Spring Festival at Spaso House
The Spring Festival that took place at Spaso House on April 24, 1935 is legendary for being one of the most lavish (and eccentric), parties ever held by a U.S. ambassador abroad.
Born in 1891 from a prominent Philadelphian family, William Christian Bullitt was a journalist, novelist, and an unlikely diplomat. Bullitt was a tough pragmatist with a hedonistic streak. Virtually forgotten today, Bullitt was perhaps the most important figure in American foreign policy towards Russia in the 20th century. Bullitt worked as a journalist for much of the WWI until 1918, when he was a delegate to the Paris Peace Conference and pushed Woodrow Wilson to engage Soviet Russia as a way to contain the wave of Bolshevism.
Bullitt was appointed the first American ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1933 — a role he enjoyed perhaps too much. Spaso House, located in Moscow, has been the residence of American ambassadors since the establishment of these diplomatic relations and during Bullitt’s tenure, it might as well have been called “Animal House.”
Indeed, Bullitt’s embassy was one big frat party.
Flirtations with Russian women were so commonplace that the US State Department complained to Bullitt that his staff “drank too much and were ‘pawing women.’” Rumors ran rampant about Bullitt’s own affairs. Russian ballerinas twirled in and out of the embassy at a dizzying rate and were oftentimes violently fought over by Bulitt and his deputies. One deputy, Charles Bohlen, would recall that “I have never had more fun or interest in my whole life…This embassy…is like no other embassy in the world.”
During the Christmas season of 1934, Bullitt instructed his interpreter Charles Thayer to organize “a real shindig” for all of the American citizens in Moscow. Thayer convinced the Moscow Circus to lend him three seals for the occasion. As the guests gathered in the Chandelier Room that evening, the seals entered with a Christmas tree, a tray of glasses, and a bottle of champagne balanced on each of their noses. The seals then performed a variety of tricks, after which their trainer, who had been drinking, suddenly fainted. No longer under the control of their wrangler, the seals ran amok throughout the house, while the embassy staff attempted to corral them. Fortunately for Thayer, Bullitt had been temporarily recalled to Washington and was not witness to this diplomatic Disneyland disaster.
The pinnacle of this baroque bacchanalia would occur with the ostentatious Spring Festival at Spaso House in April 1935.
“…he left instructions that three days after his return he wanted a party laid on that would compete with anything Moscow had yet experienced, before or after the Revolution. “The sky’s the limit,” he told me, “just so long as it’s good and different.”
After my experience with the seals I was a little wary about wild animals, but Irena Wiley, the Counselor’s wife, insisted that there be some animals at least. “Let’s get some farm animals and make a miniature barnyard in a corner of the ballroom. We can call it a Spring Festival.” I knew better than to argue. It sounded easy enough. All we would need were some baby lambs and some wild flowers and a few little birch trees in pots. But we began to run into difficulties with the sheep. A collective farm had agreed to let us have some, but when we tried them out at a dress rehearsal the smell they gave off was too much for any ballroom. We tried washing them, dipping them, perfuming them, but it was no good. Then we tried some young goats. Surprisingly enough they were better but the atmosphere was pretty heavy even with them. We went to our friend the Director of the Zoo. He suggested mountain goats, “They smell less than barnyard varieties and are even more of a novelty.” So he loaned us half a dozen baby mountain goats and we rigged up a little barnyard for them on a platform at the head of the buffet table. But Irena decided mountain goats weren’t enough.”
So Thayer also arranged for an aviary, borrowing a hundred zebra finches that he would contain in a gilded fishermen’s net suspended between two large pillars in the ballroom, along with a handful of golden pheasants, a dozen white roosters, a sword-dancer, a full Georgian band, a shashlik (shish kebob) pop-up restaurant, and a baby bear…
“When the big night finally arrived Ambassador Bullitt awaited his guests under the chandelier of the main ballroom. To his considerable annoyance he was joined there by one of the zebra finches who had managed to get through the fish net. When I came upon the scene Bullitt and his Counselor Wiley, complete with white tie, tails, and white gloves, were stealthily stalking the finch around the ballroom in a vain attempt to surround it.
