New Yorker, May 3, 1982
MOPSY and I went back together as far as I can go. Roaring Gap, North Carolina, summer of 1951. Mopsy (her youngest daughter, reading about Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail in a little book by Beatrix Potter, decided she should be called Mopsy, and that became her family name; her real name was Eliza veta- Elizabeth -Shoumatoff) was going to a resort in the Blue Ridge Mountains to paint a number of prosperous Southerners-Grays of Winston-Salem, tobacco Reynoldses, Chathams of Chatham blankets, stocking-company Haneses. On the spur of the moment, she decided to take me, then her youngest grandchild, along. I was four.
I vaguely remember a man in Elizabethan duds handing out samples of a new cigarette (Raleigh? Cavalier?) in front of the Greystone Inn as we went in to dinner. I clearly recall a drive we took one Saturday morning to Elkin, near the foot of the mountains. I’d complained of a toothache, and the nearest dentist was in Elkin. Mopsy always drove a Cadillac. This Cadillac had big fins and made no noise. With the windows up and the air-conditioner on, it almost seemed as if we were gliding down to Elkin. Serenely negotiating switchbacks, Mopsy was telling me a story about a witch called Goody Grum, who always said “hoity-toity.” I was sitting beside her like a little conspirator, hanging on every word. Anyone who was ever painted by her as a child can attest that she was a mesmerizing storyteller. Goody Grum was a character in a British magazine called C hatterbox, which Mopsy read when she was a girl in Russia, but I didn’t learn this until much later. When I was growing up, I didn’t think of Mopsy as being Russian. She was always low-key about the past. There was nothing foreign about her. She didn’t have an accent. She spoke a cultivated, Continental, neutral sort of English (not American, not English, not Russian) sprinkled with Mopsyisms-“by the bye,” “anyhoo.”
Sometimes there would be an opening in the lush Appalachian foliage, and we could see down to the hazy plain where we were headed, or across to the next rib of the Blue Ridge, where there was an abandoned roadprobably the old road to Elkin-with grass growing through its cracks. We rounded one bend in time to see a man walking on the abandoned road across a gully slightly below us. “Look, Mopsy,” I said. The man was dressed in rags. He had over one shoulder a stick with a bundle hanging from the end of it. Mopsy explained that he was a hobo. I still dream of that hobo from time to time, and nothing in my life has surpassed the bliss of that spin to Elkin. But when I asked Mopsy about it years later she couldn’t remember it at all.
She developed a special relationship, almost a pact, with each of her four grandchildren. With my sister, Tonia, it began when she was sitting for the second of four portraits that Mopsy did of her. Tonia was a snow-blond five-year-old, and Mopsy told her how when she herself was a girl she would, get up at six in the morning to weed the garden, and would read the lives of the saints by candlelight long after she was supposed to be asleep, because she wanted to be good, like them. Only the servants knew about her private devotions, and she had sworn them to secrecy. Years later, when Mopsy was invited by Princess Joan of Luxembourg to paint her children, Charles and Charlotte, she took along Tonia and her other granddaughter, Victoria (my cousin), and Tonia was able to experience her grandmother from the vantage point of young womanhood. It was one of Mopsy’s last trips. She was in her eighties, and was in great form. After an elaborate luncheon (seven plate changes, sculptured potatoes), the entire party was getting up from the table when Mopsy felt her legs starting to give. Fortunately, two men in blue-green livery who had been standing against a wall came up and caught her under either arm. “I beg your pardon,” she said to them with her most gracious smile. “I must have caught that heel of mine again.” That was Mopsy’s only concession to time -an occasional loss of equilibrium, a breakdown of the inner ear. Back in their rooms, Mopsy, Tonia, and Victoria told slightly macabre anekdoti and laughed for hours. Mopsy knew hundreds of them. She collected them. One of her favorites concerned a parrot whose vocabulary was limited to two words: “Charmante soiree.” “One evening, just before a large dinner party,” she told her granddaughters that afternoon, “the parrot was attacked by the cat, who pulled it from its cage and took it under the couch. The parrot’s mistress was ushering in guests at the time. Just as they had all seated themselves, they heard an awful screech coming from under the couch. When the mistress pushed the couch aside, only the parrot’s beak was left, still squawking ‘charmante soiree.'”
I first noticed the equilibrium problem in 1970, at a cocktail party. Svet1ana Alli1uyeva, Stalin’s daughter, who had defected three years earlier, was among the guests. She had embraced the Russian Orthodox Church and had come to stay with Mopsy for a few days. It was an emotional visit for Mopsy: Svet1ana’s father, after all, was responsible for the numerous arrests and probably the execution of her oldest brother, Nika. Svet1ana turned out to be a small woman with a round, compelling face. “He was a wonderful father,” she said to Mopsy as they stood chatting. “I only saw
that side.” Mopsy was listening with her usual rapt attention (she always made you feel important by really listening) when all of a sudden, for no apparent reason, she just fell. “I’m an expert at falling,” she said, laughing, as we helped her to her feet. “All I need is a flat surface. I don’t even need steps.”
In every room of Mopsy’s house, generally in the easternmost corner as you entered, there was an icon. And every morning, before she was brought her soft-boiled egg, her hot milk and coffee, her toast with Tasmanian honey, and her Times, she would sit up in bed and read the appropriate entries in both the “Daily Word” and the “Russian Saints’ Calendar.” There was always a light burning in a little red glass, called a lampada, before the several dozen images of her bedroom kiot, or corner stand of icons. “The light is a constant source of prayer for everybody,” she explained to me once. I had asked her about the icons. They were powerful friends if you believed in them, she said. She had four Virgins. The small, Ita1ianate one, painted on mother-of-pearl, she’d got at a monastery near the family’s country house a few days before they left Russia, in 1917. The Bogoroditsa, or Mother of God, she’d had in her room since childhood. The seventeenth-century Our Lady of the Burning Bush was entirely covered in silver except for painted hands. Its job was to protect the house. The family icon, said to have been given to a fourteenth-century ancestor by two angels, also depicted a Madon?a. Once, I brought the family icon into the living room to look at it in the light. Mopsy was smoking a cigarette. “Please put it back,” she said. “I can’t smoke with it around.” She had three icons of St. Spyridonius, the wonder-worker (“If you want money, pray to him, and the money will come”); one of Pante1eimon, the patron saint of physicians; one of St. Tsi1ime1, the healer; one of St. Barbara, the patroness of “someone who doesn’t want to die suddenly.” This last was one of three small travelling icons that had belonged to the late Czar. Mopsy’s brother Andrei Avinoff, known to us as U nc1e-a remarkably versatile man, who made his mark here as an artist, a lepidopterist, and a museum directorhad got them from his friend Victor Hammer, the art dealer. Beside the lampada were some sprigs of pussy willow, which, because palm fronds were unavailable in Russia, had always been used on Palm Sunday there. There were also several crosses on the table of her kiot. One was made of olivewood and was a present from her old schoolmate Valya Svetkova, who became Sister Barbara, Mother Superior of the Mount of Olives Convent in the Garden of Gethsemane. She was Mopsy’s best friend at the Pension Constant in St. Petersburg when they were sixteen.
Mopsy never started a painting without a prayer. “When I was a girl,” she once told me, “illustrating stories that I read, like ‘Quo Vadis,’ Mother said, ‘You must pray to St. John the Divine. He helps artists.’ I did for a while, but then I switched to St. Alypius. I thought he’d be a more reliable saint for help. He was the first Russian artist. He lived in Kiev during the twelfth century, and his bones are buried in the catacombs there. He died in the middle of painting an icon, and an angel came and finished it for him.” During her last year-1980when she was ninety-one, Mopsy still painted every day, but sometimes, when she wasn’t feeling up to par, when she was feeling decrepit and her head was heavy, she’d ask St. Alypius to take over. The work was as fine as ever, or better than ever. In her studio, there was a painting of St. Alypius at his easel.
Mopsy had given an icon of the Virgin of Kazan to Our Lady of Kazan Church in Sea Cliff, Long Island -a small wooden church, handcarved in the old North Russian style -which was about four miles away from where she lived. She was a behind-the-scenes patroness, and at odd moments, like Friday afternoon, she would sometimes go there to pray. She didn’t attend the Sunday services. As a rule, she didn’t have much to do with the Sea Cliff Russian colony, whose five hundred souls form one of the largest pockets of White Russians in the East. There was a woman in Sea Cliff from whom she bought pelmeni -Siberian meat dumplings that are a sort of cross between wonton and ravioli. And sometimes when Mopsy was
having a party, or on the help’s day off, Nadya Vladimirovna, a former cabaret and opera singer, would come over from Sea Cliff and help out. But Mopsy and Uncle had adapted more successfully than most of their compatriots; they were “good sports” about the Revolution. They took the break in their destinies as a challenge and, right at the beginning, got down to the business of becoming American. By the thirties, they were off and away, while many of their fellowexiles were still huddled together and living in the past.
Mopsy’s home, on a quiet street in Locust Valley, was an unusually tactful ranch, sitting in the shade of its low roof, with gray shingle siding, a varied border of evergreen shrubs, ivy climbing the brick entry. There was a rose bed with more than twenty-five varieties; a birch tree held a clearplastic cylinder filled with thistle seed, which attracted goldfinches all sum
mer long. The house was rambling and “cozy”-the quality that Mopsy admired most, in houses and people. She broke away from the cluttered, fruitcake richness of the interiors she had known as a child, but, not surprisingly, the house did have a distinctly Russian flavor. There was a lot of malachite, the opaque green stone with black swirls-a semiprecious form of copper ore-that was quarried extensively in the Urals during imperial times and carved into all kinds of objects. Mopsy had a two-foot replica of the famous statue of Peter the Great rearing on his horse which overlooks the Neva River in Leningrad. Its base was malachite. So was the base of her bronze head of Nicholas I. When a friend, Sophie Troubetzkoy, was visiting, a few years back, she noticed the head of Nicholas and came out with a flabbergasting bit of gossip: he wasn’t the son of Alexander I at all but the son of a handsome admiral named Klokachov. “Now, you mustn’t spread that around,” Mopsy warned me. “It would shake the world. If it’s true, then the Romanoffs …aren’t the Romanoffs!” Mopsy also had a mantel clock, two urns, and a tabletop of malachite. The shelves in the glass cabinet of an antique secretary in her living room contained an assortment of prerevolutionary bric-a-brac: Faberge eggs, lacquered boxes with miniature scenes from Russian folktales painted on them, silver cigarette cases, mother-of-pearl opera glasses, a cup from a set of china made during the Napoleonic wars for the generals of Alexander I.
