Prokofiev's vexing entry into the USA

Part 3

San Francisco’s Plaza Hotel on Union Square where Prokofiev lodged from 24 through 28 August.

(4) - Kucheriavy’s name was entered onto the alien registration form on board ship as “Koucheravy”, which was apparently an Americanisation of his name. [The transliteration of his name from the Cyrillic is Kucheriavy, taking into account the standard adopted by this journal, in which the ending of family names is shortened from “yi” to “y”. Ed.] Lina’s account of their meeting in Three Oranges/5 seems to be incorrect. According to the Diary, Prokofiev and Kucheriavy first met on the S.S. Grotius a few days before docking at San Francisco. At that meeting Kucheriavy advised the composer to translate an article about himself for use by the American press. Prokofiev heeded this advice, choosing an article by Karatygin.

At 10:00 on Saturday morning Prokofiev’s interrogation finally began. Prokofiev recorded in his Diary: “They asked me a number of questions, necessary and unnecessary things, but several of them were outright masterpieces.”
“Do you sympathise with the Allies in the war?”
SP – “I do.”
“Do you sympathise with the Bolsheviks?”
SP – “No.”
SP – “Because they took my money.”
“Were you ever at their meetings?”
SP – “I was".
“Did they talk well?”
SP – “Yes, but not logically.”
“Where is your father?”
SP – “In his grave.”
“Was he in the war?”
SP – “No.”
SP – “Because he was dead.”
“Are you a member of any organisations?”
SP – “The Petrograd Chess Society.”
“Are you a member of a political party?”
SP – “No.”
SP – “Because I consider that an artist should be outside of politics.”
     And so it went, including the well-known repartee: “Have you ever been in jail?” to which he responded, “In yours.” Their primary concern was that Prokofiev had only $100 with him, although $50 was all that was required to enter the country. Even though Prokofiev makes no mention of it in his Diary, his use of the well-known and politically connected McCormick as a reference must have helped considerably with his entry. One of the officials lined out New York as his destination on the alien manifest and wrote above it “Chicago”, and then added “McCormick Int. Harvester Co. Chicago” above Prokofiev’s reason for the visit (see form below). The Vernettas were questioned next and by noon everyone was en route to San Francisco. Prokofiev and the Vernettas were met at the front door of the Plaza Hotel on Union Square by Warsaw-born engineer Nikolai Kucheriavy, whom they had met on board ship
(4). Kucheriavy was travelling from Tarabov to New York with his wife Martha and their seven-year-old daughter. He had had no difficulty with Immigrations because he had been to the USA previously. However, the Russian concert artist he was escorting, a pianist named Skliarevsky, was denied entry for lack of proper papers (he continued on to Canada). Kucheriavy had interceded on behalf of Prokofiev and the Vernettas at the Russian and Italian consulates, respectively. It turned out that the Russian consul knew Prokofiev’s name and “took great part in my deliverance,” as he himself noted. The Vernettas, Kucheriavys and Prokofiev became a close circle of friends, dining together, touring San Francisco together, and even booking passage to the East together (choosing the northern route through the Canadian Rockies for its scenic pleasures). French was their likely common language (only Mrs. Vernetta did not know Russian).
     Prokofiev’s observations of day-to-day life during his first day of freedom in America reveal his excitement and captivation:
     “Although San Francisco is not New York and not Chicago, it nevertheless strikes you with its animation, modern services and, the main thing, its amazing wealth: stores bursting with excellent things, and obviously, dollars flowing like a river. When in the evening we ate at a cafe, some patrons were dancing the one-step on the dance floor, a mass of elegant young women and comely gentlemen – and all of them were sales girls, salesmen, and workmen. The middle class lives in prosperity here.” [24 August 1918]
     On Sunday Prokofiev accompanied the Vernettas to Mass, his first experience at a Catholic church. He enjoyed the service, noting the “very nice, quiet organ prelude and the recitation of the priest in the background.” Later that day and on Tuesday as well the group toured the outskirts of San Francisco by vehicle under sunny skies in unusually cool temperatures hardly reaching 20C. On Monday Prokofiev sought out A. V. Zelikman, his fellow contestant for the Rubinstein Prize at the Conservatory. Prokofiev was told before leaving Petrograd that he had a studio in town. Actually Zelikman taught from a small room and had given only two concerts in two years. But he predicted great success for Prokofiev in New York and advised him that Russian musicians were in demand, adding that the addressees on the letters of introduction he carried were highly influential musicians. During the Tuesday tour Kucheriavy took Prokofiev aside by the arm and told him that the business which brought him to America was going well and that he would receive $15,000 upon his arrival in New York. He added that he would be happy to “share” his wealth and so Prokofiev should not worry about his financial difficulty nor should he rush to sign the first contract he sees. This would not be the last time Kucheriavy would come to Prokofiev’s aid in America.
     On Wednesday the customs officials returned all of Prokofiev’s papers. They had read through everything, but much to his disgust, they held back one postcard with a scene from Honolulu. “Think about it, how smart!” he recorded. That evening Prokofiev went to the cinema, possibly seeing director D.W. Griffith’s “Hearts of the World”, a popular film then in its tenth week at the Alcazar Theatre, just a short walk from his hotel. His Diary recollection fits nicely with it: “The show was glittering. The plot was poor and unbearable in its naive edification. Even the awkwardly appended ‘patriotic ending.’” The next morning at 10 o’clock the group departed San Francisco for the long, circuitous route to New York City via Seattle, Vancouver and Chicago.
     During his detainment Prokofiev had remarked that although Angel Island was a pretty place, his time there was most unpleasant. Through no fault of his own he found himself a pawn in cataclysmic world events and detained against his wishes with no real idea of how long the ordeal would last. Memories of this unfortunate experience did not go away with time. On his second return to San Francisco for concerts in January 1926 Prokofiev arrived in Oakland from the north by train. He recorded in his Diary that he reminisced about the “visit” to Angel Island as he traversed the Bay to San Francisco. Then in February 1930 he crossed another part of the Bay with San Francisco Symphony conductor Alfred Hertz, bound for the latter’s rural retreat in the hills above Sausalito. This time Prokofiev passed directly by Angel Island, which prompted him to recall the ordeal and the hospital into which he had been “exiled.” Despite these unpleasant memories Prokofiev seems to have enjoyed visiting San Francisco, this city seemingly “on the other side of the world” from a Russian’s point of view. And over the years San Francisco has surely made her amends to the composer in her various concert and recital halls as well as at the Opera. On the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death, the San Francisco Symphony under its Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas presented the only big-league all-Prokofiev Anniversary concert in the United States. It opened, appropriately enough, with the “American” Overture, followed by the Third Piano Concerto with François-Frédéric Guy as soloist, and it concluded with a white-hot performance of Symphony No.3. Afterwards the maestro said modestly to this author, “I tried to do my best for this great Symphony.” The entire concert was a tremendous success and a fitting tribute. In addition, the Third Symphony was a very apt choice for the San Francisco Symphony’s celebration: the work’s progenitor, The Fiery Angel, includes music intended for Prokofiev’s “White Quartet,” some of the very sounds that were going through his head as he arrived in America that cool but sunny day in August 1918.

     My sincere thanks go to Michael C. Frush at the National Archives and Records Administration Office, Pacific Region, San Bruno, California, for his generous assistance in retrieving documents concerning Prokofiev’s first arrival in America.   (Stephen Press)

My thanks to Stephen Press for providing all the illustrations in this article – Editor.

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