NPR logo The Mystery of Valentina

The Mystery of Valentina

It was rumored Valentina was a Russian spy. Some believed she was a convent-raised aristocrat, others that she was a ballerina and had danced and worked with Fokine and Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes.

And if that weren't tantalizing enough, there were the rumors and whispers about love affair with screen goddess Greta Garbo.

Exotically beautiful, menacingly talented, and hypnotically elegant in her every gesture — I found Valentina lied about nearly everything.

In fact, after years of research and trying to wrestle Valentina's story free from the effects of her powerful potions and elixirs, only one thing seemed to emerge as irrefutably true: By all accounts, and wherever she really came from, long before her rise to fame and fortune Valentina always and undeniably had about her the presence and bearing of being someone.


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But that's hard to hang a book on. At one point, Valentina nearly escaped from my clutches. After much research, finding so little to go on, I nearly threw in the towel. Then, in 2001, I acquired a run-down rock pile of a stone castle just outside of New York City that had been the former home of Ballets Russes' choreographer Michel Fokine and his wife, the prima ballerina Vera Fokine. Still in the attic were traveling trunks and costumes, stage props and ephemera, personal papers and a few crumbling newspaper articles and theater programs. One, a program dating from 1923, had a picture and a name I recognized. Defiantly peering out at me, in my very own home, was Valentina as a young performer, her name and image on the page, in the most profound, almost ghostly appeal that seemed to speak to me from the yellowing newsprint, "Don't give up on me...Tell my story..."

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Valentina had danced for Fokine.

On that day, in a dark, dusty attic alight with the excitement of the wings of a theater, I made a promise to a newspaper clipping. I spent the next 8 years making good on that promise. Valentina: American Couture and The Cult of Celebrity is my best effort at unraveling the seductive and carefully orchestrated mysteries of the woman in my attic, the resident Sphinx of American couture, Valentina.

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