by Warren M. Sherk
In June 2006, this website posted an article on Michael Khariton and Dimitri Tiomkin that documented the intersection of their pianistic careers, taking them from Berlin to Paris to New York during the Roaring Twenties. Now, thirteen years later, more information has come to light based on available online resources and newly-discovered references.
To start, Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez, research fellows of the Truman Institute at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel, have determined that Mikhail Khariton was a first cousin of Yuli Khariton, the Russian nuclear physicist known as “the father of the Soviet atomic bomb.” Mikhail’s and Yuli’s fathers, Mark and Boris respectively, were brothers. Their father, Yosif Khariton, was a sugar merchant, or a warehouse manager for one, in Feodosia, Crimea.
Ginor and Remez are subject specialists in the Soviet military and intelligence involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Isabella Ginor is a former Soviet/Russian affairs specialist for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz and Gideon Remez is the former head of foreign news for Israel Radio. Their book, Foxbats over Dimona: The Soviets’ Nuclear Gamble in the Six-Day War (Yale, 2007), received the Washington Institute Book Prize silver medal in 2008. They recently published a sequel, The Soviet-Israeli War, 1967-1973: The USSR’s Military Intervention in the Egyptian-Israeli Conflict (Oxford University Press, 2017).
An article by Ginor and Remez, “Her Son, the Atomic Scientist: Mirra Birens, Yuli Khariton, and Max Eitingon’s Services for the Soviets,” appeared in the Journal of Modern Jewish Studies in 2012. The article is now being expanding into a book-length dual biography.
Ginor and Remez provided the following details from their article on Yuli Khariton that documents the expatriate-Russian musical activity in the family’s Berlin salon. During those Berlin years, in addition to Yuli’s mother and stepfather Mirra and Max Eitingon who lived there, his father (and Mikhail’s uncle) Boris Khariton—a prominent St. Petersburg journalist—also spent some time there. Boris Khariton was among a group of leading intellectuals who were expelled from Soviet Russia in 1922 on board the “philosophers’ steamer,” an expression used by historians for the ships that deported the leading thinkers. Boris worked for a while in Berlin before settling in Riga, Latvia. Yuli himself visited Berlin at least twice, in 1926 and 1928 on his way to and from Cambridge University, but that’s already later than the Tiomkin-Mikhail Khariton activity there. (Michael Khariton’s father Mark had another son, David, a year younger than Michael, who was a lawyer in Russia. His son Lev (b. 1945), is a chess master living in New York who was assistant to the Russian world chess champion Mikhail Botvinnik and is also a prolific writer. Lev’s uncle Michael would die before he was born.)
There was considerable expatriate-Russian musical activity in the Eitingons’ Berlin salon, for example, appearances by the pianist-composer Herman Lowtzky and the singer Nadezhda Plevitzkaya, whose later notoriety as a Soviet agent (as immortalized in, among others, Nabokov’s The Assistant Producer) puts her at the center of the story told by Ginor and Remez. Mirra did keep in touch with some of her ex-husband’s friends and relations, which besides her own previous Russian-showbiz connections would also indicate some probable mutual awareness, if not relationship, with the Tiomkin-Khariton duo.
While we do not know the exact date of Tiomkin’s arrival in Berlin in 1922, Ginor and Remez located two mentions of Khariton—using the German spelling Chariton—in the music periodical and concert guide, Konzertführer Berlin, for entries dated October 8, 1922, and February 2, 1923. “Dmitri Tiomkin” appears in a later publication for his appearance as piano soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra on December 12, 1923.
Beyond their article, Ginor and Remez discovered a reference to Tiomkin and Khariton in volume one of a four-volume work, L’emigration Russe. A Russian-language newspaper, Vozrozhdenie (La Renaissance), was published daily in Paris and on July 19, 1925, include an announcement for a concert by Tiomkin and Khariton on a piano with a double-keyboard that was specially constructed and installed for them at the Salle Comedia. The paper can be viewed here.
“Two pianos built into one” was a feature of the Tiomkin-Khariton duo in America, where the pianists were now part of the Albertina Rasch vaudeville program, accompanying dance routines and playing Classical music for large audiences in the waning days of silent film.
