For 36 years, Ivy Low of London was married to the Bolshevik Maxim Litvinov, who spent nearly a decade of that time as Stalin's foreign minister and was Russia's ambassador to the United States during World War II - which as most peoples' biographies go is already pretty special.
But Madame Litvinov (she would probably consider the appellation pompous yet after meeting her it seems somehow appropriate) had a successful career of her own as a novelist and short story writer. Nine of her decidedly autobiographical stories appeared in the New Yorker as recently as 1966-70 when she was 80. They were later published as a collection under the title of one of them: "She Knew She Was Right."
Ivy Litvinov is now 87, a sturdy figure with a face of compelling strength and deep laugh lines topped with a rich crown of white hair. She lives in a Victorian row house in this seaside resort on a British old age pension and assorted other incomes (which to an outsider, at least, seem distressingly small). For almost a year her daughter Tanya, about 60 herself and a gifted translator of English literature, has been on an extended visit from Moscow and lives in an attic room.
"I left Moscow for good in 1972," Madame Litvinov writes in a fragment of the memoirs, tentatively titled "Lucky Old Woman," that she is collecting with Tanya's assistance. "My husband had been dead 21 years, my children had found themselves professions, married, had children of their own. Even grandchildren. It was time for me to 'go home' unless I was content to 'live abroad' until I died. Which I wasn't. My son Misha, his wife Flara, my daughter Tanya, her husband Slon, didn't want to lose me but they thought I ought to go. They could see I was becoming paralyzed with homesickness. I no longer had a home in England, but not to worry . . . "
After a time as something of a London salon celebrity - "the last question people would always ask me," she remarked wryly in a conversation the other day, "was let me see, when did you say your husband died?'" - Madame Litvinov accepted a friend's offer to move into the already furnished and reasonably priced flat in Hove.
"I'm awfully bored here, of course," she said, "on other hand I suppose it's good for me." Her preoccupation these days is those memoirs for which she has gathered stacks of letters and pictures, notes and assorted pieces. An article based on them was published last summer in the London Observer. But although the will is there, the project is going very slowly. Madame Litvinov's demands of her own writing are very great and she refuses to let a matter as frustratingly uncontrollable as advancing age impinge on those standards.
"I'm nearly 88," she said briskly, "I don't mind dying but I would like to write the book first." That is a wish others must share for it is a truly remarkable story.
Ivy Low was born on June 4, 1889 on Dowty Street in London which she describes in a sketch of her background as an area of "seedy boarding houses, dubious offices and agencies - cheap, dingy but convenient." The family soon moved to Cambridge where her father and young H.G. Wells, later the famous writer, read students papers for a correspondence college and then collaborated on a small weekly paper called "The Educational Times."
Her mother reviewed childrens' books, steeping Ivy in literature and language, which became the passions of her intellectual life. "My sister Letty and I," she writes, "wallowed in Annuals and Readers and Pink Fairy Books and Blue Fairy Books throughout our childhood."
Ivy adored her father but he died at 29 when she was only 5, "of overwork, neglect at home, undiagnosed tuberculosis and, I think, of grief and frustration. Yes, my mother neglected her young husband, ran into debt, forced him to join in a trivial social round when he came home exhausted, was unfaithful to him whenever an occasion rose and married again within a year of his death. But I have never for a moment doubted that she loved him passionately. Simply, she loved herself more."
Her mother's second marriage took Ivy to Harrow where she gradually adapted "to the ways and facts of shabby, genteel suburban life, its dullness and triviality warmed and illuminated by the remains of my father's library and the books Sandy (her stepfather) brought back from the London library every week for me to read."
After an unsatisfying fling with school - "I had a reputation for being frightfully talented so I kept being placed ahead of myself and then I would fail," she recalls - Ivy got a job as a stenographer at the Prudential Assurance Company, "where I was uniformly miserable, but . . . wrote two novels in the evenings and got them both published. I very soon left home to live my own life in Hampstead."
It was 1915 and she was 26 when Ivy first spotted a "portly stranger" on the streets of that picturesque section of north London. World War I was raging and Hampstead, she writes in another fragment, was "said to be teeming with 'Gallant Little Belgians.' It never occurred to me that he was anything else, until one day I heard him claim a post-restante letter and saw him fish a Russian passport out of his pocket. I was an enthusiastic reader of Russian writers and I knew Constance Garnett's translations of Tolstoy and Turgenev by heart, but I had no politics."
