The Strange Lives of One Man : An Autobiography (Contract Bridge)

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NUNC COCNOSCO EX PARTE

TRENT UNIVERSITY LIBRARY PRESENTED BY Mrs.

F.

B. Young

The Strange Lives of One Man

Digitized by the Internet Archive in 2019 with funding from Kahle/Austin Foundation

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Courtesy of Moffett Studio

AN

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TH e

.1

Chicago

AUTOBIOGRAPHY

ELY CULBERTSON

n tf n r

w I n s-T n n Philadelphia

r. irnmrrrr Toronto

Copyright, 1940, by Ely Culbertson Copyright in Great Britain and in The British Dominions and Possessions

PRINTED IN THE U. S. A.

To ALMON and XENIA

252674

MY CAST OF CHARACTERS The story of any man’s life, to be complete, must be the story of several lives.

Every one of us is living not

one but many lives, because within us there exist not one but many different personalities. There lives, for instance, within each of us, the sensualist, the idealist, and the philosopher. Each of these personalities has its own psychological structure, or inner pattern, consisting of experiences, memories, motives, and goals peculiar to its own nature; each has its own ambitions, and its own consciousness and subconsciousness. Each seeks its own happiness. If “all the world’s a stage,” so is the inner world of the individual, whose different personalities are also players, each having his exits and his entrances. The important difference is that the personalities within us not only act the plays of our lives, but also write and stage them. They are all behind every thought, and they participate in every scene or act. Sometimes they stand silently, hovering in the background like a Greek chorus, while one of our heroes or villains in the center of the stage delivers his speech; sometimes they turn the stage into a town meeting: discussion, disagreements, conflicts, final decision—and then they suddenly withdraw to form the background, while another actor plays his new piece. This bawdy, sentimental, cynical, selfish, and idealistic company of troupers is day and night at its ceaseless task of weaving events into a pattern of man’s happiness and misery. (v)

MY CAST OF CHARACTERS

VI

The troupe of actors in the play of my life are seven. With the possible exception of one, these characters will seem like old friends to the reader, for practically the same cast has acted, under one disguise or another, the reader’s own life play. These different Elys are: The Epicurean, a connoisseur of pleasures of the senses The Idealist, who seeks goals beyond the other Elys The Child, that part of the adult Ely who has never

grown up The Family Man, a charter member of the herd The Business Manager, who hunts and seeks to pro¬

vide the material means for the other Elys The Celebrity, the famous bridge authority; a creation

of the Business Manager The Philosopher, who serves as a combination referee,

compass, and balance wheel The Epicurean

The Epicurean in us is the great villain of the piece. He is charming, fastidious, with a tremendous range of pleasure-wares and some vices, cleverly disguised. The motives of the Epicurean are always the same: enjoyment, happiness if possible, but always avoidance of unnecessary pain. In his early stages the Epicurean is an uncouth sensual¬ ist. He comes into this world well stocked by nature with pleasure and pain levers to regulate the workings of the five senses.

In childhood the range of sensualities is

limited. As the child grows into manhood, nature opens up more and more avenues of pleasure and brings in sex, which colors all the emotions and makes beauty, art, evil, and sacrifice understandable. This half-child, half-man is still a primitive sensualist.

MY CAST OF CHARACTERS

vii

But as he increases the scale of pleasures and enlarges the scope of his “I,” he matures into a true Epicurean. He adds to his natural scale of sensations through ac¬ quired tastes. He learns the pleasures of music and other arts, games, intellectuality. And now the Epicurean becomes more complex; he is a sophisticate. He refines and often perverts nature’s pleasures of the senses, developing artificial tastes and wants. He tries to be a connoisseur of women, a profound expert on exquisite things, good and evil. He is a hedonist, a philosopher of the senses, a poet of decadence. Stoics attempted to find happiness by elimination of wants and sensual pleasures, but his solution is the development of more and more refined wants and habits. And he scorn¬ fully rejects as small-shoppish and vegetative the middleof-the-road solution of the average man. To him, life is a long and weary journey across the deserts of monot¬ ony; and thrills, all kinds of thrills—intellectual, artistic, thrills of refined sensuality and thrills of the primitiveare the oases. He does not measure life by the number ol times the earth goes round the sun, but (in a special, fourdimensional way of the senses) by the number of 'points of intensity, or thrills. And he is therefore ten thousand years old. For he makes it his object in life to collect these points of intensity, like the man who collected echoes by buying up mountains. His range of pleasures becomes tremendous, running from a Beethoven quartet through Gorgonzola cheese, to the delicately tactile sensation of caressing a rare Chinese porcelain. There is but a step from the sophisticate to the super-sophisticate—a dangerous step. He advances deeper and deeper into this man-made jungle of artificial sensa¬ tions. It is a danse macabre of nature’s aims perverted. He now has traveled far from the physical man into the shadowy world of over-refined, over-intellectualized

viii

MY CAST OF CHARACTERS

phantasms. He has dared to become a demigod and a superbeast in one. He has stretched the primitive scale of pleasures to evoke the unearthly and grotesque; and, piling up one sulphurous thrill on another, he has built a superstructure of morbidity under which the physical man collapses and the moral man disintegrates. The Idealist

The Idealist can never be adequately defined—he must be felt. There are two kinds of Idealists within us: the emotional and the intellectual, or “cosmic.” The emotional Idealist, like his cousin, the simple sensualist, is the first stage. He loves the individual and strives to do good to him. His noble, unselfish impulses are based on inherent kind¬ ness of heart and ready sympathy for all who suffer. He

is the

sensitive man who

can never

completely

enjoy his own good fortune and pleasures. At least, he wants to throw an idealistic bone to the underdog. In the midst of his own plenty there is always the unpleasant thought of the misery of others. It matters not whether it is inner pride, the weakness of a kind heart, or a purely selfish desire to

enjoy

completely the good things of

life—this idealistic skeleton is always present at the feast. The ‘ ‘cosmic” Idealist, who comes into one’s life years later, is not interested in any individual—not even him¬ self. He is in love with abstractions—humanity, civiliza¬ tion, truth, science. He is ruthless and crafty. He is dangerously practical, and he thinks in terms of millions of lives, and of future generations. . . . There is no worse tyrant than the intellectual Idealist. In most people the Idealist exists side by side with the Epicurean. There is much of the egoistical in the purest ideal, and much of the idealistic in the apparently selfish. Even the emotions of humble joy or of softly

