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Do you love reading about royals as much as I do? If so, check out my 2021 royal reading list - all the research books I bought, borrowed, and re-read are listed here. I’m adding books as I read them, so check back to see if your picks made the list.
Just scroll down to get the info for each book, including my comments. Or use the table of contents below to jump straight to a book you’re already interested in.
Want to suggest a book for me this year? I’d love to know what titles you recommend. Click here to drop me a line.
Last updated: June 14
2021 Royal Reading List
In alphabetical order
At the Court of Napoleon | Blood & Banquets | A Castle in Wartime | Correspondence of the Russian Grand Duchesses | Crime at Mayerling | Dearest Missy | Go-Betweens for Hitler | A Habsburg Tragedy | Hitler and the Habsburgs | I Live Again | The King in Love | Marie Walewska | Mayerling | Memoirs of the Crown Princess Cecilie | Not All Vanity | Princess Auguste | Princess Mary | Red Princess | The Romanovs: The Way It Was | Rudolf | The Russian Court at Sea | Tatiana: Five Passports in a Shifting Europe | Women of the Baden Court
Read, but not reviewed (not for a project, out of my usual range of study, fiction, etc.)
Subtitle: Memoirs of the Duchesse d’Abrantès
Contributors: Olivier Bernier, Katell le Bourhis
Available at: Amazon
Laure Permon was born in 1785 in Montpellier, France. Her family was originally from Corsica and were friends of the Bonapartes. During the Directory, the family lived in Paris, and her brother Albert was friends with Napoleon.
In 1800, Laure married one of Napoleon’s aides-de-camp, General Junot. She was an intimate member of Napoleon’s court as First Consul and was an eyewitness to key events during his rise to power and reign as emperor. In 1807, as a thank-you for services rendered in the Portuguese campaign, Napoleon made Junot and Laure the Duc and Duchesse d’Abrantès. But Junot and Napoleon both had a terrible year in 1814 – Napoleon because he was finally defeated and exiled, and Junot because he died (probably of suicide, after descending into madness).
After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, Laure was poor and desperate with no husband a lot of mouths to feed (she and Junot had at least seven kids, from what I could gather in these excerpts). She befriended the novelist Honoré de Balzac, who encouraged her to write her memoirs. And holy cow, did she ever take his advice. There were either 18 total volumes or 7, published from 1831-1835. Le Bourhis’s intro says 18; Bernier’s says 7 – different editions, perhaps? Laure Junot died a few years later, in 1838 at the age of 52.
In his introduction, Bernier notes that her unabridged memoirs contain a lot of filler – stories are repeated, and lots of ancillary information gets thrown in. Why? Because writers were paid by the line, which reminds me of Dickens and his serialized novels. Hence the reason for an abridged version of the memoirs. Okay, makes total sense.
But I'm left with the feeling that someone dropped the ball in terms of selecting what to include because this book felt choppy, uneven, and incomplete. Is that how the memoirs feel when read as a whole? I wish I could tell you. This complaint might be completely unfounded, but there’s no way to know without reading all 7 volumes.
Also, in the foreword to this book, le Bourhis calls her writing “racy,” “intimate,” “authentic” and “spicy.” (xi) I didn't get a good sense of that. Was I just off for the couple days I read this book? Maybe. Intimate, I get – for many scenes, you do feel like you’re right there next to Napoleon. But I didn’t get the sense of much racy or spicy material here. YMMV.
- Laure refused to sleep with Napoleon, despite his strange way of coming on to her – by appearing in her bedroom at 5 am several mornings in a row.
- Napoleon pinched the ear of people if he liked them. It annoyed the crap out of everyone, including Laure.
- At Napoleon’s coronation in 1804, she wore black in protest at not being selected as one of Josephine’s ladies-in-waiting. (viii)
- In 1808, Laure had an affair with Metternich, the Austrian ambassador. Caroline Bonaparte stole him from her – she was a better source of information for him.
- Junot was appointed French ambassador to the Portuguese court at Lisbon, and Laure went with him. She also went with him to Madrid when he was posted to Spain during the Spanish campaign. She did not go with him when, in 1812 or early 1813, he was appointed Governor of Venice.