Most of the pictures in the house had been painted by Uncle and were of flowers with butterflies. He was considered by such discriminating observers of art as John Walker, the director of the National Gallery during the nineteen-fifties and sixties, and Helen Clay Frick to be the finest flower painter of this century. “His art was the art of a high culture, such as Russia had, for a limited number of people who were, in a sense, dilettantish,” Walker has told my sister. “It bore no relation to the art that was being done by the significant artists of the twentieth century. But in just sheer technical bravura of the type that he practicedaccurate delineation, fairly dry wash, and so on-no one could surpass him.” Over the fireplace was an Old Dutch bouquet he had been working on when he died, in 1949. Only the butterflies-a tiger swallowtail and a tortoiseshell-and the flowers had been painted in. On other walls hung his roses with butterflies, his orchids with butterflies. The hallway leading to the dining room had some of his Jamaican andscapes-tree ferns and waterfalls, air plants and languidly flapping heliconilne butterflies, and the sun-drenched hillsides of the Cockpit Country, frothing with rain forest. Butterflies were more than a hobby for Uncle; they were his lifelong passion. Before the Revolution, he had financed forty-two collecting expeditions and had himself trekked into the remote fastnesses of Ladakh and western Tibet in search of new species. By 1917, the year he left Russia, he had more than eighty thousand specimens in his collection-one of the largest ever made by a private individual. Although he had to leave it behind, he continued to do important lepidopterological work here. Mopsy didn’t share Uncle’s scientific interest in butterflies, but she liked to have them around. They had warm associations. She had butterflies on her mailbox, on her soap and towels and toilet-seat covers, on her matchboxes and ashtrays, on her curtains, table mats, and china. In the dining room, there was a triptych of Uncle’s in which a Urania moth, a black day-flying species with swallowtails and opalescent bars, and several spectacular tropical butterflies were gliding over a crumbled, vine-smothered ruin.
Mopsy never had a real show, and only a handful of her more than three thousand portraits are on public view. The Locust Valley Library has one she did of its first treasurer. The Frick Collection has a small watercolor of Adelaide Frick. The White House has her portraits of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. (She was approached about doing Richard Nixon, but refused.) The portraitists Mopsy most admired were Mme. VigeeLebrun, the court painter of Marie Antoinette and Catherine the Great, and Peter Sokoloff, who painted the notables during the reign of Nicholas I. The cultural niche she eventually filled here was comparable to theirs. Like them, she painted the most illustrious families, the captains of industry, the heads of state. Having a watercolor by Mme. Shoumatoff in your living room was to the members of that group a mark of standing. It went with being in the Social Register. She worked best in watercolor, and gradually perfected a technique of laying color on color which was original. No other aquarellist comes close to her skin tones or her eyes. She captured the essence of the person through the eyes. Her eyes are uncanny.
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.
In 1920, the family sold the Pine Bush farm and moved to the village of Napanoch, five miles deeper in the mountains and next to Yama Farms. There Seaman installed them in a Colonial mansion called Southwick. It was a large country house. High ceilings gave the rooms a feeling of openness, and a portico of white columns reminded the family of Shideyevo. For the first time, they began to feel at home in America. At Yama Farms, they met a lot of people. Uncle was actually proposed to by Evangeline Johnson, a Johnson & Johnson Johnson, but he gently let her know he wasn’t interested. There is a picture of him taken during a picnic with her, which shows him sitting cross-legged, in his bow tie, on a slab of speckled granite that projects vertiginously over the cliffs behind Lake Minnewaska. Miss Johnson ended up marrying Leopold Stokowski, and when she complained, after a year, Uncle told her, “Well, now you must face the music.” Once, the family watched a tree-chopping contest between Edison, Ford, Firestone, and Burroughs. Seaman gave each man an axe, and they started swinging at trees of similar girth. Burroughs won, as had been expected. He was then in his eighties. Edison, who was in his seventies, was hard of hearing, but when Uncle said that ninety per cent of all Russians knew who Thomas Edison was he heard it quite well. Mopsy painted Ford’s son Edsel and Edsel’s family, but it was tiny Harvey Firestone whose family, over the years, gave her more business than any other. There must be sixty of her portraits in Firestone homes and boardrooms.
Famous writers, scientists, explorers, musicians-people who fitted in the category of Lion of the Hourwere invited by Seaman to entertain his guests. The pianist Ethel Newcomb came and played. Rose O’Neill, who had invented the Kewpie doll, came and painted murals of the fat pink cherubs with tiny wings in one of the rooms, which became known as the Rose O’Neill Room. Even the Hindu poet Rabindranath Tagore, who had won the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature, spent a few days at Yama Farms. He came walking down the snowy road to Southwick one morning with Baron Rosen, a former czarist Ambassador to the United States. “I’m really not responsible for bringing this Indian,” Rosen said to Mopsy, who was drinking tea in the kitchen. “I was walking down the hill to see you, and he joined me.” Mopsy and Uncle were fascinated by Tagore, and both asked if they might do his portrait. He agreed, took off his top hat, and sat in an armchair in the middle of the living room. As sister and brother sketched from different angles his dark, steady eyes and his flowing white beard, Tagore compared the human condition with that of an unhatched chick, pecking away at its shell and not knowing what is in store until the egg breaks and real life begins. At one point as the poet was pulling a handkerchief out of his pocket, a dime fell on the carpet. “Isn’t it odd,” he said, in excellent Oxford English. “An old gentleman gave me this as he was waiting for his car. Do I look like a tramp?” That evening, Seaman identified the donor as John D. Rockefeller, who had mentioned giving a dime to “an old Negro.”
Mopsy did a big likeness of Seaman for his reception room. She painted Rudolph Wurlitzer tuning a Stradivarius. In three years at Yama Farms, she painted about fifty portraits. By then, she was established. Without entirely breaking her connection with Yama Farms, she moved her studio to the Plaza Hotel, where she had more work than she could manage. From then on, it was always that way.
A few years ago, driving through the heart of what is now the borscht belt, I stopped in Napanoch. Southwick had burned to the ground not long before, and on its foundation stood a cinder-block Elks’ Club. Seaman’s log house had met the same fate several decades earlier, and had been replaced by sprout hardwoods and a trailer park, run by a man from the Bronx who could tell me nothing about Yama Farms.
IN 1925, the family moved to Merrick, on the South Shore of Long Island. Lyova had become a partner of Igor Sikorsky, who had started the Sikorsky Aero Engineering Corporation and was trying to build a viable commercial plane. While the family still had the farm, Lyova had pitched in there; there is a snapshot of him, in his fedora, sitting at the wheel of a tractor, and another of him standing in overalls and looking convincingly like a hayseed: bald on top, five feet eight, almost two hundred poundshe put on weight in exile. In business situations, an old associate told me, he let you do the talking and didn’t waste words, but in company he became an inspired raconteur. When they moved to Napanoch, Lyova had rented an apartment in New York, near Gramercy Park, and came out only on weekends. He had worked briefly for the Hershey Chocolate Company. Then he had been connected with the entrepreneurial side of radio, which was just taking off. He was an usher at the Russian Orthodox church on East Second Street, and drove a Studebaker. His children doted on him. He told them marvellous stories in installments. One, whose main characters were named Longfellow and Shortfellow, went on for several years. My father remembers visiting his office in the Flatiron Building; the company he was working for then made siphons for seltzer bottles. Lyova met Sikorsky at the Orthodox church in 1923. Sikorsky seemed more like a poet than like a manufacturer: he was a selfeffacing, deeply religious man, with mustaches that drooped over his lips, giving him a slightly Tatar appearance. His name was not yet synonymous with the helicopter, of course. After that remarkable breakthrough, whenever he had to introduce himself to people he would say, “I am Sikorsky,” and sheepishly twirl a finger above his head. His second love, after flight, was music. At work, he hummed the symphonies of his friend Rachmaninoff. In Russia during the war, he had built seventy-five fourengine bombers of advanced design, but he was at heart a pacifist. He meant the helicopter to be an angel of mercy, not a gunship. After he came to America, he dreamed of building palatial passenger planes, with staterooms and grand pianos. He had no shortage of energy or ideas. The problem was money. He had got out of Russia with the equivalent of a few hundred dollars, and was supporting himself by giving lectures on astronomy. His first backer in this country was Rachmaninoff. The composer gave Sikorsky five thousand dollars, and that was enough to start a company. In the beginning, it was a strictly emigre operation. Rachmaninoff was the vice-president; Lyova managed the money end. Sikorsky wasn’t a businessman-he just wanted to build planes-and agreed only reluctantly to be the president. The personnel manager was a dashing former officer in the White Army named George Mehrer, who had been wounded during the civil war while charging a hilltop installation of Bolsheviks. The hill was so steep that the bullet entered his shoulder and went out through his lower back, just missing his heart. “The reason it bypassed my heart,” Mehrer told his wife, a beautiful woman named Tanya (from whom I heard the story), “is that I was so scared my heart was in my boots.” Construction of the S-29, Sikorsky’s all-metal, twin-engine passenger plane, began in a back yard in Old Westbury, then moved to a rented hangar at Roosevelt Field. There were twenty or twenty-five mechanics, “calling each other Baron, Count, or General, like inmates of an asylum, and making tools of anything handy,” T he New Yorker reported in August of 1926, explaining, “Sikorsky recruited his workmen from unfortunate and educated fellow-countrymen. All wear overalls and speak several languages.” My father remembers Sikorsky visiting N apanoch in 1925 and helping him build a toy airplane whose fuselage was a spool of thread. That weekend, Mopsy happened to be painting a man named Arnold C. Dickinson, a rich real-estate man from Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Dickinson got to talking with Sikorsky, and decided to invest a hundred thousand dollars in his company. Sikorsky was so grateful that he made Dickinson the president, and stepped down to the position of vice-president in charge of engineering. Now they could go full steam ahead on the S-35, Sikorsky’s latest design, which he hoped would be the first plane to fly non-stop from N ew York to Paris. Lyova and Mopsy were among hundreds of spectators who lined Roosevelt Field, on Long Island, in their cars and watched the S-35 start down the runway at 5 A.M. on September 21, 1926. The pilot was the famous French ace Rene Fonck. The engine was British, and had cost fifteen thousand dollars. The plane was loaded with gas and supplies. Halfway down the runway, one of the auxiliary landing gears released and dragged on the ground, tearing off part of the rudder. The plane then plunged into the ravine at the end of the runway and burst into flame. F onck and the navigator escaped without injury, but the assistant navigator and the radio operator died in the wreck. The company was set back by the disaster, and lost the transatlantic race to Lindbergh, who reached Paris the following year. But in 1928 Sikorsky signed a lucrative contract with Juan Trippe, who had started Pan American Airways. Wall Street began to take an interest, and that year the company graduated from its makeshift, emigre phase.
