Confronting the camera with a slighly irritated look was the famous Russian poet and singer Alexander Vertinsky!
I have never seen this photo before, and I don't think his family knows about it. There is a complete lack of identification: the containing collection has an enigmatic title A. T. Hull shipment and is dated by 1940. Looking for more photos of Vertinsky I sifted through the whole collection and found coverage for multiple events and places. I had to download all the photos, group them by locations, and then take a closer look.
The dancefloor with Vertinsky appeared to belong to the Russian restaurant Arcadia (at 291 Route Amiral Courbet, in the French Concession), that was all the rage around 1940. Other photos from the venue showed a large outdoor seating area with wicker chairs, covered with a canopy with hanging lamps, a dancefloor in the center, a stage, a band stand and a bar.
People in the photos in were eating, drinking, laughing, and looking at something off camera. Some were wearing ribbons on their lapels, like Vertinsky in the top photo. There were also photos of women in evening gowns on the catwalk, with numbers pinned to their chests.
I spotted Vertinsky in another photo, almost out of frame on the left:
It took me a while to notice that sitting on the left, in bright white, is none other than Shanghai's favorite oligarch, Sir Victor Sassoon!
This unexpected company, the bunches of flowers and more pins with numbers strewn on the table conviced me that this photo sequence was the coverage of the beauty pageant Miss Shanghai, held in Arcadia on June 18, 1940. Vertinsky presided over the jury, which also included Victor Sassoon. The pageant was organized annually by the Russian entertainer and balletmaster Edouard Eliroff (I think it is him standing behind Sassoon). I wrote about these pageants earlier and translated several passages from Vertinsky's comic essay about his duties on the jury.
I never expected to find a photo session from the event. Here are several other photos from the pageant:
The public voted for their favorite girls by dropping tokens into the boxes; a hundred tokens for a dollar. One could buy any number of tokens to support a favorite candidate.
Here the tall figure of Vertinsky is seen escorting the winner (center):
Here is the trio of winners with the bouquets we saw earlier on the jury table. Evidently, someone thought that combining flowers with sticky vines of asparagus fern was a good idea:
Galina Soldatenko (center) took the first prize and was crowned Miss Shanghai 1940, "with only about 2,000 votes out of a possible 100,000 separating her from the next of twelve candidates," North-China Daily News reported two days later. "Although the contest was close and marked by friendly electioneering, the Queen was a popular one and was loudly acclaimed when she received the medal signifying the choice." Soldatenko was described as shy and demure.
The girl on the left, Faina Habileff, won the next year's contest!
After the pageant, the public continued to drink, dance and celebrate.
In his satirical essay about the pageant Vertinsky complained that all the beauties were in the audience, not on stage.
Another beauty that chose to stay offstage was Sir Victor's companion for the evening. Who is she?
I believe she is Larissa Andersen, the Russian dancer and poet, who was hired as a lead dancer in Sassoon's Tower Club earlier that year (thus becoming the highest-paid dancer in Shanghai, according to her manager). Here is another photo of Larissa around that time:
Going back to the first photo of the post: who is the girl in the polka dot dress dancing with Aleksandr Vertinsky?
I want to think this is his future wife Lidia. They were dating, secretly, in summer of 1940. A week before the event he wrote her to Qingdao, where she was vacationing with her family: "On the 18th they will be electing Miss Shanghai and invited me to head the jury. Perhaps, you get back by then, and we can be together?"
(Photo from their wedding in April 1942)