"Sasha"

That's how friends and other privileged persons addressed Alexander Nikolaevich Vertinsky. To all others it was Alexander Nokolaevich except in dubious circumstances when less respectful epithets were delivered his way. No matter how he was addressed, his life, performances and his talent were outstanding. For those who had seen Vertinsky perform or had social contact with him, introductions are not necessary. For others less fortunate or I should say of a younger generation, it would be helpful if the person had knowledge of the Russian language and possessed a Russian soul which incorporates Slavic traits and habits that produce nostalgia and longing for motherland. Vadim Zaliva's website gives a report on life and times of Alexander Vertinsky that can be helpful in understanding Sasha's art.

I was asked by Vadim Zaliva to add to his website the few episodes I have had in meeting Sasha when he was living in Shanghai. First, I need to introduce myself as a stateless person living in that City during the thirties. I was there having been removed by my parents from the turbulent historic events of the Russian Revolution. In the winter of 1919/20 my parents crossed the frozen Amour river at Blagovechensk and entered China at a small city in Manchuria. From that day onward we became stateless and lived under this label for about 35 years. My age at border crossing was two and I was still pushing my first teeth out!

According to the publishers of Vertinsky's memoir, Alexander found himself in 1919 in the southern Russian port of Sevastopol which was being used by many Russians to escape from the revolution. For undisclosed reasons he decided to join some of these objectors to change and sailed out to Constantinople. As a result he found himself to be stateless at the age of thirty in Turkey. But he was well known as a stage performer of unusual caliber. As such he found employment in some cafes frequented by Russians.

In 1935 I was 18 and just out of school and living in Shanghai. Vertinsky, having moved from Turkey to Europe criss-crossed that continent performing in most of the larger cities and continued onward across the Atlantic to America. He had success in the new world as well and then headed for the Far East arriving in Shanghai during spring of 1935. What travel document he used on this around the world tour is a question without an answer. Entering China he did not need a visa or a passport and presenting himself at the immigrants association he was awarded with a piece of paper crowning him stateless Russian. As such both he and I were equal émigrés with a gap of 28 years in our ages. That year famous bass Shaliapin was on a world tour and stopped in Shanghai for a performance in the Grand Theater. At great expense my mother bought a ticket for me to attend and hear the famous bass she had previously enjoyed in St. Petersbourgh before 1917. His singing had been anything but grand according to critics of such vocal performances. Vertinsky was in the audience and was pointed out to me by some one in the seat next to mine. His memoir recalls this concert and states that some of the local Russians arrived with cotton wool packages to stuff ears as the famous man was known for the power of his voice. It turned out that there was no need for this precaution and some of the audience sitting to the rear of the auditorium could hardly hear that old and tired voice. As far as I was concerned the price of admission to the ill fated concert was not a total loss in as much as I had my first glimpse of Vertinsky. He had been performing at mid level restaurants and night spots to which I had not yet graduated neither by age nor with pocket money. But I did have a curiosity about him as many Russian girls were swooning about his crooning including one of my aunts who had seen him perform in Europe.

My next sighting of the great Vertinsky was two years later in 1937 after the frightful bombing of the City by Kuomingtang Chinese pilots. The calamity was a turning point in Sino-Japanese undeclared war and opened unprecedented work opportunities. By that time I was no longer a school boy and had been employed in a garage. The bombing destroyed a portion of the city creating a job opportunity for the none combatant nationals. As such I claimed my share of this windfall by driving a truck into the destroyed zone to salvage household goods of former residents. This job paid well and sudden wealth allowed me to visit Restaurant Renaissance where a gypsy tabor was performing with Vertinsky as the headliner of the floor show. The first visit was followed by several other times when the Great Sasha moved from table to table and sat with patrons that were generous with vodka. Usually I was in company with some of my truck driving buddies and we were honored with the singer's presence. He would arrive at our table drunk, deliver a dozen saucy jokes, drink our health after each story and then departed. Shanghai night life revolved around restaurants and night clubs in which Vertinsky performed for the next two years with lengthy breaks between each. Most times, a number of young Russian women admirers accompanied by their foreign escorts attended his performances enjoying same while their soul less western men were left perplexed by crooners Russian couplets delivered in Russian. Some of these men had found themselves involved with Sasha's ventures in that City. In the fall of '38 Vertinsky announced the opening of his own night club "Gardenia" which was located on Great Western Road beyond the boundaries of the City where rules and regulations concerning night spots were neither strict nor observed. With couple of my buddies we visited this gold mine on several occasions. Vertinsky's young lady friend of that time was a Russian blonde of exceptional facial features and divine shape. It was whispered that she was responsible for presenting Sasha to some moneyed person who was the source of funds required to make the opening of Gardenia possible. The divine shaped blond was named Boobee and I had the honor of being her friend. She liked to get away from night life and occasionally joined me for coffee at the famous YMCA soda shop on Bubbling Well Rd. She was a lovely young woman with a personal secret. She was a coke addict. It was not clear whether she introduced Vertinsky to a source of money and coke or the funds came from her foreign friend, but coke was introduced by Sasha. When he performed in the Gardenia it was with enthusiasm that coke and vodka chased produced. Alas, the expensive habit overwhelmed the case intake that the Gardenia produced and the place folded.

With the demise of his club Sash was struggling to keep night club engagements. At about that time I found work in similar late night establishment as a floor manager which meant helping guests who had too much drink behave themselves. Vertisnly was frequent visitor in the company of girls and their foreign male escorts who paid the bill. He was a gracious guest and treated the musicians and other staff to champagne billing for which went on the escorts' tabs while the music makers drank colored water and later received a cut out of the "cost of wine".

As I changed jobs I lost track of Sasha and did not keep up with night owls of the City. It was 1941 that the word got out about impeding marriage of Vertinsky by then a 52 year old roué taking a bride not yet twenty. Strange things happen in life, this marriage cured Vertinsky's coke habit and gave him two daughters. In addition, he obtained permission to return to Russia by means of a letter, dated March '43 which he wrote to Molotov of the USSR elite. In December 1942 Sasha was still performing in Shanghai as advertised in the newspaper cutting provided by me to Vadim. I don't know when Vertinsky left Shanghai, but it can be assumed that it was sometime in '43 while Japan and USSR still maintained some sort of diplomatic connection. Vertinsky landed at "Buhta Nahodka" near Vladivostok and was reported to have kissed the ground. Amen.

This amazing man made a success of his return to the Soviet Union with tours through the country as well as stage and screen performances. It should be noted that his daughters have made a success of their own lives in the theater.

Compiled June 6th, '03
By George Radbil (resident of Shanghai 1930 - 1946. Employed by Jessfield club as cashier and manager '38-'40)


Disclaimer: The opinions and editorial content expressed herein do not reflect those of Crocodile Group or Vadim Zaliva. The events recounted have not been verified.

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