With Tibet in the news recently, I thought I’d expand on a piece I have on my website about my cousin Zina Rachevsky and my travels in Nepal.
In the 1980's I lived in Woodstock, NY, practically in the shadow of the Tibetan Buddhist Monestary Karma Triyana Darmachakra (KTD). Although I was not a practitioner, I lived with one, which I thought gave me some in-law status.
In 1985 my partner and I decided to go to India and Nepal. She wanted to see the Lamas and Tibetan Buddhist shrines and I was in search of information about my cousin Zina Rachevsky, who, it is told, had been the first foreigner to study with Tibetan Lamas, (or second after Alexandra David Neel.)
Zina and her family had always been somewhat of mythical figures in my family. For one thing, the Straus family was fabulously wealthy. In 1921, Simon William Straus - (Zina's grandfather, my grandmother's brother) founder of SW Straus & Co., held loans on new buildings across the us worth $150,000,000. (NY Times, Dec 3, 1922) In 1924 they completed construction on the Chicago building that is now known as Metropolitan Tower, the first Chicago structure taller than thirty stories. It was then known as "The Straus Building." SW Straus owned the Ambassador Hotels in Los Angeles, New York City and Atlantic City. He died in 1930. The company went into recievership, it went under, in 1932 after defaulting on bonds totaling over $200 million.
Zina was born in 1930, the same year her grandfather died. Zina was known to us a wild child, but in the 1950's, when I was a child listening to the stories, that could be another way of speaking of an independent, curious woman. She spent much of her early adulthood working as actress and gaining a reputation as an international socialite, knew the Beat Poets, and eventually made her way to India and finally to Dharma.
Zina Rachevsky, actress 1953
Zena's father, we knew, claimed Russian nobility. While the Russian nobility fable is a large part of Zina’s current mythology, in my family we were more interested in our side, the Jewish side. Zina's mother and my mother were first cousins. Zina's grandfather and my my grandmother were siblings. They were all German Jews, who had been in the United States since the middle of the 19th Century, and had made their fortune first as peddlers, then as bankers with huge real estate holdings throughout the country. They settled first in Ligonier, Indiana, creating one of the first and largest Jewish communities in the midwest. The family then moved on to Chicago and then to New York.
Zina, in the stories written about her, is usually referred to as a Russian Princess. It is not likely that Zina actually thought of herself as a Russian Princess. Certainly the rest of the family knew that her common-born father's common-born sister had married a dethroned Russian Duke, which doesn't equal royalty by any inheritance laws anywhere. Not a drop of royal blood coursed through her veins. However, it was a clever way of branding herself when she was creating a name for herself as an actress and a showgirl. The meme seemed to have stuck with her friends and acquaintences and became part of her public persona. Certainly, it made her memorable, and most likely reduced the amount of anti-Semitism that might have been an obstacle in those days.
Update: It turns out, in fact, that the Russian Rachevsky's were most likely Jews as well. Converted to Catholicism, for various reasons, but Jews. Did Zina know this? I don't know. But it seems that she was, by blood, 100% Jewish.
I didn’t think much about Zina until I became interested in Tibetan Buddhism. She had visited us in New York only once, but I had no memory of her. But when I found that Zina had been involved with Lamas in India and Nepal soon after the Chinese invasion of Tibet, I knew it was something worth investigating.