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A Tolstoy with a tale; Author's great-grandson plans autobiography

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As a vestige of Russian aristocracy and heir to a literary legacy, he is an unlikely resident of St. Mary's Court, a low-income assisted-living facility in Washington's Foggy Bottom neighborhood.

The 87-year-old with the wispy silver hair bounces about his humble efficiency, cluttered with bottles of antibiotics, stacks of medical records and newspaper clippings. He's looking for a book. "I have something I want to show you," he calls over the blaring television.

Here lives Count Sergei Tolstoy, great-grandson of the "War and Peace" novelist Leo Tolstoy.

Not so long ago, he reveled in the luxuries his last name and aristocratic status afforded him. He dined with dignitaries in Washington's finest restaurants. His taste was so exquisite that a cigar company named a Cohiba for him.

Now he says his only income is a $213 monthly check from Social Security. His monthly rent at St. Mary's Court, where he has lived for 19 years, is $64. After utilities, what's left he spends at the nearby convenience store.

"I'm living like a bohemian," he jokes. "I beg, borrow and steal."

According to people who have known him for more than 30 years, Tolstoy's money is gone, lost at the betting windows of local racetracks. "I made my bread and butter at the track," he says. "Many rich ladies wanted to marry me and become Countess Tolstoy. It is too late now, but I could have been a millionaire."

The book he wants to show is a Tolstoy encyclopedia sold at the museum of his great-grandfather's Russian estate, Yasnaya Polyana.

This August, Tolstoy says, he hopes to travel to Yasnaya Polyana to mark the 100th anniversary of his great-grandfather's death. It will be a celebration of the writer's life and works and a reunion of the Tolstoys.

Before Leo Tolstoy died at age 82 in November 1910, he had 13 children. During the Bolshevik Revolution, the Tolstoy family fled Russia, seeking refuge across Europe. Today more than 200 descendants are spread across four continents; the Yasnaya Polyana estate keeps a record of all members of the vast family.

Inside the book, he shows off a genealogical record of the family listed by number (Leo Tolstoy's children were the first 13). His number -- cross-checked by the date of birth listed on his passport -- is 56, and of all the living descendants it is one of the lowest.

Among his last hopes for income is a tale he spins to anyone who will listen. After World War II, he says, he was recruited by the U.S. Army to serve undercover. He wants to write a book about his adventurous life.

Tolstoy was born on Oct. 20, 1922, in what was then Yugoslavia, the son of Vera Tolstoy (daughter of Leo Tolstoy's son, Ilya) and a Czech lumber baron. The marriage was annulled, so he grew up with his mother's last name.

He spent most of his youth in Paris, rooming with artist friends and appearing as an extra in movies. He rubbed elbows with Warren Beatty and Elizabeth Taylor. He once gambled with Omar Sharif on a game of bridge. His most notable cameo was in the World War II film "The Longest Day." He plays the role of a German soldier guarding a railroad bridge.

He moved to the United States in the late 1960s to live with his mother.

Tolstoy discovered his love for thoroughbred racing in Paris. At Washington's tracks he worked as a tout around the paddocks, offering to sell his tips about hot horses and jockeys. Throughout the years, he'd place his own bets, too, recouping losses by teaching Russian and French on the side.

"At the racetrack, you have all these fictional characters that are real-life people," says Ross Peddicord, a former Baltimore Sun horse racing reporter. "Sergei was such a charmer. It was like he walked right out of 'Anna Karenina.' "

Tolstoy spends winters in Florida. A friend there, Ellen Hamilton, wants to help him write his book. She lives in Winter Park, Fla., and is the founder of the Florida International Piano Competition. She has spent hours recording his stories as a supposed spy for the Army.

It was 1946 and relations between the United States and communist Russia were tense. Tolstoy says his spy mission was to steal a Russian map that documented American positions around Europe. The map, Tolstoy said, would prove the Russians were not trustworthy allies and justify future American action against the communists.

For the risky mission, he says, he was Army Capt. Serge Longfellow, lest his real identity be revealed and used for propaganda: A Tolstoy caught spying on his own Russian people. He says his cover was as an interpreter tasked with accompanying an American officer to the Russian headquarters in East Berlin.

Around lunchtime, the Russians brought out a bottle of vodka and tried to get Tolstoy and the American officer drunk. Tolstoy was prepared, though, and had swallowed a few cups of olive oil before the mission, to coat his stomach and neutralize the alcohol's effects.

During the meal, with everyone at the table inebriated, Tolstoy excused himself to go to the bathroom. He found the incriminating document in the drawer of a study and stuffed it in his pants. He returned to West Berlin safely, but the Americans apparently decided the map was not enough proof for an assault.

Tolstoy complains that he's never received recognition or a military pension. His book, he hopes, will make up for the money he feels he's owed for risking his life as a soldier-spy.

Hamilton refers to herself as Tolstoy's agent and says they have both signed a contract on the details of his book's publication.

So far, her attempt to verify Tolstoy's spy story has come up dry. Tolstoy says he's not surprised that his service in the military has a short paper trail. He notes he was not a U.S. citizen until the 1960s so a search of his Social Security number through military databases would not produce a result.

On his dresser is a photograph of his great-grandfather. Tolstoy says he tries to live his life according to the Russian writer's principles.

This August, he will be among the oldest at the Tolstoy reunion. In Paris, he was married for 10 years to a woman he never talks about except to say she died of alcoholism. He has no children. "At my age, I don't have long to live anyway," he says, noting how he hopes his book will tell his story for future generations.


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