The pianists debut in Washington, D.C., in December 1925, was reported in a local newspaper, “B. F. Keith’s Theater will for its new year bill an unusual show, headed by Albertina Rasch, creator of the American ballet, who brings with her Jacques Cartier, the celebrated dancer, and, for their first appearance in America, Russia’s duo piano virtuosos, Tiomkin and Khariton with a score or more of Albertina Rasch dancers.”
In January 1926, at the Mark Strand Theatre in New York, the “New Strand Frolics” featured an eccentric dance by Rita Owen “followed by a Duo Piano number introducing Dimitri Tiomkin and Michel Khariton who play ‘Valse in C Sharp Minor’ and ‘Polonaise’ in A Flat Major (Chopin).” “Two grand pianos are placed center, the pianists facing each other against a silver drop toned rose and blue with black patent leather drapes at the extreme sides caught up with a red cord.”
At the Stanley Theater in Philadelphia in February 1926, the piano duo helped celebrate the theater’s fifth anniversary. “The film offering and surrounding attractions at the Stanley theatre during its fifth anniversary week formed one of the finest bills seen in that house since its opening…” began a report in Exhibitors Herald. After Albertina Rasch personally performed in a special ballet for anniversary week, “The background changed to a colorful interior scene, with Tiomkin and Khariton, famous Russian pianist duo, who played a Chopin waltz and Liszt’s ‘Second Hungarian Rhapsody’ in brilliant style.”
We believe Tiomkin and Khariton went their separate ways between March and May 1926, after their contract with Gest expired and before the wedding of Tiomkin to Albertina Rasch. More research is needed to pinpoint their last performance together.
During the first week of December 1926, the “Khariton Duo / Pianists Extraordinary,” as billed in a newspaper print ad, appeared in the nation’s capital at Loew’s Palace Theater prior to screenings of The Ace of Cads starring Adolphe Menjou. The same newspaper names Tiomkin as the other half of the duo. Could the newspaper be mistaken? That same week Tiomkin would have been preparing for his solo Town Hall concert in New York on December 11. And Khariton did form the Khariton Duo with Vladimir Brenner after breaking with Tiomkin; however, the earliest evidence we’ve found dates that duo to 1929.
Remarkably, the performing careers of Tiomkin and Khariton continued on a parallel path for some time after their split.
In October 1927 Khariton played his own composition, “Russian Tango,” with the National Concert Orchestra under the direction of David Buttolph. (By 1933, Buttolph had joined the exodus from New York to Hollywood to write for sound pictures.) Khariton also composed “Martha Tango,” copyright January 28, 1928.
In November 1928, Khariton was involved in a late night or early morning incident on the streets of New York. A chauffeur was annoying the pianist and fearing assault Khariton had a policeman arrest the man who was not detained after Khariton declined a file a complaint. The chauffeur then turned around and accused Khariton of robbery. Khariton re-summoned the police who arrested the chauffeur after he admitted he had been drinking. In court, the driver was fined by a judge for disorderly conduct.
For an orchestral concert on the WEAF radio network, Khariton’s name appears alongside musical celebrities such as Arturo Toscanini, Erno Rapee, and Walter Damrosch in a list of the top ten outstanding events for the week beginning February 24, 1929.
Khariton gave recitals in 1931 and 1932 at the posh Hotel Ritz-Carlton in New York City.
By the mid-1930s the pianist had relocated to Los Angeles where he would continue to find sporadic concert work.
Broadening his horizons, Khariton served as piano soloist for Tschaikovsky’s first piano concerto with the Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional conducted by Julián Carrillo at the Palacio de Bellas Artes Teatro in Mexico City on May 21, 1935.
A month later it was announced in Variety that Khariton had been booked for “another engagement” as soloist with the “new” Mexican Symphony for a concert at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City.
The same trade publication notes his return to Los Angeles from a concert tour of Mexico in late December of 1935.
Curiously, there is a reference in the “Historia del Teatro Peón Contreras” to a February 21 performance that may have taken place in Merida, Mexico by the Russian ballerina Xenia Zarina and pianist Michael Khariton that is mentioned in the 1935 book, Glass Moon, by Brownell Carr. Carr writes, “The General stands out for doing anything except going to hear Michael Khariton play the piano and watching Xenia Zarina dance.”
