On 23 February 2012 in Montreux Switzerland, Dmitri Nabokov, son of the author, Vladimir Nabokov, died.
Dmitri’s death touched many throughout the world for a variety of different reasons. For some, he was the last link to his father as he was the guardian of Vladimir Nabokov’s literary works and memory. For others, he was a great friend whose zest for life and penchant for courting danger were contagious. Whether he climbed the Swiss Alps, pushing himself and some of us to the limits of our strength, or raced Ferraris and Vipers, scaring us to death when he drove at race-car speeds around the hair-pin curves in the Alps on the way to dinner, or simply entertained us with his model trains and helicopters, Dmitri was an original. There was no one like him.
For me, his death marked the end of a fifty year friendship that had its ups and downs, ins and outs, and that began in 1962 when I was a sixteen year old student at a boarding school in Montreux, Switzerland. It was there, spending Christmas at the Montreux Palace Hotel, that I met Dmitri who had come to visit his parents for the winter holidays. Through Paul Rossier, then director of the hotel, Dmitri was able to take a look at my passport to find out my name, age, and where I came from. When my school friend and I were having tea in the Rose Bar, Dmitri wandered in and struck up a conversation. “How’s the weather in New York?” he said to which I replied, “I wouldn’t know since I’m in boarding school in Montreux.”
That was the beginning of our relationship that had many incarnations throughout the world for half a century.
After graduation, when I entered the University of Lausanne, I traveled with Dmitri periodically to Milan where he studied voice with Professor Luigi Toffalo. By then I was eighteen and in total awe of the opera singers who studied and performed with Dmitri, potential stars such as Luciano Pavarotti, Franco Corelli, Fernando Corena, Nicolai Ghiaurov, and many others. After I returned to New York, Dmitri was there when I married and had my daughter, when I divorced and remarried, there with my parents when we celebrated birthdays, anniversaries, and finally I was there when a series of tragedies occurred.
When his adored father died, Dmitri was not only bereft and lost but took on the full responsibility of his mother. Worried about her health, Dmitri asked me to come to Montreux, and for reassurance asked that my father, a cardiologist, come as well to examine his mother. We came and stayed for several weeks. While Vera Nabokov was in mourning, she was physically in good shape. As for Dmitri, not only was he prepared to change his life and routine to be near his mother, but he was worried about how to go about managing his father’s legacy. The concern showed on his face. He had lost a certain spark in his eye and his usual ready smile. Slowly, he adjusted to the job and began to organize his time so he could be near his mother to comfort and work with her.
A year later, the unthinkable happened.
In 1978, I was at the International Monetary Fund annual meeting in Washington when a nurse at the emergency room at the CHUV—Centre Hospitalier Universitaire—in Lausanne called my hotel. She asked if she could put Dmitri on the phone. His voice was faint but his words were clear. “I’m dying, Boobsie,” he said, “please come but don’t tell Mother.”
There was no decision to make, except to get to New York, pack a bag and take my daughter with me to Lausanne. He had crashed his Ferrari while on the way to the dentist from Montreux to Lausanne. Whether it was a spontaneous explosion or sabotage, we never found out but Dmitri had suffered third-degree burns over 40% of his body, and a broken neck. When I got the call, he was hanging between life and death. Before I left for Switzerland, I called Vera Nabokov and with feigned innocence, asked to speak to Dmitri. Her response told me she had no idea the extent of his injuries. “He’s not here,” she said. “He suffered a minor traffic accident.”
Within days, she learned the truth. Both she and I could only see Dmitri through a glass partition where he was swathed in bandages in the burn unit. Miraculously, he survived and was eventually moved to a rehabilitation center where he stayed for more than six months. Again, I traveled to see him with my daughter and saw that while he had survived, his blue eyes were dull and lifeless, but still had his usual and unbelievable will to fully recover. There was no doubt that he understood quite well that his road to recovery would be long and arduous. After he was released, he came to New York and stayed with me for several weeks. When he was in New York, he saw some of his closest friends, Brett Schlesinger, Sandy Levine, and others who were so instrumental in providing laughter, evoking memories from their time in the United States Army together, and making him aware that so many people loved him and needed him.
