Friday, November 27, 2015

Soviet writer Maxim Gorky, 68, dead; assassination suspected—but by whom?

Alexei Maximovich Peshkov, better known as Maxim Gorky, had a fabulously successful career as a wealthy and famous writer, with friends in high places, but he very likely died on orders given by one of those friends.  The friend’s name was Josef Stalin. 

Now known mainly for his play The Lower Depths, an early example of social realism in drama, and his autobiography My Childhood, Gorky was honored by having his picture on cigarette boxes, postcards, and a Russian postage stamp, and his name affixed to numerous city streets, Russia’s main literary institute, the world’s largest airplane (at the time), and his own hometown itself.  But his leftist political activism got him trouble not only with Tsarist authorities, but also with Vladimir Lenin, Vyacheslav Molotov, and his on-again, off-again pal Stalin.

Born March 28, 1868, in Nizhni Novgorod (which changed its name to Gorky in 1932), Gorky himself best chronicled his early life in a résumé sent to an editor who requested some biographical information:
1878--Shoemaker's boy.
1879--Apprentice to a designer, painting ikons.
1880--Cabin boy on a Volga steamer (where the ship's cook taught him to read). 
1883--Worked in a biscuit factory.
1885--Baker's boy.
1886--Dummy in a village theatre.
1887--Fruit seller.
1888--Attempted suicide.
1889--Railway employee.
1890--Clerk to an advocate (learned to write).
1891--Operative in a salt mill; later vagabond.
1892--Wrote his first novel, "Makar Chudra."
1903--Celebrity and riches.

He used the pen name of “Maxim Gorky,” which means Maxim the Bitter.  As in his writing, which typically conveys the plight of downtrodden workers, his new name reflected his anger at the Tsarist regime and his proletariat revolutionary tendencies. His seditious utterances forced him into exile in Italy, but he returned to Russia in 1913 when the Tsar granted amnesty.  He allied himself with the Bolsheviks but fell out with Lenin and again went into exile in 1921.  All the while his fame as a writer increased.  He finally returned to Russia in 1928, at the personal invitation of Communist Party leader Josef Stalin, who, after organizing extravagant celebrations of Gorky’s reunion with his native land, then placed him under virtual house arrest.

Gorky was married (sort of) three times. He left his first wife, Ekaterina Pavlovna Peshkova, after a short while, but owing to intricacies in Russia law, neglected to divorce her.  He took up with an actress name Maria Fydorovna Andreyeva, but living openly with her in that era caused such a scandal that the two of them were barred from New York hotels, William Dean Howells canceled a dinner party in Gorky’s honor, and Mark Twain withdrew his support from one of his humanitarian causes.  From 1920 until 1933 he and his secretary, Moura Budberg, lived as common-law husband and wife.  Budberg was later the mistress of H. G. Wells and a double agent for the Russian secret police and British intelligence.

One of those who might be called “spiritual but not religious,” Gorky rejected organized religion, but despite his Marxism in social matters, he was not an atheist or materialist. When asked to express his views on religion by the French journal Mercure de France, Gorky said that he opposed the religions of Moses, Christ, and Mohammed, but he acknowledged the value of religious sentiments, which he described as an awareness of a harmonious link that joins man to the universe.

Frail from repeated bouts of tuberculosis, which had plagued him since the age of twenty-one, Gorky was living in a dacha outside Moscow in 1936, grieving the sudden and unexpected death of his son two years earlier. Attacks against his reputation began to appear in the principal Soviet newspaper, Pravda, but Gorky was spared seeing them since a special edition, of which only one copy was printed, was prepared for delivery to him. Under treatment for his pulmonary problems, he was visited by Stalin early in June. On June 18, 1936, Gorky died, quite unexpectedly, at the age of sixty-eight. 

In 1938 the chief of Russian secret police, Genrikh Yagoda; Gorky’s secretary, Petr Petrovich Kryuchkov; Gorky’s doctor, Lev Levin (who also was Stalin’s personal physician), and two other doctors were convicted of conspiring to murder both Gorky and his son. In Gorky’s case they were accused of repeatedly administering excessive doses of pulmonary medicines, including camphor, digalen, caffeine, and cardiosol. It was alleged  that Gorky’s assassination had been carried out on orders from Stalin’s arch-enemy, Leon Trotsky. Yagoda and Kryuchkov were executed.  Later evidence suggests that Stalin himself ordered the assassinations.

