N. Hillcrest. The two apparently became close after Ratoff left his wife for a new paramour. At least publicly, Leontovich held her head high. She is quoted in the New York Times obituary as saying, Ratoff “left me for a Georgian woman from Russia. She was beautiful. He left me our house in California, half of his money, and they went off to Italy.” (This is the house he would have left her.) Privately, however, Leontovich admitted all wasn’t quite as easy as that. She wrote to Reud on Dec. 3, 1947, “The force which draw [sic] me so close to you – is my believe [sic] that you are the person whom I need in the time of my life, when I was desperately in need for a friend, for a companion, for one who is as simple and complicated as you are my Lamb...” Leontovich and Ratoff divorced in 1949. She never married again. She died in New York in 1993.

 

 

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Vladimir Vysotsky guest home, Fountain Valley, CA

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

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

 

Alexander Ostuzhev house, Moscow

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Alexander Ostuzhev (1874 to 1953) is one of those rare individuals whose great career in art spanned large portions of the pre-Soviet and Soviet periods. He was a huge star at the Maly Theater by the time he went completely deaf in 1910, while some of his most famous roles were performed between 1935 and 1940 when he was in his 60s. I can measure his longevity against my own experience – he was one of the finest partners of the great Maria Yermolova at the turn of the 20th century – seemingly a million years ago – and he was a contemporary of actors who have been contemporaries of mine. It’s a small thing, to be sure, but it does make time shrink incredibly, at least for me.
Ostuzhev was born Alexander Pozharov in the city of Voronezh in 1874. His father was a train engineer. The young man was a bit of a handful for everyone, getting himself kicked out of school for insubordination, and later, being fired from the Maly Theater for getting into a fight with a fellow actor. He began his life working odd jobs around Voronezh until he decided, in 1894, to try his hand at acting. He began in amateur theatricals, finding himself in demand because he had a beautiful voice and was quite a physical specimen – handsome and well-built. He did not have to wait long for his big break. Just one year later the popular Maly Theater actor Alexander Yuzhin (see my piece on Alexander Sumbatov-Yuzhin elsewhere in this space) happened to come through Voronezh and see Pozharov in a bit role. The fare that night was Victor Hugo’s Hernani and, despite his brief time in the spotlight, Pozharov made a huge impression on Yuzhin. In a letter to the playwright Pyotr Gnedich (quoted on the Memoria website), Yuzhin wrote:
In Voronezh I discovered a treasure whom I believe is a major future force, and boldly for the first time I take responsibility for his entire life, extracting him from service on the southeastern railroads and bringing him to the stage. He is twenty-one years old, handsome. He has some intangible way of making you listen to him, watch him, and appreciate every sound of his voice that vibrates with authenticity and every gaze of his wonderful deep gray eyes.”
If that isn’t an account of Yuzhin falling in love, I don’t know what would be. In any case, Ostuzhev’s life had changed. Yuzhin brought him to Moscow and enrolled him in acting classes at an organization that today would be called the Shchepkin Theater Institute – back then it was the Dramatic Courses at the Moscow Theater Institute. Pozharov was given a stipend of 300 rubles while he matriculated and he was finally admitted into the company of the Maly in the 1898-99 season. It was apparently at this time that the provincial boy took the pseudonym of Ostuzhev. There are a few reasons hanging around as to why he did that. One is that the name “Pozharov” comes from the word for fire, “pozhar,” and the folks at the Maly were afraid that if his fans began shouting his name in the theater, unsuspecting patrons might actually believe a fire had started on the premises. Perhaps a more convincing explanation is that Pozharov’s teachers and handlers were looking for a way to calm down his hot temper and so, in place of his fiery name, gave him one, Ostuzhev, that is built around the root for “cold” or “frost” – “stuzha.” Or maybe it was just a name game of the young man enjoying going from hot to cold…
Whatever the case, Ostuzhev played no less than 16 roles in his first season at the Maly (that’s not a typo), at least four of which were major leads. By the time summer rolled around he was a star in Moscow. In 1902 he played Romeo and critics dubbed him the “perfect Romeo.”

