Moussia 30: Meanwhile, back in Chicago: Vladimir and Fern

 Fern Scull, pianist  and Vladimir Barstow, basso cantante (note spotlight).

His picture taken by Theatrical Studio, 359 N0. Clark Street, Chicago

We now leave Moussia, Alexander Borovsky and their baby Natasha for a little while, to go back to the beginning of 1920, when Vladimir Baranovsky left Moussia and ‘disappeared’, as was later discovered, to Chicago where he changed his name into Barstow.

He first took on all sorts of menial jobs including dishwashing, and soon met other émigré Russians who were forming a small ‘colony’ in Chicago. In March 1921, he heard that his father Vsevolod had died in Constantinople and that his mother Lydia and sister Elena with her baby had to continue traveling to Paris without him.

He loved to sing, he had a strong interest in opera music, he was a basso cantante, very good at singing the German ‘Lied’. He started to take singing lessons and earned some money by singing in choirs. This is how, in October 1921, he met the pianist Fern Scull who was coaching a choir in which he sang. They liked each other immediately and he often accompanied her to the Chicago radio station WGN, where she was the staff accompanist. A good example of the sort of music she played in those days is shown below in the Chicago Sunday Tribune’s radio program. She accompanied on piano,  Mark Love, basso, Walter Pontius, tenor, Thomas Coates, baritone, Lawrence Salerno (‘singer of lilting Neapolitan lyrics’) and other soloists, singing a ‘gay group of numbers’.


Vladimir, who also had acting ambitions, had a wonderful time “hanging out” with the Russian Colony, who soon gather in Fern’s apartment. More than once, she helped out some of these Russians with money including, according to her taped interview, Moussia, who had finally rediscovered Vladimir in Chicago, through the ‘Russian émigré network’(this must have been in December 1921, see article 24).

Fern liked these Russians but did not wish to continue supporting them. She urged Vladimir to forget theatrical glory and seek a regular income, which he did. Being a qualified  civil engineer he took on freelance draughting work for steel bridge design. But he did not forget his singing and acting ambitions so easily and continued to follow his heart. During the 1990 taped interview, Fern claimed that there was a time when Vladimir sang at a Roman Catholic Mass and in the Methodist Church on Sundays and in the Synagogue on Friday evenings…

When Fern’s father, a Methodist Minister in the village of Moscow (!), Indiana –  he already took a dim view of professional piano playing because, in his mind, it had a high chance of being associated with ‘sinful’ behavior –  received word that his daughter might be ‘living in sin with a Russian’ and announced his arrival in Chicago, there was no time to waste. According to Fern, Vladimir had told her that he would love to marry her “as soon as Moussia produced proof of their Mexican divorce” (a delightful variant of what we have heard so far).

The impending arrival of her parents brought about an immediate decision. ‘What about next Saturday?”, said Vladimir and they went to look for a minister who would help them tie the knot. After several refusals, they found someone. A minister  of the Second Presbyterian Church in Chicago ‘united them in marriage’ on February 16, 1924, but only after a stern interrogation of Vladimir.The Reverend said that he was surprised that Vladimir, a big man towering over the petite Fern, should have chosen such a little girl. Fern, reminiscing 66 years later, said Vladimir’s reply, “Yes, but she plays the piano so well!”, was the absolute highlight of the occasion.

In 1928, Fern and Vladimir moved to New York, where Vladimir hoped to begin an acting career. It  was very short-lived; during his first performance, he forgot his lines. Finally, he resumed his former career as a civil engineer, designing steel bridges; first with a design firm, later with his own business and a partner (Fern: “Vladimir knew steel. He was best in moving bridges, uplift and swing”).  Fern became well-known in New York as the staff accompanist of the American Broadcasting System WMCA for many years.  She even made it into the columns of the The New Yorker magazine on 15 September 1934:


Throughout the 1930s, Vladimir and Fern supported Vladimir’s mother Lydia and her daughter Elena and granddaughter Irina, as much as they could. As indicated by some photographs in her album, Moussia, while in Paris, also must have stayed in touch with her former mother-in-law.

Fern and Vladimir met the intrepid Moussia, now remarried to Giacomo Antonini, again during the war in Europe when, in June 1940, she took her daughter Natasha Borovsky to the United States via Genoa, returning to France via Spain in March 1941 (to be discussed in a later article). Subsequently, during the 1940s and 1950s Vladimir and Fern welcomed Natasha to their home often. Life can be more improbable than fiction.

It is through Natasha that Fern and Vladimir must have made the acquaintance of Alexander Borovsky who had also fled the Nazis in 1940 and became an American citizen in 1941. During her 1990 taped interview, Fern said: “Moussia married a pianist by the name of Borovsky. Borovsky and I kept up a relationship all the time, every time he made records, he had me sit by in the control room” (Fern was reputed to be an excellent sight reader). I believe she must have meant the recordings made by Vox in the 1950s, the complete set of which she had in her collection (these records are now with a descendant of her twin sister Faye).

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Borovsky kept in touch with his beloved daughter Natasha. In a letter of 1956 to his “Natashenka” in which he gives a detailed account of himself giving piano lessons, before the Revolution, to the children of Tsar Nicholas’ sister Grand Duchess Xenia and how he had met the Grand Duchess again in London in 1921, he also writes about how he has progressed with his playing of Bach and the entire Wohltemperierte Klavier:  “I am playing Bach wonderfully now, my records will be fantastic”. These must have been the records which  Fern was referring to. Borovsky signed his letter to Natasha as follows:

“Your heartily loving Papa”

(to be continued)

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