The Land of Columbus: Echoes of LA’s Russian Past




YOU CAN LEARN A LOT about the customers at the Melrose Trading Post by the way Phil sets his table. Phil is a bookman; he inherited the mantle from his father, Cal, who passed away in 2011. At the outer edge of Phil’s table, facing one of the wide aisles between stalls — aisles that serve, more and more, as fashion runways for the young and the beautiful — is a row of dream symbol dictionaries, de luxe tomes of Blake, and Salinger hardbacks. The next row over features a hefty dose of Bukowski: handsome rough-covered Black Sparrow editions at $20 and slick Ecco reprints at $10.

It figures. In a town where a certain faux-dive for day-tripping barflies has a bronze plaque over its urinal boasting “Charles Bukowski Pissed Here,” you can get away with that kind of pricing. But that’s where Phil’s table gets interesting. Because it isn’t just Bukowski in that row, it’s Fante. And it isn’t just Ask the Dust, it’s Dreams from Bunker Hill and Dago Red and Full of Life. And it isn’t just Fante’s fiction, it’s his correspondence with H. L. Mencken. If you drift a little farther from the fashion, deeper into the shade of Phil’s awning, the prices get lower — averaging out at $3 — and the books get more interesting. That stuff is for us, the patient scavengers. Boy, the hauls I’ve dragged home from Cal and Phil … And boy, the treasures I used to snap up from Rudy, their friendly rival one aisle over, who died of a stroke in 2013 and had no one to take over his concern.

I’m far from LA right now, but I’m sure Phil’s still at it, shrewdly hawking the perennial favorites to the never-aging crowd and saving his gems for the venturesome few. I’ll see him this summer, any given Sunday. Unfortunately, I doubt I’ll see Eli, whose Cosmopolitan Book Shop — a musty, fungal fire-hazard of the old school — is still tempting fate on Melrose, but for how much longer? Ever since Eli, who’s now in his nineties, fell off a stepladder and moved out of the store (he’d been living in what was once the vinyl section), his employees and friends have done their best to wrest order out of chaos. In other words, they’ve turned what had always been, first and foremost, a sprawling collection into a dreary thing: a business. And there went the Cosmopolitan as I knew it — the vast, impenetrable hoard of one of LA’s last great bibliomaniacs. Once Eli’s guys sell off what they can in small bundles, they’ll unload the rest on Powell’s in Portland, or some other goliath.

By the time I was coming up in LA, the era of the legendary bookmen was over. Gone was Jake Zeitlin’s Big Red Barn on La Cienega, gone was Pickwick on Hollywood, where Susan Sontag would filch Modern Library editions as a teen, and long gone was Stanley Rose’s place, as well as the backroom crowd it shared with Musso & Frank’s: Fante, Fenton, Saroyan, Cain, Chandler. I got the story of that crowd second-hand, from Edmund Wilson’s nasty essay “The Boys in the Backroom: Notes on California Novelists” (1941) and from Carey McWilliams’s endlessly insightful Southern California: An Island on the Land (1946) and other writings. And “second-hand” is exactly the word for it, because I snagged a first edition of McWilliams’s masterpiece from Phil’s table at the Trading Post and dug a copy of Edmund Wilson’s Classics and Commercials out of a pile at Eli’s.

That’s the magic of places like the Cosmopolitan: it’s not about the knowledge you acquire, but the knowledge — the vivid, palpable memory — of where you acquired it. So much of what I know about my town is bound up with the experience of digging in Eli’s heaps and sweating it out in the Fairfax High parking lot at Cal’s, Phil’s, or Rudy’s tables, and of reading the first crinkled pages of my finds on the walks home. The particularity of that experience bleeds into the things I’ve read, infuses them … But what am I saying that Walter Benjamin and Geoff Dyer haven’t said more eloquently? Generalities. Platitudes. What have I found? What am I looking for?

