All images by Ewa Kowalska
Emil Varda is one of New York nightlife’s most recognizable figures. Indeed, over the past decade he, along with partner and Vanity Fair Editor Graydon Carter, has lorded over two of the city’s hottest restaurants: The Beatrice Inn and The Waverly Inn. The latter has hosted celebrity royalty, including Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Sarah Jessica Parker, Cameron Diaz – the list would go on for pages.
But Varda’s early life was characterized by the struggles of a young dissident in Communist controlled Poland. Ironically, it was his deportation to America (branded as he was a troublemaker back home) that eventually led him to his exalted hospitality career. His great passion, however, is theater – and his recent production All Roads Lead to Kvrski Station (a loose adaptation of Moscow Circles, first published by Venedikt Erofeev in 1973 – and also known as Moscow to the End of the Line) provocatively and intelligently tied those days of Soviet oppression together with our current political situation in America.
BlackBook sat down with him to explore the man, and the history, behind the gracious and successful host.
You’ve told me stories of your life in Poland, you were involved with politics, you were a revolutionary; who was running the government at that time and what was it like? Paint us a picture.
I grew up in Lublin, Poland in a deeply anti-Communist family. At an early age, I was interested in the theater, but instead of going to traditional drama school I wound up at J. Grotowski’s workshop. In the 1970s, after the maestro declared the “death of theater,” I got involved in the open theater at Lublin University, where we used Grotowski’s method to create productions; but contrary to him, we were very political, very much socially involved, and very anti-Communist.
The late ‘70s in Poland were very hectic and nerve-wracking. It was the last few years of Communism, which we called “late Gierek” – after the First Secretary of the Communist Party – and the system was crumbling. The economy was broken, there were food shortages, and the government was borrowing huge sums from Western Europe and the United States. However, you could find fine wine and cognac in most of the stores, and it was very easy to travel; so everybody was going to abroad for summer work and bringing books, money and ideas back to Poland.
How did the dissident movement come about?
In the summer of 1976 the Communists raised the price of food, and workers in Radom went on strike, demanding higher wages. Instead of dialogue, a special political police force crushed the protest with brutality, firing them from their jobs, beating workers, and putting some of them in prison. Outraged artists and intellectuals set up The Workers Defense Committee (KOR) to aid with legal work, collecting money and distributing funds to the neediest. The KOR and its leaders instructed the civilians how to behave under interrogation or arrest; but most importantly they broke the fear, they reminded us of the power of the people (nec Hercules contra plures).
The Polish Communists were desperately looking for financial support to feed a nation, but the Soviets were going through their own crises and could not help. In a desperate move to appease the Soviets, in 1977 the Polish Communist Party tried amending the constitution by adding a paragraph stating that they would defend the “achievements of the Bolshevik Revolution” and follow it as a guiding principle. In response, KOR published a letter of protest signed by intellectuals, artists, and students. I was one of the signatories. It was the beginning of my life as a dissident.
When did you come to the US and why?
From August 1980 until December of 1981 was the Solidarność era, which is called by many the Festival of Freedom. There was no censorship, and it looked like we were victorious. Then on December 13, 1981, martial law was declared and many dissidents were arrested. I was on the most-wanted list, but luckily I avoided arrest. Early on the morning of December 13, a small group of us organized a strike for two days at our university, and I ended up in the underground, publishing an anti-Communist magazine. After two months my luck ran out, I was arrested, and the special police put me on trial – and finally interned me in political prison for eight months and three days. During this time I realized that my goals were not aligned with the other dissidents. The government wanted all dissidents to leave the country and President Ronald Reagan had declared that the United States would welcome all political prisoners from Poland. This is how a poor refugee boy from Poland became a New Yorker with a one-way Polish passport.
How did you get into nightlife and restaurants in America?
I got involved in the nightlife and restaurant business by necessity. I had to support a family; rent was much cheaper back then but there was still rent to pay. It was a job that evolved into an exciting career.