MY CAST OF CHARACTERS

IX

simmering exaltation, which are the rewards of an ideal¬ istic act are, in a sense, an ethereal form of selfishness— flesh and bone dissolved in abstract vision. The true idealist scorns such rewards, and will smother even the thought of “duty well done,” but he can never escape, even in his greatest humility and abnegation, the ineffable feeling of pride at passionately loving and

sacrificing

himself for an ideal or vision which is outside his ego. This profound pride is the keynote to the pattern, motives, and power of the Idealist. For the Idealist, unlike the Epicurean, is not richly endowed by Nature with pleasure reflexes and instincts. His entire gamut of unselfish thrills is certainly less than that of an ant, and hence he must build his own equipment on the basis of pride. It is mainly pride that makes him scorn material wealth and the pleasures of the senses for the greater wealth of spirituality

and

abstract

passions.

The

most

abject

humility, which often is an integral part of the Idealist, still has its foundation in pride; and the gesture of Saint Francis, who threw his clothes at the feet of his reproach¬ ful father and walked out naked into the world, was a gesture both of love unearthly and of defiant pride. This pride also explains the frustrations and inferiorities of the individual who clashes against the windmills of reality. It makes it easy to understand why a cynic is so often an idealist in disguise. But there is much more to the Idealist within us than mere pride or self-esteem. An Idealist is a true romantic; a passionate lover. His love burns with a pure blue flame, and his lady, at whose feet he humbly sits, is an Ideal. The Child in the Man

Within every man there lives a Child. The Child is not a grown-up personality like the others, but he too has his own structure, and much that is mysterious in

X

MY CAST OF CHARACTERS

the adult’s life is very simply explained by his presence. Men who listen to their Child are far wiser than those who, out of a false sense of decorum, try to smother or disguise him. For it is the Child in a man that gives vivid, zesty hues to the emotions, and lights up thousands of gray, inert things. My own particular pest is about nine years old. His few endearing qualities compensate for a load of annoying weaknesses. He has no sense of proportion. He is lazy and lackadaisical. His favorite pastime is day-dreaming. He adores mischief. He is disarmingly enthusiastic over all sorts of things that apparently have no practical value or social significance. His pace is not yet slowed down by the dead weight of conventionalities. He is trusting. He bears no grudges; he has nothing to forgive. He constantly yearns for affection and bestows it like a sovereign. He likes to cry (secretly) over a book or a movie, adores slapstick, and never asks, “What is art?” But he is often selfish: he cannot get it into his head that he is not the center of the universe. He cannot resign himself to the fact that life is not a carnival, and he is frightfully annoying in his tireless attempts to project his petty little personality. He has a nice little collection of fears, and petty hatreds. In many ways he is a spoiled brat. He has tempers and violent explosions, though usually without malice and really not terrifying. Though only nine years old, he has a formidable collection of petty vanities. Others laugh at his petty vanities and conceits. And so do I. The Family Man

The Family Man is a charter member of the herd. He includes within his ego those who are near him, those whom he loves and likes. He learns the pleasures of being a parent, the poignancy of losing those whom he has

MY CAST OF CHARACTERS

XI

learned to love, and the refined satisfaction of giving up his own pleasure for that of his wife, children, and friends. He is proud to be a good husband, a good father, and a respectable member of his community. He cherishes the esteem of his neighbors. His amusements are the simple, homely amusements of the multitudes. His road is the sane middle road. And although his sacrifices are often great, he is satisfied with small rewards. He is the one indispensable member of any society. The Business Manager (The Hunter)

The Business Manager is in many ways a bizarre personality. His job is to scheme, prostitute, organize, promote, and otherwise provide for the other Elys. All within the rules of the game, of course. Money is his goal, and he has a little soul all his own—a sort of leather case full of propositions, contracts, legal judgments, stock quotations, labor costs, and checking accounts. In early times the hunter was the business manager and actually hunted and fought to provide, by hook or spear, shelter, food, and skins. Today the hunter hunts in the jungles of American business, scheming to provide, by hook or crook, not only material necessities, but money for leisure, for

luxury,

for power,

and

for

ideals

because even

charity must advertise, and an idealistic venture must be financed. Because the tastes of the various Elys were Overdevel¬ oped and their appetites voracious, it became necessary to train and develop the Business Manager as a powerful money-making machine. My Business Manager is of rather low origin, similar to a patient, foxy peasant who has worked himself into the responsible position of manager of the estate and who secretly hopes to own it eventually. He is critical of his

xii

MY CAST OF CHARACTERS

masters, but loyal in his own way. He is obedient, works very hard, and runs himself ragged to get the money for what he thinks are his masters’ whims and fancies. “Hey, good fellow, get me a thousand dollars . . . What do you mean you haven’t got it? Get it!” And he usually gets it. The Business Manager has his strict code of ethics. It is not a very noble code, for it is based on the dictum that “honesty is the best policy.” Ely the Business Manager is and always will be at best a valet, serving many masters. And to this valet, his masters are certainly no heroes. He sneers at their im¬ practical, unhealthy lives. He has his own philosophy. He has his own poetry and romance. Money and success are his ends, and everything else the means. To him, there is a joy, an enduring satisfaction, in scheming, out¬ guessing, organizing, promoting. Business is a game, a marvelous game. Especially for the winners. The Celebrity

Ely Culbertson, world celebrity, is the brain-child and the stooge of Ely the Business Manager. Most famous people have grown gradually and by natural steps into their fame; some few have become famous by sheer artificial processes, through manipulation of the mass mind rather than through natural evolution. Ely the Celebrity is one of these few. In real life he does not exist. He was created, a Pasteboard Emperor, out of paper and ink, and was endowed with a special personality. Even his fame was a purely artificial process, in which every important step was strategically calculated. This does not mean that there was no luck and no solid basis of achievement in his chosen field of endeavor. Quite the contrary. He had a hundred times more than his share of luck. My Business Manager was fortunate, for instance,

MY CAST OF CHARACTERS

xiii

to find the knowledge of cards and of a splendid intellec¬ tual game like bridge in a primitive stage of development. He loved the bizarre world of cards, and he devoted years of study to it. By applying scientific principles and long experience to this almost virgin territory, he was able to create a bridge system that strongly appealed to some of the best minds and yet was dramatic and simple enough for millions. But all this could never have made the Business Man¬ ager’s stooge world famous or even well known. It was necessary to plan and carry out a complicated campaign of publicity for the conquest of the mass mind. Elsewhere in this book I describe the story of that campaign.

