Eyewitness Accounts - Eyewitness Report of Party for Rasputin by Vecchi
Eyewitness Account of a Party for Rasputin by Joseph Vecchi
Joseph Vecchi was born a natural restauranteur. He ran the fine restaurant at Claridge's in London when George V was crowned, then the Kaiserhof in Berlin, where the restaurant Mr. Vecchi ran was the favorite of Wilhelm II, and then in the last glory days of the Romanov Empire, he ran the French restaurant at the Astoria Hotel in St. Petersburg. He left a fascinating chronicle of his experiences in Petersburg and his encounters with the Royalty, Aristocrats and the fall of the Dynasty in his book "The Tavern is my Drum", published England in 1948.
Here he chronicles how Rasputin was feted by the aristocrats as, in his words, "Russia Dances to Destruction."
"The Princess X's party in honor of Rasputin was scheduled to begin at ten in the evening, and a party of about twelve ladies accompanied by their young and beautiful daughters were assembled to do him honor. No other male guests were to be present, and I had been asked to ensure that Rasputin's arrival and departure had as little publicity as possible. For days beforehand I had been busy arranging the rooms, filling them with flowers, planning themenu, and investigating Rasputin's favorite dishes, in connection with which I discovered that "selianka d'esturgeon" was his favorite delicacy and I got the recipe from a man who knew the Court chef. Selianka is prepared in the following way. First all the ingredients are assembled together. One needs two lb of sturgeon, four tablespoonfuls of olive oil, two lb of fresh cabbage shredded finely "en julienne", three peeled and sliced cooking apples, one finely chopped onion, four tablespoonfuls of flour, pickled mushrooms, salted cucumbers, chopped parsley, black pepper and breadcrumbs. Next the dish is prepared in the following way.
The chopped onions are fried in one spoonful of olive oil and added to the cabbage, the whole being put in a pan to stew with a tablespoonful of water only, as the cabbage , if slowly and properly cooked, makes its own moisture. The sturgeon in next cut into square pieces and floured all over, then fried in oil. When the cabbage is almost cooked, the sliced apple is added and the stewing continued, the dish being stirred all the time with a rapid, light movement. Next, a spoonful each of oil and flour, and a little water are mixed together until the resultant paste is free from lumps. This is added to the cabbage when the vegetable and onions and apples are quite ready, and stirred until the four has thickened the whole.
The cabbage is next placed in a layer on a china dish and the squares of cooked fish placed on top of it. Black pepper and parsley is sprinkled over, and the whole covered with another layer of cabbage. Garnish with salted cucumber and pickled mushrooms, then pour over the gravy from the fish and finally spread breadcrumbs over the top. The whole dish is then placed in the oven to be slightly browned.
This "selianka" was in its final stages of completion when I took my stand in the main entrance of the hotel, ready to receive Rasputin. At last, a closed carriage drew up a the door, and the evil genius of Russia had arrived! He slipped through the main door of the hotel with a disconcerting rapidity, and as I bowed he faced me. I received definite shock, but managed to control my features. So "this" was the man of whom all Europe was talking; who held Russia firmly in the grip of superstition and terror; the arch string-puller behind the scenes. This tall, spare man with the untidy, dirty beard, surmounted by a hooked nose like the beak of a bird of prey, and the blazing, glittering eyes of a hypnotist…or master charlatan.
Dark hair fell round his ears, and one straggling forelock hound over one eye. His skin was grey with dirt, his long coat thick with grease, and his hands, moving in quick, impatient gesture to my words of greeting were grimy, with bitten, blackened nails. About his whole person there was something repellent, and this was not due solely to the general uncleanliness of his body and attire, but rather as if he exuded an aura of something evil and sordid.
And yet, all that notwithstanding, there was a certain arrestee quality about him that impressed me even in that lightning moment. I am somewhat at a loss to define what I mean, but an aura of great power surrounded him. He seemed (for want of a better term) "strange and alien to the rest of mankind". It is said that people bear on their faces the stamp of their innermost soul; and though it was certain that Rasputin was not a good man, nobody seeing him for the first time could have doubted that he was a "powerful" one. A being who for good or evil would have his effect on everybody and everything with which he came into contact… and now, like the stormy petrel that heralds the coming fury of the elements, the shadow of Russian had now fallen on the Hotel Astoria.
What words he employed when speaking to me I have forgotten, I was too busy absorbing impressions, but I remember that he intimated he didn't want to be seen by any other people in the hotel apart from his own party, and so I ushered him into a small staircase which led down into the basement dining rooms where the beauty and power of feminine Russia were awaiting to do him homage, and he slipped down this like a shadow. I followed him, and arrived in time to see the ladies surge around him as Princess X presented them.
They reminded me of colorful butterflies as they smiled and flattered, their earrings dancing with coquetry as they tossed their heads; jewels blazing on necks, arms and fingers as they gesticulated in excited conversation, while above the clamor of their greetings surged the wild tzagine music played by Goulesco's gypsy band.
The dinner was scheduled to begin at ten in the evening, but zakusky and vodka were taken beforehand, and it was a little after ten when the party sat down to dinner to partake of the following menu:
Bortsch Petite Russienne Pirogki
Petits Pois Niçoises
Agneau Caucasienne a la Broche
Souffle Grand Marnier
Throughout the evening the behavior of Rasputin was intolerable. Remember that he was an adventurer, possessed of undoubted powers of personal magnetism, a skilled psychologist, and was the secret power behind the Russian Court. Many of the ladies present had favors to beg from the Court which Rasputin was in a position to influence. Though his supporters vowed that he was a man of ascetic life, he was, nevertheless, a man entirely without principle. . . and he was surrounded by some of the loveliest and youngest women in Russia, only too anxious to court his favors. Such a compliment might go to any man's head, and it certainly went to Rasputin's. Strive as I will I can find no words to mitigate of excuse his disgusting behavior. When he ate it was like a beast using his long talon-like fingers in lieu of knife and fork, grabbling amongst the food on his plate and stuffing himself in a very vulgar way with no regard of the feelings of the cultured ladies who sat at table with him. HE drank freely, but it didn't get the better of him.. Rasputin was not a drunkard. No one could intimidate him. He used the most vulgar language in the presence of his hostess and ladies (and rumor said that he used it even at Court in the presence of the Czar), and none of them dared to utter a rebuke, or betray by as much as a hostile look or averted eyes how shocked they were. Yes, the party was gay, but I was disgusted, and felt sympathy in every nerve for the lovely women present who were dining with such a beast (though nobody could have told from their expressions and demeanor what they might have been thinking). They seemed to be enjoying the party thoroughly, and the feeblest joke on the part of Rasputin would send them off into peals of laughter. . . and the most vulgar ones did not bring a blush to their cheeks, . . or if they did, it went unnoticed.
Rasputin made a habit of leaving every party he attended before any of the other guests did. It was a favorable affectation of his, and no doubt copied from better men. This particular party was no exception to the rule; but it wasn't until about 3:30 a.m. that he made his departure, quietly slipping away up the little staircase and unnoticed out of the hotel to his waiting carriage. After that the party lost its coherence, the ladies leaving in twos and threes, in an inconspicuous manner so that they would not be observed, although it was unlikely that such a notability as Rasputin could be in the hotel and rumors and conjecture not fly about.