The Death of Boris

There was still another lover in Martha’s life, the most important of all, a doomed Russian who would shape the rest of her life.

She first caught a glimpse of him in mid-September 1933 at one of the many parties Sigrid Schultz held at her apartment, where she lived with her mother and her two dogs. Schultz typically served sandwiches, baked beans, and sausages prepared by her mother and provided a lot of beer, wine, and liquor, which tended to cause even Nazi guests to shed doctrine in favor of fun and gossip. In the midst of a conversation, Martha happened to glance across the room and saw a tall, good-looking man at the center of a group of correspondents. He was not handsome in a conventional sense but very attractive—maybe thirty, short blond-brown hair, strikingly luminous eyes, and an easy, fluid manner. He moved his hands as he spoke, and Martha saw that he had long and supple fingers. “He had an unusual mouth, and upper lip,” recalled one of Martha’s friends, Agnes Knickerbocker, wife of correspondent H. R. “Knick” Knickerbocker. “I can’t describe it other than to say that it could go from sternness to laughter in an exploding split second.”

As Martha watched him, he turned and looked at her. She held his gaze a few moments, then looked away and became involved in other conversations. (In a later unpublished account she recalled minute details of this moment and others to follow.) He turned away as well—but when the morning came and the night distilled to its essential elements, this meeting of glances was the thing that both remembered.

Several weeks later they encountered each other again. Knick and his wife invited Martha and a few other friends to join them for a night of drinks and dancing at Ciro’s, a popular nightclub that employed black jazz musicians, a twofold act of defiance given the Nazi Party’s obsession with racial purity and its condemnation of jazz—in party jargon, “nigger-Jew jazz”—as degenerate music.

Knick introduced Martha to the tall man she had seen at Sigrid Schultz’s party. His name, she now learned, was Boris Winogradov (pronounced “Vinogradov”). A few moments later, Boris appeared before her table, smiling and self-conscious. “Gnädiges Fräulein,” he began, offering the customary German greeting, meaning “dear young lady.” He asked her to dance.

She was struck immediately by the beauty of his voice, which she described as falling somewhere between baritone and tenor. “Mellifluous,” she wrote. It moved her, “struck my heart and for a moment left me without words or breath.” He held out a hand to guide her from the crowded table.

She quickly learned that his natural grace had limits. He walked her around the dance floor, “stepping on my toes, bumping into people, his left arm stuck out stiffly, turning his head from side to side trying to avoid further collisions.”

He told her, “I don’t know how to dance.”

It was such an obvious fact that Martha burst out laughing.

Boris laughed too. She liked his smile and his overall “aura of gentleness.”

A few moments later he said to her, “I am with the Soviet embassy. Haben Sie Angst?”

She laughed again. “Of course not, why should I be afraid? Of what?”

“Correct,” he said, “you’re a private person, and with you I am too.”

He held her closer. He was slender and broad shouldered and had eyes she deemed gorgeous, blue-green flecked with gold. He had irregular teeth that somehow enhanced his smile. He was quick to laugh.

“I have seen you several times before,” he said. The last occasion, he reminded her, had been at Schultz’s home. “Erinnern Sie sich?” Do you remember?

Contrarian by nature, Martha did not want to seem too easy a mark. She kept her voice “non-committal” but did concede the fact. “Yes,” she said, “I remember.”

They danced a while longer. When he returned her to the Knickerbockers’ table, he leaned close and asked, “Ich möchte Sie sehr wiederzusehen. Darf ich Sie anrufen?”

The meaning was clear to Martha despite her limited German—Boris was asking if he could see her again.

She told Boris, “Yes, you may call.”

Martha danced with others. At one point she looked back toward her table and spotted the Knickerbockers with Boris seated beside them. Boris watched her.

“Incredible as it sounds,” she wrote, “I had the sensation after he left that the air around me was more luminous and vibrant.”

SEVERAL DAYS LATER Boris did call. He drove to the Dodds’ house; introduced himself to Fritz, the butler; then went charging up the stairs to the main floor carrying a bouquet of autumn flowers and a disc for a record player. He did not kiss her hand, a good thing, for that particular German ritual always annoyed her. After a brief preamble, he held out the record.