The last great role Ostuzhev played before going completely deaf, apparently from Ménière’s disease, was the False Dmitry in a 1909 production of Alexander Ostrovsky’s False Dmitry and Vasily Shuisky. Deafness, at least at first, had little effect on Ostuzhev’s work. The following year he played three new roles – including Khlestakov in Nikolai Gogol’s The Inspector General. According to Kino-teatr.ru, Ostuzhev played four new roles in 1911/12, seven in 1912/13, two in 1913/14, three in 1914/15, and so on. Perhaps not the load that he carried in his first season, but, still he was anything but out of work. He was able to perform because he would show up at the first rehearsal already having completely memorized his role, as well as most of the others in every play. It is said that he was often able to help other actors during performances when they would forget their lines – because he knew them and would whisper them to them.
Still, it is the received opinion that Ostuzhev, by the 1920s, was in serious decline, at least in popularity, if not in talent. Increasingly he played smaller roles and lesser amounts.
But a fortunate meeting with director Sergei Radlov revived Ostuzhev’s career in a serious way. Radlov was not concerned that he could not communicate by voice with the actor; he would write out his directions in long letters and give them to Ostuzhev who studied the letters with the same diligence that he did roles. As a result, when Radlov cast Ostuzhev in the role of Othello in Shakespeare’s tragedy, he unwittingly wrote a new page in the history of Russian theater. Ostuzhev’s Othello stunned spectators and critics alike, returning to him the same kind of mass popularity he had not enjoyed for several decades. The always-interesting Chtoby-pomnili website tells the story this way:
In the opinion of the critics Ostuzhev’s interpretation of Othello gave particular resonance to the topic of offended justice. His Moor was not an unbridled, primitive savage, but a man of exquisite culture and feelings. In the very image of the hero Ostuzhev masterfully emphasized the solemnity of the commander’s appearance, his gestures and features. This made the terrible and terrifying catastrophe all the worse as a great human world collapsed because of petty intrigue. Ostuzhev’s Othello not only inspired admiration among spectators – it was a genuine triumph. Alexander Alekseevich could not hear the applause and shouts of ‘Bravo!’ but he saw, and felt the delight of the audience. The building of the Maly Theater was literally filled with flowers.”
Othello, however, was no mere swan song. Ostuzhev followed it up with two more of his most famous roles, helping him to fashion one of the great career “comebacks” in Russian theater, if one dares use such a word. His performance of the Baron in Alexander Pushkin’s The Covetous Knight (1936/37) and the title role in Karl Gutzkow’s Uriel Acosta (1939/40) were also highly acclaimed. Ostuzhev performed his last new role in the 1941/42 season, but he often took the stage during World War II to entertain Russian troops at the front lines. He died five days before Joseph Stalin on March 1, 1953.
The house pictured here today served as Ostuzhev’s home from 1905 until his death. The address is 12/2 Bolshoi Kozikhinsky Lane, more or less in between Patriarch’s Pond and Pushkin Square.

 

 

Tamara Toumanova home, Beverly Hills

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We have discussed Tamara Toumanova (1919-1996) previously in this space. Today we’ll narrow the topic a bit, but not before doing a few preliminaries.
The future great dancer, a protege of George Balanchine, was born in the Siberian city of Tyumen, where her mother was located while searching for her husband, with whom she had lost contact during the Russian Civil War. The family was finally reunited and made their way out of Russia via Vladivostok, China, Egypt and Paris. Jason Edwards and Stephanie L. Taylor describe the situation briefly, but with flavor, in their book Joseph Cornell: Opening the Box: “Toumanova, like the ballet Sleeping Beauty, is also a relic of Russia and France. Tamara was conceived in the thick of history and born in a manger on railway tracks. Her father Vladimir was an army colonel and her mother Eugenia, gave birth to her on 2 March, 1919, among cavalry horses in a cattle wagon shared with army officers making a retreat through Siberia.”
This quirk of fate allows us to place this ethnic Armenian-Pole in the sphere of Russian culture. As a dancer whose early career was closely connected to Russian emigres – including Balanchine, Sergei Diaghilev and the great Russian dance teacher Olga Preobrazhenskaya, the Russian influence was strong anyway. In fact, at the end of her life, Toumanova donated some of her famous costumes to the Vaganova Choreographic Museum in St. Petersburg.  She made her first appearances on stage in Paris beginning in 1925 (yes, when she was six years old), later adding Brussels, Geneva, Monte Carlo, London, Mexico City, Barcelona, Havana, Montreal, and New York. Her U.S. debut in 1934 took her to Chicago and Philadelphia. Her final performances on stage were in 1956 at La Scala, in Milan,  with the exception of her absolute last performance, which was in Monte Carlo for a gala celebration of the wedding of Prince Rainer and Grace Kelly.
Today we look at the Beverly Hills house at 525 N. Foothill Boulevard, which Toumanova occupied at least in the early 1940s. (My cursory research does not turn up further dates.) She most probably lived here in 1944 when she made her first of six American films, Days of Glory. Debuting on screen with her in that picture was Gregory Peck.

