The 1920’s were a decade of chaos.
One never would have guessed this from my family’s surviving photographs. My paternal grandfather, who was in his mid-30’s when the War To End All Wars began, was nearly forty when he married and begat my father during the Harding administration. He worked for a major oil company in Pittsburgh, lived in an upper middle class commuting suburb, made around three times the average American's salary, and purchased a brand new bungalow in 1922 to house his wife and son. Dad was taking dancing lessons and wearing white dinner jackets before he hit puberty, and the family had sufficient discretionary funds to pay for trendy Colonial Revival furniture, a nice summer rental at Conneaut Lake, and one of those newfangled radios to pick up the broadcasts from KDKA.
My mother’s family wasn’t quite so prosperous – my grandmother’s habit of expelling a child every year or two between 1909 and 1928 meant quite a few mouths to feed, even after the older boys left school and went to work – but there still enough money for them to purchase the Farm up in Venango County. The children all graduated from high school, there was a house and a car, and my grandmother’s clothing and extravagant hats were stylish and well made. My grandparents were on the cusp of the prosperous middle class and they knew it, and they had every expectation that their children would rise in the world.
It’s something of a shock to realize that these same years that saw my father taking riding lessons and my grandmother purchasing real estate were replete with revolutions, famines, ethnic cleansing, the rise of the Soviet Union, and Tea Pot Dome.
The Twenties might have been the Era of Ballyhoo, Bootlegging, and soaring stock prices, at least in the United States, but the same was scarcely true of the rest of the world. Europe was still reeling from the fall of most of its crowned heads, the loss of an entire generation of promising young men, and upheavals both political and cultural. Not only is it no surprise that Europe was convulsed by yet another cataclysmic war two decades later, it’s something of a miracle that it took that long.
New art, new music, new ways of governing, new social mores…it must have seemed that the Great War had remade the entire world. Americans might complain about feckless youth swigging bathtub gin and slathering paint on their fresh young faces, but compared to the way that Europeans had to carve out whole new countries from the dead empires of the past, they had it easy. America was still intact, after all, with thriving cities and a rising middle class. The average Austro-Hungarian, who now might be an Austrian, a Hungarian, a Czechoslovakian, or God only knew what, could only dream of the stability that Americans took for granted.
It’s little wonder that identity was every bit as fluid as the map of post-war Mitteleuropa in those heady, dangerous years.
The chaos of the Great War and the aftermath caused many, many, many people to recreate themselves. The best known is probably Franziska Schanzkowska, a Polish munitions worker who managed to convince quite a few people, including probably herself, that she was actually Grand Duchess Anastasia Nicolaevna Romanova, last survivor of the Imperial family that died at Ekaterinburg in 1918. However, there were others who achieved fame, fortune, and notoriety in those heady days:
- Hershel Geguzin (aka Prince Michael Dimitri Alexandrovich Obolensky-Romanoff, aka Harry F. Gerguson, aka Mike Romanoff), a Lithuanian-born garment worker who pretended to be a Russian nobleman, eventually opened a restaurant, and invented a dessert called Strawberries Romanoff (which was actually the creation of a Frenchman, but never mind).
- Joan Lowell, a movie actress who wrote an "autobiography" about a colorful childhood at sea, none of which turned out to be true.
-William Cunningham Deane-Tanner (aka William Desmond Taylor, aka William Taylor), an Anglo-Irish squire's son who became an actor, abandoned his wife, acted in several movies, directed many more, romanced a young actress and possibly her mother at the same time, might have been bisexual, and finally was shot to death in his fashionable Hollywood bungalow.
- Opal Whiteley, a genuinely talented naturalist who wrote a dazzlingly precocious, and quite possibly fictitious, memoir studded with gems like her supposed begetting by a French pretender and her habit of naming her chickens after Roman heroes.
- B. Traven (aka Traven Torsvan, aka Hal Croves, aka Ret Marut, probably born Otto Albert Maxilian Feige), the brilliant author of The Rebellion of the Hanged, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and a slew of other leftist books, who did such a great job of hiding from the German authorities after the Great War that despite solid research identifying him as a potter's son turned radical actor, there are still people who maintain that he was either a) an American born to Norwegian immigrants in San Francisco, b) Kaiser Wilhelm II's illegitimate son, c) Ambrose Bierce, or d) Alfredo Lopez Mateos, President of Mexico.
