Seals in the Ballroom

After graduating from West Point, CHARLES W. THAYER resigned from the Army in order to prepare himself for a post in our Foreign Service. He went to Moscow to learn Russian, and there in 1934 he became one of the assistants of Ambassador Bullitt. In all he spent eight years in Russia; it was a time of more gaiety and less tension than today, as the experiences recounted in his forthcoming memoir, Bears in the Caviar, will show. The book is to be published early in the new year by Lippincott.

by CHARLES W. THAYER

1

WHEN the American Embassy arrived in Moscow in 1934, there was already a large colony of American newspapermen, engineers, students, and fellow-traveling do-gooders. In those days Moscow provided plenty of attractions in the way of excellent theater, lush opera and ballet, and even night clubs of a peculiar Muscovite sort. It was easy to buy tickets to the Moscow Art Theater — one of the best of its kind in the world —or to the ballet — the only one of its kind in the world; and a good dinner at the Métropole or the Medved Restaurant was cheap enough. But there was no central meeting place for Americans comparable to the Embassies of other nations.

So when Christmas, 1934, drew near, Ambassador Bullitt told me to arrange a party for the American colony. “And make it good,”he insisted. “They’ve been long enough without a real shindig.” Unfortunately, he was called back to Washington before the holiday, for consultation with the President, but his Counselor, John Wiley, was to act as host instead. So I went to work.

For all its theaters and ballets and operas, Moscow isn’t exactly an Elsa Maxwell paradise. There were a handful of jazz bands which were engaged by various hotels and they were rather reluctant to come to Embassies. There were no catering firms to prepare large dinners. There were no accessible theatrical agencies from which you could order up a song-and-dance act. There wasn’t even an Elsa Maxwell. Gradually we learned how to use a little ingenuity in getting around these omissions in the socialist system. But this was our first attempt and I was starting from scratch.

I went to Irena W iley, the wife of the Embassy’s Counselor, and explained the problem.

“Let’s glass over the big ballroom floor and make an aquarium we can dance on,”she proposed.

As a first suggestion, it showed imagination, but I pointed out that plate glass had been somehow neglected in both the First and Second FiveYear Plans. Besides, what would we use for fish?

“Perhaps you’re right, How about an animal act? Let’s go to the Zoo and sec what they have to offer,”Irena said.

That sounded better, and together we called on the Director of the Zoo. He was a nervous little man, obviously not entirely at his ease in talking to foreigners. You would have thought that directing a zoo would normally be considered a fairly safe nonpolitical sort of job even in the Soviet Union. However, I remembered that one of my few Russian friends had been Director of the Zoo during the Revolution and had been fired for letting the only elephant who survived the overthrow of the Czar die. (My friend was subsequently shot during the purges for crimes not specified.) Perhaps the present director had some sick elephants. Or perhaps he was just reluctant to get involved in so hot a political issue as a foreign religious holiday. At any rate he was not enthusiastic and very little help.

As a last resort we went to the Circus. In Moscow the Circus is more like a theater. It has only one ring, housed in a permanent building, and operates the year round. There we saw some trained horses (not very good for parquet floors), some trained dogs (not very original at best), some trained bears (a little lethargic, we decided, for a Christmas party; and besides, someone might try to make some political capital out of our replacing Santa Claus with a bear that walked like a man). And then we saw the seals. There were three of them — Misha, Shura, and Lyuba. They did all the regular seal acts, bouncing balls on their noses, climbing ladders while balancing their little dunce caps, and even playing tunes on the harmonica, only instead of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” they played the “Internationale.”

As soon us the act was over, we went dow n to see Durov, the seal trainer, a young man still in his early twenties and free of most inhibitions.

At first he seemed a little reluctant. “I’ve never had my seals in a ballroom.”

I told him that, so far as we knew, the ballroom had never had seals in it. But that was no way for a young Soviet citizen to talk. There were first times for everything — and this would be a double first. The argument impressed him.

“I suppose that if we could have two or three rehearsals at the Embassy, they might take to it all right.”

They did. Late the next evening, after the last performance at the Circus, Durov and his seals armed in a truck for their first dress rehearsal. We built a sort of chute like a sheep run from a side door into the unused service room which was to be the seals’ dressing room. From it we arranged another chute into the big ballroom itself.