Was it difficult to emigrate then versus now in America in the era of Trump?
This I’m going to try to answer in my next show, whose working title is “Where to…?” I will try to find out whether emigration gives you wings or makes you into a hunchback. So just be patient.
As an owner of one of the trendiest restaurants in NYC for the past several years, The Waverly Inn, and with your famous partners – Graydon Carter, Eric Goode, Sean MacPherson – how and why does your experience lead you now to do experimental political theatre?
As a privileged intellectual, you have a responsibility to defend the truth, to fight for it. As an artist, you need to voice your opinion and defend your beliefs and ideas. As Christopher Hitchens said, “Truth is not in the center, the truth is located where it’s located.” I felt the need to get out of my warm and safe cocoon. Art screams the loudest, and I know how to do theater; so I used [the character] Vienya to show that.
Within your play program, you’ve written an eloquent and clarifying synopsis of your production, where you explain that your adaptation is more stream-of-consciousness and poetry then a true adaptation. That your play seeks to connect the cultural past of the early 20th century, 70s and 80s, to our current world predicament, “that seems poised to forget the importance on a focus of basic human values, though they may be antithetical to the demands of politics, social values, money, and God.” Please expound?
Yes, this is not a classical adaptation. I used only the main idea of the book because theater is a completely different art. I use different media and different tools in my play, including quotes from a few other authors like Goethe, Marquis de Custine, Mandelstam and others. As we said in the program, the romantic fable of a past Russian world was manipulated by Stalin and Putin. We are on the precipice of a similar contrivance.
You wrote a manifesto around the play, where you say… “Amidst the chaos of today’s spiritual crisis, it may be that paradoxical and macabre works such as Moscow-Petushki are the only way to approach the contemporary world and give the audience a metaphysical experience.” How so?
Our world is upside down and inside out right now. Nobody realizes this, or knows what is right or wrong, good or bad. We chase away even God or gods, so we have to take very special measures, an unorthodox path, looking for a new paradigm. Our president is a reality TV personality, who doesn’t understand fully what is going on in our planet, somebody who has no clue about Russia or China for example. We cannot use classical chivalrous and gentlemanly ways of communicating with this government or the rich and arrogant, the famous 1% of our world. We must start to scream about what is wrong and how to fix it as undiplomatically as they do; just be rude and without any good manners.
Tell us about Vienya.
The character of Vienya , is at once a philosopher, a poet, a romantic, an outcast, and a drunk. I chose Vienya because, in my humble opinion he is the closest to that truth. He saw the cult of vodka as an effort to find meaning in a world that is growing more and more inhuman and farther and farther away. He found that vodka, revolutions, and even art were just temporary relief from the horror of existence.
The Kremlin is ominously referred to throughout the play. Why?
I’m going to answer this by a quote from the Marquis de Custine: “The Kremlin is undeniably the work of a superhuman but sinister creature. Glory in slavery – such is the allegory portrayed by this monstrous monument as extraordinary in architecture as the visions of St. John are in poetry. It is a dwelling appropriate for the characters of the Apocalypse.”
The scene where Vienya assumes the Trump-like persona is intentionally uncomfortable, ridiculous, and humorous. Do you find parallels between the current US administration and 20th Century Russia? Why did you add this scene, what does it mean?
One word only: despotism.
For our polarized, contemporary global culture, is there something you hope for us to take away from All Roads Lead to the Kvrski Station?
Vienya is not just a character from Soviet Russia exclusively. He is a universal everyman, one of those among us who needs help and human kindness. Vienya is the last poet philosopher whose biggest tragedy was a fatal lack of love. His journey shows how determined he was trying to reach his goals and how painful that journey was. He ended up how he did because society and even God turned its back on him.
In between playing your role as the effervescent Emil – arguably one of Manhattan’s most interesting, fun, and entertaining hosts, period, will we see more theater from you?
I have a “theater plan.” I’m hoping to create more shows in the next few years. Theater is where my heart is.