The present-day entrance to Public School No.3

The apartment building at 540 W. 145th Street, Manhattan

Juan Codina in a palm tree in Cuba, dressed in three-piece suit and Havana straw hat, date unknown

Lina Codina, 1912 (?)

Clockwise from top left: Vera Johnston, Charles Johnston, Henry Olcott, Vera Zhelihovsky and Helena Blavatsky.

In 1913 Lina completed her elementary education at Public School No. 3. She was in eighth grade and would soon turn sixteen, the age that marked the end of compulsory education for girls in New York; henceforth she continued her schooling at night. Her graduation, held at the nearby Commercial High School on the warm, clear evening of 24 June 1913, coincided with the school’s 250 anniversary (26) (it remains the oldest continually operating public school in New York City). To mark the occasion, the commencement exercises were especially lavish, with historical re-enactments, processionals, choral singing, and ballroom dancing. Bearing the title “The Call of the Centuries,” the pageant was reported in fabulous detail in the Brooklyn Eagle. “A crowded house witnessed the scenes, which told in a nutshell the story of progress on Long Island, from picturesque savagery to bright, modern graduation of a hundred-odd boys and girls from a foremost city school.” Thanks to her strong voice, Lina was chosen to participate in the third scene, which recreated an eighteenth-century Colonial singing school. The fourth scene—the actual graduation—featured synchronised marching and the announcement, from a member of the local school board, that Misses Carolina Codina and Gladys Cook had won the German-American prizes for German. Wherley’s lessons had paid off. Lina herself remembered the event in patchwork detail. She hoarded chiffon for an elaborate hand-sewn graduation gown. Her mother refused to risk her elegant hands with needle and thread, so Lina had to fashion the dress by herself from a simple pattern. There was a formal dance, during which the ill-tuned school orchestra performed a Mozart minuet. Lina graduated with two friends, William Talley and Howard Jones, the former an English boy with the posture of a yardstick, the latter a perpetually cheerful grinner. Both of them, she believed, had innocent crushes on her. The day after the pageant, Olga and Juan attended a reception for their daughter, and the following November, everyone returned for a formal banquet.

Much of the rest of Lina’s education was vocational, and it took her out of Brooklyn into Manhattan and, she sometimes claimed, the suburbs of northern New Jersey. By 1916, she had relocated with her parents to Manhattan, first to Morningside Heights, where the family took an apartment at 161 Manhattan Avenue, near Central Park around 106th Street, and then further north to 540 W. 145th Street, just off Broadway in Washington Heights.(27) Most of their neighbours were native-born Americans of modest professions: salesmen and clerks, teachers, plus a handful of actors and actresses of limited success. Juan and Olga continued to travel, leaving their daughter in the care of friends.

In 1912, before Lina’s eighth-grade graduation, her parents sailed to Bermuda, performing on one of the three ocean liners that, during the Lenten season, conveyed the well-heeled of New York to the island retreat. Since that winter was especially severe, the demand for reservations on the boats and in the Bermuda hotels exceeded capacity, meaning that Juan and Olga had large audiences. In 1916 both Lina and her mother were left behind when Juan went on tour to Guatemala City with an opera troupe. Lina knew little of his activities on this junket or any of his subsequent travels to Latin and South America. The details of his 1920 trip to Lima and Panama with the Bracale Opera Company were forgotten, if known at all. A calm, kind person, Juan was much less involved in his daughter’s upbringing than his wife and seemingly contented with his lot. He presided over an apartment inundated with music and musician friends, but remained a distant figure in Lina’s life. Olga, in contrast, hovered constantly over the girl, pressing a glass of milk into her hand each time she moved to leave the apartment and compulsively over-feeding her, fearing that she might become anaemic. Since the subways and elevated trains were incubators of infection, Lina was discouraged from using them. But her lips never turned blue, the dreaded sign of iron depletion, and she escaped the massive flu epidemic of 1918 without a sniffle. Olga even at one point suggested that her daughter preserve her figure by foreswearing exercise. “People,” Lina recalled, “had strange ideas then.”(28)

The most she learned of her father’s career was the undated recording he made for Columbia Records, accompanying himself on the guitar. She kept it her entire life, along with a beautiful sepia photograph of him sprawled in a palm tree in Cuba, nattily attired in three-piece suit and Havana straw hat. The 78 had two very old songs on it, part of the wistfully sensuous folk and flamenco repertoire that Juan took to Havana. He liked to sing one of them, “Para jardines Granada”, to Olga, perhaps reminding her of his triumphant courtship: “For gardens, Granada; for women, Madrid; but for love—your eyes, when they look at me.” Lina jotted these words down in a notebook, and learned the song herself.(29)

Among the people who cared for her while her parents were away was Vera Danchakoff, a remarkable woman scientist lauded at the time for her study of tumours and more recently noted for her pioneering work on stem cells. Lina remembered her as a researcher for the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical company, but she was much more. Having studied medicine in her native Petrograd (St. Petersburg), Danchakoff emigrated to the United States in 1915 and worked first at the Rockefeller Institute in New York City and later the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University. She was also a journalist and politically active humanitarian, serving as the New York correspondent for the Moscow paper Utro Rossii and working with the American Relief Administration in the early 1920s to publicise the plight of Soviet scientists during the famine in Russia. Her example—she was written up in the feminist Who’s Who of the day—might have helped inspire Lina’s own ambitions.(30)

Yet the connection was more cultural than professional. A gifted amateur pianist, Danchakoff participated in the musical soirées that Juan and Olga hosted in their apartment. She in turn invited them with Lina to her summer rental in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, near Martha’s Vineyard. Danchakoff and her husband presided over elaborate dinners with successive generations of relatives and friends carefully arranged around the table. The patriarchal vignette remained in Lina’s mind, testament to the important social connections that her parents had forged in the vast but tight-knit Russian émigré community of New York. The hope was that their daughter would, in her own way, expand the network, and in this they would not be disappointed.