That year, too, the family became American citizens. Having boned up on American history, Uncle presented himself for the examination. He was asked to explain the third amendment. “I don’t know,” he stammered nervously. Then he smiled. “And, actually, I don’t want to know, because I consider the Constitution of the United States such a perfect document that it needs no amendments.” The maid Alika was also examined, and remembers the ordeal vividly. In ten years, she had learned almost no English. “I was reading a little book I had, and the Avinoffs, they help me. They ask questions like ‘What flies over the courthouse?’ Supposed to say ‘Flag.’ One Russian say ‘Pigeons.’ ‘When the President dies, who takes his job?’ One Russian say ‘The undertaker.’ Or ‘How many stars in the flag, and what for those stars standing?’ In those days, it was forty-eight.”
The family’s social life in Merrick was lively. Lyova was a bon vivant, and entertained constantly. Grandmother took charge of the cooking. The family saw a lot of the Sikorskys. Uncle designed the company’s Winged-S logotype and argued with Sikorsky over interpretations of the Scriptures. Sikorsky played the violin, Mopsy had a beautiful voice, and Uncle would sit at the piano and play Viennese waltzes and Ukrainian folk songs in cascading arpeggios allover the keyboard. Sometimes Rachmaninoff would join them. He and Uncle had become friends in St. Petersburg. My parents still have a fine sketch that Uncle made in red crayon of Rachmaninoff’s head.
The family moved in two circles: aviation people, who were mostly Russians, and Merrick people, who were Americans of long standing. In those days, Merrick was a summer resort for thirty-five families, all of whom had considerable property, and many of whom were related, at least by marriage. Henry and Albert Lanier, grandsons of the Georgia poet Sidney Lanier, stayed there often. They were in their late teens. “Like everyone in Merrick, we were interested in tennis,” Henry Lanier has told me. He is now in his seventies and lives not far from me in Westchester County. “There were three clay courts at the
Merrick Club, which also had a creekside beach. If you were a man, you played in white flannels. Only sissies wore shorts. You shot ducks and dug clams in the Great South Bay. The causeway to Jones Beach had not yet been built, and there were miles of virgin seashore. Nature still predominated, and the hunting and fishing were still good. In the evening, you could drive to Lynbrook and dance to Meyer Davis’s orchestra. Sometimes the music was so soft you’d be dancing and not even notice it but you’d still be keeping time. Afterward-it had been such a grand evening you didn’t want it to end yet-you went for a joyride on the parkway. Six was about all the car would hold. If you got up to forty, that was fast.”
Every Fourth of July, the members of the Merrick Club hired a motor launch with a driver and went five miles across the Great South Bay to picnic in the wild dunes of Jones Beach. In 1928, there were about thirty-five in the party, including Lyova, Mopsy, Zoric, my father, and the Lanier boys. Everyone went for a swim when the boat landed, at eleven o’clock. The men were in dark trunks that went halfway to their knees, and, as modesty required, separate tops. The women had on knee-length bathing costumes, and bathing caps. After the swim, Henry and Albert Lanier and the other young men went off to gather driftwood for a clambake. Everyone ate and drank heartily, then went in for a second swim. The water deepened gradually. At two hundred and fifty feet out, you were still only up to your waist. The surf was gentle, but there was a terrific undertow. Lyova went out over his head, far from the others. Suddenly, he was calling for help. Henry Schwab, the president of the Merrick Club, swam out to him with a mountain-climbing rope. Being a great explorer, Schwab was also president of the American Alpine Club, and always carried a rope. My father swam out, too, but he was only ten and there was little he could do. Lyova was a heavy man. By the time he had been brought in and laid out on the sand, there were no signs of life. The official cause of death was given as drowning, but I have talked to five witnesses, and they all believe he had a heart attack. His insurance man was a friend of the family, and was instrumental in getting the ruling. Lyova was covered for accidental death but not for cardiac arrest. Mopsy was left with three children; their third child, Elizabeth (Baby), had been born in 1922. With Sikorsky’s aircraft doing so well, Mopsy had been on the verge of taking an early retirement from professional portrait painting.
There was a full Russian funeral for Lyova, with three hours of wailing over the open coffin, and when it was over Mopsy gave up the house in Merrick and sold all her Sikorsky stock. She wanted to make a clean start. After a period of mourning, she bought a new car and a big house on the North Shore (Hidden Hollow, it was called) and started to paint in earnest.
SOON after his arrival here, Uncle began considering an artistic career. New York was already appreciative of Russian music. Now a wave of deracinated Russian painters-Bakst, Anisfeld, Roerich-was hitting the city, and attracting a good deal of attention. Uncle didn’t really have much in common with them, but at least they provided a context in which his work could be examined. Early in 1921, he had a one-man show-at the Ainslie Galleries, on Fifth Avenue. Among forty watercolors, pastels, and drawings were six Tibetan scenes, three portraits of Nijinsky, one portrait of Rachmaninoff and one of Tagore, eight sunsets, a rainbow, a nightmare, and several mordant miniatures. There was also a grotesque that he had painted for fouryear-old Zoric. In it, a skunklike witch, with striped fur and white fangs, is slinking with a tasselled parasol across an arid landscape that contains only a stylized Persian bush and a faint, towering mirage of the W 001worth Building-or, rather, a model of the Woolworth Building that Zoric picked up at a souvenir stand. I grew up with this creature on my bedroom wall. She was known to me as Nyanya Skunks-Nanny Skunk-and fascinated me more than she frightened me. The more you looked at her, the more you discovered. Each of her toenails, for instance, had an opalescent reflection. The painting was meant to convey some of Uncle’s initial feelings about America. Then, there were several soft pastels Uncle had done in the Catskills. He seemed to be entering a blue period, but his blueness was more like Maxfield Parrish’s than like Picasso’s. “I want to paint the way the lilac smells,” he said one evening after a heavy rain.
The reviews were, on the whole, approving. “A decidedly mixed type is Mr. Avinoff,” said the New York Tribune. “His drawing may be a trifle mannered, but it is skillful drawing, remarkably skillful.” The Sun said, “Some of his ‘Sunsets’ look as though they were taken from the Palisades of New Jersey. All of them have a purity of line that can come from only the most delicate perception.” The Herald said, “Like the other Russians who have come here, he loves to use details in wholesale quantities. He even applies this penchant to the American landscapes which he has achieved since coming here, and as the public itself dearly loves details, and lots of them, Mr. Avinoff ought to have a popular success.” Only the Brooklyn Eagle spoke of a lack of “the direct simplicity which characterizes the greatest works of art.”
In the early twenties, Uncle did very well as an artist. He painted, for five hundred dollars a shot, portraits of such prominent New Yorkers as Mrs. John Gregory Hope (the former Countess Maud Salm), and, through Frank Seaman, he embarked on a subsidiary career in commercial art which he later described as “lucrative.” He illustrated an advertisement for Scranton’s lace curtains which ran on the inside back cover of Vogue. He did a series of paintings that the Johns-Manville Company used extensively in 1923-of a suburban house whose Colorblende roof withstands the ravages of the four seasons while nicely complementing its brick walls. He placed a monumental bottle of Colgate’s Florient in a rugged setting of Himalayan snowpeaks. For the Underwood Typewriter Company, he cooked up an explorer typing a letter home by candlelight from the Valley of the Kings. The explorer has taken off his pith helmet, and a host of houris, labelled “Winged Words,” is fluttering up from “the machine you will eventually carry.” He made drawings for the Graybar Electric Company and for Nunnally’s, “the candy of the South,” that were unlike anything the advertising community had seen before or would see again. Some of his renditions of everyday household articles attracted attention as works of art. One was included in an anthology of the best commercial art of the decade. He must have been amused by the seriousness with which his work was taken. The whole idea that people were racking their brains and ruining their health to promote a bar of soap I or a tube of dental cream must have been puzzling to him.
While he was thus scrambling for a living, he had little time for butterflies. In an article for Etudes de Lipidoptirologie, published in March, 1920, he described how he had started as a boy and gradually built up, at tremendous, cost and effort, his collection of eighty thousand Palearctic Rhopalocera (Old World butterflies), particularly strong in Parnassius and Colias, only to see it impounded by the Bolsheviks. “At the moment,” he concluded (in French), “I have given up almost all hope of getting back this collection, and have neither the courage nor the means to start a new one.” His colleague Charles Oberthiir, the French specialist in hawkmoths, wrote a stirring foreword to the recit-it included an encouraging stanza from Horaceurging Uncle to take heart and suggesting that it was his duty to science to use his God-given talent and start collecting again.
In 1922, Uncle met the dean of American entomologists, William J. Holland. In Russia, in 1898, when Uncle was fourteen, his father had given him Holland’s classic work “The Butterfly Book.” Its companion volume, “The Moth Book,” is still the standard text. In them, American butterflies and moths were referred to by names that people could understand. By calling Papilio cresphontes the giant swallowtail, and Polygonia interro gatiorlis the question sign (it’s now called the question mark), he brought them a whole new following. Most of his common names are still in use. Only a few-like “the waiter,” a long-tailed tropical nymphalid that occasionally drifts up to south Florida -haven’t stuck. Holland was the chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh and a Presbyterian minister, whose sermons had almost frightening authority. Natural history was just a hobby. He was an intimate of “the dukes of Pittsburgh”-Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Mellon, and Andrew Carnegie. Each had made a fortune and was looking for ways to spend it. Frick and Mellon chose to collect art, and began to buy Old Masters. Carnegie decided to enlarge the horizons of the young people of Pittsburgh. As early as 1895, he had presented Pittsburgh with a library and a concert hall. One day in 1898, Holland showed Carnegie a newspaper story about some fossilized dinosaurs that had just been discovered in Utah. Holland wanted to dig up the bones and bring them to Pittsburgh. Carnegie wrote on a corner of the newspaper, “Give Holland ten thousand dollars,” tore off the note, which was good at any bank, and handed it to Holland. That was the first big acquisition of the Carnegie Museum; Holland, without giving up his pulpit, became the museum’s first director.
