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There are surely 1001 tales I could tell about Russian writers, musicians, painters, actors, directors, and architects at the famed Hotel D’Europe in St. Petersburg. Who hasn’t stayed here at one time or another? And even if they didn’t stay here, who only hasn’t dined in the famed dining room on the top floor? Even I have done that. It wasn’t much of a restaurant when I was there in 1979, but it beat the hell out of almost all the rest of the slop joints in town at that time. I have a hunch that these days the restaurant is back in favor as a St. Petersburg hotspot. I’ll never know that for a fact, however, because I won’t be going back there again.
Today we go way-way back in the time machine to the late 1920s. Waiting to greet us are two of the most celebrated writers of the time – the poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky and the playwright Nikolai Erdman. Our conduit, our gondolier on the time machine taking us back, is Valentin Pluchek, then a young actor in the company of the Meyerhold Theater. But before we get all the way back to the 1920s, let’s jump ahead almost 60 years exactly to when you will find me sitting in Pluchek’s office in the Satire Theater in Moscow. The date is October 3. The year is 1988. One of the first things I notice about Pluchek, the theater’s artistic director, is how much he looks like his cousin Peter Brook. There is no mirror image there, but the resemblance cannot be denied. I had only just recently heard about that familial connection and it didn’t take more than a quick look to realize it was true. My understanding is that the two directors got together privately on rare occasion, but neither of them ever made a big deal about it. That’s not what Pluchek and I are talking about today, however. I am there to pick his brain about Nikolai Erdman. I’m starting my work on my PhD dissertation about Erdman, and I want to hear anything and everything I can from anyone who ever crossed paths with him. Pluchek, who was 79 at the time, was one of the first people to respond to my queries. I’ve always been grateful to him for that. He could have brushed off a kid from the States, but he didn’t. He responded immediately to my request for an interview, and he spent a good deal of time with me. I took that as a sign of his respect for Erdman. He was happy to contribute to a fuller picture of the writer’s life and work. Pluchek not only told some good anecdotes (one follows soon), but he shared some wonderful insights into Erdman’s writing. I published the bulk of my interview with Pluchek in the Russian periodical Contemporary Drama in the late 1990s. [The bibliographical information for those who might want to track it down: “Vspominaya Erdmana,” Sovremennaya dramaturgiya, No. 1 (1997), 227-242.] Pluchek also pulled a few rare items out of his archive and presented them to me as gifts – a program and a poster from the short-lived production he did of Erdman’s The Suicide in 1982. It lasted for just six performances before it was banned.
My favorite story of all those Pluchek told that day concerned Erdman and Mayakovsky. It involved an incident that took place during the Meyerhold Theater’s tour of Leningrad where, among other things, they performed the premiere of Mayakovsky’s newest play, The Bedbug. Here is the way the story made it into my book, Silence’s Roar: The Life and Drama of Nikolai Erdman. Pluchek, who performed in Meyerhold’s production of The Bedbug, is the de facto narrator here, although I didn’t put his words into quotes in the book:
“When the performance had ended, the troupe waited in vain for the author to come out and accept the plaudits of the crowd. Later, when they returned to the hotel they found Mayakovsky and Erdman engrossed in a game of billiards. Asked why he hadn’t come to the performance, Mayakovsky replied, ‘Because I need the money. And right now I’m going to whip this fop, here. I need money more than I do fame.'” The hotel in question was the Hotel D’Europe, where Mayakovsky had put up for the duration of the Meyerhold Theater’s performances in Leningrad.
But this was not the only time that the Hotel D’Europe played a role in the Erdman-Mayakovsky relationship. I again quote from my book:
“On April 13, , the eve of Mayakovsky’s suicide in Moscow, Erdman read The Suicide to a small group of actors and officials of the Moscow Art Theater in a room at the Yevropeiskaya Hotel in Leningrad. In a twist of fate that now rings with almost mystical overtones, this reading took place in the very room that Mayakovsky had occupied on his last trip to Leningrad.”
Could that have been the same night that Mayakovsky “whipped that fop” Erdman at a game of billiards?
The Hotel D’Europe, as a plaque on the wall informs us, was designed by architect Ludwig Frantsevich Fontana in the 1870s and reconstructed by the architect Fyodor Lidval (aka Johan Fredrick Lidvall) between 1907 and 1914. It is located at 1 Mikhailovskaya Street, right between Nevsky Prospect and the famous St. Petersburg monument to Alexander Pushkin.