Gorky was given an elaborate state funeral, at which the principal honored pallbearers were Stalin and Molotov.  His ashes were buried in the Kremlin wall.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Poet-Diplomat Pablo Neruda, 69, Dead: Cancer or Murder by Poisonous Injection?

Chilean poet, politician, and diplomat, Pablo Neruda (real name: Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto), Nobel Prize-winner for his poetry, both surrealistic and passionately romantic, died under highly mysterious circumstances that are still under investigation more than forty years later. 

Born July 12, 1904, in Parral, Chile, he was the son of a railway worker and a school teacher. His mother died a month after he was born, and he was raised by a stepmother. He showed poetic talent by the age of ten and by sixteen had published a number of verses under the pen name Pablo Neruda, chosen to honor the Czech poet Jan Neruda and to keep his poetry secret from his father, who strongly disapproved of such fripperies.

He struggled to earn a living with his writing and in 1927, financially desperate, he accepted the post of honorary consul of Chile in Rangoon, capital of the British colony of Burma, a city whose name he had never before heard. It was the beginning of a long diplomatic career in which he served as consul, consul general, and ambassador in several far-flung posts. He became involved in politics and was elected as a Communist senator. When the Communist Party was outlawed in Chile in 1948, a warrant was issued for his arrest, and he hid for months in a basement in Valparaiso, then fled to Argentina. During this period, he also traveled to Paris, using the passport of his friend, the Guatemalan novelist Miguel Angel Asturias, whom Neruda vaguely resembled. Years later Neruda became a close adviser to the Socialist president Salvador Allende, who appointed him ambassador to France.

Throughout his diplomatic and political career, he continued to write and publish, establishing a reputation as one of the world’s leading poets.  Some of his notable works are Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, The Book of Questions, 100 Love Sonnets, Odes to Common Things, On the Blue Shore of Silence, Intimacies, Canto General, and Residence on Earth. Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez has called him “the greatest poet of the twentieth century in any language,” and critic Harold Bloom places him among the twenty-six essential writers in the Western literary canon. Honored with the International Peace Prize, the Lenin Peace Prize, and the Stalin Peace Prize, Neruda received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971.

Neruda married three times. The first was to a Dutch banker, whom he met in 1930 on one of his diplomatic assignments in Java. They had a daughter and were divorced in 1936. After that he married Delia del Carril, a woman twenty years older, and they were divorced in 1955. (She lived until 1989 when she died at age one hundred and four.)  In 1955 Neruda married Matilde Urrutia,  who remained his wife until his death.

Although from a Roman Catholic background, Neruda shied away from expressing religious conviction. In a 1971 interview with Eric Bockstael for Radio-Canada, Neruda said: “I have no theory about man. I have theories on the shoes I am going to buy when mine are worn out or that my clothes are already getting threadbare. I don’t know what man is. And I am a living man, and life is not for thinking about what substantially is ‘Man’ in that sense. Perhaps it is a thing that interests me less than the profession of a mechanic or of a geologist; that’s more important. But this interminable debate on what is man is so much talk that it doesn’t interest me. We know that we are born, and that we are going to die, etc. But between all that it’s very difficult, or it’s very easy to say things. And I have nothing to do with that; I don’t know what it’s all about. … I leave the philosophers free to continue to ask themselves what is it that man is. But don’t ask me, because I am completely ignorant on that question.”

And in a poem about the death of his dog, Neruda seems to make it clear that he has no belief in an afterlife for human beings:                           
                         …and I, the materialist, who never believed                             in any promised heaven in the sky
                         for any human being,
                         I believe in a heaven I'll never enter.

On September 11, 1973, Neruda’s political ally, Salvador Allende, was overthrown in a coup led by General Augusto Pinochet and killed in the presidential palace. At the time Neruda was hospitalized in the Santa María Clinic near his home for treatment for prostate cancer. On September 23 Neruda received an injection, presumably from a doctor. He called his wife, Matilde, to take him home because he was feeling bad and suspected the injection may have caused his discomfort. He returned to his home on the Isla Negra and died there six and a half hours after the injection.  He was sixty-nine.

