Magic Lantern Projections: A Dialogue With Octogenarian Actress Dina Cocea, Honorary Citizen Of Bucharest

The oldest recollections of actors of your generation used to begin with the scene of a provincial school festival: the future star winning a well-known, sympathetic audience made up of parents, grandparents, family friends, touched aunts. The memory of past reality is overwhelmed by the memory of nostalgia. How came your attraction to the stage? My oldest memory preserves the stage as a realm of fairy and danger. The first performance I ever saw was a ballet at the Petrograd Opera in 1917, with the revolution at its height. My encounter with the stage happened at a time of continuous transience: as refugees, in hotel rooms, life among suitcases. When we left Romania, with my parents and grandparents, I was barely four: I have no distinct memory of Bucharest, where I was born, or Jassy, the only provincial city I lived in for a short while, during World War I. But Petrograd is quite clear in my mind, for I remember my mother and father taking me to the Opera where I saw that ballet, which I may say determined my fate. The stage was a sort of animated fairy tale, with real, gracious and resplendent characters. Later, in order to get back to our hotel, we had to take to back streets because there was shooting everywhere. It's been so long since then but I still can't separate those images: ballerinas, projector lights and gunfire. When did the stage become a familiar place to you? During the war, again, but this time it was in Paris. From Petrograd, after many adventures, after going via Stockholm and London, where we stayed for a while, at the end of 1917 we arrived in Paris. I retain no clear image from our long refuge – only a succession of fears: at sea because of U-boats, in Paris because of zeppelins hovering menacingly in the sky. But on the same occasion, my mother took me one evening to the operetta theater to a very successful show, Fi-Fi, in which my aunt Alice Cocea, my father's sister, had a role. The stage conveyed me the feeling of a possible intimacy. There was a person from our family acting on it, one of "my folks". Why not me? I told my mother I was going to become an actress. When I turned seven, and we came back to Bucharest, I insisted I take ballet lessons, and I began to learn with the great Floria Capsali, a famous choreographer. Have you never dreamed of being something else instead of an actress? When I was 30, I thought I could be a good journalist. The third generation in the family: my grandfather, Constantin Mille, was director of Adevărul, a pro-democratic and very successful daily newspaper, from 1895 to 1926. He spent half of his life founding and managing journals. The news room took up most of his time, and at home he was morose and ferociously punctual. If I was five minutes late for lunch, tragedy struck. My father, N. D. Cocea, also a famous journalist, founder and director of periodicals, was more of an artist, a little more Bohemian, so at some point my grandfather fired him from the editorial office where they both worked. This prestigious ancestry, rather than attracting me to the "paper stage", gave me a complex. I took to writing very late – I published my plays at the end of my artistic career. In your childhood, did Bucharest make an impression of a big city, a capital city? At that age, neither had Paris given me that impression, not in a conscious way. I first went to school there, in the first grade I went to a nun's school. Loneliness, strict discipline, adjustment to a different rhythm. I only remember the shop windows at Christmas filled with the most beautiful toys I have ever seen. In my elementary and high school years, both as a child and a teenager, Bucharest meant to me precisely ordered itineraries – school, home, and the severe atmosphere in my grandpa's family, where I was raised until I was 14. At my grandparents', it was Mrs. Mille's world, my grandpa's second wife, who was much older than him, and whom I didn't like a bit. On the other hand, I was getting on her nerves too. Seen from this "world", Bucharest did not appear as a big, nice or attractive city. It was always the same familiars who came to tea – for instance, the widow of Alexandru Beldiman, founder of Adevărul, who had been my grandfather's colleague, old ladies, a collection of black hats, as old-fashioned as the muffs our guests kept their hands in. I used to be called in to these antiquated tea parties to give the ladies a brief salute. It seemed to me at that age that all the beautiful things were outside that house. Once a year, in May, on St. Constantine and Elena's Day, the whole family went to "Şosea" [Promenade], to a big restaurant, Flora, where my grandfather's and my own name day was celebrated. On that occasion, Bucharest appeared to me majestic, scented, and very much alive: a brilliant city. Comparable to western capitals? In a way. Inimitable, though. To someone my age, the "Little Paris" between the wars, so often evoked now, was only a flattering analogy. I had lived in Paris on three different occasions before I was 20 and the images of the City of Light were well engraved in my memory. Our "Little Paris" still had Oltenian greengrocers carrying panniers, horse-drawn streetcars (I remember taking the tram to get to Colentina, I think there was another one on Dorobanţi Road – all this after having traveled by subway in Paris), coaches driven by Russian-clad coachmen were still in use, like lamp lighters. The charm consisted precisely in the blend of Oriental-lazy people and the fast-paced, modern life of obvious French extraction. What was your place in that fascinating blend? The one I had chosen long before: acting. I made my debut on stage in 1935, when I was 23, and took my driver's license in the same year. I was among the very few women drivers in Bucharest, and quite a good driver too. I was never told "drop the wheel, miss, and get back to your frying pans!" – an expression in vogue then. I guess I turned a few heads in my splendid red Bugatti convertible, which by the way wasn't