I’m a product of Little Russia, a neighborhood that straddles Los Angeles and West Hollywood; its heart is Plummer Park, its main drag is a stretch of Santa Monica between La Brea and Fairfax, and its southern border is Melrose between those same streets — in other words, roughly between the parking lot where Phil plies his trade and the Cosmopolitan Book Shop. LA’s Russian émigré community, which snowballed in the years around the collapse of the Soviet Union, is one of the largest in the world, but Little Russia is rapidly aging, fading. The young adults who immigrated in the 1980s and 1990s couldn’t wait to get out of what they saw as a ghetto and move up in the world, and those who stayed are now, ironically, being priced out. Some day soon the Russian stores — Odessa, the New York Deli, and the ineptly titled Cherry Garden (what a perfectly Chekhovian failure to capitalize on Chekhov!) — will shutter their doors, squeezed out by sneaker and skateboard shops. Some day soon the old men will play their last marathon bridge game and vacate the Plummer Park picnic tables. Their chits and cigarette butts will be swept away, and nothing will remain but two hunks of stone: one commemorating the Soviet Jews massacred at Babi Yar in 1941, the other Soviet soldiers who gave their lives in the following four years. I imagine they’ll be as irrelevant and inscrutable to future generations as a marker erected by the Daughters of the American Revolution, which has been gathering dust at the park since the 1950s.

It wouldn’t, though, be the first Russian community to vanish in — or into — LA. First came the religious sectarians (Molokans, Holy Jumpers, and others), who settled in Boyle Heights around the turn of the century. This insular group attracted a lot of attention from newspaper columnists and sociologists, but their numbers quickly dwindled. And then the so-called First Wave of Russian emigration washed up on the Pacific shore. Carey McWilliams gives a breezy but accurate account of its fate:

Around 1917 a group of 500 White Russians, all self-styled aristocrats, settled in Hollywood. Refugees from the Russian Revolution, they came by way of China, across the Pacific to San Francisco, and then to Hollywood. To this group of aristocrats and officers was later added about a thousand non-aristocrats, students, artists, engineers, and professional people. From this colony came the Russian Orthodox Church, the Russian Officers Club, and the Russian cafés of the early ’twenties: the Double-Headed Eagle, the Russian Bear, the Moscow Inn, and the well-known Boublichki night club on Sunset “strip.” The Filmarte Theater in Hollywood was founded by a member of this refugee group. Lacking internal cohesion, the colony soon disintegrated and is today non-existent.

There is a world of stories behind every proper noun in that passage, and some of them can be gotten more or less from the horses’ mouths. George Martin Day’s The Russians in Hollywood: A Study in Culture Conflict (1934) is less a study than an anthology of gripes by a handful of anonymous émigré informants. The hammiest among them is certainly Major-General Theodore Lodijensky, formerly of the Russian Imperial Guard, who worked as a bit player and consultant in Hollywood, inspiring the melodramatic narrative of Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command (1928). Lodijensky was also the proprietor of the Double-Headed Eagle café that McWilliams mentions (the Russian Eagle, actually), before it burned down in 1928 — sabotaged, as Lodijensky insisted to anyone who’d listen, by an art dealer-cum-Bolshevik agent; he later reopened the café at the Hollywood Plaza Hotel on Vine, and continued to host his notoriously wild parties until 1935. A good deal has been written about the community’s intersection with the film industry in the past few decades, but what’s always troubled me about my predecessors in the “Hollywood colony” is that, unlike their brethren in Paris, Berlin, Prague, and even Shanghai and Harbin, they seem to have left no literary legacy to speak of. I know about the extras and the Major Generals, the Romanov impostors and the megalomaniacal directors in jodhpurs and monocles — but did any of them even read?

