Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Man Who Could Bend a Dime with His Fingers!

Sadly buried in an unmarked grave at R80/S385 at Congressional Cemetery is Russian born actor, writer, and director Nicholas Alexander Dunaev, who appeared in no less than thirty-four Hollywood films in the 1910s and 1920s.  Long since forgotten, perhaps his most eccentric trait was his unusual ability to bend a dime in half, using only his fingertips.  He was obviously a hit at many a Hollywood party in the roaring twenties.  

And speaking of parties, Dunaev made news one night in 1924 when he joined Charlie Chaplin and other actors for dinner at the exclusive CafĂ© Petroushka in Hollywood when oil magnate Julian Pete reportedly bumped - on purpose - Chaplin’s controversial date, actress Mary Miles Minter.  An accomplished actress, she was black listed two years prior when she had been implicated in the mysterious death of director William Desmond Taylor.  A fight ensued, Chaplin received a punch to the eye, but our Dunaev came to the rescue during a free-for-all.  He punched Julian Pete twice, and was quoted as saying “If Julian had been a dime, I’d have bent him in two.”[1] 
Dunaev was born on May 26, 1884 in Moscow, Russia as Nicholas Dunay.  He was the son of a Czarist nobleman, former Lord Mayor of Moscow, and a graduate of the University of Moscow Law School.   Active in the Russian revolution in 1917, he was an associate of Alexander Kerensky, head of the provisional government which was toppled by the Bolshevik revolution.  He was arrested and sent to Siberia in exile, from where he escaped.  He made his way to France, where he married novelist Edith Donnerburg; she died just two years later.  He once penned “The act of killing the spirit in a man, of obliterating all sense of honor, faith, and a desire for better things, is as surely homicide as through the man's soul were taken from his body.”

Dunaev came to the United States in 1919 to work as a writer, actor, and director at the Vitagraph Corporation, one of the first motion film companies.  To his new American friends, he was known as “Kolya,” short for his Russian accent pronounced ‘Nicholas.’  With the advent of “talkies,” Dunaev moved to Hollywood to work for the World Film Corporation where he earned another nickname “the strongman from Moscow.”  He starred with Otis Skinner in the original “Kismet.”  His self-written play “The Spider” starred himself, and played on Broadway in the 1920s.  

He married a Ziegfeld Follies danced named Ina Byron that ended in divorce after just two years.  He apparently garnered 100,000 votes for Roosevelt, earning a special commendation from the President.  He moved to Washington, DC in 1937, and eventually wrote the President in 1947 for a job, which he was denied due to his Civil Service status.  He was broke and destitute, he said, renting the modest apartment C at 1417 Belmont Street, NW (left, since razed).  He authored a novel entitled “Seven Doors to Sin” that was published by Vantage Press in 1954.  He eventually moved in with a couple at 931 New Hampshire Avenue, NW, when he fell ill and died in 1963.     
Dunaev once wrote “There can never be a happy ending to a poet’s life, for the ending is its essential tragedy.”   

Copyright Paul K. Williams

A list of movies and other works from the IMBd website at 

  1. Two Arabian Knights (1927) (as Nicholas Dunaev) .... Mirza's Man Servant
  2. The Palace of Darkened Windows (1920) .... The Snake Charmer
  3. Kismet (1920) .... Nasir
  4. The Devil's Riddle (1920) .... Paul Evers
  5. Cheating Cheaters (1919) .... Antonio Verdi
  6. The Velvet Hand (1918) .... Secretary
  7. The Yellow Ticket (1918)
  8. The Firebrand (1918) .... Dmitri
  9. The Flower of Doom (1917) .... Paul Rasnov
  10. The Pulse of Life (1917) .... Domenic
  11. The Scarlet Crystal (1917)
  12. The Reward of the Faithless (1917) .... Feodor Strogoff
  13. The World Against Him (1916) .... Peblo
  14. Who Killed Simon Baird? (1916) .... Kimba... aka "By Whose Hand?" - (alternative title)
  15. The Yellow Passport (1916) .... Music Master... aka "The Badge of Shame" 
  16. The Broken Law (1915) (as Nicholas Dunaeu)
  17. The Dust of Egypt (1915) .... Slave
  18. Hearts Ablaze (1915) .... Carlo Martinelli
  19. My Lost One (1915) .... Juan Mora - a Violinist... aka "Mi Perdida" - (alternative title)
  20. Victor's at Seven (1915) (as Nick Dunaew) .... Nick Hotstuff... aka "Meet Me at Seven" - USA (alternative title)... aka "Rector's at Seven" - USA (review title)
  21. Fair, Fat and Saucy (1915) .... Prince Ali Aboul
  22. Mr. Jarr and the Dachshund (1915)
  23. Mr. Jarr's Magnetic Friend (1915)
  24. Mr. Jarr Takes a Night Off (1915)
  25. Snatched from a Burning Death (1915) .... Samson
  26. Two and Two (1915)
  27. Peggy of Fifth Avenue (1915)
  28. The Still, Small Voice (1915)
  29. Some White Hope? (1915) (as Nick Dunaew)
  30. The Professor's Nightmare (1915) .... The Professor
  31. The Methods of Margaret (1914)
  32. The Spirit of the Poppy (1914) .... Jules De Fonde
  33. A Close Call (1914)
  34. The Win(k)some Widow (1914) .... Nini Tosca, Orchestra Leader
  1. Siberia (1926) (as Nicholas A. Dunaev) (adaptation)
  1. My Official Wife (1914) (technical advisor)

[1] Jules Tygiel, The Great Los Angeles Swindle: Oil, Stocks, and Scandal During the Roaring Twenties, University of California Press, 1994.

1 comment:

Terence Davies said...

Mr. Dunaev's grave in Congressional Cemetery in Washington, DC, is no longer unmarked. I came across it yesterday while searching nearby for the grave of an old friend. It has a large granite tombstone that on one side refers to his film career and quotes his words about there never being a happy ending to a poet's life. On the other side is his name, the date and place of his birth and death and a description of him as the man who could bend a dime with his fingers. The top of the stone was almost covered with loose coins, presumably left by persons familiar with his accomplishnent. Thank you to whoever supplied the marker and the biographical bits for his final resting place.