the storycurator
stories about real life and creativity

a blog by jan doets

Written: Mousinka Silla-Novickaya 1916 Moskwa

Sergei Prokofiev mentioned in his diaries that Moussia had been in theatre school in Russia under Stanislavski’s pupil Meyerhold and was familiar with the ideas of Commedia dell’arte and Carlo Gozzi. He was impressed by her professional knowledge and views. He took her advice during  the year preceding the premiere of the opera The Love for three Oranges in Chicago (30 December 1921, see article 1 in this series) and she sat next to him during the final rehearsals. The opera is based on the Italian play L’amore delle tre melarance by Gozzi. Earlier that year, in Los Angeles, he had been impressed by a talk given by her, in impeccable French, on the subject of Molière.

At the time that Moussia started her acting lessons with Vsevolod Meyerhold, he worked in St. Petersburg, so she must have moved there and it was probably in that city that she met Vladimir Baranovsky, who also lived and worked there. Some circumstantial evidence suggests that she also had contacts with, or maybe even had lessons at, the influential Moscow Academic Art Theatre (MCHAT) of Constantin Stanislavski. On several of her pictures of later years she wrote In memory of Moscow. Moreover, she knew some of the troupe’s most prominent members, like Vera Baranovskaya, who later also became famous as a film actress. Vera was the sister of Moussia’s first husband Vladimir Baranovsky. She may also have known Stanislavski’s wife Marija Lilina. In her personal photo collection she kept a beautiful photo of Marija Lilina (1866-1943) on the back of which she wrote a note in Russian that in 1937 Lilina  played Countess Vronskaya in a stage adaptation of Tolstoi’s Anna Karenina, adding that Marija had created that role herself. At the time, not many people in the West knew about Marija Lilina.

Moussia’s beloved brother Julian, two years her junior, had ambitions of his own:

These pictures have been taken in 1916, when he was 19 years old. The one on  the left carries the following caption in Russian :

Pilot Julian Sila-Nowicki, of the 18th Air Squadron.

He wears a military cap with a small aviation emblem. On the right, he wears the same coat but with an astrakhan cap to match the collar. More about Julian in later articles.

1915, Moussia at the age of 20

Marija Lilina, in her role of Countess Vronskaya, 1937

(to be continued)

Print Friendly

In the two preceding articles, reference has been made to a double family wedding on 13th June, 1905 in Kazimierz Dolny in Poland, near to Wylagi, the estate and country house of the Sila-Nowicki family. On that day, Moussia’s aunts Zofia and Stanislawa married Wladyslaw and Ignacy Dzierzynski; we already saw a picture taken on that occasion of Moussia with the dog Hector. André Dzierzynski has given me permission to publish the above, very private picture. It is dear to his heart because Ignacy and Stanislawa, Moussia’s favorite aunt, are his grandparents. It was taken at Wylagi, after the wedding in the church, just outside the house.

From the left, sitting:  Jozefina, wife of Wiktor-Franciszek, the formidable woman who brought up four children of his previous marriage and five of their own, at the age of 64. Fondly leaning against her is Moussia’s brother Julian, at the age of 8. We will hear more of him in later articles. In the centre: the pater familias Wiktor-Franciszek at the age of 92 (he died at 97). Next to him are Wladyslaw Dzierzynski at the age of 24 and his wife Zofia, 33.  At Zofia’s feet sits Maria (“Moussia”), aged 10. Standing in the centre is Ignacy Dzierzynski, aged 26 with his wife Stanislawa, 31 and standing next to her is the parish priest of the Fara Church in Kazimierz Dolny. The couple on the right of Ignacy Dzierzynski are the local doctor with his wife, witnesses at the wedding. The others are the local people working in the house. Please note the child at the feet of Jozefina. She loved children of others as her own. Since Moussia  and Julian lived in Moscow at that time, they must have been taken to the wedding by Zofia and Wladyslaw, who worked in Moscow.