In 1922, Holland invited Uncle to join the museum as an associate curator of entomology. Carnegie had died three years earlier, and there was now little money available for salaries, but Uncle was getting bored with commercial art and missed working with butterflies, so he accepted. He went to Pittsburgh, and as he started going through the museum’s rich collection he saw that it would take years of taxo’nomic work just to figure out what had already been acquired. Before long, he had picked out twentythree new species or varieties. It was up to him to describe and christen them. He named a Colombian pierid for Holland, and a Bolivian swallowtail for Douglas Stewart, a geologist, who in 1922 succeeded Holland as director of the museum, Holland having retired at seventy-four to devote his remaining years to revising his monumental butterfly book. Uncle helped him with the section that explained the evolutionary connection between North American and Old World forms. In gratitude, Holland named a wood nymph Erebia avinoffi, after Uncle, and a small new skipper Thanaos avinoffi, after Uncle’s naval grandfather, who had been skipper of the Discovery. Uncle was thrilled with these nomenclatural tributes, and for Holland’s eightieth birthday he painted on the borders of a testimonial scroll from the staff all the species that bore Holland’s name-not just butterflies but also a hawkmoth, a hummingbird, a stingray, several fish, and a tree.
Though Pittsburgh was booming industrially, it was culturally unsure of itself. It had a painter, John Kane, who was doing fine primitives of its steel mills and smoke-filled hollows, but the rich would not have his work on their walls. The rich, who lived in grand Edwardian houses, were mostly Scots-Presbyterian executives in steel. Their stratum began to coalesce in the eighteen-eighties and lasted two generations. During the Depression, it collapsed completely. The men were self-made. They played golf at the Rolling Rock Club and sowed their wild oats in New York. Their wives, who had made the grand tour and gone through the art museums of Europe, were the receptacles of culture. To them, the arts were no laughing matter. Culture had to come from the Old World, and when Uncle appeared in their midst he seemed the very embodiment of it. “He descended on our city like a fabulous creature from another planet,” a man who later took courses in fine arts at the University of Pittsburgh recalls. “He was the idol of my youth. Like a twirling Christmas ornament in a department-store window, he reflected in muted brilliance all the facets of the world around him.”
Uncle didn’t talk about his past, but the women of Pittsburgh found out about it. Soon they were vying for the chance to have a gentleman-in-waiting to the late Czar at their dinner tables. Word began to get around that he was omniscient, and one wealthy East End woman, determined to trip him up on a point of esoteric knowledge, went to the Carnegie Library
and consulted a rare volume on Persian rugs. That evening, while he was sitting cross-legged on her livingroom floor-it was rumored that he had learned the virtue of that posture during a long residence in Asia-she asked him about an obscure rug she had read up on. He told her all about it-the town in which it had been woven, the symbolic meaning of its design, and a couple of things that weren’t included in the book. “I saw a certain amount of Dr. Avinoff at dinners, and so on,” recalls John Walker, who grew up in Pittsburgh. “I must say I was deeply impressed by him; and it’s hard to impress a bumptious young man who thinks he’s rather intellectual himself. I’ve never known anyone else with the universal knowledge he had. I thought it must be fake-I thought he was a phony-so I probed and probed when I saw him at parties. I wanted to show him up, but I never could, because it was all sound, he was all there, he really did know. And whenever he came out with an extraordinary erudite fact-something that you wouldn’t expect him to know, and that certainly no one in Pittsburgh knew-he always did it deferentially, as though he were apologizing for his brilliance. It was very curious. Maybe it’s a Russian characteristic. It went beyond modesty. There was something almost obsequious about his attitude toward his gifts, and it irritated me madly.”
Not long after Uncle had come to Pittsburgh, he was seated next to Mrs. Richard K. Mellon at a dinner. She kept calling him Mr. Ivanoff. To him, that was like being called Mr. Jones or Mr. Smith. At last, he said, “I beg your pardon, Mrs. Mellon, but my name is Avinoff.”
“Ivanoff, Avinoff-what’s the difference?” she asked.
“Well, what would you say if I called you Mrs. Lemon?” he asked, smiling tartly.
Mrs. Mellon was impressed. It was the beginning of a friendship.
In 1926, when Douglas Stewart died suddenly and the museum’s directorship fell vacant, Uncle was summoned to a luncheon with the trustees. He was asked how, as a scientist, he could justify belief in God, and how he thought the war had affected the quality of modern art. He fielded the questions with his usual dexterity, saying, “True science is not opposed to true religion,” and “A lot of inferior art has been produced in the last few years, but I don’t think as a result of the war,” and he was offered the job. During the next twenty years, he was a familiar sight on Forbes Avenue-an elegant, sparrow-boned man, with pince-nez and natty bow tie, reading as he walked.
Every summer vacation, my father would go to Pittsburgh and stay with Uncle. When he was thirteen, he mounted five hundred Amazonian butterflies at a table in the insect lab across from Dr. Holland, who was in his eighties. Holland entertained him with stories about the great naturalists of the century before, with whom he had been widely acquainted. Periodically, when an antenna or a wing snapped off an insect that Holland was working on, he would roar for the glue in the voice that had made him famous in the pulpit, and one of the museum’s preparators, a fellow-octogenarian named Krautwurm, would come running with the repair kit. Staff members joked that some of the spots on Holland’s specimens were tobacco juice and that some of the antennae were hairs pulled from his own head.
Between 1931 and 1940, Uncle made five collecting trips to Jamaica. My father went with him. For Uncle, Jamaica had been “a dreamland of tropical splendor” since, as a boy in Russia, he came across an old novel about Jamaica by Captain Mayne Reid. He remembered vainly scrutinizing the illustrations with a magnifying glass in search of butterflies. When he finally got there, Jamaica proved to be the lepidopterous promised land he had imagined. Avinoff and Shoumatoff caught over fourteen thousand “bots,” as butterflies are called on the island, and doubled the number of species known on Jamaica to more than a thousand; one of the new butterflies they caught was named for my father-Shoumatoff’s hairstreak. Dashing around the island with their organdie nets, in pith helmets wrapped in white pongee, and canvas leggings to keep off chiggers and ticks, and with their pockets bulging with cyanide jars, they must have looked like outre creatures themselves. Once a week or so, they would put in at one of the better hotels, shave, shower, slip on a clean pair of white ducks, and join the vacationing British for dinner. In one dining room, with a deft presto, my father snagged a sphinx moth that had been dive-bombing a bald, bullet-headed old blighter, and everyone in the room applauded. “Presto” was my father’s term for catching a butterfly in midair. It was opposed to an “adagio,” in which you sneaked up to where the quarry was sitting.
By car, on foot, or on horseback, the two of them covered most of the island. My father did the driving. (Uncle bought a Chevrolet in Pittsburgh, to be American, but never learned to drive.) In Cuna Cuna Pass, in the remote Johncrow Mountains, they caught the giant Papilio homerus, the largest swallowtail in the N ew World, which is found only on Jamaica and is a famous rarity. When Uncle saw his first homerus-broad-winged, its wings five inches from tip to tip, and black with yellow discal bands and spatulate tails-sailing in a gully, he called my father, who was a few hundred yards away. He shouted my father’s boyhood name, “Goula,” which means “little dove” in Russian, and was a fairly common nickname in Old Russia. The guides thought Uncle was referring to the bot, and the word entered the Jamaican patois. To this day, on the eastern half of the island large swallowtails are known as goulas. Uncle and my father spent hours observing the Papilio hornerus, and they filmed it in flight with a movie camera. It has no close relative, and Uncle thought that it must be the last survivor of some ancient tribe that had evolved before the Lesser Antilles rose up from the sea.
On their 1936 trip, they walked into the Cockpit Country, on the western half of the island, with some trepidation. A region of jumbled knobs and hollows choked with rain forest, it was the domain of the Maroons, whose slave ancestors fled there in the eighteenth century and were never captur~d. The Jamaicans themselves stayed out of the District of Look Behind, as the Maroons’ territory was called, because of the likelihood of being ambushed. Few whites had been there, and no butterfly collectors. The Maroons were said to have preserved their African ways-to be still practicing Obeah, or black magic, for instance-and some were even rumored to be cannibals. The entomologists entered Accompong, the Maroons’ capi:’ tal, and presented a letter of introduction from the governor of the island to the head man, who called himself Colonel Robinson. The Colonel produced a bottle of rum and began to talk about Hitler, whose rise he had been following on his shortwave radio. “Dat man is a bad man,” he said. He arranged a hut for them, with a woman to cook for them and wash their clothes. They stayed a week. In a banana garden near a tiny settlement called Wilson’s Run, they stumbled on the russet-andblack Chlosyne pantoni. Fifty years earlier, a planter named Panton had caught several on the edges of his woodland, and they were named for him. Only one other collector, an English spinster named Margaret Fountaine, had succeeded in catching a pantoni. “She was an intrepid woman, who spent her time travelling in exotic places of the world and more or less casually catching butterflies,” my father has written. “She had a fabulous record for picking up the rarest species at every place she visited. It was almost as a matter of course that, when she came to Jamaica in 1911, she captured a pantoni.” A quarter of a century later, he and U ncle were able to assemble a fine set of the species, including a dozen specimens of the female, which not even Panton had ever seen. She is almost twice as big as the male and has yellow submarginal spots instead of reddishbrown ones.
