Sergei Prokofiev and Igor Stravinsky are two of the most influential figures of the 20th century. Their compositions continue to captivate audiences today, and stories about their life and work have become legendary.
However, there’s another lesser-known narrative that deserves equal recognition: the extraordinary life and work of their widows.
Today, we’re looking at what happened to Mira Mendelson-Prokofiev and Vera Stravinsky.
Mira Mendelson was born in Kiev in 1915. She was a quiet, bookish girl who majored in poetry and English translation.
In the summer of 1938, when she was on holiday in the spa city of Kislovodsk, she met the 47-year-old composer Sergei Prokofiev, who was vacationing with his wife Lina and their children. She was 23 years old.
Prokofiev on film
Mira later remembered Prokofiev as “a tall man with an extraordinary stride and a very serious expression on his face” and claimed that it was love at first sight. They took walks together, although she later claimed the relationship did not turn romantic that first summer. By the end of the vacation, they agreed to meet again next year, which they did.
In the autumn of 1939, they started going public with their romance. Soon they collaborated on the libretto for an opera. War and Peace from 1946 was their biggest project.
UCLA Prokofiev War and Peace – Final Chorus
In March 1941, Prokofiev left his first wife Lina and moved in with Mira. After much legal wrangling, he and Mira were married in January 1948.
The following years were turbulent. Lina was pursued by Soviet officials and sentenced to twenty years in a gulag, and Sergei’s health deteriorated.
Mira became his caregiver and helped to make his later works possible. Prokofiev was grateful: “It was good that we were together,” he observed once.
Nevertheless, despite their joint satisfaction with their relationship, death was still on their minds. In 1950, they co-signed a statement that read “We wish to be buried next to each other.” A few years later, on 5 March 1953, Prokofiev died of a cerebral hemorrhage.
In 1956, Sergei’s first wife Lina was released from the gulag. Since there had been legal questions over the validity of Sergei and Lina’s divorce, Lina made moves to assert her legal rights as Prokofiev’s rightful wife. Initially, the courts ruled in her favor, but higher courts later ruled in favor of Mira.
This legal battle was deeply distressing to Mira, and she felt that her and her husband’s character was maligned during it.
She stayed in the apartment that she and her husband had shared, even though she didn’t like the neighbors. She spent time organizing his papers, preserving his legacy, and working on the memoirs that Sergei had encouraged her to write. But one gets the sense that she never really got over the death of her husband.
In early 1968 her father died. That June she had a heart attack and died, too. She was 53.
After her death, the statement mentioning their burial wishes was discovered in her purse and obeyed. Sergei Prokofiev and Mira Mendelson-Prokofieva were buried together in Moscow.
The woman who became Stravinsky’s widow was born Vera Bosse in January 1889 to Baltic nobility. Later she changed her name to Vera de Bosset to imply a more glamorous French origin.
When she was young, she was sent to a boarding school in Moscow and trained as an actress, pianist, and dancer.
In 1913 she ran off to Paris with a married artist and set designer named Serge Sudeikin, who would become famous for his work with the Ballet Russes. In 1918, Sudeikin divorced his first wife, and married Vera.
Not long afterward, in February 1921, a newly married Vera met Igor Stravinsky at a restaurant in Paris (they were introduced by none other than Sergei Diaghilev). Igor was also married, with four children. Despite that, sparks flew. Soon Igor began living a double life with Vera.
That double life continued until his first wife’s death in 1938. By that time, Vera was divorced herself, and she and Igor were free to marry.
Meanwhile, the political situation in Europe was deteriorating rapidly. In September 1939, Stravinsky left for America, and a few months later, Vera followed. They were married in the United States in March 1940. Igor was 57 and Vera was 51. They’d been together for eighteen years.
After their marriage, Igor continued composing, while Vera pursued her lifelong passion for making art.
Madame Vera Stravinsky | The Russian Revolution | Victorian times | Afternoon plus | 1978
Toward the end of Stravinsky’s life, the couple bought a Fifth Avenue apartment in New York City. Igor died in 1971.
Unfortunately, legal issues multiplied upon his death. His will left his considerable estate to Vera, with the rest to go to his children (all of whom he’d had with his first wife) after Vera’s death.
His children, however, objected. They were not close with their stepmother, did not agree with decisions that she made, and believed they should have more control over their father’s estate. A suit was filed charging Vera with misappropriation of estate assets.
The case ground on until 1979, when the children emerged with more of a say over the administration of their father’s estate.
A couple of years later, Vera died in New York at the age of 93.
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