All of these fine individuals, and many, many more, are fun bits of trivia, and God knows most of them had their reasons for taking on a new name and identity. The 1920’s and 1930’s were a deadly, glamorous, and unstable time. Most of these people were simply trying to survive, and whatever else they may have done, it’s hard to condemn them for wishing to remake themselves into something better, stronger, and a bit more romantic.
And then there are those whose personal reboots led to Identity Questions So Bad They’re Good.
Tonight I bring you an author who spent most of his working life concealing his true name and origins. Talented, unscrupulous, and not above making up or altering the facts to suit his needs, he forged a new identity so convincing that it not only made him a fascist favorite, but may have led to his premature death:
Lev Nussimbaum (aka Essad Bey, aka at least part of Kurban Said) - The questions about Lev Nussimbaum are many and varied. Was he Jewish? Was he Muslim? Where was he born? What was his real name? Had he stolen someone else's manuscript? Are his numerous books on the Balkans and Anatolia even somewhat valid? Was he born on
the Snowpiercer as it circled the globe a locomotive somewhere in the Ukraine?
It is impossible at this point to determine whether Lev Nussimbaum, who later took the name Essad Bey (or Kurban Said, take your pick), was actually
one of the poor schmucks raised on Snowpiercer's cuisine de cucaracha born on a train, as he later recounted, or in the Ukrainian capitol of Kiev, as official documents state. We do know that he was born no kidding, of course he was born, I don't write about ghosts in these diaries, good heavens, I'm not that far gone in 1905 to a Jewish oilman from Georgia (Europe, not the United States) and his Belarussian wife. The family soon migrated to Baku, home of the great Russian oil fields, when the future Bey/Said was only a toddler.
There young Lev learned his first lesson about the fluidity of identity when his mother, the former Berta Slutzkin, committed suicide when her son was only five years old. Berta had long been interested in left-wing politics, and despite marriage to a rising man and the birth of her son, there is evidence to suggest that she lived a double life as a Communist revolutionary who sought to overthrow the Romanov government. This was clearly not a good thing for either her or her family, since what appeared to be the successful introduction of a constitutional monarchy to Russia after the Revolution of 1905 made left-wing politics seem less and less relevant.
Lev's father, Abraam, hired a German governess for his son, then set about trying to make a living despite the declaration of war in 1914 and the upheavals of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Lev's first book, which he wrote after he started calling himself “Essad Bey,” claimed that they fled Baku for Turkestan and Persia in 1918 thanks to street violence, but since his account of this journey, Blood and Oil in the Orient, is not exactly a reliable source, it is not clear if father and son even left town. What is known that they departed Baku permanently in 1920 after the Reds took the city, and returned to Abraam's homeland until the Reds moved on to Tiflis shortly thereafter.
The family somehow ended up in Azerbaijan, then Istanbul. Although Nussimbaum/Bey/Said wrote rapturously about how the departure from Azerbaijan meant that “[a]t that moment, Europe began for me. The Old East was dead,” they did not stay long in the former Constantinople. Within a year they had reached Berlin, where young Lev managed to enroll simultaneously in high school and university. Although he did not take a diploma from either, he boasted afterwards that he had the equivalent of a Master's degree from Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität (originally the University of Berlin or the Universität unter den Linden, now Humboldt University of Berlin). Whether attending a multi-named educational institution gave the budding litterateur the idea that he, too, should have many names is not known, but if not, it certainly is quite the coincidence.
Regardless, by 1926 Lev had begun writing for literary journals under the name “Essad Bey.” He was prolific (over 120 articles in the next four years), politically conservative (he joined the Social Monarchist Party, which advocated the restoration of the Hohenzollerns to the Imperial Throne, and how his Communist mother avoided rising from her grave and slapping him silly is beyond me), and was considered something of an expert on the Caucasus, the oil fields, and what was then viewed as the Romantic and Mysterious Near East. He cemented this reputation by publishing no fewer than seven books in rapid succession, all allegedly non-fiction.
That these books (Blood and Oil in the Orient, Twelve Secrets of the Caucasus, Stalin: The Career of a Fanatic, The Caucasus, Mohammed, White Russia: People Without A Homeland, and OGPU: The Lot Against the World) all appeared between 1930 and 1932 should have been a clue that Bey/Said/Nussimbaum did not precisely take his time researching his subject. He had been there, after all, in Russia and Azerbaijan and Istanbul and all those other fascinating, little-known places. That genuine experts later found so many errors in his books that most were quietly allowed to go out of print, or that the rate at which they flew off the presses might call into question whether a single person had written them without assistance, was not really a factor. Essad Bey was a minor but definite star in the literary firmament, and he liked it that way.
