Ivy Low Litvinov: surviving Stalin … and D.H. Lawrence, too

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Ivy Low Litvinov and friends in the U.K. …before it all began. (Joseph Freeman Papers, Hoover Institution Archives)

“It is one of the wonders of the age that Ivy survived to die a natural death,” wrote American diplomat and historian George Kennan in a 1989 letter. Dying in one’s bed wasn’t the usual exit from Joseph Stalin‘s Russia, and Ivy Low Litvinov, as the wife of the genocidaire’s foreign minister Maxim Litvinov, wasn’t a likely candidate for a natural end. Yet she lived in Moscow with their children until 1972, when she returned to the U.K. The recipient of Kennan’s letter, the Book Haven’s own Elena Danielson, Hoover Institution archivist emerita, tells this and other tales about the British author in the current Sandstone & Tile here (beginning on p. 18):

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(Photo: Joseph Freeman papers, Hoover Institution Archives)

“In November 1943, Ivy was traveling from Washington to Moscow and showed up, without warning, at the Stanford Library. She wanted to read a collection of original letters by her friend, British novelist D.H. Lawrence, in what was then known as the Felton Library. The research at Stanford was Ivy’s refuge in a dangerous time. In 1939, her husband had been dismissed as foreign minister and disgraced by Stalin, only to be recalled to active duty in 1941, when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. He served as Stalin’s ambassador to Washington for a crucial year and a half, from December 1941 to spring 1943. He and Ivy arrived in the U.S. on December 7, while the Japanese were bombing Pearl Harbor. The Litvinovs, especially Ivy, were wildly popular guests in Washington and New York in 1942. She lunched with Eleanor Roosevelt and dined with Marjorie Merriweather Post, one of the wealthiest women in America. By 1943, however, Maxim – again in political difficulties – was abruptly recalled from Washington to Moscow and an uncertain fate.”

Still, she had a few dreamy days at the Stanford Library, where she recollected her loving, and stormy, history with D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda. She wrote in a letter to a friend: “In t. meantime I retire into my literary life and have been reading up on Lawrence & making unexpected discoveries… I went to Stanford University & was shut up for 2 days in t. adorable Felton Library, which has a rich collection of Lawrence being accumulated in the last 12 years, but I t. first person to ask to see it. In his letters found most amusing references to self. All this I have assembled & begun to write article.”

Elena writes, “Ivy may have spent most of her adult life in the Soviet Union, and she went down in history as the wife of Stalin’s foreign minister, but she always viewed herself primarily as Ivy Low, the writer. She was born into an environment where the people closest to her were constantly reading and writing for publication.”  She wrote for The New Yorker, Manchester Guardian, Blackwood’s Magazine, Vogue, as well as two published novels – and she did finally write her article “A Visit to D.H. Lawrence,” which was published in Harper’s Bazaar.  “Ivy’s research on Lawrence at Stanford helped her steady her nerves while awaiting her perilous return to the Soviet Union.”

Hoover acquired her papers, including letters, manuscripts and photos, in 1987 – not far from the D.H. Lawrence collection at Green Library.

It’s a fascinating story – read it here (again, beginning on p. 18).


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