The Philosopher All men are philosophers. It is true that man’s ability to create general ideas is often used by him as a psycho¬ logical device to disguise and to clothe in glittering robes of virtue his selfish and brutal urges; but the very fact that man resorts to such deceptive rationalization is proof of the power of conscience, which is a part of the philosopher within him. With many, the grip of this conscience (which consists mainly of general philosophic ideas) is so strong that it overthrows instincts and blunts the enjoyment of physical pleasures, compelling them to adjust their actions to their philosophy. The Philosopher is the real leader of the other person¬ alities. He is the stage manager who co-ordinates their goals; without him there would be chaos among his voracious brothers. But often he himself is weak, con¬ fused, without authority. And when his philosophy is wrong, one’s life is also wrong. It is difficult for him to harmonize the widely divergent personalities within the individual with the herd and the physical world. He often falls into emotional and intellectual traps, and despairs

XIV

MY CAST OF CHARACTERS

of ever finding the solutions of life’s problems. Still, his dominant goal is the search for Truth. There are three decisive questions which the Philosopher asked in my early youth: What is this world? What am I? What shall I do with myself? The underlying theme of my life is the search for the answers to these questions. Each of these personalities had its own adventures, dramas, comedies—its own defeats and moments of hap¬ piness. Each had its evil, and perhaps its good. So that, in a sense, this work is not one but seven autobiographies of seven lives. These personalities are born at different times in one’s life and, according to the individual, vary greatly in number and in the degree of development. Some may be in an embryonic state, while others become over¬ developed. Some individuals are harmoniously balanced (and

therefore happy), while others

are more or less

cockeyed (and therefore restless). And there are some in whom a single personality is monstrously overdeveloped. The Hindu ascetic and the cafe society philanderer, for instance, both suffer from a species of elephantiasis. It is a kind of psychic cancer that turns a sensualist into a satyr, an idealist into a cruel fanatic, a gourmet into a glutton, or a businessman into a miser. The main danger for any individual is that one of his personalities may break loose and run amuck, threatening the dissolution of the other personalities. It has happened to many. It hap¬ pened to me. My whole life is largely the story of a man who at various times succumbed to the temptations of the Epi¬ curean, the pride of the Idealist, the peace of the Family Man, the dictates of the Business Manager; the story of

MY CAST OF CHARACTERS

xv

the evil that resulted from their ruthless domination; of his struggle to free himself from the despotism of one, only to fall prey to another; of his profound failures, disillusionments, and humiliations; until, much later, he saw hope that he might yet achieve the Right Way of Life. *

*

*

Whether this concept of personalities, which I have developed to serve as a philosophical background for this autobiography, is strictly scientific is beside the point. I am well aware that at best it is an over-simplification of the psychological man. But for my purposes as an author, this psychological concept will throw a great deal of light on the complex problem of motives, and may help the reader to understand not only my lives, but his own lives as well. This psychological man and the various personalities that comprise him has obviously a tremendous influence on the physical man, and in turn is conditioned by him. The physical man is a kind of four-dimensional vessel into which Nature pours the wine of personalities, brewed from life; and then, through some undiscovered magic the vessel in turn is reshaped to fit the character of the wine. But, while the physical man is chained to the wheel of heredity, the psychological man is chained to the wheel of environment. And the story of my life is therefore not only the story of seven Elys, but the story of my Ameri¬ can father who married the daughter of a Cossack chief and founded an American family in the Caucasus; the story of three sisters—my mother, Alexandra, and Glafira; of three families—the Cossack Rogoznys, the Polish Kozlovskys, and the American Culbertsons; of three brothers —Eugene, Sasha, and I; and the story of Jo. There is another character who played a large part in my life—the crowd. I have placed in the Appendix under the heading “The Mass Mind,” some of my observations

XVI

MY CAST OF CHARACTERS

on the structure of the crowd and the technique of pub¬ licity, on which I have based my bridge promotion. While the analysis of the structure of the mass mind does not belong to the story proper, many of my ideas on the psy¬ chology of the individual and the psychology of the masses had an important bearing on my life’s activities. Those wishingtolookdeeperinto thecomplex problem of the mass mind and methods of publicity perhaps will be interested. While this work may be a novel autobiography, it is not an autobiographical novel. It is a complete story of my life, told as candidly and as ruthlessly as I could. All the names and places, including the jails, mentioned herein are authentic. The only exceptions are the names of the gambler and the anarchist in my two stories that take place in California. It is true that certain dialogs have been reconstructed; but as much as possible I have based this reconstruction on my memory and my diaries. I am indebted to my Russian cousins, Mme Tina Avedoff and Mme Shoura Perutz de Winnitzki, who now live in Rome and Paris respectively, as well as to my brothers, for refreshing my memory on many of the incidents of my childhood and youth. Mr. Lewis Copeland, who watched the “inside story” of my bridge career from its inception, has been of great help to me in his remi¬ niscences and advice. To Messrs. Frank Crowninshield, Nathan Spingold, and John N. Wheeler I am indebted for their valuable suggestions; and to Messrs. Alexander Sobel and Bailey Young for their assistance in editing. Mr. Alphonse Moyse, with his keen and discerning mind, edited the book. Most of all I am grateful to Miss Lucinda Hazen who, during more than one year, has devoted an average of twelve hours daily to the preparation and editing of the manuscript, and whose brilliant mind has saved me from many (but alas, not all) literary pitfalls. Ely Culbertson

TABLE OF CONTENTS PAGE

My Cast of Characters.v

Part I A YANKEE IN THE CAUCASUS i 20

The Great Horn. Slaying the Cossack Dragons. The Yankee Steals a Bride. Father Founds the Caucasian Branch I Enter the World.