And his star only continued to rise. Not only did Bey/Said/Nussimbaum continue to churn out entertainingly written, barely factual books about his childhood, his putative homeland, modern political figures, etc., his agent begged him to take a brief hiatus in 1934 to quell rumors that “Essad Bey” was actually a script doctor/editor who published other people's books under what was a de facto house name. He had, after all, followed up his first septet of hastily written tomes with an additional six (Russia at the Crossroads, Nicholas II: The Prisoner in Purple, Lenin, Reza Shah, Allah is Great: The Decline and Rise of the Islamic World, and End of Bolshevism) between 1933 and 1936, a pace that could (and likely has) killed lesser authors.
Nussimbaum/Said/Bey considered his agent's request and eventually agreed, and so published nothing in German in 1934. He did, however, produce two novellas in Polish (the intriguingly titled Love and Petroleum and the boringly titled Manuela) during his alleged sabbatical. A man had to keep his hand in, after all.
The early 1930's were momentous for Kiev/Baku/the railroad's gift to the world in other ways, too. In 1932 he married Erika Loewendahl, the daughter of a wealthy German shoe manufacturer. That the marriage didn't last (she eloped three years later with an Austrian journalist named René Fülöp-Miller (born Philip Müller to an Alsatian father and a Serbian mother, he ended up in, my hand to God, Hanover, New Hampshire, and those of you who've been to the home of Dartmouth College will know exactly why I'm so surprised that a cosmopolitan journalist with at least two names would come within two hundred miles of the place...but I digress), and that the Loewendahls eventually paid a tidy sum to have the marriage annulled, didn't seem to matter. Lev Nussimbaum had a new name, a new country, a new (if temporary) bride, and a thriving career.
He even had a possible commission writing a biography of that exciting new political leader Benito Mussolini, which would have put the founder of Fascism in the same company as Lenin, Stalin, Reza Shah, Mohammed, and Tsar Nicholas II. Not only that, his works on the Caucasus, oil, Islam, Communism, Russia, etc., were so firmly conservative that the exciting new political elite in Germany included “Essad Bey” on its list of recommended authors for rising young Nazis wishing to know more about exotic foreign lands.
That's right. You're not hallucinating. The Nazis actually recommended the potted histories and biographies of a Ukrainian/Georgian/Belarussian/German Jew as suitable reading for their tender jugenden. That they did this for a non-Aryan at all, let alone a Jew, is so remarkable that one is forced to ask what the putschers and shovers of the Mighty Reich had been smoking.
The answer is simple, obvious, and non-addicting:
They didn't know.
That's right. Lev Nussimbaum not only had managed to acquire a new name during his years in Germany, he had shed his old religious/ethnic identity with the sort of ease a molting snake might envy. He had first become acquainted with Islam during his adolescence in Baku, Azerbaijan, and Istanbul, and found much to admire in its connections to Judaism. So taken was he with what he saw as the Muslim stand against the horrors of the degenerate West that he later claimed that the mere sight of the old Islamic buildings in Baku produced the following vision:
I saw the broad expanse of the sandy Arabian desert, I saw the horsemen, their snow-white burnooses billowing in the wind, I saw the flocks of prophets praying towards Mecca and I wanted to be one with this wall, one with this desert, one with this incomprehensible, intricate script, one with the entire Islamic Orient, which in our Baku had been so ceremoniously carried to the grave, to the victorious drumbeats of European culture.... Throughout my entire childhood, I dreamed of the Arabic edifices every night... I do know that it was the most powerful, most formative feeling of my life.This sort of romantic feeling toward a mysterious and unknown land is not uncommon among dreamy adolescents – just look at how many people long for Middle-Earth, Narnia, Katmandu, St. Petersburg, etc. - but Nussimbaum/Bey/Said claimed that he'd actually put his money where his mouth was and converted to Islam in 1922. He even had a certificate from, of all people, the former Imam attached to the Ottoman Embassy in Berlin, Imam Hafiz Shuku, stating that it would serve as a “document of proof” that he had become a Muslim on August 13, 1922.
This not only satisfied the exciting new German regime, it normally should have been enough to satisfy the authorities and the Muslim community in general that the former Jew Lev Nussimbaum was now a Muslim named Essad Bey, especially when coupled with Bey/Nussimbaum/Said's work founding an Islamic study and advocacy group called, naturally enough, “Islamia” in 1924. Alas for the former Azerbaijani/Ukrainian/Persian/Ruritanian, his writings about his new religion were tinged with the sort of delicately racist Orientalism that would have made Edward Said weep quietly into his tea. This in turn led to accusations that that he was trying to “pass for a born Muslim” and had only converted as a way to attract attention to himself.