- Laure describes (with obvious jealousy) the gorgeous diamond earrings of the Princess of Brazil: “Her ear-drops were perfectly unique; I never saw anything like them. They consisted of two diamond pears, perfectly round, of the purest water, and about an inch in length. The two brilliants which surmounted the drops were likewise superb. The exquisite beauty of these jewels, combined with the extreme ugliness of the person who wore them, produced an indescribably strange effect…” (284)
- Laure refused to see Napoleon during the Hundred Days – she was over it.
- Seemingly uneven selection of content. The bulk of the book covers the period before Napoleon made himself emperor. On page 312 of 387, we’re only in 1806. His second wife, Marie Louise, is barely present – I’d been hoping to get a clearer view of her through Laure, but it didn’t happen – mostly because Laure was in Burgos when the wedding happened. She shares what her friends wrote to her, but the information isn’t firsthand. The final section of the book, titled The Fall of Napoleon, begins on page 369 and contains just two excerpts: Laure’s reaction to the death of Bessières and Duroc, and a description of court on January 1, 1814 that segues into a summary of his fall – 2 pages, tops, followed by an editor’s summary of Napoleon’s fall and exile. That may very well be how Laure’s memoirs appear in unedited form – if so, this caveat may be unfounded. But as it stands, the coverage appears imbalanced; a simple editor’s note saying “That’s all she wrote, folks,” would suffice to keep me from feeling like I'm missing something.
- The introductions mention things and people you don’t get to see. Laure’s affair with Metternich? Off the page. Eugene de Beauharnais, who was “seducing every woman in sight,” is off the page, too. (11) Bummer.
- I feel like I’ve read a more complete version of at least one of the included anecdotes. Without going on a wild goose chase to find the original, I’ll have to summarize it for you. Pauline Bonaparte had a rivalry with Josephine in terms of being the most sumptuously dressed woman around. Once time, Pauline – determined to outdo Josephine – put on the most lavish outfit she could, draped in fine fabrics and jewels and positively dripping with glamour. In this book, that anecdote ends here. I am almost positive I’ve seen that anecdote somewhere else, but with a different ending: on this occasion, Josephine got word of Pauline’s outfit in advance, and wore something devastatingly simple to make her look gauche and overdone. Are these two different incidents…or did this volume edit out that ending?
Should You Read This Book?
Even at the risk of reading repetitive, unnecessary filler prose, I think I might rather take my chances with the real thing.
Author: Bella Fromm
Publisher: Birch Lane / Carol Publishing Group
Year: 1990 (orig. 1944)
Available at: Amazon
This book was first published in Britain in 1943, and in America the following year. It contains Bella Fromm’s diary entries from the years 1930 – 1938. At that point, she left Germany for America…and the Nazis followed her. The last chapter reads like a spy novel, as she explains how Nazi assassins followed her to New York City and the police and the U.S. Anti-Sabotage Squad kept her safe.
Bella Fromm, you see, was Jewish.
In the 1930s, she was a fixture on the Berlin social scene as a high-society newspaper columnist for the Vossische Zeitung. She knew all the diplomats and their wives, as well as government officials, nobles, royals, you name it. She also saw the Nazis for what they were. She never believed – as many others in high society circles did – that Hitler was the savior of Germany. Her diary entries reveal exactly what she thought about the Nazis. In a note added to one of her entries, she calls Hitler “that Austrian psychopath” (20).
Bella’s diplomatic connections made her untouchable, for a time. Eventually, however, all her international friends told her it was time to leave Berlin – the actions against Jews were getting more egregious and more unavoidable, even for those with friends in high places. Bella had always been exposed to the anti-Semitism of the upper classes – she recounts a quick conversation with Count von der Schulenberg in 1929 when he bitched about a Jewish player winning the Davis Cup. Bella’s spot-on riposte: “He won for Germany. Would you have preferred to have the Englishman win?” (20)
Bella stayed in Germany as long as she could because she used her connections to help get other Jews out, and she felt guilty abandoning that work. When the Nazis took over the newspaper she wrote for, she took a friend’s suggestion and changed career paths: she became a wine broker. Then, in 1938, the Nazis removed that avenue, too: “Now one must have a permit for the sale of wine. These permits are not issued to non-Aryans.” (264) When Nazi brown-shirts began staking out her house, she realized it was time to leave.
But first, she sent pages of her diary out of the country with friends. Once she’d escaped, she turned to an American friend to get them published and help show the world what had happened – and was still happening – to Germany.
