Never mind Rasputin’s curse. Or the jewels sewn into the clothes that at first deflected the hail of Bolshevik bullets. Or the persistent rumors of a young Anastasia’s survival.
In the sport of dogs, there’s another prominent Romanoff family. Like that ill-fated tsar and his kin, it is unequivocally Russian derived and tied to a lost world of imperial palaces and ruby-encrusted samovars. And in turn, those famous canine Romanoffs are inextricably linked to the man who bred them – Louis Murr.
Louis Murr, AKA Mr. Borzoi
A short-statured Basque immigrant with an inversely outsized personality – he reportedly was prone to getting into fisticuffs with judges with whose choices he disagreed – Murr discovered the Borzoi (known as Russian Wolfhounds until 1936) after serving in the U.S. Army in World War I. Starting his kennel in a brownstone in New York City’s Greenwich Village, where he also owned an antique shop, Murr eventually got his real-estate license and moved his kennel north to Spring Valley, New York. There, he perfected a family of dogs whose quality and accomplishments are still remembered almost a century later.
Like most great breeders, Murr chose his foundation wisely, with a particular focus on the blood of the famous Valley Farm kennel in nearby Connecticut. In the early 1900s, Joseph B. Thomas had gone to England and Russia in search of good Borzoi stock, only to be disappointed in the coarse, poorly constructed animals shown to him. It was only when he made the difficult journey to Perchina (alternately called Perchino), the hunting lodge of the Grand Duke Nicholai Nikolaevich, that he found a wellspring of “ancient type” Borzoi on which to base his Valley Farm line.
Murr’s most significant Valley Farm sire arrived in 1929. The cream-colored Vigow O’Valley Farm was not in optimal condition, but Murr could see beyond that the thoroughbred beneath. After a year with Murr, Vigow landed in the record books as the first Borzoi to win a Best in Show.
The Greatest Borzoi Ever Bred
But it was Vigow’s son, Ch. Vigow of Romanoff, to whom the judges tossed their most elaborate bouquets. Simply put, most authorities of the time considered Ch. Vigow of Romanoff to be the greatest Borzoi ever bred on American soil. Undefeated in breed competition, he won 67 Hound Groups and 21 Bests in Show, and was named Best American-Bred Dog of all breeds by the American Kennel Club in 1935 and again the following year – a record made all the more impressive when one considers Murr never drove more than a few hours from home to show his dogs.
Unfortunately, the show record of “Junior” was cut painfully short. As the story goes, a gentleman of means arrived at Murr’s kennel with a bitch in standing season who was as aggressive as she was unattractive. The man wanted her put to the famous Vigow, but Murr was unwilling to breed to the growling bitch, who had tried to bite him, and instead invited the man inside to discuss a solution that did not involve breeding her. As they talked, the man’s enterprising chauffeur put the bitch in with Vigow. His agonized howls soon drew both men away from their coffees: The ill-tempered bitch had attacked her would-be suitor, fatally severing the main artery in his neck.
Thankfully, Vigow had already made his mark as a stud dog, and two major Borzoi lines – Tam-Boer of Lena Tamboer and her parents Elizabeth and Leonard, as well as Majenkir of Karen Staudt-Cartabona, who is still actively breeding – based themselves on his dependable Romanoff line.
“He worked hard to produce what should be a good dog,” Lena Tamboer said in a 2012 interview. “He was dedicated to the breed. He had moderation, not exaggeration.”
An Unconventional Kennel
For her part, Staudt-Cartabona met Murr in the twilight of his life. “He was intimidating, but not in a bad way,” she says, recalling a visit in which he walked through her kennel, methodically pointing out which faults – such as “frozen” toplines and Roman heads, which are so coarse as to almost evoke a Bull Terrier – should never, ever be bred.
Staudt-Cartabona understands the source of that absolute conviction. As a breeder-owner-handler in the Gilded Age, Murr was competing against some of the most well-financed show dogs in the history of the sport, many owned by industrialists and financiers who could afford to import the best dogs and hire the most influential handlers. “And still,” she says, “he beat them at their own game.”
While a traditionalist in terms of demanding a true-to-type dog who was sound enough to do the job he was bred for, Murr was also somewhat unconventional in his kennel management. In the 1930s, at the peak of Valley Farm breeding, he kept up to 90 dogs at a time – not counting puppies and visiting bitches being bred. On his Spring Valley property, the dogs were housed in a hillside barn. Bitches whelped and reared their puppies in troughs and stalls on the first floor; the dogs lived together largely as a free-ranging pack on the second.
“Instead of separate pens, each dog has a particular spot to sleep. They are very individualistic, and no two like the same kind of bed,” wrote dog writer and judge Arthur Frederick Jones in a 1933 profile of Murr for the AKC Gazette. “For instance, one dog curls up on top of the food bin; another likes the landing of the stairway leading to the upper floor; a third seeks the seclusion of an open traveling crate; a fourth sleeps in the kennel truck whenever it is in the barn.”
From Breeding the Judging
In the early 1950s, Murr gave up breeding to become a judge, becoming one of a handful of all-rounders who garnered a reputation for finding and rewarding good dogs of any breed, no matter what class they were entered in. He had a special connection with Westminster, judging at the famous New York show an incredible 21 consecutive times, including Best in Show in 1969.
But it was his very first assignment there, as a young breeder-judge in 1925, that stands out as an example of how seriously Murr took his breed – and the responsibility of judging it.
Murr had an entry of 59 Russian Wolfhounds – “the greatest number ever assembled in America up to that time,” according to Walter Fletcher in The New York Times. (The breed’s official name would be changed to Borzoi – a Russian word meaning “swift” – a dozen or so years later, despite Murr’s vehement protests.)
Though there were 17 champions in competition, Murr gave Best of Breed to a class dog named Ivor O’Valley Farm. According to Fletcher, Murr was “severely criticized” for the choice, but was “vindicated” at show’s end when Ivor was awarded the Mortimer Trophy as Westminster’s best American‐bred – a first for the breed.
“I judge them according to the standard,” Murr was fond of saying, “and not for their pictures in dog magazines.”
Don’t Show a Dog Unless You Absolutely Believe in it
By his own calculation, Murr judged at least 2,500 shows in his career, including the first one ever held in the South American nation of Colombia. “Soldiers, with fixed bayonets, stood between the rings and the spectators to ensure there would be no trouble,” he told Fletcher. His clinics, where he critiqued dogs for exhibitors, were extremely popular, with one in Hawaii drawing more dogs than had been entered in the show itself.
“He said, ‘Don’t show a dog unless you absolutely believe in it,'” Staudt-Cartabona remembers, adding that it was advice that has served her in good stead over the years.
Murr died in 1978, two years after retiring from judging, at age 84. More than three decades later, Staudt-Cartabona is grateful for the mentorship given to her by an experienced fancier willing to share his hard-earned knowledge. And, in turn, Murr likely felt a similar appreciation for his own mentors, including Thomas, who used as his yardstick of approval the aristocratic examples he imported from the tsarist kennels of Perchina and Woronzova.
“Your dogs are uniform in type, size and quality,” the founder of Valley Farm reportedly told his erstwhile student, “and you have succeeded in retrieving some of the ancient type prized very highly in Russia for hunting and dog shows.”
It was an assessment worthy of the Romanoff name.
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