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Stravinsky A-Z: Letter V

Letter V
VERA de Bosset Sudeikina (Vera Stravinsky) (1888-1982)

For much of his life, Stravinsky was in love with Vera Sudeikina; they met in 1921, finally marrying in 1940 after the death of Stravinsky's wife - his cousin Katerina Nossenko, whom Stravinsky had married in 1906.

Vera de Bosset Vera was an extraordinary character. She was born in St Petersburg in 1888; her father was the proprietor of Russia's largest electrical factory. As a rich man's daughter, she was sent to boarding school in Moscow - her education in the performing arts turned her into a useful pianist, but, inspired by performances by the likes of Sarah Bernhardt and Isadora Duncan, the teenaged Vera became enamoured of a career in theatre. Leaving school, qualified to teach French and Maths, her ambition to attend finishing school in Paris was thwarted by her father's view that Germany was a more serious option, or at any rate an option which would turn out a more serious daughter: Vera was enrolled at the University of Berlin, to study philosophy and anatomy - but in her second year she switched to art.

Vera Stravinsky After an early marriage, soon dissolved, Vera married Robert Schilling, but this union - to a compulsive gambler - was to be short-lived: Vera ran off to Paris with the artist Serge Sudeikin, who had been contracted to the Diaghilev ballet to design La tragedie de Salome and to work on The Rite of Spring; Sudeikin was popular - the poet Anna Akhmatova was also on love with him, but Vera's charms prevailed. Back in Moscow, she danced in a production of Beaumarchais' The Marriage of Figaro; she also appeared in films - her most important role was as Helen in Protozanov's War and Peace.

Sudeikin separated from his wife and the pair moved to St Petersburg; a famous story relates that as Russia exploded into revolution in 1917, Vera was caught in cross-fire in the street and had to lie in the snow, nearly catching her death. She and Sudeikin moved back to Moscow but, when the Bolsheviks targeted his ex-policeman father, they were forced into exile in the Crimea, where they married. To escape the advancing Bolsheviks, they moved on to Tiflis in Georgia, spending a year there, before embarking on a voyage back to France, in 1920. Again, Vera's life was touched by colourful adventure - their ship was boarded by pirates, who proceeded to rob the rich passengers, including the wife of the American Commissioner - but Vera's beauty impressed the leader of the pirates (later captured and convicted) who presented her with a gold coin.

Now settled in Paris, the Sudeikins renewed their association with Diaghilev, and that is how, at dinner in a Montmartre restaurant in February 1921, Vera met Igor Stravinsky - during the course of the evening, she produced a pack of cards and told his fortune. Vera supported herself by running a business designing and producing costumes. She appeared as the Queen in Diaghilev's production of The Sleeping Beauty, and it was the run-up to the production of Stravinsky's Mavra which provoked the split between Sudeikin and Vera - Stravinsky had invited Vera to the piano-dress rehearsal and Sudeikin instructed her not to attend: she left him the next day, her life as a dancer and costume designer becoming increasingly intertwined with Stravinsky's rise as an internationally-renowned composer.

Vera shared Stravinsky's worldwide travels in the 1920s and 30s, marrying him as the couple settled in the USA in 1940. Vera continued to pursue her own artistic leanings: having always painted, she took up the pursuit full-time - as far as travelling permitted - in 1949. As the exotic wife of the world's most famous contemporary composer, Vera was the subject of many gushing profiles in American newspapers and magazines. After Stravinsky's death in 1971, she was involved in litigation with Stravinsky's family over the disposition of the estate, and there were disputes over the authenticity of documentary material about Stravinsky involving Robert Craft, the conductor who had become part of the Stravinsky household and who continued to collaborate with Vera over publications after Stravinsky's death. In the succeeding years, Vera continued to be something of a social magnet, celebrated as much for her own extraordinary life as for her association with significant figures in art, and her witness to some of the most momentous musical and historical events of the 20th century. Vera died in New York in 1982.

© Graeme Kay/BBC

Essential reading:
Igor and Vera Stravinsky - A Photograph Album. Photographs selected by Vera Stravinsky and Rita McCaffrey; captions by Robert Craft. Thames and Hudson, 1982

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