Sergei Tolstoy, the great-grandson of Leo Tolstoy, hopes to pen his tale

By T. Rees Shapiro
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, June 26, 2010; C01

As a vestige of Russian aristocracy and heir to a literary legacy, he is an unlikely resident of St. Mary's Court, a low-income assisted-living facility in Foggy Bottom.

The 87-year-old with the wispy silver hair bounces about his humble efficiency, cluttered with bottles of antibiotics, stacks of medical records and old newspaper clippings. He's looking for a book.

"I have something I want to show you," he calls to me over the blaring television.

Here, on the top floor of St. Mary's Court, lives Count Sergei Tolstoy, great-grandson of the "War and Peace" novelist Leo Tolstoy.

Not so long ago, he reveled in the luxuries his last name and aristocratic status afforded him. He dined with dignitaries in Washington's finest restaurants. His taste was so exquisite and his style so extravagant that a cigar company named a Cohiba for him.

Now he says his only income is a $213 monthly check from Social Security. His monthly rent at St. Mary's Court, where he has resided for 19 years, is $64. After utilities, what's left he spends at the nearby convenience store on magazines and licorice.

"I'm living like a bohemian," he jokes with a rascally grin. "I beg, borrow and steal."

According to people who have known him for more than 30 years, Tolstoy's money is gone, vanished, lost at the betting windows of the Laurel, Bowie, Timonium and Pimlico racetracks he used to roam six days a week.

"I made my bread and butter at the track," he says. "Many rich ladies wanted to marry me and become Countess Tolstoy. It is too late now, but I could have been a millionaire."

The book he wants to show is a Tolstoy encyclopedia sold at the museum of his great-grandfather's Russian estate, Yasnaya Polyana.

This August, Tolstoy says, he hopes to travel to Yasnaya Polyana to mark the 100th anniversary of his great-grandfather's death. It will be a celebration of the writer's life and works and a reunion of the Tolstoys.

Before Leo Tolstoy died at age 82 in November 1910, he had 13 children. During the Bolshevik Revolution, the Tolstoy family fled Russia seeking refuge across Europe. Today more than 200 descendants are spread across four continents; the Yasnaya Polyana estate keeps a record of all members of the vast family.

Inside the book, he shows me a genealogical record of the family listed by number (Leo Tolstoy's children were the first 13). His number -- cross-checked by the date of birth listed on his passport -- is 56, and of all the living descendants it is one of the lowest.

Among his last hopes for income is a tale he spins to anyone who will listen. After World War II, he says, he was recruited by the U.S. Army to serve undercover. He wants to write a book about his adventurous life.

He says he's lucky even to have a place to live. In the early 1990s, Tolstoy says, his high-flying lifestyle got him kicked out of the rooms he rented in a classy brownstone on 32nd Street NW. For a time, he was of no fixed address and had a nickname.

"They called me 'The Homeless Count.' "

* * *

This story started as a line in an obituary: "Survivors include her son, Sergei Tolstoy, of Washington."

Scrolling through The Post's archives, I came across the 1999 obituary of Vera Tolstoy, daughter of Leo Tolstoy's son, Ilya. When she died at 96, she was among the last survivors of the Russian family to have known her famous grandfather. I wondered whether Sergei still lived in the area. I found several Tolstoys, including one at St. Mary's Court on 24th Street. I eventually found him at a residence in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., where his mother had lived when she died.

Through our phone conversations over several months, Tolstoy told me he moved to the United States in the late 1960s to live with his mother, who once had a home in the Cleveland Park area of Washington. He was born on Oct. 20, 1922, in what was then Yugoslavia. His mother married a Czech lumber baron, but the marriage was annulled so he grew up with his mother's last name.

He spent most of his youth in Paris, where he lived like a bohemian then, as well. He roomed with artist friends and appeared as an extra in movies. He rubbed elbows with Warren Beatty and Elizabeth Taylor. He once gambled with Omar Sharif on a game of bridge.

His most notable cameo was in the epic World War II film "The Longest Day." He plays the role of a German soldier guarding a railroad bridge. For a moment, he occupies the screen alone until the bridge is blown up.

Tolstoy discovered his love for thoroughbred racing in Paris. At Washington's tracks he worked as a tout around the paddocks, offering to sell his tips about the hot horses and jockeys. Throughout the years, he'd place his own bets, too, recouping losses by teaching Russian and French on the side.

"At the racetrack, you have all these fictional characters that are real-life people," says Ross Peddicord, a former Baltimore Sun horse racing reporter. "Sergei was such a charmer. It was like he walked right out of 'Anna Karenina.' "

In his retirement, Tolstoy spends winters in Florida. He has a friend there, Ellen Hamilton, who wants to help him write his book. She lives in Winter Park, Fla., and is the founder of the Florida International Piano Competition. She has spent hours recording his stories as a supposed spy for the Army.

It was 1946 and relations between the United States and communist Russia were tense. Tolstoy says his spy mission was to steal a Russian map that documented American positions around Europe. The map, Tolstoy said, would prove the Russians were not trustworthy allies and justify future American action against the communists.

For the risky mission, he says, he was Army Capt. Serge Longfellow, lest his real identity be revealed and used for propaganda: A Tolstoy caught spying on his own Russian people. He says his cover was as an interpreter tasked with accompanying an American officer to the Russian headquarters in East Berlin for an intelligence briefing.

Around lunchtime, the Russians brought out a bottle of vodka and tried to get Tolstoy and the American officer drunk. Tolstoy was prepared, though, and had swallowed a few cups of olive oil before the mission, to coat his stomach and neutralize the alcohol's effects.

During the meal, with everyone at the table thoroughly inebriated, Tolstoy excused himself to go to the bathroom. He headed upstairs, found the incriminating document in the drawer of a study and stuffed it in his pants. He returned to West Berlin safely, but the Americans apparently decided the map was not enough proof for an assault.

Tolstoy complains that he's never received recognition or a military pension. His book, he hopes, will make up for the money he feels he's owed for risking his life as a soldier-spy.

* * *

I finally meet Tolstoy in early May, after he has returned from his winter in Florida. He is legally blind, so Hamilton drove him up. He tells me the administrators at St. Mary's Court were trying to kick him out for not paying rent while he was away.

He knows he should have paid, he says, but money is tight. Hamilton, he tells me, will occasionally lend him cash to pay his debts. She refers to herself as Tolstoy's agent and says they have both signed a contract on the details of his book's publication.

"Ellen wants 50 percent of the earnings from the book," he tells me. "But it's my book. Why should she get half of the money if it is my story?"

He shows me the proposed cover of his book, which he says Hamilton is trying to have published this summer.

So far, her search for material to verify Tolstoy's spy story has come up dry. Tolstoy says he's not surprised that his service in the military has a short paper trail. He says he was not a U.S. citizen until the late 1960s so a search of his Social Security number through military databases should not produce a result.

On his dresser is a photograph of his great-grandfather. Tolstoy says he tries to live his life according to the Russian writer's principles.

This August, he will be among the oldest at the Tolstoy reunion, and he often considers his own legacy. In Paris, he was married for 10 years to a woman he never talks about except to say she died of alcoholism. He has no children, and many of his friends have passed on.

"At my age, I don't have long to live anyway," he tells me, noting how he hopes his book will tell his story for future generations.

Before I leave, Tolstoy offers to celebrate our meeting with a shot of Russian vodka. I decline, but he is not disappointed. He is clearly just showing his appreciation to have someone to talk to.

"Thank you, Shapiro, thank you," he calls before I close the door. "Au revoir."

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