Personal History: Russian Blood, Part 2 Mopsy, Nika, and Uncle, Page 2
New Yorker, May 3, 1982
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       Whether it was art that she was doing is an interesting question. I don't think she herself cared. She didn't keep up with what was going on in the art world or try to be associated with it. She didn't worry about being contemporary. Both she and Uncle were throwbacks to a more pictorial, representational endeavor, which has been largely displaced by the camera. The photograph is more accurate, but something has been lost: the patience, the care, the coming to terms with the subject which their sort of painting required. Mopsy and Uncle were deeply perceptive in a way I don't expect that people will ever be again. Certainly in their dedication, and their concern with technique, they were artsts. And Mopsy was concerned not just with the painting but with the total presentation. She was fussy about the matting, and supervised the framing to the last detail. "A frame, like a good dress, must not be noticed," she told me once. And while she was still able she would always go to the subject's house, not only to see where the portrait was going to hang but to examine the entire habitat.

       I was once asked by someone who didn't know her if there was any sadness in the fact that a woman whose family had owned two villages and thousands of acres had been reduced to making flattering portraits of rich capitalists. I explained that it wasn't like that at all. Her work wasn't a degrading chore. There was a high purpose to it. It was almost like icon painting. She gave her subjects a radiance and a graciousness that they might have had only once a year. She brought out a side of them that they might not even have seen in themselves, but they recognized it instantly, and were grateful to her. If that was flattery, she was guilty of it. To me, it was legitimate. What nicer gift could you make to someone? Her deft little cosmetic touches were harder to defend against the charge of flattery. She was known to tactfully fix a subject's nose when the situation was utterly hopeless, or (as in the case of her last portrait of me) give you more chin than you re
ally had, to make up for a deficiency.  But that was part of her positive outlook. On her living-room coffee table there was a soapstone carving of the three little monkeys covering their ears, eyes, or mouth with their hands. Hear no evil, see no evil, speak !1° evil -she fended off tragedy with brilliant success by the simple expedient of snubbing it, of refusing to admit that it even existed.
 

      MOST of the former Russian nobility, suddenly, unceremoniously out in the cold after the Revolution of 1917, hadn't the first idea of how to make a living. Outside of cardplaying, riding, and a fluency in French, they had no skills to speak of. Since the time of Catherine the Great, the Russian noble had been a Voltairean aristocrat. His function had been ornamental-to cut an elegant figure. He had not been expected to make a contribution, or to sully himself with mundane matters, as he had during the time of Peter the Great. A noblewoman named Irina T atischev relates in an unpublished memoir that Kerensky's soldiers burst into her Petrograd palace and asked where the kitchen was, and she realized that she didn't even know. She'd only seen the food come up on the dumbwaiter. To many nobles like Irina, whose devotion to the Czar was unquestioning, almost childlike, the Revolution came as a complete surprise. They couldn't understand why anyone should have wanted, in Irina's words, to cut the branch he was sitting on. They had always loved the peasants, and thought the peasants loved them. Now,.in exile, they expected at any moment to be welcomed back to a "hospitable, remorseful, racemosablossoming Russia," as Vladimir Nabokov put it.

       The easiest way to stay afloat was to marry money. There was a market in America and on the Continent for Russians of noble rank-titled ones, especially-and a good many cashed in on it. The Shoumatoff family, however, had other resources. Mopsy could paint exquisite likenesses of people. Uncle had many well-developed sides. He could have had a career in any number of fields-law, diplomacy, piano, art, art history, entomology. He spoke seven languages, read ten more, and exuded erudition. Thanks to Miss Whishaw, their childhood English governess, he and Mopsy spoke perfect English. From a childhood stint in Tashkent, they had got a taste for adventure and strange places which helped them respond to their new situation with gaiety and interest. Uncle was thirty-three, Mopsy almost twenty-nine. Mopsy's husband, Lyova, who was a Baltic German, was thirty. His English wasn't bad. Like many Baltic Germans, he had a back ground of business administration. He was a doer, not a brooder. People who knew him describe his personality as "sparkling."

       Having crossed the continent from San Francisco by train, they arrived at Pennsylvania Station on December 1, 1917, and immediately took a suite at the Savoy: Mopsy; Uncle; their mother, Alexandra Nicolaevna; Lyova; Mopsy and Lyova's three-yearold daughter, Zoric; their maid, Alika; Lyova's secretary, Stepanov; and another maid, Mila, who had been bolshevized on the boat to Honolulu and would soon be deported as a Communist. Mopsy's and Uncle's brother Nicholas (called Nika), a liberal and a patriot, had refused to join the Shoumatoff party on the last trans-Siberian express out of Petro grad before the Bolshevik coup. Someone had to stay and pick up the pieces, he told them. His wife, Masha, had remained with him.

