The Legend of Olga

There are people, who become the point of convergence of the lines of force of one or more eras.   Olga Chekhova  – a student of Stanislavski, wife of the great Mikhail Chekhov,  State Actress of the Third Reich, and secret agent of the Kremlin – was one such person.  A legend, a gamble.

She was named after her aunt, a famous Moscow Art Theatre actress Olga Leonardovna Knipper-Chekhova, the wife of Anton Chekhov. The connection with the Chekhov family is two-fold: Olga's first husband - Mikhail Chekhov, is the nephew of Anton Pavlovich, a distinguished actor and director, and an instructor, who created a theatre school in the USA that taught such stars as Marilyn Monroe, Yul Brynner, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Paul Newman, and others.  

She was surrounded by great men all her life.  Actors, dictators, writers.  And it all began with the young Olga Knipper, auditor at the Moscow Art Theatre Studio, playing in a charity performance of "Hamlet": she, being in the role of Ophelia, Mikhail Chekhov – the prince.  Following the production, the emotional Chekhov smothered Olga with kisses.  The kiss was so passionate that, being a naive and inexperienced girl, she was seriously worried about getting pregnant.  "We absolutely must get married now," she said.  And marry they did.  In secret, though, in a tiny village, and admitted to it only after the fact.   

She was proud of her last name.  Didn't change it, despite her numerous marriages and the fact that having a Slavic last name in the Nazi Germany, where fate brought her, was objectionable.

They didn't live together long.  After the Revolution, Olga was the first one to emigrate, having married a Hungarian film producer. Six years later Mikhail emigrated as well.  Germany was a natural choice for an ethnic German, and so she headed there.  Yet the circumstances of her departure are rather mysterious, and here is where we enter into the realm of legends and theories. According to one of them, shortly before her departure she was summoned to the Directory of Military Intelligence, where she was recruited into clandestine intelligence. The actress was taught how to encrypt, given secret addresses and codes.  If this is true, then Chekhova has a predecessor in the field of espionage – a famous spy and actress Mata Hari.  There is also a similar myth about the great Greta Garbo. According to that myth, during the war she was an agent in Norway and Sweden. And she was, supposedly, even getting ready to make an assassination attempt on the Führer's life, and carried a pistol in her purse for that purpose.

No one has either definitively confirmed or denied the version about Chekhova's recruitment. And there were enough spectacular moments in her biography even without espionage.  Take for instance the sweet story about how on a tour in America she prepared shchi (a Russian cabbage soup) for Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper and then gave them some Russian vodka to drink. 

Chekhova was not a great actress, but she was without a doubt a professional.  Yet with all of her professionalism and skill, her trump card was her sex appeal. Eleonora Duse, one of Olga's teachers, told her once, "You should know, you need to go on stage naked."   "I didn't understand right away," wrote Olga Konstantinovna in her memoirs "My Clocks Run Differently", "that what she meant was the openness, the nakedness of one's soul on stage, and not at all the striptease."

Not right away. She performed in the best Berlin theatres, not shying away from erotic roles. And she charmed.  Charmed from stage, from screen and even more so in person. When she began filming, she quickly became one of Germany's leading actresses.  "When I went on tour to America," she recalls, "my nickname was 'sex-Olga'".  Her reputation as an actress was high, too, though. There was a reason she was filmed by Hitchcock himself. 

All in all, Chekhova performed in over one hundred movies, including the legendary "Moulin Rouge". Plus theatre productions.  And not some run-of-the-mill productions either, but the ones staged by the most prominent German director of the time, Max Reinhardt.

Meanwhile, another drama was unfolding on the political stage: Germany became a Nazi state.  Chekhova looked at the political events from her own standpoint: "The entire Wehrmacht elite invokes absolutely no sexual feelings, and I am a woman and only a little over forty."    

Her popularity was incredible.  Her photos hung in the barracks of the Luftwaffe and in the soldiers' trenches.  Hitler himself declared her State Actress of the Reich.  The Führer invited her to prestigious events and seated her next to him, showing her favors.  She had love affairs with Goering's aces and was friends with Eva Braun, but... All of this could have been a double life as well.  The star's position gave her fantastic opportunities for obtaining confidential information.  According to rumors, the Soviet intelligence even had an assassination plot against Hitler, where she, Olga Chekhova, was to play the principal role.  Stalin cancelled the move at the last minute, however, fearing that following the Führer's death the German generals would enter into an alliance with England and America against the USSR.

This intrigue served as the plot for the Soviet cult movie "Seventeen Moments of Spring".  However, if the Soviet intelligence did have an agent, who, like Stierlitz, the protagonist of "Seventeen Moments of Spring", was capable of finding out which of the Reich officials was trying to forge a separate peace agreement with the Allies, that agent was Olga Chekhova.   Western journalists claim that Chekhova was that mysterious, well-informed source of information that was in touch with Sándor Rádo, a resident agent of the Soviet intelligence in Switzerland, throughout the duration of the war.

Admittedly, though, these are all rumors and theories, and there are virtually no facts.  Except perhaps for this one.  When Hitler's armies invaded the Crimea, they spared Chekhov's Memorial House, while mercilessly burning down both Tolstoy's Yasnaya Polyana and Turgenev's Spasskoye-Lutovinovo. Neither Tolstoy nor Turgenev had their own protector in Berlin, but, apparently, Chekhov did.  

At the end of the war she was taken out of Germany and brought to Moscow.  She was settled in a safe house, where she lived for about two months.  She was constantly attended by courteous young officers, who played chess with her. These same "chess players" also drove her to Kremlin for meetings with Beria, or, perhaps, with Stalin himself. She was even allowed to walk around the city.  A young woman ran up to Chekhova on the street and spit in her face, screaming "Traitor!". And then the incredible thing happened – they let her go. A favorite of Hitler! A State Actress of the Reich!  After all, back in those days the smallest shadow, hint, suspicion of collaborationism was enough for a person to disappear forever.  Further still: the Soviet occupation authorities in Berlin did everything in their power to ensure the Chekhov family did not want for anything. And when she decided to move to West Germany, they didn't stop her and let her leave freely.  Incredible, like many other things in her life.

She continued to perform. When she left the stage and the cinema, she launched the Olga Chekhova Cosmetics Company.  She lived to a ripe old age.  Didn't like reminiscing about the war, yet enjoyed reminiscing about Chekhov.  Every year on the day of Anton Pavlovich's death she would drive to a place called Badenweiler, where "uncle Antosha" had died. On March 9, 1980, knowing that the end was near, she called her grand-daughter: "When Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was on his death bed, he told Olga Leonardovna that he wanted to drink a glass of champagne.  He drank it and passed away.  I wish to follow his example."  Chekhova explained to her grand-daughter where the right shelf was in the wine cellar.  The latter returned and gave the dying woman a glass.  Having drunk the last sip of champagne in her life, Olga Konstantinovna declared: "Life is beautiful!"

Yan Shenkman


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