“Famous for his artistic eye,” the early-twentieth century theater agent Joseph Mandelkern liked to boast that he discovered the ethereal prima ballerina Anna Pavlova.
This was not true. However, between 1900 and 1924, the New York-based impresario sailed to Europe dozens of times and always returned clutching a bunch of contracts for Russian performers to tour the United States.
Perpetually wielding a cigar, Mandelkern was “Mephistophelian,” “fast-talking,” and “wily,” according to reports.* I bet that his rivals, and perhaps some of his friends, occasionally felt the urge to punch him or sue him. He landed in court at least a few times.
Yet he did help to ignite the American passion for classical Russian ballet. In the fall of 1911, many U.S. newspapers ran this story:
RUSSIA FORBIDS IMPERIAL DANCERS TO LEAVE COUNTRY
The ranks of the imperial artists have been so depleted that Chief Director Krupensky is at his wit’s end to provide a suitable ballet to be given before the Tzar at Krasnoye Selo, the famous “red village” near St. Petersburg where Russia’s ruler spends the summer.
At the center of the controversy stood Lydia Lopokova, one of Mandelkern’s prize catches. Beautiful and independent, Lydia possessed an extraordinary presence although she was only sixteen years old.
Three dancers—Lydia, her brother Feodor, and Alexander Volinine—signed with Mandelkern in Paris during the summer of 1910. At the time, Lydia and Alexander were performing with the avant-garde Ballets Russes.
Then Lydia disappeared. After a few days, during which detectives dashed madly around Paris, she emerged on the arm of a nobleman of Polish descent. He had been following her around for months and finally persuaded her to marry him. Now they would return to Russia for the wedding.
Mandelkern must have twisted her arm hard because Lydia changed her mind and boarded the ship. When they arrived at Ellis Island a few weeks later, she said, “I like New York very much.”
During the next two years, Lydia earned a lot of money and fame. Mandelkern booked her all over the country, including Buffalo, N.Y., where a producer arbitrarily cut Lydia’s appearances in half.
Irate, Mandelkern lost control and shouted at the audience from a private box. The police arrested him and led him from the theater. The producer followed, delivering a few body blows along the way.
After paying a $25 fine, Mandelkern was released on $300 bail. Lydia returned to Europe, married the economist John Maynard Keynes, and left Joseph Mandelkern behind.
| "House in the Pines," located in Jamesburg, N.J., |
was owned by a Russian couple. Mandelkern
often visited there during the 1920s.
After World War I, the business of artist representation saw considerable change, and there may have been less room for Joseph Mandelkern. Besides, he wanted a different life back in the old world.
In 1922 he applied for a new passport. In his photograph, Mandelkern appears wizened, half-hidden by large glasses and a straw boater. Six months after the passport was issued, Mandelkern wrote to the Department of State to request that the headshot be swapped for another picture in which he looked much younger.
|Passport photo, Joseph Mandelkern, 1922 |
Then he went off to Wiesbaden, where he married Therese Jung, a woman nearly 30 years younger than he. In June 1925, they moved to Merano, Italy, just south of the German border.
In May of 1938, Hitler visited Italy for the second time and enjoyed, in the words of historian Paul Baza, “a massive display of fascist spectacle in three cities: Rome, Naples and Florence.”
Soon after, Mussolini ordered the enforcement of severe antisemitic laws. Unsurprisingly, Therese and Joseph Mandelkern were marked “di razza ebraica” on a census of Jews conducted in Italy in August 1938.
|Hitler and Mussolini, 1938|
There is evidence that Joseph tried unsuccessfully to return to the U.S. He suffered a stroke in December 1939, died soon after, and is buried in Merano’s Jewish Cemetery. In the official report of his death, no known relatives were listed besides Therese.
Few acknowledge that Joseph Mandelkern played a major part in shaping the cultural tastes of Americans at the turn of the twentieth century.
Really, he must have been insufferable.
*Quotes from Bloomsbury Ballerina by Judith Mackrell, an excellent biography of Lydia Lopokova.