The country house (in Polish, it is called a dwor) at Wylagi is shown below in a picture taken in 1944 through a military fence, following an occupation of the house by the Red Army. Please note the two attic windows in the centre. According to the family history, the notorious Felix Dzierzynski, brother of Wladyslaw and Ignacy, who was considered a renegade and no longer welcome in the family, came to the house to seek refuge shortly after the wedding, with the Tsarist police at his heels. He had been addressing a meeting of protesting workers in nearby Pulawy. The good-hearted Jozefina persuaded her husband to hide him in the attic for a short time. Since then, there was a family saying that their saintly Jozefina had saved the Bolshevik revolution.

Print Friendly

 

Little is known about Moussia’s years as a child and as a teenager, except that she grew up in Moscow, where all her relatives lived. During her adolescence, her family moved to Saint Petersburg because her father, Colonel Wiktor Sila-Nowicki, was assigned to the Imperial Court. A painter and art lover, he became aide-de-camp to the cultured Grand-Duke Constantine, grandson of Czar Nicolas I of Russia, and a poet, playwright and translator of Goethe, Schiller and Shakespeare. Having been baptized a Roman Catholic, the rank of Colonel was the highest rank Wiktor could attain. According to the rules of that period, only officers of the Orthodox faith could be become generals. As we shall see later, this rule was dropped by the Provisional Government of Alexander Kerensky in 1917.

The picture above, of Moussia at the age of ten years, together with the dog Hector, was taken on June 5, 1905 during the double wedding in Kazimierz Dolny of  her aunts Zofia and Stanislawa with Wladyslaw and Ignacy Dzierzynski, mentioned in the previous article.

1899                                                                    1913

On the left: four-year-old Moussia with her mother, Anna Satina,  a former actress. It is not known anymore who the boy is; the album caption says that he is called  Sergei. He may have been her son from an earlier relationship. The photographer:  Dyagovchenko successor to K. Fisher,  Moscow Kuznecki Bridge 11

Moussia’s father is shown on the right at the age of 59, after he and Anna had separated. On the following picture taken by the photographer  I. Antonopulo in Odessa, we can admire Anna the actress. It seems the picture has been taken not very long before the one of 1899.

Print Friendly

Maria Sila-Nowicki (“Moussia”) was born 25 January 1895 in Moscow into an ancient hereditary Polish nobility who lived for centuries in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, country in Union with Poland since 1386. After the partition of  Poland at the end of the eighteenth century, the whole Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Central/Eastern Poland  was incorporated into the Russian Empire. The Nowicki family who had estates in the district of Lepel  (province of Vitebsk, now Belarus), lost it all after Napoleon’s  army passed through in 1812 and devastated the region. Maria’s family were like many Polish families who saw their survival in the professions or in the Russian Imperial Military service. They took university degrees in medicine, law or in technical fields. Since a decree of Catherine II ‘The Great’, these fields  were reserved for the hereditary nobility.

The grandfather of Moussia, Wiktor-Franciszek Sila-Nowicki (1813-1910), obtained in 1882 a decree from the Imperial Heraldry to return to the full use of the name Sila-Nowicki, lost in the 100 years before. This decree was extended to his wife and all his children and descendants  and required a proven genealogy going back to the late sixteenth century.

Wiktor, who had worked for the administration of the Imperial   Estates,  worked later in the Orel  and  Novgorod  district government but  remained a resident of Moscow. Later,  he became a director of a newly built railway system. This earned him two retirement pensions later in life. In 1895 he bought a small  estate, Wylagi in the parish of Kazimierz Dolny, province of Lublin, south-east of Warsaw in Poland.

In 1849, Wiktor married Julia, Baroness Witte von Wittenheim (1823- 1855) of a Baltic family. She died young, probably in childbirth of her fourth son Mieczyslaw who was to die soon thereafter. A Lutheran, she was buried in the Lutheran cemetary in Moscow. Wiktor was left with four small boys who had all been baptized Roman Catholics. In 1859 he married Jozefina Dowgiallo (1841-1908), from an ancient Lithuanian family. Jozefina was 28 years younger than Wiktor and was a most loving step-mother for his small sons, whom she brought up together with the five children she would have by Wiktor.The people on the picture above, taken in Moscow in 1878, are all children of Wiktor-Franciszek with Julia and Jozefina. All spoke fluent Polish in addition to Russian.