“You don’t know Russian music, do you, gnädiges Fräulein? Have you ever heard ‘The Death of Boris,’ by Mussorgsky?”

He added, “I hope it’s not my death I am going to play for you.”

He laughed. She did not. It struck her even then as “a portent” of something dark to come.

They listened to the music—the death scene from Modest Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov, sung by the famous Russian bass Fyodor Chaliapin—and then Martha gave Boris a tour of the house, finishing in the library. At one end was her father’s desk, immense and dark, its drawers always locked. The late autumn sun broke through the high stained-glass window in pleats of many-hued light. She led him to her favorite couch.

Boris was delighted. “This is our corner, gnädiges Fräulein!” he exclaimed. “Better than all the others.”

Martha sat on the couch; Boris pulled over a chair. She rang for Fritz and asked him to bring beer and a casual fare of pretzels, sliced carrots and cucumbers, and hot cheese sticks, foods she usually ordered when she entertained unofficial visitors.

Fritz brought the food, his step very quiet, almost as if he were attempting to listen in. Boris guessed, correctly, that Fritz too had Slavic roots. The two men traded pleasantries.

Taking a cue from Boris’s easy manner, Fritz quipped, “Did you communists really burn the Reichstag?”

Boris gave him an arch smile and winked. “Of course we did,” he said, “you and I together. Don’t you recall the night we were at Göring’s and were shown the secret passageway to the Reichstag?” This was an allusion to a widely believed theory that a team of Nazi incendiaries had secretly made their way from Göring’s palace to the Reichstag via an underground tunnel between the two buildings. Such a tunnel did, in fact, exist.

All three laughed. This mock complicity in the Reichstag fire would remain a joke between Boris and Fritz, repeated often in varying forms to the great delight of Martha’s father—even though Fritz, Martha believed, was “almost surely an agent of the secret police.”

Fritz returned with vodka. Boris poured himself a large drink and quickly downed it. Martha settled back in the couch. This time Boris sat beside her. He drank a second vodka but showed no obvious sign of its effect.

“From the first moment I saw you—” he began. He hesitated, then said, “Can it be, I wonder?”

She understood what he was trying to say and in fact she too felt a powerful, instant attraction, but she was not inclined to concede it this early in the game. She looked at him, blank.

He grew serious. He launched into a lengthy interrogation. What did she do in Chicago? What were her parents like? What did she want to do in the future?

The exchange had more in common with a newspaper interview than a first-date conversation. Martha found it vexing but answered with patience. For all she knew, this was how all Soviet men behaved. “I had never before met a real Communist, or a Russian for that matter,” she wrote, “so I imagined this must be their way of knowing someone.”

As the conversation wore on, both consulted pocket dictionaries. Boris knew some English, but not much, and conversed mainly in German. Martha knew no Russian, so deployed a mix of German and English.

Though it took a good deal of effort, she told Boris that her parents were both offspring of old southern landowning families, “each as well ancestored as the other, and almost pure British: Scotch-Irish, English, and Welsh.”

Boris laughed. “That’s not so pure, is it?”

With an unconscious note of pride in her voice, she added that both families had once owned slaves—“Mother’s about twelve or so, Father’s five or six.”

Boris went quiet. His expression shifted abruptly to one of sorrow. “Martha,” he said, “surely you are not proud that your ancestors owned the lives of other human beings.”

He took her hands and looked at her. Until this moment the fact that her parents’ ancestors had owned slaves had always seemed merely an interesting element of their personal history that testified to their deep roots in America. Now, suddenly, she saw it for what it was—a sad chapter to be regretted.

“I didn’t mean to boast,” she said. “I suppose it sounded like that to you.” She apologized and immediately hated herself for it. She was, she conceded, “a combative girl.”

“But we do have a long tradition in America,” she told him. “We are not newcomers.”

Boris found her defensiveness hilarious and laughed with unrestrained delight.

In the next instant, he adopted a look and tone that she recalled as being “solemn in the extreme.”

“Congratulations, my noble, gracious, little Marta! I too am also of ancient lineage, even older than yours. I am a direct descendant of Neanderthal man. And pure? Yes, pure human.