NOTE: Some scholars think these aren’t actual diary entries, but reconstructions from memory and/or research that she put together once she reached the U.S. True or not, that doesn’t affect how I feel about this book or how enthralling it was to read. YMMV.
- On inflation in 1923: “When you go shopping, you have to carry your banknotes in suitcases…In order to mail a letter inside Germany, I had to pay several million marks for a stamp.” (13)
- On Crown Prince Wilhelm in 1931: “Crown Prince Wilhelm…invited me to have tea with him in the clubhouse. Knowing what happens to the reputation of any woman seen with the Crown Prince, I was compelled to refuse. I told him why. He smiled and was a pretty good sport about it.” (32)
- On the nobility accepting the Nazis in 1932: “Society slowly gets accustomed to the originally plebeian National Socialist movement. People from the upper crust are turning to Hitler. They close their ears to his constant blasts against the aristocrats and the privileged classes, the feine Leute. My grandfather had a simple description of that type of turncoat: ‘You spit in his eye and he asks if it rains.’ ” (42)
- On Hitler refusing to be recorded in 1932: “I hear Hitler absolutely declines to have his speeches recorded on sound films. A member of the foreign press asked Brueckner, his adjutant, for the reason. He shrugged his shoulders. ‘You can’t alter a sound film,’ he said.” (46)
- When Bella met Hitler in 1933: “I followed Adolf with my eyes everywhere, not wanting to miss any of his debut. There comes a sudden flash into his eyes that leaves on chilled. It reveals the diabolical and sadistic streak in Hitler’s twisted makeup. A glimpse of this expression leaves one no doubt as to the hopelessness of expecting any humane understanding or mercy from this bellowing, blustering, dangerous egotist who obviously cloaks his inferiority complex with his cruel despotism.” (99)
- On being spied upon in Berlin in 1935: “I became quite outspoken about conditions in general. Signora Cerruti sprang to her feet, a look of alarm swept over her attractive face…’Bella, for God’s sake, there is a telephone in the boudoir. How can you be so thoughtless! You know that diplomats’ telephone wires are also tapped. The Netherlands Minister had workmen from Holland. For three days, they were busy isolating every wire inside the house.’ ” (204)
- On fake prisoners in concentration camps being shown to foreigners in 1937: “The trick was an ordinary Nazi routine with which we were so familiar that it always seemed extraordinary to us that any human being with ordinary intelligence could possibly be taken in by it. The real prisoners were hidden away, and healthy, strapping Storm Troopers in prison clothes took their places.” (246)
- On the Nazis sending assassins to New York to kill her in 1939: “Next morning, Jimmy [one of her bodyguards] drove, and he chose an even more unusual road, avoiding the park altogether. To my questions, they always gave evasive answers. I noticed that they were constantly looking in the mirror and watching what was going on behind us….A few days later, it became clear to me that we were being followed by the same car. From the second week on, I also became aware that behind the car following us there was a third car, and we crossed the streets of New York in this procession.” (296)
A Prescient Quote
Presented with zero commentary. Make of it what you will.
“Even now there are those who say it cannot happen here in America. But it can…It can happen anywhere, unless you do something about it ruthlessly. The secret of these so-called supermen is bluff; their potent formula is to weaken through fear. Their courage is the courage of the stronger who overrun the weaker. Call their bluff, stand up against them before it is too late, and it will all melt away. They are only men, cruel men, power-greedy men; and then can be disposed of the way any band of criminals is disposed of.” (6)
Should You Read It?
There’s something here for everyone. Only interested in society gossip? There’s plenty here. Only interested in details about the Nazi rise to power? This book has you covered. It’s also a fascinating look at diplomatic society – the players, the parties, and an insider’s knowledge of what diplomats could and couldn’t do.
I enjoyed this book so much more than I thought I would and I highly recommend it.
Patreon Supporters Got Even More Tidbits!
No time to read, but want some more fascinating glimpses of Bella’s book? Become a Patreon supporter for just $1/month and you can access my recent post, with 21 of the most interesting tidbits from the book!
Subtitle: One Family, Their Missing Sons, and the Fight to Defeat the Nazis
Author: Catherine Bailey
Available at: Amazon
I won’t go into too much detail about this book, because there’s no immediate royal connection. I read it more as background on Italy during the World War II period. But it was a fascinating read and it had several key perspectives that overlap with other royal stories I’m working on.