They did. One Sunday morning I was making my customary rounds at the Trading Post and saw Rudy scurrying down the aisle. He was headed my way. He needed my help. Earlier in the week he’d bought seven boxes of books at an estate sale, all very handsome and in fine condition, but, the thing was, they were Russian. He wanted to know whether I’d help him translate the titles. He might as well have asked whether Howard Carter would deign to poke around in the Valley of the Kings. This could be my Oxyrhynchus, my Nag Hammadi. And it was glorious: émigré editions of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, hardbound volumes of an important turn-of-the-century journal called Niva (Grainfield), an illustrated biography of Vera Komissarzhevskaya, who was the first woman to play Nina in Chekhov’s The Seagull and was once mentioned in the same breath as Bernhardt and Duse … In fact, a lot of the material had to do with the theater, and with Chekhov in particular. With the Chekhovs, actually.

One item that immediately struck my eye was a Russian edition of On the Technique of Acting by Michael Chekhov, Anton’s nephew and Stanislavsky’s protégé at the Moscow Art Theater. It was printed in Hollywood in 1946, on Chekhov’s own dime, with elegant drawings provided by his fellow émigré, the art director Nicolai Remisoff. This book is a rara avis to begin with, but Rudy’s copy was inscribed … Yes, very neatly inscribed, in boxy blue Cyrillic script, to a certain “Milli.”

The riddle of “Milli” was solved by the next little tome in the box — Vol. XIV of a pocketsize Collected Works by Michael’s uncle Anton, printed in Berlin in 1922 and containing three of the major plays. The book’s flyleaf bore a sprawling autograph, by what was clearly a practiced hand, and this time in Latin script: Lewis Milestone. Well, why not? The first director to win an Academy Award was, after all, born in Moldova as Leib Milstein. Not exactly an aristocrat or White officer, but then, how many of them really were? So this was the great director’s Russian library. I can only imagine the look on my face as the gears tumbled, but I don’t have to imagine the look on Rudy’s. I recognized that smile: he knew he had me hooked. I returned home with my trophies. I’d made first contact — as good as a handshake — with the Russian Los Angeles of days gone by.

So they read. But did they write? Carey McWilliams had one more thing to say about the vanished colony: “For a time, the Russian émigrés in California published an interesting quarterly: The Land of Columbus.” I was off to the library at UCLA. Zemlya Columba, as its editors called it, was a thick journal published in 1936 and 1937. The “quarterly” tag was, alas, aspirational. Only two issues saw the light of day, but they told me a great deal of what I wanted to know. The first one features two poems by a young woman named Tamara Andreeva, who was born in Russia in 1908 and made her way to the West Coast by way of Shanghai and Harbin, settling in Santa Monica. Her Russian verse is nothing much, but I was intrigued. It turned out she’d also published a few lyrics in English, including this piece from the August 1932 issue of Poetry:

The pines squeak, the pines moan
Over the barren rock.
I am tired sitting home alone
And listening to the clock.

The whistling wind, the whispering sand,
The splash, and howl, and moan —
I fear ’t will wash away this land,
Leave nothing of it and none.

The wind still plays with rags of foam,
Still yelps on sailors’ graves.
Tonight the sky is a heavy dome
That echoes barking waves.

My candle died. Door flew ajar.
Waves sniff and halloo loud.
Like eyes of tigers behind the bar
These stars behind the cloud.

I suspect the article missing from “Door” in the final stanza is more of a telltale Russianism than a conscious Modernistic twist. And that precious infelicity, a barely noticeable grammatical slip that could easily be glossed as poetic concision, endears the clumsy, forgotten little poem to my heart: a secret within a secret.

That note of desperate loneliness and insecurity in Andreeva’s quavering voice haunts the whole of The Land of Columbus. I felt its strongest and strangest reverberation in the second issue, in a Russian translation of Langston Hughes’s story “Folks at Home.” Hughes’s name leapt right out at me. Why would these White Russians, so often stereotyped as knee-jerk reactionaries, glom onto a story by a “progressive” African American author? Surely they knew that Hughes had toured the Soviet Union in 1932 as an honored guest of the regime, and was still singing the praises of the Bolsheviks’ stance on race and nationality. What in the story would have appealed to the Land’s editors, compelling them to translate it despite the Soviet stain? And where would they have stumbled across it in the first place?

