Prokofiev's vexing entry into the USA

Part 2


On Wednesday 21 August in the morning the S.S. Grotius stopped in foggy San Francisco Bay to allow American customs and medical inspectors to board. Prokofiev had already filled out the 29-question , yet he had reasons to feel apprehensive. Telegrams received during the transoceanic journey had told of the volatile situation in Russia, including the Soviet government’s declaration of a defensive war against the Allies. He bolstered himself with the understanding that the Americans were distinguishing Bolsheviks from other Russians. Nevertheless, after the several-hour-long interrogation, 20 passengers – five Chinese and all those travelling from Russia – were not allowed to disembark. Prokofiev was among them. Fearful of admitting German spies and Bolsheviks, the officials required this group to undergo another interrogation.
“What is this?”
SP – “Music.”
“You yourself wrote this?”
SP – “Yes, I myself on the ship.”
“And can you play it?”
SP – “I can.”
     On the ship’s upright piano Prokofiev played the theme of a Violin Sonata without accompaniment he had been dabbling on (probably inspired by Piastro’s playing), but the music “was not liked.”
“And can you play Chopin?”
SP – “What would you like?”
“The ‘Funeral March’”


Panoramic view of Immigration Station, Angel Island.

(2) - The Angel Island Immigration Station (sometimes called “Ellis Island of the West”) operated from 1910 to 1940. It ended up being a detention centre for the majority of the approximately 175,000 Chinese immigrants who came to America during those years. They were held there from two weeks to six months, some even up to two years awaiting hearings or appeals on their applications to enter the country. About 10% were deported; some committed suicide instead of enduring the shame of returning home. All this was on account of the USA’s “Chinese Exclusion Act” of 1882 (repealed in 1943).

(3) - Much has changed at the Angel Island Immigration Station since the time of Prokofiev’s stay. The military hospital was remodelled to handle American G.I’s during WW II (but is now derelict) and the administration building was destroyed by fire on 12 August 1940. Angel Island is now a California State Park.

This the official enjoyed. But to no avail: he soon announced to the group that they all had to go to “the island” for further questioning, and after about an hour they would be released. Prokofiev assumed that this meant Alcatraz Island – the notorious federal penitentiary for hardened criminals. Since it was now 4 o’clock in the afternoon the journey was planned for the following morning. The small group of passengers spent the night on board ship: “despondently we loitered on the empty deck and remarked ‘what a boring city San Francisco is.’” In the evening Prokofiev was asked to play some music to help pass the time. Although he usually refused such requests, this time he played for two full hours. His tiny audience was in ecstasy and they honoured him with champagne. One member of the group, a wealthy Jew, took him aside and emphatically conveyed that should he ever encounter any difficulties or need money... It was through the largesse of friends and such acquaintances that Prokofiev finally reached New York City.
     In the cool morning air the group boarded a cutter bound for the island. Their destination was not Alcatraz as Prokofiev had feared, rather the Immigration Station at China Cove on Angel Island located in San Francisco Bay, some five miles north of the city’s docks and three miles beyond the penitentiary
(2). Prokofiev recorded that he was in “a bad temper about the whole thing,” but added, “remembering my rule – no matter what happened, not to spoil my mood during travel difficulties.” In that light he joked about the lack of a machine gun escort upon their arrival, but his mood swung again when they were put in a room behind bars. “Although the door was delicately left half-open, the impression was nevertheless unpleasant.” The interrogations did not begin until 11:00.
     By 4 o’clock in the afternoon when the two officials called it a day, only four wealthy Jews and the Vogels, a family of Rumanians, had been released. The rest had to spend the night on the Island: the Chinese had already been sequestered in the barbed-wire ensconced quarters, the others went to a close-by military hospital on the opposite side of the compound
(3). By this time Prokofiev’s patience was overdrawn. The interrogators had only worked for four hours, having taken an hour off for lunch. He yelled at them as they left, “Such a disgrace! Shame on America!” But with obvious disinterest they merely replied, “All right,” a popular expression of the day. That evening Prokofiev and his group were allowed to stroll the grounds between the hospital and the administration building. Here he heard from a Czech, who had been detained for three months due to lost papers, that “there is nothing to get offended at, you just have to patiently sit out your time.” At the hospital (“without any sick people” as he called it) Prokofiev shared a room with an Italian banker, Ernest Vernetta, who was travelling with his wife Gabrielle from Odessa. The three became fast friends.
     On Friday morning they were awaken at 6:00. even though the interrogations did not begin until 10:00. Prokofiev spent the day loitering from one corner to another awaiting his turn. But it never came. The Vernettas and he were the only passengers remaining by the end of the day. The ordeal was becoming in his words, “unbearable”. He toyed with telegramming the Chicago-based International Harvester tycoon Cyrus McCormick whom he had met in Petrograd, stating that he had been arrested without explanation of cause and requesting his assistance. The next day the officials would only come for two hours in the morning and then not return until Monday. The headline on the San Francisco Chronicle that day surely must have increased his concern: “Bolsheviki Government Declares War on the United States; Consul Warns Americans in Petrograd to Leave Russia.” Lower down on the front page a caption read, “Safety of Americans in Russia Threatened.” But late in the day Prokofiev received a reason for the interminable delay: the officials were prevented from beginning his interrogation because they awaited the clearance from those who first interviewed him on board ship. Permission had finally been received and he would be dealt with in the morning. Prokofiev surmised that the cause was the large amount of papers, letters of recommendation and manuscripts he carried, and he resigned himself to a second night on Angel Island.   (
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