- Sippenhaft. This is the ancient German concept of “blood guilt,” meaning that if you commit a crime, your family shares the guilt. Hitler applied this concept to the family members of the July 1944 conspirators, rounding them up and arresting them even though most of them had nothing to do with (and no knowledge of) the conspiracy. The heroine of this story, Fey, was imprisoned with several of Claus von Stauffenberg’s relatives, for example. How does this connect to royal women? Hitler believed Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria was in on the plot, even though he wasn’t. So, thanks to sippenhaft, Hitler ordered Rupprecht’s wife and kids arrested. Crown Princess Antonia of Bavaria spent much of the war in a Nazi prison hospital under arrest, while her kids were imprisoned in concentration camps.
- Buchenwald. For a brief time, Fey and her fellow captives were imprisoned in Buchenwald – in the very same building as Princess Mafalda of Savoy (she died in August of 1944; Fey wasn’t there until after Mafalda had died). But the information about camp life for important political prisoners was valuable. It gave me more of a perspective of what Mafalda’s imprisonment might have been like.
- Plots to kill Hitler. Because so much of Fey’s experience hinges on the famous 1944 plot to kill Hitler, Bailey spends a little bit of time on previous plots to kill Hitler – especially since the same names crop up as being involved. This includes a plot by Tresckow, the chief of operations at Army Group Center on the Eastern Front. Spoiler alert – his plot failed, and he killed himself with a hand grenade. Joachim Kuhn, an infantry officer, tried to protect Tresckow’s reputation by reporting that Tresckow’s death had been caused by a partisan attack. When the Red Army captured Kuhn, they sent him to the Butyrskaya prison. That’s where he met Christian Ludwig of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, the son of Grand Duke Friedrich Franz IV and Princess Alexandra of Hanover. Christian described meeting Kuhn and hearing his story in his memoirs (read my review & tidbits here).
Random Interesting Tidbit
Fey’s husband’s grandmother was an American heiress named Cora Slocomb (1860-1944), born in New Orleans. She believed in social justice and women’s emancipation. When she married into the Brazzà family, she brought a strong sense of responsibility to her role. Rather than giving the impoverished local women money, she wanted to give them skills and opportunities that would help them keep earning in the future.
She founded seven lace-making schools to that end. Later, she founded a toy factory that hired local women. In 1906, she had some sort of mental breakdown and never recovered. She lived the rest of her days in a private asylum.
A Nitpicky Question that Has Nothing to Do with the Subject of This Book
Okay, so there’s a picture of Himmler in this book, taken just after he committed suicide. He’s lying dead on the ground, looking relatively peaceful. He’s dressed in a shirt, wearing his glasses, and the lower half of his body is covered by a blanket. The caption reads: “Himmler’s corpse, photographed by a British Army official, minutes after his death from cyanide poisoning.”
But in the text, Bailey describes Himmler’s capture, interrogation, and death. He was stripped naked, she said, to avoid this exact situation. Army doctor Captain Wells searched him, and then Colonel Michael Murphy attempted to remove what appeared to be a vial of poison in his mouth. Himmler bit down on his hand and punctured the vial. Murphy and another man threw him to the ground and tried to prevent him from swallowing, but it didn’t work. Himmler died on the floor. Major Whittaker said, ‘We turned it on its back, put a blanket on it and came away.’ (401) The body, Bailey reports, was then wrapped in camouflage netting and tied up with telephone wire for a secret burial.
So…stupid question…who dressed Himmler in the shirt he’s wearing for that photo? And why? Was a shirtless man too scandalous? Or does this discrepancy indicate something amiss with this story of his death?
These are the nitpicky details my brain can’t help getting stuck on. You have my apologies for even bringing this up…but if this kind of thing is annoying to read, imagine how annoying it is for me to live with all day every day.
- This is incredibly nitpicky, but the title “castle” barely exists. The jacket copy says “she lived with her husband, the Italian aristocrat Detalmo Pirzio-Biroli, in a castle on an estate in the north of Italy…” But the castle, Castello di Brazzà, was a medieval ruin situated behind the main house, a villa. Most of the castle had already crumbled away by the time this story takes place. But “A Villa in Wartime” doesn’t have the same ring to it, I guess.
