Sunday, June 27, 2010

Illya, Mon Amour

By Lisabet Sarai

Our new member Charlotte Stein set the topic for this week: unconventional crushes. In response, I thought I'd go 'way back, practically before the dawn of history—okay, before color television at least!—and talk about one of the first crushes I remember . The intriguing thing about this crush is that it prefigured the sort of person I'd continue to be attracted to throughout my life.

In 1966 I was in ninth grade, thirteen years old, and madly in love with a guy on TV. The spy series “The Man from U.N.C.L.E” was hugely popular in those Cold War years. Each week super-agent Napoleon Solo from the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement matched mind and muscle with the evil minions of THRUSH (the Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity) as they plotted world domination.

Solo had a lot in common with his contemporary James Bond (not all that surprising, considering the fact that Ian Fleming contributed to the development of the character). He was handsome, muscular, sophisticated, witty, and what would now be termed a chick-magnet. He was clearly the hero of the series—in fact the original title was “Solo”. But I wasn't in love with Napoleon Solo, despite his many positive attributes. The man I adored, whom I would do anything to meet, for whom I was ready to die, was his slender, brilliant, and enigmatic sidekick, Illya Nikovetch Kuryakin.

Except for the fact that he was blond, Illya Kuryakin was a classic example of what I now call the “dark poet” type. You never knew what the taciturn Russian was thinking, but there wasn't any doubt that it was deep. He evaded questions about his past but he was rumored to have Gypsy blood. He smiled far less often then his extrovert partner Solo. His motivations were normally obscure. Although Illya was an explosives expert and sharp-shooter, and excelled in practically every style of martial arts, his intelligence was his most potent weapon. According to Wikipedia, he earned a Masters degree from the Sorbonne and a PhD in quantum mechanics from the University of Cambridge. He played the bass viol, the English horn and guitar, and spoke French, German and Japanese (among other languages).

I truly had it bad for Illya. I had pictures of him on my wall. I dreamed about him. I recall that once I thought I saw David McCallum, the Scottish actor who portrayed Kuryakin, in a restaurant. My parents had to hold me down to stop me from rushing up to the poor guy (who was probably just a look-alike) , begging for his autograph or volunteering to have his children. Nevertheless, I harbored a secret excitement for days after that close encounter, as if he and I had managed a secret tryst.

“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” was canceled in 1968. Eventually I outgrew my infatuation with the lithe, mysterious spy. But he was only the first of many dark poets to hook my heart.

You know the kind of guy I'm talking about? He's usually on the thin side, possibly because he spends his time in cafés or bars, drinking black coffee or straight vodka rather than eating. His hair tends to be long, maybe even scraggly. He might have a mustache. He's stronger than he looks, with a wiry power that makes your breath catch when he uses it.

He'll hold forth with astounding eloquence on philosophical issues like the nature of time or the question of whether one can truly understand another human being, but he's far less forthcoming about his own emotions. He fills notebooks with heart-piercing poems or incandescent prose. He stays up until four AM. He improvises the blues. He'll take you to bed and to the moon, give you pleasure so acute it brings tears to your eyes, but he'll never say he loves you.

I'm a sucker for that kind of guy—moody, creative, intelligent and intense. It's a pity, because they're often not particularly good with relationships. I've got pages of poems bemoaning the fact that you never know what this sort of man really feels, even while you're ready to surrender everything to be with him.

There's a kind of glamor to this type—Illya's type—glamor in the original sense of the word, a force to bewitch. Part of the attraction, I think, is the desire to break through those emotional walls. It's a kind of conceit: “I'm the one who loves him enough to make him open up.” We all had those fantasies about Mr. Spock, didn't we? (another crush, a similar type) I'm the one who sees beyond that Vulcan mask, the one woman who can evoke true, overwhelming emotion from the man who lives by logic. It's a potent aphrodisiac, an assumption of erotic power. Let me just bed him and he'll love me—he won't be able to shut himself off from me, his soul mate...

I've had several men who fit this mold as lovers. None of those attachments ended all that well. Fortunately the man that I married has little in common with Illya Kuryakin, at least on the emotional side, though he's easily as intelligent as the U.N.C.L.E. operative. My husband is cheerful, easy-going, relatively relaxed except when he's focused on his work. He loves me and doesn't hesitate to say so.

I've spent nearly thirty satisfying years with my honey. Nevertheless, I still dream, sometimes, about slender, intense men with prodigious intellect and Gypsy blood. Maybe, after all, I never did get over that crush.

Illya, mon amour, wherever you are—I still love you.


  1. Hello again, Lisabet.

    Firstly, let me say that you Ilya sister had it, too. Though she wasn't born until the year the show was cancelled, we had re-runs in the 80s and she was pretty keen on that stern and chiselled faux-Russian demeanour.