Moussia’s father Wiktor (1854-1917), then not yet married, is seated on the right, with his half-sister and godchild Stanislawa on his knee (1874 – died at Wylagi in 1952). Standing to the right is Julian who became a doctor of medicine (1861-1919). Standing in the middle is Wladyslaw (1850 – ?), a doctor of medicine. He was married to Eugenia Baranovsky, aunt of Moussia’s first husband Vladimir Baranovsky.The brother who sits behind a small table is Emanuel (1852-1917) who was Governor of Moscow in the rank of general during the february 1917 Revolution. The girl on the right is Jozefa (1867- died 1941 at Wylagi) and the girl sitting on the left is Zofia (1872 – died 1943). At the far left, standing : Helena, who remained unmarried (1859, Nowgorod -1901, Wylagi). Not shown is Alexander, who was born in 1878, the year the picture was taken, who died in 1941. He became a lawyer, having graduated from the University of Moscow, as had his brother Wladyslav, who became a doctor of medicine.

Alexander was the father of the famous Polish lawyer Wladyslaw Sila-Nowicki (1913-1994), Moussia’s full cousin, the intrepid lawyer of the Polish trade union Solidarnosc, who was sentenced in Poland by the communists to five death sentences and saved by a miracle (his eight companions were executed), but was  jailed for 10 years (released in 1956).

This family, like so many similar families in the same period, was torn apart by the Russian Revolution and again by the Second World War. Fate even drew some of them into different camps, as we will see later also for the Baranovsky family.

Emanuel and Wiktor were killed in the turbulence of the Russian revolution. So were two of the three sons of Julian. On 13 June 1905, Zofia and Stanislawa, in a double ceremony attended by Moussia then 10 years old  and her brother Julian of eight years, married in Kazimierz Dolny, Wladyslaw and Ignacy Dzierzynski, two brothers of the man already considered to be the renegade of the family: Felix, later the first chief of the Cheka, the feared Soviet secret police. Zofia’s husband Wladyslav Dzierzynski  became a famous neurologist. He was killed in Lodz, Poland by the Gestapo in 1942. Zofia herself died in a gulag near Alma Ata in Kazakhstan in 1943. Stanislawa’s husband Ignacy Dzierzynski (1879-1953) graduated with distinction in mathematics, physics, natural history and geography at Moscow University in 1904, became a teacher in Warsaw and later worked in independent Poland in the Ministry of Education. He died in Wylagi in 1953. Stanislawa and Ignacy had a daughter Wanda Jozefa (1906- 1914) and a son Olgierd Emanuel (1910 in Warsaw – 1995 in England).

Moussia’s first cousin Olgierd married Julia Anna Misterko (1910-1992 in Siena, Tuscany, Italy) in Kazimiersz Dolny and fought with General Sikorski’s Polish Army during the Second World war. After the war, he was stripped of his Polish nationality and inheritance by the communists and so was his only son, Andrzej Leszek Dzierzynski born 3 December 1936 in Warsaw. Andrzej is an artist painter, known  as André Dzierzynski, who lives in England and Tuscany.

André  Dzierzynski is the person who, very generously, made all this genealogical information available to me, including the family picture. He paints the landscapes of Tuscany in Italy  and the Provence in France, using the ancient technique of egg-tempera (http://dzierzynski.com/). He has also been a rich source of information to me about his aunt Moussia, whom he has known personally.

Print Friendly

Toronto World 3, January 1918                Poverty Bay Herald (NZ), 20 February 1918

The Russian couple Vladimir Baranovsky and his wife Maria, née Sila-Nowicki, arrived in San Francisco  3 january 1918 on the ss Ecuador of the Pacific Mail Steamship Co. from Japan. They had fled from Russia via Siberia and Vladivostok, after escaping from the Bolsheviks in the beginning of November 1917, only a few days after the second revolution that year.