- The book handles its notes and sourcing in a really annoying way. It does have endnotes – but this isn’t indicated anywhere in the text. You read it thinking there aren’t any notes because this is popular nonfiction, and that’s fine. Then you get to the end of the book and there are numbered notes with brief phrases to indicate which quote they refer to. No page number, mind you – you’re given the chapter title and a brief textual reference and that’s it. So the notes for chapter 12, as an example, begin with note 111 (which is useless as a numerical system because it’s not used anywhere except there, in the notes): ‘Previously attached’ G.H. Bennett, The Nazi, the Painter and the Forgotten Story of the SS Road (Reaktion Books, 2012), p. 61. So you have no idea which page in this book the “previously attached” quote is from, but I guess you could go re-read the entire chapter to find it. The casual reader won’t care about this at all. But as a reader on the lookout for facts and sources, this means I now have to go back to chapters that pertain to Buchenwald, for example, and re-read them, looking for the exact phrases given as identifiers in the notes section. SO ANNOYING. Why wouldn’t they have used regular endnotes or footnotes? Why?
Should You Read This Book?
If you have any interest in World War II or Italy, yes. If you like nonfiction stories about families or strong women in peril who triumph in the end, yes.
Subtitle: Letters of the Daughters of the Last Tsar
Author: George Hawkins
Available at: Amazon
The letters included here are to and from family members, staff, teachers, fans, hospital colleagues, and friends, all presented in chronological order. In the early years, the girls are very young – letters are mostly thank-you notes, birthday greetings, and quick hellos to grandma (Dowager Tsarina Maria Feodorovna).
As they grow, the letters get more detailed – about classwork, about outings, about people they have in common. Then, during the war, they’re about time spent with soldiers and bandaging wounds and asking about staff or relatives serving far away. Finally, in captivity, the letters are mostly requests for information about friends who have stopped writing, along with short summaries of their Groundhog Day-like existence. I was almost afraid to turn the pages once I reached 1918. When you finish this book, you’re gonna need a stiff drink.
Notes & Impressions
- The style of salutations and closings is very effusive – people thank each other “with all my soul,” and sign off with “kiss you very, very firmly.” It’s charming.
- The letters from Aunt Olga are the most fun to read – her sparkle and personality shine through when she writes to her nieces. For example, in 1910, she wrote to Tatiana (July 8) and told her about how Irina (Olga’s niece; Tatiana’s cousin) and Marie Claire (Irina’s governess?) came to visit for 3 days. “She laughed from morning to evening – she would come to me when I was sitting in the bath – brushing my teeth – but of course we ended up laughing and all the water from my mouth – splashing around the room!” Hands down, Olga was the “fun” aunt.
- The letters to and from a teacher, Petr V. Petrov, are really touching, too. The girls wrote to him for years, with some of their later letters showing a sweet, hilarious playfulness. In one 1907 letter (December 12), Tatiana writes a single line: “I am very worried that I shall make mistakes in my grammar.” Much later, on July 22 1916, he responded to a letter of Maria’s: “I received your kick from a distance of 600 versts or more, and fell over like the knight Dickroke, whom we saw today at the cinema.” The girls and Petr have such a fun relationship – a highlight of the book.
- Olga seemed to have attracted a fair number of domestic and international would-be boyfriends – the other girls might have, too, but only a few such letters for Olga are included here. For example, in early 1912, Peter Dankoffski of Jersey City, New Jersey wrote to Olga and sent her his picture. Just a sample here: “Telling you be [sic or typo?] this letter once more that I am going to be your husband. For I will not married [sic] no other you…write to me this year and come see me.” It makes me wonder…did Olga actually see these letters? Or did a retainer just put them in a file, and that’s why we have them today?
- The godmother/godchild relationship did seem to create a special bond that results in more communication (at least as it’s presented with this selection of letters). Olga Alexandrovna and Olga Konstantinova were godmothers to Olga, and I felt their letters to each other have a bit more emotion and immediacy. Ditto for Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna, who was Tatiana’s godmother.
What Surprised Me
- Olga and Tatiana went with their parents to Germany as children – and that trip clearly strengthened relationships with family there. For months afterward, German relatives corresponded more regularly with the two of them: Uncle Ernie, Aunt Irene, Aunt Victoria, Cousin Louise. Plus, for years afterward, Olga kept up a correspondence with her cousin, Prince Waldemar of Prussia. They chatted about what they did, who they saw, where they went. He referred to her as “Kunigunde,” which must be a mythological or folk reference they shared. It was sweet, but didn’t continue past 1914, with the outbreak of WWI.
