Leyda, Si-lan Chen

Variant names

Hide Profile

Jay Leyda (1910-1988) was a leading film historian, best known for his work on Soviet cinema and director Sergei Eisenstein, and on Chinese cinema. He was also a film maker, photographer, archivist, translator, professor of cinema studies at New York University, and was also noted for his Emily Dickinson and Herman Melville scholarship. His wife, Si Lan Chen Leyda (1909- ) was a modern dancer who pioneered the use of Chinese dance elements.

Jay Leyda was born on February 12, 1910 in Detroit, Michigan, and was adopted and raised by his grandmother in Dayton, Ohio, after his mother's early divorce. In 1930 Jay moved to New York City to work for photographer Ralph Steiner. Leyda was published in Arts Weekly, exhibited at the Julien Levy gallery, worked for the Workers Film and Photo League, was a founding member of the Film Society and the Film Forum, and arranged music to be played during silent films. At this time he formed a liaison with the activist attorney Carol King and may have joined the Communist Party USA. In 1932 Leyda made his first film A Bronx Morning, which led to his September 1933 acceptance to the Moscow State Film School, where he studied directing with Sergei Eisenstein. Leyda became a correspondent for Theatre Arts Monthly and New Theatre, and using the pen name James Lincoln, was an art critic for the Moscow News . In 1934 Leyda married Si Lan Chen, whose sister Yolanda worked as a camera operator for Mosfilms. In 1934-35 Leyda worked for Eisenstein as photographer and archivist during the making of Bezhin Meadow.

In 1936 the Museum of Modern Art offered Leyda the position of Assistant Curator of Films, and he brought to New York a rare print of Potemkin and other films collected throughout Europe. Leyda expanded MOMA's film collection and wrote pamphlets on the history of film. A 1940 newspaper article alleged he was a subversive agent and his resignation was requested. In 1941 Eisenstein commissioned Leyda to translate and edit a group of essays which became The Film Sense (1942). Leyda moved to Hollywood in 1942 where he was a technical advisor on films on Russian subjects, including Mission to Moscow . At this time Leyda began his work on Herman Melville documents (planned as a birthday present for Eisenstein) which led to The Melville Log: a documentary life of Herman Melville (1951), as well as the Complete Stories of Melville (1949) and the Portable Melville (1952). In 1943 he was drafted into the Army but was discharged shortly thereafter. A translation project begun at this time was The Musorgsky Reader, a 1947 collaboration with Sergei Bertensson, with whom Leyda later co-authored Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music, (1956). Highlights of Leyda's continuing work on Soviet cinema include Film Form: Essays in Film Theory (1949), his 1954 study film from the negative of Eisenstein's unfinished Que Viva Mexico, Kino, a History of the Russian and Soviet film (1960), and Eisenstein at Work (1980).

In 1954 Leyda left Los Angeles and for the next twenty years traveled widely, living abroad much of the time with London as a home base. From 1959-1964, Leyda spent much of his time in Peking at the China Film Archive, resulting in Dianying (Electric Shadows): an Account of Films and the Film Audience in China (1972). From 1964-1969, Leyda spent much of his time working at the Staatliches Filmarchiv in East Berlin in the German Democratic Republic, and in 1964 he published his Films Beget Films: a Study of the Compilation Film . Non-film undertakings included The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson (1960), and the 1964 performance of the opera Bartelby the Scrivener, for which Leyda wrote the libretto. In 1973, after brief teaching jobs at Yale and York Universities, Leyda became professor of Cinema Studies at NYU. He published Voices of Film Experience: 1894-to the Present (1977), regularly visited the USSR and published several collections of Eisenstein materials, and continued to write, lecture, curate, and consult widely on film and other topics. Leyda died on February 15, 1988.


Si-Lan Chen was born in Trinidad and moved to London in 1912 where she studied dance at the Stedman Academy. In 1926 she joined her father, who had become secretary for Sun Yat-sen and Foreign Minister of the Canton government. In 1927, after Chiang Kai-shek took power, the family fled to Moscow. Chen enrolled in the Bolshoi Ballet School but disliked the discipline and switched to Vera Maya's school. She gave her first important recital in 1930 at the Moscow Conservatory. After adapting her style to reflect a proletarian ideology, she was proclaimed the first modern Soviet dancer. Throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s she toured the U.S., Mexico and the West Indies performing in benefits for China relief. In the mid-1940s Chen worked in Hollywood as a choreographer, dance instructor and occasionally appeared on film. Her career was complicated by her long struggle to obtain U.S. citizenship. Chen's biography, Footnote to History, was published in 1984.


