The Stories Behind the Stones

Cemeteries are like libraries. They contain the final resting places of thousands of people, each with their own separate and unique story. Some of these people are famous, and their stories are well known. Most are not, but that doesn't make their lives any less interesting or their stories any less worthy of being told and remembered.

Periodically, we'll spotlight a different Los Angeles-area grave. Every person has a story, and we will use this space to tell their story, through their final resting place.

Maria Rasputin

(March 27, 1899 - Sept. 27, 1977)

Oct. 22, 2013 -- Grigori Rasputin is a legendary, almost mythical figure in Russian history. Although known today as the "Mad Monk," Rasputin had no official church affiliation, but he became a powerful and influential figure in the early part of the 20th century, during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandria, the final rulers of the Romanov dynasty.

Rasputin was a traveling preacher, psychic and faith healer. His supporters saw him as a saintly mystic with a magical touch and a special insight into the teachings of the Bible, while his critics called him a manipulative charlatan who was more interested in the sexual conquest of his followers.

Either way, in 1907, Nicholas and Alexandria invited Rasputin to try to heal their son, 3-year-old Alexei, heir to the throne, who was suffering from hemophilia. Doctors had told his parents that Alexei would soon die, but Rasputin was able to ease his suffering, and the boy started to feel better and recover. Alexandria believed that Rasputin was the only person who could keep her son alive, and Rasputin quickly became a key member of the royal court, with influence and control over important administrative and political issues.

During World War I, there was concern among the Russian people that Rasputin had too much influence over government affairs and decisions, particularly through Tsarina Alexandria. During the early stages of the Russian Revolution of 1917, forces opposed to Nicholas II and the Romanov dynasty quickly targeted Rasputin.

In late December 1916, Rasputin was invited to a reception by several Russian nobles. At the reception, Rasputin was poisoned, shot four times, beaten and strangled, then tied inside a heavy carpet and dumped through a hole in the ice in the Neva River. Two days later, his body was found, and it was determined that he died, not from the poison, the bullets or the strangulation, but from drowning. The deep cuts on his wrists from the ropes tied around them showed that he struggled to free himself, and the water in his lungs showed that Rasputin was still alive and conscious when he was thrown into the icy river.

Tsarina Alexandria originally had Rasputin's body buried on the grounds of the imperial residence but, following the Russian Revolution and the fall of the Romanovs, Rasputin's body was dug up, taken into the woods and burned.

Rasputin's image as an evil, controlling maniac was further promoted by his portrayal by Lionel Barrymore in the 1932 film, "Rasputin and the Empress," which is perhaps best known today as the only film which featured all three of the Barrymore siblings - Lionel, John and Ethel.

Although Rasputin's story with the Romanov family is fairly well known, less known is the fact that he was married, and had three children of his own - Dmitri, born in 1895; Matryona, born in 1899; and Varvara, born in 1900.

After Rasputin died, Nicholas and Alexandria took care of Rasputin's family. When Nicholas abdicated in March 1917, the family's protection was gone, and they returned to their hometown in Siberia. Varvara died of malnutrition in 1925, at the age of 25, and Dmitri died in 1937, at the age of 42.

Matryona, known as Maria, was 17 when her father was killed. At the time, she was living with him and her younger sister in a small apartment in St. Petersburg. She eventually returned to St. Petersburg from Siberia, married a Russian army officer and fled with him, first to Romania and Germany, then to Paris in 1920, where they received help from other Russian refugees. Four years later, her husband died of tuberculosis, leaving Maria with two young daughters, and she started working on stage in Paris as a cabaret dancer.

In 1935, the Ringling Bros. circus hired her to be an animal trainer, even though she had no experience, because they thought her name would attract customers. She was promoted as "the daughter of the Mad Monk," who could hypnotize and control animals the same way her father hypnotized and controlled the royal court in Russia.

"They ask me if I mind to be in a cage with animals," she recalled later, "and I answer, 'Why not? I have been in a cage with Bolsheviks!' "

While touring Europe and the United States in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Maria was severely mauled by a bear in Peru, Ind. She continued to travel with the circus until it reached Miami, where she quit and went to work as a riveter in a shipyard during the early years of World War II.

While in Florida, Maria married an electrical engineer, a fellow Russian immigrant named Gregory Bernadsky, in 1940. The couple moved to Los Angeles in 1943, where Maria worked as a machinist and drill press operator at a shipyard in San Pedro. In 1945, the same year she was divorced, Maria became a U.S. citizen.

Maria retired in the mid-1960s, and lived for many years in a two-bedroom duplex on Larissa Drive, a narrow, winding road about a block from Sunset Boulevard, in the Silver Lake section of Los Angeles. Her apartment was decorated with photos of herself, her father, the Russian royal family and a large color portrait of Tsar Nicholas II. After her retirement, she supplemented her Social Security income by giving Russian language lessons, and the occasional baby-sitting job.

Until her death, Maria defended her father to anyone who would listen, claiming that his negative reputation was created by his enemies to discredit him. Her book, "Rasputin: The Man Behind the Myth," which depicted her father as a saintly religious healer, was published in June 1977, just before her death, to mixed reviews. (According to the L.A. Times, "the book reads like the summation for the defense in a trial that has not yet begun. It doesn't address itself to history's point-by-point indictment, but simply asserts a whole fabric of jealousy and shabby betrayal of Rasputin. By not confronting the myth, it thus fails to dispel it.")

"My father was a very kind, very holy man," Maria Rasputin said in an interview with the L.A. Times after her book was published. "Always he think of others - never himself, only others. Many people were jealous of him."

On Sept. 27, 1977, Maria called a neighbor to say that she was having trouble breathing. The neighbor called for an ambulance but, by the time it arrived, Maria was dead. She was 78 years old.

Maria Rasputin was buried beneath a simple grave marker at Angelus Rosedale Cemetery.

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