- Olga admits to not liking Uncle Pavel’s second wife, Princess Paley. In a letter to Xenia Alexandrovna (her aunt) on November 30, 1916, she wrote: “We also drank tea at Uncle Paul and Aunt Paley’s in Mogilev, with a crowd of children, etc. I can’t say that it was fun, but it was very overheated and we were dying of stuffiness. Do you like this aunt? I don’t.” This is a rare hint of negativity – there are playful references to cousins who are “pigs,” but those are in jest. This is real.
- Olga Alexandrovna to Tatiana, 2/15 Sept 1910: “Is not it true that War and Peace is insanely interesting? I read it to myself when I was 16 years old to myself immersed in it for hours. Do you like to read or not? I never saw you with a book.”
- Tatiana to Olga Alexandrovna, July 14, 1911: “I suppose you already know that Ioannchik is betrothed to Helen of Serbia, which is very touching. How funny if they should have children, will she really kiss him, how nasty!” Boys had cooties way back in 1911, I see. 😉
- Olga Alexandrovna to Olga, October 3, 1915: “I have decided that after the war I will have a child – where I shall get it from is my business – will I find, steal, buy or something else…Are you glad? I am. Well then. A few kisses.” Interesting in the context of her wartime second marriage.
- Olga Alexandrovna to Tatiana, September 30, 1912: “Having said a few sweet words [at the school] - I left, accompanied by Uncle Peter [Olga’s husband] - who was wearing a coat over which he still wore a huge mantle of – no, not that - filthy deer – no, not that - horse skin - which moulted mercilessly and I coughed, breathing this muck - all 10 versts - back and forth - and the weather is very warm!! Truly, it is such a shame - to have a finch instead of a husband - and a huge mistake, all in all ...” Also interesting in the context of her second marriage (Uncle Peter did not last).
- Tatiana to Xenia Alexandrovna, July 8, 1914: “How are you feeling now? Did you see much of Irina and Felix? I heard from Aunt Olga that they are awfully lazy and they get up late, such pigs, it’s awful. When are they returning to Russia and where will they go?” Oh, those lazy honeymooners...
- Tatiana to Olga Voronova, November 3, 1915: “In the afternoon [at Stavka], Alexei goes with Papa and the rest for a walk out of town or by the Dnieper. They go for walks and make bonfires. He has breakfast there independently with the mass of people and foreigners. He does not embarrass them at all and speaks French with them. He doesn’t use English much, but it’s nothing.”
I read this as an eBook, and the formatting was…pretty bad.
- There is no cover image included in the book. I was under the impression Kindle automatically put one in the book when you uploaded your file (because they ask you for one), but that was years ago. Maybe that’s changed, or maybe the publishing company used a distributor and didn’t upload directly to Amazon (I know waaaaay more than I want to about this subject). Long story short, the eBook has no cover once you open the book. Minor, but annoying.
- There is no table of contents. When you click on what the Kindle thinks is the table of contents, you get a list of numbers – but these are the endnotes, not chapters or sections of the book. Also minor, but annoying if you want to flip back or forward. There's no clickable way to go back to the year 1912, for example. It’s all entirely manual.
- There are strange white highlights. I read using the sepia tone on my Kindle, and *so many* of the letters had strange manual coding for white highlighting or background on some of the individual lines. If you already use the white background, you won’t notice a thing. Also, if you use Kindle for PC and set the background to sepia, you won’t notice a thing. This only happened in my Kindle Fire. YMMV.
- There are a few typos. I get it – typos happen. People are human. But I kid you not, the word “iTunes” appears in this book. Auto-correct must have perpetrated something evil on the author, the book formatter, and the publisher.
George Hawkins, if by some strange chance you read this, I can fix all this. It’s a pain, but I know how to format eBooks. Feel free to ask your publisher to contact me. What you’re doing is so valuable - I don’t want subpar formatting to turn people away from these letters.
Author: Georg Markus
Publisher: Ariadne Press
Available at: Amazon
In 1991, a man named Helmut Flatzelsteiner opened Mary Vetsera’s grave and stole her coffin. After pretending the bones, hair, and fabric inside belonged to his great-grandmother in order to get some forensic tests, he decided to then shop his story around to see who wanted to publish it. Most places turned him down. Georg Markus’s paper, Kronen Zeitung, put the story on the front page in 1993.