Recap. In my previous article on Maria Viktorovna Sila-Nowicki, I reported that she and Prokofiev met in Los Angeles around Christmas 1920. Prokofiev called her Baranovskaya in his diaries, after a while he called her Frou-Frou because he was fond of her and found her an impressive personality, but she could not convince him to marry her. It was Lina Codina whom he married. After Maria’s marriage to Alexander Borovsky, the two couples became close friends and their children grew up together, until the return of the Prokofievs to Russia in 1935.

Natasha Borovsky was in touch with Lina Prokofiev after her departure from Russia in 1974, having suffered in a labour camp for eight years years.

She also re-established contact with Lina’s sons Sviatoslav and Oleg, her friends during the first eleven years of her life.

After Prokofiev had met Maria for the first time, he noted in his diaries the gossip he had heard: “She is twenty-eight, but looks younger, comes from a good family and has had several husbands. For some time she has lived in Paris, and then came to study with Meyerhold. The combination of these experiences has given her the stamp of refinement. The Baranovskys and the Rumanovs had met in San Francisco and had become friends, whereupon the gentlemen swapped partners, Rumanov and Baranovskaya going to New York while Ariadna and her man – I am not sure whether it was Baranovsky or by this time someone else – stayed by the Pacific. Baranovsky has in any case disappeared into the blue yonder, and the remaining trio live together in perfect harmony and friendship. Whether Rumanov divides his attention between the two women or whether there is some other combination I do not know, but he is easy to get along with, cultivated and obliging.”

As his friendship with her deepened, she took him fully into her confidence and he had to simplify his understanding. He had guessed correctly that she was younger, she had only just become 26, she had only been married to Vladimir Baranovsky but her marriage was in trouble,  and she knew Kerensky, the leader of the Provisional Government between the two revolutions of 1917: “She knows Kerensky well, he had been married to one of her cousins and during this time in power had divorced his wife in order to marry another cousin. Her family, monarchist to a man, were very hostile to him, but Baranovskaya herself was a friend and told me many interesting things about his daily family life. She said he was a hysteric, and this, in her opinion, was the source of both his strength and his weakness. We then talked of her husband.”

One year later, in January 1922 in New York, when she talked of marriage, she told him that the husband from whom she had separated two years ago had died in Mexico the year before and she had the documents to prove it.

Who was this Maria Viktorovna, where did she come from, who was her husband Vladimir Baranovsky with whom she had fled Russia in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution?  How were they related to Alexander Kerensky?

Since my three introductory articles, I came into contact with a wonderful family in the United States, relatives of Vladimir Baranovsky’s second wife, who gave me a documented insight into his background and details about the flight of the couple from Russia.

Vladimir Baranovsky did not die in Mexico, but re-surfaced in San Francisco after Maria had moved to Los Angeles, following their separation. In fact the story is a bit more complicated than that, but I will try to unravel that in the course of my following articles.

This unexpected windfall of information is the reason why I had to put the sequel on hold for two weeks. I am now able to continue. The following articles will deal with the family background of Maria, whose stagename was Moussia, the name under which she would be known to all until her death in 1959. For that purpose, I can draw on Moussia’s own archives, which now reside partly with her daughter’s husband Stuart Dodds in California and partly with Karin Antonini, whom Giacomo Antonini married after the death of Moussia. Thereafter, I’ll broaden the story to include the flight of Moussia and Vladimir from Russia in 1917. And what happened thereafter.

 

Print Friendly

 

This beautiful woman was introduced to Sergey Prokofiev in Los Angeles on  December 29, 1920 in the house of a mutual friend, Ariadna Rumanova née Nikolskaya, an accomplished pianist and composer. He noted in his diary: “and then a new face appeared, Baranovskaya, a former student of Meyerhold, a beautiful woman who suffered not at all by comparison with Ariadna… Baranovskaya I very much took to.”

Baranovskaya was no other than Maria Viktorovna Sila-Nowicki, in a later stage of her life the mother of Natasha Borovsky. On the top right-hand corner in Russian: In memory of Moscow.

