Monday, December 17, 2012

Eliena Krylenko: 'Glad to Have Lived''


Readers for whom the name Eliena Krylenko is not immediately recognizable may recall that she was Mrs. Max Eastman. Their romantic story began in this fashion:
In 1922, abandoning his financially troubled magazine, The Liberator, Max left Croton to explore the changes wrought in Russia by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Instead of going directly to the Soviet Union, he headed first to an international conference in GenoaItaly.
It was a fateful detour. In Italy, he would meet the woman who would become his second wife and return to the U.S. with him.
On a second-floor balcony of the luxurious old Imperial Palace Hotel in nearby Santa Margherita, he watched American sculptor Jo Davidson work on a bust of Russian diplomat Maxim Litvinov. From a window on the floor above, four giggling secretaries peered down at the handsome American.
When Eastman looked up, the heads disappeared. A red rose came tumbling down from the window. He picked it up.
That evening as he was standing in his hotel lobby, Max saw one of the secretaries come downstairs “with a skipping step, her hand sliding lightly along the banister. She was not exactly pretty, but looked so jolly, with her short nose, twinkling gray eyes and tiny front teeth, that I watched her with a feeling of reminiscent mirth."
She was introduced as "Miss Krylenko." Eastman knew that Nikolai Krylenko was the first commander-in-chief of the Red Army, Minister of Justice and chief Soviet prosecutor. Nikolai, she admitted, was her brother.
Ironically, sixteen years later, after ruthlessly prosecuting staged trials in Moscow, Nicolai Krylenko and his entire family, including Eliena’s three sisters, another brother, an aunt, a cousin and five or six nieces and nephews would disappear in Stalin's vengeful purges.
Pointing to the rose he was wearing in his buttonhole, Eastman asked, "Was it you who threw it to me?"
"Oh, no!" she replied. Seeing the effect of her dismissive remark, she added with a laugh, "It was my idea, though."

To Russia
      After traveling through France and Germany, it took Max four months to reach Moscow. He quickly looked up Eliena Krylenko at the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs and discovered that she was also a skilled cook, painter and poet. Entranced by Eliena's free spirit, playfulness, vivacity, and muscular yet lithe and agile body, their relationship soon blossomed into a traditional Max Eastman love affair in which each partner could take other lovers.
Recognizing Max's penchant for romantic attachments with other women, Eliena, told him: "You can tell me about all the other girls you have loved, and those you may love in the future--or not tell me, just as you wish. I won't be jealous in either case. I don't want to possess you. All my love asks is to see you happy."
Max soon became fluent in Russian and arranged with Leon Trotsky to translate his monumental History of the Russian Revolution into English. After Lenin's death early in 1924, a ruthless Josef Stalin took power. With Trotsky's influence in decline, Eastman decided to leave Russia and take Eliena with him.
Arranging for the trip was not easy. Max was regarded as a dangerous radical at home and by most of the countries in Europe. In addition, his U.S. passport had expired. Litvinov solved these problems by appointing Eastman to the staff of a Soviet delegation heading for London that summer.
Soviet passports were not valid in the West, so Eliena could not accompany him unless he married her. Moreover, the secret police refused to allow her to leave unless she agreed to work for them abroad. She steadfastly refused. Litvinov advised her to be practical and sign the agreement--and then to forget about it once she was out of the country.
It was a curious wedding. Afraid they would miss their train, Eliena went home to pack their bags, while a solitary Max was married in a little dingy registry office with two hastily summoned witnesses. He was 41 and she was 30. Despite its inauspicious beginnings, the marriage would last a lifetime.
After spending three years in France, Max and Eliena returned to the United States in the spring of 1927 aboard the French liner De Grasse. On arrival in New York harbor, the passengers assembled in the ship’s dining salon, with American citizens in one line and aliens in another. Standing at the end of a long line, Eliena waited while customs officers sought the proper forms.
Max later recounted how the chief customs officer, a great big man, seeing her standing there looking like a small child on the verge of tears, walked up to her.  Putting a protective arm around her shoulders, he said, “You can come in, little lady. Just step along. We'll fill out the papers when they come.”
Max wrote, "I was proud of my country, I must say, and Eliena fell in love with the United States for good and all."

