The Last Will and Testament of Sergei Esenin: Cultural History of a Mystification, Part II

This is Part II of a three-part series. Part I may be found here and Part III will appear on Friday, 10/2. A version of this piece appeared originally on Gorky Media.

Ilya Vinitsky is a Professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Princeton University. His fields of expertise are Russian Romanticism and Realism, the history of emotions, and nineteenth- century intellectual and spiritual history.

Translated by Emily Wang, Assistant Professor in the Department of German and Russian Languages and Literatures at the University of Notre Dame.

Part II. The Created Legend

The Promised Masterpiece

It is possible to identify the author of the anonymous article that attracted our attention. In fact, it was one in a series of Sunday-edition articles about Duncan and Esenin, published in Hearst’s newspapers for over twenty years and, according to a number of indicators, written by a single hand. These articles, which undoubtedly came into being thanks to the journalistic frenzy surrounding the famous dancer and her “insane” Russian husband during their American tour, share general themes, motifs, and a specific manner of presenting the following material:

the mysterious vessel with Cleopatra’s remains; the notion of jumping from the Woolworth Building and the poet’s attempt at self-immolation on Red Square; the promise of a posthumous masterpiece; the texts of the last poems addressed to the beloved wives; the insistence that the poem “Farewell, my friend, farewell” was a forgery and, in generally, unworthy of Esenin’s pen; a nearly maniacal obsession with the theme of polygamy; descriptions of “dances of death” performed by Isadora and her former husband; a bombastic tone; the unmistakable presence of the friend-interviewer “in the know”; the impossible contradictions within each article, and so on, and so forth. Most of all, this apocryphal cycle about Serge and Isadora continuously adds new events to their posthumous lives (such as the story of the vase), naturally attributed to the aforementioned “testimonies.” Each of these strange articles is in its own way a chapter of an adventure novel or an act of a fantastic drama created by the mysterious author.

The origin or introduction of this cycle seems to be an article published on February 21, 1926, in the Sunday supplement to Hearst’s newspapers. It was called “Denied Even the Triumph He Sought by Death. Isadora Duncan’s Poet Husband Kills Himself Just as He Said but Fails to Write With His Blood That Promised Masterpiece.” The article’s nameless author reports that several years earlier, in an artist’s studio in Greenwich Village, a boyish Russian poet confessed, after declaiming his melancholy verses, that he had long contemplated committing suicide in the same way as famous ancient Roman dandy Petronius: by opening his veins and summoning his friends. But, the article’s author asserts that Esenin wanted to perfect Petronius’s method: the blood from his cut wrists would be used as ink for committing to paper his final “triumphal masterpiece” — a poem he had been saving in the depths of his heart until death’s arrival.

According to the anonymous author, “the discussion of his self-destruction and the great poem which was to be born as he died” became a true mania for Esenin. “It is my promise to the world,” he said. Alas, he did not manage to achieve this triumph in death. The verses found near the poet’s body after he had passed away were a strange and inarticulate farewell addressed to a beloved woman, perhaps to Isadora Duncan. These verses, according to the author, had no literary value and in no way demonstrated Esenin’s talent. No, this clearly was not the masterpiece that Esenin had promised the world. This was a mockery of the poet’s very death.

On October 9th, 1927, already after the tragic death of Duncan herself, and again in the Sunday supplement to Hearst’s newspapers, there appeared yet another article, undoubtedly from the same author, entitled “Isadora Duncan Haunted by Her Crazy Husband’s Dying Command. How Death Beckoned to the Noted Dancer Ever Since the Inscription, ‘Isadora, I Wait for Thee!’ Was Set Upon the Urn That Holds Poet Essenin’s Ashes in Russia.” Here we see the reappearance of the beautiful Egyptian (not Etruscan) vase given by Duncan to her husband before their wedding, this time as an urn that, she claimed, had once held the dust of Cleopatra’s own heart. The dancer’s young husband saw this fact as a symbol of the couple’s own reunion after death.

Photograph of Isadora Duncan, “Now Grown Heavy with Years. and the Russian Boy Poet, Serge Essenin, Who Killed Himself the Other Day in Moscow,” The San Francisco Examiner, January 24, 1926

The article presents its story as originating with Ivan Narodny, a Russian journalist living in America and a close friend of Esenin and Duncan. Narodny had just returned from Paris, where he had managed to conduct an interview with the great dancer not long before her death. “Do you know, he kept a terrible message for me, just before he killed himself, after his release from his Russian prison?” Duncan had told Narodny. Upon the aforementioned Egyptian urn, into which the dying man had decanted his precious blood, he had written the words “Isadora, I wait for thee!” Duncan considered another of Esenin’s testaments to be his strange deathbed verses “Invocation to Death,” from which Narodny includes several lines, and which we have already encountered in the November 1926 article (only there, these verses were addressed to Duncan’s student, the lovely American woman).

Isadora told Narodny that premonitions of death had long tormented her. Before her tragic death by scarf she had been preparing to perform “The Dance of Death,” which she regarded as her greatest artistic achievement. Narodny noticed that she “was wearing the same loose scarf and the same robe,” which, naturally, were gifts from Esenin. The American correspondent also ended up as an unwilling witness to a phone call Duncan received from Esenin’s first wife. (This wife, as Duncan said, was working as a waitress in a Paris cabaret and had been offering the impoverished dancer material assistance, which she refused.)