Uncle’s greatest contribution to science was a two-hundred-and-fiftypage monograph on the Karanasa, a genus from the steppes and mountainsides of central Asia. Its posthumous publication, in 19 51- Walter R. Sweadner, the Carnegie Museum’s curator of insects and spiders, finished it after Uncle died-was an event in entomological circles. “While biologists write precisely of species, subspecies, and similar categories, such terms really have no fixed meanings,” the lepidopterist Thomas C. Emmel explains in his book “Butterflies.” “Within the Karanasa, hybridization occurs at all levels, and wing shape, colors, and patterns vary apparently at random between one local population and the next. Avinoff and Sweadner proposed the local population as the basic biological unit many years before others interested in evolution began shifting their own emphasis from the importance of the species level to the population level.” Like the heliconiines of the American tropics, the Karanasa seem to be in a state of ongoing mutation. Uncle and Sweadner wrote, “The infinite variety nurtured by the isolated factors of high barren mountains and deep eroded valleys has resulted in the impression that no two specimens are alike, that a chaotic condition exists… like the colors of pansies. ..among cultivated flowers.” Tentatively, they broke the genus down into seventy-five separate forms. Uncle and Sweadner knew that not everyone would agree with them. “Some of these designations may be merged into greater units,” they predicted, “or will have to be thrown overboard altogether into the hospitable waters of the sea of synonymy, where due oblivion comes to things that should better be forgotten, or which should never have been mentioned to begin with.”
Uncle wanted to be seen as an American museum director, and complained that the exotic image the press insisted on giving him put his work in a distorted light. He was good at his job, and thrived at it for twenty years. During the twenties, despite the scarcity of funds, he managed to get a lot of collecting done cheaply, and during the thirties, a rough time for all scientific institutions, he managed to keep his staff intact. Museum displays were starting to evolve from the stuffed
specimen to the whole environment. It was the golden age of the diorama, and Uncle worked closely with the Carnegie Museum’s staff artist, Ottmar von Fuehrer, on the backgrounds for habitat groups. One diorama re-created the Pittsburgh of ninety million years before, when it was part of a giant swamp, five thousand miles square, with fantastic ferns and horsetails. Without all that carboniferous plant debris, there wouldn’t have been any coal, or anything like the city there was now. Uncle wanted the museum to show these relationships. He wanted to transform it from a “sombre, gloomy storage place,” as he wrote in the Carnegie Magazine, into one that inspired “a sense of wonder before the boundless variety and the supreme unity of life.” So he thought a lot about the public exhibits. In them, examples of the world’s seven hundred and fifty thousand known animal species (the number is over a million now)-from “the curious~ looking dwellers of a greatly magnified drop of water” to “the gregarious species of the polar regions”-should take “their orderly place as ambassadors of their respective clans.” The exhibits should reach out in space to the farthest corners of the world and reach back in time to periods when horses were the size of dogs, and dragonflies had two-foot wingspans. They should show that progress in nature “is not uniform”-that “there are waves and cycles, rising tides and ebbs; old types are discarded, new types ascend, but by these spiral paths increasingly higher destinies are fulfilled.”
During the war, Uncle visited Childs Frick at his beautiful house on Bermuda. Frick was a dedicated amateur zoologist and paleontologist, and a generous supporter of the museum. He donated the animals he had shot in East Africa-hartebeest, topi, gnu, klipspringer, oryx, bushbuck, spotted kudu, eland, ibex, and dik-dik as well as the usual run of big game. Uncle did some pastels of reef fish at the Bermuda Aquarium, and Frick had the pastels made into postcards. William Beebe, the celebrated oceanographer, was there, too, living at his research station on Nonsuch Island and taking his bathysphere deeper than anyone had ever gone. Uncle and Beebe were helping Fairfield Osborn, the director of the N ew York Zoological Society, with the Pacific World series, a set of handbooks on the flora and fauna of the Pacific, which the government was putting out for the G .I.s. Archibald Roosevelt, Theodore’s son, who had just joined the Army and was bound for New Guinea, was visiting Frick, too. Uncle asked him to keep an eye out for a certain New Guinean moth that was the size of a plate. When Roosevelt arrived in New Guinea, he caught one and persuaded General MacArthur to have it rushed to the Carnegie Museum with the General’s personal stamp on the package. In gratitude, Uncle did a pen-and-ink portrait of MacArthur and sent it to him.
Roosevelt once told my sister he thought Uncle was “one of the greatest men there were,” explaining.. “He and his sister arrived in this country without a soul to their name and they became two of its most prominent citizens. I’m proud of America because that happened. And I’m proud of them.”
Despite Uncle’s wide circle of acquaintances, he always remained something of a mystery. Not many Pittsburghers could say that they had ever been to his rooms, in the Scheney Hotel. Behind his gregariousness and his optimism, there was a great reserve, even a degree of pain. He talked about things-seldom about people. His manners were formal. He rarely put you on a first-name basis, and you certainly wouldn’t have dared to ask him a personal question. But his close friends-and, of course, the famiy knew how he suffered from being wrenched from his homeland, and how he worried about his brother Nika and his sister-in-law Masha, still over there. In a 1941 letter to Frederick Mortimer Clapp, the director of the Frick Collection, in New York, he wrote:
According to recent war news some bitter fights are occurring in a marshy region midway between Poltava and Neprovsk. From all indications, this must be very near our old estate. As I think I told you, the old house derives its name, “Shideyevo,” from the Tartar word, “shado,” meaning fortress. No one can foretell the future development of present events, but I cannot help feeling somehow that this head-on collision of the two totalitarian systems will result with broken cervicals on both sides. It goes without saying that the third totalitarian dictator will have the same fate while his star dwindles to the size of an indescript and practically nameless planetoid. You do not blame me for making a distinction between Russia, which has a long history in the past and, I trust, a fine future to come, “nd its present government as a passing phase of its existence. The stubborn resistance of the population and the army, I interpret in terms of a natural protection of the country from any invasion and not necessarily as a sign of a steady support of the present political system, which I hope will disappear in due time from the face of the earth. Meanwhile I do not have any direct news from my brother, from whom I have not heard for many years; but I realize from the information I receive from time to time from his wife that he is either in prison or in exile somewhere.
During the flowering seasons of 1941 and 1942, Uncle did two hundred and fifty-three watercolors of wild flowers of western Pennsylvania. Otto Jennings, the museum’s curator of botany, would bring flowers to him fresh at the end of the day, and he would fall to work immediately. He painted them as they were. If a leaf was partly nibbled by insects, or some rust or smut discolored it, he showed it that way. Even the lowly smartweed, putting out a leaf here and there, and tipped with a bright-pink spike, took on a special vibrance in his rendering. He used Schmincke colors, which he considered the brightest and longestlasting. “Only transparent pigment and no opaque colors,” he wrote afterward. “No white paint anywhere, not a single stroke used in the highlights. The white is the paper and all light parts are lighter washes of the pigment.” The resulting “Wild Flowers of Western Pennsylvania and the Upper Ohio Basin,” in two hefty volumes, one with Uncle’s plates, the other with Jennings’ text, remains one of the most loving regional surveys in the annals of American botany.
These projects, on top of a frenetic social life, finally took their toll. Uncle never stopped to recharge. His patience with detail seemed unlimited. “He was always interested in the other person,” I was told by a colleague of his, who described him saluting the janitors in Italian. He made special trips to visit Krautwurm’s niece, a lonely girl who lived on a farm in Ohio, and took her through the fields in search of birds, bugs, and butterflies. Today, the niece recalls, “He told me stories about palaces and princes and taught me to look forward to everything-spring, rain, new buds.” Zoric says, “He was a very quick-moving person, darting across the room to see if there was something you needed. In the speed at which he painted, he was like a butterfly hovering. To look at something, he would take his pince-nez off. Then he would quickly put them back again. So they were like a butterfly hovering in his hands.” On April 10, 1945, Uncle had a bad heart attack. He was sixtyone and was in the middle of a hundred things.
After his heart attack, Uncle resigned the directorship and went to live with Mopsy at Hidden Hollow. She installed a staircase elevator for him, and he took over a room on the second floor. My brother Nick remembers going up to see Uncle at Hidden Hollow when he was five or six years old. The room was a mess-books and butterflies and drawings all over the place. In the middle of the chaos was a delicate and restrained old man who seemed almost to be made of ivory. He played some game with the boy that had a didactic thrust, and was nervous that the boy was going to touch something and break it. Uncle spent a quiet year at Hidden Hollow, painting flowers. He made about a hundred watercolors of orchids-cattleyas, laelias, and related hybrids-that a friend of Mopsy’s who lived nearby sent over from his greenhouse. He started a series of Old World roses with butterflies tilting and clouds billowing over a sparsely wooded plain. The butterflies were species he had caught in his boyhood. The plain recalled the steppe around Poltava. He was calmly looking back to his youth. He painted the roses in the tradition of the great botanical illustrators of just after 1800-Redoute and Van Spandonk. But he was painting in a broader manner now, not with the fine brush of a miniaturist. He was attentive to the total organic presentation, to the rhythm and harmony of the growth form, and also to what happened with a little aging. One morning, likt a rapturous child, he showed Mopsy a watercolor he had just finished. “The odor of the rose seemed to flow from the end of my brush as I painted,” ht told her. “I became the rose.”
Feeling stronger, Uncle moved into a small apartment on Fifth Avenue. There were one-man shows of his flowers, to rave reviews, at Knoedler’s, at the American Museum of Natural History, at the N ew York Botanical Garden. J ohn Walker chose “The Emergence of the Black Tulip” and two other watercolors by Uncle for the National Gallery. “I thought he was certainly the best flower painter I knew of in our age, and it would be good to have him represented,” Walker told my sister a few years ago. Uncle threw himself into a lecture series that the Metropolitan Museum asked him to give. Life was about to run a story on him. A montage of Uncle, bow-tied and surrounded by butterflies, had been chosen, and the copy was in type. “Keeping up with the art world and different scientific groups, he was living in the last months of his life the way he had always wanted,” Mopsy, who rented the apartment across the hall, wrote in a private memoir. “He had reached great ability in his art, he had acquired a quality of supreme wisdom and serenity, and, with all his interests in the surrounding world, a growing detachment from everything in general. His energy and concerns, regarding what he believed were his responsibilities, lasted almost to the end. It was only three days before his death when some great transformation took place, that suddenly everything that attached him in a physical way to his life was cut and his whole being centered from then on in that forthcoming transition of which he had spoken so often in his discussions on life and death, and which, even before any immediate end was anticipated, he pictured as one great release into a fuller existence with an ever-expanding freedom to develop those God-given talents that were specifically yours since time immemorial.” He died on July 16, 1949. His last words: “The air-how clean it is.” There was a large funeral at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral two days later. He had flippantly asked to be buried in the gray cape he had worn to the Versailles Peace Conference, and this was done.