Maxim Litvinov, then about to be 40, was the pseudonym of Mordecai Wallach, born in the little town of Bialystock on the Russo-Polish frontier and a Jew. "His earliest memory," she writes, "was of being lifted from his cot in the night for two 'stranger men' to search the bedclothes and look under the mattress. His father did not belong to any secret organization, but was suspected of harboring illegal documents and giving a night's shelter to an anarchist friend."
Mordecai enlisted in the czarist army without waiting to be drafted because the time served would be shorter. Afterward he intended to go to a university in Germany. But fellow soldiers introduced him to Marxism and the notion of revolution and he landed in Kiev prison before his second year of service was over. He escaped and began the peripatetic life of a turn-of-the-century Russian revolutionary. "It was in a Berlin prison that he made a misguided attempt to teach himself English from a textbook," his wife observed, "an exercise from which his English never recovered."
After working in St. Petersburg for Lenin's underground newspaper "Iska," Litvinov went to London (the only other choice of the moment was exile in Siberia) and got a job there with the publishers Williams and Norgate. At the time he met Ivy, Litvinov was barely scraping out a living giving Russian lessons and selling English agricultural machinery on commission to Russian firms.
They finally got together after literally bumping into each other on the steps of a neighborhood public library. He married, Madame Litvinov writes, "almost against his will, certainly against his principles, for he believed a man deeply involved in revolutionary politics should keep himself free of personal encumbrances."
As far as she was concerned, "I had no idea that he was a very well-known man in the (Communist) party and in places in Europe. I had never even heard of Marx. He was just an unknown Russian emigre and being Jewish and all the rest of it, everyone thought I had married beneath me. And be thought so too."
After the Bolsheviks overthrew the Czar in 1917, Litvinov was named peoples' plenit-potentiary to the court of St. James. Not only did the British refuse to recognize the Communist, however, but when an English diplomat was detained in Russia, they also put Litvinov in jail. He finally managed to leave, but the family - Tanya and her brother Misha were infants - stayed behind until matters in Moscow settled down.
Litvinov was then named deputy commissar of foreign affairs and went on a series of missions for Lenin throughout Europe, joining up with Ivy and the children along the way. They finally arrived in Moscow in 1923 and were ensconced in a portion of a grand old building directly across from the Kremlin that belonged to a wealthy sugar merchant before the revolution (it is now the British embassy).
Those were exciting and very important years for Maxim Litvinov. He was at the center of Soviet diplomacy, perhaps the man most personally responsible for negotiating Soviet Russia's entry into the international community. His reputation as a skilled diplomat with a manner somewhat more urbane than that of most Bolsheviks helped him abroad. So did having an English wife - and a Boorzhioka (bourgeois) one at that. In 1930 Stalin made him commissar for foreign affairs and it was Litvinov who went to Washington in 1933 to establish diplomatic relations with the United States.
The mission, his wife now recalls, "was a cinch. It was popular on both sides: Roosevelt had long been for it and in the Soviet Union, any 'recognition' by a foreign power was a consummation devoutly to be wished. Litvinov was convinced that the successful outcome of his trip was a foregone conclusion. He was fond of saying that the transaction need not take more than a half-hour from start to finish. In fact, it took about a fortnight, allowing for a brief stopover in Rome on the way out and a single day in Berlin on the way back. Not bad going for protocol."
The family lived largely apart from Litvinov's official duties. At home the children received an upbringing that reflected more of their mother's relatively uninhibited ways than strict Russian convention. They were extremely privileged. When Stalin's wife, Nadezhda Allilueva, committed suicide, he gave the Litvinovs one of his personal dachas, a comfortable ride from their downtown quarters.They were waited on there by a staff (all of whom were secret police agents) and the children romped in the spacious grounds. It was an elegance few Russians of that time would ever see.
"We were not supposed to do anything for ourselves," Madame Litvinov remembers. "It was remarked of me with great awe 'they say she actually goes to the shops.' We weren't to do that because we might have been poisoned, you see." In a period of shortages and even famine, the security police were responsible for bringing the Litvinovs whatever they needed. The KGB bureaucratic title for that procedure was "cemya obyekt," family unit.
When the time came to leave the sugar merchant's house that was being turned over to the British embassy, the Litvinovs received a large apartment nearby. Before they moved in, though, Ivy was taken to a huge vault full of all sorts of furniture, mainly antiques, that had been seized after the revolution. "They gave me a list," she says, "and the commandant told me to put a nick next to anything I wanted. That is how we furnished the place."
While Maxim labored at the foreign ministry, Ivy began to teach basic English, adapting and even publishing a classic British text on the subject. "It sold out in no time and I was invited to give experimental classes to the Red Army and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs," she wrote in the London Observer, "but like many innovations it met with resistance and by the end of the term the experiment was voted a failure and discontinued."