We (thanks to the internet) have three artifacts that provide a glimpse into Toumanova’s life while she lived in this gorgeous home in Beverly Hills. (You can even take a look inside the place in a recent video tour posted by an L.A. real estate agent. Obviously the interior has been updated numerous times since Toumanova lived here, but you still get the old-time Hollywood feel for the Spanish-style home.) Toumanova was a friend of the ground-breaking American artist Joseph Cornell, and she had an enormous influence on his work. He dedicated numerous of his works to her, and included her image in many of them. He was an innovator in using found/stray objects in his work, and Toumanova, as we see in a letter she wrote to Cornell May 16, 1942, was willing to feed his need for objects. In a typed letter that bears the return address of 525 N. Foothill Boulevard, she writes:
Dear Mr. Cornell: I was so touched by your charming present and letter. I am simply crazy about it! It is really beautiful and very interesting. I am enclosing few (sic) bits from ‘Capriccio’ and I hope you will be able to use them. I am always glad to hear from you, and please do drop me a line or two, as I am permanently here. Thanking you once again, I am, Gratefully yours, Tamara Toumanova.
This letter, available online, reveals quite a bit. Clearly, this is not their first correspondence, and since we know about the beautiful boxes Cornell made under the influence of Toumanova and ballet, we can assume it was one of those boxes that he sent her. We also appreciate the comment that she is now “permanently here,” since it does suggest this remained her home for some time.
In a short letter of August 11, 1942, Toumanova acknowledges yet another gift, this time, specifically, a box: “This little box really looks like a bit of magique!” she writes.
A third letter dated March 11, 1943, this one handwritten on Tamara Toumanova stationary, but without a return address, provides a few more details of the Cornell-Toumanova friendship. He had sent her yet another gift, this time for Christmas, and this time consisting of a poem and, apparently, another box. In this letter she calls herself “your Snow Queen or Princess Aurora,” referring, of course, to two of her most famous roles which Cornell had reflected in his work.
Some, though not all, of Cornell’s boxes are quite like what we know as the art boxes made these days in Palekh and other Russian cities. One, Untitled (for Tamara Toumanova, 1940), can be seen on the website of the Art Institute of Chicago. The description tells us: “Like Hommage à Tamara Toumanova, this box (also known as Feathered Swan) was made for the ballerina Tamara Toumanova. Cornell saw Toumanova perform Swan Lake in 1941, and he subsequently often associated her with this role.”
Hommage à Tamara Toumanova may also be seen on this site, and the description gives us some nice details about the Cornell-Toumanova relationship:
Toumanova was “the subject of more than two dozen boxes, collages, and objects created by Cornell between 1940 and the 1960s. Introduced to Toumanova in 1940, he found in her the living counterpart to the Romantic ballerina Taglioni, as well as a woman with whom he remained deeply enamored until his death.” (Washington, D. C., National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Joseph Cornell: An Exploration of Sources, 1982-83, exh. Cat. By Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, p. 34)
The text continues: “He met Toumanova through Pavel Tchelitchew, a friend and fellow artist on the fringe of Surrealist circles in New York, who designed ballet sets and exchanged gifts with her (see Dickran Tashjian, Joseph Cornell: Gifts of Desire, Miami Beach. Fla., 1992, p. 111). This collage incorporates a photograph of Toumanova with printed images of butterflies, and sea plants and creatures, evoking both an aerial and underwater world. Cornell thereby suggested that Toumanova is a star who may take her place among the constellations, alongside such mythical figures as Andromeda.”