27

.

33 40

Part II I MEET THE WORLD The Cossacks in Pennsylvania.



Behind the Bars. Mud on the Boots. I Become a Thief. Time Bombs.

.

45 52 61 64 68



83

. .

Part III MUD ON TFIE WINGS Pride and Humility. The Acolyte and the Devil. I Become a Man. Sour Waters. I Choose a Profession. xvu



9i . 100 119 . 127

xviii

CONTENTS Part IV REVOLUTION PAGE

I Become a Dandy.

• 139

Turmoil. Nadya.

144 .

160

.

186

Mother vs. the Revolution .... Love and Conspiracy.

179

The Black Hundred. The Line of Demarcation.

195 . 200

Condemned to Death. I Become a “Cripple”.

206 . 225

Part V I MEET THE PEOPLE From Yale to the Bowery. Life with a Dope Fiend. Mother Drinks a Toast.



239

247

Back and Forth.

• 254 264

A Strike in the Rockies.

. 268

“Is There Anything I Can Do, Madam?” Stowaway to Acapulco. Revolution in Mexico. Anarchist in Spain. School in Paris. In Search of an Ideal Woman

276 . 288

295 • 3°3

3ii . 316

Part VI RUMP SUPERMAN Blase

.

Escape from the World. Super-sophisticate. Blank Wall. I Break a Bank. The Meeting of the Board

....

Rebuilding. Broken Threads

....

329

333 339 347 355 369

386 392

CONTENTS

XIX

Part VII MY FAVORITE PARTNER PAGE Casting About.

• 409 420

Living in Two Worlds. Jo. Father Proposes. Big Game Hunting, Love, and Violins

• 4H

450 • 455



.

A Problem of Mathematics.

467

I Go to Work at Last!. Card Sharps and Gamblers.

• 473 481

Joyce Creates a Celebrity.

• 492

Father Leaves a Map.

507

Part VIII PASTEBOARD EMPEROR Jump Bid. Launching an Attack.

• 5G •

Two Brothers Are Happy. Bridge to Fame.



Washerwomen’s Union. The Zero Goal. The Systemic War. The Battle of the Century. Cleaning Up. Bluff and Counter-bluff. Building a Home.

5W • 548

557 • 563



574 • 579 589 • 603 614 ■ 633

Part IX RETREAT

I Am Heckled.

• 643 656

Jo Talks It Over.

• 663

I Meet an Old Friend.

Remodeling a Home.

671

Foggy Weather.

• 679

Appendix

• 683

.

-

.

PART I A YANKEE IN THE CAUCASUS

THE GREAT HORN My father’s people were as American as the cigar-store Indian. My mother’s people were as Russian as the giant and toothsome sturgeon that rush from the cold North down the many-mouthed Volga to lay their caviar in the great Caspian lake. These maternal ancestors of mine were Cossacks, and their name came from the Turki quzzaq, or “adventurer.” Cossacks are powerful, gentle, and fero¬ cious. They are deeply religious. Their spirit was born and grew in the fires of almost incessant warfare, and was tempered by love of wine, women, and song. They lived in a fantastic country, the Caucasus, that crowds its soar¬ ing peaks and grotesque valleys between the Caspian and the Black seas—a land of milk, honey, and blood. These Cossacks were direct descendants of the founders of a unique republic, which flourished in the Middle Ages. Two hundred fifty miles below Holy Kiev, the River Dnieper turns into seething rapids where only the most skilful navigator can find his way. In the midst of those rapids, in a practically impregnable position, lie several islands. There the wily Ukrainian warriors—later called Cossacks—founded the only womanless republic in history. It was governed, not by the merchants, priests, or noble¬ men, but by the warriors themselves. A few priests were grudgingly admitted—usually to bury the dead

after

some drunken brawl—but the women and merchants were kept off* the islands, on the banks of the river, except in cases of extreme danger. The republic itself was as exclu¬ sive and as for-men-only as any Union League club,

(i)

2

A YANKEE IN THE CAUCASUS

except that the members not only drank as much as any club member, but fought even more. For generations the Cossacks fought the Turks and their hereditary oppressors, the Poles, bringing home immense booty. And when they were pressed too hard, they would retreat with their women and children to the impregnable islands, to sally forth again and again in military bands of tens of thousands. From all the Russias, adventurous spirits—criminals, lovers of freedom, lovers of booty, escaped serfs, and noble¬ men in disgrace—flocked to the Zaporozhe (meaning “be¬ yond the rapids”) republic, where all men were free, and where the laws were few and simple. 1 he only requirements for citizenship in the republic were ability to fight, to die when so commanded, to drink, and to cross oneself in the Greek Orthodox fashion. The republic was ruled by chiefs, or atamans, elected by popular vote. The atamans were ini¬ tiated, not by placing a crown upon their brows, but in a far more telling and democratic manner. Each Cossack would bring a fistful of manure and rub it vigorously over the ataman s head as a symbolic gesture upholding the principle of democracy and reminding the new leader that, although his command was law, he was no better than the lowliest of Cossacks. That was what my mother meant when she would say to me in Ukrainian, “Have patience, my little Cossack, and you’ll be an ataman some day.” When the bulk of Ukrainians joined the Russian empire under Catherine the Great, the Cossacks spread all over the vast fighting frontiers of Russia and began the conquest of the Caucasus. Every Cossack received a bountiful grant of land but, in exchange, had to keep a good horse, a gun, a lance, and a kindjal—a knife, keenly edged on both sides, with a groove in the middle to drain the enemies’ blood.