In 2002, Sviatoslav Prokofiev sent Natasha  his transcription of his father’s hand-written diaries, which added much to her knowledge of her mother’s early years. However, a series of strokes prevented her from making an English translation of the comments therein concerning her mother. Therefore, from time to time, I will follow the excellent English translation by Anthony Phillips of Prokofiev’s Diaries 1907-1933, published by Faber and Faber in the United Kingdom by permission of the Sergey Prokofiev Estate.

Prokofiev saw a lot of Baranovskaya during the three weeks that followed, almost always in the company of others, and writes about her in his diaries in a witty, literary style. There were many parties around the New Year so there were many opportunities to meet her, most of which were arranged by  Baranovskaya herself.

“Rumanova and Baranovskaya, glamourous and décolletées, were looking extremely beautiful, and did their best to stay near me”…

At another party, that same evening, there was dancing: “I had never danced myself,  and although I had never danced in America and did not know any of the American dances, I asked Baranovskaya to teach me, which she did very willingly and very successfully. “Is that all I have to do?” I asked, having easily mastered the steps. “Yes, but you need to be a bit more immoral,” she said. “You have to press your legs right up against your partner, as high and as hard as you can.”

During the following days he found out more information about her in the form of gossip by others and from her own accounts. He was quite impressed by her beauty, her composure and knowledge of the theatre (she has studied with Meyerhold in St. Petersburg). One evening he sat in on a lecture she gave in impeccable French on Molière, and on another occasion they sat à deux at table with the Rumanovs when “she showed herself to have more depths than I had previously realised. A terrible disease, kidney tuberculosis, had befallen her a year or two ago, and yet her whole attitude to the illness and her serene indifference to its outcome had the effect both of astonishing me and increasing the tenderness of my regard for her.”

In the afternoon of her 26th birthday [Russian calendar], Baranovskaya came to see Prokofiev, “to look at Three Oranges. Some of the text of the libretto I read to her, for some of it I explained the context, and played the music. As someone familiar with commedia dell’arte and the ideas of Gozzi and Meyerhold, Baranovskaya identified strongly with the opera and was terribly excited by it. Her eyes sparkled and her cheeks flushed. She was reluctant to leave, but I was obliged to go …[to another appointment].”

On January 16: “Baranovskaya came to see me in the afternoon and I played and narrated to her the third and fourth acts of Three Oranges, as well as some excerpts from Fiery Angel. This sent her once again into ecstasies, as did my photograph, which I presented to her with some verses. “These verses will stay with me until my dying day,” she said”

Prokofiev left by train to Chicago and writes to Baranovskaya, who he now calls Frou-Frou and he gets letters back in a refined style but ever more with a touch of love.

He then leaves for France and is back in October, where he meets Frou-Frou in New York.  She has put on some weight but “is still the sensitive and vital person she has always been”. On October 28, he leaves for Chicago where the rehearsals for the premier of Three Oranges are in full swing. Frou-Frou arrives on December 17. She sits next to him during rehearsals and gives good advice. She is again unwell with kidney trouble and has to stay in bed. She recovers in time for attending the general rehearsal on the 29th and the premiere on the 30th December 1921.

A few weeks later he meets her in New York, she is so ill that she has to check into a clinic for a week. He visits Baranovskaya.

“Frou-frou’s conversations gradually took an increasingly candid and specific direction. Our intercourse was conducted urbanely, with taste and a surface veneer of half-joking irony, but the underlying meaning was undoubtedly serious. Her idea was that I should marry her. Apparently the husband from whom she had separated two years ago had died in Mexico and she had the documents to prove it. ‘I am good-looking, quite presentable, why should I not be your wife?’ And certainly, if one was looking for one it would be a hard task to find a better wife than Baranovskaya, but those very qualities of refinement and delicacy and aesthetic discrimination I so valued in her seemed to have suppressed the woman in her. As such she aroused no feelings in me whatsoever… Accordingly, I imparted to Frou-frou in the bantering tone we habitually adopted just how misconceived such a step would prove to be, and the subject was not raised again even though I continued to see her every day.”

