May I Have This Dance?
It will soon be fall, and invitations to parties and balls will be sent out shortly; all “virtual” of course. I’m not sure how you can hold a “virtual” ball but I am sure several societies will make the attempt if only to show their members that they still exist during this still “unprecedented” time. Yet, I recall one event in particular, in the days when you could actually meet and speak to people in person. The Russian Nobility Association holds the Russian Ball at the Plaza Hotel each year and the proceeds go to charities in Russia such as hospitals, orphanages, and schools. It’s a dazzling event and the funds raised actually aid worthy causes.
The Alex Donner Orchestra played a waltz as my wife Sherry and I entered with our friend Michael Groves who, with his high forehead, small nose, deep piercing eyes and a dark brown mustache that merged with a neatly trimmed beard (what the British call a “full set”) bore a striking resemblance to Nicholas II, the last Czar. “A Romanoff”, many must have thought. California surfer dude in white tie was closer to the truth.
As the candlelight played on the jewels and gowns, medals and sashes, Michael exclaimed “Good God, it looks like a scene out of “Dr. Zhivago”! Indeed, except these were not Hollywood extras playing a part that evening. These people had had their parts written for them almost a century ago and now they wanted to rewrite the script.
Before the Big Red Flag came down, Russia’s nobility were considered odd remnants of another era but that now had changed. Impromptu meetings were held at various tables with news and gossip from St. Petersburg and Kiev. A new world of possibilities had emerged for those who had lost everything (or almost everything) when the Soviets “appropriated” their properties. The parents or grandparents of these people had been lucky just to get out alive. But now, maybe, things would be different. This was, of course, before Vladimir Putin and his hybrid regime of old Russia and sentimental Stalinism. That night hope sprang eternal, only to be dashed in later years.
The great names were all there; Galitzine, Bobrinskoy, Ourusoff and many others. As the dinner ended the dancing began - and what dancing! - Prince Serge Obolensky used to perform his famous “Dagger Dance” atop a table when the ball was held at the Ambassador Hotel of which he was the manager. I asked his son Ivan if he was tempted to emulate his father. “No way”! he said laughingly, “That’s for the bravest of the brave”!
I made my way to the main bar to see two great friends William Bryk and COL H. Harding Isaacson debating which vodka should be paired with an olive. Harding good-naturedly admonished me for not wearing the Order of St. Titus of Crete which he had bestowed on me the previous summer in the backyard of his home in Amagansett. Just then we spotted Michael venturing toward us. Unfortunately, he was also spotted by a petite, ancient lady. She may have been a child during the Revolution for when she saw Groves she haltingly approached and employing the word for “Little Father” that many Russians affectionately used to describe their Czar, fell to her knees and through tears proclaimed “Batushka! We thought you were dead!” Embarrassed beyond description, Michael hurried over to us joined by our mutual friend Luis Mejia and for a moment we resembled the famous photograph taken in 1957 of Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper and Van Heflin. Well, at least we thought so. We were swells and we liked it a lot. Back to the dancing and the politicking as clusters of men engaged in whispered conversations. For them the stakes were higher than most Americans can appreciate; to make your fortune is one thing, to try to reclaim your grandfather’s is something else entirely. But the Grand Ballroom had never been more beautiful and neither had my wife. I asked Alex to play “Girl Talk” written by Neal Hefti for the movie “Harlow”. He smiled because he saw that I had a “Harlow” on my arm. I later asked him how he could play it when he didn’t have a French horn in his orchestra. “You muffle a tenor sax”, he said. Never play smart with someone smarter.
It was interesting to observe all the small activities occurring simultaneously. Ivan Obolensky deep in conversation with another friend, Alan Z. Feuer, probably about the Soldier’s, Sailor’s, Marines and Airmen’s Club to which they were both devoted. A waiter discussing the Duke of Braganza’s mustache. Champagne served in bud vases. A very attractive lady approached me as I stood with Luis near the raw bar. “Hello, may we dance?” Eh, delighted. Luis shrugged. “I’m getting a divorce, I would like your opinion. Should I keep the apartment on Park or the farm in the Berkshires?” I had known this person exactly 7 minutes!
Just then the President of the Association Prince Alexis Scherbatow greeted me. He had been my professor in Russian history at university. “Do you think it’s going well?” he asked. I told him the ball was a great success. “I don’t mean the ball, I mean Russia!” I answered that it looked promising. Then I asked him if he thought the revolution had really changed anything. “Too soon to tell”, he replied.
As the vodka kept flowing Sherry and I decided to leave for our dacha. We stood on the Plaza’s steps gazing at A La Vielle Russie across the avenue and the frigid air perpetuated the illusion of another place and time.
This time, the time we are living in now, won’t last forever. As Professor Scherbatow said in one of his lectures, “The only thing you can depend on in life is change”
Someday, when the current madness ends, it will all come back – if only in my memories.