The King and I
EMPIRE & ODYSSEY
The Brynners in Far East Russia and Beyond
By Rock Brynner
Steerforth. 331 pp. $29.95
"Yul has an extra quart of champagne in his veins," an admirer once said of Yul Brynner, the exotic, charismatic actor who ruled Broadway and Hollywood for several decades and won an Academy Award for his signature role as the King of Siam in "The King and I."
In fact, as Empire and Odyssey reveals, Yul Brynner had the most fascinating mixture imaginable in his DNA, which accounts for the intriguing and glamorous persona that emerged.
Yul Brynner created many myths about himself, among them that he was born of a gypsy and a Mongolian Prince. But, as this family biography by his son, Rock, shows, the true story is even more extraordinary. The author is also an historian, and, unlike so many celebrity biographies, his book shows the research and panoramic view of an academic true to his calling.
In recounting the saga of four generations of the Brynner dynasty, Rock takes us from mid 19th-century Switzerland where Jules Bryner, the family patriarch, was born, to Vladivostok in Far Eastern Russia, where he settled and prospered until the Communist Revolution. The Brynner family then followed a typical trajectory of the Russian diaspora -- China, Paris, London, New York and Los Angeles with various detours along the way. The odyssey finally concludes with Rock's return to Vladivostok, made possible by the end of the Cold War.
It is a compelling story. The first Jules Bryner (originally spelled with one n; "Jules" and "Yul" are variations of the same name), of serious mien, was born into a simple Lutheran family in Switzerland, but wanderlust took him from his fatherland at a young age. He worked his way on a pirate ship to Shanghai and later to Yokohama. An astute businessman, he created a prosperous shipping agency in the rapidly opening Russian Far East. When he arrived in Vladivostok in the 1870s, it was "a collection of wood shacks set along a sleepy harbor that received only two dozen vessels a year." Jules set about to create an ideal port for his shipping company. He joined forces with other European businessmen who sensed the vast potential of this virgin city -- especially after the Trans-Siberian railroad made it possible to travel all the way West to St. Petersburg. Eventually, he became a very wealthy industrialist and one of the city's founding fathers.
In 1882, Jules married Natalya Kurkutova, who had a Tartar ancestor in her family tree. (This may explain why the actor Yul did indeed look like a descendant of Ghengis Khan.) His 16-year-old bride subsequently gave him six children, among them Boris Julievitch, the father of Yul.
By all accounts, and judging from the many wonderful photographs in the book, Boris was devastatingly handsome, and as an heir to great wealth, cut quite a princely figure, whether on tiger shoots, riding his favorite horse or traveling throughout Europe. He was also well-educated, with a degree from the Mining Institute in St. Petersburg, "the finest geological institution in the world . . . founded in 1773 by Catherine the Great." By this time the Bryner fortune also included vast timber holdings and the Tetukhe mines, noted for their silver, lead and zinc, which employed as many as 3,000 miners.