WHEN I was growing up, there were two green sacks in the attic. One contained hundreds of mushy letters Pa had written to Mom during the war. The other was stuffed with old Russian paper money-wads of imperial rubles that my grandfather Lyova had brought to America in 1917 on his purchasing mission for the Provisional Government. When he got here, of course, the money was worthless. I used to hold up the large bills to the window and examine their watermark. The five-hundred-ruble notes were black and were watermarked with the dapper figure of Peter the Great, suited in armor. The hundred-ruble notes were called katerinkas; they showed a bust of Catherine the Great, a large, haughty woman with white hair, who reminded me of Aunt Masha.
More than from anyone else in my childhood, it was from maudlin, aristocratic Masha that I got the strongest sense of the old country. I was fascinated by her rings. There were eight of them. Each had a past, and whenever we met I would ask her to tell me about it. One of Masha’s rings had a large fake pearl. She told me that it had been a gift of the Aga Khan, who had invited her and Nika on his yacht while they were honeymooning on Lake Como. Eventually, she confessed that the ring had in fact come from a thrift shop on McAllister Street, in San Francisco. But such niggardly details were never important in Masha’s stories. “If that’s not the way it was, that’s how it ought to be told,” she was fond of saying.
Nika wrote to his mother faithfully after her departure from Russia in 1917, but the letters revealed little beyond the nature of his work, and the interest he took in it. Even if it hadn’t been dangerous, Nika wouldn’t have said what he and his family were really going through. Grandmother lived until 1933. In order not to be a burden on her children, she had become increasingly independent. She made the rounds of the Orthodox churches and emigre communities in N ew York. She travelled farther afield on her own. There is a snapshot of her in a rain slicker, leaning against a railing beneath Horseshoe Fall; she looks thoroughly invigorated. After Alika married an emigre mechanic and moved to Brooklyn, Grandmother would often take the subway to visit them. She had her own friends. She wore black most of the time, and wore her hair up. She had a strong, kind character. Before her death, she made Mopsy promise to break off with a dashing Russian test pilot who worked for Sikorsky. Mopsy had been seeing a lot of him, but she kept her promise. Nika wrote how sad he was to hear that his mother had died, and that was the last letter the family received from him.
But there were still indirect bits of news. When Mopsy was painting Cyrus McCormick, he recalled being taken around a tractor exhibit in Moscow by a “saintly” man, who turned out to have been Nika. “Saint” is the word that was most commonly used to describe him. In the early thirties, Mopsy and Uncle read eagerly the fragment that appeared in “British Agent,” Bruce Lockhart’s memoir of the Revolution and its aftermath:
The realists were few in number. They included men like Avinoff, the former Assistant Minister of the Interior. ..a man of great intelligence and objectivity …whom no one could help liking. The revolution had destroyed everything he held dear in life. But. ..in the course of a brilliant expose of the revolutionary movement he told me sadly that the Bolsheviks were the only government that had shown the slightest sign of strength. ..and that the counter-revolution had no chance of success for years to come.
Later in the decade, Mopsy’s cook took a message from a man who said he was staying at the St. George Hotel in Brooklyn but wouldn’t leave his name. He said that he had been in a prison camp with Nika, and that Nika was still alive. In 1932, Zoric was visiting a woman in Babylon, Long Island, who took in paying guests. One of the guests was a white-haired Russian who was recovering from an appendectomy. Zoric started talking with him. He said he represented a Soviet match company and was going to Pittsburgh as soon as he got better. “You must look up my uncle Andrei Avinoff when you get there,” she said. The man slapped his forehead and said, “That’s the name. I have a package for him. A friend of mine who works in the Swedish Embassy in Moscow gave it to me. He found it when he was housecleaning some files. It was addressed to someone in America, but the label fell off, and I couldn’t remember the name.” The package contained some of Uncle’s photographs of the Pamirs. Nika had given it to a friend at the Embassy ten years earlier to take out of the country.
Occasionally, the family would get a letter from Masha. She had been exiled to Kazakhstan, near the Chinese border. Then she was living somewhere outside Moscow. But she hadn’t seen Nika since 1937, and didn’t even know if he was still alive.
One night in 1944, Uncle came to dinner at some friends’ house beside himself. “The most extraordinary thing has happened,” he told them. “My sister-in-law just wired from Paris. She got out of Russia!”
When the war was over, Masha came to America. She arrived in May, 1947, and filled the family in on the last thirty years. After Lenin broke up the Constituent Assembly in January, 1918, it was obvious that she and Nika should have left, or at least gone south with Vladimir N abokov, Sr., and the other liberals who had organized it. But Nika wanted to stay. (“After the Great October Socialist Revolution, Lenin invited the former nobility to stay and work for the common cause, without fear of reprisal,” I was told by an Intourist girl named Olga when I visited Russia in 1979. “Lenin was a nobleman himself. Many of them stayed. Of course, they lost all their wealth and property.”) Nika was put in charge of a fuel cooperative known as Kooperatop, whose purpose was to keep Moscow supplied with coal and firewood. Because rail service had been disrupted by the civil war, the city was in danger of freezing. He did his job well, and the Bolsheviks saw that he was useful. Masha had managed to move most of the valuables-the Aubusson carpets, the family portraits, the silver-from the palace of her grandfather Alexander Scherbatov before it was nationalized, and she and Nika were living in the twenty-oneroom house of friends who had escaped to France. They still had six devoted servants, including old Joseph, her grandfather’s butler, who refused to stop wearing his white tie and tails. Joseph opened the door the first time that the secret police-then called the Cheka-came to search the house. “My friends, what can I do for you?” Joseph asked. The policemen, in leather coats and with pistols drawn, stood gaping for a moment. On their next visit, Nika was arrested, but he was soon released. In addition to managing the Kooperatop, he was made president of a society for members of the learned professions. By September, 1920, their friends’ ballroom had been partitioned and they were sharing the house with ninety people. They still ate with Scherbatov silver-though the food was thin potato gruel and an occasional windfall of horsemeat.
Between 1920 and early 1933, Nika was arrested six times by the G.P.U., as the Cheka was renamed. There were never any charges, and he was always released within months and instantly reemployed. He was still useful. While he was in prison, Masha typed his economics papers and translated Russian poetry into French. Late in 1933, Nika was arrested again. The G.P.U. was now the N.K.V.D. This time, it looked as if someone wanted Nika out of the way. Masha went straight to Nikolai Krylenko, the Commissar of Justice, and pleaded for Nika’s release. Krylenko had done some exploring in the Pamirs and was familiar with Uncle’s work. “So your husband is the brother of that White vermin?” Krylenko asked. But he admired Masha’s guts, and two weeks later Nika came home, lacking a front tooth. He had been sentenced to ten years of “Urals”~hard labor in the mines-for attempting to “sabotage the textile industry of the U.S.S.R.” The attempted “sabotage” had occurred a decade before, during the shortages that accompanied the civil war, when he had bought Masha two pairs of valenki, felt-and-leather boots, on the black market.
Less than a year later, Nika was made head of the Economic Planning Department of the Ridder Combine, in the Altai Mountains. (During the years of the purges, essential managers were often removed from prison to work at important posts.) It was a three-year assignment. The Altai Mountains are in Siberia, and Nika thought that it would be best for Masha to stay in Moscow. Soon after he had gone, she was arrested. After being held without charges in Butyrka Prison for four months, she was released and put to work translating articles about milking machines. Nika did much to improve the Ridder plant’s efficiency. He was so useful that they refused to let him return to Moscow when the three years were up. Masha went to the Chief Prosecutor, Andrei Vishinsky, and again personally secured his release. They were together until November of 1937. A new wave of purges began that month. Surviving members of the prerevolutionary intelligentsia and former nobles who had been somehow missed before were specially targeted for liquidation. The police came at midnight and “in the presence of his wife,” Bruce Lockhart later wrote, “took away this saintly man into the Communist outer darkness from which he never returned.” Masha never learned what happened to him, but she told me that once, as she was en route from one prison to another, she thought she saw his face in a train window. In Moscow, I tried to learn his fate. I asked at the Lenin Library, which had some of his articles, how I could find out more about him. But I wasn’t really expecting to get anywhere, and I didn’t. Back in this country, I wrote to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who has collected at his farm in Vermont the most nearly complete archives on that period. He sent back a nice note saying that he had no information about Nicholas Avinoff. Nika was probably shot-if not on the night of his arrest, then soon afterward. “What legal expert, what criminal historian, will provide us with verified statistics for those 1937-1938 executions?” Solzhenitsyn asks in “The Gulag Archipelago.” “Where is that Special Archive we might be able to penetrate in order to read the figures? There is none. There is none and there never will be any.”
After Nika was taken away, Masha waited almost eagerly for the knock at her door, but three months passed before they got around to arresting her. She was taken to Lubyanka Prison, where she was subjected to a ridiculous inquisition, and that night she was moved to the Butyrka. After nine months, she was shipped to remote Kazakhstan, a journey that took two weeks, and there she was held for a month in the jail of Alma-Ata. This was followed by two years and two months of “free deportation” in the Kazakh village of Addis Ada. It wasn’t so bad there. She rented a cottage from a Ukrainian woman named Seraphima. A petty criminal named Fomeech, who, she said, resembled “a little stoat,” became her devoted servant.
Masha’s exile ended in May, 1941, but she was still not allowed to live in a big city, so she moved to the village of Zubtsov, a hundred and twenty miles east of Moscow. A month later, German troops came pouring across the border. Masha, like many other Russians who had grown to hate Communism, greeted them as liberators. She had always admired German literature, she spoke the language perfectly, and she had no idea of what Hitler and the Nazis were all about. The 5.5. officers were charmed by her culture and enlisted her as a go-between in their dealings with the local populace. Her willing collaboration ended when she watched some German soldiers mow down a line of Russian guerrillas, many of whom were children, as they came out of a forest. Nevertheless, she had no choice but to flee with the Germans when the Red Army reached Zubtsov; the women who collaborated and remained were raped and eviscerated. In the city of Vyazma, or what was left of it, a German general was so moved by an ode she had written to the Wehrmacht that he sent her to Berlin, where for several years she translated propaganda leaflets that were air-dropped behind Russian lines. In 1944, she sweet-talked a Gestapo officer into letting her go to occupied Paris for a vacation. “The trick was to weave a quick mesh of words in a tone at once propitiating and insistent,” she later recounted. Once in Paris, she got in touch with her nephew Igor Demidov and lay low in his villa, near Fontainebleau, until the invasion of Normandy.