Lina would, for example, twice encounter the composer Serge Rakhmaninov. The initial meeting came in 1909 during Rakhmaninov’s first visit to the United States, a successful trip that nonetheless made him miserable (he declined successive offers to tour until after the Russian Revolution). Through mutual friends, Lina and her mother received an invitation to meet the eminent musician backstage. Olga ensured that her daughter looked her prettiest for the occasion, dressing her in a sailor suit and pleating her long hair down the back. Rakhmaninov professed an intense dislike for American children, but took to Lina straightaway, stroking her head and murmuring nostalgically, “You’re such a polite little Russian girl.”(31)

Coming into her own as a young woman, Lina found a ready home in the Russian community, trading on her mother’s connections while forging her own. As soon as she finished grade school Olga had instructed her to find a profession, a métier, rather than relying on marriage and motherhood. As Juan and Olga themselves had learned, things were unstable and anything could happen; Lina needed to be able to support herself, perhaps in the employ of a professional lady or teaching French. Income was less important than establishing independence, Olga claimed. She had a feminist streak, fuelled by the example of her own mother and involvement in organisations like the Chiropean Women’s Club. So Lina trekked to business school to learn basic secretarial skills while also continuing with the singing lessons she had started with her mother.

Thanks to her mother, Lina could read and write Russian as well as speak it, and these offered her entry into the world of well connected émigrés—many of them impressive women, including three Veras. Besides Vera Danchakoff there was Vera Johnston, a well-heeled socialite involved in Russian relief efforts during the First World War who took singing lessons with Lina’s parents and shared news of Russia with Olga. Johnston had impressive political connections, but what most fascinated Lina was the unusual, even bizarre, mix of nationalities and persuasions among Johnston’s relatives. Her mother had been a pioneering science fiction writer, famous in Russia for her stories about children with occult powers. The fascination with the supernatural extended to her aunt, Helena Blavatsky, a clairvoyant and spiritualist who established the Theosophical Movement. She was rumoured to perform amazing psychic feats, and attracted a passionate following in the United States. Though Lina was not drawn into Theosophy, she would later become a passionate devotee of another spiritual woman, Mary Baker Eddy, and the faith she founded, Christian Science.

Vera was married to Charles Johnston, whom Lina also found fascinating. He was a leading expert in Sanskrit, and his translations of Hindu scripture, including the Bhagavad Gita, became standard reading for converts. Before meeting Vera in England (at the London home of aunt Helena) and relocating to the United States, he had briefly worked in India for the Bengal Civil Service in 1888. He contracted “jungle fever” and received a medical discharge, returning to Europe to become a scholar and writer. In the United States, he held various temporary appointments as a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin in 1908, an instructor at the Russian Seminary, and even a captain in the Military Intelligence Division from 1918 to 1919.(32) Charles claimed the eminent poet W. B. Yeats as a long-time personal friend. They had gone to school together in Ireland and had similar religious outlooks. In 1914, through Charles, Lina herself met Yeats, who was in New York on a lecture tour. She described him as “ruddy faced” and the true “cock of the walk.”(33)

26 “No. 3 Celebrates 250th Birthday”, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 25 June 1913, 8.

27 161 Manhattan Avenue is listed as Juan’s home address upon his return from Guatemala in 1916. See Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1897-1957; Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Year: 1916; Microfilm serial: T715; Microfilm roll: T715_2485; Line: 2; Page Number: 171. Accessed through Ancestry.com. New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 (25 June 2010). 540 W. 145th is given as Juan’s home address upon his return from Peru (through Panama) in 1920, and both Juan and Olga list the same address in 1924 upon their arrival in New York from France. See Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1897-1957; Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Year: 1920; Microfilm serial: T715; Microfilm roll: T715_2839; Line: 7; Page Number: 171, and Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1897-1957; Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Year: 1924; Microfilm serial: T715; Microfilm roll: T715_3493; Line: 7; Page Number: 155. Accessed through Ancestry.com. New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 (25 June 2010).

28 LPF1/1.

29 Information in this paragraph from Serge Prokofiev Jr., “Juan Codina—A Singer”, Three Oranges No. 15 (2008), 36.

30 Clark, Ida Clyde, ed., Women of 1923 International (Philadelphia: John C. Winston, 1923), 174.

31 LPF1/1.

32 H. B. M., “Charles Johnston”, Theosophical Quarterly Magazine, 1931 to 1932 (New York: The Theosophical Society, 1932), 206-11.

33 LPF1/4.