Moussia 24: 1920-1921, Moussia and Sergey Prokofiev

“… and then a new face appeared, Baranovskaya, a former student of Meyerhold, a beautiful young woman who suffered not at all by comparison with Ariadna…”
Picture from Moussia’s collection; the enigmatic inscription in Russian reads:
‘In memory of Moscow, 1920/ 26. IV’

Note: In this article and some of the following ones,  I shall sometimes quote from the Diaries of Sergey Prokofiev, translated and annotated by Anthony Phillips, Volumes 1-3, published by Faber and Faber, London, between 2006 and 2012. In all instances, I shall put these quotes in italics and between marks of quotation.

Let us recap for a moment. On New Year’s Eve, 1919, Vladimir Baranovsky helped his wife Moussia and the couple Michal and Ariadna Rumanov move from the luxurious apartment house in San Francisco which the four had inhabited since the summer of 1918, to an apartment in Los Angeles (articles 17 and 19). After the move, Vladimir rented a room in San Francisco and then disappeared without a trace, although he and Moussia  had not separated legally. She did not know where he was for at least a year, nor did she know that he had surfaced in Chicago in October 1920 and, in front of a judge, assumed the name of Vladimir Barstow. In Chicago, he met the pianist Fern Scull, whom he would marry a few years later, in 1924. It was a happy marriage which lasted until his death in 1976 (both Vladimir and Fern will reappear in later articles).  He said to Fern  that he had chosen the name Barstow after passing through a train station of that name on his way to Chicago. Barstow is on the line from Los Angeles to Chicago.  He had probably made a last attempt to recover some of his money from Moussia and the Rumanovs in LA.

According to Fern (Scull) Barstow, during her 1990 interview, Vladimir had left an amount of ‘one hundred thousand dollars’ in a bank account for Moussia in the spring of 1919, when he left for Siberia. I believe that Fern did not exaggerate too much when she mentioned that amount. As we will see in this article and more to come, Moussia continued a luxurious lifestyle in Los Angeles, often traveled huge distances in the United States while staying in expensive hotels, and went to Europe in 1922. In 1922 and the following year,  she was even able to finance, on a rather grand scale, the beginning of her next marriage, to the famous but still impecunious pianist Alexander Borovsky . Moreover, throughout that period, both in the United States and in Europe, she was in and out of expensive spas and private clinics for treatment of her tubercular kidney. So Vladimir’s money, whatever the exact amount, was enough to support that level of feverish activity for about four years.

1920. The “Rescuing the Czar” film project had not come about. Waiting for a role in the theatre or in a film, Moussia gave lessons and presentations on acting, making good use of her training in the Moscow Art Theatre and with Meyerhold in Petrograd. Together with Ariadna and Michal Rumanov, she continued the high life she was used to.  In order to keep pace with her, Michal Rumanov continued to ask for money from the Russian Vice Consul George Romanovsky in San Francisco, to finance his ‘publicity activities’ (see previous article). This was the ambiance around Moussia and her companions when, on the 29th of December 1920, they met Sergey Prokofiev, as has already been described in some detail in article 3.

Prokofiev was no stranger to Ariadna Rumanov. He already had his eye on her and had written her humorous letters since 1909, when as a young girl she was a student in the St. Petersburg Conservatory and he had followed her progress and exams there with interest. When passing through Tokyo in 1918, he had heard that she was on her way to the United States via Japan, like he, and had married a man called Rumanov. A Russian Embassy official had said to him “with a hint of venom” that, once in America, the couple would probably exploit the similarity between the Rumanov and Romanov names. In Los Angeles, he was eager to visit the Rumanovs, to see what had become of Ariadna, not having seen her for many years. He had been invited by Michal Rumanov, who had come to see him. Prokoviev was disappointed by the man, finding him “small, pale and puffy.”(see photo in article 19, the man to the right of the Willys-Knight car).

(left) Sergey Prokofiev, (right) Ariadna Rumanov (née Nikolskaya). The second picture was found in Moussia’s collection

As Prokofiev entered their house, he was in for a surprise. “This was no ordinary social call, it was a major event… Ariadna herself opened the door to me with a smile of welcome. ‘Would you have recognised me?’she asked. ‘After all, we were never properly introduced.’”  No sooner had he renewed the acquaintance with Ariadna than his eye fell on Moussia, whom he properly calls Baranovskaya. She swept him off his feet.