(An interesting aside, in addition to Glass Moon, Brownell Carr also had published a 1935 book of poetry, The Pirate’s Knife, and a 1936 book on his travels to the Soviet Union, Black Bread and Cabbage Soup. A Google search yields no biographical information; however, from a little sleuthing on abebooks.com and ancestry.com we learn that Brownell Carr was a pseudonym for Lionel Grow Tompkins (1890-1977). Did Lionel adopt the pseudonym of Brownell Carr to honor the memory of his older brother who died at age twenty-three? Lionel’s brother was Brownell Carr Tompkins (1886-1910), Brownell’s middle name apparently came from their grandmother, Julia Carr. During the 1920s, Lionel worked as an advertising manager for the Cable Company in Chicago and managed the Victrola department. The Victrola was a phonograph player with an internal horn manufactured by the Victor Talking Machine Company. In the 1930s, Lionel was the administrative secretary and general sales manager for the self-service grocery store chain, Piggly Wiggly Corp, at an office in Cincinnati. During World War II he worked for Encyclopedia Britannica in Chicago.)
In Los Angeles, Khariton concertized around the Southland in 1936, appearing in Pasadena in February and San Bernardino in March, when the pianist made an appearance with the junior college orchestra [eds. note: present-day San Bernardino Valley College] playing “one of the 16 concertos he plays from memory.”
In October 1936, Khariton was arrested by Federal immigration authorities on a charge of being in the United States illegally.
From behind bars at the Los Angeles county jail he told the San Bernardino Sun of his dilemma.
“What this is all about I do not know,” the famous musician said, in sorrow, not in anger. “Twice I come to this country and each time I get an extension of my visiting visa. Then, behold, the police they come and get me, and here I am.”
Khariton wrote to Tiomkin in May 1937 and noted that the Immigration Department granted him permission to stay in the country; however, Khariton died less than two years after spending time in jail.
New light has been shed on the May 1937 letter from Khariton to Tiomkin. For one, the middle two pages are missing from the photocopy supplied by USC from the Dimitri Tiomkin Collection for translation. As Ginor and Remez relate,
The pdf of the original letter in Russian includes only pages 1 and 4 of a four-page letter, so we couldn’t check all the text against the translation. But on page 1 “Israel” is grammatically treated in the masculine. Therefore, when the translation says “my wonderful wife, Israel, and my music” it means “my wife and Israel”—two persons, with Israel evidently being some man or boy very close to Khariton. As on the first page he writes to this Israel, this couldn’t be a very young boy but otherwise we can’t tell. “Musia” is simply a Russian diminutive nickname for Mikhail and his cousin Yuli was called “Lusia.”
Tiomkin may have helped Khariton gain studio employment. In February 1938, while employed in the music department at Roach, Khariton underwent a major operation at what is today Cedars-Sinai hospital. He died at home in August of the following year. According to his obituary, prior to his illness he was employed by Hal Roach and United Artists. More research is needed on his employment with film studios at the end of his life. His obituary in Variety noted, “Khariton and Dimitri Tiomkin, as a novelty piano duo, supported Albertina Rasch in vaudeville.”
Khariton’s second wife, known professionally as Eloise Gilbert, was born Eloise Greenburg (1907-2003). Also a pianist, she was associated with the Alfred Mirovitch studio, as an assistant teacher to the Russian pianist, who himself was a first cousin to Russian pianist Ossip Gabrilowitsch. In 1975, Eloise was living under the name Eloise Alberta Henline.
Michael and Eloise lived together at 2223 Cochran Avenue in Los Angeles, according to the City Directory of 1938, the year of his death.
Khariton’s musical legacy lives on through a piano roll of the Air de Ballet, Op. 36, No. 5, by German composer Moritz Moszkowski that he recorded for the Aeolian Company in 1928.
- The Talking Machine World, February 15, 1920. [mentions Lionel Tompkins]
- Mirovitch, Russian Pianist,” Boston Sunday Post, April 10, 1921 [On Alfred Mirovitch, first cousin of Ossip Gabrilowitch [sic]]
- Pacific Coast Musician, Vol. XLI, no. 3, October 15, 1921 [item on pianist Alfred Mirovich]
- Konzertführer: der Berliner Kulturspiegel [periodical], in the “Konzertführer Berlin-Brandenburg 1920-2012” collection consulted online through the “Staatliches Institut für Musikforschung” (SIM), a research institution for musicology.
