It was the 1950s. Long before cable TV and the Internet, the cultural chasm between rural Arizona and midtown Manhattan yawned like the Grand Canyon. But that only begins to explain the enormity of the mental and emotional journey on which the family would embark.
Andrew was the second son of Cynthia Kuser Earle, heiress to a vast New Jersey fortune. She was a woman of uncommon independence, beauty and recklessness who spoke eight languages and is said to have seduced men in most of them. He was a boy without a father. In New York, the Earles would settle in at the St. Regis hotel. From room service, they would order fresh raspberries and other seasonal delicacies unknown at the ranch.
At the appointed time, the nanny would pile Andrew and Tony--freshly scrubbed, stiffly dressed--into a limousine, whose driver would take them to Central Park. The sultry air, the dense palette of green, the clustering humanity--nothing could have seemed more foreign or exotic. They would be led down a path, and there would stand the man they knew as Tato. Dapper and in his early 50s, he had a deeply creased face, dark brows and a coal-eyed gaze. They would run to him and be enveloped in his arms.
Tato would whisk the Earles to New Hampshire, where he owned a secluded vacation home in a compound on an island in a lake. In this idyllic safe house, the mysterious Ukrainian would entertain the boys, cook borscht and apple pancakes, and generally fill the vacuum created by their lack of any apparent father. Andrew remembers sitting on a counter in a kitchen filled with steaming pots, drinking in the intoxicating smells and listening to Tato, in his thick Russian accent, tell fables filled with Slavic warmth and darkness, making the boy feel happy in a way he never had felt before.
It was 1965 before Andrew found out the truth.
He was 15 and at home in Arizona. "My brother and I went for a ride [on horseback]," he now recalls. "Christmas morning. We rode up to the top of this big, big mountain. He was three years older than I am. And on the top of this mountain, looking over the ranch, he asked me, 'Who do you think our father is?' And I said, 'Well, I think it's Uncle Arthur.' " Arthur Earle was the estranged husband of their mother. "And he said, 'Well, why do you think we are calling our father Uncle Arthur?' And I said, 'I don't have a clue, I've never really thought about it.' And I really hadn't. It had never really occurred to me. And he told me that our father was Tato, and it felt like such a complete betrayal. My mother tried to explain, but all the explanations in the world couldn't make it right."
The betrayal was wrapped in a thick layer of intrigue. Tato was Victor Kravchenko, one of the first and most influential Soviet defectors to the United States, who had written "I Chose Freedom," a searing account of life under Stalin. Kravchenko met Cynthia Kuser (she was not yet Earle) on a snowy New York night in the winter of 1946 at a book party in his honor. From there they started a whirlwind, intense relationship that produced Andrew and his brother, Anthony. But Victor and Cynthia never married. He was, according to Andrew, too worried about the danger to her and their boys and insisted that their relationship remain secret to all but a few close friends.
In retrospect, it should have been obvious, even down to the name: Tato, as Andrew later learned, is a Ukrainian endearment for one's father. But that in no way cushioned the shock. "I didn't come down off that mountain being the same," he says.
Then, two months later, Kravchenko was dead, shot once in the head in his Manhattan apartment. The coroner's ruling: suicide. His sons had never been able to see him or speak to him after learning that he was their father. "That created an even bigger hole," Andrew says. "All of a sudden, it went from betrayal to wanting answers to wanting to know the truth."
Relations between fathers and sons can be complex and difficult in the best of circumstances. Faced with the death of a father, almost every son struggles with a welter of emotions as he reconciles the father's strengths and foibles and then measures them against his own. But what of the father who deceives and then dies, bequeathing a mystery and an unyielding, empty ache in his son's heart?
This yearning to understand--in some way to re-create--his father became an obsession that has shaped much of Andrew's adult life. It had a powerful influence from the start. His grades plummeted. He began to rebel. He wanted to leave Arizona and go somewhere far away--the Amazon, Australia, it didn't matter. He eventually did break away, moving to Spain as a young man to study art, and then to Berlin and a failed marriage. He was running. It influenced his work as an artist and led him for one bleak period, he says, to shoot heroin. Drug-free now, he remains the dutiful son who never really had a father. What he does have are books and letters, photographs and a name. No longer Andrew Earle, he is now Andrew Kravchenko.
