Children of Epicurus: Alexandre Vassiliev's Beauty In Exile
A Review by Grant Menzies for Atlantis Magazine, Summer 2001

Of the many compelling photographs that crowd the pages of costume and set designer Alexandre Vassiliev's new book, Beauty in Exile, one stands out for its ability to freeze a frenzied moment in history, just before a civilization melted away in the hot sun of change.

Russian actress Nataliya Kowanko is pictured in white lace, her dark hair and pale face shadowed by a broad-brimmed hat trimmed in shirred white tulle. The gathered sleeves give the dress an Empire air, an Empress Josephine girlishness, while the plunging neckline casts the mind back to an earlier era, say that of the Marie Antoinette of Vigée-Lebrun's more sensually relaxed portraits. The artificial rose between Kowanko's breasts nudges the impression further, recalling Marie Antoinette's Hameau, its silk-ribboned goats and Sèvres milk-jugs.

Amid the fashionable frippery, the rustle of which seems echoed behind by a turbid surf crawling white and dark over jagged rocks, the face of the woman who wears it is a perfect cameo of misery. Is this Kowanko playing Marguerite Gautier, perhaps, or some other beautiful but doomed heroine, milking the lens for all it was worth? Perhaps Kowanko is thinking of other times and other roles, when the chaos into which she was about to fall existed only on the pages of a script, to be scribbled over and changed, to be closed up and put away, even as she could brush off her characters' fate when the director yelled "Cut!" and the cameras stopped whirring.

But no, this is not Kowanko the actress. This is Kowanko the Russian. And the mournfulness in her dark eyes and numbed mouth is that of a child about to be torn from its mother. Because this picture was taken on the southern coast of Russia, in the Crimea. The year was 1920, and Kowanko was about to be evacuated, with thousands of her countrymen, from a motherland gone mad.

The full title of Vassiliev's sprawling, magnificent study is Beauty In Exile: The Artists, Models, and Nobility Who Fled the Russian Revolution and Influenced the World of Fashion, biting off a huge piece of the past as well as dust-jacket space. But it is obvious that the hugeness of Vassiliev's overview is both necessary and unavoidable the latter, because we are still too close to 1917 and its aftermath to achieve a tidy curve of historical arc; the former, because the one thing Russians have always been famous for is their dislike of the small. (For this reason, it is easy for this normally zero-tolerant reviewer to excuse some of the orthographical inconsistencies and inaccuracies in the book's translated text. Weighed against the book's broader achievement, going after inconsistent transliterations of Russian names and the strangely phonetic spelling of "Heirwood," as in the earls of, would be straining at gnats indeed.)

Exiled Russians, blown to the world's four corners by the explosion of their civilization, brought with them the music, dance, painting, poetry and, yes, beauty, which had been flowering feverishly in the hothouse atmosphere of Russia's Silver Age, and made lavish gardens of them in Paris, London, Berlin, New York, and dozens of other places big, small and in between. But as Vassiliev correctly points out, impresario and Nijinsky patron Serge Diaghilev had more to do with spreading Russian culture than Lenin's messily illegal takeover in October, 1917.

Russia had certainly influenced western art before Diaghilev's Ballets Russes took the stage of Paris' Theâtre du Châtelet. Peter the Great's inquisitive buffoonery at the court of the young Louis XV, Catherine the Great's efforts at pulling Europe toward Russia and those of her grandson Alexander I at pulling Russia toward Europe, the fashions worn by visiting empresses, all contributed something Russian to a west fascinated by the quasi-oriental charms of Slavdom. Yet it was really not till Diaghilev's splashy Parisian debut in 1906 that the west began to deck itself out in a Russianness more pervasive and compelling than some stodgy Paris bridge named for a tsar. And some of the strongest influences came about via the most delicate materials from the colors and textures of the fabrics used to costume the Ballets Russes' dancers. Designers like Leon Bakst, Alexander Benois, and Natalia Goncharova gave the world color combinations heretofore unseen west of Budapest: pink with gold, green with cinnabar, crimson with silver, all thrown together in a crazy quilt of hues, in designs romantically celebratory of the free-ranging individuality attributed (not without reason) to the Russian character.

