I was in an unremarkable corner of the Phillips Collection today when a cartoonish sketching of a cityscape unexpectedly caught my eye. It wasn’t the piece itself, which I can’t even remember, it was the placard: John Graham; Kiev, 1886 - London,1961 – and I didn’t even read the rest of it. A boy named John Graham is born in Kiev? C'mon, there’s a story there.
And there might well not have been. Brits traveling abroad, an American ambassador’s wife goes into premature labor, a Russian Anglophile gets carried away. But as it turns out, there was a story, and I should’ve known from the dates and his birthplace that there would be.
Ivan Gratianovich Dombrowsky might have been born in 1886, 1887, or 1888. His papers all conflict, but he was definitely born in Kiev, then in Russia and now in Ukraine. He was sorta noble, but poor, and made his way up in life by going to law school and following it up with kickass military service in the Circassian regiment. (He won the Cross of Saint George in World War I. It’s the award for the lower ranks, and I know they gave out over a million of them, but World War I was a time of millions. Nearly nine million people died on the Russian side of things in the Eastern Front in World War I, for example. That cross was no casual pin in his chest.)
But he hadn’t planned for the government to get overthrown, I suppose, because an imperial sign of approval in the form of a gold gratitude on your uniform was a bit of a target come 1918. Ivan was imprisoned by the Bolsheviks as a counterrevolutionary. By all accounts that’s when he fled to his mother’s in Poland, which as you might know is not the safest place to hide from Russia or its wars.
In 1920, Ivan emigrated with his second wife Vera and their son Nicholas to the United States. He started to go by John here. In 1927 he officially changed his name to John Graham (I figure Graham is adapted from his father’s name, Gratian, but who knows) and became a United States citizen.
Imagine growing up with that funny Polish name and proving yourself to belong in the most ironclad way possible: literally putting your life on the line for the place you grew up in. Imagine that service to the empire, the only way out of your poverty, and then being imprisoned in the name of the proletariat you came from. Imagine the horrors any given Russian alive in those years saw, frankly. Imagine running into your mother’s arms only for war to follow you. Imagine being a Russian in the United States in the middle of the first Red Scare and having to adopt an English name so no one will confuse you with the people who tried to have you killed, as if they could hate them more than you do. Imagine taking up a paintbrush instead of a gun for the first time and deciding to make a life of it, and imagine becoming that new self so thoroughly you change your name with your passport. And then imagine three wives, New York galleries, and a goddamn Wikipedia article about you.
I can’t even get into his art career yet, I’m too traumatized by his beginnings. And to say nothing of what all of this was like for Vera or Nicholas, or whoever his first wife was, though I’m sure I’ll dig that up in time.
John Graham got almost as famous for his fanciful storytelling about his origins as he did for his art. Colorful oral autobiographies only ever mean one thing: you’re tired of the real story, or it has broken you.
It all makes me wonder what Saint George would think of being a legend. He was a Palestinian Roman and chances are with a name like that you thought he was from England. Or Georgia, at least, or maybe you’ve got a Catalan friend named Jordi or a Greek friend named Georgios, and so you just assumed. Saint George has the same problem Jesus does, he’s so universal we forget he actually just had the one face and place of birth. And I wonder what he’d think of that, being the patron saint of everyplace. I’m sure it wouldn’t matter to him, he’s a saint after all.
But it’s kind of lonely to belong to everyone, for Ivan Dombrowsky maybe if not for George. John Graham has a disambiguation page, because he sounds like someone your dad went to high school with, and he’s exactly the kind of name you find in unremarkable corners of the Phillips Collection. He says he was friends with Picasso and Braque, and you know those names, so he must be significant by association. But he blends in. He’s everywhere but forgettable. Most people think St George’s Cross is just a triumph of graphic design.
And if you started life like Ivan Dombrowsky maybe you’d prize that genericness. He didn’t just carry the cross of Saint George all his life, he clung to it.
Y'all remember when I got obsessed with Christina Rossetti last year? I lived in her neighborhood in London, and my writing professor told us to get obsessed with an historical figure as an assignment, like I ever need to be told this. I have now read everything she ever wrote and breathed in every house she ever visited and I am telling you this is how it starts.
It has been a pleasure to meet you, John Graham. And I apologize for the massive breach of your privacy that is about to ensue, but the screenplay (or less romantically, the extended creative nonfiction essay) writes itself.