The (almost) lost treasure of Madame Rubenstein

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Roo and I were walking on a street near downtown Brunswick just before sunset a few weeks ago when we passed a pretty old clapboard house that must have just changed hands. It was showing the first signs of rehab — unpainted wood on a replaced front step. Tyvek wrap on a rebuilt section of wall. A new Home Depot aluminum window that the surviving windows, with their distorted glass from another time put to shame. A few bags of garbage and junk were piled at the curb: old-fashioned venetian blinds, garroted with their own cords wound around them, were crumpled like the skeletons of herons. An old soda crate had tangled Christmas lights, stained coffee cups and mason jars without lids. A roll of old giftwrapping paper sagged where mold had rotted it away.

I wasn’t going to stop for any longer than Roo was taking to sniff something, but I am too curious for my own good (I’m pretty sure I’m one of the cats in the process of of being killed by it), and the frayed edges of a stack of black blotter paper at the bottom of the soda crate caught my eye. I suspected a photo album because it looked like the kind of paper people used in the oldest ones, and, once I lifted some of the junk out of the way, that’s what it turned out to be. It was covered with decades of caked and calcified dust, and it wouldn’t be until I cleaned it later that I could even tell that the album was tan leather with dark stitches. Affixed to the black sheets, were dozens, maybe hundreds, of small black and white photographs. At first glance, they appeared to be from the 1920s, but the album was so filthy that I didn’t want to handle it until I got it cleaned up, so I took it.

On the cover of the album is a piece of torn masking tape with, VERA RUBENST and AUSTRELIA, spelled that way, in an old hand using a dull pencil. Rubenst was probably Rubenstein truncated to fit the tape, which was torn at a messy angle but had been made to do. 

The album is about a grand voyage a group of twenty-somethings took nearly a hundred years ago. Whoever took the pictures didn’t really have any talent for it. For the most part, the pictures are the group assembled for a group shot in front of a door or on a lawn.

But then they are dancing in ballet costumes. And in one photo, some of them stand in front of a poster for Ida Rubenstein. Well, the name on the album was Vera Rubenst, so that was a lead. And a little research showed that Ida Rubenstein had performed with her dance troupe in Australia around that time. It could be a coincidence, but it doesn’t seem to be.

If you look online for Ida Rubenstein, you will find one of the great stars from early part of the 20th Century. Born into one of Russia’s wealthiest families, she conned them into letting her go to school in Paris, where she was declared legally insane by a brother-in-law when he learned that she had appeared onstage. She was placed into an asylum.

While her aristocratic family would have found her appearance onstage egregious, they did not think it merited her being locked up, and they had her released and returned to Russia. Ida continued her career.

Though Ida was loaded, it was her talent and presence that made her successful. She was the real deal. Her ballet training started too late in life for her ever to become a first-rate ballet dancer, but evidently she had such presence and was so stunning that she was able to earn her reviews and stardom in spite of it. She commissioned Ravel’s Bolero, and was the first to perform in it, sculptors sculpted her and painters painted her.

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But the photo album is not about Ida. It is about Vera and her friends. The only connection to Ida was that shot of them with the poster. I sent the picture to a scholar who has written about Ida. She wrote back to say she had never heard of Vera. Ida didn’t have any kids, 

Well, that should have been that. But then, today I was looking at the pictures again, and I noticed a shot on the first page of the album I had never paid enough attention to before. It is of a slender woman in an elegant fur-trimmed coat. And I’m pretty sure it’s Ida. Here’s a link to Ida on Pinterest. See what you think.

  The picture that looks like Ida Rubenstein in the album.

The picture that looks like Ida Rubenstein in the album.

If the young troupe was part of the Ida show, it would make sense that they were traveling in the Second Class rail coaches in some of the pictures, and would only have been in contact with Ida in work settings. Ida would have been in First Class, where no impresario would have booked the kids. In the one picture that I think is Ida, she is spotted from a distance, as if even the act of pointing a camera at her right have been presumptuous. And one did not presume upon a star of Madame Rubenstein’s stature.

  Vera in the foreground. Possibly Ida with black hair in the center.

Vera in the foreground. Possibly Ida with black hair in the center.

Maybe the name is a coincidence. Rubenstein is a common name, after all. Or maybe there’s some other story buried in there.

There’s another picture in which Ida might appear, though it’s hard to tell. In it, Vera is lying in front of the group on the sand of a beach, the woman who would one day scrawl her name on the album with a dull pencil. One of the people behind her looks like it could be Ida. She looks older than the others and she looks like she could be Madame Rubenstein and has her famous black tresses, but the photo is too blurred and faded to be sure. Maybe Madame was treating her troupe to a party at the end of their tour. In Austrelia.

I don’t even know why I’m writing this. I guess it’s because if you ask people what they’d rescue from their house if it was about to be burned in a wildfire, most of them say they’d save the photos. And here were Vera’s, from an extraordinary time in her life, when she was talented and beautiful, dancing on a world tour with a famous ballerina and a group of friends, on steamships and trains, being driven around Austrelia and Italy in flashy cars with running boards in the days when the girls wore cloche hats and the boys wouldn’t think of sprawling on a lawn without their suit and ties on. Here they were, ready to be carted off with the trash.

I guess everybody’s story eventually ends that way. At least this one won’t be, for now.

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