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    A Singer’s Revenge Saves Frederick’s Nightspot

    Shortly after the scandal with the Russian Imperial anthem (please see my previous post), Yury Morfessi’s Turkish benefactor unexpectedly died.  His heirs had no interest in continuing to sponsor the nightclub he had established, as a result of which Morfessi had to look for a new home.  He found a new partner, the famous Russian Gypsy singer Nastya Polyakova, and for the new location settled on an abandoned garden in the Chichli neighborhood.  What attracted them to this outlying location was that Frederick’s Stella was nearby and appeared to be doing very well.


    Yury Morfessi.  If you click on the image, you'll be taken to a recording of one of his famous songs--the tango "Chernye glaza" (Black Eyes)


    Nastya Polyakova.  If you click on the image, you'll be taken to a recording of one of her famous songs--"Rasstavaias', ona govorila" (While Parting, She Said)


    Morfessi and Polyakova named their garden “Strelna,” after a famous restaurant in pre-Revolutionary Moscow.  The name’s additional advantage, especially for foreign ears not attuned to the niceties of Russian phonetics, was that it echoed Frederick’s “Stella,” which, moreover, was only two short blocks north on the same street.  Thus, anyone heading to Stella from the city center would automatically pass Strelna first, whose entrance beckoned with a dazzling array of electric lights. 

    Whether plotted and planned, or the result of fortuitous coincidence, Morfessi’s and Polyakova’s strategy worked.  Strelna began to siphon off Stella’s clients, leading Morfessi to boast that as Thomas’ “‘Stella’ dimmed,” Strelna’s affairs “blossomed” and went “blissfully well.”  The drop in attendance at Stella could have been its death knell, especially because of all the other financial difficulties that still hung over Frederick.  But fortunately for him, this is when Isa Kremer decided to pay Morfessi back for insulting her when she refused to rise for the singing of “God Save the Tsar.”

    Fuel shortages in Constantinople at this time resulted in electricity being rationed, and the Allied High Command established curfews for restaurants, nightclubs, and bars.  Owners naturally chafed at the restrictions, and some, like Frederick, tried unsuccessfully to appeal for permission to stay open later.  However, others, like Strelna, simply ignored or circumvented the regulations and often continued to operate until daylight broke over Chichli. 

    One night, when all seemed to be going very well, the Interallied Police suddenly arrived and shut Strelna down.  They also announced that as an additional penalty Strelna had to stay closed for eight days.  Someone had denounced Morfessi to the authorities.  Rumors soon reached him that it was Isa Kremer, and he of course concluded that she had done it to pay him back. 

    Establishments such as Strelna stood on a very fragile financial base and needed a constant flow of cash to function, so an eight-day closure meant the end.  Soon after, another disaster fell on Morfessi in the form of a huge municipal tax bill.  All of this proved too much for him.  He abandoned his Constantinople affairs, surreptitiously boarded an Italian ship, and left Turkey forever.  But Polyakova followed Kremer’s example and switched to performing in Stella as well, thus giving Frederick a second, highly popular singer. 

    Frederick had survived a close call, and although others would try to resurrect Strelna, none succeeded long enough to challenge him directly again.  Isa Kremer continued to perform for him twice weekly during the summer and with such success that he extended her booking through the fall and winter, after he had moved to a theater in Pera for the coldest months.  She drew crowds so large that many had to be turned away; a newspaper commented that even if Stella had been “three times” the size, it would still have been unable to fit everyone who wanted to hear her.  Only in February of 1921, after a collaboration with Frederick that lasted nearly nine months, did she move to another theater in Constantinople; then in the spring she left for Europe and the United States. 

    When I was working on my book, I learned that Kremer's papers were in a Jewish center in Buenos Aires and I had hopes that they might contain something about her time singing for Frederick.  But, alas, that was not the case.

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