 

 

Dmitry Sverbeev, Yekaterina Semyonova house, Moscow

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This house at 37/1 Arbat is a throwback to another age. It was built in the late 18th century – the oldest remaining building on the Arbat – and, after damage suffered in the fires associated with the Napoleonic War of 1812, it was reconstructed. What we see today is the result of work done in 1834. Quite a few people of note have lived in or visited this home. Today we’re interested primarily in Dmitry Sverbeev (1799-1874), who was born here,  and Yekaterina Semyonova (1786-1849) who lived here for a time from 1834 to 1835.
Sverbeev was a diplomat who loved literature and writers and befriended many of them. He described his own interest as such: “I sometimes love to read a bit and listen to intelligent conversations.” He knew Alexander Pushkin and appeared to be rather close to Nikolai Gogol, which is a little bit like a tiny planet orbiting two super-suns. Sverbeev spent a good deal of time with Gogol abroad and, when the writer found himself in financial difficulties, the friend generously gave him money to keep going on. (Sverbeev in general seems to have been a generous man, often helping out people who were not as well-situated as he. In a stroke that says much about him as a person, he never wrote about any of this in his memoirs.) Sverbeev was not as close to Pushkin as he was to Gogol, although the poet did attend Sverbeev’s salons in Moscow in the 1830s, and they crossed paths in various places for many years.
Interestingly, one story from Sverbeev’s memoirs, My Notes (written in retirement in Switzerland and never intended for publication), involves Pushkin and Semyonova, a famed actress who counted Pushkin among her admirers.
In 1820 when Pushkin was visiting the theatres in Moscow, he attended a performance of Semyonova and caused a bit of a ruckus. I’ll let the Prometheus website finish the tale: “Pushkin brought to the theatre a portrait of the French artisan Louvel, who had recently been executed for assassinating in Paris the Duc de Berry, an heir to the throne. The portrait bore a  sweeping inscription: “A Lesson to Tsars.” After the first act, the portrait was passed around the rows of the theatre. Incidentally, it is precisely Dmitry Sverbeev who tells us about this incident from the life of the poet.”
There is some slight confusion about the actual years Sverbeev spent at this house on the Arbat. At least I don’t find hard evidence of the date he left for good. The plaque on the building facade states he lived here from 1799 to 1825, but I haven’t been able to corroborate that. What I do find is that he was posted to the Russian embassy in Geneva in 1824. What exactly he did in the immediately preceding years, I do not know (he graduated from Moscow University in 1817). I’m guessing that the famous literary salons that he hosted were not begun until he left the Arbat, even though the Prometheus site claims he “organized a circle in his own home on the Arbat.” It is known that his most famous salon gatherings were held when he lived at 10 Strastnoi Boulevard and later at 25 Tverskoi Boulevard (I’ve written about this location previously as one of Osip Mandelstam’s addresses in the early 20th century.)

Semyonova is one of those shooting stars that history tosses up every now and then. She was an uneducated, apparently illiterate peasant who, thanks to her fiery temperament, became one of St. Petersburg’s and Moscow’s most popular actresses of her time. She particularly shone in the romantic dramas and tragedies of Vladislav Ozerov, himself a huge star playwright whose fantastic popularity died utterly within just years. He had the misfortune of being a pre-Pushkinian writer, and was soon wiped from the memory of his countrymen. (You will see Pushkin do a bit of the wiping himself in a long quote offered shortly below.) Nobody has performed Ozerov plays for decades, if not centuries. Be that as it may, four of Semyonova’s first six major roles were in plays by Ozerov (stress on the first syllable) – Oedipus in Athens (1804), Fingal (1805), Dmitry Donskoi (1807) and Polyxena (1809). She also shined in Yakov Knyazhnin’s Rosslav (1805) and several foreign plays: Friedrich Schiller’s Maria Stuart (1809), Corneille’s Ariana (1811) and Racine’s Iphigenie (1815). She debuted in 1802 and joined the company of the Alexandrinsky Theater in 1805.
As I have mentioned, Pushkin was a huge fan and in a long defense of Semyonova (whom some in St. Petersburg compared unfavorably to the popular French actress known as Mademoiselle Georges), he wrote:
Speaking of Russian tragedy you speak of Semyonova, and, perhaps, only about her. Gifted with talent, beauty and a lively, true temperament, she came into being all on her own. Semyonova never had a model. The soulless French actress Georges and the eternally enthusiastic poet [Nikolai] Gnedich could only hint at the secrets of art which she understood as a revelation of her soul. Her performances are always unencumbered, always clear, with noble, lively movement, her voice is clean, smooth, pleasant and often reveals gusts of true inspiration – all these belong to her alone and are not borrowed from anyone. She decorated the imperfect creations of the sad Ozerov, creating the roles of Antigone and Moine; She animated the pedestrian lines of Lobanov; In her mouth we appreciated the Slavonic verses of Katenin, full of strength and fire, but lacking in taste and harmony. In colorful anonymous translations which, unfortunately, today are much too ordinary, we heard nothing but Semyonova. The actress’s genius gave stage life to all these lamentable works translated by allied teams of poets, where each of them individually renounced his participation. Semyonova has no rival; The occasional gossip, brief battles and invented hearsay have ceased; She remains the unanimous queen of the tragic stage.”
Pushkin so admired Semyonova that he mentioned her in his great novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin. Celebrating his young years when he frequented the theatre, Pushkin in Chapter 1, stanza 28, wrote: “There Ozerov shared the involuntary tribute / of people’s tears and applause / with the young Semyonova.”
Depending upon the source, you can read all kinds of probable nonsense about Semyonova; what a hothead she was, how ignorant she was, how lazy she was, how covetous she was… You can always read things like that about popular, to say nothing of great, actors. I think Pushkin’s characterizations beat the hell out of all the snippers, snappers and snipers combined. I just have a feeling (say I with no small sarcasm).
In any case, Semyonova’s career took a downturn in the years 1815 to 1820 and from then on she performed less and with less success. She moved to Moscow in 1827 and the following year married Count Ivan Gagarin, the man who had been her lover and had given her several children. It wasn’t the happiest of arrangements, but it became worse after his death in 1832. At least as late as 1830, Pushkin is said to have attended her performance in an amateur production in Moscow, but it was a far cry from her glory days. By the time Semyonova lived briefly on the Arbat, her acting days were effectively behind her.