THE GREAT HORN

3

My maternal grandfather, Iliya Fedorovitch Rogozny, was one of the Cossack atamans, and lived on a large estate which had come to his father as a reward for participating in the conquest of the Caucasus. His first name, Iliya or Elias, was the same as that of my American paternal grandfather.

Iliya Fedorovitch was a retired

Russian general, and lived with his stern wife, children, and a retinue of dependents near a village called Illskaya, in the foothills of the Caucasian Mountains, not far from the

Black

Sea.

The beautiful estate was worked

impoverished Cossacks and by

by

Russian peasants who

swarmed to this country from the frigid plains of the North.

Life on

those estates was half peaceful,

half

military. The country was barely conquered, and fear of the Circassian natives, who occasionally swooped down on the Cossack villages to rape, burn, and kidnap, was always in the fragrant air of the valleys. ]\/[y grandfather’s house, budt in a quaint colonial style strangely similar to the plantation houses of our South, had thick iron bars at the windows, strong oak doors, and at night was policed by a Cossack patrol to the din of scores of savage Cossack dogs, many with tail and ears cut off to make them even more ferocious. We children were never allowed to venture more than a few miles from the house and we were always accompanied by Diadka, or “Uncle,” an old Cossack servant, still fierce-looking,

although

somewhat

ridiculous with

his

dangling saber. In his early fifties, but almost a young man, General Rogozny towered six feet two; his face, with its imperious lines, was weather-beaten by weeks in the forest, stalking prey, and the iron in his blue eyes was belied by kindly

A YANKEE IN THE CAUCASUS

4

wrinkles around them. He was extremely agile in body and mind; had infinite patience in hunting and unlimited capacity for drinking or fighting. He was a nearly perfect specimen of the Russian fighting machine, the type which explains how this originally obscure Slavic tribe pushed the Teutons back to the bleak Baltic Sea and destroyed two of the greatest empires in history, the Mongol and the Ottoman.

The dominant

patterns of his being were love and war. In periods of peace he sublimated his war instinct by passionate hunt¬ ing in the marvelous forests of the Caucasus. Russians are probably the greatest hunters in the world; and General Rogozny often laughed at the way the foreigners went hunting. No wonder, when one compares his methods with those of others! He always went alone, accompanied only by his dogs, and big mountain bears were his favorite prey. He carried no gun, but instead, a heavy wooden lance, as thick as his wrist, ending in a sharp steel point. When the bear was trapped

by the dogs, he would

approach it, and usually kill it with his lance. If he failed, and the bear attacked, he grappled with it, plunging a knife into its heart. Grandfather would often say, “It is unfair to shoot at a bear. One can shoot at swine, but a bear is a great gentleman, and with gentlemen one must fight man to man.” And General Rogozny was a gentleman to his fingertips, even though some of his hunting expeditions were for women, many women. He always insisted that his dissi¬ pations were justified on purely biblical grounds. He used to say, “I cannot read the same book all the time—not even a Bible.”

THE GREAT HORN

5

Grandmother did not agree—at least in public. As guardian of the family hearth, she relentlessly upheld the public morals. No calf was ever killed for the return of a prodigal husband. At the same time, Grandmother was a woman of profound and practical wisdom. She knew that her husband adored and feared her; that he was constant in heart, although weak in flesh. She would, of course, forgive him and take him to her bosom, but only after his prolonged supplications, and only after exacting a cash price—a price so stiff as to exceed by far the wildest dreams of an “actress” of a neighboring town, who used to favor my grandfather with her atten¬ tions. The high overhead proved to be an effective, practical way of keeping my grandfather’s amorous forays at a reasonable minimum. Apart from this occasional waywardness, the General was a model husband and father, perhaps out of gratitude to his remarkable wife for loving her hero not only for his virtues but for his sins as well. At the time this story begins, in 1880, they had four children. The son, Yegor, was nineteen years old. He was quiet and obedient. But Grandfather was prouder of his three beautiful daughters. Glafira, the youngest, was thirteen years old; Alexandra was twenty-three; and the eldest, Xenia, was twenty-six. The girls were educated and brought up partly in the genteel style of the Russian nobility, and partly in the traditional Cossack manner which bred a woman to be a mother of fighters. The elder girls could shoot as well as they played the piano, and were as much at home on a boar hunt as when dancing the mazurka at a provincial ball. They were not tough, muscular women; they were soft, utterly

6

A YANKEE IN THE CAUCASUS

feminine—as soft as the earth of the Caucasus for the first three or four feet, below which there is rock. Alexandra was the pure type of blond Russian beauty. She was a shade too majestic and too static, like those early Greek statues that have

always given me the

impression that mere mortals would have found Greek women a bit too hard to handle. She would walk in any¬ where and sweep everyone before her, making every man feel smaller than he really was, and perhaps inadequate. My mother,

Xenia,

had

the

dynamic,

effervescent

beauty of artistic disorder. Hers was the moist, glistening beauty of leaves after a storm. Alexandra’s face was beautiful in repose, Xenia’s in movement. Her lustrous, pale-dark skin and black, rebellious hair indicated a strong admixture of the Mediterranean race. No one of her features was regular, yet the composite was astonishing in its unsymmetrical attractiveness and sweetness. Her nose was slightly upturned and, depending on lighting or mood, seemed saucy, daredevil, or severe. Even the enormous black eyes that dominated her face were never at rest, but seemed to swell and recede with the pulsation of her restless soul. She was naturally gay, and might have been frivolous if life had not already laid a heavy hand upon her. At twenty-three she was a widow, having lost her husband in the Turkish War of 1877. A year later her first-born had been snatched by a malignant fever. Such was the lot of many Cossack women, and they were expected to carry on gaily and beautifully. Xenia did carry on, and the imps that had temporarily left her were gradually return¬ ing, but something wistful had come to stay and to color her animal spirits with moods of sadness.