On 25 January 1922, Prokoviev left for France by the Dutch ship Noordam. Baranovskaya was taken back to California and the sunshine, to recover.

 

Print Friendly

 

Alexander Borovsky (Mitau, Latvia 18.3.1889 – Waban, Mass., USA, 27.4.1968) is Natasha Borovsky’s father. She has written a beautiful poem in his memory, published in the French part of this blog.

He was a famous concert pianist and teacher. Child prodigy under the guidance of his mother, he joined the St. Petersburg Conservatory at a young age and was only 26 when he started to give master classes in Moscow. He also graduated in law, from St. Petersburg University. He left Russia in 1921.

During his first three seasons in France he gave scores of concerts and recitals with great success. After his début at Carnegie Hall in 1923, he toured Russia, Europe and South America during the nineteen twenties and thirties. At the outbreak of the Second World War, he emigrated to the United States, where he continued to perform and teach.

Alexander Borovsky and Sergey Prokofiev had attended the Conservatory together and were friends. In those days, Alexander would visit the apartment of Prokofiev’s mother, where he heard various compositions by Sergey for the first time, notably Visions Fugitives. Throughout his career, particularly in the twenties and thirties, he championed Prokofiev’s music, some of which – according to the latter – he played better than the master himself. Prokofiev always remained grateful for the support of his friend. Although he never achieved the worldwide acclaim he deserved, Borovsky was a superb pianist. Efforts are being made in the United States to issue some of his published and unpublished recordings on CD.

Borovsky met the mother of Natasha, Maria Viktorovna Sila-Nowicki in Paris in 1922. They were married and Natasha was born in 1924. After spending the 1929 season in Berlin and then taking up residence there in 1930, their marriage did not last.

In the following chapters,  I wil tell you more about Alexander Borovsky, in the context of the lives of Natasha Borovsky and her mother Maria.

The Russian inscription on the above photo says: ‘For my dear Pavel from his loving Shurik Borovsky’. Shurik is a diminutive for Alexander.  Pavel (Paul), who became a general in the Soviet army, was the husband of Masha, a sister of Alexander. It was Masha who gave the photo to Natasha after the Second World War.

Print Friendly

 

Maria (“Moussia”) Viktorovna Sila-Nowicki (Moscow, 25 January 1895 – Paris, 2 August, 1959).

‘Russe de naissance, française de goût’: ‘Russian by birth, French by taste’. With these words, Natasha Borovsky described her mother in a beautiful poem which you can find in the French part of my blog. The photo shows her at the age of 34.

Emigrated from Russia in 1918 – she often returned – having lived in Los Angeles, at times in New York, in Paris most of the time but also in Berlin in its artistic heyday of 1929-1933, she is still alive in the diaries of Sergey Prokofiev and Vera Stravinsky, in the personal memoirs and archives of Natasha Borovsky  and of Giacomo Antonini, the well-known Italian-Dutch literary and film critic, Moussia’s loving husband from 1937 until her death in 1959. She can be found in the personal diaries of the Dutch diplomat and writer F.C. Terborgh, a close friend of Antonini’s. It is my good fortune to have had access to all of these sources.

Maria was well-acquainted with the brilliant and famous in Paris and Berlin of her time, where she personally knew composers, choreographers, painters, musicians and conductors. Educated in the theatre school of Meyerhold in St. Petersburg, she once sat at Prokofiev’s side at the piano, in Los Angeles in 1921, as he prepared the music and lyrics of his opera, The Love for Three Oranges and again, that same year, sat next to him in a concert hall in Chicago, critically watching and commenting on the final rehearsals. He took good notice of her professional advice. With her natural flair and family background, her early days in St. Petersburg and Moscow, as a good friend of Prokofiev and his wife, and later as the wife of the famous Russian pianist Alexander Borovsky, she built a network of friendships in the world of the arts.