Soon, western designers adopted more than color schemes. One began to see turbans, harem pants, fringed "lampshade" skirts, embroidered shawls and Turkish cigarettes in long jeweled holders, a combination which powerfully influenced the wardrobes, home décor, and public image of film actresses for the next couple of decades. Fictional Norma Desmond's Alhambra of a Sunset Boulevard mansion, with its palm-shaded, exotically fringed and carpeted interior, is an accurate example of this translated eastern effulgence. (The reviewer owns a silk-tasseled brocade throw from 1920's Hollywood which, in its use of bold Slavic gold thread designs over pale green, orange and lavender silk, and with a flame-colored velvet laid against ultramarine taffeta lining, gives a hint of the vivid flavors to which the Ballets Russes accustomed the provincial palates of southern California's movie colony.)

Vassiliev's book, for all its inventorying of the effects of Russian culture on the west much of which culture was ironically a reflection of Europeanization carried out in Russia generations before is less a fond backward glance at frivolities of fashion than a sober memorial to the bravery and talents of the Russian exiles. Not that all exiles, Russian or other, given the unstable circumstances of their lives, are brave, or creative, or particularly admirable. The world does not take kindly to losers, and this is how many people saw the Russian émigrés. But Vassiliev didn't have to look far to find a sizable group of women and men, from a variety of backgrounds, who refused to starve in the garrets of Paris if they could turn their talents to some useful and lucrative trade. And to look at what many of them accomplished, these talents were profound enough to bring about a second flowering of Russian style and sumptuousness, from Paris to London to New York, ironically long after the Russia which had bred these talents had vanished.

Of course, nobody would blame Vassiliev for giving the brightest spot-lit cameos to the most famous among the émigrés, a short list of whom is sufficient justification for his attentions. There was Rasputin assassin Prince Felix Yusupov and former imperial Princess Irina Alexandrovna of Russia, who started the Parisian fashion house of Irfé ("Ir"ina and "Fé"lix, joined on the marquis as they were in amiable if ill-matched marital bliss); there was Irina's cousin, Grand Duchess Marie of Russia, who founded another Paris-based fashion concern, the embroidery house of Kitmir, and not only supplied her brother's lover, Coco Chanel, with some of the most splendid embroideries of the era but followed Grand Duke Dmitri's example and had an affair with a fashion designer (in her case, with Jean Patou). There was even a Parisian maison de haute couture set up by the morganatic wife of a Russian imperial prince Bery, the fashion house of Princess Antonina Romanovskaya-Strelniskaya, wife of Grand Duke Gabriel, son of poetic Grand Duke Constantine Constantinovich.

And there were real descendants of Rurik, too, in Paris and Berlin, setting up shop to make and sell the "robes et manteaux" that every advertisement and business card seemed to feature as its specialty, people like Princess Lyubov Obolensky, Princess Maria Trubetskoy and Maria Annenkov, who owned the house of Tao on the Avénue de l'Opéra; and lesser but no less brilliant lights in the firmament of Russian/Baltic aristocracy, such as Baroness Cassandra Accourti and Betty Buzzard, née Baroness Hoyningen-Huené, who ran the influential houses of Ardanse and Yteb respectively.

