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Searching for Tato

Soviet Defector Victor Kravchenko Had Two Sons With a Wealthy American Heiress, but He Insisted on Hiding Their Cold War-Era Relationship. Their Youngest Son, Andrew, Has Spent His Life Trying to Understand the Deceit.

May 11, 2003|Mitchell Landsberg | Mitchell Landsberg is a Times staff writer.

As a child growing up half wild on a remote Arizona ranch, Andrew Earle looked forward every summer to his family's annual trip East. Cowboys would take Andrew and the rest of his family--mother Cynthia, brother Tony, two adopted children from Central America, a nanny, assorted bags and dogs--27 miles over dirt roads to the train station in Morristown, Ariz. There they would board for New York City.

It was the 1950s. Long before cable TV and the Internet, the cultural chasm between rural Arizona and midtown Manhattan yawned like the Grand Canyon. But that only begins to explain the enormity of the mental and emotional journey on which the family would embark.

Andrew was the second son of Cynthia Kuser Earle, heiress to a vast New Jersey fortune. She was a woman of uncommon independence, beauty and recklessness who spoke eight languages and is said to have seduced men in most of them. He was a boy without a father. In New York, the Earles would settle in at the St. Regis hotel. From room service, they would order fresh raspberries and other seasonal delicacies unknown at the ranch.

At the appointed time, the nanny would pile Andrew and Tony--freshly scrubbed, stiffly dressed--into a limousine, whose driver would take them to Central Park. The sultry air, the dense palette of green, the clustering humanity--nothing could have seemed more foreign or exotic. They would be led down a path, and there would stand the man they knew as Tato. Dapper and in his early 50s, he had a deeply creased face, dark brows and a coal-eyed gaze. They would run to him and be enveloped in his arms.

Tato would whisk the Earles to New Hampshire, where he owned a secluded vacation home in a compound on an island in a lake. In this idyllic safe house, the mysterious Ukrainian would entertain the boys, cook borscht and apple pancakes, and generally fill the vacuum created by their lack of any apparent father. Andrew remembers sitting on a counter in a kitchen filled with steaming pots, drinking in the intoxicating smells and listening to Tato, in his thick Russian accent, tell fables filled with Slavic warmth and darkness, making the boy feel happy in a way he never had felt before.

It was 1965 before Andrew found out the truth.

He was 15 and at home in Arizona. "My brother and I went for a ride [on horseback]," he now recalls. "Christmas morning. We rode up to the top of this big, big mountain. He was three years older than I am. And on the top of this mountain, looking over the ranch, he asked me, 'Who do you think our father is?' And I said, 'Well, I think it's Uncle Arthur.' " Arthur Earle was the estranged husband of their mother. "And he said, 'Well, why do you think we are calling our father Uncle Arthur?' And I said, 'I don't have a clue, I've never really thought about it.' And I really hadn't. It had never really occurred to me. And he told me that our father was Tato, and it felt like such a complete betrayal. My mother tried to explain, but all the explanations in the world couldn't make it right."

The betrayal was wrapped in a thick layer of intrigue. Tato was Victor Kravchenko, one of the first and most influential Soviet defectors to the United States, who had written "I Chose Freedom," a searing account of life under Stalin. Kravchenko met Cynthia Kuser (she was not yet Earle) on a snowy New York night in the winter of 1946 at a book party in his honor. From there they started a whirlwind, intense relationship that produced Andrew and his brother, Anthony. But Victor and Cynthia never married. He was, according to Andrew, too worried about the danger to her and their boys and insisted that their relationship remain secret to all but a few close friends.

In retrospect, it should have been obvious, even down to the name: Tato, as Andrew later learned, is a Ukrainian endearment for one's father. But that in no way cushioned the shock. "I didn't come down off that mountain being the same," he says.

Then, two months later, Kravchenko was dead, shot once in the head in his Manhattan apartment. The coroner's ruling: suicide. His sons had never been able to see him or speak to him after learning that he was their father. "That created an even bigger hole," Andrew says. "All of a sudden, it went from betrayal to wanting answers to wanting to know the truth."

Relations between fathers and sons can be complex and difficult in the best of circumstances. Faced with the death of a father, almost every son struggles with a welter of emotions as he reconciles the father's strengths and foibles and then measures them against his own. But what of the father who deceives and then dies, bequeathing a mystery and an unyielding, empty ache in his son's heart?

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