Thursday, April 17, 2008

A SHOUT FROM COPENHAGEN: Farewell, Varvara; Farwell, Sweet Baroness

Today I escort Lady Alice along the sunny cobblestoned courtyard of Kastels Church in eastern Copenhagen for the funeral of our friend, the Baroness SoniaVarvara Hasselbalch Heyd – just four days before she would have been 88 years old.

Varvara was one of the last of the Danish nobles, a direct descendant of the Russian Princess Varvara Gagarin. Varvara’s life was long and rich in experience – ambulance and truck driver and spy for the allies in World War II, portrait photographer of royalty and of African tribes, award-winning equestrian, author of several books. Death, at her age, is a natural event. Still, it is sorrowful to say farewell to an admired friend, to know that we will never again hear the chuckling music of her laughter or see it twinkle in her brown eyes.

Her only son, Eggy, and his wife Olivia and son Nicholas, stand at the church doors, greeting the mourners of this great woman. Eggy is tall as his mother was, and you can see her in his face, his strong jaw, his smile; Nicholas is even taller, also smiling gently, in his mid-twenties. Eggy thanks Alice for the obituary she wrote for Varvara in the local newspaper.

Unlike the dark and gloomy churches of my youth, this one – built in 1704 – is light and bright, walls and ceilings and pews and pulpit painted white with gold trim. From the ceiling hangs the large model ship one finds in all Danish Lutheran churches, giving a sense of wordliness, a worldly journey, to the surroundings, and the windows are tall and clear – no gloam of stained glass; bright sunlight slants in through them behind the altar which is decorated with three colorful religious paintings, one above the other, within a massive, delicately carved and gleamingly gilded wood frame. Through the windows behind and to either side of the altar can be seen strollers, joggers bouncing past on the high green path. Lady Alice touches my arm to be sure I’ve seen them and I know we are thinking the same, that this suits Varvara’s spirit and love of life.

The central aisle is strewn with a variety of flowers in many colors. Varvara didn’t like cut flowers, felt it a shame to kill them slowly that way. But what is a funeral without flowers? Alice has chosen to honor Varvara with a bouquet of peacock feathers which we give to the church attendant to add to the display.

I remove my Borselino as we walk down the aisle, and it occurs to me that the hat – and my shoes, too – belonged to another friend, Ole; he purchased them shortly before his death at 75 and were given to me by his widow, Bente. His funeral was also from this church, just a year ago, and it feels a bit as though Ole and Bente are with us for this funeral. I’ve never owned a Borselino before. I hold it to my heart as we gaze at the casket which contains Varvara’s body.

The casket, too, is white, heaped with white flowers and adorned at its foot with three of the medals Varvara was awarded in her lifetime – the Crois de Guerre with two bronze stars and Légion d’Honneur for her valorous service to the wounded under fire as an ambulance driver during the Second World War and an Italian decoration for diplomatic service to Sweden. Varvara was a truly international woman, with Danish, Swedish, Russian, and German blood in her veins, the master of half a dozen languages.

We find a seat in a pew not too far back amidst the 150 or so mourners. Varvara had many friends from many places in society. I remember her replying once, when interviewed by a journalist who asked what it was like to have been in company with monarchs and nobles. “What were they like?” he asked, and she said, “Oh pretty much like you and me – but not quite as snobby.”

The organ begins with Schubert’s Opus 100 then mingles with some other theme. The music seems to embody in a remarkable manner a combination of a purposeful procession with a melody at once uplifting and deeply and sorrowfully moving.

Then the congregation rises and sings with the choir the three psalms which Varvara had stipulated – 19th century psalms by Grundtvig, Ingemann and Christian Richardt:

We vision a mansion, fair and good
Where joyously friends are waiting…
Lovely the earth it is!
Splendor in God’s heavens!
Never fear the power of dark.
The stars will give us light.

