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A ‘Smart Dinner’
Hollywood, Rouben Mamoulian, and the Prokofievs

 

In February, Prokofiev performed piano recitals in Boulder and Colorado Springs. On the 18th in Denver he conducted his Classical Symphony and performed his First Piano Concerto on a concert that came off so poorly that he rudely informed his host Jean Cranmer that he “didn’t like anyone who was there.”1 Cranmer, a philanthropist and one of the founders of the Denver Symphony, cheered him up by taking him to a local cinema palace to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He was thrilled, the brush with Disney magic giving him a positive outlook for the next stop on his journey: Los Angeles and the cinematic cradle of Hollywood.

Prokofiev arrived in Los Angeles on 26 February 1938, adding three unanticipated weeks to what was supposed to have been a tour of the East Coast and Midwest. He had been invited West by Rudolph Polk, “a onetime violinist, musical director, and artist’s agent who sought to engage Prokofiev as a Hollywood film composer.”2 Through Polk, Prokofiev met Walt Disney, playing Peter and the Wolf for him, and decla-ring (disingenuously) that “he had composed it with Disney in mind.”3 Soon after his arrival in Los Angeles on 6 March, the local press reported that “the famous Russian composer“ Prokofiev was contentedly “dallying with Hollywood.”4

For the composer and his wife, who joined him in Los Angeles after reuniting with childhood friends in New York, an oft-recalled moment in the dalliance was the evening spent at the Biltmore Hotel on 10 March 1938 at the 38th annual Academy Awards.5 Surrounded by the greatest and most beloved stars of the age including Norma Shearer and Spencer Tracy, nominated for their outstanding performances in Marie Antoinette and Boys Town, respectively, the Prokofievs could not have been further removed from Stalin’s Moscow. (They knew they were soon due back, however, especially as their two sons had not travelled with them.) The epic scale of the awards would be eclipsed in their recollections by the lavish but intimate party hosted in their honor by the Armenian-American filmmaker and theater director Rouben Mamoulian.

Several sources mention the 13 March 1938 party, but there are discrepancies as to the exact details. In her 2008 article “Prokofiev on the Los Angeles Limited”, Elizabeth Bergman writes that the couple enjoyed being special guests at a “finely appointed restaurant in Laguna Beach” the Victor Hugo, in the company of Myrna Loy, Marlene Dietrich, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Arnold Schoenberg, and Mr. And Mrs. Edward G. Robinson.6 Harlow Robinson, who discusses the dinner in his 2007 book on Russians in Hollywood, highlights Mary Pickford and Gloria Swanson among the attendees.7 A few days after the party, the Los Angeles Times reported that “Rouben Mamoulian gave a smart dinner” in tribute to Prokofiev with guests “Messrs. and Mmes. Arthur Hornblow, King Vidor, Edward G. Robinson, and Miss Virginia Mitchell.”8

This gathering of Hollywood’s biggest stars caught the attention of the gossip columnists, but none of them gleaned that this particular celebration took several turns on the road from planning to execution. Two questions emerge about the event, and have remained unresolved until now: its actual location, and who exactly attended.

Several sources place the dinner honoring Serge and Lina at the Victor Hugo Inn in Laguna Beach, but there is evidence to suggest that the Victor Hugo Restaurant mentioned in the Los Angeles Times was instead located in Beverly Hills. In May of 1934, the Lloyd Corporation, Ltd. “awarded to the Pozzo Construction Company a contract for a $100,000 buil-ding at 243-249 Beverly Drive, to be leased to Hugo Aleidis to house the new Victor Hugo restaurant in Beverly Hills.“9 Before ground had even been broken, the Los Angeles Times reported that architect Claud W. Beelman intended the restaurant to have “a circular reception hall and an oval dining-room overlooking an Italian garden [as well as] a banquet hall, private dining-room and a complete catering shop” with décor by John B. Smeraldo.10

An advertisement in the Los Angeles Times 10 December 1934 announces the opening of the Victor Hugo Restaurant at 233 North Beverly Drive, located just 1.5 miles from Mamoulian’s home.11 The Beverly Hills restaurant was the second one operated by Aleidis, the first being in Los Angeles proper, and both are reported to have been popular with the Hollywood and Los Angeles elite. Sometime after 1938, however, the Beverly Hills restaurant closed, the space becoming, in 1942, a high-end ladies clothing store.12