Said (not Edward)/Nussimbaum/Bey promptly stopped attending Islamia meetings. He still claimed to be a Muslim, though, and did nothing to discourage reports that he either a) was, in fact a “born Muslim” whose ethnicity had only been confirmed by the good Imam, or b) that he AND his father Abraam had actually converted in 1913 and the certificate from Imam Shuku simply affirmed an event that had taken place nine years earlier. Western ignorance about Islam was such that many people (including, presumably, his wife and in-laws) were satisfied with this or some variant thereof, and shrugged off Nussimbaum/Bey/Not-Edward's consumption of alcohol (oops) and pork (eek) and failure to pray in the direction of Mecca (uh oh) as irrelevant. He said it, they believed it, and that settled it.
Alas for the multi-named writer, eventually the carefully constructed persona began to crumble. Reviews of his biography of Mohammed were merciless in pointing out that the book contained more errors than facts, to the point that one reviewer openly speculated that Bey/Not-Edward/Nussimbaum not only wasn't a Muslim, he'd never even bothered to read the Qur'an, either in Arabic or translation. It was a “potpourri of bad history, distorted facts and naïve interpretation. It never should have been written...in fact, [the reviewer was] impelled to go still further and state further that there is hardly a fact in this 'biography' which is free from error.”
As bad as that sounds, worse was to come. The German government finally figured out that “Essad Bey” had begun life as “Lev Nussimbaum,” and the former Jew/alleged Muslim decided that life would be easier if he moved to nice, safe, neutral Austria. He also stopped publishing anything under the name of “Essad Bey” despite his former (and, in non-Nazi countries) continuing popularity, likely on the theory that the less attention he attracted to himself, the less chance that the National Socialists would notice where he was and take revenge for thinking that he and his works were fit mental nourishment for loyal little Nazis.
However, he does not seem to have stopped writing entirely; the 1937 novel Ali and Nino, which came out under the name “Kurban Said,” seems to have been written either wholly by Said/Bey/Nussimbaum, or was partially plagiarized and reworked from an earlier manuscript by an Azerbaijani statesman named Yusif Vazir Chamanzaminli (aka Chemenzeminli, born Yusif Mirbaba oghlu Vazirov). If that weren't peculiar enough, recent analysis hints that whomever wrote Ali and Nino stole at least part of the book from Georgian author Grigol Robakidze's The Snake's Skin. That Bey/Half-Said/Nussimbaum actually knew Robakidze only makes this hypothesis more intriguing, even if two other people, the Austrian Baroness Elfriede Ehrenfels and the Italian Bello Vacca (aka Ahmed Giamil Vacca-Mazzara), also claimed to be the author of Ali and Nino.
Whoever was behind the name “Kurban Said,” the author did not stop at Ali and Nino. S/he/it wrote at least two more books, the 1938 Girl from the Golden Horn and the unpublished The Man Who Knew Nothing About Love. I have yet to discover any authorship controversies connected to either of these books, but given how many people laid claim to Ali and Nino, I wouldn't be surprised to find they were actually written by B. Traven, Opal Whiteley, Old Uncle Tom Cobbleigh, Archie Goodwin, or JRR Tolkien in a moment of whimsy.
Alas for Lev Nussimbaum/part of Kurban Said/Essad Bey, his life did not end well. He had scarcely settled in Austria when the Nazis annexed the country in 1938, forcing him to flee to the Italian coastal town of Positano. There he lived until his death in 1942, only thirty-seven years old, of a blood disease that eventually caused thrombosis and gangrene in his hands and feet. Doctors at the time, unaware that he was actually an Ashhkenazic Jew and not a Persian/Azerbaijani/Latverian/etc., diagnosed him with Reynaud's disease and treated him accordingly, even though it's far more likely that he actually had Buerger's disease, which afflicts primarily male Ashkenazim, especially heavy smokers (which Lev/Essad/Not-Edward really, truly, indisputably was).
As awful as this sounds, it's oddly fitting that this enigmatic, talented, and ultimately unknowable man died at least in part thanks to twenty years of living as something he was not.
Have you ever considered taking on another identity? Did you write Ali and Nino? Has anyone other than CFK even heard of Lev Nussimbaum? Now is the time to confess all...
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