From riches to struggle, success
Privileged life in Russia lost in wartime, immigrant built renown career as designer, architect
Asher Gransby, who helped design the interior of Vancouver’s old Woodward’s building, the Chapman’s clothing shops and other B.C. businesses, has died, aged 95.
Trained as an architect in London, he made a living in interior design in B.C., where he also designed the interiors of the Blue Horizon and Coast Plaza hotels on Robson Street, the Old Admiral Pub in Burnaby and the first Wickanninish Inn.
Asher’s father wasamedical doctor and member of the privileged Russian Jewish intelligentsia in Tsarist Russia. He was close friends with Alexander Kerensky, the second prime minister of Russia’s provisional government after the Tsar was deposed in early 1917 and before the Bolsheviks took power after the October Revolution.
Asher and his brother, Leo, became Kerensky’s godsons when Kerensky and his two sons, Oleg and Gleb, lived with the Gransbys in London after Kerensky was allowed to flee Russia.
Asher remained close to Kerensky, despite the scandal of the dashing and charismatic Kerensky falling in love with his mother, Mary, according to Asher’s daughter, Susan Gransby of Burnaby. The affair was never consummated, she said, and ended when Kerensky left for Paris and Mary chose to remain with her family.
Kerensky visited often in London and later in Vancouver when he spoke at the University of B.C. on his 1966 book tour — Susan remembered Kerensky doing the twist in their living room — and they kept in contact until Kerensky’s death in 1970.
“It was really an incredible life,” she said. “[Asher] came from great wealth, with maids and tutors, but he lost everything in the [Second World] war, when businesses changed hands and businesses were stolen, and he ended up with a regular life.”
He was bornAsher Baruch Benedict Gavronsky— he anglicized his name because of anti-Semitism— in London, England, on Nov. 23, 1914, one of two sons born to Dr. Jacob Gavronsky and Mary Kalmanovsky, whose wedding in Switzerland was reported in the Paris Daily Mail: “Guests partook of a sumptuous Russian lunch sent from St. Petersburg.”
Asher was educated at the exclusiveBedales boarding school outside London and worked in his early 20s as a tea taster in the Anglo-Asiatic Tea Co., the London office of the Israeli tea company Wissotzky that originated in mid-19th century Russia and had devoted customers all over the RussianEmpireand beyond. (The company was included in a popular song that promoted the false anti-Semitic notion that Russia was dominated by Jews in Tsarist times: “Tea of Wissotzky, sugar of Brotzky and Russia of Trotsky.”)
Asher developed a love of tea and a “lifelong disdain for teabags, or ‘the floor dustings,’ as he called them,” said Susan.
A gifted artist, Asher went on to study architecture and graduated from the prestigious Royal Institute of British Architects, but war interrupted his career.
His fluency in five languages landed him a position as Russian translator for British Intelligence and he served in North Africa, Italy and Scotland and as chief liaison officer for the British Command during the post-war occupation of Vienna. (His brother, Leo, was killed in the western desert campaign in the war.)
Asher met Lee Ososki, a 19-yearold whose family was from Ukraine, and they married during the war, on Jan. 14, 1943.
“We met at a garden party just outside London,” she said from her Burnaby home. She said he went back to serve in the war and she wasn’t allowed to knowwhere, because he was in intelligence, sohe sent her watercolours of the cities he was stationed in.
Lee recalled how one time he went AWOL for a day to spend time with her, until his superior sent a message that if he didn’t get back, he’d be arrested.
Asher eventually returned to London, where he worked as a set designer at Pinewood Studios and on several English heritage buildings. After travelling on business to Montreal, where he was able to indulge his love for skiing, Asher returned to announce that the family, which now included Susan and daughter, Linda, would be moving to Canada.
“I was very much against it,” said Lee. “I loved London.”
They immigrated in 1957 and ended up in Vancouver after Asher found Montreal too cold.
“That was pretty upsetting to me,” she said goodnaturedly. “Therewas nothing in Vancouver. No museums, no theatre. There was really nothing. The Queen Elizabeth Theatre opened later [in 1959]. London had so much. But Asher took to it because, well, therewas skiing. And after a while, I got used to it.”
Asher competed in skiing until he was 78.
“He kept bringing home medals,” recalled Susan.
But times were tough when they first arrived and Asher supported the family by selling World Book Encyclopedia sets door-to-door before landing work for the city of Vancouver’s planning department and for Eaton’s and Woodward’s.
Asher eventually started his own interior design firm, AG Design, and over the years he and Lee, a wonderful cook, entertained visitors from around the world — “Dad would be speaking to them in their own language,” said Susan.
Asher leaves his wife of 66 years, his two daughters and one grandson.
Asher Gransby with his godfather Alexander Kerensky, the second prime minister of Russia’s provisional government.
Alexander Kerensky (front) was in love with Mary Gavronsky (rear) but it was never to be. Asher took this photo in England in 1919.
Asher’s wife, Lee Gransby, left, his daughter, Susan, and his godfather, Alexander Kerensky, in 1956.