Time passed and with it other sad and happy events in both our lives. Dmitri was writing, translating his father’s works, taking care of his father’s literary estate, working with Nikki Smith and Peter Skolnik, his agent and lawyer, to reissue so many of Nabokov’s books. Eventually, he bought an apartment in West Palm Beach and divided his time between there and Montreux. By then, I had moved to Paris but Dmitri and I were in close touch and through him, I met and became good friends with his cousin, Ivan Nabokov, an esteemed editor in Paris, and his wonderful wife, Claude. Ivan and Dmitri had shared a childhood together, been roommates at Harvard, and shared a lifetime of family memories and history.
The good times began to unravel when, in 1991, Vera Nabokov was in the last stages of Parkinson’s. Dmitri called me from Palm Beach and asked that I go to Montreux, assuring me he would meet me there as soon as he could get a flight. I arrived that evening from Paris. Dmitri arrived the following day. Madame Laundy, Vera Nabokov’s “dame de compagnie,” was with her at the hospital. That evening she called and said, “Madame Nabokov has gone like a candle flickering in the breeze.” When we arrived at the hospital, I understood why Dmitri was unable to go through the usual bureaucratic exercises. It was simply too much for him. He asked me to identify his mother’s body. He also asked me to remove the gold wedding band from her finger. Ironically, the Morgue was under construction. Following the nurse to the basement of the clinic, I watched as she opened one door after another, containing various and unknown people who were waiting for relatives to claim them, until she found the room where Vera Nabokov was resting in peace. Doing the necessary to satisfy the Swiss rules of death, I removed her wedding ring and gave it to Dmitri.
As per Dmitri’s wishes, we dressed her in a light blue dress that matched her eyes, and said our good-byes before she was removed to the crematorium. Nikki Smith was there for Mrs. Nabokov’s cremation, as were several other close friends including all the wonderful women who had cared for her during her illness, and who had cared for Dmitri as well. To say it was difficult for Dmitri was an understatement. His only close relatives were Ivan and Claude Nabokov. His closest literary colleagues remained Bryan Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov’s biographer, Steve Parker, Nikki Smith, Peter Skolnik, and Stacy Schiff, Vera Nabokov’s biographer, as well as several of his father’s foreign publishers. The friendships Dmitri had made in Palm Beach, the few friends he had in Switzerland and those who had been around since he was in his twenties remained loyal and attentive. The women who had cared for his parents were still with Dmitri and now, along with several collaborators such as Tatiana and Tony Epicoco were extraordinary in keeping up with all the office work concerning the Nabokov literary empire. The organization and support, however, did nothing to avoid more tragedy.
In the early 2000s, Dmitri became seriously ill. The doctors were baffled. There was no one diagnosis that could explain why he had slipped into a coma. As expected, I came to Montreux, as did Ivan and Claude Nabokov, and Brett Schlesinger, and all of us, including his devoted staff, believed that this was the end. But once again, the boy cheated death and came out of the coma, recovered as fully as possible considering he had been suffering from diabetes and polyneuropathy for years.
Life went on.
There is no doubt that I have left out some who were also decent, honest and loyal to Dmitri during his life and whom he considered to be close friends and colleagues. But while his virtues were many, his one flaw cost him disappointment and often money.
Other than Dmitri’s accomplishments as translator, opera singer, and race car driver, he was charming, caring, sympathetic, funny, brilliant, and so very naïve. It is this last trait that made those of us who knew him, understood him and adored him, fearful that he often succumbed to the charms of the charlatans of this world.
The ultimate illness that cost Dmitri his life was double pneumonia. His organs were failing, though his heart was incredibly strong. He was on massive doses of antibiotics, had feedings tubes, fluids, a bit of morphine, and a tube down his throat to clear his airway clogged from the ravages of the double pneumonia. He rallied once and Tatiana and Tony were elated that he could go home. Alas, it was not meant to be. On the day he was to be discharged from the hospital, his fever spiked and he relapsed. He slumbered, unable to speak, eat, and barely respond to the words of his doctors, nurses, and caregivers. Tatiana and I were in touch almost every day by phone. At one point, she told me that she had put the receiver to Dmitri’s ear and Ivan Nabokov spoke to him in Russian, addressing him by the childhood name his closest family called him. When Tatiana told me that, I asked if she could put the receiver to his ear for me. “This is Boobsie,” I said, evoking the name he always called me, “and Brett and Sandy and I want you to fight this thing. We love you.” There was never a response because the tube made it impossible for him to speak and the organ failure affected his awareness of time, place, and person. Within days, however, my sadness, however, almost became overshadowed with outrage.