America Again
      Back home, Eastman found that he had been ostracized by party decree. There would be no fraternizing with Trotskyites. “My old friend and co-editor, Bob Minor, now a neighbor in Croton just across the road, would pass me in the morning with his eyes on the treetops. Once when we met face-to-face in Floyd Dell's living room, he bowed ironically low, and neither spoke nor extended a hand."
Rejected by most liberals who accepted the Stalin-dictated Communist Party line, Eastman was forced to support himself on the lecture circuit, and by writing magazine articles and books.
In the summer of 1929, the Eastmans were introduced to the delights of Martha’s Vineyard by the Robinsons, Boardman and Sally, their next-door neighbors in Croton. At the rural west end of the island, a summer colony of artists and writers had bought an old farm and used its barn for dining and partying. The farmhouse, woodshed and chicken house served as sleeping quarters for the group.
Max and Eliena eventually rented a converted sheep barn even farther west, near the promontory called Gay Head, to which they returned annually. In 1941, they bought land nearby on which they built a house overlooking the sea, and gave up their house in Croton.
Most photographs of Eliena do not do her justice. According to Eastman  biographer William L. O'Neill, "Max did have one splendid photograph of her, a huge picture that hung over his desk both in Croton and Gay Head, showing Eliena running naked out of the surf, beaded with water, shot with sun, her dancer's body taut as a bowstring."
It was Eliena’s remarkably bright and cheery personality that touched everyone she met. In France in 1926, novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald summed it up with his observation, “When she smiles, everybody smiles. When she comes into a room, the room is lighted.”

Many Talents
      Eliena Krylenko had many talents. A skilled linguist, she taught French for several years at the progressive Walden School, a private day school in ManhattanIn Croton, she kept busy writing poetry--in four languages.
She was also a serious dancer. But her husband, Max Eastman, thought that painting was her "most remarkable gift."
As a painter, she completed more than 70 portraits of celebrities and neighbors, including Eric Knight, author of Lassie Come Home, who rented the farmhouse at Finney Farm, economist Stuart Chase, who lived on Ledge Loop on Mt. Airy, the poet E.E. Cummings, W.E. Woodward, bestselling author of such works asBunk and Meet General Grant, and liberal lawyer Arthur Garfield Hays.
Eliena had little formal art training, although in Paris she worked with French artists Jules Pascin and Jean Charlot. When he visited Croton, Pascin painted a portrait of Eliena, and she reciprocated by painting a portrait of him. Max admitted that "hers was not successful, but his picture of her is a treasure of grace and energy."
She acknowledged that her painting was also influenced by George Biddle, a Croton neighbor and artist, and by Thomas Hart Benton, Max’s friend, best known for his flat, realistic "regional" style of painting.

Two Masterpieces
      In 1937, the Eastmans engaged an Ossining house painter, Offie Edward Cherry (known to everyone as "O.E."), to redecorate their Croton house. Upon becoming aware of Eliena Krylenko's artistic ability, Mr. Cherry proposed that perhaps she could paint pictures for display in local bars. When tavern owners showed little interest in her paintings, he suggested that local churches might be a fitting place for her work.
The congregation of Ossining’s Star of Bethlehem Baptist Church at 148 Spring Street agreed to have her paint two oil paintings to be displayed in their church. A stipulation was that one of the paintings should depict the Crucifixion of Jesus. The other subject was left to the artist's discretion; Eliena Krylenko chose the Sermon on the Mount.
The paintings were completed in the summer of 1937 for mounting on the wall on each side of the church's organ in the sanctuary of the modest red brick gothic church building. Each covered an area of 40 square feet. They were unveiled and presented to the church by the artist at a formal ceremony on Sunday, September 12, according to an article in the next day’s New York Times.
Guests included the choir and congregation of Ossining’s First Baptist Church at the intersection of Route 9 and Main Street. The Rev. Raymond H. Edwards was the guest speaker, and Miss Louise James was at the organ.
Speaking at the dedication, Eliena said, “I think of Christ as just an unusual “common man” representing kindness and humility, as preaching against hypocrisy and greed, and as teaching the rich to renounce their riches.”
The Sermon on the Mount depicts a white-robed Jesus lecturing to disciples on a hill to the west of the Sea of Galilee. Eleven in number, they are grouped around Jesus under a serene summer sky. Their robes of yellow, deep blue, scarlet and orange are bright spots of color in an otherwise muted scene. A small settlement, probably Capernaum, can be seen in the distance.
In contrast, the somber Crucifixion has taken place under an angry sky at Golgotha, "the place of skulls," also known as Calvary, on the outskirts of ancientJerusalem. Behind Jesus are the two robbers crucified with him, also still nailed to the cross. His mother, the apostle John, and a few lingering faithful wait below the cross. Departing behind the hill are other spectators who witnessed the Crucifixion.
Both paintings are on large sheets of canvas. To suit the architectural requirements of the original sanctuary, it was necessary to remove an upper corner of each painting; these triangular pieces were later replaced.
Although Ileana worked on the paintings without any agreement for compensation, the congregation insisted on taking up a collection to pay for the materials. The amount collected was $62.46.