mine. I was lucky to witness a period of rapid development of the city. I can't remember exactly in what year the lakes north of the city were reclaimed; I remember my folks discussing about a very efficient mayor and an engineer who built cheap housing by lakeHerăstrau in what was to become a residential area after World War II. Anyway, I had the chance to witness the creation of a civilized landscape – with yawl racing, yachting, the tennis courts where I too used to play, and so on. There was also the first automatic bar in town, on Calea Victoriei, not far from the Telephone Company building, where one could find a delicious potato salad and mouth-watering sausages – I think I was there at the inauguration. The whole smart set of the capital, amused by this "American implant", was going there. At your age, instead of evoking a nostalgic Bucharest, you are describing a rather bustling city with which we might identify ourselves. It so happened that I was among the first supporters of most changes. To cite an instance, I was among the first actors invited to perform in radio drama broadcasts, which were the idea of [playwright] Victor Ion Popa. I was the star in one of the first pre-war Romanian movies, the very successful An Unforgettable Night, featuring the great actor G. Timică. My role was that of a singer, and one of my songs soon became a hit. A great stage director, Ion Şahighian, made his debut in filmmaking. Bucharest was almost a character in that movie. I also felt very attached to the capital in my first live TV shows, the first opera productions in the new opera house I saw rising in the fifties, at Palace Hall, at the new National Theater, from which I went into retirement… The city assumed emotionally? Of course. It relates to sentiments, frames of mind, moments of confusion or rapture, joys. Speaking of joy, I cannot omit Moşii [the fair], an event in the life of the city. Society was more stratified than it is now, but the zest for partying was more "democratic", if I may say so. At Moşi one could meet the whole Bucharest society, even the cream of the crop – "in disguise", of course, as they were not wearing their usual attire. There used to be a few excellent fashion houses in Bucharest then, such as Weiser's, but people with smaller incomes could also dress smartly, because there were dressmakers who worked with Parisian models. A certain unity of clothing created a particular style. The street revealed elegance and creativity, especially Calea Victoriei. Is this where fashion shows took place? More or less. The hat parade took place at the hippodrome, as you couldn't show them off at the theater; but at the races, hats and sunshades turned the stands into "theme scenes" resembling Dufy's paintings. As a matter of fact, I think the little sunshade and summer gloves were the symbols of Bucharest ladies. The city assumed emotionally has means to me various places, unforgettable figures. The Athenaeum means Enescu and Lipatti. The image of Titulescu appears to me in a discussion with my father in our home. A small tavern in Buzeşti St. is forever associated in my mind with the voice of Maria Tănase, which I used to go there to listen to. There are quiet streets in Bucharest I used to walk on, hand in hand, like all the young people in love, when I was engaged. Youngsters kissing in the street appeared much later, after the war. The restaurants or gardens where we used to go to every night, after the show, to eat and dance, are connected with the enthusiasm of youth, but also with the tension of getting out of the role. Shows used to start at 9 in the evening and end after 11, so I would get home at 3 or 4 in the morning, after the party. At 10 a.m., it was the rehearsal – this is how it was at Mrs. Bulandra's theater, anyway. You mentioned people whose names are now names of theaters and streets and cultural institutions of the city; doesn't this give you a feeling of loneliness among today's people? No, why should it? I see, for instance, the former Sărindar St., now Constantin Mille, which is my grandfather: not far from the corner of Calea Victoriei used to be "Our Theater", the theater company I founded in 1941, when the war was raging. I didn't give it much thought. This is how it was then. Anyway, "Our Theater" was a successful experience, with young actors and a modern repertory, quite audacious in those days: it was the first Romanian theater that staged O'Neill's plays. I was 29 when I started it. When "Our Theater" was nationalized and closed down, I was almost 37. How would you describe the average Bucharester? A man of appetizer politics. If only you knew how many plans and disputes heated the atmosphere at Capşa café, or Corso, or Corsoletto, or Dragomir's tavern… Well, this was before people began to look around carefully and hold their tongues. For a few decades! Who represented the epitome of beauty or distinction, in your opinion? The most beautiful woman seemed to me the wife of industrialist Max Auschnitt. Bucharest has always had beautiful women and attractive men. However, the charming Bâzu Cantacuzino [famous aviator and war hero] was the most remarkable, I think. In a synthetic image of Bucharest, what do you think would come first: the visual element, the olfactory, the hubbub? The visual – no way. Bucharest has always been a mixture, it never had a precise architectural style. Berlin, for instance, is a somber, yet unitary city. The olfactory – again no: it cannot compete with the subtle fragrance of Paris, or Moscow's poignancy, with its pungent odors. Bucharest is a capital of noise: people talk aloud, car engines are raced impatiently, street sweepers clank the garbage cans, and so on. Nevertheless, with its good things and bad things, it can't be easily forgotten. Of all those who left it, it is the Jews who preserve the most vivid memories of the city on Dâmboviţa. After many decades, when you meet one of them somewhere in the wide world, he will ask you: "Is that little street still there, with two thick trees around the corner, before the house that… Oh, Bucharest!"

by Tita Chiper