Pierrot in Hollywood: Alexander Vertinsky and Anna Sten

Vertinsky.jpg

I thought I’d follow up my post on Igor Severyanin by turning the spotlight on another big personality, who is often placed  “on the same bill” as the Ego-Futurist, if only in hindsight. Severyanin never actually met the popular poet and singer Alexander Vertinsky (1889-1957), although the latter set a number of Severyanin’s “poezas” to music. In fact, Severyanin detested the decadent “clown.” (The word isn’t slander; Vertinsky did indeed strut the boards as Pierrot.) One of the causes of this enmity was surely a sense of competition: Vertinsky rose to fame just as Severyanin’s star was fading, and he did so by imitating the slightly older poet’s mannerisms. In any case, as far as many of their contemporaries were concerned, the two were cut from the same clownish cloth.

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In his memoir The Grass of Oblivion (1967), the Soviet author Valentin Katayev recalls a conversation with Ivan Bunin, the future Nobel laureate, that occurred in Odessa during the Civil War. Bunin was to debut one of his short stories before an audience; flyers had been posted all around the city. But on the night of the reading, no one showed up. The great author lamented: “The hall would be packed, of course, for Igor Severyanin, or Vertinsky!” That was the typical, though not universal, attitude of the cultural elite. It is expressed with special vitriol in Passport to Paris (1955), the memoir of the Russian-American composer Vernon Duke (born Vladimir Dukelsky, 1903-1969): “Severyanin had his low-brow apostle in the person of Alexander Vertinsky (at this writing still flourishing in Moscow), who got himself up as Pierrot and mumbled Frenchified inanities to strangely gypsylike tunes — a weird but eminently successful combination.” Perhaps Duke was harsher on Vertinsky because, unlike Severyanin, the “low-brow apostle” had impinged on the composer’s own turf, popular music. But he was also right: Vertinsky wasn’t nearly as good a poet.

Yet Vertinsky’s verse, and certainly his voice, spoke directly to the experiences and aspirations of countless Russians in his time. In his Handbook of Russian Literature, Victor Terras makes the case:

Despite the pretended decadence of the style and contents, Vertinsky’s art stands very far from the vulgarized world of the trivial cabaret and has much more in common with the artistic search of expressionists like Meierkhold, or with the refined experiments produced in the same direction in the Weimar Republic. Vertinsky’s tragicomic persona, in a bizarre way resembling that of Charlie Chaplin, was poignantly moving and cast an enormous spell over his audience. During his emigration period (1919-43) he was constantly on tour giving concerts in different European countries and his profoundly nostalgic art enjoyed invariable success. … [I]n his best achievements, Vertinsky markedly surpasses the playful level; the game becomes serious and the status of the émigré, replete with miseries, acquires the dimension of tragedy.

And it is one of Vertinsky’s émigré poems that I would like to share — a poem that was written in Hollywood, where I make my home, and was published in the first issue of The Land of Columbus, a journal I unearthed some years ago. On his visit to Hollywood in 1934-35, Vertinsky performed to packed audiences, hobnobbed with Samuel Goldwyn, and, reportedly, had an affair with Marlene Dietrich. But he spent most of his time socializing with the “Russian colony,” about which he writes movingly in his memoir The Road Is Long. He accords special attention to the actress Anna Sten (born Anna Petrovna Fesak, 1908-1993), whose failure to become a star offers a particularly glamorous example of the general frustrations of exile:

Among the Russian actresses, Anna Stan was particularly prominent. She played Katyusha Maslova in Tolstoy’s Resurrection and Nana in the eponymous film based on Zola’s novel. But later her relationship with the management deteriorated, and she left the screen. Great sums of money were spent on her “film education.” For three years she took lessons in English and singing. Hundreds of thousands of dollars went into advertising her. But she did not live up to their great hopes, and so they ceased to speak of her.