THE GREAT HORN

7

Many suitors came on horseback or in troikas from near and far, ostensibly on the interminable rounds of visits so dear to Russian nobility, but actually to win the coveted hand of Alexandra or Xenia. But Alexandra, serene in her beauty, felt that her Prince Charming had not yet arrived; and Xenia still wept over her Prince who had gone forever. Each of these three sisters was fated to have an extraor¬ dinary life; each was to become the first link in a chain of dramatic events staged all over the world. The romance of Xenia and my father, Almon, was especially extraor¬ dinary. It was told to us children many times, and we knew not only what our hero and heroine said or did, but what they thought. It all happened through oil. My paternal grandfather, Elias Culbertson, lived in the Pennsylvania hills near Titusville. He owned a hotel in the heart of the newly discovered oil country. At one time he was prosperous. Unfortunately, he felt too em¬ barrassed to say “no” to friends who clamored for his endorsements on their promissory notes; friendships van¬ ished with the hotel. The oil lands followed and Grand¬ father became poor. All Culbertsons in America are related, and all came from Scotland via Ireland before the American Revolu¬ tion. They were rigid Scotch-Covenanters. Like Cossacks, most of the Culbertson clan are tall, powerful, blue-eyed blonds, gentle and ferocious, who have violated many a covenant and yet remained true to their Scotch blood. They were hunters, farmers, ministers, prize fighters, and gamblers. In later generations the hunters became mer¬ chants, the farmers remained farmers, the ministers took

A YANKEE IN THE CAUCASUS

8

up science, the prize fighters joined the Navy, and the gamblers blossomed into politicians. My father took up oil. As a child, my father had watched the Indians in Penn¬ sylvania gather oil for medicinal purposes. Little did he realize that seven thousand miles away in the Caucasus, an oriental sect was worshiping “eternal fire,” which was nothing but the gaseous outcropping of oil that had caught fire centuries before. That was in Baku. From Titusville to Baku, and then to Illskaya, the news of the liquid gold traveled fast, for similar outcroppings had been found on the estates of my Cossack grandfather and his friends. And that is why, one beautiful summer afternoon in 1880, the village of Illskaya was in a dither, and General Rogozny was standing on the terrace of his home, his wife by his side, and his children, friends, and servants in the background. My grandmother held a hand-carved wooden plate of traditional bread and salt, blessed by the pope.* She was offering it in symbolic hospitality to six queer, mysterious individuals from far-off America. At this point my father, Almon Elias Culbertson, aged twenty-four, and Protestant, made his first faux pas in Russia. Feeling ravenously hungry after a long journey and too polite to express his disappointment at this poor fare, he took the graciously proffered plate and proceeded to eat a part of this symbolic hospitality, offering some to the other Americans, who joined him. The astonished Cossacks suppressed their chuckles; but Xenia, unable to control herself at the sight of the blue-eyed giant gingerly picking with enormous paws at a small piece of bread, broke into open laughter. * In the Greek Orthodox church, a pope is the parish priest.

THE GREAT HORN

9

Their eyes met. Xenia, feeling that wave of intimacy which always emanates from a man’s stare, lowered her eyes. Almon, holding a piece of bread in mid-air, continued to stare at her, his mouth half open in such frank amazement that when Xenia again raised her eyes, she once more broke into laughter. Everyone turned to look at her. Blushing violently, she rushed into the house. It was Almon’s turn to be embarrassed. He became dimly aware that he had done something ludicrous, and that the piece of bread he still held in his hand had some¬ thing to do with it. Grandmother saved the situation by imperturbably going on with the rites of the Russian welcome to strangers. She bowed three times almost to the ground, crossing herself after each bow, and said in Russian, “May God bless your entrance into our house.” The Americans, who spoke not a word of Russian, bowed awkwardly in turn and followed the General into the dining room. They saw a large room filled with people. In the center was an enormous oblong table covered with richly em¬ broidered linen, silver, and faience. The table was laden with a profusion of fish, various kinds of caviar, meat pies, suckling pigs, bear meat, wild game and fowl, pastry, fruits and cheeses, native and foreign wines and liqueurs, goat’s and mare’s milk, and various kinds of oriental sweets such as only pre-war Russia could produce. A gourmet, who also happened to be a student of Russian civilization, could easily have traced the three-thousandyear evolution of Russia by studying its marvelous cuisine as shown on this table. First, there was the contribution of the Slav’s food of hunters and fishermen; next, the

IO

A YANKEE IN THE CAUCASUS

stream of Byzantium’s complex viands; then, the borrow¬ ings of French and European sauces and stuffings; the dainties from the Mongol-Chmese, with medicinal mare’s milk and Tartar tea drunk with butter, pepper, and salt; finally, the foodstuffs and ambrosial delicacies of Arabic and Persian cuisine. Thus, influences of world-empires in the west, the east, and the south, operating through thou¬ sands of years, had not only molded the Russian soul but the stomach as well. The six young Americans were not aware of all this; they simply saw the greatest lunch counter of their lives, and Almon only regretted the absence of ketchup. There was a movement of people in a corner of the vast room. Upon a sign from the General, the Americans followed him and his lady toward that corner, stopping before a small altar covered with a gorgeous cloth of silver and gold. Over the altar hung an ikon of Saint Mary the Virgin holding the Christ child. Lighted can¬ delabra of heavy old silver added to the misty blue light of burning perfumed oil in a small Byzantine bowl that hung before the ikon. The pope, dressed in splendid gold and silver robes identical in design with those used by Byzantine popes a thousand years before, stood in front of the altar facing the ikon, ready to start reading from an Evangel that lay on the altar between two massive silver covers. A deacon in the black robe of a monk was preparing to light the incense. There was a hush in the room and all the Cossacks fell into the rhythm of the religious service as naturally as into the rhythm of a military march. The pope was there to celebrate the Moleben, a Mass to thank God for the safe arrival of the strangers and