It’s quite a sight to see three big black seals come prancing into a ballroom—particularly into the ballroom at Spaso House with its white polished marble pillars and equally white walls that sparkle like icebergs in the sun w hen t he chandeliers are all on. Apparently, even the seals thought they were icebergs, for they slithered across the floor to the nearest pillar, cuddled up beside it, and acted as though they were coming out of their native caves for their morning toilette. It look several housemaids w ith mops to clean up after them while Durov tried to explain that they must act housebroken in the American Embassy. With that first lesson over, the seals went through the special routine we’d developed for them, and eventually — in the early hours of the morning — they slithered back into their truck and went home to bed at the Circus.

For two more nights preceding Christmas Eve, the seals rehearsed their act at the Embassy, leaving themselves, the trainer, and me completely exhausted. But by this time Durov was thoroughly enthusiastic about the whole idea, He even wanted to add a bear to the act. He explained he had two bears. One he had had for several years; the other he had just bought in Siberia. He admitted the second was pretty wild and had developed a rather nasty habit of killing people. But he promised he’d bring only the nice bear. However, I figured three seals were enough for one party, and suggested he bring the nice bear around another time.

2

ON the night of the party, Durov and his seals arrived through a side gate and the seals were surreptitiously chuted into their dressing room till the moment for their show. What with having had no sleep for several nights and with all the excitement of his first Embassy appearance (it was his last too), Durov seemed to need a little stimulant to put him on his toes. So I took him out among the guests, introducing him as a newly arrived American engineer. (The fact that he spoke no English confused some of the guests, but on Christmas Eve in Moscow things like that are apt to happen.) I poured a couple of whiskeys into him, and when the time for his act came, he seemed fully restored.

We collected the guests in one end of the large ballroom and turned out all the lights. Then through the little door at the far end of the room, a small Christmas tree with twelve lighted candles swayed precariously into the room, to all appearances supported only by a large black mustache. Then a spotlight went on and revealed Lyuba hiding under the mustache and balancing the tree on her nose. Behind her pranced Misha and Shura, one carrying a tray of wineglasses and the other a bottle of champagne. Durov poured one or two glasses and distributed them among the guests. Then he lifted the champagne bottle to his mouth and drained it. This last piece of business hadn’t been in the script, but I guessed he was still pretty tired and needed a pick-me-up.

The seals then went through their more usual routine; they balanced balls, climbed ladders, and even played a Christmas carol on the harmonica.

The act was about over when I began to notice a little unsteadiness in Durov’s gait. Just as the last trick was finished, he turned to the audience, made a handsome bow , sat down on a bench, and quietly passed out. Lyuba, Misha, and Shura waited a moment for their next cue, then flopped across the floor to their master, took one good look at him, and stampeded.

There are several versions of what happened during the next fifteen minutes. I can only tell what I saw. Misha disappeared into the audience. Lyuba bolted for the pantry, where the smells of a fine supper were rising from the basement kitchen. I went for Shura (she was the only one who didn’t bite) and managed, after several minutes, to herd her into the chute and back to the dressing room.

As I locked her in, I heard a fine mixture of seals barking, women screaming, and German cursing coming up from the kitchen. I got down just in time to find the kitchenmaids scampering in all directions and the newly arrived Austrian chef jumping up and down on the kitchen table while Lyuba circled around the table bellowing like an angry cow and upsetting coal scuttles, chairs, garbage cans, and anything else that got in the way of her big flippers. The chef was holding a large frying pan and was trying very ineffectually to beat Lyuba on the nose. Just what he was hoping to accomplish, I don’t know. But it seemed to amuse Lyuba, for every time he made a pass at her she’d duck out of reach, bellowing with obvious delight.

When the chef saw me standing in the doorway, he screamed: “Do something, for the Gott’s love. Do something! Is no use standing there like laughing jackass! While the chef screamed, Lyuba roared and the kitchen help twittered noisily.

Eventually the commotion attracted the attention of Durov’s assistant, who had been having a little fun in the servants’ hall. He immediately took charge of the situation like the traditional drummer boy in a military rout which indeed it was. He dashed upstairs, dragged the limp Durov from the ballroom, fetched a pan of very smelly dead fish from his truck, and proceeded to realign his forces. The formation he produced was almost as unique as the situation itself. I found myself holding Durov under the armpits in front of me w hile from behind me the assistant reached around in front of Durov, shook the fish in the direction of Lyuba, and made noises imitative of the semiconscious trainer.