The official cause of death was attributed to advanced metastatic prostate cancer resulting in “malnutrition and wasting away”—although Neruda weighed 220 pounds at the time of his death. It has long been speculated that Neruda was planning to flee to Mexico to head a government-in-exile that would denounce Pinochet, and that Pinochet ordered a fatal dose of poison to be administered to him in the injection. Neruda's driver identified the doctor who gave the injection only as "Doctor Price"--and his description matched that of a known professional assassin named Michael Townley, who had worked for the CIA and for the Chilean secret police, and who is now living under the federal Witness Protection Program after a prison term for an earlier assassination. 

In 2013 authorities finally exhumed Neruda’s body but found no definitive evidence of poison. Nonetheless, in November of 2015 the Chilean government officially acknowledged a document that stated “it was clearly possible and highly likely” that Neruda was killed as a result of “the intervention of third parties.”

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Sci-Fi novelist Jules Verne dead of diabetes complications at 77

Novelist Jules Verne, whose science fiction foretold the submarine, the dirigible, the steamship, the gas-powered automobile, glass skyscrapers, calculators, and the mile-a-minute train, died bitterly frustrated that he was repeatedly passed over for membership in the Academie Française, a lifelong goal. The second most translated author in history (after Agatha Christie), he entered into a contract early in his career to turn out two books a year for his publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, for 20,000 francs a year (about $100,000 today), and even though his books sales were in the millions, he stuck to this agreement until his death at age seventy-seven from complications of diabetes.

Verne was born February 8, 1828, in Nantes, in the northwest of France, to a Catholic family headed by a lawyer noted for his piety. He was sent to a series of religious schools, and then took a bachelor’s degree at Rennes, earning the grade “fairly good.” His father insisted that Jules should follow him in a law career, but he soon abandoned it to write novels and plays and mingle with the literati in Paris, where Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas fils were his friends and idols.

In 1856 Verne was in a friend’s wedding in Amiens, where he met and fell in love with the bride’s sister, Honorine Viane de Morel. They were married the following year, and Verne accepted an offer from her brother to work in his brokerage firm, rising early every morning to continue his writing. In 1862 he met and began his lifelong association with the publisher Hetzel, turning out such popular adventure novels as Around the World in Eighty Days, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon, and dozens more. 

Verne was made a commander of the Legion of Honor, but although the Academie Française honored several of his novels, it declined to admit him to the august body of forty literary immortals. (Verne was in good company outside the Academie; other French writers who failed to make the cut include Molière, René  Descartes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, Émile Zola, Marcel Proust, and Jean-Paul Sartre.)

Despite his thorough Catholic upbringing, Verne became a Deist in his forties, hewing to a belief in a rational creator, but without the trappings of orthodox Christian dogma.

Verne suffered from illness for much of his life. When he was thirty-two he had an attack of facial paralysis, for which he received electric treatments. Five years later he had another such attack, which was not so readily alleviated and he suffered greatly from it. He developed diabetes, which contributed to a variety of ailments, including hypertension, ringing of the ears, frequent dizziness, spasmodic colitis, aerophagia (excessive swallowing of air, causing bloating, belching, and flatulence), and increasingly severe cataracts that left him nearly blind. 


In 1886 Verne’s psychotic nephew Gaston tried to kill him, but instead shot him in the ankle, resulting in an infection which caused him to limp for the rest of his life. His worsening stomach problems led him to adopt a diet exclusively of dairy products and eggs, of which he observed, “Living on a diet of milk and eggs, I feel neither good nor bad, ovarian, lactarian, or even vegetarian.”


Diabetes caught up with Verne in March of 1905, and he had a stroke that paralyzed the left side of the body.  He lingered for a couple of weeks at his home in Amiens and died on March 24, at 3:10 p.m. with his family at his side.  Newspaper accounts of his death reported that he remained conscious till the end and even calmly discussed his imminent departure from life. His sister Marie's account of his last moments is somewhat different:


He could not say anything coherently, and it became apparent that this was indeed the end. The paralysis was spreading, and…he was no longer our brother and his beautiful intelligence was no longer there; there was nothing but a body and a slowly departing soul. In short, our poor Jules has succumbed to diabetes that we were not monitoring. Last year, he suffered a bad episode, but after recovering, we thought no more about it. Although his wife looked after him admirably, she did let him do whatever he wanted.”