 

George Shdanoff home, Los Angeles

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George Shdanoff was born Georgy Zhdanov in Russia  on December 5, 1905. He died some 92 years later on August 14, 1998, while living in this unprepossessing Los Angeles apartment house at 11908 Montana Ave., west of the 405 Freeway. It would appear that he lived in Apt. 307. Shdanoff’s was not an entirely obscure life, but it was not one that accrued great general attention, either. He studied under Konstantin Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theater in the 1920s but chose to slip out of the Soviet Union and set up residence in Berlin before ever making a mark in Moscow. In Berlin, where he acquired the spelling of his name that would follow him for the rest of his life, he became something of a star, or, at least, a hard-working actor. Mel Gordon, in his Stanislavsky in America: An Actor’s Workbook, tells us that Shdanoff was one of the rare displaced Russian actors who regularly found acting jobs in the major German playhouses. He performed the lead role in Igor Stravinsky’s The Tale of a Soldier at Berlin’s Kroll Opera House. In 1928, shortly after Mikhail Chekhov appeared in Berlin, Shdanoff arranged to meet the great actor and the two struck up a friendship that would last until Chekhov’s death in 1955. As anti-Semitism increased in Germany in the late 1920s, Shdannoff’s acting jobs began to grow fewer and farther between. In 1931 he co-directed a pacifist film called No Man’s Land, or, Hell on Earth, although only his directing partner Victor Trivas was mentioned in the credits. Feeling the increasing hostility of fascism, Shdanoff made his way to Paris in 1933 where he wrote a stage adaptation of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment for a Russian-language theater. Before long he followed the general flow of Russian exiles to the U.K. where he once again connected with Chekhov, who had set up a school and theater at Dartington Hall in Devonshire. From here on out, Shdanoff would forever more be associated either with Chekhov himself, who had now become known as Michael Chekhov, or with Chekhov’s method of acting. While in the U.K. Shdanoff began writing a stage adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Possessed that Chekhov’s relocated company would perform in 1939 on Broadway (where it was a flop). The two friends and colleagues relocated to Hollywood in the early 1940s, where they created theater together (see my earlier post about the Chekhov Actor’s Lab productions that were performed in a space on North Las Palmas Ave. in L.A.), and taught. Shdanoff’s acting career did not take off like Chekhov’s, but he, like Chekhov, was a highly respected acting coach to the stars. The imdb website has Shdanoff appearing as an actor in two films -an uncredited turn as a lackey in Otto Preminger’s A Royal Scandal (1945) and Ben Hecht’s Specter of the Rose (1946), where he was credited as George Shadnoff.  I have no idea whether that was a mistake or a pseudonym, although my instincts move me to favor the former explanation.

