Public School No.3 as it looked in Lina’s time
The apartment at 88 Herkhimer Street in Brooklyn
Upon arrival the family relied on Olga’s uncle, who had made the journey with them, for assistance. Frederic Charles Verlé had long since emigrated from Europe to America with his wife Mary, who died on Christmas Day in 1898 at the age of 54. (9) The widower Verlé, whose surname was Americanised to Wherley, stayed in their apartment on Division Avenue for a while, then moved around the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn. He taught German in the evenings at Public School 19.(10) And in an effort to supplement his income, he took out postage-stamp sized ads in the Brooklyn Eagle under the name Professor Frederick C. (or F. C.) Wherley, offering lessons in French, German, and Spanish at moderate rates.(11) He worked first from his apartment on Division Avenue and later on Bedford Avenue, where he was living in 1910.(12) When the Codinas arrived, they squeezed into his lodgings at 206 Rodney Street. Wherley was an insistent and petulant man whose only real passion, according to Lina, was the “made-up” language of Esperanto, which he foisted on the unconverted with revivalist zeal.(13) For his efforts, he would be elected Vice President of the Brooklyn Esperanto Society, which he helped to found.(14) Living with him was unpleasant, and his repeated efforts to indoctrinate Lina in Esperanto precipitated an argument with her mother that almost landed the immigrant family on the street. Olga complained that her daughter had more than enough languages to contend with and besides, Esperanto sounded terrible.
The conflicts motivated the family to move on to Havana, Cuba, where Juan had friends. That was the last time Lina remembered seeing her irascible uncle but, in fact, she lived with him again when she returned from Cuba. She would also lodge with him in her early teens while her parents travelled abroad to perform. The separations were painful, hence forgotten. Since his cherished Esperanto was banned, Wherley resolved to force some of his second-favourite language—German—onto his niece. The experiment proved successful, though Lina continued to begrudge his presence in her life. She would not see the last of him until she was in her mid-teens. Near the time she finished school, Wherley mysteriously disappeared from his apartment. Unable to find any trace of him through mutual friends, Lina’s mother concluded that he had perhaps taken his own life.
The family ventured to Havana by steamship, a cheaper option than the rail and ferry service that had been established through Key West, Florida. They found temporary lodging on Tulipán Street, in a transient, market-filled neighbourhood not far from the port and near the soon-to-be-demolished Tulipán train station. Cuba, which was under American naval occupation, remained a magnet for Spanish immigrants, who operated their own banks, social services, and daily newspaper—the conservative Diario de la Marina. Havana catered to a chimerical assortment of conventioneers, servicemen, sugar barons, and entertainers. The thought was that Juan could improvise a living as a Catalan folk musician or an opera singer with the National Theatre.
Soon, however, Lina and her mother quit Havana, steaming back to New York without Juan on 24 May 1908, and arriving three days later.(15) Meantime he made contact with Adolfo Bracale, impresario of the National Theatre, a connection that would later lead to performances throughout Latin and South America. When he returned to New York, the family rented their first apartment—a five-room flat in a walk-up at 404 Gold Street in Brooklyn, a block over from the major thoroughfare of Flatbush Avenue Extension and still reasonably close to Wherley’s place.(16) Apartments in the narrow red-fronted building ranged from $18-25 a month, with the janitor in the basement handling all inquiries and complaints. It had little going for it except for quick access to the Brooklyn Bridge and trams into Manhattan. Among their neighbours were a few other Russian immigrants, and the people that gathered in the enormous golden-hued auditorium that had just been built next door for the Ancient Arabic Order of the Mystic Shrine (the Shriners, an American branch of the Freemasons). Most of their neighbours were locals—Brooklyn always having had a higher percentage of native-born residents than Manhattan. Two boarders lodged with the Codina family at least briefly: a middle-aged dockhand and his daughter, another Lina; the two girls were the same age, as were a couple of boys in the building. The kids could walk five minutes east to Fort Greene Park, a hilly expanse of 30 acres with impressive views of the Navy Yard and Manhattan. A few minutes more to the west lay Borough Hall and the busy shopping district of Fulton and Court Streets.
Construction of the new Fourth Avenue subway, running across the Manhattan Bridge south along the avenue, meant that Lina had to make her way anywhere with care. Trenches ran 100 feet wide and 30 feet deep. Workmen were nearly entombed on Gold Street when the embankment gave way near Myrtle Avenue, burying them in the sand and gravel, though all escaped with minor injuries.(17) The same noise, smell, and danger—from the same source, subway construction—confronted her and her own children some three decades later outside their new apartment in Moscow.
