In a caricature of actressy allure, the Russian-born film star Olga Chekhova promised on the cover of her memoirs Ich verschweige nichts! - I conceal nothing. Antony Beevor's fascinating research into her life suggests that this autobiography, published in West Germany in 1952, was precisely a cover - "misleading" rather than revealing. So just what did Chekhova have to hide behind the pure romance of her life's outward narrative?
Born in Russia in 1897, Chekhova was the overlooked beauty in a bourgeois family of German origins. In 1921, she fled Bolshevik Moscow and an unhappy marriage for Berlin with nothing but a smuggled diamond ring, her cinegenic looks and some tall stories about her previous acting experience. By the end of the Second World War, she had played the lead in more than a hundred popular German and French films, including the scandalous original Moulin Rouge. She did not return to Russia until May 1945, when Soviet military counter-intelligence flew her back to Moscow from a war-wrecked Berlin for interrogation.
In a manner still unknown, the film star survived the attentions of the security services; indeed, she appears to have profited from them. Fittingly, for a woman who survived on glamorous illusions, she greeted the postwar waning of her film career by moving into make-up. Olga Tschechowa Kosmetik, the successful business she founded in Munich in 1955, was, according to sources from Soviet intelligence (which Beevor treats with appropriate caution), "set up almost entirely with money from Moscow". For many years, it seems, she served her own material interests and, to an unknown extent, the interests of Stalin's Soviet Union as a potentially valuable spy.
The cover of Beevor's book, as he establishes, also represents more intriguing illusion than historical fact. A photograph shows a woman of, as Beevor says, "slightly raffish and voluptuous elegance" seated in a languid pose beside Adolf Hitler at a formal reception. The occasion was a garden party given for the diplomatic corps by the German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop in May 1939, several months before the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact.
The apparent closeness of the celluloid star to Hitler, which could have been fatal to Chekhova's family in Russia during Stalin's Terror, was, she later claimed, deceptive. After the war, a London Sunday newspaper, the People - even more shameless in its fictions than Chekhova herself - dubbed her "The spy who vamped Hitler". It claimed that the actress's influence with the fuhrer had been unequalled and that, during the war, a room had been set aside for this "queen of Nazi society" at his field headquarters "wherever he went". Beevor, however, finds no evidence to contradict her own statement that she "saw Hitler only at official receptions and . . . hardly spoke to him". Chekhova had sometimes been invited to Nazi occasions to lend the appearance of chic to party officials and their thickset wives. The propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's master of political illusion and an obsessive lover of film and beautiful actresses, found her "eine charmante Frau". Yet whether she ever gained anything for Soviet intelligence from her association with these men is not known. A woman of no political convictions, she consistently achieved security and prosperity in surroundings of terror and privation.
"How wonderful it is to speak the truth," Chekhova wrote at the time of her interrogation in 1945, in a "secret" diary that she fully intended to be read by Soviet military counter-intelligence. In returning to Russia, she had temporarily abandoned a daughter and granddaughter, a much younger lover, and one of her own most successful lies. Though she had founded her film career in the 1920s on the claim that she had once acted with the celebrated Moscow Art Theatre and trained under its great director Konstantin Stanislavsky, Olga Chekhova had never stepped on a stage before she arrived in Berlin. The future Staatsschauspielerin, or "state actress", of the Third Reich had none the less emerged from the milieu of that innovative theatrical troupe, and was doubly linked by marriage to the author of The Cherry Orchard: Olga Chekhova's aunt, the actress Olga Knipper, was Anton Chekhov's wife; her first husband, the accomplished and unstable actor Misha Chekhov, was the writer's nephew.
The lives of other members of her family are as interesting as the almost novelistic story of the emigree film star. Misha, Beevor tells us, moved to Paris in 1931, "where he played several of his most famous roles: Hamlet, Malvolio . . .", and finally reached Hollywood, where he coached Gregory Peck and Marilyn Monroe in Stanislavskian method acting. Chekhova's granddaughter Vera, also an actress, was courted by Elvis Presley in 1959, when he was stationed in Germany with the US Seventh Army. Perhaps the most complex and historically important character in the book is Chekhova's brother Lev Knipper, a former White Guard officer, repentant emigre, favoured Soviet composer, mountain climber, ardent communist, womaniser and NKVD agent.
The Mystery of Olga Chekhova is an intricate, gracefully told and often moving social history of a talented intelligentsia family in times of revolution, civil war, totalitarian dictatorship and world conflict. The reduced frame of its narrative complements Beevor's justly celebrated accounts of the fates of nations and armies in Stalingrad and Berlin: the downfall, 1945, deepening and extending in time their focus on the encounter between Russia and Germany in the mid-20th century.
"The life that Chekhov painted is gone, but his art is still with us," Stanislavsky wrote in a passage that Beevor quotes. "Revolutions and wars created cruel but interesting moments in the life of man, who . . . sometimes in one hour, passed through what it took a man of the generation before tens of years to experience . . ." With vivid attention, Beevor takes his characters from a world made familiar by Chekhov's art, tracing their experiences and teasing at enigmas in their lives, through revolution and war, into the age of Nato, Elvis and the Berlin wall.
Rachel Polonsky is the author of English Literature and the Russian Aesthetic Renaissance (Cambridge Studies in Russian Literature)