    As a boy, my first crushes were far less cerebral than yours. I was 14 when the movie "Supergirl" came out. Helen Slater became my first obsessive crush. I mean, I was incapacitated for days after seeing it. I had an acidic void stretching from my lungs to my groin and had no idea why. It turned out it was simply the pang of the unattainable. She was just so fresh-faced and graceful, and I was quite new to puberty.

    I think I get what you're saying about the female ideal of being "the one to fix him". Speaking generally, we boys are taught as we grow up that women are "mysterious". So if a girl was to be an Ilya or a Spock, or even worse a brooding poet with unpredictable emotions, boys would often tend to say "'kay BYE!" and head over to the cute chick who likes doin' it...

    If this comment makes no sense, blame it on Wild Cherry. I was listening to "Play That Funky Music" as I typed, and I'm a unidirectional male...

  2. Hello, Willsin,

    I've never understood why men thing women are mysterious. We're completely logical ;^)

    Actually, in researching this post I discovered that Illya had a huge female following. He was originally introduced as a minor character for a single episode but was so popular he went on to become the co-star.

    Ah, but you're right. Puberty is rough!


  3. Lisabet - Now I wish I would have watched that show. It's always the ones with the locked-down emotions that call to us, isn't it? I think it's the desire to be the one, that special one, that he'll let in. But as you mentioned, in real life, those guys never deliver on their emotional/passionate promise.

  4. Oh, this post brought back a few memories. My first crush came from this shows sister show, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. Ah, Noel Harrison. I was way too young to really appreciate the crush and I can't say why he caught my interest. At that time we watched a lot of action shows like Honey West, Batman, etc. and the kids in the neighbor would gather to reinact scenes. In 1966 I was only 8 so I suppose the crush was a gradual one until the show ended. And then -

    Be still my heart, but I joined many others in falling all over David Cassidy. He was just goofy enough to appeal to the younger set and rebel enough to touch that deeper core.

    But still, now, I think my tastes are more inclined toward my first crush, the action hero, the one with high morals and the need to make a difference upon today's jaded society.

  5. Oh, UNF. You make him (and the dark poet type) sound so, so unbelievably hot! God I love hearing about people's unconventional crushes. Somehow it always brings out the best in people's ability to describe- especially when that person is a fabulous writer anyway.

  6. Lisabet,

    I grew up watching this show. And, whilst most of my school friends wanted to be like Robert Vaughn's heroic lead, I thought David McCallum was the coolest one on the programme.



  7. Hi Lisabet

    I remember that show! I used to watch it. I even had a pile of the paperback books, which are still floating around in Salvation Army stores ("The Radioactive Camel Affair" etc.)

    I'd known about this dark poet persona stuff when I was kid, but being distant and mysterious just made it easier for girls to ignore me . . .

    Shi gata ganai.


  8. Great post, Lisabet. You are so right about those dark, mysterious, men and that we women think we are the one that can break through the barriers.

    And you are right about the physique, too. There is more than one reason I enjoy watching the World Cup soccer tournament. LOL

  9. I remember Man from UNCLE. Never watched it. I was too young to stay up that late. My crush was the Green Hornet. That mask and the Black Beauty. Also Nick Barkley from The Big Valley. Rough and tumble--throw the first fist then ask questions. I still have crushes. Now it's Celtic Thunder. Oh, those accents! It's the unattainable for me.

  10. Hello, all,

    Thanks for your great comments!

    @ Kathleen: I wouldn't be at all surprised if the shows were available on DVD. You're right about the dark poet type -- they just leave us wanting more. I don't know why I haven't used this more in my stories.

    @ Ciara - Yes, I'm dating myself with this post. It's fun to hear about other people's crushes.

    @ Charlotte - I'm glad I managed to rise to your challenge ;^) Can't wait to read your post!

    @ Ashley - Yes, cool outdoes hot every time, in my opinion. Actually one of the coolest things about that show was that despite the fact that the Cold War was raging, Solo and Kuryakin were close friends and associates. UNCLE transcended global divisions to handle the real baddies. Also, Illya was the embodiment of positive U.S. stereotypes about Russia: cultured, intelligent, serious.

    @ Garce - You probably have no idea what young women were thinking about you back then. From your self-description, I'm sure that I would have found you interesting. But I'd probably have been far too shy to approach you.

    @ Maryann - Thanks so much for dropping by the Grip. As for me, give me the gymnast over the boxer any time.

    @ She - Lots of folks were way too young to watch ;^) I wonder if young Charlotte had even heard of Illya!

    [How appropriate! My Captcha is "Angst"!]

  11. Oh I was a huge Illya fan too. My sister and I used to pretend to be the characters from The Man From UNCLE, and I always played him. :) I still love him on NCIS. He looks amazing! And his wry subtle wit is still as attractive. Thanks for the memories!


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