THE GREAT HORN

ii

to beseech Him that the work which they were soon to undertake might be crowned with success. It was the first time that a blessing was invoked for drilling machines and oil derricks, but no one doubted that it was an important undertaking, meriting and requiring such a blessing. Indeed, it had to be important to warrant the costly and dangerous journey of the Amerikantzi—a jour¬ ney which had consumed several months and had taken them through a dozen lands. These six young men had had to come from legendary America, seven thousand miles away, because in all the Russias there were no men who could test the earth, drill deep holes, and make oil spout in jet-black fountains. Of the six, three were drillers, two were mechanics,

and one, Almon, was a mining

engineer. The pope intoned a prayer in a thin, conventionally modulated voice. The deacon, in a deep basso, seconded him after each invocation with Gospodi Pomiloui—“God forgive us.” A young, crystal-like soprano picked up the deacon’s chant and was immediately joined by a tenor. Other voices intertwined, and from one cascade of mount¬ ing vibrations of Gospodi Pomiloui to higher and ever higher cascades, the prayer rose to heaven until even the voices of the servants joined and the room shook in a thunderous climax. Then, a sudden silence, and the thin, tremulous voice of the priest alone, like a slender thread between infinity and earth. Incense, the golden altar, the suckling pig in cream, the candle flames still vibrating, the dying voices, the burly Cossack on his knees, ludicrous with the knockknock of his saber on the floor each time he fervently kissed the ground, the powerful neck of the General,

12

A YANKEE IN THE CAUCASUS

strangely familiar (he looks just like my father, thought Almon), the infinitely gentle image of the Madonna . . . and Xenia. Her face was serious, frankly sad, and her eyes were fixed on the Christ child—oblivious. Almon, fearing to destroy the poignant mood, quickly averted his gaze. I like these people; I want to stay, he thought. The moving

impressiveness of the Byzantine service made Almon feel only more deeply the fundamental spiritual and physical similarity of these people to his own. Here, as within the bare, austere walls of his church in Franklin, Pennsylvania, he caught the same fleeting exaltation on the faces of the men and women; and the pope might well have been skinny old Reverend John C. Brown, even to the beard and the high, thin voice. The Molehen ended, and the altar was removed to make way for the Cossack band, conducted by Sukhorukin. He was a first-class violinist even though he had lost one finger to the Turks . . . and, ironically, his real name meant “withered hand.” After formal introductions, ac¬ companied by much scraping of the floor, clicking of the heels, bowing and mumbling, all took their seats, with Almon on the right of the General’s wife, and Mr. Gayton, an English engineer long resident in Russia, next to Almon. The daughters hovered in the background, supervising the servants. The feast began; and as it continued, with its astonishing succession of exotic meats and rare wines, the enthusiasm of the Americans grew. But Almon’s thoughts were ruled by Xenia’s presence; to him the greatest thrill of the feast occurred when he caught her eyes resting on him. She is interested in me! He was exultant. Two hours

ago, a remote, enchanting hint; an hour later, a wild

THE GREAT HORN

13

hope; and now, a radiant possibility. Some day I’ll marry her, he thought. It was Gayton who emptied Almon’s heart of this new¬ born hope. Gayton, a cheery, good-fellow Englishman, the harmless type one meets all over the world and without whom no social party is ever complete, had already pumped into Almon all the local news and situations. But when Almon naively confided that he was very much struck by Xenia, Gayton felt it would be an act of charity to slam the door hard. “You can be friends, but nothing more,” he enunciated with evident pleasure.

“That s one fortress that can

neither be stormed nor tricked into submission. She’s shy and proud. These Cossack women are hard to marry.” “Well, she was married once . . . “Yes, but to a Cossack brave, a djigit, and not to a foreigner.” And Gayton, who had apparently suffered a painful defeat from Xenia, became poetic: “If you could drink the great horn and not collapse, dance like a devil, ride dangerous horses like a Cossack, and hunt bears alone with a lance, she might begin to notice you. You or I, or

any

other

foreigner,

haven’t

got

a chance.

For-

get it. . But Almon, although his heart sank, could not forget it. The banquet was drawing to a close, longues were unloosed, and the Americans became just as expansive as the Cossacks. Space was cleared for dancing. The General brought Xenia over to Almon and said in French, “This is my eldest daughter, Xenia; she

11 be

your partner.” Almon stood up and bowed. Xenia ex¬ tended her hand, saying, “You are not angry that I

A YANKEE IN THE CAUCASUS

14

laughed?” She had to repeat the phrase

slowly,

for

Almon’s French was all letters and few familiar sounds. Almon smiled. “I was dazzled by your beauty . . . and still am.” “I see men use the same tactics in America, monsieur.” The orchestra struck the first notes of the waltz. Almon grabbed Xenia as if fearing to lose her and, holding her tightly in the American fashion, began to whirl her with a speed remarkable for a giant of six feet three. He slowed down his violent gyrations, however, when he realized that every other couple danced not body to body, but at an interplanetary distance from each other, with arms gently curved in a decorously delicate embrace. He now began a painful maneuver to extricate himself, retreating from Xenia to a proper position. “We dance differently in America.” Almon grinned sheepishly. Xenia smiled. He is very strong, and gentle, she thought. The dance ended and Almon led her to a chair, feeling that he had committed one more blunder. Then suddenly the drums began to beat and a hush fell on the room. The roll of the drums increased, and all faces were turned toward the main door, which was thrown open to admit a procession consisting of the General, then the Cossack officers, and finally the servants. The General approached with a formal air, holding in both hands an enormous ram’s horn beautifully worked in silver and gold. It was filled to the brim with a mixture of strong native wine, vodka, and potent Russian liqueurs. It was the custom to offer this concoction to distinguished guests as a chal¬ lenge to a trial of strength. The guests could refuse by merely tasting the wine, or accept by drinking it to the

THE GREAT HORN

15

last drop—a feat that required unusual strength of stom¬ ach and will. The flutes and violins chimed in with the drums, and all eyes

turned

expectantly

toward

Almon.