       Uncle and Lyova, who were official representatives of Alexander Kerensky's Provisional Government, went to Washington and terminated their commissions. On the fallen government's behalf, Uncle had already deposited in a New York bank several million dollars' worth of funds with which he was entrusted. When the Bolsheviks in Russia heard about this money, they demanded that Uncle sign it over. He refused. (The funds are supposed to be still gathering interest somewhere.) After a month at the Savoy, the family hadn't come up with a plan, but one thing was certain: at fifty dollars a day, they couldn't stay there much longer. They rented an apartment on West End Avenue while Mopsy and Lyova waited for the birth  of their second child. The child Nicholas, who became my father arrived in February of 1918.

       With the money that was left, the family bought a dairy farm in the Catskills-a dilapidated house with a turret and a veranda, a barn, and a hundred acres near the town of Pine Bush. As a commercial venture, the Pine Bush farm was not a success. They sold their milk to Borden's. Uncle was delegated to drive the wagon on its first run to the milk train. He wasn't sure of the route, and at an intersection the horse pulled one way and Uncle the other, the wagon capsized, and all the milk spilled into a ditch. The only person who took the farm seriously was Alexandra Nicolaevna, who was by now being called by her new, American name, Grandmother, which she would have for the rest of her life. Grandmother wore a set of jangling keys about her waist, as she had at Shideyevo, the family estate in Russia, and she threw herself into making preserves, wine, and blackcurrant kvass with a new friend, the local Dutch Reformed minister, the Reverend Mr. Sciple. Zoric remembers the sound of corks popping merrily in the basement, and also remembers that the kvass was awfully good. If it was hard for Grandmother to be exposed to so much change so late in her life, she never let on. There was a photograph of her in her velvet-and-ermine court gown on one of the walls, but even in a plain calico house dress she was regal. Toone American visitor, she seemed "lost in a dream of the past" as she went silently from room to room, but that may have been because the visitor didn't speak Russian. In her own language, she was voluble. The visitor also noticed that her children showed her deep reverence. Little Zoric, however, was full of mischief. Once, she overturned all the chairs in the dining room and ran to Grandmother screaming, "The Bolsheviks are coming! The Bolsheviks are coming!"

       The farm became a port of call for newly arrived emigres; a room downstairs with four beds was practically a dormitory. Some came for the weekend. Some bought places nearby. Vladimir Nichvalodov, who had gone to kindergarten with Uncle, was there a lot. Uncle's miniature of him in the turban of a Persian emir survives. Vsevolod Pozhidaev was a heavy drinker. Uncle did an ingenious Cubist caricature of him as a liquor bottle. Gleb Derzhinsky was a noted sculptor. Alexander Ledizhinsky, once a general, started a restaurant in Manhattan called the Double Eagle. George Golokvastoff wrote a long symbolist poem about the fall of Atlantis, which Uncle illustrated in 1938. Boris Brazol was a mysterious figure: a literary critic, a secret agent for both the czarist and the American governments, and a notorious anti-Semite. I have read two books that mention Brazol in half a dozen professions. Each list is different. V. S. Iliaschenko was a porte-malheur-he was always associated with calamity. He acted on your pocketbook, your health, your transportation. If you were in a car with him, you'd have a flat. If you were trying to make a train with him, you'd miss it. If he wandered into the kitchen, your souffle would faIl. At the very mention of his name, you were likely to trip. He had been a neighbor in Russia, and was more or less a permanent fixture at the farm.

       During the day, the emigres would roll up their sleeves, undo their collars, and work in the vegetable garden. Parties would comb the woods for mushrooms and berries. Once, everyone practically died from some mushrooms Uncle had picked. He was positive he'd identified them correctly-they were orange chanterelIes, and not their toxic mimic, Clitocybe illudens-yet all the dinner guests felt done in and were dictating their wills. They all recovered, though, and Uncle later discovered that the fungi had been growing near some poison hemlock.

       In the evening, everybody would sit on the porch and rehash the Revolution or talk about job openings. A lot of Russians were working at the Lion Match Company, in Brooklyn, one of whose directors was Kerensky's Ambassador to the United States, Boris Bakhmetyev, but none of the members of the Pine Bush crew were quite ready for factory work. After dark, they would stay on the porch and tell ghost stories-a favorite Russian pastime. Lyova told a good one. Years before, in Russia, he was invited by a friend, Count Komarovsky, to the Count's hunting preserve outside the city of Vilna. The Count went there once a year to shoot the gluhar, or wood grouse. The first night, everyone went to bed very early. The gluhar sings before daybreak, and that is the best time to shoot it, because when it sings it becomes deaf. You can walk right up to it if you stay out of sight. Soon after Lyova had turned out the lights, a cat jumped on his bed. Lyova petted it. It seemed friendly. After a while, another cat jumped on, and Lyova petted it, too. A third jumped on, and then cats began to come in great numbers. They all seemed friendly, but Lyova was getting smothered, and he shouted for help. The gamekeeper came in and turned on the lights, and all the cats disappeared. The keeper said that it was best to leave the lights on. "Why?" Lyova asked. "I'll explain in the morning," the keeper said. Lyova confronted the man at breakfast. Reluctantly, he confessed that he had been making money on the side by raising cats and selling their skins. The fur was at its best when the cat was skinned alive, he said. He took Lyova and the Count to a pit where he had thrown dozens of skinned cats. "You mean those cats last night were ghosts?" Lyova gasped. The keeper nodded. He, too, had been visited by them at night. Back in St. Petersburg, Lyova took the Count to a friend of his, a mathematics professor who dabbled in exorcism. The professor said that if two or three live cats were let loose in the house, the ghosts would go away. It worked.