Within days of the end, I became aware of a woman named Lila Azan Zanganeh who had apparently written a book about Vladimir Nabokov in which she invented imaginary conversations with the late author. While the book took literary license, readers understood that she could never have known Vladimir Nabokov given that he had died in 1977 before Azan Zanganeh was even born. People understood the conversations were invented by the author.
Without mentioning others who were equally outraged and shocked, I was told about an article in the Guardian newspaper written by Azan Zanganeh shortly after Dmitri’s death that was filled with self-serving false statements obviously intended to put her career before the death of someone she claimed was a friend.
Azan Zanganeh had met Dmitri several times before she began the book on his father and while writing the book, she visited him in Montreux, according to his staff, twice during the year. More to the point, she managed to insinuate herself into his entourage until, as she wrote in the Guardian, “he began to trust me and I him…” Perhaps…
As was so typical of Dmitri who had always been sensitive to pretty young women, at one point, he asked her if she would take on the job of “gouvernante” of his household, or chief housekeeper who directed the maids, cooks, and other domestic workers. Curiously, in the Guardian article Azan Zanganeh wrote after Dmitri’s death, she mentions this and claims she “politely refused” his job offer. For a writer to be offered a job as a chief housekeeper must have been vexing to say the least…
According to Dmitri’s staff, while he was in hospital, she called and was clearly “hysterical,” asking that they put the phone to his ear and screaming into the phone, “I love you, Dmitri. Don’t die etc…” In fact, at one point, one of Dmitri’s closest collaborators had to take the phone away from Dmitri’s ear and politely tell Azan Zanganeh that she was disturbing what they wanted to be complete “tranquility” as he slowly departed. That in itself is not venal. As one of Dmitri’s colleagues said, some people handle “death without dignity.” What is unconscionable is that in the Guardian article, the opening line is the claim by Azan Zanganeh that she “spoke to Dmitri fifty five minutes before he died on 23 February 2012.”
The truth is that the tube that cleared the airway made it impossible for Dmitri to speak to anyone, or even understand what was said to him, or even breathe unless it was cleared every thirty minutes. Only once, did he say “oui” or “yes” when asked a question by his doctors, a response that gave everyone hope that perhaps, just maybe, there was sufficient brain activity to resume treatment.
In the Guardian article, Azan Zanganeh further positions herself as the expert on Dmitri’s illness and his death, as well as claiming to have had a relationship with him that was intimate, and intense. Even more egregious and an affront to Dmitri’s memory is that she writes about his relationship with his parents as though she was there, knew them, and was not only privy to but became Dmitri’s confidant concerning his feelings toward his mother and father.
Bryan Boyd’s biography of Vladimir Nabokov, a scholarly effort that took years and relied on Vladimir’s words is the ultimate reference to the late author. Stacy Schiff’s biography of Vera Nabokov where she spent hours talking to Dmitri, friends, relatives, and even me while we were in Montreux, is legitimate and factual. Neither book is even vaguely comparable to Azan Zanganeh’s effort to promote herself and her potential work on Dmitri before he was even cremated.
It is not only dishonest but distasteful for Azan Zanganeh to appoint herself the expert on Dmitri, especially in the last stage of his life.
For those who cared for him, worked closely with him, collaborated with him, loved him, and knew him for decades, it is an affront to Dmitri’s memory to have this girl invent scenarios, circumstances, and conversations, as well as attribute feelings to Dmitri by exaggerating her importance in his life. And, because he is no longer to defend himself, challenge her, or deny her words, her actions are vaguely immoral.
Dmitri is gone. For those of us who knew him, it is a monumental loss, unimaginable that he is no longer with us. For others who only knew of him, it is a loss as well of a man who kept the greatness of his father’s works alive for the world to enjoy.