Lina Prokofiev, Paris, 1985.
Noëlle Mann’s interest in publishing excerpts from the tapes of my conversations with Lina Prokofiev in 1982 has made me think back to what was a strange episode in my life.
It began in April of that year, when Vladimir Ashkenazy – whom I had already known for a dozen years – phoned me and suggested that I contact Mrs Prokofiev. She was living in Paris, and after a concert that he had given there she had spoken to him of her intention to write her memoirs. He told me that she had a great deal to say but needed someone to help her say it, and that he had mentioned my name. But he added that she was not an easy person; others had tried to help her and had abandoned the project. And he warned me to try to keep her to the subject at hand, to avoid running up an astronomical phone bill.
I phoned Mrs Prokofiev – indeed, she was a run-on talker – and we met two months later in Milan, where she was visiting friends. (I was living in Tuscany at the time.) She was nearly 85, short and round in stature but tremendously energetic. I remember walking down Via Torino with her and feeling as if I had a small armoured tank attached to my arm. She told me that she had often been in Milan during the 1920s and ’30s but that this was her first visit in 45 years. Pointing disapprovingly to young women wearing shorts, she said, “In my day, we called that underwear!”
The following day, I took the train with her to Florence, where we attended a performance of Prokofiev’s La Duenna at the Maggio Musicale festival. And then, between late June and mid-November, I spent three short periods with her in Paris, to try to set the project in motion. It didn’t take me long to understand why my predecessors had failed. On the one hand, I found Mrs Prokofiev’s memories fascinating (we remained “Mrs Prokofiev” and “Mr Sachs” to each other, although, since I was her junior by nearly half a century, I told her several times that she should call me by my first name; nor did she want to be called Mrs Prokofieva – I think she considered the use of the Russian feminine ending pretentious in English). On the other, I found Mrs Prokofiev herself suspicious, fretful and easily roused to anger for no apparent reason. She was also determined to carry out the project her way, which might have worked had she had a way. Instead, although she made many preliminary notes on various aspects of the story to be covered, she was hopelessly disorganised in her thinking and exasperatingly dispersive in her approach.
There were plenty of good moments: when she spoke about her childhood and youth all over Europe and in the New York area, her early acquaintance with Prokofiev in America, their years together in Western Europe and then in the Soviet Union, his leaving her for Mira Mendelson (upon whose plain physical appearance Mrs Prokofiev repeatedly heaped scorn) during the Second World War, her own arrest in 1948 on trumped-up espionage charges and the eight years she spent in the gulag. And there were her descriptions of the celebrity composers, instrumentalists, singers, writers and painters whose company she and her husband had enjoyed, especially during their Paris years: Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Poulenc, Milhaud, Copland, Gershwin, Nadia Boulanger, Toscanini, Monteux, Casals, Rubinstein, Horowitz, Elman, Konstantin Balmont, Rouault, Matisse, Dérain, Dalí, Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, and many others, along with such background figures as Charlie Chaplin, the princesses Noailles and Polignac, Misia Sert, Igor Sikorsky (inventor of the helicopter) and on and on. Mrs Prokofiev’s recollections of these personalities were anecdotal rather than profound, but they rang true and made valuable thumbnail sketches. She seemed to me a highly intelligent person with a clear memory and above-average descriptive abilities who, however, remained determinedly superficial. Perhaps delving below the surface would have proved too painful for her. PART 2
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