Disease Strikes
      Years later, early in April 1956, while in California, Eliena began to experience severe abdominal pain. The Eastmans returned to New York, where a physician found signs of malignancy and recommended a hysterectomy. Exploratory surgery showed that the cancer had spread throughout her body, making an operation futile. Even X-ray treatment was not an option. In fact, there was not the slightest chance of recovery.
The doctors insisted that Max not tell his wife the truth. He agreed to withhold information about her condition until after an exhibition of her paintings in New York City.
Eliena remarked to him that she did not feel she was recovering from the surgery as quickly as she should. Max told her, "Darling, you are not recovering. I must tell you the truth. You have a cancer, and the doctors hold out very little hope."
He could not detect the faintest hint or flicker of change in her outlook, he later would recall. From that day to the day of her death he "never saw a look of dismay or woe cross her face." Eliena only asked to return to Martha's Vineyard "to die in the sunshine by the sea.” Aided by a nurse and the loyal Eula, originally their Croton housekeeper, Max tended Eliena with selfless devotion.
In his 1964 autobiographical work, Love and Revolution, he wrote, "Our beloved Eula came from Ossining to cook and care for us and sit at the table with us." The challenge for historians was that he had not revealed Eula's last name.
There has long been a connection between Ossining’s African-American community and Croton. Addie Cherry, wife of the house painter hired by the Eastmans, operated the Home Town Employment Agency in Ossining and surely was familiar with "Eula," having referred many household workers to families in Ossining and Croton.
 “Eula,” it turns out, was Eula Mae Daniel, born in FayettevilleN.C., in 1912. A longtime resident of Ossining, she is fondly remembered by her family and the many friends and acquaintances she touched.
She raised ten children: four natural sons, and four adopted daughters and two adopted sons. She died on May 14, 1989, at 76 years of age, and is buried at Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard, as is her husband, who died in June of 1998, according to information from their son, Ted Daniel, of Ossining.
When she sensed the end was near, Eliena wrote a touching note of thanks to friends and neighbors. To Max she said, "In these two months you have repaid all I ever did for you." Eliena Krylenko died on October 9, 1956, and is buried on Martha's Vineyard.
Of this attractive, talented and admirable woman, Eastman biographer William L. O'Neill noted that in his research he “never found a scrap of paper or a living person that speaks ill of her."
Doris Stevens, a prominent feminist and Croton neighbor for many years, wrote in a letter to Max after his wife's death: "Be comforted knowing that you helped Eliena to realize her many creative gifts." A grieving Max Eastman later wrote of her: "It belongs here to say that she died as she had lived, glad of every day that remained, glad to have lived."

A New Church
      In 1996, having become too cramped in its original quarters, the church’s congregation engaged architect Frank Brainard of Niles, Ohio, to design a new church at 304 Spring Street. Completed in 1997, the handsome new building occupies the site of the former Ossining Hospital. (The four-story building across Main Street was the hospital’s nurses’ residence.)
Eliena’s two paintings are displayed on the front wall of the large downstairs assembly hall in which Sunday School services are held. Despite the passage of 75 years, Eliena’s twin masterworks have retained their original charm and interest.
Tucked away safely within the new Star of Bethlehem Baptist Church, the twin paintings are significant parts of Westchester’s artistic heritage and reminders of the county’s rich bohemian history.

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