Saturday, October 21, 2023

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Joseph Mandelkern's Return to Russia


Tolstoy and Gorky, 1900

On July 4, 1905, the Polish-born impresario and real estate man Joseph Mandelkern landed on page two of the New York Times.

The 41-year old hotshot had arrived in Europe a few weeks earlier. He toured Warsaw, Lodz, and Bialystok. In the small town of Dzialoszyce with its majestic synagogue, Mandelkern visited his widowed mother, whom he had not seen since 1884 when he immigrated to America.





He saw a parade of 20,000 people carrying red flags. Revolutionaries in blue shirts. Everyone armed with pistols and knives. 

It is intriguing that Mandelkern chose the summer of 1905, a scant six months after the First Russian Revolution, to make a three-month trip into political and social chaos.

Days before Mandelkern arrived in St. Petersburg, the officers of the battleship Potemkin had been overcome by revolution-minded mutineers who were enraged by their treatment during the Russo-Japanese War.

As famously portrayed in the 1925 film Battleship Potemkin, Cossacks murdered 1,000 men, women, and children who stood cheering the mutineers from the Richelieu Steps in Odessa while the ship was anchored offshore in the Black Sea. 


Famous scene from Battleship Potemkin, directed by 
Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein 

It was a dangerous, bloody time but Mandelkern felt confident about navigating through the Russian Empire because he possessed a “release from allegiance” signed by a consul general named Count Ladyzhensky. Mandelkern had paid 800 rubles for the document.

A supply of Havana cigars also greased the wheels.

Crossing the border between Germany and Russia, Mandelkern became aware of a new word, “Uligani,” derived from the English word “hoodlum.”


It entered into every conversation he held, with friends or strangers, in his home city. He heard it uttered in terror at the bier of a murdered friend. When he looked for his dead father’s gravestone, the same word was whispered into his ear by the gravedigger as a warning. When he wanted to seek rest and recreation in a public park he heard it again on the lips of a gendarme.  

The Uligani preyed on everyone.     

Now here was Mandelkern, a Jew, making his way through Russia as if he were an old friend of Nicholas and Alexandra. He also visited two anti-Czarists, famous writers both—Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky.

 Mandelkern boarded a train in Helsinki to reach Gorky, a 37-year old Socialist Realist author and Bolshevik sympathizer who spent his summers in a villa in Kokkola, Finland. After lunch, two messengers brought news of the Potemkin.

 “What have we to be afraid of?” Gorky mused aloud. “The time for secrecy is past. The change must come soon. Everybody knows it.”

Then Mandelkern went off to Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s country estate a few hours by train from Moscow. After lunch, Mandelkern learned that the Okhrana—the Czar’s secret police—regularly harassed Tolstoy. Meanwhile, the Bolsheviks demanded that he relinquish his property to divide among peasants. 

Returning to the U.S. in August, Mandelkern met with a Times reporter to share grim tales of corruption, deprivation, and violence.

Nonetheless, Mandelkern told the reporter, he detected courage among the Russians, a willingness to speak out against the Czar’s tyranny and the waste of the Russo-Japanese War.


By the time of his 1905 visit, Mandelkern had established himself as a stealthy theater agent who nabbed gifted performers. His fluency in English, Russian, and Polish enabled him to execute contracts before anyone else in the room knew the details.  

Always in motion, Mandelkern traveled through the Midwest and to Europe. His wife Pauline and their five children—at least two of whom were already superb musicians—watched him come and go.

One senses he was aloof and finicky.

He certainly had no time for his family in 1906, when Maxim Gorky accepted an invitation to come to America. Mandelkern even hinted at the possibility of a visit with President Theodore Roosevelt.

On a sparkly April day, Gorky arrived at Hoboken on a German steamship. A crowd of 1,000 greeted him. At the end of the gangplank, a delegation of socialists stretched out its hands: Abraham Cahan, editor of The Forward; Morris Hillquit, a labor lawyer; Gaylord Wilshire, a California entrepreneur; Leroy Scott, a writer and settlement worker; and Joseph Mandelkern. 

Thus began Gorky’s high-flying adventure with Mandelkern at his elbow. Lunch at the St. Regis. A visit to Grant’s Tomb. Watching children feed the squirrels in Central Park. The circus at Madison Square Garden.

“In a Russian city almost every other man one meets is either a soldier or a policeman,” Gorky told Mandelkern. “I haven’t seen a single soldier all day, and only two policemen. Marvelous!”

That evening, he was driven down Fifth Avenue to “Club A,” a brownstone owned by a group of revolutionary-minded New Yorkers. Here would occur the highlight of Gorky’s visit: dinner with Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, and other American writers who supported the movement to overthrow the Czar. 

A few days later, however, Gorky was beset by scandal.

It turned out that the writer had left his wife Katharine and two sons back in Russia. The woman who accompanied him to the U.S. was actress Maria Feodorovna Andreyeva, his mistress of several years.

Now Gorky ran into an American problem: relentless prudishness about an issue that would have been irrelevant in Russia.

Hotel Brevoort, Fifth Avenue & Eighth Street

Tossed from the Hotel Rhinelander to the Hotel Brevoort to the Hotel Belleclaire, denounced by the press and pushed away ever so gently by Twain et al, Gorky and Andreyeva found themselves begging for a place to lay their heads.  


Joseph Mandelkern, who was very enthusiastic at first in his eulogies of Gorky, said to a reporter for the Eagle that he had known it for a long time and that others on this side knew of the relations with the actress.

It does not appear that Gorky and Andreyeva went back uptown to stay with the Mandelkern family.



To be continued.

The Little Time Traveler

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