There have always been conspiracy theories about the Mayerling incident of 1889, during which Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary shot his teenage mistress, Mary Vetsera, and then shot himself. As if the incident weren’t dramatic enough, conspiracy theories flourished for a number of reasons. Eyewitness accounts don’t 100% line up. The official cover-up confused the issue by coming out with multiple versions of what happened. The official paper trail vanished. Rumors flew, and were garbled and changed over the generations. Some people changed their stories years later. Put all this together, and you have a recipe for a relatively straightforward incident to become a nexus for worldwide conspiracy theories.
The grave robbery story reignited interest in Mayerling, which led Markus to publish this book.
What I Liked
- The chapters on Rudolf and Mary were good summaries of what’s generally known and accepted about their lives as it pertains to Mayerling. Markus gives you what you need to know without overwhelming you.
- Although there are no footnotes, Markus does a good job of explaining where most of his quotations come from (which isn’t always the case with the King/Wilson book I recommend below).
- Markus includes a brief chapter on his visit with Rudolf’s great-grandson, Guillaume Windisch-Graetz, who believes the murder-suicide version of events.
- Markus includes the results of his talk with Otto von Habsburg, about the contents of a mysterious box he was given (which supposedly contains the gun used at Mayerling). There are no bombshells here – Otto declines to answer the direct questions Markus asks. Still, it’s an interesting inclusion that, as Markus notes, only adds fuel to the fire as far as conspiracy theories go.
- The book feels rushed. The chapters detailing Markus’s own story about his meeting with Flatzelsteiner feel like notes, not a narrative. It’s not fleshed out, and there are lots of sentence fragments, which bugged me. A couple examples:
- A call to Mr. Flatzelsteiner, second meeting, this time in the editorial office. It was December 9th. The informant again had brought his red case. “Tell us Mr. Flatzelsteiner, tell us! These two people from Burgenland, how was that exactly? When did you make contact with them and where?” It just came out with a gush. Flatzelsteiner was glad to finally get rid of his story. I knew that this man from Lintz was a bit nervous. But it was also quite an adventure he had to report, if it is true… (14)
- Thursday, December 17, 1992. Two meetings, one after the other. 2:30 PM. Mr. Flatzelsteiner arrived at the editorial office and opened his red case. He took out all kinds of papers, photographs – I was already acquainted with all of that. And suddenly: a death’s head. “That is Mary” Flatzelsteiner said. (19)
- The book feels disorganized. It jumps back and forth between the present-day story of the grave robber, Markus’s behind-the-scenes investigation prior to and after the story broke, and chapters on Mary and Rudolf. The historical chapters are much better than the chapters detailing his own investigation. But there are also random chapters that feel thrown in as an afterthought, like song lyrics Rudolf wrote and lyrics referencing the 1993 grave robbery scandal that appeared in Viennese theater farces (which are not translated from German).
- The German edition was published before the official forensic reports were complete. Why not wait to publish the book until those results were complete? Doesn’t that make a more logical conclusion to the story? What if those results offered new angles for follow-up with regard to one of the many Mayerling conspiracy theories? The obvious answer is that this book was rushed to print to cash in as quickly as possible.
Should You Read This?
Unless you’re super interested in Mayerling, probably not. I’d rather go with (1) Fritz Judtmann’s Mayerling, and then (2) Greg King and Penny Wilson’s Twilight of Empire, which came out after Markus’s book and incorporates details from his story. The King/Wilson book isn’t perfect – they use a LOT of partial quotes that are always footnoted, but would benefit from an explanation of who said that particular thing (and when, and what their biases are) in the text itself. Still, I think it will serve you better than Markus’s book, if you only want to read one. Or you can be a total dork like me, buy them all, and spend weekends poring over footnotes.
Author: Diana Mandache
Subtitle: The Letters of Marie Alexandrovna, Grand Duchess of Russia, Duchess of Edinburgh and of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and of her daughter, Marie Crown Princess of Romania 1879-1900
Publisher: Rosvall Royal Books
Available at: Rosvall Royal Books (ships from Sweden)
If you follow my Royal Reading Lists, you know how nosy I am and how much I love reading royal letters. There’s a sense of immediacy you get from letters that were once private, where the correspondents gossip, share fears, and report small annoyances like mosquito bites. You know, the little things that you know happened to them because they happen to almost everyone. I would not have made a good academic historian because I don’t give a crap about grassroots political movements or cabinet members’ speeches. Blech. But I am SO HERE for the frank, relatable discussion about birth control in these letters, for example. And for Marie Alexandrovna’s Mama Bear moment, when she threatens to practically kidnap her daughter from Romania if King Carol doesn’t get with the program and start treating Missy better.
