Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Good Eyes

Amazing how sharp a pair of youthful eyes can be!

Recently, when going through the photographs in the Nicolas de Basily papers at Hoover for a project, I came across a small photo depicting a nondescript three-story brick building.

I did a double take because I had just read an article by de Basily’s widow, Lascelle Meserve de Basily, on the 1920 Allied Powers conference in Spa. The Russian White government in Southern Russia of General Vrangel’ (whose collection we also have at Hoover) had sent a delegation to Spa in hopes of securing official recognition from France and Great Britain. De Basily, a Russian diplomat who had drafted the abdication statement of Tsar Nicolas II (all five drafts of which are in his collection), was part of that delegation, which was headed by Petr Struve, foreign affairs minister of the Vrangel’ government, yet another major figure of that period in Russian history whose papers are housed at Hoover. As we know, no recognition came forth and the Bolsheviks ultimately prevailed throughout Russia.

So where do the eyes come in? In her article, Mrs. de Basily (who accompanied her husband on the mission) explains that, due to their late arrival in Spa, there were no hotel rooms to be had, so they were forced to find lodgings on the outskirts—in “a tiny apartment on the first floor of a modest house… . On the ground floor was a humble grocery shop.”

Could the brick building I was staring at be that modest house? Why else would such an innocuous-looking photo be in the collection? Plus, there were indeed some stores on the ground floor, though I couldn’t decipher the signs above them. I grabbed a magnifying glass but still couldn’t read the tiny letters. So I asked one of our young staff members, handing her the magnifying glass, if she could figure something out. Squinting, she said, “Well, let’s see. In one of the signs, I think it’s E… P… I...” I stopped her in her tracks and said, excitedly, “EPICERIE, French for grocery store!”

That was it, that was the √©picerie diplomatique (as Struve and Basily called their quarters) where Basily, on Saturday, July 17, 1920, after the mission ended in failure, said to his wife, “This is the definite end of Imperial Russia—in a grocery shop.”

Nikolań≠ Aleksandrovich Bazili papers, Photo File, Envelope A, Hoover Institution Archives

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss, by Edmund de Waal, is a magnificent book about his amazing family, the Ephrussis. From the patriarch’s flourishing business in Odessa in the 1850s to the fortunes made by his descendants in Vienna and Paris; from the family’s involvement in the art world to the tragic events after Hitler annexed Austria in 1938 and then Czechoslovakia, the author re-creates the lives of his ancestors through a collection of 264 netsuke acquired by his great-granduncle in Paris in the late nineteenth century, which de Waal eventually inherited.

So often when I read books or articles about the tumultuous past century, I find a reference to someone whose papers we have in the Hoover Archives—in this case, Eric Voegelin, an Austrian political scientist who, like de Waal’s great-grandparents, escaped Vienna in 1938, just in the nick of time. They were helped by their daughter, Elisabeth de Waal, the author’s grandmother. A lawyer and a poet (she carried on an intense and extensive correspondence with Rainer Maria Rilke in the 1920s that was published in full in 1997 in the Jahrbuch der deutschen Schillergesellschaft), she had married a Dutch man and was thus able to enter Austria in 1938 on her Dutch passport—a courageous move considering the family’s Jewish origins. She had met Voegelin during her law studies in Vienna, and their friendship deepened in their respective exiles—hers in England and his in America.

When I saw Voegelin mentioned in the book, I promptly checked the finding aid for his papers in our archives, which, coincidentally, I had prepared many years ago. Sure enough, there was her name in the correspondence series: Elisabeth de Waal—forty-five letters sent to Voegelin between 1938 and 1976 and seven carbon copies of Voegelin’s letters to her.

That was exciting enough, but then came the best part. Prompted by this connection to our holdings, I decided to e-mail the author to tell him how much I loved his book and to ask whether he knew of the existence of his grandmother’s letters in our Voegelin collection. Not only did he reply immediately in the kindest way, but he offered to send us twelve letters from Voegelin to his grandmother, stating that his family would be honored to have them housed at Hoover, where they would complement the correspondence we already had.

So the next time you read something that catches your attention about a person or event in the twentieth (and increasingly twenty-first) century, chances are we have collections concerning them in our archives or books in our library. Come and visit us!

And why not write to the author of the book or article you read? You might be happily surprised, as I was.

Eric Voegelin, August 1966, Photo File A, Eric Voegelin papers, Hoover Institution Archives