By Joel Lobenthal
In my Jane Street apartment, I greet with satisfaction, and some relief, the publication—after years of work—of my sixth book, Red Star, White Nights: The Life and Death of Yuri Soloviev. Soloviev was a star of St. Petersburg’s (then Leningrad’s) Kirov Ballet in Russia. In 1977, at the age of thirty-six, he took his own life. Collaborating with Lisa Whitaker, a friend Soloviev met on a tour to Australia in 1969, our research led us on a number of trips to St. Petersburg.
I’ve lived in the West Village for more than thirty years, almost the entirety of my adult life. And anything in my life that has to do with Russian ballet—and a lot of things do—also brings me, paradoxically, even closer to the Village. Specifically, a nineteenth-century brick row house and its private garden on Morton Street, occupied for thirty years by Francis Mason and his family. Francis was an international cultural attaché, author, and Morgan Library executive. For thirty years he was also editor of the quarterly publication Ballet Review. I began writing for BR in 1983; in 2003 I wrote a long article on Soloviev that began the journey that culminated in Red Star, White Nights. The book, I might add, will be published by Ballet Review Books, an imprint established by the magazine.
The Masons’ garden was a special place, unusual among private gardens in Manhattan. It was fan-shaped, and almost double the width of the standard Manhattan row house lot. According to a report in Curbed New York, it measures no fewer than 2,000 square feet.
A private garden in Greenwich Village—is that the ultimate luxury? It certainly affords a particularly urban seclusion; the juxtaposition of flora and built environment is starkly drawn and mutually reinforced.
Francis’s wife Patricia, a doyenne of Village realty, died in 1997; Francis died in 2009. In 2012 their house was sold to Sofia Coppola and Thomas Mars (for more than ten times what the Masons had paid thirty-five years earlier!); I do wonder what they have done with the garden.
I’ve loved the Village for decades, dating back well before I moved here. Perhaps as far back as 1969, when my brother and I acted in a play at what is now the 13th Street Repertory Company theater. Yes, it must have been then that I fell in love with the small, old, personalized houses, the winding streets, the ambiance of freedom and artistry that was like no other neighborhood I’d experienced. Let’s say it was somewhat different from Jackson Heights, Queens, where I was growing up!
The Village, of course, is no longer the Village of fifty years ago. But for me, the Masons’ Morton Street garden will forever embody competing but complementary beauties: the beauty of urbanity, the beauty of nature curated and cultivated, the beauty of ballet and the performing arts. All converged in this memorable Village destination.