This is the first of a series of articles on her and some of her friends and loved ones. Stuart Dodds, husband of the late Natasha Borovsky and executor of her estate, has given me permission to make full use of her writings, memoirs and archives and much other information that they sent to me over the last ten years.

Print Friendly

I wandered through the countryside of Portugal the other day and happened to pass the farm of famous pianist Maria João Pires. Attracted by the sound of piano music, I slipped in through the back door. Le beau hasard. I could listen and watch while she was giving a master class. As I entered, she was just talking about what should drive a pianist, is it his brain or his body?

A big blond lad is playing a staccato when Maria stops him, saying: ‘What do you feel? Feel it with your body, not  (tapping her forehead) with your head – do not hear what I am saying, I’m not talking to you, I don’t exist, you are, you are feeling now, I’m just helping you to feel something – feel it with all your being’. Then she whispers: ‘go go go’. The student plays. She stops him again and says: ’Who is saying that ? You…? Really?’  The student: ‘My brain, my sense of style when I have to play staccato’. Maria: ‘Not good’. A while later, we hear him say that playing should be about ‘giving space’. Maria: ‘Good! The space is given by time. Time…no time … all the world is mine, I don’t have to do, I just feel’.

The Brazilian pianist Caio Pagano  then quotes Mahler: ‘the score is everything you need to know about the music – except the essential’.

Listen to this most interesting fragment of the great documentary : ‘Imagine… being a concert pianist’ of the BBC:

Print Friendly

How we change!  As a young man, I was quite taken with the character of  Pierre-François Lacenaire, as portrayed by Marcel Herrand.  That famous boulevardier, poet and criminal—king of the underworld, strolling the alleys and avenues of Paris in the 1820s, his sword inside a Malacca scabbard, une canne-épée, with a handle of carved ivory, looking for someone who would do the honor of insulting him.  He can wait until he finds the right man, the right offence.  There is a saying, “Beware the fury of a patient man.”

He is seeking revenge for a childhood wrong, no more concerned, it would seem, as to who the perpetrator was than who will pay the price. By his own admission, he harbors a contempt for all humankind and is ready to face the consequences of his actions—the guillotine if necessary, but on the condition that he not lose his head on a  “provincial scaffold.” He will die in Paris, at the center of attention, at the center of the Universe.

So beware, citizens.  We have reason to believe that he has killed before.  “I am a thief by need, a murderer by calling.” You could be next. Be ready to choose your weapon—although I don’t think he is in favor of duels; he prefers to kill his enemies outright, or those he perceives as his enemies or those who have provoked him.

Now, after 30 years, I feel sorry for Pierre-François Lacenaire.  He was not as free as he thought he was, nor was he as admirable although I continue to admire his wardrobe. He was a slave to passion, a romantic figure vulnerable to ridicule, perverse, alone, dangerous enough but a source of merriment to “the only woman for whom I have no contempt.”  Those are his words—his declaration of love?— and the woman, of course, would be the sensible, beautiful Garance who scoffs at his ideas, who loves Baptiste, the man in white.

Jean-Louis Barrault as Baptiste used to frighten me— as his character frightened some of the other members of the Théâtre du Funambules—as he would look with penetrating eyes, at times inhuman and cruel, through his clown’s white mask. Now, I like his fits of melancholy, his fierce expression of love and his clown’s temper—all delivered in paper-light motion, in pantomime. I no longer fear him.

How we change, and how we age!  I used to think Arletty in the role of Garance was plain, unremarkable. Now she seems radiant, a beautiful presence, and, naturally, much younger than she appeared to me before.  And I have no more sympathy than I did 30 years ago  for her self-appointed protector, the boring, presumptuous Count Édouard de Montray, as he is cut down in a Paris bathhouse by our redoubtable assassin, Pierre François Lacenaire.

I will always hear the voice of Baptiste in the final scene as he elbows his way through the carnival crowd in hopeless pursuit, calling “ Garance, Garence!.”

Stuart Dodds

* Children of Paradise, a film by Marcel Carné, 1945

Print Friendly