I. Books by Leyda

1951: The Melville log; a documentary life of Herman Melville, 1819-1891. New York: Harcourt, Brace. 1956: Sergei Rachmaninoff, a lifetime in music, by Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leyda. New York: New York University Press. 1960: Kino, a History of the Russian and Soviet film. New York: Macmillan. 1960: The years and hours of Emily Dickinson. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1964: Films Beget Films: a Study of the Compilation Film. New York: Hill and Wang. 1972: Dianying (Electric Shadows): an Account of Films and the Film audience in China. Cambridge: MIT Press. 1980: Eisenstein at Work. With Zina Voynow and the help of the Eisenstein Committee (Moscow). New York: Pantheon Books and the Museum of Modern Art, 1980.

II. Books edited and/or translated by Leyda

1942: Sergei Eisenstein. The Film Sense. Edited & translated by Leyda. New York: Harcourt Brace. 1947: The Musorgsky reader; a life of Modest Petrovich Musorgsky in letters and documents, edited and translated by Jay Leyda and Sergei Bertensson. New York: W. W. Norton. 1949: Sergei Eisenstein. Film Form: Essays in Film Theory. Edited & translated by Leyda. New York : Harcourt Brace. 1949: The complete stories of Herman Melville. New York: Random House 1952: The portable Melville. New York: Viking Press. 1964: Robert Flaherty. Edited by Leyda and Wolfgang Klaue. Berlin: Henschelverlag. Includes Leyda's essay, "Das Flaherty-Erbe," pp. 46-49. 1968: Sergei Eisenstein. Film Essays, with a Lecture. Edited & translated by Leyda. London: Dennis Dobson. Includes Leyda's "The Published Writings (1922-1964) of Sergei Eisenstein, with notes on their English translations," pp. 188-215. 1969: Vladimir Nizhny. Lessons with Eisenstein. Edited & translated by Leyda and Ivor Montagu. New York: Hill and Hang. 1974: Sergei Eisenstein. Three Films. Edited by Leyda, translated by Diana Matias. New York: Harper & Row. Annotated scripts of Battleship Potemkin, October, and Alexander Nevsky. 1977: Voices of Film Experience: 1894 to the Present. Edited by Leyda, research by Doug Tomlinson and John Hagan. New York: Macmillan.


See also Jay Leyda: a life's work (1988), which includes a chronology and bibliography - a copy is in box one, in the first folder.

From the guide to the Jay and Si-Lan Chen Leyda Papers and Photographs, Bulk, 1930-1980, 1913-1987, bulk 1930-1980, (Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Leyda, Jay, 1910-1988. Jay and Si Lan Chen Leyda papers, 1913-1987 (bulk 1930-1980). Churchill County Museum
creatorOf Jay and Si-Lan Chen Leyda Papers and Photographs, Bulk, 1930-1980, 1913-1987, bulk 1930-1980 Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Agee, James, 1909-1955 person
associatedWith Barr, Alfred. person
associatedWith Benjamin, Walter, 1892-1940 person
associatedWith Bowles, Paul, 1910-1999 person
associatedWith Buñuel, Luis, 1900-1983 person
associatedWith Cartier-Bresson, Henri, 1908-2004 person
associatedWith Chen family family
associatedWith Copland, Aaron, 1900-1990 person
associatedWith Dickinson, Emily, 1830-1886 person
correspondedWith Eisenstein, Sergei, 1898-1948 person
associatedWith Leyda family family
associatedWith Leyda, Jay, 1910-1988. person
associatedWith Melville, Herman, 1819-1891 person
associatedWith Museum of Modern Art (New York, N.Y.). Film Library. corporateBody
Place Name Admin Code Country
Motion pictures--Soviet Union--History
Motion pictures--China--History
Documentary films
Documentary films--History and criticism
Film historians
Motion pictures--History
Communism and motion pictures--China
Communism and motion pictures--Soviet Union
Motion pictures--Editing



Permalink: http://n2t.net/ark:/99166/w6kd5km7

Ark ID: w6kd5km7

SNAC ID: 34212939