Sleuthing in Russian Emigré Paris – Aliss Valerie Terrell – France 1971

Sleuthing in Russian Emigré Paris – Aliss Valerie Terrell – France 1971

In 1971, I got a Fulbright to enroll at the Sorbonne and research Alexei Remizov, modernist author who emigrated from Revolutionary Petrograd to Paris and died there in 1957. My application promised a photographic essay on “Remizov’s Paris.” So, I lugged my Pentax reflex to all the places he mentioned in his writing. I needed material to turn my project into a thesis topic and began tracking down surviving oldsters in the labyrinth of Russian émigré society who had known Remizov. What now takes seconds on the Internet then took months of leg work, even with leads and high-powered help. 

I had a note from Douglass College Professor Ludmilla Turkevich for Mme. Marie Avril, curator of the Bibliothèque Nationale Russian collection. She invited me for high tea at her flat near her office, overlooking tiny green Square Louvois and its stone fountain where four sculpted graces embody the four great rivers of France. In my best literary French, I told her about my project and must have made a decent impression because she later invited me to join her at the Bibliothèque for the gala opening of an exhibition she was curating about recently deceased writer Elsa Triolet. Russian-born Triolet was a Resistance activist, also wife and muse of flamboyant silver-maned French poet Louis Aragon, who appeared at the reception in a purple satin shirt and flowing black trousers, surrounded by a coterie of young male admirers. That evening Mme. Avril introduced me to Alexander, an antique dealer who knew someone who knew someone who had known Remizov. I summarized my research topic. Instead of giving me contact info, “Sandro” as he preferred to be called, insisted on inviting me for dinner to discuss it.

Locating his address on rue Saint Anne near the stately Palais Royal gardens, I entered a rarefied world. Atop a pale stone Haussmannian building, he occupied an entire floor with high ceilings and inner balconies overlooking a big square room filled with monumental marble goddess statuary and other artwork acquired through his parents’ business on rue Saint Honoré. I thought there would be other guests, but it was a tête-à-tête. I left no blanks whatsoever in the conversation and kept a fixed distance at all times. 

The table was beautifully set with exquisite china and crystal. His cook had left our dinner in the kitchen and Sandro waited on me like a butler, serving several courses of delicacies with impossible names. A rich Bordeaux was accompanied by fresh walnuts “to bring out the bouquet” (new concept!). Intrigued, but wary and impatient, I departed smoothly before the last metro. 

Anther invitation followed: Maya Plisetskaya was dancing at the Paris Opera. Sandro had orchestra seats. Maya Plisetskaya was dazzling and well worth the awkwardness with my squire, but how long was he going to string me along? The clock was ticking. A full grad school ride was on hold at NYU, the next step in my career plan towards a professorship. The clock was ticking.

Aliss Valerie Terrell – Fulbright to France 1971

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