We Live Again.jpg

Those failed English lessons inspired a jab from another famous songwriter, Cole Porter: “When Sam Goldwyn can with great conviction / Instruct Anna Sten in diction / Then Anna shows / Anything goes.” The joke is that Goldwyn was himself a tongue-tied foreigner. Funny, but cruel. By contrast, the poem Vertinsky dedicated to Sten is deeply empathetic.

To an Actress

You’re a prince left unloved in a Hans Christian Andersen tale;
the Ice-Maiden keeps your heart frozen inside a blue glacier —
your young heart, which has not yet been touched by affection at all,
is now stone. Yes, a sapphire. Granite that’s hard beyond measure.

Have you loved in a dream? Have you sailed to Bermuda in springtime?
Have you heard strains of Bach from an organ inside an old church?
Ah, what kind of love can these awful vulgarians speak of?
Have they earned any love, these boors that seek only revenge?

You have never known love? Ah, but love — it is simply surrender.
Love means throwing yourself at your bitterest enemy’s feet;
yes, it is love that first singed the wings of the Angels —
yes, it is love that caused them to fall from the Light!

My one friend on earth, you don’t look like a woman imprisoned.
The stage and the fame and the fireworks — isn’t it fun?
You have never known love? Ah, but that in itself is a blessing!
To smile from the screen into darkness at no one — no one.

October 1934

Although the poem is, as usual, clumsy and rather treacly, to my mind it does acquire “the dimension of tragedy.” But one must really hear Vertinsky in order to appreciate him. Here is a recording of a song he helped popularize, Boris Fomin and Konstantin Podrevsky’s “The Road Is Long” (which lent its name to Vertinsky’s memoir).

And if the melody sounds familiar, perhaps you recognize it as “Those Were the Days,” a hit from 1968, recorded by Mary Hopkin and produced by Paul McCartney.


Актрисе

Вы покинутый принц золотой андерсеновской сказки –
В голубых ледниках “Дева льдов” Ваше сердце хранит,
Ваше юное сердце, ещё не познавшее ласки,
Превращённое в камень. В сапфир. В тёмно-синий гранит.

Вы влюблялись во сне? Вы видали весну на Бермуде?
Вы слыхали, как Баха играет в соборе орган?
О какой там любви говорят эти страшные люди?
И за что их любить, этих мстительных злых обезьян!

Вы не знали любви? Но любовь – это просто бессилье.
Вы сдаётесь на милость того, кто заведомый враг
И, конечно, любовь опалила у Ангелов крылья,
И, конечно, любовь их низвергла из Света во Мрак!

Мой единственный друг, Вы на пленниц совсем не похожи.
Разве мало Вам сцены и славы бенгальских огней?
Вы не знали любви? Но ведь в этом же счастие тоже!
Улыбаться с экрана во тьму никому – никому из людей.

Октябрь 1934

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4 thoughts on “Pierrot in Hollywood: Alexander Vertinsky and Anna Sten

    1. Thanks very much, Nina! That’s kind of you to say! And yes, you’re absolutely right; as the link I provided to “Those Were the Days” makes clear, “The Road Is Long” was composed by Boris Fomin, with lyrics by Konstantin Podrevsky. (I should have written “of a song he helped popularize”; that’s fair to say, as Vertinsky was one of the first to record it.) I try to give credit to songwriters in all my posts (see Yadov’s “Bublichki”) — theirs is an art I value highly. I’m writing this across the street from my alma mater, Fairfax High School in LA, and you can bet your bottom dollar I’d credit Elvis’s and Big Mama Thornton’s famous “(You Ain’t Nothin’ but a) Hound Dog” to Jerry Lieber (Fairfax, Class of 1950) and Mike Stoller!

      I’ve just updated the post to read: Here is a recording of a song he helped popularize, Boris Fomin and Konstantin Podrevsky’s “The Road Is Long” (which lent its name to Vertinsky’s memoir). With Wikipedia links and all! Ain’t the internet grand?

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