A little digging and guesswork cracked the second puzzle in no time. Hughes’s story debuted in the May 1934 issue of Esquire. That same issue featured an English translation of a story by the doyen of the First Wave émigrés, Ivan Bunin, who had been awarded the Nobel Prize the previous year. Bunin’s “A Night at Sea,” which was written in 1923, is a meditative tale of detachment, typical of this period in his career. Two men meet on the deck of a steamship. They had both loved the same woman, and one of them went on to marry her. She was now dead, and the former rivals — who twenty years earlier had been tormented by passion and jealousy — now feel almost nothing toward her. They discuss it all calmly. Pace Faulkner, the past is past. In John Cournos’s translation, the story ends:

And endlessly there stretched behind it the drowsily seething pale-milken way — there, into the distance, where the nocturnal sky merged with the sea, where the horizon, in contrast to this milkiness, appeared dark and sorrowful. And the log-line went on revolving and revolving and mysteriously something at moments ticked off, and gave vent to a slender ringing sound: dzi-in-n. . . .

After a silence, the two men, in low voices, said simply to each other:

“Good night.”

“Good night.”

I can imagine Peter Balakshin (1898–1990), the San Franciscan émigré who translated Hughes, picking up the Esquire for Bunin, then leafing through the rest of the issue and casually landing on “Folks at Home.” Hughes’s story concerns the fate of a young African American musician named Roy Williams. Williams plays jazz and studies classical music in Europe, where he enjoys a measure of artistic and personal freedom. But he can’t survive there. The loneliness, the nostalgia, and the sight of poverty make him miserable. He begins to wear away, and decides he has to go home, to Hopkinsville, Missouri. But home’s no better. Just after arriving, too familiar an exchange with a white female music teacher — a bow and a handshake — gets him lynched.

The story was translated twice in Soviet Russia, for obvious reasons; the USSR never tired of rubbing salt in the US’s racial wound. But Balakshin’s treatment is clearly intended for the émigrés, who are able to understand some English. Individual phrases are left unrendered, including the titles of musical compositions and colorful exclamations (“Folks catch hell in Europe”). More pointedly, Balakshin preserves the ugliest of American racial slurs, modified by the word “uppity” — which the printer accidentally modified to “upty.” He knew the weight of that epithet, and there was no Russian equivalent. Balakshin expected his audience to feel its weight too — to feel the burden of Roy Williams’s humiliation.

But why should he and his Russian-speaking audience in San Francisco and Los Angeles sympathize with Williams’s plight? Probably because it mirrored their own: they too were at home neither here nor there, struggling to acclimate to American society and unable to return to a Russia now irrevocably altered. Obliquely, Balakshin’s translation of Hughes told me more about the severity of the California émigrés’ loneliness than any number of editorials, sketches, and sweetly naive poems.

The two copies of Land of Columbus I’d pored over years ago are now back in the stacks at UCLA. Every once in a while I feel an almost irresistible urge to look them over again. What I’d really like is to have a set of my own; after all, their true freedom is somewhere on the prismatic fringes of my library. Sure, I could download digital copies. I could scour antiquarian book sites and buy them off some specialist who knows exactly what they are. But I want to find mine in situ — a pair that’s been floating around the neighborhood since the ’30s — and I just might. When I get back to LA I’m diving right back into the Cosmopolitan, or what’s left of it. I can almost hear them from here, echoing in that great cracked conch shell: the muffled voices of the First Wave.

¤

Postscript (February 18, 2015):

A friend of mine just wrote from LA to tell me I’m too late. The Cosmopolitan is boarded up. The books are gone, and the space is up for lease. So long, Eli. Hang in there, Phil.

¤

Boris Dralyuk is the former noir editor of LARB and currently teaches at University of St Andrews, Scotland.


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