He is buried in La Madeleine Cemetery in Amiens.
Photo by Felix Nadar

Friday, November 6, 2015

Bohemian Wilkie Collins, inventor of the detective novel, dead of stroke at 65

Wilkie Collins, who invented the detective novel with The Woman in White and The Moonstone, led a bohemian life, dividing his time and his affections between women in two households, neither of whom he deigned to marry. Self-indulgent to an extreme degree, he was fond of pâté de foie gras, oysters, champagne by the pint, cigars, snuff, and laudanum, of which he could take in enough “to kill a ship's crew or company of soldiers.” It’s a wonder that he lived to be sixty-five, when he was felled by a paralytic stroke.

Collins was born January 8, 1824, in the Marylebone section of London to a prominent landscape painter, William Collins, and his wife, Harriet. He and his younger brother were home-schooled by their deeply religious evangelical mother, who enforced regular church attendance on the boys, much to Wilkie’s annoyance. At sixteen he was apprenticed to a tea-merchant, a job he hated, but stayed there for five years while also writing and publishing a few stories. He then began the study of law at Lincoln’s Inn, at the insistence of his father, and was called to the bar in 1851.

By this time, he was gaining some traction as a writer, so he never actually practiced law, devoting himself instead to his fiction and to hanging out with literary friends, especially his pal Charles Dickens.  Collins’ brother, Charles, married one of Dickens’ daughters. Except for the fact they did not meet until eight years after Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, the curmudgeonly Collins might well have been the model for Ebenezer Scrooge. In various letters, Collins expressed a sour view of the Christmas holidays: he refers to “filthy Christmas festivities… when the Plague of Plum pudding extends its ravages from end to end of the land, and lays the national digestion prostrate at the feet of Christmas.” And in another burst of Scrooge-like spleen: “the most hateful of all English seasons (to me), the season of Cant and Christmas”  

In 1859 Collins published his first major success, The Woman in White, an eerie mystery novel.  This was followed by such other well-received works as No Name, Armadale, and his crowning success, The Moonstone. These suspenseful works, which made pots of money, were serialized in magazines, giving rise to Collins’ favorite expression: “Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait.”

In 1858 Collins moved in with a neighbor named Caroline Graves and her daughter. Although they never married, they lived as man and wife for more than thirty years, except for a brief two-year period when Caroline married someone else, but then decided she would move back in with Collins.  Collins, meanwhile, struck up a relationship with another woman named Martha Rudd, whom he installed in a nearby house and with whom he had three children. When he was with her, he called himself William Dawson, and she and the children took the name Dawson as well.

Not surprisingly, given his diet and penchant for tobacco, alcohol, and drugs, Collins’ health began to deteriorate in the 1850s as he suffered constantly from what he called “rheumatic gout” and “neuralgia,” as well as failing eyesight.  He turned for relief to a variety of so-called cures: Turkish and electric baths, health spas, hypnotism, quinine, and, finally, opium in the form of laudanum in increasingly large quantities.

 Collins wavered between belief in the God of his evangelical upbringing and his later, doubt-ridden free-thinking. As for an afterlife, his friend Wybert Reeve wrote this about him after the death of his brother: “The death seemed to have made a strong impression on him, and led him to speak of a future state of existence, in which he had little belief. He was a Materialist, and urged that death meant a sleep of eternity; it was the natural end of all living things.” A few years before his own death, Collins mused as follows: “Are there not moments—if we dare to confess the truth—when poor humanity loses its hold on the consolations of religion and the hope of immortality, and feels the cruelty of creation that bids us live, on the condition that we die, and leads the first warm beginnings of love, with merciless certainty, to the cold conclusion of the grave?”

By the time he was in his late fifties, Collins’ health was a serious concern. Heart problems made him short of breath, and he began to take amyl nitrate and hypo-phosphate. In the last year of his life, he was thrown from a cab in a collision, and his injuries led to bronchitis, and on June 30 a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. He lingered almost three months, growing steadily worse. Urged by a friend to go to the country for a more healthful environment, he declined, saying he was “too much of a cockney” to leave London. He died on September 23 in his home on Wimpole Street, at the age of sixty-five.
In his will (in which he left each of his “wives” the sum of £200—about £24,000 today), he expressed the wish to be buried in the cemetery at Kensal Green “and that over my grave there may be placed a plain stone cross and no other monument and that there shall be placed on such stone cross the inscription which my executors will find written and placed in the same envelope occupied by this my will and I desire that nothing shall be inscribed upon the said cross except the inscription which I have  herein before directed.” That inscription reads simply: “In memory of Wilkie Collins, author of ‘The Woman In White’ and other works of fiction.”