Swans Commentary » swans.com February 28, 2005  



Antony Beevor's The Mystery Of Olga Chekhova


by Charles Marowitz


Book Review



Antony Beevor, The Mystery Of Olga Chekhova, Viking Books, September 9, 2004, ISBN 0-67003-340-5, 300 pages, cloth, $24.95.


(Swans - February 28, 2005)   There has always been something captivating about the female spy. The double lives of male spies such such as Guy Burgess, Donald MacLean, Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames fall into a conventional category of intrigue which hotted up during the Cold War. Their treachery was neatly tucked behind bourgeois facades. But Mata Hari, for instance, was an exotic; drummed out of school as a teenager because she had sex with her headmaster; trading sexual favors with both German and British officers, refusing a blindfold as she stood before a French firing squad and blowing a kiss to the twelve fusiliers before they blew her to bits. There is a certain panache there which male spies, no matter how great their cunning, cannot match.

Olga Chekhova, the niece of Anton Chekhov's wife Olga Knipper-Chekhova and child-bride of the legendary actor and theorist Michael Chekhov, had something of the same bravura quality that distinguished Mata Hari. She outraged her family by marrying Chekhov when she was barely eighteen and, after she discovered he was a hopeless alcoholic and impractical dreamer, fled Russia for Germany. Looking like an itinerant peasant woman, she had her most valuable possession -- a diamond ring -- concealed under her tongue and pretended to be a mute. Had she been found out, she would certainly have been imprisoned. In Berlin, she began to develop those powers of self-preservation which would maintain her throughout the Second World War becoming a highly successful German film star and a favorite of the Nazi elite with powerful protectors that included both Goebbels and Hitler.

An inexhaustible mythomaniac, she fabricated impressive professional accomplishments in Russia claiming she had been an actress with the Moscow Arts (which she never was) and personally trained by Stanislavsky (whom she had never met) -- just as during the war years, she aggrandized her relationship with Adolf Hitler when it added a gloss to her own career.

Afterwards, it was alleged that throughout the war she had been operating as a spy for the USSR, having been recruited by her brother Lev Knipper who was unquestionably a high-ranking Soviet agent. Her "collaborative" years were converted into heroic undercover work for the USSR. In 1936, her honors in Germany had included Schauspielrern, or "Actress of the State" and, immediately after the war, the Order of Lenin was conferred upon her by the central Committee of the USSR. She was celebrated for having been an invaluable secret agent for the Soviet Union throughout the war years, although no conclusive achievements in that capacity were ever demonstrated. Throughout her luxurious exile in Germany, she had been rigorously protected by Joseph Stalin and the notorious Lavrenty Beria as well as key members of the NKVD which, when she returned to her homeland in 1945, provided her with money, property, food-rations, guards and unimpeded freedom to travel between the East and West. A congenital liar, self-dramatizer but supreme survivor, her highly successful film career in Germany included stints with respected directors such as Frederich Murnau, Max Ophuls, Rene Clair and Alfred Hitchcock. Concurrently, she had been something of a cover girl for both the Wehrmacht and the German Army and the appellation, "Hitler's favorite actress," which was pinned on her during the Nazi years, was never removed. (There is an iconic photograph of her at a reception for von Ribbentrop in 1939 seated languidly beside a prissy, white-jacketed Adolf Hitler and flanked by Hermann Goering and his shotzy.) It is likely that Hitler, who was an avid filmgoer, became infatuated with her during his nascent Nazi years when she starred in a series of sentimental potboilers for UFA Studios at Babelsberg and he was haranguing blackshirts in the beer cellars of Munich. By the time he wormed his way into the position of Chancellor, Olga was one of the few post-adolescent fantasies he brought with him into the Third Reich.

In 1955, when the film career was fading away, her entrepreneurial spirit was as lively as ever. She wrote a memoir entitled I Conceal Nothing (which could aptly have been sub-titled "I Falsify Everything") and a "beauty and fashion" guide called Ageless Woman. The latter was a preamble to a highly successful company called "Olga Tschekhowa Kosmetic" in Munich which, allegedly, was financed by money from Moscow. She certainly had very little of her own by then and it was rumored that possibly the company's secret agenda was winkling information out of the wives of NATO officers that regularly patronized the salons.

Antony Beevor's book is something of a mystery-thriller bolstered by vivid descriptions of Germany immediately before and after World War II. An accomplished British historian whose works include Berlin, The Downfall (1945) and Stalingrad (which was awarded the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non Fiction, the Wolfson History Prize and the Hawthornden Prize), Beevor makes one feel he is most at home etching in the historical background of the period and sometimes seems to resent having to return to his main narrative about the mysterious Ms. Chekhova.

There are interesting diversions about Olga's brother, Lev Knipper, a brooding, mountain-climbing White Russian, who appears to have been forcibly recruited by Stalin, as well as her illustrious aunt Olga Knipper-Chekhova (wife of Anton) which, one senses, have been included because of the sketchy nature of his central character. Despite a multitude of facts about her family, her lovers, her turmoils and her hairbreadth escapes both in Germany and the USSR, the book remains maddeningly inconclusive as to what spying Olga actually did for the NKVD and how she managed to traverse the highest realms of both Nazi and Soviet society. The book jacket, employing a Hollywood-styled teaser, asks, "Was Hitler's favorite actress a Russian spy?" Although there is a wealth of circumstantial evidence, the reader's answer to that is: It's anyone's guess! After the war, Olga was certainly treated as if she had provided loyal services to the USSR and in 1945, Himmler, convinced of her treachery, wanted to have her arrested -- but somehow she slipped through the net.

It is somewhat unsatisfying when "a mystery" which has been elaborately plotted over some 230 pages ends without a conclusive revelation. If it were a play, theatergoers would be entitled to ask for their money back. It being an historical chronicle doesn't really let it off the hook. Beevor himself admits, "There remains a considerable quantity of documents on the subject which have not seen and probably will never see the light of day." Which tends to suggest that the "mystery," whose implications all lockstep in one direction, might, over time, do an about face and move in another.

The outstanding virtues of Beevor's book are the incidental insights about Russia and Germany immediately before and after World War II; fleet illuminations of the cruel reversals of fortune of Stalin and his henchmen, and snapshots of a decadent Nazi hierarchy imperturbably socializing with one another while Berlin crumbles around them. When the biographer yields to the historian, the narrative gallops apace and ultimately, it is the "history" rather than the "mystery" that captures our imaginations.


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Antony Beevor, The Mystery Of Olga Chekhova, Viking Books, September 9, 2004, ISBN 0-67003-340-5, 300 pages, cloth, $24.95.

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Internal Resources

Book Reviews on Swans


About the Author

Charles Marowitz on Swans (with bio). (Charles Marowitz has just completed the first English-language biography of Michael Chekhov entitled The Other Chekhov, which Applause Books published in November, 2004.)



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Published February 28, 2005