The King and I
The son of Yul Brynner traces the family's roots around the world.

Reviewed by Selwa Roosevelt
Sunday, June 18, 2006

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.

The debonair young Boris seemed to have everything. He married Maria Blagovidova, who gave birth to Vera in 1916 and then to Yul in 1920, both born in the Bryner mansion. But the family's carefree days were numbered. The Communist revolution finally enveloped the Russian Far East. Jules was almost 70 when the Russian Empire collapsed, and with it his own. He died four months after Yul was born.

Boris decided to move his family to Chinese-controlled Harbin, which was quickly becoming a mecca for Russian refugees. However, he stayed behind to rescue the Tetukhe mines and other Bryner interests and to work out a deal with the Soviets. He made frequent trips to Moscow and with his considerable charm and tenacity managed to keep the mines alive. The Bryners relied on their Swiss passports to protect them, even though the Soviets regarded them as "Russian capitalists."

In Moscow, separated from his wife and two children, Boris fell in love with Katya Kornakova, a stunning, talented actress and protégé of Konstantin Stanislavsky, co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre. "There, a revolution in the theater was unfolding even as the Communist revolution proceeded at the Kremlin," Rock writes, "in the decades to come, the Bryner family would be affected as much by the former revolution as by the latter."

But the Soviet revolution would eventually catch up with them. In the end, the Bryners lost most of their wealth, and Boris, Katya and their daughter were arrested and held prisoners for six months, "interrogated, intimidated, and starved." Even so, they were among the lucky ones who managed to escape the gulag or worse thanks to the enormous diplomatic efforts of the Swiss government.

Meanwhile, Yul, his sister Vera and their mother finally left Harbin and made their way to Paris, where they lived for most of the 1930s. This was the Paris of Marc Chagall, Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, Igor Stravinsky and Serge Diaghilev, a haven for White Russians. Here, the teenage Yul took off on his own and lived with a family of gypsies. He learned to play the seven-string guitar and developed a repertoire of traditional Russian folk songs that he sang in nightclubs. After a stint as a lifeguard at Deauville, he joined the circus and became a trapeze artist. For a brief period he became addicted to opium but kicked the habit. Finally, he began to study the theater in earnest under the tutelage of Michael Chekhov, nephew of the great writer Anton Chekhov.

"From the trapeze and the nightclubs, Yul had learned the power of virility," Rock writes, "from Chekhov he learned the power of gentleness." Rock goes on to say that Yul radiated physicality. "He perfected vocal expression as well as physical delivery of a song, learning to gauge the immediacy and the degree of 'presence' that was called for."

After Hitler invaded France, Yul, Vera and their mother fled to New York City, which became their home for several decades and where Yul finally began his career as a Broadway star in "Lute Song." It was only a short time before Yul starred in "The King and I" and enjoyed subsequent decades of fame and adoration.

According to Hollywood lore, Yul was irresistible to the ladies. His well-known affair with Marlene Dietrich began when she was 41 and he was 21, and "their romance, which would continue off-and-on for two decades, was relentless and passionate," Rock writes. (Over the course of his star-filled life, Yul Brynner married four times. His first wife was Rock's mother, the actress Virginia Gilmore. But he also bedded a procession of famous actresses, including Marilyn Monroe.)

Rock's take on his father is loving and understanding, warts and all. "For all but a few well-grounded individuals, stardom produces an artificial and unbalanced relationship with the rest of humanity," he observes. "Psychologically, the relentless attention of complete strangers is abnormal, and gradually induces a state of perpetual self-consciousness -- not self-awareness, but self-centeredness. It is not surprising that stars feel entitled to exceptional treatment when privilege is constantly reinforced by acquaintances and strangers alike, and stardom seems to overrule civil conventions. In the midst of such exceptionalism, the golden rule is easily suspended."

After this gripping and well-written account of the first three generations, Rock's own story might have seemed less dramatic. But before he earned a PhD. in history from Columbia University, he had some memorable adventures of his own -- as a writer, musician, computer programmer, farmer, pilot, band manager and bodyguard to Muhammad Ali.

Surely his happiest accomplishment was his decision to return to Vladivostok to lecture at the invitation of the State Department. Thus he finally was able to reconnect with the Brynner past and bring the family odyssey full circle.

Rock was welcomed as a hero in Vladivostok, and the people who turned out, he discovered, were not just Yul Brynner fans. "Many were there in search of a usable past, a familiar phenomenon since the fall of Communism. After three generations in a totalitarian state that had erased, distorted, renamed or outlawed any honest history, most Russians . . . are now desperately eager to recover their pre-Soviet history, rather than have no history at all."

On this and subsequent trips, Rock visited the Bryner residence to see the room where Yul was born. It now houses the headquarters of FESCO, Jules's original Far East Shipping Company. He inspected the Tetukhe mines, made a host of new friends and fell in love with a beautiful Russian woman. And so reconnecting with that land inspired him to begin research about his forebears. With this book, Rock Brynner has done them proud. ·

Selwa Roosevelt is a Washington journalist and former chief of protocol for the Reagan White House.

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