If any of that sounds entertaining, you’ll love this collection of letters.
Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna was the only daughter of Tsar Alexander II who married Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Alfred. As Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh, they had five kids: Alfred, Marie (“Missy”), Victoria Melita (“Ducky”), Alexandra (“Sandra”), and Beatrice (“Baby”). In 1893, when Alfred inherited the duchy of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha from his uncle, he and Marie moved from Britain to Coburg.
Also in 1893, their daughter Marie (Missy) married Ferdinand, heir to the relatively new kingdom of Romania. The country’s king, Carol I, was Ferdinand’s uncle, Karl of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen. He and his wife had no children, so Ferdinand had been tapped as his heir. Still with me?
The bulk of the letters in this collection deal with Missy’s turbulent relationship with her husband and the Romanian court, as micromanaged by King Carol. Missy is clearly homesick for her mom and sisters and their cozy family retreats to the Rosenau, which she describes as if it’s heaven. For her part, Marie relates the usual family news: travel, books, plays, shopping, weather, health, who’s misbehaving, who’s making her life problematic, and how glad she is when Missy’s dad isn’t around. (Their marriage was problematic, but they both clearly loved their kids, albeit in different ways.)
As Mandache notes in her introduction, Marie is a fascinating combination of imperial privilege and practicality. At some points, she sounds just like a modern woman, oohing and aahing over her grandkids and dishing out advice on their childhood illnesses. At other points, she’s lecturing her daughter on how kids these days don’t respect tradition and the right way to behave. Get off her lawn, in other words. It probably would have pained her to be described as relatable, but that’s how I feel about her.
In 1894, for example, she complained about how the blazing sun made everything in the Palais Edinburgh look old and worn out. I have that same thought every time the sun blazes into my living room, illuminating the cracked pleather of my footstool and the faded spots on the floor, blah blah, complain complain. I feel much better knowing a tsar’s daughter had the same feelings.
Mandache has reproduced the letters as accurately as possible, right down to their misspellings and the foreign words they used. Most of the letters were written in English, with plenty of German and French expressions thrown in. Despite not being a native speaker, Marie’s fluency is killer – her writing is more succinct and spelled better than Missy’s. Missy has a looser, flowing style, at times nearly a stream-of-consciousness outpouring. She can also be a very creative speller, which is probably amusing to no one but me.
As a fiction writer, I was once told that writing about royal figures requires impeccable grammar and any mistakes reveal the writer to be of too low a class to faithfully represent royalty. Also, that my first name was too obviously low class to write about royalty and I needed a pen name. This person has clearly never read many royal letters. I find the misspellings charming – evidence that these are real humans doing their best to converse and write in multiple languages.
Not a comprehensive list – just the high points.
- Tsar Alexander II’s funeral
- Marie’s trips to Russia for vacations and other family events
- Missy’s wedding
- Ducky’s wedding
- Sandra’s courtship and marriage
- Faltering of Missy’s marriage
- Faltering of Ducky’s marriage
- Marie’s advice on birth control, childbirth, and child rearing
- Tsar Nicholas II’s coronation
- Marie finding out about an affair Missy had
- Marie’s threat to help Missy leave and divorce her husband
- Illness and death of Alfred, Marie’s son
- Illness and death of Alfred, Marie’s husband
- Birth of 3 of Missy’s children: Carol, Elisabeth, and Marie (Mignon)
A Few Tidbits
- Missy loved being a mom, but she hated being pregnant. She didn’t like the mood swings, the weight gain, or the physical ailments. On first discovering she was pregnant in 1893, she wrote, “Today it seems I am in a bad mood again, but it will also pass, sometimes I feel as if I could sit in a corner and cry, and hate myself and the whole place and people except Nando…” (88)
- Marie hated gambling: “…you know I highly disapprove of your gambling at Monte Carlo, I think it even disgusting, it quite gave me a shock when you wrote it to me. I cannot even conceive how you liked doing it, as the sight, the people one meets there, the whole atmosphere is filthy. It inspired me with the profoundest disgust, though I went in to see it as a curiosity…” (325)
- