We often overlook opportunities because we are unaware of their value or rarity. Most of us wait for fanfare arrivals, but many invitations keep their secrets unless one notices a quiet entry.
Think back. The ship of chance moved close and asked if you wanted a ride.
You said, “No.”
Sometimes we are too young to understand a world beyond imagining will never come our way again.
Let me tell you about one and what I learned about missed chances from Evgéniya Konstantinovna Leontóvich.
My aunt Nettie lived in the same apartment building as Eugenie Leontovich; the name had been Americanized a bit by then. She preferred to be called Madame by her students as an Artist in Residence with Chicago’s Goodman Theatre.
I was 21.
Born in old Russia in 1900, her father and three brothers, all officers in the Imperial Army, were murdered by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution.
The then-young lady escaped to the USA, arriving in 1922. Her assent in the performing arts was swift. Soon she became a Broadway star. Subsequently, Madame appeared in T.V. and movies in subordinate roles and wrote for the stage.
I’d have known all this if Google existed 54 years ago. Nor did Nettie have any awareness of the lady’s fame, including her lead in Grand Hotel, a hit at its 1930 opening in New York.
Two years later, when the play became a magnificent movie, Greta Garbo took over the part Evgéniya Konstantinovna Leontóvich created.
The circumstance of my encounter with the extraordinary lady was unusual. She could find no one to accompany her to the Lyric Opera. My aunt also turned her down, suggesting I might wish to go.
We met near the box office, where I noticed a slender, short, 68-year-old woman of ordinary appearance standing alone.
We were soon seated in the center of the main floor’s second row for Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss. I knew little about opera but attended Chicago Symphony performances, so we talked about music. I’d read only a few plays by Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Eugene O’Neil, so I was ignorant of the theatre — her domain.
The intermission passed in pleasant but unremarkable conversation. My reserved companion never mentioned her stunning past. Other than among her acting apprentices and fellow professionals, she had outlived her grandest days.
This reminds me of a poem by A.E. Housman, To an Athlete Dying Young. In this excerpt, the author attempts to console the deceased hero:
Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honors out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.
Certainly, the Madame’s honors were mostly worn. Her renown was outrunning her, except for a diminishing number of people with long memories.
For my part, I wish I’d been aware of all of the above and more. I’m sorry I’d not mastered the history of the Bolshevik Revolution and Tsarist Russia before WWI, the country she’d been born in.
But more, she participated in and witnessed a lost dimension. When anyone who lived through the dictatorship of the Tsar, a world war, and civil bloodshed departed this life, their experience vanished with them.
As David Jones wrote in his preface to In Parenthesis, his WWI memoir tried to describe the indescribable for his readers, including “the complex of sights, sounds, fears, hopes, apprehensions, smells, things exterior and interior, the landscape and paraphernalia of that singular time and of those particular men.”
He knew, and I now know, one must live some experiences lest one fool oneself about what knowing really is.
What it meant to exist in what we think of as history is erased, but for stories and yellowed accounts that fail to capture the moments’ scent, taste, sound, passion, and color.
I saw one more opera with this gracious lady and never again.
Today, I suppose some get a second life in selfies or triumphant moments like those of Eugenie Leontovich. Even if one survives with their celebrity intact, only those like Shakespeare obtain lasting respect.
My missed opportunities with the grand, diminutive woman and other older generations caused me to imagine a different life. Several, actually.
If I could, I would go back to the period of Socrates and blend in with his students as he questioned them to make them think beyond conventional, easy answers.
Given a set of days in ancient Rome, a menial job as a servant to Marcus Aurelius — the celebrated Roman ruler and Stoic philosopher — shouldn’t be out of reach. A little boldness might put me close enough to watch and hear him interact with others.
Foolish or wise, you’d find me eating in the days before toothpaste, living before regular bathing, discovering love ahead of contraception, and competing in the sports of the day.
Closer in time, I’d hope curiosity could drop me near the conversations on how best to form a new nation with the likes of Jefferson, James Monroe, and Ben Franklin.
In a change of direction, I might join the ranks of those living and narrowly surviving the Bubonic Plague, enough to suffer the horror and desperation.
In another unreachable chance, you’d observe me as a black man on a Southern plantation, enduring the humiliation and abuse of the entitled white “masters.”
But my experience would not all be passing through hardship and horror or learning from and about famous men.
More desirable than all the other experiences, I’d join my father and his soldier buddies on leave in Paris and enjoy the first Bastille Day after its liberation from the Nazis.
To see him again, this time as a young man …
I think many of us fool ourselves about life. We don’t realize all that generations past can still teach us as they play out the days remaining.
We can’t know how a trip to a foreign land might yet change us unless we go. Our photoshopped selfies explain only our preoccupation with the impression we are trying to make in a lesser world, pitching its own images back at us.
The mirror can only teach so much.
There are worlds elsewhere for us to live in and many to discover from those who are almost done living them.
I have had a wonderful life, partly because my profession required speaking with strangers who became my patients, uncovering the lives they experienced, including some who were thrown into life before my time.
The ship of chance continues to move for everyone. Whether it comes near you or you approach it, the question lingers:
Do you want a ride?
The top photo is of the original production of Grand Hotel in 1930, Act I, Scene 7. The cast from left to right: Henry Hull (Baron von Gaigern), William Nunn (Meierheim), Eugenie Leontovich (Grusinskaia), Lester Alden (Witte), Rafaela Ottiano (Suzanne).
The second photo includes Eugenie Leontovich alone from the same performance.
Below it is Greta Garbo, as photographed by Clarence Bull in 1931.
Beneath that is Fritz Erler’s 1898 decoration of the book, Slavery. Like the Garbo photo, it was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
Finally, my father. The drawing was created on February 28, 1945, almost certainly made by a street artist. You can see the date and a small image of the Eiffel Tower in the lower right corner. Dad sent it to his wife, my soon-to-be mother Jeanette, while he was still in Europe.
Paris had been freed on August 25, 1944, six months before. World War II ended in Europe on May 8, 1945.
My dad obtained leave to attend the first Bastille Day after the liberation of France: July 14, 1945. U.S. troops continued to occupy Europe for some time. My father returned to Chicago in early 1946.