Friday, June 7, 2013

The Transylvania Twist: on Anton LaVey's Grandmother

In the 1968 first edition of The Satanic Bible LaVey speaks of his "Georgian, Roumanian, and Alsatian grandparents, including a gypsy grandma who passed on to him the legends of vampires and witches in her native Transylvania." In 1991's Secret Life of a Satanist he mentions "his maternal grandmother, Luba Kolton (born Lupescu-Primakov, from a Gypsy father and a Jewish mother), who regaled Tony with the mysteries of her Transylvanian homeland."

Yet many of LaVey's stories about his "Transylvanian grandmother" and "Roumanian heritage" appear inconsistent with known facts. US census records consistently show Luba Coulton's June 1868 birthplace as Russia. Her first child Fanny was born in the Russian Empire in December 1889.  In 1868 - and 1889 - Transylvania was part of the Kingdom of Hungary, not Romania. LaVey's bear-taming "great-uncle Laszlo," Luba's brother, had a Hungarian name: his chosen monicker, "Anton Szandor," is far more Budapest than Bucharest. He consistently identified with romanticized "Gyspy" stereotypes but showed no insider knowledge of Rom culture.

We could dismiss this all as harmless exaggeration.  But Luba Coulton had an enormous influence on her seven year-old grandson.  Throughout LaVey's career we see what the Portuguese call saudade, a longing for an unattainable, romanticized past.  In an American culture which valued conformity and progress, Grandma Coulton was his first tangible link to a strange and wonderful never-was.  He took her tales and added his own research -- research that included a good bit of fiction and dubious scholarship -- to tie himself to that magic and root himself in that history. And yes, he embellished and edited for dramatic effect.

The available evidence suggests Luba Coulton was born in the Russian Empire, not Transylvania or any other part of Romania.  An equal body of evidence (albeit with variant spellings like "Primakoff," "Premacov," or "Promerkoff") suggests her maiden name was indeed Primakov (Примаков). So there appear to be at least some reality amidst the legends. Finding it, alas, will be a challenging task. Perhaps all we can do is to compare these tales to history and the few available data points, then create our own stories with their own truths and inaccuracies.

And your mother too... 
Ukraine was traditionally home of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, a motley crew of escaped Rusyn (Ukrainian) serfs combined with mercenaries of various creeds and ethnicities.  The Zaporozhian Host provided many of the images and regalia that the modern world associates with Cossacks: they were also responsible for the infamous "Letter of the Zaparozhian Cossacks to the Sultan." And while Jews, Roman Catholics and Muslims were prohibited from their ranks, Roma who professed the Orthodox faith were welcome. Listed among the Zaporozhian Army's registries are names like Vasko Tsigan and Stepan Tsiganchuk (from the Russian/Ukrainian "Tsigan," or Gypsy).  There most practiced their ancestral tradition of metal work as smiths and armorers: others found work as horse traders or entertainers.

After the Zaparozhian Cossacks were disbanded in 1775, many Rom stayed in the area. Some kept up a nomadic or semi-nomadic style while others settled into the local villages. While some Roma kept to themselves, others became fully integrated members of their community. Indeed, today many Ukrainian Roma are unfamiliar with the Romany language and speak Ukrainian as their mother tongue. A young Jewish girl working in the marketplace might well be swept off her feet by a handsome young horse trader or blacksmith. 19th century Russians were enamored with Tsigani song and dance, praising them for their nomadic freedom and swarthy beauty.

If Luba Coulton's father abandoned her mother, it would be an enormous disgrace to her family. If he stayed around it would be even worse. As Bernard Wasserman describes it in On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War (p. 158).
An unmarried Jewish mother who could not persuade the Jewish father of her child to marry her before the birth could hardly remain in the shtetl and would be compelled to leave for the sheltering anonymity of a city or for America. Before departure, she might hand over the illegitimate child to nearby peasants (who might see the gift as an extra pair of laboring hands) or place the infant in an orphanage, if one were available. Under a false name, perhaps claiming to be an aunt, she might send money periodically to cover expenses for the child's upkeep.
If, however, the father were not Jewish and she married him (illegitimate children being the most common catalyst of such, still relatively infrequent, outmarriages in the shtetl) she would disgrace her family twice over: exogamy, after all, was hardly less of a disgrace then illegitimacy. 
Luba Coulton's mother was faced with a dilemma.  There were no civil marriages in the Russian Empire and marriages between Christians and non-Christians were illegal.  Marrying her Gypsy lover would mean losing her family and frie. Keeping the child as a single mother would mean an outcast's life for her and her baby, a life of clucking tongues and sneers and condemnation for a child whose only crime was being born.

Maybe Luba's father abandoned her pregnant mother.  Perhaps they relocated and set up housekeeping without a wedding. (The pious might sniff, but cohabitation was not uncommon among peasants unable to afford religious ceremonies and marriage licenses). Or perhaps they decided to make their wedding legal and their child legitimate: they decided the opportunities they would gain outweighed the community they had already lost.

The answer to that question will likely remain an eternal mystery. But two unusual data points give me pause. On the 1922 marriage license between Leslie Lowell Vaughn and Carolyn Coulton (formerly Katie Coulton), Carolyn spells her mother's maiden name as "Josephine Premacov."  And in the 1946/7 San Francisco City Directory Luba Coulton gives her middle initial as "J." I wonder if "Josephine" isn't the name which appears on her baptismal certificate.

If so, she, like her grandson, decided a change was in order.  57 years before Anton LaVey began his coming of age stint with the circus, the Coultons left Russia with their baby daughter and headed for one of the earliest Jewish settlements in what was then Ottoman Palestine.  And from the time they left Palestine a year later and headed for America she never again used "Josephine." Instead she went by the name her mother had always called her, the odd name that census takers and canvassers frequently rendered as Libbie or Liba, the Ukrainian Yiddish Люба (Lyuba), "Beloved."