Maxim and Ivy: to Russia with love

MEIR HENOCH WALLACH-FINKELSTEIN (1876-1951) is better known as Maxim Maximovich Litvinov. A Bolshevik revolutionary, he became an important Soviet diplomat. In 1930, Stalin appointed him People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs. Earlier on, shortly after the 1917 Russian Revolution, Maxim was sent to London as the Soviet government’s plenipotentiary representative in Great Britain. While in London, he met and married the writer Ivy (née Low; 1889-1977). I have recently discovered that their lives partially overlapped with mine, not temporally but geographically.

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Ivy was living in London’s Hampstead when she and Maxim were courting. They had met in about 1918 at the home of Dr David Eder (1865-1936), a Zionist socialist and a pioneer of psychoanalysis in Britain. David, whom Ivy regarded as a father figure, and his family lived in Golders Green (actually, in Hampstead Garden Suburb at 103 Hampstead Way, not far from our family home).  According to Ivy’s biographer John Carswell (in his book “The Exile: Ivy Litvinov”):

“Over tea in the Express Dairy in Heath Street where they often met, Ivy helped Maxim to improve his English – throughout her life she adored improving people’s English – and she did more: she guided him in reading English literature.”

Today, the building that used to house the Express Dairy in Heath Street is a branch of the Tesco supermarket empire. However, the building still bears the name ‘Express Dairy’ and the date 1889, the year that Ivy was born.

Ivy’s biographer John Carswell (1918-1997) was the son of one of Ivy’s closest friends, the writer and journalist Catherine Carswell (1879-1946). Ivy met Catherine, a close friend of the writer DH Lawrence who lived in Hampstead, after she had written a favourable review of Ivy’s novel “Growing Pains”, which was published in 1913. Catherine lived in Hampstead at Holly Mount. To be close to her friend, Ivy moved to Hampstead. John, who was born at Hollybush House in Holly Hill, met Ivy several times and has written a good account of her life. It reads well and is extremely informative not only about Ivy but also about her husband.

Ivy and Maxim moved to Russia with their two young children in about 1920 and lived there, with small occasional breaks, until the late 1950s. One of these breaks was when Maxim was appointed Soviet Ambassador to the USA between 1941 and 1943. Her stay in the USSR was also punctuated by short holidays abroad. Living in the USSR, Ivy continued her writing as well as teaching English. Long before he died, Maxim fell out of favour with Stalin and lived in fear of arrest and probable execution. However, he died of natural causes in 1951, just in time to miss Stalin’s last great, but unfulfilled, plan, the anti-Semitic ‘Doctors’ Plot’. On his deathbed, he said to Ivy:

“Englishwoman, go home”.

It was not until 1960 that Ivy did return to England.  But, in 1961, she returned to the USSR, where she remained a pensioned widow until July 1972, when she returned to the UK. She settled in Hove, where she lived the rest of her life. Until her dying day, Ivy wrote, published, and was actively involved with the literary world.

Long before her last visit to England, Ivy had made brief visits. In July 1930, Maxim was appointed People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs. Soon after his promotion Ivy accompanied him to Geneva. That same winter, the Litvinovs paid a visit to London. John Carswell, then twelve years old, recalled:

“She took me to a Christmas show of which even the name now escapes me; but what is still vivid is the tall, dominating, fur-coated figure sweeping me across the wintry promenade outside the Golders Green Hippodrome, to a torrent of commentary.”

Reading about Carswell’s memory of Ivy taking him to a Christmas show at the Hippodrome reminded me of seeing pantomimes at this same theatre when I was about John’s age or maybe a year or two less. until the mid-1960s, the Hippodrome (built as a 3000-seat music hall in 1913) was a very active repertory theatre, where many plays that would eventually end up in the West End were premiered. In addition to plays, operas and Christmas pantomimes were staged there. In the 1960s, it became a BBC television studio, and lately it has become a venue for Islamic meetings. Like Carswell, I cannot remember what shows I saw there as a child, but I do remember being impressed by the size and fittings (seats arranged in galleries, boxes, and the vast stage) of the Hippodrome. It was as least as impressive as the grandest of West End theatres.