When I was old enough to start appreciating Masha, she was already in her seventies and bedridden. Her hair had turned snow-white in prison, and since coming to America she had ballooned to monstrous proportions. I saw her once standing at her window in nothing but a nightcap; there were no curves in her body-only folds.. She almost always wore a kimono with the belt tied over her pendulous breasts, so that they seemed like two pockets filled with sand. She was a brilliant raconteur and a famous eater. Whole cooked chickens would mysteriously disappear overnight from Mopsy’s refrigerator. She was grand, but she had a sense of humor about herself; she was like a dowager hippopotamus. I would sit for hours listening to the stories she told, in a rich basso, while the ashes of her mentholated cigarettes -she fitted one after another into a long ivory holder, lighted it, and then forgot about it-broke off and spilled down the front of her kimono. She and I grew very fond of each other. Long letters in French passed between us while I was at boarding school. In one, she railed against the middle-class values of other emigres. (“All they talk about is each other’s pedigrees.”) She dedicated to me some English translations of Pushkin. I remember how her eyes would light up when I came to see her, and she would exclaim, “Ach, my dear Panda!” (“Panda” is the family’s nickname for me.) Masha had the flirtatious eyes of a young woman, and pencil lines for eyebrows. She reminded me of Cunegonde at the end of “Candide.” She had seen it all. Nothing could conceivably faze her. Her most powerful stories were about the prisons she had known. One, called “The Happy Hour ,” was published in the Reader’s Digest. It was about a black cat named Mishka who lived in Butyrka Prison. In the evening, Mishka prowled from cell to cell looking for food. The inmates would feed him and stuff messages into a little pouch under his tail. The tissues in the pouch listed who was still alive and in good health. Mishka’s visit was the big event of the day, “the happy hour.” But one evening a guard discovered the pouch, and hanged Mishka in the prison yard as a “counter-revolutionary.” Another of her stories, “Scheherazade,” appeared in The New Yorker. It takes place in the local prison in Alma-Ata, where Masha is locked in a cell with fifty women, whose crimes included prostitution and murder. To stop them from fighting and to keep her own spirits up, she gets the idea of telling them stories. Her mutilated, half-improvised versions of “Ivanhoe,” “Jane Eyre,” “The Lady of the Camellias,” and “The Call of the Wild” are a big hit. Halfway through Conan Doyle’s “The Brazilian Cat,” one of the inmates, Lucy, learns that she is being transferred in a few hours to a concentration camp, and she begs Masha to whisper the ending. She has to know whether the man in the cage escapes. Masha tells her that he does, and as Lucy is taken away she turns and blows Masha a kiss. An emigre writer, Prince Paul Chavchavadze, who was a good friend of Mopsy’s, helped Masha make her stories into a book, “Pilgrimage Through Hell,” which was published in 1968. Masha died in 1976.
MUCH of the time, Mopsy was on the road. She was in Philadelphia, painting Drexels and Biddles and Dukes. She was in Wilmington, doing du Ponts. She was in Chicago, doing Marshall Fields. She was in Newport and Palm Beach, in San Antonio and Atlanta, on the eastern shore of Maryland and the north shore of Boston. One afternoon, she showed me a scrapbook that contained color photographs, in no special order, of some of her portraits. “They are nothing interesting,” she insisted. “Like painting flowers. Just like painting flowers.” Most of her subjects had belonged to old American families, but there was a smattering of self-made millionaires. The first photograph was of a son-in-law of Richard K. Mellon. Then came Harvey Firestone, done, for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, in heroic size, though he was practically a midget. Then John W. Thomas, the chairman of the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company; Walter Hoving, the chairman of the board of Tiffany’s; Thomas Ewing III, a typicallooking specimen of the American gentry, at the tiller of his yacht, with a can of Budweiser in one hand. “He was later caught in a storm and drowned,” Mopsy told me. “This is Brinkley Smithers,” she said of the next one. “He started a big house for alcoholics, like the A.A. This is John Thouron, an Englishman, who married one of the du Pont girls. This is one of the many PhippsesHarry.” On to Harvey and Raymond Firestone-sons of the old man. To
a spastic boy of four, in velvet and ruffles, who couldn’t hold his head up. To Robert Wood ruff, the czar of Coca-Cola. To George Humphrey, Eisen hower’s Secretary of the Treasury, whom she’d painted for a room at the Harvard Business School. To the Reverend John Andrew, with a sceptre. “He was the chaplain of the Archbishop of Canterbury and is now rector of St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue.” To Hoffman Nickerson, a military historian with marvellous white mustaches. To Howard Peabody, of Lake Forest, on his plantation in Natchez, Mississippi. To Governor Carl Sanders of Georgia. Behind him, the dome of the State Capitol, made of “all the gold they could find in Georgia.” To various belles from Atlanta, San Antonio, Pittsburgh, and Houston. To Fifi Fell, “a great beauty, now married to John Schiff.” To the young Henry Fords, of Detroit; the Libby-OwensFord Fords, of Toledo; and other Fords-“alkali” as opposed to “motorcar .” To Redmond Stewart, a famous fox hunter from Baltimore. To the “Listerine” Lamberts. To the “polo people”-the Winston Guests and the Raymond Guests. “We didn’t make a dent on each other,” Mopsy recalled. To Ethel Derby, a daughter of Theodore Roosevelt. To Mrs. Thomas Watson, of the I.B.M. WatsO’ns. To Mrs. Dudley Blossom, a benefactress in Cleveland.
“I certainly covered the ‘upper crust,'” Mopsy said, closing the scrapbook. “They’re terribly nice if you approach them the right way. To classify them in general, I would say that they are proud of their ancestors.” Some she just painted. Many became lasting friends. In any case, she never left a portrait that wasn’t satisfactory. When Mopsy was doing some work in Aiken, South Carolina, in 1937, she met a tall, serenely beautiful woman named Lucy Rutherfurd, who had been Eleanor Roosevelt’s private secretary many years before. The liaison between Mrs. Rutherfurd and Franklin Roosevelt dated from 1914. They met as often as they could without arousing suspicion. (The affair has since become public knowledge, of course.) Lucy invited Mopsy to the Rutherfurd estate in Allamuchy, New Jersey, to do portraits of her and her ailing husband, Winthrop, twenty-nine years her senior. Mopsy painted her in a turquoise chiffon tea gown and painted
Rutherfurd surrounded by his fox terriers. Lucy dressed as if to diminish the years between them. Like the complexions of Catherine the Great and Marie Antoinette, her complexion was fortanime. The only word for it was brilliant. It was so transparent that it had no shading. Rutherfurd, with chiselled features, sharp eyes, and a sarcastic expression around his mouth, looked like an English peer. He was known for his bluntness. Mopsy and he talked about their fox terriers. Mopsy had had one named Bobick in Russia. Rutherfurd’s favorite terrier was named Brass Tacks. Mopsy and Lucy became good friends, and, as often happened, she ended up painting several of the Rutherfurd children. One day in the spring of 1943, Lucy told her, “You really should paint the President. There is really no painting of him that gives his true expression. Would you do a portrait of him if it was arranged?”
Two weeks later, Mopsy was invited to the White House. As she was shown into the President’s office, he was all smiles. His hand seemed, as someone had observed, to stretch across the room. She finished a small head and shoulders, twelve by ten, in three mornings, and chose for it an antique mirror frame. The portrait shows him in his black Navy cape, with a few gray clouds. Roosevelt was delighted with it. Color reproductions were soon hanging in homes around the country. That July, he invited Mopsy and Uncle for lunch at Hyde Park. Roosevelt showed them an icon he had acquired, and chatted with U ncle about the occult. Both men were interested in phenomena for which science had no explanation. Then two attendants carried the President out to a Ford convertible with hand controls, and he took them on what Mopsy remembered as “one of the giddiest rides I’ve ever had.” She sat in back, giggling nervously with Grace Tully, his private secretary. The President drove with speed and assurance on the narrow, winding roads, talking away and returning the salutes of his guards. Once, he pointed to a butterfly and asked Uncle what it was. “A viceroy, Mr. President,” Uncle said.
It was agreed that Mopsy would do another portrait-a life-size one, for the White House-but she heard nothing more about it until an evening in the middle of March, 1945, when she was painting Lucy’s daughter-inlaw. Roosevelt had just returned from the Yalta Conference and had gone to Warm Springs to rest. “He’s thin and frail, but, having lost so much weight, his face looks the way it did when he was younger,” Lucy said. “If this portrait is painted, it shouldn’t be postponed.” Two weeks later, Mopsy and Lucy drove to Georgia in Mopsy’s Cadillac convertible. The President was waiting for them in an open car in front of a drugstore in Greenville. He was wearing his Navy cape and drinking a Coca-Cola, and a small crowd had gathered around him. When he saw Lucy, his face lit up, but Mopsy could see that he was not well.
When Mopsy started the painting, on the morning of April 12th, the President was full of pep. She was struck by how good his color was. There were all kinds of documents spread around the room, with Roosevelt’s signature drying on them. “My laundry,” he joked, laughing heartily. While Lucy and his cousin Margaret Suckley were chatting on a sofa, she placed the eyes. Another cousin, Laura Delano, came in briefly with her dog. The President was absorbed in some papers, looking up at Mopsy’s request. She went over the shadows with Windsor blue, and the face came to life. Then the Filipino butler came in and started setting the table. “We have fifteen more minutes to work,” Roosevelt said. As Mopsy was painting the upper part of the face, near the hairline, the President suddenly raised his hand and passed it over his head several times in a strange, jerky way. “I have a terrific headache,” he said. Then, without a sound, he slumped forward in his armchair. Lucy and Margaret Suckley were still talking, unaware that anything had happened. “Lucy, Lucy, something’s wrong,” Mopsy said. Then she ran out, calling for Dr. Howard Bruenn, who was having lunch. Lucy, completely shaken, caught up with her and said they’d better leave. They went to their rooms and started to pack. Miss Tully, in tears, saw them off.
