Remembering Eliena Krylenko Eastman: Painter, Dancer, Poet

by Christoph Irmscher

When I was writing my biography of the writer, ex-socialist, and poet Max Eastman, one character kept pushing herself into the foreground—his second wife Eliena Krylenko.   There was a reason.  Eastman, one of the most flamboyant figures among the Greenwich Village radicals, had plenty of charisma.  But everyone who met Eliena agreed that she outshone him.  Her papers and artwork at the Lilly Library allow us to piece together a life worth remembering.  Eliena was small but athletic, even muscular, exuding an aura of easy confidence wherever she went.  Born in Lublin, Poland, on May 4, 1895, to exiled Russian parents, she spoke English fluently, well enough at any rate to crack jokes, often at her own expense. Her family background was spectacular: she was the sister of Stalin’s Prosecutor General, Nikolai Krylenko, whose blood-soaked career left a permanent imprint on the twentieth century.  One of the things for which Nikolai is justly famous is his observation that it was important to execute not just the guilty but also the innocent. Eventually, what Nikolai had started caught up with him, too, as it did with all other members of Eliena’s family:  in 1938, after a trial lasting only 20 minutes, he was unceremoniously shot.  Eliena’s grief for her brother was limited:  “You died in silence, bruised and defamed, / By your own error, not by their deceit,” she wrote in a sonnet she dedicated to his memory (“They,” of course, were the Stalinists).

Max had met Eliena in 1922, when she was attending the Genoa conference as a member of the staff of Maxim Litvinov, the First Deputy People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet regime. As Max remembered later, Eliena, intrigued by the handsome American, made the first move.  Their on-again, off-again affair continued in Moscow, where they finally lived together.  In the summer of 1924, getting ready to return home, Max somewhat diffidently agreed to marry Eliena, who had found herself under increasing political pressure.  Being able to leave the Soviet Union likely saved her life.   If the naturally promiscuous Max thought their vows were a formality, he was in for a surprise:  Eliena was and remained fiercely committed to their marriage.  She moved to Croton-on-Hudson with Max, and although her primary source of information about American culture had been Huckleberry Finn, which her father used to read to her, she settled easily into her new life.  A lawyer by training, she took painting lessons, learned to drive, taught language classes in New York, and made herself available as a translator, later helping her husband with the massive task of rendering Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution into English.

Eliena Eastman on the Vineyard
Eliena Eastman on the Vineyard, Eastman Mss. II, Addition 1

Helped by funds from Reader’s Digest, the Eastmans acquired property on Martha’s Vineyard. Eliena managed their rental income, keeping a watchful eye over all expenses.  No tenant got away with anything; a letter survives in which she instructs their local agent to make sure that the tenants paid cash even for the light bulbs they ordered.  She also offered free instruction in interpretive dance to the Vineyard children.  As a painter, Eliena was cautious and conservative, combining an interest in finely observed detail with a good sense for atmosphere and mood.  A lovely charcoal drawing from a pad she carried with her on a trip to Cuba reveals her quick eye for scenery:  a hazy beach scene, with a freighter looming in the background, dominated by the sheer endless ocean that renders everything else indistinct, including the faceless adults and children pursuing their different activities—playing in the water, sitting in the sand, picking something up, or just standing there, staring. One cannot really tell where the beach ends and the water begins.

Undated Sketch by Eliena Krylenko Eastman, Eastman Mss. II, Addition 1: Yvette and Eliena Eastman Artwork, The Lilly Library
Undated Sketch by Eliena Krylenko Eastman, Eastman Mss. II, Addition 1: Yvette and Eliena Eastman Artwork, The Lilly Library

To his credit, Max did what he could to further Eliena’s artistic career, including helping pay for a trip to France in the summer of 1953, when Eliena exhibited her work in a gallery in Paris.  Eliena, in turn, defended him when his former friends criticized him for his apparent defection to the right side of the political spectrum.  But she reserved special condemnation for those of Max’s lovers who, disappointed that his main loyalty was to Eliena, publicly maligned him.  In the letters the couple exchanged, the code word for Max’s affairs was “seizures”—nothing bad, episodes that would pass, a blip on the all-encompassing horizon of their love.

It seems difficult now to understand Eliena’s devotion to a man who, in many ways, didn’t seem to deserve it. An extraordinarily tender, unpublished poem by Eliena from the early 1950s that has survived among Max’s papers perhaps sheds some light on the situation. In “To Max,” Eliena evokes a walk she took with Max across the shimmering moors.  They ended up next to a spring:

Wild roses grew there, pink and innocent, although full

Of nasty thorns, and dark green spearmint, cool

And fragrant, and a tall leafy weed, the like of which, I think,

I never saw before.  It had bell-shaped small

Gold blossoms and pale-green suede-like leaves.

Ever the naturalist, Max readily identifies the plant, a beautiful orange-blossomed annual species native to North America, which is indeed common in bottomland soils, ditches, and along creeks.  Also known as “touch-me-not,” since its seedpods explode when lightly touched, the plant derives its name from the fact that the leaves will assume a silvery shine when held under water.  Max had known it since he was a child.

“It’s Jewel-weed,” you said and bending over,

The round crystal pool, the clearest mirror,

In which your face so dear appeared reflected,

You dipped a slender branch of it in water …

What follows is an epiphany Eliena applies to her relationship with Max, in a fashion that will perhaps seem unappealing to the sophisticated reader of poetry.  But this poem was not intended to be a literary artifact. Instead, it is an intimate declaration of love, as fragile and as powerful and complex as the moment it commemorates:

Gay with a happy wonder, laughingly I watched

Enchanting miracle—that dull simple reed

Transformed in shining, sparkling work of jade and silver,

Aquiver with a million multicolored gems;

And then I watched your lovely lips and eyes,

Over which ripples moved, gentle and timid,

And thought—“You are the pool, and I that Jewel-weed.”

At first, the poem’s conclusion might seem too meek and mild, with Eliena, the jewel-weed, admitting that she needs Max, her crystal pool, to shine.   But such a reading forgets that, in the context of the analogy she has created, Eliena is the multicolored miracle, the hidden, explosive source of wonder, light, and power, while Max is merely the mirror in which she finds herself reflected.

Eliena died on October 9, 1956, at their shared Vineyard home, in view of her beloved ocean and in Max’s arms, after a painful bout with ovarian cancer.  “I love you so very much,” were Max’s final words to her.  “I am so very glad you do,” Eliena responded.  Max was left behind, in the shadows.

Note:  This essay uses material from Eastman Mss. II and Eliena Eastman Mss., both held by the Lilly Library.  It appears here by permission of the executor of the Eastman estate, Breon Mitchell.  Eliena’s story is told more fully in my biography of Max Eastman, Max Eastman: A Life, just out from Yale University Press.

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