Yet there were non-titled people, some of them nobles and many not, who followed all manner of creative trades in the arid fields of foreign wanderings, some of whom made names for themselves remembered to this day. One of the more famous of these was designer Valentina Sanina, widely known by her first name, whose business lasted from the late 1920's up to 1957. Valentina dressed everyone from Pola Negri to Greta Garbo in her graciously linear designs, and was her own most ethereally effective model far past the age (did anyone really know it) at which most models withdraw from the runway. Another household name is that of Erté, the Petersburg-born son of Admiral Peter Ivanovich Tyrtov. Young Roman Tyrtov, who came to be known by the initials of his first and last names, came to Paris well before the Bolshevik Revolution, in 1912, and in time became the fashion illustrator and designer par excellence. Well into his nineties, Erté was still fashioning the costumes and sets for Broadway productions before he died, he even reached that dubious meridian of renown when the Franklin Mint brings out another series of highly colored dishware and forces an artist to totter between fame and infamy.

One Russian designer became sought after just for her lingerie the plain and stocky Olga Hitrovo, who made it desirable and fashionable to send svelte models down the red carpet wearing nothing but negligées and nighties, and who was lauded by no less than Rita Hayworth for her elegant, fragile yet sturdily chaste items of déshabille. Far less fussy were the clinging creations of Laure Belin, whose lingerie house was moved from Berlin to Paris, prospering over a period of almost fifty years and keeping happy such persnickety personages as Jacqueline Kennedy and Marlene Dietrich. (Dietrich's most famous skin-tight beaded concert dresses came from Laure Belin.)

Then there were the professional models themselves, women whose photogenic glories can still put to shame any given photo spread from a modern day issue of Vogue. Vassiliev quotes a passage from Nemirovich-Danchenko's 1932 article in Illustrated Russia, "Dress, Body, and Soul," in which the author imagines the daughter and granddaughter of Russian women who had once patronized Worth and Poiret, now stranded penniless in a different Paris from the one previous generations had known, with memories of revolution and civil war clouding her spirit but not concealing her beauty. All the lovely refugee had to do, wrote Nemirovich-Danchenko, was announce her presence at the address of some splendid fashion house, and "… the massive doors swung open before her…."

Among the many fashion industry details of which Vassiliev informs us are the gradations of status that met our refugee once inside the haughty maisons de haute couture, relegation to which depended as much on each woman's grace and (former) social position as on her physical beauty. Mannequins de cabine, for example, were models kept on a house's payroll the everyday workhorse models. Mannequins vedettes, however, were of star quality, only appearing for important showings. Mannequins volantes or flying models traveled abroad to display a house's wares, and mannequins mondaines were society girls, bearing titles or such entrancing beauty their names or backgrounds became irrelevant.

These latter models carried new designs directly into the society most able to pay for them by wearing their robes et manteaux to parties, a kind of advertising that got the job done without crassness or vulgarity. One of Chanel's most sought after models was Princess Maria Eristova, for example, who flaunted all the coolly thoughtful beauty of a Briullov bárinya. The Parisian fashion house Jenny employed two sister baronesses, Kira and Lelya von Medem, while Countess Liza Grabbe, she of the dismissive crystal-blue gaze, found modeling work at Chantal and later at Molyneux. Toward the 1930's and 40's, these women began to make their way into film acting: Ludmila Feodoseyevna, Vera Korene, Anna Sten, Genya Gorlenko, and even a morganatic Romanov, Princess Nathalie Paley, daughter of Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich and Olga Pistolkors, née Karnovich, a great beauty herself who had dazzled pre-1917 Paris with her jewels and style.

Yet while Nathalie Paley, for all her finely chiseled beauty and romantic background, did not have the happiest of lives, nothing in her experience quite matches the roller coaster fortunes of Ludmila Feodoseyevna, known in the business as "Lud". And not even Nathalie Paley, that distillation of the striking elegance of her mother and what was most handsome from her imperial father's ancestry, could match what Lud had to offer. For one thing, Lud looked, and was, solidly Russian. She had the cheekbones, the lips at once frankly sensual and playfully amused, the slightly upward slanted eyes that hinted at something distantly, fantastically oriental. Those eyes (which grace the dust-jacket of Vassiliev's book) were her greatest feature, because they were different in every photo, from every angle the blue of ice one moment, the blue of warm bright gemstones the next, powerful proof of the Russian's proverbial variety of moods.