When Mopsy got home, the house was surrounded by reporters. They jotted hasty descriptions of her as she rushed inside. The following morning, she held a brief press conference, keeping Lucy’s name out of it. Almost every major publication bid for the rights to reproduce the portrait. “Like Franz Schubert’s Unfinished Sympho1’ty the last portrait from life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt will remain forever unfinished,” the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote, “the picture of a man thinned by illness, pitiably aged by world cares, spiritualized by high purpose.” Left as it was, hardly begun, the portrait has a great sadness, as if the man were almost fading away before you. Only the head is colored in. Dark circles subtend the eyes. The mouth is set in a straight, solemn line. The cape is only started on; just the collar is blackened. Half of the crimson Harvard tie is painted, and there is some loose gray wash behind the head.
Years later, I met by chance a man who had waited for a week outside Mopsy’s house trying to buy the rights to the portrait for Life. It was the New York News that finally got them, for twenty-five thousand dollars. The portrait and a feature about Mopsy ran in the Sunday magazine on May 27th. “Mrs. Shoumatoff’s one evidence of Bohemianism seems to be a certain absent-mindedness where materials are concerned,” the inventive reporter wrote. “She often has a glass of something to drink at hand while she is painting and if the drink happens to be the same color as the paint she needs at the moment, the chances are 50-50 that she will mistakenly dip her brush into the drink instead of the paint. Mrs. Shoumatoff has absent-mindedly painted in champagne, tomato juice, and martini cocktail.” The books that later appeared about Roosevelt’s death were no more accurate about her, and deepened her loathing of publicity. Lucy died in 1948, but Mopsy never betrayed that friendship. As a friend and as a businesswoman, she was totally discreet.
For several years after Roosevelt’s death, Mopsy was a celebrity. If she started taking dancing lessons, it was noted in the society columns. “Tall, graceful, Russian-born Elizabeth Shoumatoff, who’s as much at home behind an easel as the average housewife is behind the kitchen stove, has sold her Mill Neck studio,” Cholly Knickerbocker wrote in 1948. “Liz, who won more recognition for her unfinished portrait of FDR (she was working on it at the time of his death) than for any of her completed jobs, hated to sell the place. But she’s been out of town so often fulfilling artistic commitments that she never had time to enjoy her cozy little apartment.”
Early in 1956, Mopsy painted her second President-William Vacanarat Shadrach Tubman, of Liberia. The son of an Augusta, Georgia, preacher, Tubman had just been elected to a third term. He was Mopsy’s first black. She was worried whether she could pull it off, and did some research at the Frick Art Reference Library, in New York, before flying to Monrovia. “I looked at the famous portrait of Henri Christophe, the Emperor of Haiti, and one by Reynolds of a handsome Negro in a powdered wig and silk coat with an unfinished background of clouds,” she said. Tubman decided against the top hat and tails that he usually wore on state occasions, and posed in a light-tan suit, with a cigar in his left hand, the Capitol behind him, and a sky full of puffy white equatorial clouds. He had such a ready smile that Mopsy had trouble getting him to hold a serious expression. The portrait was a present from the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company, which had vast holdings in Liberia. Mopsy was given a check for sixty-four thousand dollars for the large oil. She thought that the curious fee might have been suggested by a television show, “The $64,000 Question,” which was then quite popular. President Tubman made Mopsy a Knight of the Humane Order of African Redemption, and after he pinned the red-and-white order on her they marched between two rows of chieftains from the Liberian hinterland, with whom he was unable to communicate except through interpreters.
In 1968, after Lyndon Johnson called Peter Hurd’s portrait of him “the ugliest thing I ever saw,” Mopsy was called in. The sittings began on the day Robert Kennedy was shot. President Johnson was deeply depressed then and also at the unveiling of her portrait, in the fall, at a small party at the White House, which I attended. He had been getting a lot of bad press, For most of the evening, he sat in a hallway holding his head in his hands. He liked the portrait, though, and invited Mopsy to the L.B.J. Ranch, where she painted him again-this time leaning on a stone wall with the Pedernales River in the background, and wearing a cowboy jacket with the Presidential seal on it. This portrait was reproduced on a postage stamp. She did the rest of the family, too: Lady Bird, Luci Baines in a Scarlett O’Hara gown, Lynda Bird in the Oval Room. One of her last projects was a Nugent grandson. In her last months, she painted her plumber, who had saved for several years and refused the discount she offered him. She painted my brother. She painted Bert Lance. “He absolutely conquered me,” she told me over the phone. “He’s as tall as they come, and huge, with the nicest face.” She painted a rich friend of Lance’s who flew up from Georgia in his Lear jet. In the fall of 1980, a few weeks before she went to the hospital, she was driven into town to discuss a portrait with Mme. Chiang Kai-shek.
At the hospital, Mopsy was told that she had cancer. She died four weeks later. The memorial service was held at Our Lady of Kazan Church. Rows of candles blazed before icons. Mopsy had been adamant about not having the full, three-hour Orthodox funeral, with loud wailing before an open coffin. An hour-long panehyda, to give rest to this soul which had gone to sleep, half august, half abject,” as the male chorus sang, would be enough. She once showed me how she painted. To begin with, she used only the best materials. Her paper was smooth, hundred-per-cent rag “hotpressed” on a quarter-inch board. Her paints were made by Winsor & Newton, Ltd. They had elegant names and came in little lead tubes. Her brushes were sable, Winsor & Newton Series 7. They came in fourteen sizes. No. 14, the largest, cost about eighty dollars. Most of the time, she used a No.4 or No.5 brush, when I was trying to paint a butterfly that I had caught, she showed me that you could get a finer line with a thicker brush, a No.6 or No.7.
She preferred to paint in the afternoon, by the light of a west-facing picture window. After setting the board on her easel at about an eightydegree angle, she made a light outline of her subject with a sharp No.2 pencil. She shaped the head, then placed the eyes, the nose, and the mouth. “The eyes must look like the eyes provided, or it’s no use continuing,” she told me. She colored the eyes from a small paintbox, which she held in her left hand. For years, she used her childhood box, a cheap little tin one with a collapsible thumb ring underneath. Eventually, it fell apart, and she took it to Tiffany’s and had it copied in silver. “Out of this little container comes all of our happiness,” she would tell people. She squeezed coils of color into the little compartments of the box in the following order: cadmium yellow, cadmium red, Venetian red, alizarin crimson, yellow ochre, raw umber, burnt sienna, burnt umber, ivory black (or noire d’ivoire, as she always called it), French ultramarine, Windsor blue. The ultramarine was made of ground lapis lazlili, a small block of which cost twenty dollars. Secretly, she also used Chinese white for pearls and mistakes, especially when the dot in an eye was a little off. (The traditional aquarellist isn’t supposed to use white.) She preferred to make her own greens, because the greens from the tubes tended to fade. She mixed on the flaps of her paintbox and on a porcelain tray beside her. She tried the colors on a small Crestwood board next to the porcelain tray. If they were too thick, she dipped her brush into a glass of water; if too thin, she blotted her brush on a rag. The flaps of her paintbox were very messy-“the dirtier the better,” as far as she was concerned. Once, a maid cleaned them, and Mopsy was upset, because she took away some good colors. Mopsy and her subjects talked incessantly; you felt like opening up to her. “The talking is to keep them animated,” she explained. “Otherwise, they start to yawn.” She never made them sit longer than an hour and a half. “The famous painter Rokotov, who lived at the time of Catherine the Great, said, ‘Don’t make a sitter pose too long. Stop before the gray color of boredom creeps into his face.’ ” In the beginning, she didn’t use photographs. She thought them disgusting, cheating. For her early, minutely detailed portraits, people had to sit for two weeks. Then Mopsy painted someone from a photograph, and discovered she could do it. In N ew York, she met Reginald Marsh, who was making paintings from photographs he had taken of Bowery bums. If Marsh was using “snaps,” she decided, it was all right. After that, she always used them. They cut the time she could do a picture in by half, and helped her discover the subject’s best angle. For years, when she went on the road she took a photographer with her.
When she was happy with the eyes, she left a white spot in them for the highlight and filled out the shadows of the face in umber. Then she washed the entire face in cadmium red, except for a little white dot for the shine on the nose. Then she covered the shadows again, lightly, with Windsor blue, and the face sprang to life. From time to time, she would hold up a
j mirror and compare the reflections of subject and portrait. With the two side by side, the discrepancies were obvious. She used for this purpose a jade looking glass that Mrs. Harvey Firestone had given her. Its handle was a man, darin buckle, and the back was a plaque such as Chinese statesmen used to give to each other. She called it the magic mirror, because in it her mistakes doubled.
“The most sensitive part, after the eyes, is the corners of the mouth, because if they go too far up or down or are too long or short, it changes the whole expression,” she went on. “The modelling around the mouth is even more important than the mouth. Uncle taught me that the mouth should be done as indistinctly as possible, that the line between the lips should be slightly broken or irregular, because if it’s too continuous it gives an unnaturally stiff expression.” Uncle was always a stern but fair critic. When she was starting out, he would tell her that her clouds looked like sheep, or that this hand or arm betrayd a faulty knowledge of anatomy. But in the end he compared her best work to Serov’s portrait of Nicholas I and to Vandyke’s of Charles I. “The modelling and shaping of the chin is very difficult,” she continued. “The nose is easy. I love painting noses. In profile, they’re harder, because it’s all one continuous line, and you can’t change it. Grandmother had a beautiful nose. We all inherited potatoes.”
Putting on layers and layers of clear color, she worked the paint into the paper, wet on wet, until the features acquired a burnished, marbled sheen and almost started to glow. The effect was unlike anyone else’s watercolor. Most aquarellists take advantage of the way the paint runs; they capitalize on accidents. But in Mopsy’s work you never saw the dried edges of a puddle. Her paint was totally controlled. It wasn’t transparent or thin, like watercolor laid on once or twice. It was almost like impasto-like oil paint built up with a palette knife. But her colors were more delicate than oil, or the other opaque mediums-gouache, acrylics, casein-and they enabled her to depict the texture of a person’s skin in a manner that was uniquely hers. “I am particularly grateful for having been given the gift to bring out those likenesses,” she wrote in a private memoir, “a gift that developed to a great degree because I had to support my children and make a living in a country that was quite foreign to me in thebeginning.”
(This is the second part of a two-part article.)
New Yorker, May 3, 1982