One sniff of the fish was enough for Lyuba. She stopped her wild dance around the kitchen table and slithered across the floor toward us while we slowly backed toward the stairs leading to the dressing room. We’d gotten halfway up to the first landing, with Lyuba in pursuit, when she suddenly suspected she was being tricked and paused. Relaxing on a stone staircase is not the easiest thing for a seal to do. As soon as she stopped climbing, she lost her hold and slid to the foot of the stairs. We followed after her. I shook Durov to try to make him look alive. The trainer shook the fish and made strange noises. Lyuba changed her mind and decided we were on the level and started after us again, But again she paused, slipped, and ended at the foot of the stairs.

While this was going on, the kitchen help, the yardman, the janitor, and the chauffeurs had gathered around the foot of the stairs shouting encouragement and advice. Each time Lyuba slid back down toward them, they scattered in disorder.

“Get some brooms!” I shouted at them. “When she begins to slide the next time, ram the brooms under her and hold her up. All she needs is a little support.”

The brooms were quickly produced, and three or four of the more courageous souls below followed gingerly after Lyuba as she started once again to clamber after the limp body of her master and, what was no doubt far more attractive, after the pan of very smelly fish. The next time she paused, the brooms held her in place until she could be inveigled into taking a few more steps.

Eventually we reached the head of the stairs, and in a few moments she had joined Shura in their dressing room. Then we rounded up Misha, who had been going through a series of unrehearsed acts among the guests. Finally the truck was backed up to the side door and the seals were carefully herded down the chute into the truck and off to the Circus.

Later I found out that the journey hadn’t been entirely without excitement. Halfway home, on a busy boulevard, Lyuba, still restless after her kitchen experience, had jumped over the side of the truck just us she had leapt over the wall of the chute to the kitchen stairs. In winter the streets of Moscow are usually an icy composition of hard-packed snow - as slippery as the best skating rink. Lyuba was in her element and took off down the boulevard at a mile a minute with the trainer’s assistant sliding after her. Just how she was finally brought to heel I never discovered, but I do know that half the militia in the Arbat District chased her to the very edge of the Moskva River before they surrounded her.

Back at the Embassy, all that was left of the circus was Durov. His assistant had promised to return for him as soon as the seals were put to bed. By the lime the assistant arrived after Lyuba’s second dash for freedom, Durov was again on his feet, not quite sober, but almost his old cheerful self. It took some talking to persuade him that his share of the party was over and that it was time to go home. Only after I had promised to drive him in my new Ford convertible did he finally agree to go.

The three of us drew up to the Circus building well after 3 A.M. The trainer and I each gave Durov an arm and helped him into the building and across the ring to the big animal-room beyond, where most of the animals were housed. Halfway across the ring a mysterious figure loomed out of the darkness. It was the night watchman, muffled up in a huge hairy sheepskin overcoat.

“Sh-sh,” he whispered out of the mass of fur that completely hid his face. “Go quietly, the elephant’s asleep.”

I almost dropped Durov in the tanbark. Had all of Moscow gone berserk? I looked questioningly at the assistant. He apparently understood my feelings. “It’s all right,” he said. “He just means the elephant is lying down. Elephants don’t usually lie down to sleep. It’s a rare sight,”

In the animal-room we switched on one small light and there, sure enough, was the elephant comfortably stretched out on the straw, sleeping peacefully, the only sensible creature I’d seen all evening.

As we stood admiring him, there was a rattle of chains down in the far end of the animal-room. In the darkness I couldn’t see what had made the noise. But Durov apparently recognized it.

Dushka, my little soul,”he shouted, tearing himself from the assistant and dashing into the gloom, his assistant and I right behind him. When we reached the end of the room, I could just make out a huge brown bear standing on his hind legs and tugging at a chain by which he was fastened to the wall. He waved his two great paws about petulantly as he swayed and tugged against the chain.

“Dushka, my little pet,”Durov yelled again, and stretched out his arms to hug the bear.

He had almost got his hands on the shaggy beast’s neck when his assistant grabbed him by the scruff of his coat and pulled him back. “You damn fool,” he muttered. “It’s the wrong bear.”