The epic evening wouldn’t come to a conclusion until 10:30 the following morning, but not before the baby bear had been bottle fed champagne by one party-goer, and then vomit the spirits down the shirtfront of another guest who overzealously took it upon himself to burp the poor bear.
Thayer goes on to describe the task of clearing up the aftermath…
“When the door closed on the last guest, I sat down and ordered a bottle of champagne. It was the first drink I’d had since the show started. When I’d finished it I started to clear up the shambles.
The first thing to do was catch the birds in the aviary and put them back into their cages in which they came from the Zoo. I’d caught the pheasants and parakeets and was making some progress with the zebra finches when the champagne plus the evening’s activities caught up with me and I decided to go to bed. Unfortunately though I forgot to fasten the aviary door.
I’d hardly got into bed before the Ambassador’s valet woke me. “The Ambassador wants to see you at once in the ballroom.” Sleepily I stumbled into some clothes and out onto the scene of the previous evening’s battle. Under the chandelier stood the Ambassador looking more than a little annoyed. The cause of his bad humour was obvious enough when I looked up into the high dome of the room to see a flock of zebra finches merrily skimming through the air. “Well, said the Ambassador, “stop staring and do something about those damn birds before they ruin every stick of furniture in the Embassy.” With that he marched back into his study.
Obviously I was going to need some expert help so I telephoned the Director of the Zoo and asked him to send his best bird catcher. The bird catcher trundled up the Embassy drive on his bicycle a few minutes later with a net and the disassembled sections of a long handle under his arms. “It won’t be any trouble at all,” he said as he came into the house. “I can catch them in a minute.” “But wait till you see the room…,” I began to explain. “No, it won’t be difficult…” He was screwing the sections of the net’s handle together as he walked down the hall to the ballroom. We got to the door and he looked up at the sixty-foot ceiling and gaped. There was a moment of silence and then the direction of his hands as he wound the parts of the handle reversed. “But why didn’t you tell me it was like this?” he asked plaintively as he disassembled the rod. When the bird catcher had left I wandered around from room to room, puzzled and disconsolate. By this time the flock of finches had split up into a number of sub-flocks which distributed themselves throughout the Embassy. Soon the whole house was filled with their chirpings and droppings. From time to time the Ambassador appeared from his study and glared about him. “Well, he would say, “whatever you’re going to do, you’d better get started. Much more of this and we won’t have a decent piece of furniture left.”
It was well after dark when I suddenly got an idea. I asked the butler to round up the whole staff and soon every last kitchen maid and yard boy was assembled in my bedroom while I explained the strategy. We turned out all the lights in the house and opened all the windows. On each window sill we put one bright lamp. Then armed with brooms, pillows, and any other throwable object we could find we went from room to room stirring up the birds till they flew toward the light. Once in the window we’d give them a final shoo and chase them into the night. I knew the Zoo Director wasn’t going to enjoy losing his zebra finches but I also knew he had a lot more of them – more at any rate than I had prospects of jobs. For three hours the house was a hubbub of rushing wings and pillows and people but in the end the finches were out and the Embassy liberated.
“It was the last party the Ambassador ever asked me to organize – I like to think it was because I was getting too valuable in other lines of diplomatic work.”
Despite, or perhaps because of, his social activities, Bullitt became increasingly disillusioned with Stalin’s Russia. By the time he left Moscow, in 1936, Bullitt saw the Soviet Union as the greatest threat on earth to American interests. Engagement should continue, he maintained, but with extreme caution—Russia should be treated as a trading partner and as a dangerous rival.
It is argued that Bullitt deserves credit for prophetically urging the United States to adopt a position of caution toward the Soviet Union.
But despite the fawning praise Bullitt heaped on FDR, the president continued to view Stalin as “Uncle Joe,” the friendly dictator and ally, throughout the war. Bullitt’s views went widely ignored. He briefly served as the French ambassador in 1936 until irreconcilably falling out with FDR in 1940. Roosevelt suggested to Bullitt to run for Mayor of Philadelphia as a Democrat in 1943, but Roosevelt secretly told the Democratic leaders there to, “Cut his throat,” and Bullitt was defeated. He turned to writing as an outlet, penning dozens of stories on the dangers of communism. Dying in France in 1967, the end of Bullitt’s life was a starkly sad and uneventful contrast for such an unusually bullish and sociable man.