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Shdanoff quickly established himself as a go-to drama coach in Hollywood. In her memoirs, Thank Heaven, Leslie Caron writes with great affection and in some detail about her relationship with Shdanoff. She appreciated the Russian’s serious approach to her art, something that was not favored everywhere in Tinseltown:
He also transmitted – and this was invaluable for the newcomer that I was – something rare in Hollywood in those years: the notion that acting was a craft that could be taught and ought to be learned. Hollywood had a deep distrust of New York stage actors – ‘too arty’ was the term used for them – a stereotype that survived until very recently.
Caron was so serious about her craft that Shdanoff teasingly nicknamed her “the Professor” for her studiousness.
But the two had another bond – their experience escaping danger in Europe.
Shdanoff and his wife, Elsa [Schreiber], were very kind and protective toward me,” Caron continues. “I was, to them, and to other Hollywood couples, the deserving little French girl who had gone through the war and must be cared for. George’s narrow escapes from Bolshevik Russia and Nazi Berlin and my own wartime experiences were bonds that united us… During my lessons, when George knew that I had just come from a dancing class or from filming, he would offer coffee and Austrian biscuits, served on polished Austrian silver. For ten minutes our hearts were transported to the Europe of his youth.”
When Caron was hired to take the role of Madeline Minot in The Man with the Cloak in 1951, Shdanoff worked with her for a year specifically on this character.
Mel Gordon picks up the tale after the death of Chekhov.
After his time at the Lab, Shdanoff and Schreiber began to coach young film actors at their West Hollywood apartment [not the one pictured here]. The word-of-mouth among colony insiders was heartening and their business steadily grew. Even professionals like Lilli Palmer and Rex Harrison, swore by the couple’s Central European theatrical instincts. (Patricia Neal often bristled when Gary Cooper derided her acting avatar as ‘Doctor Stroganoff.’)
Shdanoff held informal master classes in his mixed Shdanoff-Chekhov method for three decades. Finally, in 1974, after a nostalgic and inspiring Moscow tour, he decided to open a school with apprentice teachers. It was advertised as the George Shdanoff Acting Training Center.”
Shdanoff appears to have registered a business, George Shdanoff’s Los Angeles Theater Company, Inc., on or around May 1979 (another source posits 1978) at the address that we see in the photos here. It was a charitable organization and a private, non-operation organization. A few more details can be had at NonProfitFacts.com. and corporationwiki.com. The best place to go now for information about Shdanoff is the 2002 documentary film, From Russia to Hollywood: The 100-Year Odyssey of Chekhov and Shdanoff (directed by Frederick Keeve). A four+ minute excerpt on YouTube features some well-chosen comments by Leslie Caron.

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Lydia Lopokova house, London

Click on photos to enlarge.

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DSCN7131Most of the world knows her as Lydia Lopokova, although she was born and grew up in St. Petersburg as Lidia Lopukhova. The “pseudonym” (if you’re generous) or the abomination of her real name (if you’re honest) was visited upon us by Sergei Diaghilev. When he hired Lopukhova to join the Ballets Russes in 1910, he resolved that the world would not know what to do with the “Lopukhova” configuration… as though “Lopokova” were a great improvement. But history is what it is (just for the record, Russian folk wisdom calls it a turkey) so we have what we have: Lydia Lopokova (1892-1981) , one of the stars of the Ballets Russes. She never again lived in Russia and, for many years, lived at this house at 46 Gordon Square, Kings Cross, London, with her husband John Maynard Keynes, the famed economist and member of the Bloomsbury group of intellectuals.
Lopokova’s father Vasily was a simple man from the Tambov region of Russia. After moving to St. Petersburg he accepted a job as a ticket taker at the Alexandrinsky Theater. But there must have been something balletic in his genes – or in those of his wife, Rosalia Constanza Karlovna Douglas. In any case, we are told that Rosalia loved the ballet. Russian Wikipedia notes that all six of the Lopukhov children became dancers, with Lydia’s oldest brother Fyodor (1886-1973) becoming an innovative choreographer at the Mariinsky Theater, after having danced at that storied venue from 1905 to 1922. Another brother Andrei (1898-1947) was a leading character dancer at the Mariinsky from 1916 to 1945. A sister Yevgenia (1884-1943) was a popular dancer in the variety theater and then began performing operetta after she quit dancing in the 1920s. These three siblings made major contributions to Russian/Soviet ballet and theater during their lives.
Lopokova began her ballet training in early childhood at the Imperial Ballet School, from which she graduated in 1909 (some sources say 1910). She may or may not have performed from time to time on the stage of the Mariinsky when still young, but it was in 1910 that she accepted an offer from Diaghilev to join the Ballets Russes (the union didn’t last long, although she rejoined the company in 1916 when she paired with Vaclav Nijinsky).
Again, sources split on the details of her first performing tour abroad. One Russian source tells us that she toured the United States with her brother Fyodor and Anna Pavlova from 1907-1910. Many other sources, remaining silent about those dates, put Lopokova in the United States from 1912 to 1916, where she often performed on Broadway stages. The Spartacus Educational website tells us that during that period she was drawing a salary of ₤16,000 per month. Not too shabby.