A “smart dinner” in Beverly Hills would have been an impressive introduction for the Prokofievs to the Hollywood social scene. The restaurant on North Beverly Drive became the go-to spot for spectacular affairs, with the Los Angeles Times social pages describing numerous gala receptions, fundraisers, and social functions at the site between 1934 and 1938. The Victor Hugo Inn at Laguna Beach would also have been a suitably impressive space for the occasion, with panoramic ocean views from the patio and the large windows of two circular dining rooms, perched upon a bluff amidst a “strand of oceanfront homes along Cliff Drive and Marine... the summer vacationing beach houses for the wealthy from out of town.”13 Some sources state that the Pacific Coast Highway reached Laguna Beach from Los Angeles in 1926; the drive down that highway (101) would have been stunning for Serge and Lina, revealing Southern California in all its majesty.

But the Laguna Beach Victor Hugo Inn was too far from Mamoulian’s house for the dinner to have been held there: 61 miles. Instead, the Beverly Hills Victor Hugo Restaurant ushered the Prokofievs into the world of Hollywood glamour.

VictorHugoRestaurantThe Beverly Hills Victor Hugo Restaurant.

The after-dinner party certainly took place at the home of Rouben Mamoulian. In 1938, he lived in the heart of Be-verly Hills among some of America’s most beloved stars. At 710 N. Palm Drive, just one block from the famous Sunset Boulevard, his home was adjacent to those of Marlene Dietrich and Ruth Chatterton, while director Sidney Franklin and silent film star Conrad Nagel lived just across the street.14 As we shall see, Dietrich would have taken just a few steps to enjoy an impromptu after-dinner recital by Prokofiev.

The guest list for the dinner itself is preserved at the Library of Congress Manuscript Division among Rouben Mamoulian’s papers. Listed are Mamoulian’s trusted friends, colleagues, and neighbors who had been specially selec-ted to entertain the composer and his wife. The typewritten document includes: the director King Vidor (1894-1982) and his wife Elizabeth Hill; the producer Arthur Hornblow (1893-1976) and his wife, the actress Myrna Loy (1905-93); the German-American actress and singer Marlene Dietrich (1901-92); the actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (1909-2000); the composer and arranger Russell Bennett (1894-1981); Ilonka Garrett (recently divorced from Mamoulian’s chosen scena-rist Oliver Garrett); the Romanian-born actor Edward G. Robinson (1893-1973) and his wife, the actress Gladys Lloyd; Hollywood attorney Ralph H. Blum and his wife, the actress Carmel Myers; producer Charles K. Feldman (1904-68) and his wife; the actress Mary Loos (1910-2004); and conductor and composer Alexander Steinert (1900-82).15

Half of the names listed under the actual “Dinner” heading are crossed out in blue pencil, however; the Vidors, Hornblows, Russell Bennett, Ilonka Garrett, the Robinsons and Mary Loos remain present with a handwritten lower-case “a” next to their names, their attendance confirmed. The heading “After Dinner” includes the composer Alfred Newman (1901-70) and conductor Alexander Steinert (1888-1970) in type and “Dietrich” in pen. Though Newman does not appear to have been invited for the dinner itself, Dietrich and Steinert were–but opted, perhaps for dietary reasons, to attend just the post-dinner celebrations. Also included in the Library of Congress folder is a handwritten mock-up of a table setting, showing where each of the invitees should sit (see below).

mamoulianlistThe Seating Plan for the Dinner in Honour of the Prokofievs.