He has vividly described his frequent encounters with Moussia and the Rumanovs in his Diaries (pages 563-581 of Volume 2). In the company of a jolly group around Moussia and the Rumanovs, he continues to wine and dine and party on New Years’s Eve 1920, New Year’s Day 1921,  on 4, 6, 9, 10, 14 and 16 of January, so twenty days in succession, until he left for Chicago on the the 17th.

On New Year’s Eve, in the house of one Mr. Becker, Prokofiev reports: “Rumanova and Baranovskaya, glamourous and décolletées, were looking extremely beautiful, and did their best to stay near me…”. Baranovskaya teaches him the American dances and how to kiss hands properly. During the days which followed, their conversations became more serious. About his music, which he played for her on the piano; about her views on acting. He attended one of her lectures  which she gave “in impeccable French”.

She tells him about her past and about her husband “who has disappeared into the blue yonder”, about her serious kidney ailment which often confines her to her bed and about her friendship with Kerensky, who during his time in power had divorced one, in order to marry another, of her cousins. At the piano, he takes her through the score of his opera “Love for three Oranges” which is about to be given its stage premiere in Chicago. He is very impressed with her personality and her informed views.  On 12 January, Moussia’s 26th birthday is celebrated and on 13th January (New Style) the Russian New Year. Obviously, Moussia had advanced the date of her birthday, 25 January (New Style) by thirteen days to “Old Style”, so that it would fit in with the general party schedule and Prokofiev would be able to attend.

I note as a point of interest that at midnight on Russian New Year’s Eve, all lights were doused and someone sang “God save the Tsar”, immediately followed by “The Marseillaise”. In contrast to the Bolsheviks, who always sang the Internationale, Kerensky adherents often sang the Marseillaise.

On January 17, 1921, Moussia and the Rumanovs had promised to come to the station to see him off when he left for Chicago. That morning, “Baranovskaya telephoned and said: ‘You must excuse me, I probably should not come to the station. I have been crying all morning. I have had some bad news’.  However, the first one I met at the station was Baranovskaya. ‘I had another telephone call, a much better one,’ she said,  ‘and everything is much better now’. Then the Rumanovs arrived and the train pulled out to the extravagant waving of Ariadna’s hat.”

I believe that on that morning, Moussia had the first news about Vladimir since the beginning of 1920. First from someone who pronounced him dead, then from Vladimir himself who said not to worry, he had only changed his name but wished to be perceived as dead under his former name.

Prokoviev left for Chicago and then for France. When he was back in the United States in October of that year, he met up with Moussia, whom he lovingly calls Frou-Frou, at the Biltmore Hotel in New York. They saw each other frequently over a three-day period; they dined, they went to the Philharmonic together, they went to see a movie. He writes: “Being with Frou-Frou was the greatest possible pleasure for me, and she also revelled in our meeting, ‘like being resurrected.’”

He saw her back in Chicago on December 24 (where she had already been since the 17th without calling him, to his annoyance –- I wonder if she went there early to look for Vladimir –).  During the final rehearsals and the grand premiere on the 30th of December of “The Love for three Oranges”, she stayed at Prokofiev’s side giving him her comments and professional advice. On 1 January 1922 he took her to a concert by Chaliapin, on the 2nd she left for New York. She had felt unwell for weeks, her kidney was giving her much trouble. When he arrived in New York himself, two weeks later, she had just checked into a private hospital. But she did not get any better and in the beginning of February she “had to be taken back to California and the sunshine.” Prokofiev had already left for Europe, on the Dutch ship Noordam.

While in New York, Prokoviev visited Moussia at the hospital every day and they talked and they talked.

“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.”

With the benefit of hindsight and with my knowledge of what some of her other loving and admiring men had to say about Moussia in later years, my explanation of Prokofiev’s observations is at follows:

Firstly, at that time, men were intimidated and unsure of themselves in front of an articulate, knowledgeable whirlwind of a woman who felt in no way inferior to a man. But there was more. Prokoviev feared that his career as a composer and as a performer would be at risk if he married the outgoing Moussia, woman of the world, because she would not have much patience with the daily grind, the long hours of hard work, which goes with a professional musician’s existence. He probably thought that his girl friend since 1918, Lina Codina, a professional singer, would understand this much better and would adapt more easily to his way of life. As will become evident from future articles, I think that he continued to be in two minds about his decision, even after he had married Lina in 1923, and that he remained so until his return to Russia in 1936. Until then, Moussia and he stayed close friends, in the sense that they often shared their personal thoughts and concerns with each other in long private conversations whenever they could.

(to be continued)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Comments are closed.