The couple did not mix well with the other Soviet leaders of the day. As a foreigner, Ivy was particularly shunned. She described herself as the ultimate in a Moscow undesirable: "the undisciplined, self-absorbed daughter of a foreign petty bourgeoisie, totally uninterested in politics and ignorant of history."But Maxim was also a misfit. "He did not drink, hunt or take part in any of the virile pursuits of the rulers," she writes, "he wore elastic-sided, anklehigh boots, read the New Statesman (an English political weekly) . . . and carried a mahogany walking stick.
"His position - since the revolution and Lenin's death - was like that of a specialist invited from 'abroad,' his specialty being foreign affairs."
Considering all that, it was extraordinary that the Litvinvos were not among the first to go when Stalin began his great purges of the mid 1930s. To this day the family puzzles over why they were not wiped out as so many others were.
"If there was some old friend or acquaintance who hadn't seen me for a while," Madame Litvinov says, "he'd be surprised that I was still alive and walking the streets. I almost never thought about it though. Oh, that's not true really, I did have sleepless nights of terror of being arrested. They much have had dossiers on me to fill this flat three times over but they didn't choose to use them. Tanya's theory is that they thought, 'Oh well, she's just mad."
Litvinov began to sleep with a pistol under his pillow and told Ivy to knock on the door if the police should come for him and he would shoot himself. Yet it never came to that. In 1939 when Stalin was arranging his nonaggression pact with Hitler, Litvinov as a Jew and a staunch advocate of an alliance with Britain had to go. But he was only fired and allowed to go on living pretty much as before.
"I think he was such a rare bird for them," Madame Litvinov exlpains, "the only one among them who spoke English (even though he spoke abominably)." Other theories are that Stalin simply never got around to Litvinov, keeping him in reserve for some future purge. Or perhaps it was that Litvinov was so different from the other Bolsheviks - a technician in a way rather than a political man - that Stalin did not regard him as a threat. In any case, it is said that three times an arrest was ordered and then rescinded.
After the United States and Soviet Union became allies against the Nazis in 1941, Litvinov was recalled to the foreign ministry and sent to Washington as ambassador. Madame Litvinov recalls that somewhat surprisingly, the Roosevelt administration had reservations about her husband:
"Not confusing prestige with popularity," she writes in another fragment of the memoirs, "I know very well that the Americans found men like (Vy-cheslav) Molotov (then the foreign minister) and Andrei Gromyko (now the foreign minister, but then a counselor in the embassy) much easier to get on with. 'You knew where you were with them.' And where they were was where Stalin put them. So was Litvinov of course, but he seemed to be more difficult to keep in his place."
As for herself, she remembers that the time in Washington put a strain on her relations with Maxim: "I'd always find Russian Jew, emigres and such and spend my time with them to the fury of my husband who wanted me to go about with the right people. And I never did, you know."
The time in Washington was short because Litvinov fell out of phase with Stalin's thinking and was brought home. At that point, according to University of Illinois Prof. Vojtech Mastny, writing last year in the magazine Foreign Affairs, Litvinov called on U.S. Under Secretary of State Summer Welles and confided a dark view of the future: "The ambassador complained that he was unable to communicate with Stalin, whose isolation had bred a distorted view of the West . . . he gave vent to his frustration about the rigidity of the whole Soviet system."
Nonetheless, he retained a post at the foreign ministry and took part in the October 1943 foreign ministers' conference in Moscow. To his family and even to occasional visitors, though, he confided an increasingly gloomy view of the prospects for a post-war Soviet-American alliance.Finally in 1946 he was dismissed - but kept his pension.
Maxim Litvinov died of natural causes on Dec. 31, 1951. The family had long since lost the dacha and the other perquisties of power, but they lived quietly. Madame Litvinov started to write again after a long break. Tanya became a member of the Union of Writers, was married to a sculptor and had two daughters. Misha worked as an engineer and with his wife, Flara, had two children, Nina and Pavel.
It was young Pavel Litvinov who brought the family into public eye again. In 1968 he was arrested for taking part in a Red Square protest against the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. The sentence was four years of Siberian exile. Shortly after his release, Pavel and his family emigrated. They now live in New York.
Vera, one of Tanya's daughters, married Valery Chalidze, another leading dissident. When the couple was in the United States on a lecture tour in 1972, the Soviets withdrew Chalidze's citizenship. Masha, the other daughter, emigrated in 1974. Tanya's husband died and last March she received permission to come and stay with her mother.
Only Misha and Flara Litvinov and Nina, now married, remain in the Soviet Union. Madame Litvinov doubts she will ever see them again.