- “Amusements,” Evening Star, Washington, D. C., December 23, 1925 [on Tiomkin and Khariton debut with Albertina Rasch]
- “Mark Strand Frolics,” Moving Picture World, January 30, 1926 [on Khariton and Tiomkin]
- “Current Presentations: Acts Reported This Week,” Exhibitors Herald, February 13, 1926 [on Khariton and Tiomkin]
- “Kindler, Rasch, Piano Duo and DePace Team, Hit in Birthday Show,” Exhibitors Herald, February 13, 1926
- “Attractions in Washington Theaters Next Week,” Evening Star, Washington, D. C., December 1, 1926
- “Loew’s Palace,” Evening Star, Washington, D. C., December 10, 1926 [print ad for the Khariton Duo]
- “Mme. Matzenauer in Recital Tonight,” Evening Star, October 9, 1927 [On Khariton soloist with the National Concert Orchestra]
- “Khariton Plays with National Orchestra,” Zanesville Signal, October 9, 1927
- CATALOGUE OF COPYRIGHT ENTRIES, PART 3: Musical Compositions, NEW SERIES, VOLUME 23, PART 1, FIRST HALF OF 1928, Nos. 1-6
- “New Music Roll Issues for May,” Music Trade Review, April 28, 1928
- “Gest’s Protégé in Court,” Variety, November 28, 1928
- “Ten Outstanding Events This Week,” New York Times, February 24, 1929
- “Music Notes,” New York Times, May 19, 1931 and May 19, 1932 [on Ritz-Carlton recitals]
- Almanac, Russian Artists in America, New York: Martinoff and Stern, 1932. [entry on Michael Khariton, page 71, not consulted, see WorldCat for libraries that hold this volume]
- Carr, Brownell. Glass Moon, Powell & White, 1935
- “Chatter: Mexico City,” Weekly Variety, June 19, 1935
- “Khariton Returns Here,” Daily Variety, December 24, 1935
- “Society Friends of Music Planning,” San Bernardino Sun, February 21, 1936 [on Khariton musicale at the Hotel Vista del Arroyo in Pasadena]
- “Superb Artist Returns,” San Bernardino Sun, March 19, 1936
- “Russian Pianist Held on Charge of Illegal Entry,” Los Angeles Times, October 8, 1936
- “Immigration Charge Jails Famed Pianist,” San Bernardino Sun, October 9, 1936
- “Music Week Will Be Observed in Piano Program,” Bakersfield Californian, April 8, 1937
- “Eloise Gilbert to Give Concert,” Bakersfield Californian, April 19, 1937
- “Here and There in Society,” Bakersfield Californian, May 6, 1937 [on Mr. and Mrs. Khariton, known professionally as Eloise Gilbert]
- “Ill in Pix,” Daily Variety, February 26, 1938
- “Mikhail Khariton Passes,”Daily Variety, August 25, 1938
- “Mikhail Khariton,” [obituary], Variety, August 31, 1938
- Cámara Zavala, Gonzalo, Historia del Teatro Peón Contreras, Mexico, 1947. Text is in Spanish.
- “Michael Kahriton [sic],” in the U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line], accessed from Ancestry.com, November 20, 2018 [listed address is 2223 Cochran Ave Los Angeles, CA 90016]
- L’emigration Russe: chronique de la vie scientifique, culturelle et sociale : 1920-1940,France (Paris: YMCA-Press and Moscow: Eksmo, 1995-1997). In 4 volumes, text in Russian. Bibliographic entry in the French collective catalogue SUDOC (Système Universitaire de Documentation).
- “Her Son, the Atomic Scientist: Mirra Birens, Yuli Khariton, and Max Eitingon’s Services for the Soviets,” by Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez, Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, volume 11, number 1, pages 39-59, published online, March 12, 2012.
- “El Palacio de Bellas Artes hace 80 años,” in Quodlibet, no. 18, Autumn 2015. Text is in Spanish. Contains image of 1935 concert program with Khariton and the Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional.
- Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez, email communications, October 27 and 29, 2018, November 16, 19, 20, 22, 2018, and December 9 and 18, 2018.