He tells this story as he sits at a table in the garden of the Chateau Marmont, the hotel hideaway off Sunset Boulevard, not far from his Hollywood Hills home. He moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1990s after a fire destroyed his Arizona ranch house. It is a warm afternoon, and the hotel is rustling with bleary-eyed rockers, fashion photographers and a brisk Santa Ana wind. Andrew is a slender man of 52 with a long face and a swept-back swoosh of graying blond hair. Despite his rugged upbringing, he has an air of refinement; he drives a Mercedes-Benz, not a pickup. He is dressed casually but elegantly in a white open-necked linen shirt and sport jacket. And yet--look at him from the right angle, just the face, winter-pallid and lined--he could be a man waiting for a bus on Leninsky Prospekt in Moscow. He is telling his life story, but he isn't really. It's the story of Victor Kravchenko and Cynthia Earle by way of F. Scott Fitzgerald, John le Carre, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Zane Gray.
Kravchenko, a mining and steel engineer, was a mid-level official in the Soviet lend-lease office in Washington, D.C., when he sought asylum in 1944. At the time, the Soviet Union was still a U.S. war ally, and many Americans were willing to give the benefit of the doubt to "Uncle Joe" Stalin. Kravchenko wanted to shatter those illusions. His defection was front-page news and prompted debate at the highest levels of government, up to and including President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Stalin demanded that he be turned over as a traitor--an automatic death sentence. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover urged FDR to let him stay. On April 13, 1945, the day after Roosevelt died, Kravchenko received notice that his application for asylum had been granted.
Luck is an essential element in any survivor's tale, and Kravchenko was a lucky man. With pitch-perfect timing, working with the renowned Maxwell Perkins--editor of Thomas Wolfe, Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, among others--he wrote an autobiographical critique of the Soviet regime. "I Chose Freedom" was published in 1946 at the dawn of the Cold War, when an American public that had been willing to go shoulder to shoulder with its Soviet allies was being told that Communism was the new enemy. Readers wanted to know why. "I Chose Freedom" became a bestseller, an international sensation. Largely forgotten today, it presaged Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago" and Eugenia Ginzburg's "Journey into the Whirlwind," and stands with them as among the most influential works of their kind.
While these other writers were still behind barbed wire, Kravchenko was describing the brutality of collectivization, the madness of Communist Party purges, the inefficiencies of central planning and the atrocities of the gulag. "The magnitude of the horror has never been grasped by the outside world," he wrote. "Perhaps it is too vast ever to be grasped. . . . One can only look into this or that corner, and judge the whole from its parts."
When Kravchenko's book was published, "he must have been feeling full of himself," Andrew says. "I mean, full of himself in the best of ways. He's finally got it done. And it was accepted, it was selling, people were telling the truth and--boom, what a moment. At this party, he meets this woman. Now, this is the woman he meets."
Flipping through the pages of a black folder, he turns to a photograph. It shows a young woman in a low-cut dress holding a hand of playing cards. Her head is cocked and eyebrows arched; her eyes, half shut, drift languidly into the distance. This is Cynthia Kuser, the rebellious daughter of a family that socialite Brooke Astor once described as exemplifying "the arrogance of big money." (Astor had had a disastrous marriage to Cynthia's older brother, Dryden.)
The Kuser fortune had spouted from the mundane wells of insurance and electric utilities. As a child, Cynthia would spend the occasional weekend at her parents' rustic retreat in northwestern New Jersey. When her father later donated it to the state, it became High Point State Park, 14,000 acres of mountainous forest that includes the highest spot in New Jersey. As a young woman, Andrew says, Cynthia's lovers included the mobster Lucky Luciano, the Spanish matador Manolete, and Alfred Sloan, the head of General Motors--all while she was married to her first husband, Theodore Herbst. "This is a woman who didn't care," Andrew says. "On her deathbed [in 1985], she said, 'You think, when I go before St. Peter, anything's going to happen?' I said"--and he laughs fondly--" 'You know what? You treated men [abominably] and you're going to pay for it!' She was a femme fatale."