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Much has been written about Lopokova’s active and sometimes unorthodox love life; all you need do is Google it if you’re interested. (Igor Stravinsky was just one of many dalliances.) But it was her encounter with Keynes that appears to have given her emotional life a center. He fawned over her in Diaghilev’s 1921  production of Sleeping Beauty (renamed Sleeping Princess because, Diaghilev claimed, “I have no beauties in my company”), attending the theater night after night and lavishing her with attention. She married Keynes in 1925 and their union was strong, despite much small-minded carping from his famous Bloomsbury friends. (They were apparently shocked to see their friend Keynes move from male lovers to a woman. If you need information on Keynes’ sexual proclivities, an article in the Independent provides plenty.) When Keynes fell seriously ill in 1937, Lopokova left the public eye entirely in order to devote all her time to him. She essentially acted as his caretaker for the last nine years of his life. Much of the time the two spent together from 1921 until 1946 would have been at the home pictured here. (They first met in 1918 during one of the Ballets Russes tours in London.)
Judith Mackrell, the author of the Lopokova biography Bloomsbury Ballerina, described Lopokova’s appearance at Gordon Square in an article she wrote for The Guardian in 2008.
By the spring of 1923, only weeks after they became lovers, Keynes installed Lopokova in a flat in Gordon Square, just a few doors away from his own house. The move put her at the heart of Bloomsbury, as she occupied rooms below Vanessa Bell at number 50 [see the final photo below] and joined in the collective meals and parties held at number 46. A newcomer had never been so forcibly inserted into the circle’s daily life, and it didn’t take long for Bloomsbury to close ranks against her.”
One of Lopokova’s early appreciators and later one of her biggest detractors also lived right here on Gordon Square. That would have been Virginia Woolf, who, over the years, became quite catty about Lopokova. According to Mackrell, Woolf once fumed, “You cannot argue solidly in her presence. She has no head piece.” (The comment is quoted in an article Mackrell wrote for The Guardian in 2008.) Interestingly, it doesn’t appear that Lopokova ever cared. She seems to have been a woman of strong fortitude; she didn’t let little things bother her.
Lopokova,” writes Mackrell in The Guardian, “was unlike any Russian ballerina that London had seen. A 27-year-old former child dancer with the Russian Imperial Ballet who had enjoyed an itinerant career, including a starring spell in Broadway musicals, she was an entirely different type from Diaghilev’s prewar ballerinas. While Anna Pavlova and Tamara Karsavina had set the mould with their darkly classical beauty, Lopokova was a witty soubrette, her performances on stage less a refinement of pure technique than the product of a vivid, versatile intelligence and a fizzing personality. As Clive Bell argued in a long, theoretical essay, Lopokova was the embodiment of the new modernist ballet.”
Lopokova left the ballet after performing twice in Coppélia at the Royal Opera House in 1933. Despite a heavy Russian accent, she played several dramatic roles on the English stage – Shakespeare, Ibsen and Moliere – although her performing life ended abruptly when Keynes fell ill.
Rupert Christiansen, in a review of Mackrell’s Bloomsbury Ballerina, wrote: “Although some found her irritating, nobody thought her faux. Lydia Lopokova was the real thing, possessed of what Virginia Woolf described as ‘the genius of personality’. […]  Through her 35 years of widowhood, she became increasingly reclusive, living like a peasant babushka at Tilton in Sussex, the farmhouse she and Keynes had made their home, just over the hill from Bloomsbury’s retreat at Charleston. She showed no resentment and no desire to dwell on past glories, but faded into her dotage without complaint, ‘grandly indifferent to what anyone else thought of her’, her ‘genius of personality’ undimmed to the last.”

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