We sit and the priest steps up with his back to the altar and speaks about Varvara’s life, why it is so fitting that her last service be held here, just a walk from the great mansion in which she was born, the opulent apartment to which she moved after the war, and the peaceful cemetery in which she will be buried. He talks about the things she did with her life, her courage and her pain, her three husbands, the child she lost, the one who survived and how she loved him and his son. He talks about how fully Varvara lived, how she tried everything, how in her childhood she had lost her father very young and had been called upon to make her inner feelings give way to expectations from her mother…

Then son and grandson and four other men hoist up the coffin and carry it in slow procession down the aisle as the mourners file out behind them and the organ plays something which does not sound quite religious. Alice whispers to me what it is – a popular song from the 1940s, from a Danish musical comedy staged during the German occupation of Denmark – “Close Your Sweet Innocent Eyes.” It was written by Aage Stentoft (1914-70) expressly for Varvara when she was 22-years-old. The six-year older song-writer had a crush on her.

We proceed to Garnison’s cemetery, a lovely green place where Alice and I plan to be (,
buried together when that time comes. The six pallbearers lower the casket into the grave, and the priest steps up with a small shovel and throws earth in upon the casket three times, speaking with each shovelful: “From earth you have come. To earth you shall return. From earth you shall rise again.”

The priest leads us in the Our Father, and then the mourners one by one step up to cast a single red rose in on top of the coffin. My thoughts turn, I feel certain, in a similar direction as Alice’s, remembering times we spent with Varvara, sharing champagne and oysters, snaps and chocolates, cigars, how Alice researched and wrote and published a book about the mansion in which Varvara grew up (A Noble House for Doctors, 1995) and in which Alice and I worked for 30 years, how Varvara insisted on doing portraits of Alice, how she would come to my readings and read my books and count the number of times the word ‘fuck’ appears – “Thirty-seven times in that book. Time to find a synonym perhaps?” Once she sent me a copy of Tom Wolfe’s new novel with a note, “You’re falling behind. This Tom uses the word ‘fuck’ three times as often as you do!”

I am remembering what Alice wrote in her obituary of Varvara – that strong and impressive as she was there was a tiny plea in her eyes that said, Please love me. I put my arm around Alice’s shoulder and give a squeeze – in thanks that she introduced me to Varvara who had been her friend for many years before I ever met her.

The burial beer is on the indoor balcony of the elegant La Boheme on Esplanaden – a short way from Varvara’s apartment. The food and drink are elegant, too, fully in the spirit of this elegant woman. Among those attending we see many whom Varvara helped forward in the world with, as Alice noted, her diplomatic powers of bringing people together for their mutual good – a young goldsmith, a journalist, a hospital aide, a film-maker…

We chat with Varvara’s grandson, Nicholas, and his beautiful fiancé, Kristina, a Danish-Canadian who is an art dealer in London. We ask Nicholas what he is doing, and he tells us that he has now completed his degree in French literature and entered upon a career as a film-maker. He is on his way to Brazil for a new project. Alice tells him how Varvara once said about him, “Oh please don’t make him be a banker!”) Nicholas laughs.

He and I have met a few times but I am not certain he remembers me. Still there is some spark of recognition and he seems to make a connection. With a curious smile he asks, “Have you seen this…this blog that has a picture of my grandmother holding a…a petrified whale penis?”

My own smile is sheepish. “I wrote it,” I say. “With her blessing and permission.”
( But that blog has many other pictures as well and many amusing stories that Varvara shared with us about her life and times.

The get-together is just under two hours. At one point as Alice enjoys a cigarette in a chair on the sidewalk outside La Boheme, I keep her company, and one of the other guests comes bustling out, fumbling into a pack of fags – the 77-year-old Ingeborg, slender and sprightly. “What a horror it is,” she says, lighting up,.“that a Dane can no longer even smoke a damn cigarette at a reception anymore!”

Alice and I laugh, and I am sure our thoughts are identical – remembering the sign that Varvara had in the entry to her huge apartment: Thank you for smoking. And the first time I visited her, when I asked if she minded if I smoked a cigar, she lifted a leopard-skin trimmed cannister from a side table and removed a cigar of her own, “Only if you don’t mind if I do!”

At that moment I can see her twinkling eyes, hear the chuckle of her laughter. Goodbye, dear Varvara. There will never be another like you.

Greetings from this ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy

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