       One of the former notables who touched base at Pine Bush in 1919 was an old friend of Uncle's and Nika's, Prince George Lvov. He had been the first Prime Minister of the Provisional Government after the Czar's overthrow, and was in America to plead its cause. Those who had not abandoned it after the Bolshevik coup had regrouped in Omsk and were desperate for help. Lvov had just arrived in the country, and expressed astonishment to Uncle at the presence of policemen in a democracy. As Prime Minister, he had considered doing away with the police in Russia, and had released all the political prisoners from the jails. He was on his way to the White House to see President Wilson-it was a week before the Versailles Peace Conference-and asked Uncle to go with him as his interpreter. "The views on government that he expressed were rather fuzzy," Uncle recalled. "Many years later, I asked Mrs. Wilson what impression he had made on her husband, and she replied that the only thing her husband had said to her about the talk was 'What a magnificent beard Lvov has!' " Uncle's interpreting was so helpful to Lvov that he asked Uncle to go with him to Versailles. They were there three months. Since Russia was in a state of civil war and had no stable government, it was not formally represented at the conference. Lvov was the chairman of a subsidiary conference that included the various White Russian splinter groups.

       While Uncle was away, news that there were interesting Russians over the hill reached the landscape painter
.George Inness, Jr., and one afternoon he had Grandmother and Mopsy to tea. His house, in Cragsmoor, was filled with paintings by him and his father, who had belonged to the Hudson River School. A few days after meeting the family, Inness came to Pine Bush, and he was so taken with Mopsy's small, minutely detailed portrait of Grandmother that he asked Mopsy to do his profile on ivory, as a surprise for his wife. This kind gesture came at just the right moment: Mopsy had been praying to her icons -especially to St. Spyridonius, the money-bringer-for a living other than farming to present itself. Inness liked his portrait so much that he sent her a check for two hundred and fifty dollars-double the agreed-upon amount. My parents still have his thank-you note, with a small, verdant landscape he whipped off in watercolors at the top of the page. This was the first money that Mopsy had ever made from her art. Grandmother didn't like the idea of it at all. In Russia, a young lady painted watercolors for her own amusement. To be a professional artist was like being an actor or a clown. Your money was supposed to come from a mysterious source, never from the labor of your own hands.

       One afternoon, Inness came over with some friends, Frank Seaman and Mrs. Olive Sarre. Seaman was an advertising magnate, Mrs. Sarre a vivacious socialite in her forties. Seaman had built a many-storied log house in the Catskills in which to entertain New York friends and clients. Other buildings were gradually added, and in 1920 he got the idea of running the place as a business. The first hundred guests invited to Yama Farms, as the resort was named, included the so-called Famous FourThomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, and the long-bearded naturalist John Burroughs-and they returned often to camp in its woods. Words of Burroughs were engraved over an immense stone fireplace: "It is so easy to get lost in this world. I come here to find myself." Yama Farms became a haven for industrialists, a place where they could enjoy the company of the outstanding intellects of the day without being fussed over. The "first hundred" proposed a second, and soon a distinguished clientele was coming from all over the hemisphere. "If you were introduced to Mr. Waterman, it would be the fountain pen; Mr. Colgate, the soap; Mr. Eastman, the Kodak," Mopsy recalled. It was understood that no mention would be made of money. Guests got whopping bills long after their visit. No expense was spared for their comfort. There was a tricky nine-hole golf course, and the rooms were filled with antiques chosen by Mrs. Sarre. Trout were kept alive
in vats of seething water. Seaman ran the place at a large deficit, which he made up by signing new advertising accounts with his guests.

       Mrs. Sarre saw that the Russians whom Inness had met were having a rough time and being cheerful about it. Certainly they were not cut out for cows, chickens, and the routine of farming. She asked if Mopsy would come to Yama Farms and do a miniature of her. "What does a woman of your age want with a portrait?" Seaman asked when they were back in the car. She said that it was "a war contribution." In time, Seaman saw that Mopsy's work was something that it wouldn't hurt to be associated with, and he invited her to be a sort of portraitist-in-residence at Yama Farms.
 

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