Moussia 26: A splendid time at the Esplanade

“At any rate, after two weeks of commuting between the hotel and the Bechstein house with Maria and enchanting her with my playing, dressed in my nice suit, I began to feel I wasn’t progressing as I should, if at all …”. Picture taken by a street photographer in Berlin, 1922. From Moussia’s personal collection.

In his memoirs, written approximately thirty years later, Borovsky describes his first encounters with Moussia charmingly, sadly, and, with a fine touch of humour.

We know from Prokofiev’s Diaries that on January 25 1922, when he was leaving New York for France, the sick Moussia had just gone back to California and the Ruminovs (article 24). On April 15th, in Paris,  Prokofiev reports that he had played his Third Piano Concerto in the Grand Opéra, with Koussevitzky. There was supper after the concert: Koussevitzky (who drank to our friendship using the intimate tutoiement form of address), the Stahls, and Frou-Frou whose appearance was very striking. She had recently arrived from California.”

So, Moussia had wasted no time in California. In about two months time, she had made two round trips by train across the United States, recuperated from her illness and crossed the Atlantic Ocean, with her friends the Rumanovs and an American family. Borovsky writes:

She had come to Paris with an American family, but was staying alone in a different hotel, and she intended to go back to Moscow soon, where she had left her mother and brother. Maria Viktorovna had something of all the American manner, in that she seemed very assured in all her movements, and sure of her charm.  I admired her immediately and asked to take her riding in the Bois de Boulogne.  During the ride she told me many new and interesting things about America.  I hated for the ride to end, but I asked to see her again soon, and in just a few days I knew I was in love with her.”

“She would be the most suitable wife imaginable, I thought.  She knew several languages, she knew America and the Americas, and was so interesting to talk to.  And so extremely beautiful.  She would certainly attract everyone around, and it would be such a blessing to have such a wonderful companion.  But on the other hand, I wasn’t sure if I could get married at this time, since I still depended upon each concert and it’s fee.  And marriage was the last thing in the world a pianist should contemplate, in my opinion in those days.  So since I was so confused I said nothing to her of my thoughts; I knew only that I loved this woman, and I began to show her my admiration without restraint.” 

Until I met Maria I had had no steady relationship with any woman, and I felt quite inexperienced when, after courting Maria for a short while, I finally had to declare my love for her.  And she, in turn, was a little dubious as whether I was merely easily inflammable or really in love. But after a while she decided that it was serious, and she accepted my proposal for marriage.”

“First, however, she was obliged to go to Italy for the summer with the American family who had brought her to Paris. And during the summer she would have to get permission from her Russian bishop to marry me; she had been married before, but her husband had disappeared without a trace three years before, leaving her alone in California. It was generally presumed that he had been killed somewhere in Mexico, where he had gone to gamble, but she would have to be declared a widow before she could marry me.  I agreed to wait through the summer, and then meet her in Berlin in August, when she would be free to leave the American family.  So I was left alone in Paris, to wait for the summer’s end.”

It is exciting to read Borovsky’s words while seeing the last pieces of the jigsaw puzzle fall in place. He tells his story so naturally, some thirty years after the events, revealing himself as a kind and sensitive man. He wrote those words with the benefit of hindsight, knowing what he did not know in 1922:  that there were two dark clouds hanging over their marriage from the start, two unresolved issues which plagued Moussia in 1922 and thereafter: her unwanted obligation to continue claiming that her first husband Vladimir was dead while she must have known by then that he had just changed his name and wished only to be perceived as dead, and, her determination to go back to Russia to try and get her beloved younger brother Julian out of the country. One might ask: why had Vladimir put her in a precarious situation like that, by disappearing and changing his name? Surely it would have been easier to get a divorce?

I think that Vladimir’s disappearance had everything to do with the aftermath of the book “Rescuing the Czar” as I have explained in article 20. He wanted to make a clean break from George Romanovsky, Michal Rumanov and their merry band which at that moment included the free-spending Moussia, who had all been living it up and mostly at Vladimir’s expense. Enough was enough. But it may well have been that in 1920 he was not yet mentally ready for a divorce. His later wife Fern Barstow, who mastered the art of expressing herself succinctly, said during her 1990 taped interview: “they rented a house in San Francisco on the Pacific side, they even had a pipe organ in it, it was such a huge house, Vladimir wasn’t happy about it, he was never happy with his wife, he loved her very much but he couldn’t stand her.”

The fact that Moussia said she still had to be declared a widow, sheds a very interesting light on what we have learned in previous articles. She admitted this time, as she hadn’t to Prokofiev (article 24), that there was an outstanding  problem. Borovsky must have thought: ‘How is she to contact a ‘Russian bishop, to get that problem fixed?’ He continues his account as follows:

“I left Paris when the season began to run down and went to Germany. Germany was suffering from terrible inflation. For only two or three hundred dollars I could have bought a house in Berlin, if I’d wanted to. But I stayed in the best hotels … dreaming of the coming reunion with Maria in August… The day finally arrived, and I met Maria at the railroad station in Berlin and then took her to a suite in the Hotel Esplanade, where I was staying. Maria looked extremely tired, and she was sick with a kidney ailment which kept her swallowing quantities of pills she had brought from America. These pills eased the pain, and then she would be suddenly gay and brilliant again, eager to go out and see the shows and the people. And it was a great experience for me to see her getting ready to go out, putting on powder and lipstick and all manner of preparations for the evening. I was amazed and charmed by all this infernalia.  Such magic, that enters into the making of a beautiful woman!”

“Before long I introduced Maria to one of the Bechstein brothers, and she bought a piano for me.  Due to the inflation she paid only about $140.00 for this wonderful piano. The Bechsteins were very cordial to me and wanted me to play their pianos exclusively, but this never came about.”

“While Maria and I lived in our suites in the Esplanade, I had to go to the Bechstein house to practice, and Maria wanted to be there with me, but I couldn’t really work much when she was there.  A pianist’s work is really hard work, and it produced much perspiration, the more you perspire, the more you achieve with your hands.  And I didn’t like to be perspiring a lot when Maria was there, particularly since I was usually dressed for the street when I went anywhere with her, whereas by myself I would practice in an old shirt or pyjama top and some old work trousers.  At any rate, after two weeks of commuting between the hotel and the Bechstein house with Maria and enchanting her with my playing, dressed in my nice suit, I began to feel I wasn’t progressing as I should, if at all, and I started to dream of the day when I could dispense with the formality of the suit and just sit at my piano, even without a shirt if I liked, and study and study…”

Hotel Esplanade, Berlin, in the 1920s

(to be continued)

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