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An Interview with Leon Theremin

Mattis: I would like to ask you about your life in New York. Could you speak first in general terms about your life in New York?

Theremin: Yes, of course. Do you want it now? Do you want my story now?

Lemoine: Yes. When you were in New York, how did you live, where did you live, and what were you doing in New York in general?

Theremin: You have to tell me what you want to know because I can tell you about my musical and theoretical side or my personal life. My personal life has to do with my personal pleasures: with my friends, some little things with family affairs. So if you want to talk about family affairs, we can talk about the people that were close to me, and so on, or I can tell you about my work and the people who shared it with me.

Mattis: I’m interested in both aspects of your life, absolutely.

Theremin: First my personal life. It was known, as everything else was known. In my personal life I was interested very much in different physicists. At the same time, I was very interested in the people who were very close to me. I was quite close to my parents, to my sister, and so on. Also, I could love people whom I liked. I fell in love for the first time (of course, not in New York) with a girl whom I really liked when I was three years old. That was my first love.

Lemoine: We want to know about your life in New York.

Theremin: I can tell you many things that occurred that may have significance, etc. I can tell you all the things that strongly influenced my musical life. I can tell you all kinds of things, but they may sound random. I can tell them quickly. I won’t tell you about the love that happened when I was three years old, but I can tell you about my first marriage.

Lemoine: Where was this, in New York?

Theremin: I’ll tell you all about it, in New York and everything.

Mattis: Please tell me about it.

Theremin: I was born in 1896, so it was in 1921 for the first time. I had a colleague, Constantinov, who had a very attractive sister. And so she became my wife, and we got married when I was working in Leningrad at the Ioffe Institute for Physics and Technology. She was very attractive. We were in Russia. She had general interests, not music. She was much younger than I was. This was in 1921. I was already 26 [sic] years old at that time, and she was probably 20 or a little more than 19. Katia Constantinova. After that I had a lot of work, very interesting work. I had a lab. I was the inventor of this instrument, the first instrument. She was not interested in music much. I was the first in the world to invent a television device; this was in 1926. Then I was sent abroad. I was sent to the international conference in Frankfurt-am-Maine. I went alone, and she was left behind. She joined me in Paris, where I went next, and we stayed with my relatives. After that I went to America, and she joined me there. So I was with Katia. It was a difficult time. We had a lot of work to do. We did not have children, on principle. It’s not that we didn’t want them, but we decided that because of the circumstances we did not want to have children while traveling. So we came to New York. She was in New York with me. She was interested in medicine. She wanted to enter the institute, the medical institute, which was about 60 km. from New York, or maybe less, 35 km. So she entered this medical school, and she slept there [in the dormitory], and visited me once or twice a week in New York. We had a very good relationship, but she was interested, not in music, but in medicine. I was also interested in medicine, but not in the same way as her. After a while–

Mattis: Did you have any children with this woman?

Theremin: No. We didn’t want children on principle. Then I’ll tell you what happened afterwards. After that, it happened that she would visit me once a week. One fine day, a young man came to me, and he said, “You know” (he gave me his calling card), “I have a request to make of you and of your wife, too. We love each other. Please let us marry each other.” This was not quite pleasant for me, but I said, “Of course, I cannot forbid– Well, in the Soviet Union we have freedom [divorce is legal].” But I told him that things could not happen in this way. So he left, and I felt terrible. I tried to reach my wife, but the phones weren’t working well. After a while, maybe three days later, I received from my Embassy–because at that time I was working under the leadership of our Consulate–they sent me a magazine that was published by German representatives of a fascist organization in America. This fascist organization wrote that Theremin– In this article it was written that “the wife of Theremin is sympathetic to our work, and we accepted her into our society, but Theremin doesn’t want to pay money, because he is probably a Jew, and he is afraid to give money. That’s why he won’t become a member of our society.” Well, there was such a magazine. At the Embassy, the people said, “We cannot allow this.” Then in a few days, they said something more definite. The Embassy called me, and demanded that I get a divorce from her. They called me and gave me my first divorce without her [presence or consent]. I talked to her on the telephone about it. She said, “It’s my friends, but I was never a member of any such society,” and that’s it. This was my first divorce. She continued to live there; she continued to study at that institute. I would talk to her sometimes, but I didn’t believe her. So this was my first divorce. Of course, at the same time, I continued constructing musical instruments, and this too preoccupied my mind. Composers would come by and ask about my wife. So I told you a little bit. Then there’s more to tell–

Mattis: Are you Jewish?

Theremin: No.

Mattis: Do you have anything more to add about your personal life in New York?

Theremin: There are many interesting things connected with my work, with the composers I had to see. But anyway, I was lonely. I sometimes called my wife on the telephone, but I couldn’t–I couldn’t get her attention. Well, we didn’t really argue, but I felt lonely that I had no wife. So, I had my studio, where I was conducting many studies on a new instrument which I invented, an instrument for dancing. The instrument for dancing was called the “Terpsitone.” It was in my studio, this instrument. It’s important to talk about this instrument, because it required a great deal of work. It’s a dancing musical instrument–much like a thereminvox, but for dancing. There I had a very beautiful student, a black woman. She danced well. And it happened that we liked each other very much. When I mentioned in my Consulate that I liked a black woman, they said, “O.K., marry her.” So we went to the Consulate, where we were married, and this was my marriage #1 [sic] to the black woman. Her name was Lavinia Williams. She lived with me, etc. She participated in some dancing works, about which I should talk because I had done much work on the dancing musical instrument. So, when I left America (we did not have children either)–I had to leave America–she was to be sent in a few weeks. I went on a special– Well, so she stayed in America.

Mattis: Do you know what happened to her afterwards?

Theremin: She stayed there. We wrote to each other for a while, but now I don’t know.

Natalia Theremin: She got married, and has two daughters who were ballerinas and performed in a major New York theater–I don’t know its name.

Theremin: She married another man. Not immediately. Six years after I left.

Mattis: Is she alive?

Theremin: Yes, she is.

Natalia Theremin: She has been dancing, lately even. Five years ago she was still dancing. The wife– She has her own studio in the Hawaiian Islands [sic: should be Haiti].

Theremin: There were many magazines she used to send. We had a good relationship.

Mattis: You divorced her?

Natalia Theremin: No. There is still no divorce. She was planning to come to the Soviet Union, but it happened that she didn’t come. They have no divorce still.

Theremin: Then I came here on special assignment–

Mattis: Where is here?

Theremin: –to the Soviet Union. After some time, I had the opportunity to marry again. So I married again in 1947 or ’46. Then, I had two children with her, born together [twins]. One was older than the other by 40 minutes. One is older, Lena [Helena], and the second one is Natasha [Natalia]. Here she is.

Mattis: Where is Lena?

Theremin: She is in Moscow. I have two grandchildren there. And I have two children, two daughters. This is my daughter.

Mattis: So you were married three times.

Theremin: Yes. My wife [Maria] passed away in 1970.

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