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Aug 18, 2008 1:59 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Sag Harbor resident experiences trip of a lifetime

Aug 18, 2008 1:59 PM

A crowd of more than 100 guests were taken on a journey back in time and to another world at Bay Street Theatre on Saturday, August 16, when Sag Harbor resident Mia Grosjean shared her unusual family history and a recent trip that brought it full circle.

Over the last several years, Ms. Grosjean began poring through and restoring images from family photo albums that took her all the way back to 1937, when her grandfather, Joseph E. Davies, slipped behind the Iron Curtain as the U.S. ambassador and special envoy to the Soviet Union. The mostly black-and-white images depicted a bygone era, when Mr. Davies and Ms. Grosjean’s mother, Emlen Knight Davies, stayed at Spaso House, the Moscow-based home of American ambassadors to Russia.

The photographs were so uniquely intimate that Ms. Grosjean was asked to display them for the 75th anniversary of Spaso House, and in June she took what would become the trip of a lifetime.

At Bay Street, Ms. Grosjean presented slides of the restored family photos as well as documentation of her recent trip, the images often intersecting and showing how much the country has changed over the last 70 years.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent Mr. Davies to the Soviet Union 70 years ago to secure an alliance with Joseph Stalin against Germany during and before United States involvement in World War II. His and Ms. Davies’s pictures depicted the harsh dichotomy between the grandeur of Spaso House and the Soviet elite, and bleak, snowy scenes of the blighted city and countryside that surrounded them.

After the presentation, Ms. Davies, 92, said, “Russia just captured me,” but noted she has not returned since World War II.

In June, Ms. Grosjean showed 55 photographs at Spaso House. She was interviewed for a local newspaper in Moscow and she gave five lectures for various groups in the Russian city, including the Foreign Speakers Union and a public school. “I gave a romance story,” she said during her presentation at Bay Street, which was peppered with amusing observations and anecdotes from her trip, as well as stories her mother shared over a lifetime.

One photo showed Ms. Davies’s upstairs bedroom at Spaso House, where she lived for one and a half years and met Ms. Grosjean’s late father, Robert Grosjean, a Belgian MIT graduate and engineer. The two crossed paths for the first time when Ms. Davies’s heat stopped working one cold evening, and Mr. Grosjean, who happened to be at Spaso House, came to fix it. Her mother, 20 years old at the time, thought, “Wow, these Russian plumbers are good looking!”—and before long, a romance was born.

The moment of her parents’ meeting in that bedroom eventually led to Ms. Grosjean’s conception, and the personal importance of such places is not lost on her. Each day she spent her few hours of free time walking in her mother’s and grandfather’s footsteps, seeking out the locations they captured on film.

“I’ve never been to a place like Moscow,” Ms. Grosjean said, describing her visit to Gorky Park. She recalled a particular photograph of the park from one of her mother’s worn photo albums and the time it took to restore it. “It was an incredibly desolate image to work on,” Ms. Grosjean said, putting up the slide of a figure of unknown gender, bundled in dark furs, fighting the bitter cold while standing alone in the snow-covered park. She acknowledged that because of oil revenue the country is now hugely prosperous, but for her the 300-acre park still fails to convey a joyful feeling.

“It’s like being in the Midwest,” Ms. Grosjean said, comparing the flat Moscow landscape to that of Missouri. “There’s no historic viewshed,” in Moscow, she quipped, noting that Louis Vuitton has a store on Red Square, which is quite a departure from the landscape of the formerly communist landmark where the beautiful spires of the Kremlin still stand.

It was an ironic observation: Ms. Grosjean is president of the local preservation group Save Sag Harbor, which is currently fighting to save the historic character of Sag Harbor from the onslaught of multinational retailers and big box superstores.

One day, Ms. Grosjean spent hours searching out a church in the small village of Nemchinovka, where her mother photographed schoolchildren in 1937. “Bottom line, Nemchinovka is now a gated community,” she said, noting that the updated images were likely jarring to her mother, who was at Bay Street, seeing the change for the first time.

Following the slide show, Ms. Grosjean screened a video Spaso House sent her after she returned to America. The 25-minute film showed her presenting the show on June 19 and sharing her stories as well as a walk-through of the celebrated home, where ambassadors continue to live to this day.

Ms. Grosjean said the opportunity to relive her family history would not have been possible if not for filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker and his wife, Chris Hegedus, neighbors who were so taken with the photographs that they contacted the U.S. embassy in Moscow and told them about her work during a trip to Russia last year.

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Just FYI to readers, this story will appear this week in the Eastern Edition of The Southampton Press's Labor Day issue.
By Joseph Shaw, Executive Editor (206), Hampton Bays on Aug 25, 08 10:41 AM