Will the

American drink it? Gayton was quickly at Almon’s side, explaining the custom. “Of course you can do as you like, old fellow, but this wine of Kachetia will knock the very devil out of you. I never saw a foreigner drink the stuff without rolling under the table.” Xenia said, “Please don’t try to drink it. You are not used to it.” But Almon, taking the great horn from the General’s hands, planted his feet as if for a wrestling match, while the orchestra played the lively tune used especially for the occasion. He began to drink slowly, and from the moment his lips touched the great horn until he had drained it, he never let it go. Xenia looked at the tips of her shoes. There was a vague stir among the older Cos¬ sacks, as if they expected something to happen. Will he drop like a brick, or will he gently collapse? Almon seemed perfectly at ease, and handed the great horn back to the General with a polite bow. He said only one word: “More.” “What!” Almon, in English: “More! It’s good punch.” When

Gayton

translated

the

phrase,

the

General

laughed and shook his head. “Impossible, monsieur.” “But why?” asked Almon, “I really like it.” The General was serious: “It will kill you. There are not ten men in the Caucasus who can drink one great horn after another.”

A YANKEE IN THE CAUCASUS

i6

But Almon insisted. When Xenia, in her anxiety, pro¬ tested to her father that Almon was probably already drunk, Almon caught the meaning from her gestures and this time was indignant. “I assure you, madame, I am quite sober.” Which was not the exact truth. The General finally shrugged his shoulders and, turn¬ ing to his guests, appealed good-naturedly. “This crazy American wants another great horn. Shall we give it to him?” “Sure, let him have it!” The great horn was filled on the spot with the usual ceremonies, and the drums again began to beat, as in a vaudeville performance. Almon started to drink, even more slowly than before. There was tense silence, and Sukhorukin, forgetting his orchestra, stopped waving the baton. As Almon finished the last drop, color left his face, the muscles of his neck swelled, he swayed; but with the iron will that was his main characteristic, he steadied himself. Once more bow¬ ing to the General, he returned the horn, saying in English, “A wonderful drink. Thank you very much.” There was applause and shouts of hourra, hourra, (which the Cossacks borrowed from the Tartars and the English from the Cossacks, and which American colleges emascu¬ lated into rah, rah). The American had succeeded in drinking his way into the Cossacks’ hearts. Almon by now was completely steadied. He wanted to confide to Xenia the secret of his success but the thought was too complicated. Dad would never believe, he said to himself, that my intensive training in hard corn likker would

come in handy in the Caucasus.

THE GREAT HORN

17

Nevertheless, he was grateful to Gayton, who came up to invite Xenia to dance; now he could sit out the next several dances. Polkas succeeded waltzes and were fol¬ lowed by csardds and mazurkas. Then came the quadrille, with Gayton as master of ceremonies. And always the exquisite, fleeting image of Xenia, who through Almon’s bluish, alcoholic mist seemed already his, although ethereal and remote. Then began the thrilling Russian and Caucasian dances, within a large circle formed by the onlookers. A tall, dashing Cossack in officer’s uniform bowed to Xenia, clicking his spurred boots. He wanted the honor of the djigitka, the great Caucasian dance. Xenia consented. Like all very old folk dances, the djigitka has its own elaborate code and technique. The woman must neither walk nor run; she must float, which effect she achieves by extremely short and rapid steps. Her body and ges¬ tures must be neither too reserved nor too outspoken; they must combine reticence with occasional touches of boldness to express the mother, the wife, and the female. Xenia began the dance alone, her eyes demurely on the floor, her left hand placed boldly on her hip, her right hand forming an arc before her eyes as though she were abashed. With body gently swaying, she majestically floated round and round in an ever-widening circle. Her partner, with his left hand on his heart and his right arm outstretched, now came in front of her. She quickly turned as if to escape. Again and again he confronted her; but with a graceful turn of the body she would force him to renew the chase. The immemorial theme of love, pursuit, and capture grew in

intensity, repeating itself in scores of subtle

A YANKEE IN THE CAUCASUS

i8

variations, advances, and retreats, weaving with nimble feet and bodies the oriental tapestry of love-making. Frail flute notes of the Caucasian melody, bathed in fatalistic sadness, increased in tempo and weirdness to a madden¬ ing rhythm. Cymbals clashed. Xenia’s body wavered, and, finally captured, she fell into the arms of her pursuer. The dance ended and Almon sat entranced. He couldn’t help admiring the virile strength and grace of Xenia’s partner.

The poignant sensation of decisive inferiority

that he had felt when he lost the United States walking championship came back to him. Now, as then, he seemed to have been beaten by a better man. He looked with dismay at his lumpy blue-serge suit, rough soft shirt, and his enormous thick-soled shoes. There was a commotion, and Almon heard insistent clapping of hands and Cossack shouts of “Amerikanetz!

Amerikanetz/” He raised his eyes and met the friendly smile of Xenia. All faces were turned toward him, appar¬ ently expecting him to do something, but what it was he could not understand. He questioned Gayton, who ex¬ plained that since different races had shown their dances, the guests now expected to see the American national dance. Almon shook his head. “We have no American national dance.” Gayton translated this into Russian. “But that’s impossible,” said Xenia. “We’re still too young as a nation. Wait fifty or sixty years.” But, as everyone insisted, one of the drillers suggested that Almon do a tap dance. Almon, who had often enter¬ tained the boys with his foot acrobatics, consented, think¬ ing that at least the Cossacks would be surprised. One of

THE GREAT HORN

19

the American boys sat down at the piano, another took up the. fiddle, and they began to play an old rollicking American tune. Almon got to his feet. Such queer music the Cossacks had never heard; nor had they ever seen such queer dancing. At first they thought that the big American was simply jumping up and down as if he were trying to get warm. But then they began to notice very peculiar motions of his feet, and—what was altogether extraordinary—the fact that his body and arms were practically

motionless.

A

strange

rhythmic

tapping

blended itself with the tune. The tapping sounds grew in volume and speed, and it became astonishingly evident to the Cossacks that this pair of enormous feet was capable of producing such intricate designs of rhythmic patterns as to rival the best Cossack drummers. Truly the Americans were crazy, but there was method, and even melody, in their feet. But suddenly something happened. Almon’s face grew deathly pale, his feet faltered, and he sank to the floor. The Cossacks, thinking it was a wonderful piece of act¬ ing, applauded wildly; but Xenia, sensing that something was wrong, rushed over to him. Almon had fainted. Doubtless he would have survived the two great horns had he kept still. But the tap dance was too much, and he was carried up to his room, while the dancing continued. Many guests 4