Click on photos to enlarge.
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.”