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Zenaide Hanenfeldt: The Scion of Imperial Russia That Became a Theremin Diva

Zenaide Heads Towards Oblivion

With the cessation of the manufacturing of Victor Theremins, following a legal action brought by the De Forest Company, the marketing campaign launched by the R.C.A. was abruptly interrupted, likewise reducing Zenaide’s job opportunities.

We do not know what she did in 1931 and 1932, but we can assume she continued to teach at her Theremin school in Washington for some time, as well as at the Theremin studio in New York. Zenaide reappears in the press of the time in 1933, again demonstrating the theremin at various trade shows. The theremin, despite being out of production, still maintained a certain appeal as an exposition “attraction” alongside stuff such as “Willi Vocalite.”

In January 1933, Zenaide participated in the Troy (N.Y.) Auto Show and Exposition:

Another very interesting demonstration at the Cluett exhibit is the “Theremen,” the latest musical device simiar to a radio and which seemed to be under a hypnotic influence of Miss Zenaide Hanenfeldt, demonstrator, who by the movement of her hands, produced music from it.

(Anonymous [16], “Auto and Show Exposition at State Armory,” The Troy Times, January 1, 1933)

In February, according to a newspaper article, Zenaide toured Europe, also performing at Buckingham Palace:

Miss Hanenfeldt is an outstanding musician, and one of the few women in the world to master this instrument. She has played the Theremin not only in the many states of this country, but only recently returned from a very successful tour of Europe. Probably one of the most pleasant memories in Miss hanenfeldt’s life is the time last February, when she played a demand performance for the king and queen of England at a concert in the Buckingham Palace, which was attended by many important people in the nobility of the British Empire.

[Anonymous [2], “Magic Music at Exposition to Be Played,” Press and Sun Bulletin, Binghamton, New York, Fri, Oct 20, 1933]

However, I have not been able to verify the truthfulness of this news.

Photo of Thereminist Zenaide Hanenfeldt at the Rochester (N.Y.) Progress Exposition 1933.
Zenaide Hanenfeldt at the Rochester (N.Y.) Progress Exposition 1933.

In April, she was at the Rochester Progress Exposition (N.Y.):

The Theremin, heralded as “the world’s most unusual musical instrument,” will be exhibited by Mlle. Zenida Hannefeldt, first pupil of Leon Theremin, the inventor. Mlle Hannefledt will give six concerts daily.

(Anonymous [17], “Progress Exposition Attraction Week Of Apr. 22 at Edgerton Park”, Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, NewYork), April 11, 1933)

In October, she attended the Binghamton Progress Exposition (N.Y.):

Not only will Miss Hanenfeldt demonstrate this instrument by performing from the stage of the Exposition, but during the periods between concerts she will be in the booth of Week & Dickinson to explain to music lovers, how this instrument is operated so that people will see that it is not a magic display but a real musical instrument.

(Anonymous [2], “Magic Music at Exposition to Be Played,” Press and Sun Bulletin, Binghamton, New York, Fri, Oct 20, 1933)

The latest news about Zenaide and the theremin dates back to March 1934, when Zenaide played at the Ryo Country Day School. In June of the same year, Zenaide’s mother, Mary de Mertvago, died prematurely. It is plausible that at that point, Zenaide decided to find a less precarious job. So, in 1936, she began working for the Gershwin Publishing Corporation (GPC) out of a room in the offices of the music publishers Chappell/Harms in New York City (Owen, 2020). After Gershwin died in 1937, she went to work at Columbia Concerts Inc., which later became Columbia Artists Management.

Zenaide Hanenfeldt died on 17.08.1994. She is buried at the Novo-Diveevo Russian Orthodox Cemetery at Nanuet, Rockland County, New York, USA.

And that’s all I have on Zenaide Hanenfeldt. If you have any other information about her, I warmly invite you to post it in the comments or write to me at [email protected]. Thanks.

Edit (10/19/2020): This article has been edited, since it was first posted, to reflect suggestions, gratefully accepted, from Peter Theremin and Jimmy Virani, who provided Zenaide’s death date and burial place, and Michael Owen (biographer of Ira Gershwin and Consulting Historian and Archivist of the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts) who provided further information regarding Zenaide’s involvement with George Gershwin and pointed out two errors: the year Zenaide began working for Gershwin (1936 and not 1935) and the real identity of the woman depicted in the photo (now removed ) whom I had mistakenly identified as Zenaide Hanenfeldt at the time she was working as George Gershwin’s secretary. The woman in the photo was actually Carol Stevens, Gershwin’s secretary in California, during the last year of his life.

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