A Hundred Years of Female Beauty
In The Nightingale’s Sonata, I mention that many of my grandmother’s contemporaries, in the years she lived in Moscow, described her and her sister, Anna, as quite beautiful. Lest that seem like a sexist subject for a blog post, let me say that such comments were quite important to assess given that beautiful women performers of that era who enjoyed successful careers were often accused of using their looks and their charms to advance themselves professionally.
Growing up, I had no way of forming my own judgement about the beauty of Lea and Anna as young women. By the time I thought about the issue, my grandmother was in her seventies and neither she nor anyone in my American family had any photographs from her Moscow days. However, once the American and Russian branches of our family were reunited in the 1990s, we were given photographs of “the Luboshutz girls” from the period 1900 until 1917.
For me, there was no question about Anna — she had been what I call in the book “drop-dead beautiful — the Russian film star kind of beautiful.” Take a look at this photo and see what I mean.
People remarked, for example, on Anna’s beautiful neck (the Russian word for neck is “sheya”) and as a play on rhyming words, they used to refer to the sisters as “Lea” (pronounced Lay-ah in Russian) and “Sheya.”
On the other hand, my grandmother, though not unattractive to my eye, had features that at least one woman — the writer, Rashel Khin — described somewhat disparagingly. Of course, by the time Rashel expressed her opinions (in a private diary), there was some evidence that her husband, my grandfather, was far more than Lea’s mere patron. Rashel was increasingly viewing my grandmother as her rival and was clearly not the most objective observer.
Some photos of my grandmother are fairly sympathetic, like this one.
On the other hand, a photo found in an old concert ad from 1911 shows Lea to much less advantage wearing a bizarre and rather ugly giant hat.
Would you believe that this very photograph was reproduced 100 years later in a Russian periodical called “Woman’s Day?” It was in conjunction with an article about how standards of beauty had changed over the last hundred years. When my Moscow-based cousin, Svetlana Kuzin, found this publication, she reminded me of something else she had read in Rashel Khin’s diary: “Do you remember Rachel's writing about high-fashioned clothes of our dear Lea and Anna?” Sveta wrote to me. “Rashel described the clothes as richly decorated, vulgar and tasteless. Once, in fact, Rashel mentioned enormous hats that the sisters used to wear. I think she was referring to something like the one we can see in this beautiful photo. Poor jealous Rashel.”
But, in fairness to Rashel, in her diary Rashel made another telling point and to me this may be the most important one when it come to my grandmother’s looks. When Lea was playing her violin, even she (Rashel) found Lea attractive.
Indeed, this too is the way I remember my grandmother’s beauty. In one of the most famous photographs of her, taken by Adrian Siegel when she was in her early sixties as she rehearsed with the Philadelphia Orchestra (and used here with the Orchestra’s permission), she was at her most beautiful.