Thursday, March 6, 2014

One Person, Three Names

Sometimes, the memories from our childhood seem so foggy, so indistinct, that we wonder if those things were just so, now that the years have aged us and seasoned us with a dose of “reality.” When I look back at my memories of my godmother from my vantage point so many years later, I begin to question myself about my recollections.

That Genia, my godmother, was who I remembered her to be, there is no doubt. Even today, one may find the usual litany of her lifetime of achievements—that she began dancing professionally in classical ballet at an early age with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo under the direction of Leonide Massine; that sometime after her immigration to the United States she danced with the American Ballet Theater; that she spent eight years with the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas, where she was billed as the first “Western” ballerina to be partnered with Rudolf Nureyev after his defection from Russia; that she danced with the London Festival Ballet; that she served on the faculty of the dance department at Juilliard in the 1970s; that she taught at the Igor Youskevitch School of Ballet and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center; that she was visiting professor and visiting artist at a number of schools, including Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia, the position she held at the time of her passing in 2004.

That, if you find anything written up on Genia Melikova, is basically the list corroborated by most online entries. While a rehearsing of such a list of accomplishments may leave you somewhat breathless, consider one thing: while it tells us much about the persona known on stage for her various roles, it leaves us not one glimpse of who the person was behind the mask of that persona.

Even her name itself was fabricated: Melikova was her stage name. She was born to Russian immigrant parents in Marseilles, France. When they moved to the United States, I knew them, too—though what can a child recall about names? If you were to ask me Genia’s father’s name, I would have to say, “Mister.” What else would a young child of that era know?

I did know the family surname, though—it was the only one I knew until years later, when my mother told me Genia’s stage name. She was born to the Melnitchenko family. That was her real surname.

So, now that I’m so far removed from those childhood memories, I look back and wonder: should I pursue an attempt to piece together the life story of my godmother? Can I trust the memories I have from those childhood years? Will they lead to any solid clues? Will I be able to find anything online to corroborate what I remembered?

The biggest question for me to grapple with is, Will it be worth it? This has always been a conceptual challenge for me. If the purpose of genealogy is to trace one’s roots—and thus to hand the story of that lineage to one’s descendants, what of those who have no children?

With some of the other single relatives I’ve researched, I’ve chosen to set a personal policy of pursuing those stories, too. While a maiden aunt or bachelor uncle may not have anyone left behind to remember her or him, that person’s stories deserve to be preserved as much as those of family members boasting children of their own.

And so, I’ve set off on a hunt to find any personal information on Genia. How challenging that will be: I don’t even know her father’s name, though I know a bit about his occupation. I know even less about her mother, other than her tormented condition in old age, when I first met her so many years ago.

So, armed with the knowledge that Genia sported two different surnames—Melnitchenko and Melikova—I began peeking at what was available online.

Starting out with Google™, I was surprised to discover that Genia did indeed dance, in those early years after the Second World War, using her own surname. Granted, “Melnitchenko” was not exactly the kind of name that handsomely graced a brightly lit marquee, but that was what she used at first.

At the end of a long review in The New York Times on June 3, 1949, this line was added, almost as an afterthought:
On the stage at the Music Hall are Genia Melnitchenko, Norman Thomson and Fernand Nault, Buck and Bubbles, Glenn Burris, the Rudells, the Corps de Ballet, Glee Club and Rockettes.

Oh, yeah—and her.

A year later, The Montreal Gazette on September 9, 1950, briefly mentioned Genia in its “Tourists Cabaret Guide,” at the end of a review of the Bellevue Casino,
The dancing of Genia Melnitchenko and Will Morelli rounds out the new revue.

Turning to—where I didn’t hold out much hope, given the international nature of my godmother’s residency—I was surprised to find one tidbit which I am certain refers to her. A page from the Petitions for Naturalization, filed in New York City, was signed by the Deputy Clerk on July 16, 1953, with one particular request granted,
Name changed by decree of Court from Genia Melnitchenko to Genia Melch as part of the Naturalization.

So now I am left with the task of researching one person with three possible names: Melnitchenko, Melikova, and—one which I had never known of before—Melch. Whether any others of my vague memories can convert to tangible data will remain to be seen, but it is exciting to see even this little clue surface at the start of the hunt.


  1. Melch? I wonder how she/they arrived at that. Even though the possibility of finding the person behind the persona seems remote, the journey is the thing. You have so much to go on already. There are vague shadows of people in my childhood memories that will probably never surface because I lack too much vital information to even start searching for them. So plow on, Jacqi. Let me see how it's done.

    1. Oh, believe me, Wendy, Melch was a total surprise.i had never heard anyone mention that version of her surname. Chalk that one up to the wonders of the Internet, I suppose.

      It's interesting about those vague childhood memories. Sometimes, one thing leads to another, and what was once thought to be too shadowy to even attempt pursuing gloms on to enough substance to take shape to a manageable extent.

      Granted, the effort is not always worth it. But when it is, it often requires the patience I compare to steeping one's tea or taking a slow walk around the neighborhood. With time, details ooze out of the shadows.

  2. She was your god mother - and as such a "relative." She is sort of like my honorary Aunt Bea (she was a neighbor and friend of my grandmother). I include her as family in my mind.

    What I wonder about is this: had she had to take on the duties of being a god mother - how she would have done so? - traveling all over the world to perform - would she have dragged you along with her - or "retired" to raise you?


    1. I remember your posts on your honorary Aunt Bea, Iggy. Yes, there are some people who by their presence or relationship, naturally become one of the family.

      I'm sure, no matter what my mother might have been thinking when she asked her friend such a favor, she was doing so as an honorary designation. There is no way Genia could have facilitated such a role, if the need arose--nor do I think my mother ever intended her to fulfill that position. Maybe it was the invincible mindset of the young--that they will never die--that kept my parents from any reality check which could have swayed them from that decision.

      No matter what the reason behind the request, or the outcomes that might have unfolded, I'm still glad they made that arrangement. It gave me an opportunity to spend time with an incredible woman, as well as gain a glimpse of the life my own mother knew before her "retirement" into married life.

  3. In my Midwest knowledge of Godmothers. I am one..just a few times is that we will remember the child in prayer and teach them the ways of the church and remind them of their baptism when we spoke for them because they could not. If their parents should fail at bringing them up in the church then the Godparents should step in.
    I think this is a wonderful mission, and I am anxious to see what you find out! :)

    1. Now that you mention it, Far Side, that sounds like the "job description" for a god parent that I remember my husband's Catholic relatives explaining to us once. It was much more than willingness to serve as surrogate parents.

      Thank you for your vote of confidence on this wild chase. I'm not sure I can find out what I want to discover about Genia's family, but I keep thinking how wonderful it would be if I could push it back just one more generation--enough for a cousin to discover "the rest of the story" on a family member who left the homeland and was never, likely, seen again.


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