Another list of names is typed on the document, but completely crossed out. It includes: the Austro-Hungarian actress Salka Viertel (1889-1978); the aforementioned Alexander Steinert; the actress Miriam Hopkins (1902-72); the Ukrainian-born director Anatole Litvak (1902-74); the cabaret singer Francisca Gaal (1904-73); the actress Loretta Young (1913-2000), the Ukrainian-born soprano (and intimate Prokofiev friend) Nina Koshetz (1891-1965); the producer Jesse L. Lasky (1880-1958) and his wife; Mr. and Mrs. Boris Morros; the writer and wit Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) and her husband, the actor and screenwriter Alan Campbell (1904-63). Perhaps these distinguished friends never even received an invitation to the Sunday night soirée. Loretta Young and Dorothy Parker are familiar names even now, but few would have been aware that St. Petersburg native Boris Morros had a secret life. Besides being the music director at Paramount (from 1936 to 1940), he was also a Soviet spy with the code name FROST. He started working for the NKVD (Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del, or People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) in 1934, helping to place additional agents within Paramount’s worldwide office system and to pass payments within the NKVD.16 Morros worked as music director on Mamoulian’s most recent film, Paramount’s High Wide and Handsome (1937). Arthur Hornblow was its producer, and Russell Bennett its orchestrator.17

This documents lists the cast of characters at the party, but of course does not describe what exactly took place during the dinner or after, at Mamoulian’s home. More information about the party is provided by Gladys Lloyd Robinson, the wife of Edward G. Robinson—an actor who specialized in gangster characters—in the Beverly Hills magazine Rob Wagner’s Script.18 After dinner, the party reportedly moved to Mamoulian’s home, where Prokofiev played selections from Romeo and Juliet and other older and newer pieces for the guests. Gladys Lloyd claimed that Myrna Loy “turned on the charm and Mr. Prokofieff responded brilliantly, much to our joy... then he told us all about his ‘Peter the Wolf’, which he had just played to Walt Disney, with all the instruments in the orchestra playing the characters. Mme Prokofieff confessed that she is really Lena Lluberra [sic] of the opera in Europe and still concertizes with her famous husband.“19 Lina, according to Simon Morrison, recalled “mingling with the stars Mary Pickford, Marlene Dietrich, Gloria Swanson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and, on a less glamorous note, the composer Arnold Schoenberg.”20 The Library of Congress documents I consulted do not mention Schoenberg [but Lina’s recollection should be trusted, since she also listed Schoenberg as one of the attendees in a private notebook - Ed.]. Nevertheless, the evening obviously proved a highlight of their final tour of the United States, and no doubt served in later years, when the composer and his wife were trapped in the Soviet Union, as a poignant reminder of a life they might once have led.

BACK

BACK TO SUMMARY

1 Simon Morrison, The People’s Artist: Prokofiev’s Soviet Years (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 74.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 “Reviewer’s Notebook”, Los Angeles Times, 6 March 1938, p. C5; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1988).

5 Elizabeth Bergman, “Prokofiev on the Los Angeles Limited”, in Simon Morrison, ed., Sergey Prokofiev and His World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 442

6 Ibid.

7 Harlow Robinson, Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians: Biography of an Image (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2007), 94.

8 “Mamoulian Fetes Composer” Paul Chester, Los Angeles Times, 20 March 1938, p. D10; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1988).

9 “New Construction Spurs Growth”, Los Angeles Times, 27 May 1934, p. 2; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1988).

10 Ibid.

11 Los Angeles Times, 10 December 1934, p. 2; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1988).

12 Marc Wanamaker, Beverly Hills: 1930-2005 (Charleston SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2006), 98.

13 State of California Resources Agency, Department of Parks and Recreation, p. 4 of 23.

14 Albert Ragsdale, Ragsdale’s Movie Guide Map: 1938 Latest Edition. Maps like this, assisting tourists in stalking Hollywood celebrities, can be a treacherous resource, but according to the 1936 Beverly Hills City and Telephone Directory, Mamoulian was at this address.

15 “Dinner Guest List for Sunday, March 13th, 1938”, Rouben Mamoulian Papers, Box 9, Folder 7, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington DC.

16 Bergman, “Prokofiev on the Los Angeles Limited”, 442.

17 Tom Milne, Rouben Mamoulian (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010), 160.

18 “Edward G. Robinson”

19 As quoted in Bergman, “Prokofiev on the Los Angeles Limited”, Sergey Prokofiev and his World, 442-43.

20 Morrison, The People’s Artist, 75.

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