Lina entered grade school in Brooklyn at Public School No. 5 on the corner of Tillery and Bridge Streets, just two blocks from home. At fourteen years old, she was in sixth grade. The years of travelling had slowed her education in the basics, plus English was not her strongest language. But she studied hard and, on the insistence of her mother, earned good marks. On Memorial Day in 1911, she took part in a patriotic school pageant on the subject of the American Civil War. Her role was to recite by heart the anonymous nineteenth-century tale “Foes United in Death,” in which two tragically wounded soldiers, a Northerner and a Southerner, resolve to forgive each other in their final moments. “The Southerner tried to speak, but the sound died away in a murmur from his white lips; but he took the hand of his fallen foe, and his stiffening fingers closed over it, and his last look was a smile of forgiveness and peace.”(18) Three other students at Public School No. 5 offered dramatic readings on the programme, while a fourth, Fred Walty, played the violin. Their earnest tributes to battlefield sacrifice were immortalised in a paragraph-long article in the 31 May edition of the Brooklyn Eagle.(19)
All the while Juan maintained a catch-as-catch-can career, performing throughout New York. Some of the venues were more diverse and eclectic than others. On 21 January 1909, he sang popular arias by Leoncavallo (Pagliacci) and Mascagni (Cavalleria Rusticana) as well as Luigi Venzano’s crowd-pleasing Valse Brillante on a programme arranged by the Chiropean Women’s Club.(20) Formed in 1896, the club brought together accomplished women in the eastern district of Brooklyn for meetings on the first and third Thursdays of each month from October to May. Its name—Chiropean—came from the Greek words for hand (chiros) and song (peon). But it was also an elaborate acronym standing for Christianity, Heaven, Independence, Industry, Republic, and a handful of other slogans, coyly kept secret. Its organisers supported the expansion of women’s intellectual and professional opportunities, such that women would be recognised not merely equal but indeed superior to men.(21) Olga was involved with the club, and doubtless helped to arrange for her semi-employed husband to sing at the 21 January meeting. The headline speaker was Madame Marie Cross Newhaus, a fine arts patron and a prominent advocate for female justice. She gave a talk titled “Italy, or Some Italians”, on the subject of Italian-American culture—hence the Italian composers on Juan’s programme—and also rallied support for the victims of the devastating Italian earthquake and tsunami of the preceding year.
Olga sought bookings of her own in New York. In 1908 she signed with Carlo E. Carlton and his Metropolitan Musical Association, a talent agency in midtown Manhattan.(22) The firm was in financial trouble and would collapse in the early spring of 1909, but Carlton came through for Olga.(23) He touted her as a talent of “renown” in an advertisement in the New York Clipper and arranged some singing for her; he even presented her an opportunity to appear on screen. Lina remembered her mother being hired as an actress for a silent film about a green but gifted immigrant singer. Olga was to play a despoiled and dishonoured version of herself for distribution to the nickelodeons, and according to Lina’s exceedingly fuzzy recollection, her mother was to have lip-synced a brilliant aria from La Traviata as part of the role. No sooner had the contract been signed and the announcement prepared, however, then Olga took sick and pulled out, infuriating everyone involved in the project. Her agent suspected that the illness was feigned, and moved her name from the top to the bottom of his talent roster. Lina believed that her mother had succumbed to pride, deciding that acting the part of a naďf just off the boat was beneath her and an insult to her sophisticated upbringing.
Thereafter Olga’s musical activities in the United States were limited to teaching. She would not return to the stage, nor fulfil the promise that she demonstrated in Europe. Friends of the family, including her devoted benefactor Serge Persky, were saddened and surprised to learn of her withdrawal. After 1912 she and Juan earned the bulk of their income as voice teachers. To generate business, they advertised in the Brooklyn Eagle and New York Evening Telegram, marketing themselves as experienced international professionals.(24) Ronconi’s lesson plans became their own, passed down, for about a dollar an hour, to aspiring American sopranos and tenors. The couple taught at 88 Herkhimer Street, their second Brooklyn apartment, which Lina called home until graduation. The four-story brick building was advertised as having “the cheapest high-class apartments in the vicinity,” boasting hot water and steam heat.(25) It was one room bigger than the family’s previous rental on Gold Street, and the extra room became the teaching studio. Lina, hiding under the piano on the floor, sometimes listened to the lessons, pretending that her parents could not see her. She absorbed some of the Italian opera repertoire from Olga, basic music theory from Juan, and began to study voice with them herself.
9 Death notices, New York Times, 26 December 1898, 7.
10 “Graduates from No. 2”, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 3 March 1893, 5.
11 See, for example, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 27 September 1895, 10; and Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 4 October 1912, 15.
12 Thirteenth Census of the United States, 1910 (NARA microfilm publication T624, 1,178 rolls). Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29 (National Archives, Washington, D.C.), Year: 1910; Census Place: Brooklyn Ward 19, Kings, New York; Roll T624_967; Page: 13B; Enumeration District: 439; Image: 939. Accessed through Ancestry. com. 1910 United States Federal Census [database online]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc., 2006 (25 June 2010).
14 “Esperantists Meet”, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 10 November 1909, 12.
15 Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1897-1957; (National Archives Microfilm Publication T715, 8892 rolls); Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (National Archives, Washington, D.C.), Year: 1908; Microfilm serial: T715; Microfilm roll: T715_1106; Line: 8; Page Number: 233. Accessed through Ancestry.com. New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 (25 June 2010).
16 Thirteenth Census of the United States, 1910 (NARA microfilm publication T624, 1,178 rolls). Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29 (National Archives, Washington, D.C.), Year: 1910; Census Place: Brooklyn Ward 11, Kings, New York; Roll T624_959; Page: 6A; Enumeration District: 227; Image: 842. Accessed through Ancestry. com. 1910 United States Federal Census (25 June 2010).
17 “Two Men Rescued from a Landslide”, New York Times, 7 August 1910, C10.
18 The Speaker’s Garland and Literary Bouquet (Philadelphia: P. Garrett, 1876), 140.
19 “Memorial Day in Schools”, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 31 May 1911, 2.
20 “Chiropean Meeting”, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 22 January 1909, 9.
21 “‘Chiropean,’ Glad Hand”, New York Times, 19 February 1896, 16.
22 “Carlo Carlton’s List of People”, New York Clipper, 30 January 1909, 1245.
23 “Business Troubles”, New York Times, 9 March 1909, 12.
24 See, for example, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 28 September 1912, 15; New York Evening Telegram, 1 October 1912, 15.
25 As described in an advert to let, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 27 August 1911, 15.