Aleksandr Nikolayevich Vertinsky (Russian: Александр Вертинский, 21 March 1889 in Kiev, Russian Empire — 21 May 1957 in Leningrad) was a Russian artist, poet, singer, composer, cabaret artist and actor who exerted seminal influence on the Russian tradition of artistic singing.

Born out of wedlock, Vertinsky was brought up by his father’s sister in Kiev. He was ousted from school in 1905 and tried a variety of jobs before starting to earn his living by contributing short stories to the Kievan periodicals. In 1912 Vertinsky and his sister moved to Moscow where he failed in his ambition to join Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre. At that period he became addicted to cocaine, a baneful habit that would claim the life of his sister.

By 1916, Vertinsky started to employ a scenic figure of Pierrot, with powdered face, singing miniature novellas-in-song known as ariettes, or “Pierrot’s doleful ditties”. Each song contained a prologue, exposition, culmination, and a tragic final. The novice performer was christened the “Russian Pierrot”, gained renown, became an object of imitation, admiration, vilified in the press and lionized by the audiences.

Simultaneously with his booming singing career, he played screen bit parts in Aleksandr Khanzhonkov’s silent movies. From that time stems a lifelong friendship with Ivan Mozzhukhin. His famous piece “Vashi paltsy pakhnut ladanom” was dedicated to another film star, Vera Kholodnaya. Shortly before the October Revolution Vertinsky devised a stage persona of Black Pierrot and started to tour Russia and Ukraine performing decadent elegies with a touch of cosmopolitan chic, such as “Kokainetka” and “V oranzhevo-lilovom Singapure”. In the words of the British researcher Richard Stites, “Vertinsky bathed his verses in images of palm trees, tropical birds, foreign ports, plush lobbies, ceiling fans, and “daybreak on the pink-tinted sea” — precisely those things which the war-time audience craved for.

By November 1920, Vertinsky decided to leave Russia with the bulk of his clientele. He performed in Constantinople and toured Romanian Bessarabia, where he was declared a Soviet agent. In 1923 he performed in Poland and Germany, then moved to Paris, where he would perform before the Russian emigré clientele at Montmartre cabarets for nine years.

After several successful tours in the Middle East, Vertinsky followed the majority of well-to-do Russians to the USA, where he debuted before the audience which included Rachmaninoff, Chaliapine, and Marlene Dietrich. The Great Depression forced him to move to Shanghai, where he met his second wife. His daughter, Marianna, was also born in China.

In 1943 the Soviet government allowed Vertinsky to return to Russia. Despite lack of media coverage, he performed about two thousand concerts in the USSR, touring from Sakhalin to Kaliningrad. In order to feed his family, he also appeared in Soviet films, often playing prerevolutionary aristocrats, as in the screen version of Chekhov’s “Anna on the Neck” (1955). His role of an anti-Communist cardinal in “The Doomed Conspiracy” even won him the Stalin Prize for 1951.

The artist passed away on May 21, 1957, in Leningrad. Buried at Novodevichy cemetery. His both daughters, Marianna and Anastasiya, made spectacular careers in Soviet cinema. The former conducted a much-aired liaison with Andron Konchalovsky, while the latter married his brother Nikita Mikhalkov.

Edited by huskerhead on 6 Feb 2014, 13:25

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Formed in
  • 1889
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  • 1957
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  • Kiev, Russian Empire

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