March 17th, 2017

The discovery of Vertinsky's cabaret Gardenia

On April 10, 1937, North-China Daily News announced that “a splendid addition to the night spots of Shanghai formally opened on Thursday night. So successful was the occasion, that large numbers had to be turned away.”

This was the cabaret Gardenia opened by the famous Russian artist and performer Alexandr Vertinsky. The NCDN report went on: “Pleasing to the eye, the ballroom fittings are a distinct contrast to many other places, the quiet air of refinement lending itself to de rigeur dress. One notable feature, indirect lights, recessed into the tables, is distinctive and takes years from the age of patrons. The Gardenia orchestra in picturesque costumes are capable musicians and with muted instruments rendered old favourites to the liking of guests.”[1]

The facade of Gardenia in 1937, with letters A & V (for Alexandr Vertinsky) on the door.

The report suggests a rather posh and hushed ambiance, but evidently, things loosened up in the club situated in the Badlands, at the western edge of the International Settlement. Gardenia had one of the best jazz bands in the city, a floorshow with Mexican dancers (lured from another nightclub), and an acrobatic duo of Norwegian sisters. Mexicans and Norwegians were, of course, Russian emigrants in disguise.[2] There were grey silk draperies everywhere. A circular dance floor in the center was surrounded with dining tables for patrons. “The main course was Vertinsky,” as one customer put it.[3]

The funding for Gardenia came, reportedly, from a group of Vertinsky’s female fans, headed by Bubi Fominykh and Sarette Baranovsky (of the wealthy Baranovsky family, operators of the largest Russian store in Shanghai).[14] The public face of the cabaret was, of course, the artist himself – and his associate Bubi (spelled Boobee in the only existing English source [15]). Bubi was irresistible and enigmatic. To some, she simultaneously resembled a nun and a harlot. She smoked opium, conducted literary soirees in her house and recited poetry.[11] Rumors ascribed her a millionaire lover (Chinese, French or American) who paid her bills. A married Russian woman from musical circles claimed Bubi had tried to seduce her.[4] (The hearsay goes on and on, but I want to to stop exploiting the shock value and investigate other evidence of her involvement with Gardenia.)

Every night, Vertinsky personally greeted the guests of Gardenia at the door. He had a gardenia boutonniere on the lapel of his tailcoat (he wore it better than any Russian in Shanghai). He would walk from table to table and chat with newcomers to make them feel welcome. Bubi, in her flowing dress, her dark eyes enhanced with dramatic black eyeliner, would acknowledge the visitors in her usual solemn manner, with never a smile. Vertinsky's wife later suggested her motivation was purely altruistic: to give the artist she admired the opportunity to keep everything he earned and not just work for a fee.

Aside from his time-tested tropical-fantasy repertoire, in Gardenia Vertinsky began to perform several new songs that he wrote in Shanghai. One of them, called “The Nun,” was set to the lyrics of the Shanghai poet Mihail Volin (“Little, fragile woman with the rosary; your flowing cloak fails to make you look taller under these vaults.”). Another new song first performed in Gardenia was the iconic “Dancing Girl,” inspired by the hard life of Russian taxi dancers (“The days run faster and faster. It’s already your fifth year in nightclubs. Again and again, you dance the night away with drunken foreigners. The groping of the greedy hands; the smirk on the contemptuous lips. The orchestra squeezes out the sounds and they creep out like snakes from the trumpets.”). Toward the end of each evening, the intoxicated audience would demand another recent song, called “The Farewell Dinner.”[5]

Bubi and Vertinsky in Gardenia. [12]

Gardenia was emourmously popular. Bubi and Vertinsky liked to serve champagne on the house. The artist invented a cocktail, named it "Vertinsky," and generously poured it for everyone.[10] Customers were rarely asked to pay. Evidently, the staff in charge of supplies was quick to pick the vibe and take advantage of the obliviousness of the bohemian management. They tampered with the books and the cash register; the wine suppliers never got paid. A month or so after its opening Gardenia had to close. The suppliers started litigation. The furniture was carried off, the date of the court hearing was set, and Vertinsky, Bubi and friends finished off the remaining bottles of champagne in the empty club.[6]

In August 1937, the largest Russian newspaper, Shanghai Zaria, began chasing Vertinsky “who owes the house 142 dollars for the advertisement of Gardenia and other printing jobs.”According to the publication, the singer did not show up at the court hearing.[7] Bubi, reportedly, fled to Hong Kong. Some claim the scandalous failure of the cabaret was Vertinsky's undoing: he began to sing in less prestigious venues and his career spiraled downwards.

The club debts haunted the singer for years. One particularly insistent creditor put Vertinsky’s name in capital letters on an ad for the auction. Among personal items on sale there were silver cigarette cases with engraved dedications, photographs and his signature costume of Pierrot. Writing from Qingdao, where he was sojourning at the time, Vertinsky published his own version of events:

“[When I opened Gardenia] two years ago, I knew Shanghai very little. My so-called employees robbed me and I was pronounced bankrupt in spite of the thriving business. My shrewd companions easily extracted themselves from this affair, holding me responsible for everything. Thankfully, my creditors were decent people: having found out that I had nothing in my name apart from that Pierrot costume, they left me in peace. All of them – except this litigious individual.” [8]


The exact location of Vertinsky’s short-lived cabaret has intrigued me since I read about it several years ago. Brief mentions in various memoirs pointed at the border between the settlements and Great Western Road (today's Yan'an Lu). It was inconceivable that the old building would survive the widening of the elevated highway. But recently I chanced upon a more precise location. The NCDN report quoted in the beginning gives the address as “Yuyuen Road, near Jessfield Park.” I looked closely at the map from 1946 and found a building footprint that unmistakably corresponded to the shape of the building in the top photo. After Gardenia closed, that address became known as the Welton Club. In line with the reputation of the Badlands, it was one of those houses that openly advertised their gambling rooms and opium-smoking divans.[9]

Incredibly, the old building is still there, at 1389 Yuyuan Lu. The beautiful front is now invisible, but the characteristic old roof is peeking from behind the glass facade of a Hunan restaurant. I even think I ate there once!

[1] North-China Daily News, April 10, 1937
[2], [6] Ilyina
[3], [5], [14] Slobodchikov
[4] Kotyakova
[7] Slovo, Oct 9,1937
[8] Vertinsky
[9] The China Monthly Review, 1940
[10] Savchenko
[11] Haindrava
[12] Vertinskaya

[15] Radbill