Born in St Petersburg in 1913 to a vice-governor of Vladimir province, Lud escaped with her family to the Crimea after the Bolshevik revolution, thence to Constantinople, Greece and France. In exile, Lud proved to be more than just a pretty face. While her widowed mother struggled to make ends meet, Lud took high grades at a French lycée and planned to enter university to study philology.

Fate determined a different course for Lud when the famed photographer Horst espied her delivering dresses to Vogue's Paris studio. Thus at age eighteen, Lud began what was to be a fabulous modeling career, first with the house of Countess Vera Borea, then Patou, then Chanel. She married a French marquis, and knew the delicious experience of having rivals Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel vie graspingly for her services. In 1937, wearing a draped white gown from Alix and posed like some lethally beautiful Medea between fluted columns, Lud was photographed by Horst in what Vassiliev describes as "one of the immortal images of twentieth century fashion."

We all know beauty and wealth do not guarantee happiness, but the gods sought to use Lud to press the point home. First her marriage to the marquis failed; she married again, to a naval engineer, and began to appear in films. She left France for a time, living first in Argentina and later in the United States, and her second marriage broke up. By the time she returned to France in the early 50's and began working for Balenciaga, she sensed that somehow her sun had set. There were financial woes, brought on by her unflagging addiction to high living. She ended up taking a job at the Slenderella beauty institute, earning some cash on the side by singing in the chorus of the Paris Opéra. In 1959, the once glorious Lud was living in the resort town of Le Touquet, where the only work she could find was as an airport clerk. When that job ended, she found a new position, as head of curriculum at a private school, and when that job ended, Lud was hired as director of a home for aged Russians, where among the charges she oversaw was another faded Russian model, Princess Maria Eristova. Still, there was a little happiness for Lud at the end: in 1982, she married a childhood friend, Pierre de la Grandière, and lived with him in the French Alps until her death from cancer in 1990.

In describing her mother, Lud's daughter also gives a fair account of most of the other artistic Russian émigrés. Lud feared nothing and no one, remembered her daughter, never hesitating to sail a boat out onto a stormy lake or take a stroll through a crime-ridden Paris purlieu. Lud was in love with living: "She was the daughter of Epicurus."

Life for Lud, and indeed, for most of the Russian exiles living in Europe or Great Britain, America northern or southern, was far more colorful and probably far more blessed with longevity than it would have been had they or their parents remained in Soviet Russia. Thanks to Alexandre Vassiliev's magisterial study of just where these many-colored threads began and ended, we can know that there was, after all, a future for them, even for such mortally homesick refugees as poet Nadezhda Teffi. Standing on the ship that took her away from the docks of Odessa in the great evacuation of 1919, Teffi promised herself she would not look back at the land which was already becoming a thin blue blade on the watery horizon. But at the last minute, as if unable to keep her eyes closed against the cold ocean wind, Teffi glanced back; and like Lot's wife, found herself frozen at the rail.

She had been turned to a pillar forever, she wrote in her memoirs, and forever she would "see my country leaving me, softly, softly."

We don't always find what we're looking for by shirking darkness for the light. Teffi's Russia continues to disappear beyond waves literal and figurative as time passes, that Russia becomes more and more like an engulfed civilization of myth. The blazing beauty of Lud on the cover of Vassiliev's book is counterweighted by the bleak suffering to be seen in the expression of Grand Duchess Marie on the reverse, sitting among bright embroideries but gazing as if into an approaching abyss. Yet Beauty in Exile proves that somewhere between the shadows and the light there lives a Russia which thanks to the efforts of every émigré, whether through art or the simple refusal to fear a stroll into the unknown has become immortal through the hard work, brilliance, and bravery of all its scattered children.

Grant Menzies may be reached at


Alexandre at the Moscow release of "Beauty In Exile"

The Russian edition won the "Best Illustrated Book" for 1998.