They collapsed against each other with laughter.

THEY BECAME REGULAR COMPANIONS, though they tried to keep their emerging relationship as discreet as possible. The United States had not yet recognized the Soviet Union (and would not do so until November 16, 1933). To have the daughter of the American ambassador openly consorting with a first secretary of the Soviet embassy at official functions would have constituted a breach of protocol that would have put both her father and Boris at risk of criticism from inside and outside their respective governments. She and Boris left diplomatic receptions early, then met for secret meals at such fine restaurants as Horcher’s, Pelzer, Habel, and Kempinski. To cut costs a bit, Boris also cultivated the chefs of small, inexpensive restaurants and instructed them on how to prepare foods he liked. After dinner he and Martha would go dancing at Ciro’s or at the club on the roof of the Eden Hotel, or to political cabarets such as the Kabarett der Komiker.

Some nights Martha and Boris would join the correspondents gathered at Die Taverne, where Boris was always welcomed. The reporters liked him. The now-exiled Edgar Mowrer had found Boris a refreshing change from other officials in the Soviet embassy. Boris, he recalled, spoke his mind without slavish adherence to party doctrine and “seemed totally unintimidated by the kind of censorship which seemed to silence other members of the Embassy.”

Like Martha’s other suitors, Boris sought to escape Nazi intrusion by taking her on long drives into the countryside. He drove a Ford convertible, which he loved dearly. Agnes Knickerbocker recalled that he “made some ceremony of putting on his fine leather gloves before taking the wheel.” He was “an unswerving communist,” she wrote, but “he liked the so-called good things in life.”

He almost always kept the top down, closing it only on the coldest nights. As his relationship with Martha deepened, he insisted on placing his arm around her as he drove. He seemed to need her touch at all times. He would place her hand on his knee or insert her fingers into his glove. On occasion they took these drives late at night, sometimes staying out until dawn, Martha wrote, “to welcome the rising sun in the black-green forests spangled with autumn gold.”

Though his English was limited, he learned and adored the word “darling” and used it every chance he got. He also deployed Russian endearments, which he refused to translate, claiming that to do so would diminish their beauty. In German, he called her “my little girl,” or “my sweet child,” or “my little one.” She mused that he did so partly because of her height, partly because of his overall perception of her character and maturity. “He once said I had a naïveté and idealism he could not easily understand,” she wrote. She sensed that he found her too “flighty” to even attempt to indoctrinate her in the tenets of communism. This was a period, she acknowledged, when “I must have appeared a most naive and stubborn young American, a vexation to all sensible people I knew.”

She found that Boris also took the world lightly, at least outwardly. “At thirty-one,” she wrote, “Boris had a childlike gaiety and faith, a mad-cap humor and charm not often found in mature men.” Now and then, however, reality intruded on what Martha called their “personal dream-world of dinners and concerts, theaters and joyous festivities.” She sensed in him a seam of tension. He was especially dismayed to see how readily the world accepted Hitler’s protestations of peace even as he so obviously girded the country for war. The Soviet Union seemed a likely target. Another source of stress was his own embassy’s disapproval of his relationship with Martha. His superiors issued a reprimand. He ignored it.

Martha, meanwhile, experienced pressure of a less official variety. Her father liked Boris, she thought, but he was often reticent in Boris’s presence, “even antagonistic at times.” She attributed this mainly to his fear that she and Boris might get married.

“My friends and family are disturbed about us,” she told Boris. “What can come of it? Only complications, some joy now, and then perhaps long despair.”

FOR ONE OF THEIR September dates, Boris and Martha packed a picnic lunch and drove into the countryside. They found a private glade, where they spread their blanket. The air was suffused with the scent of freshly cut grass. As Boris lay on the blanket, smiling at the sky, Martha plucked a length of wild mint and used it to tickle his face.

He saved it, as she later discovered. He was a romantic, a collector of treasures. Even this early in their relationship he was deeply smitten—and, as it happens, closely watched.

Martha appeared at this point to have no knowledge of what many correspondents suspected: that Boris was no mere first secretary of embassy, but rather an operative for Soviet intelligence, the NKVD, precursor to the KGB.

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