I enjoyed reading Carswell’s biography not only because it provided some insight into what life was like in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s rule but also because it introduced me to the life of an intriguing woman writer whose love for Maxim led her to spend a large part of her life in the USSR. Another thing that appealed to me is that Carswell provided me with new aspects of the history of Hampstead, a part of London which I know well and where I grew up. It is with some reluctance that I will return this enjoyable biography to our local public library.

 

 

 

 

The year 1889 and me

SOMETIMES, FAMILIARITY BREEDS contempt. In my case it was Hampstead. I lived close to this picturesque urban village in north London for the first thirty years of my life, visiting the place frequently and becoming very familiar with it.  During the following twenty-five years, although I did not regard it with great contempt, I ‘went off’ the place. Now, in my sixties, I have renewed my liking and appreciation of Hampstead’s uniqueness. My wife and I enjoy making excursions to Hampstead, often having coffee at Louis Hungarian Patisserie on Heath Street, where we went for our first ‘date’ back in about 1970.

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Yesterday, after having been confined to our locality for three months by fairly strict ‘lockdown’, we drove to Hampstead, and enjoyed cups of coffee, maybe not London’s very best but quite acceptable, at a tiny outdoor table next to Louis. I looked across Heath Street from where we were sitting and stared at the Hampstead branch of Tesco’s. This run-of-the-mill supermarket is housed in a building with light red tiling and brickwork with stone window settings. Above Tesco’s, there is an old sign in bas-relief that reads “EXPRESS DAIRY COMPANY LTD” and next to that, there is a plaque with the date “AD 1889”.

The year 1889 has had a special significance for me since I attended the Hall School, a prestigious preparatory school for boys near Swiss Cottage, between the years 1960 and 1965. The Hall School was founded in 1889 and celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1964, while I was still studying there. I do not know why, but since that anniversary, the date 1889 has always had a special significance in my mind.

The founding of a preparatory school in 1889 is one insignificant reason to remember this year. More importantly it was the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution.  To celebrate the centenary of the storming of the Bastille in 1789, Paris hosted the Exposition Universelle in 1889. A souvenir of that grand fair still stands today in its full splendour: the Eiffel Tower. This well-known landmark of Paris was inaugurated on the 31st of March 1889. I learnt that Eiffel’s Tower was completed in 1889 long after I had learnt about the date when my preparatory school was founded.

The French brothers Édouard and André Michelin were also involved in revolution, but not the political sort. In 1889, they ran a rubber factory and within a short time they had invented the air-filled pneumatic tyre. Since those early days, the Michelin company has been a major manufacturer of objects that revolve – rubber tyres.

To encourage and assist motorists, Michelin began publishing both excellent road maps and useful guidebooks. Some of the guidebooks contain recommended restaurants and hotels and others (the ‘Green Guides’) provide useful sight-seeing information for tourists. The awarding of stars for culinary excellence by Michelin has made or broken restaurants in France and elsewhere. To lose a Michelin star is a life-changing disaster for some chefs.   

I have been collecting Michelin guidebooks since just after I left the Hall School. Some of my earliest specimens were published before WW1 when motoring was in its infancy. Immediately after WW1, Michelin published a series of about ten special guidebooks to areas that were affected badly during the war. I have a few of these. They contain much information including photographs of places taken before and after the War. Many of the post-war photographs show sights that resemble the ruins of central Hiroshima after the Atomic Bomb exploded. Heavy bombardment of buildings with ‘conventional’ weapons produced horrendous devastation.

When I began contemplating writing this piece, I knew about 1889 in connection with my old school, the centenary of the French Revolution, and the Eiffel Tower, but not about the foundation of Michelin. As for the former Express Dairy in Hampstead, the plaque with the date 1889 most likely refers to the year in which that branch of the Express Dairy Company was established.  The buildings on that particular stretch of Heath Street, which was built-up in the Victorian era, were constructed in the 1880s.

For many centuries, Hampstead has been the haunt of academics, artists, actors, politicians, and writers. So, it comes as no surprise that the former Express Dairy that I was staring at from my table at Louis has at least one interesting historical connection. In February 1916, the Bolshevik revolutionary Maxim Litvinov (1856-1951) proposed to Ivy Low, whom he married.  He proposed and she accepted inside the Express Dairy in Hampstead’s Heath Street (see: https://prod.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v06/n04/gabriele-annan/ivy-s-feelings). I doubt that I would have ever known that had it not been for the Hall School instilling in me a certain interest in the year 1889.