What special research did you do for Lina and Serge?

I worked for four years in archives in New York, London, Paris, and especially Moscow. The first part of the book, which concerns Lina Prokofiev’s childhood and teenage years in New York City, makes extensive use of materials preserved in Brooklyn, along with newspaper databases, ships manifests, and some of her own scattered recollections. I walked the neighborhoods where Lina lived in search of traces of her existence in and around her Brooklyn high school, No. 3, the oldest one continuously operating in the United States. In London, I consulted the recorded interviews and Lina’s scattered attempts at an autobiography, which never got beyond her impressions of her distant relatives. The Prokofiev family gave me carte blanche to consult the letters, documents, and photographs in Paris (the homes of Svyatoslav and Serge Prokofiev Jr.). In Moscow I worked for a year in the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art, also the Russian State Archive of Social-Political History.

How did you gain such intimate access to the letters and diaries?

In April 1955, two years after Serge Prokofiev’s premature death from a stroke, his two sons and second wife Mira Mendelson arranged through diplomatic channels for a suitcase of documents to be transferred from New York City to Moscow. Prokofiev had left it there for safekeeping, on deposit at a bank, during his final tour abroad in 1938. Presumably he feared his personal papers falling into the hands of Soviet agents. A year later, the suitcase arrived in Moscow. Its contents were sealed in the vaults of the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art, but uncataloged—accessible only to the composer’s heirs. Much time passed. Lina Prokofiev was released from the gulag after eight years of imprisonment in 1956. Mira died in 1968; Prokofiev’s younger son Oleg defected to the West in 1972; and his older son Svyatoslav accepted French citizenship in 2000, a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But still the archive remained sealed, nikomu ne vïdavat’—not to be given out to anyone.

I received exclusive access from Svyatoslav in 2008 after several years of work on behalf of the Prokofiev Estate, including a reconstruction of one of Prokofiev’s ballets and the realization of the original happy ending version of the ballet Romeo and Juliet. It was something of Svyatoslav’s dying wish that the true story of his mother be told in unvarnished guise, and so he entrusted me with her intimate letters. These tell the story of her turbulent early years with Serge and their fateful relocation to the Soviet Union in 1936. Sadly, Svyatoslav died before the book was finished. His son, Serge Prokofiev Jr., ensured that I retained my special access to the Moscow archive throughout the writing process, and allowed me to consult those materials about Lina’s arrest and imprisonment that he discovered in his father’s apartment.

How did what you learned affect your thoughts about composer Sergei Prokofiev?

I learned that all of his love went into his music, and that his wife and children suffered terribly as a result of his self-absorption and belief that his talents were divine, God-given. His conviction that he operated above and apart from the concerns of the real world had terrible real-world consequences. I still hugely respect his genius, but what he allowed to happen to Lina was unconscionable. I can’t get my head around it. I would insist that the book tells the story of sacrifice for art, except for the fact that Prokofiev’s betrayal of his wife had a deleterious effect on his music. He was never quite the same composer again after he left her.

What do you think Lina’s legacy is?

Lina defined the 20th century in its most glorious and horrible aspects. Her modest successes on the operatic stage were no match for her astonishing performances in real life: long-suffering would-be bride, glamorous ingénue, and finally, tragic heroine of the Stalinist police state. She loved her husband despite his shocking betrayal of her in the worst of all places at the worst of all times: Stalinist Russia during the Purges. And that love manifested itself in her efforts to preserve his musical legacy after her release from the gulag. She did not think of herself as Prokofiev’s muse, but she truly was. She inspired the opera The Fiery Angel and the ballet Romeo and Juliet. And then, at the end of her life, long after his death, she brought unknown Prokofiev scores to the world’s attention.