According to Narodny, Esenin was obsessed with the idea of a spectacular suicide. Once again, the reader hears about the poet’s plan to kill himself on a funeral pyre that he himself intended to build on the Red Square, and his arrest by the police. These means, according to the poet, were his way of celebrating the death of his final illusion. One week after his release from prison, he opened an artery on his wrist after previously bequeathing the blood from his heart to Isadora. In the article’s finale, Narodny reports that the cremated hearts of both Cleopatra and the stormy Esenin now rest in the ancient urn.

Ivan Narodny returned to this historic vase in another article published under his own name, entitled “Narrow Escape of Isadora Duncan’s and Her Mad Lover’s Ashes” (May 11, 1941).

This article relates a miraculous discovery made by a German officer in Paris — an ancient urn inscribed with the words: “Isadora! I wait for thee!” A French cleaning woman discovered this urn in the apartment of the Russian writer Aleksei Remizov, and was already preparing to destroy it. “This discovery will delight Berlin!” the German officer, who stopped the lady, told his subordinates. In fact, Hitler and his Reich Chancellery of Foreign Affairs were supposedly searching for this historic vase at the request of Stalin himself, a request followed directly from the commitments outlined in the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. The issue was that Joseph Stalin had to decide to establish a cult of Esenin as a national hero-poet in the USSR, while the urn, as we already know, held not only Esenin’s remains, but also those of the poet’s wife, Isadora Duncan, once a favorite of the Soviet authorities. 

Along the way, Narodny describes Esenin’s relationship to the Bolsheviks, starting with Lenin. The former gave him a house in Leningrad and a pension, which “Serge” wasted entirely on vodka. After ending his relationship with Duncan, the suicidal Esenin burned down his house in Moscow. After that, he set a funeral pyre in the city’s center, and, freed from prison a week later, took the old Etruscan vase — Duncan’s gift — and wrote his last testament upon it.   

Happily, Isadora managed to spirit the urn out of Moscow with the help of one of her students. Duncan told Narodny that the urn’s inscription had long haunted her and that she had requested that her own ashes be placed in this same urn. One of the great dancer’s last planned works, Narodny reports, was a dance, while Esenin’s last poem was “Invocation of Death.” In September 1927, the dancer was suffocated by her own scarf, which had ended up between the wheels of a car. Her body was cremated and united with Serge’s ashes, with both consigned to the selfsame vase.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, the decision was made to return the ashes of the people’s poet home. Moreover, they had renamed his birth city in Ryazan District in his honor. The most powerful minds in the Joint State Political Directorate tried to find the vase, and finally established that it was in Paris with the writer Remizov. The German Ambassador in Moscow reported to his superiors that the Russians would be offended if the Germans didn’t find the urn by the poet’s birthday on October 4th [in fact, it was on October 3rd, — I.V.]. The Germans scratched their heads, interrogated Isadora’s friends, found the apartment where the urn was kept, and, at the last moment, as we already know, stopped a cleaning woman preparing to toss out the urn’s precious contents. Urn and ashes, the article tells us, were already on their way to the USSR, meant to arrive in time for the beginning of the festivities associated with Esenin’s anniversary.

In a sort of mad tangent attached to this legend, an anonymous story was published in the summer of the following year (1942) about Duncan’s romance with New York billionaire Paris Singer (son of the “sewing machine king”), who built a secret door leading directly from his Manhattan office to the roof of Duncan’s house. At night she would meet her Lohengrin with… the Etruscan urn. Later, this urn would contain the ashes of her husband, the mad poet Esenin, ashes saved by the Gestapo at the request of Hitler’s friend Stalin. The fabricator of this tale was, of course, our own Narodny.

    Mister Singer meets Isadora Duncan on the roof. The Etruscan vase is in the lower left corner. To the right, it seems, is Cleopatra.

Remarkably, the death and the posthumous reunion of Serge and Isadora (and Cleopatra) failed to quell our hoax author’s creative imagination. In November 1949, he would publish — under his own name — an article entitled “New Dancing Star behind the Iron Curtain by Ivan Narodny,” in which we learn that he had managed to find Esenin and Duncan’s daughter. The girl, raised by monks in the Pskov District, had the same name as her mother, from whom she had inherited a talent for dance.

This new Isadora received as a gift from her parents — what else? — an urn containing the remains of Cleopatra mixed with her parents’ ashes. Narodny reports that she knew the story of Serge and Isadora well. Indeed, the author of the article himself had seen the couple more than once in the “Fantasy House” of New York millionaire and bohemian artist Robert (Bob) Chanler. Narodny claims that he had seen the manuscript of Esenin’s final poem, written in blood, and that it was he who first made it public. 

This daughter of a dancer and a poet, he concludes, was the magical product of their sublime love—a synthesis of dance and poetry. He also adds that this new ballet star would soon appear in the USA. The 1949 article includes a photograph of Duncan and Esenin’s newfound daughter. It’s curious that in his mythologized fantasy, a mixture of adventure novel and romance, the graphomaniac Narodny arrives at the same narrative “result” as Boris Pasternak in the epilogue to Doctor Zhivago: the story of the miraculous discovery of the daughter of a fatal beauty and the poet who loved her, Lara and Yury.

Had Narodny not died in 1953 in his small mountaintop home in the wilds of Connecticut, I have no doubt that he would have continued his Duncan and Esenin cycle. For example, he might have written the story of the poet’s talented son (also a poet), born in California nine months after Esenin’s brief prison cell affair with the charming American, Dorothy, not long before the tragic event that occurred on the night of November 27th, 1925.

But who was the indefatigable fantasist Ivan Narodny, and why did he constantly return to the story about Isadora and Esenin?

To be continued — click here for Part III (or here for Part I).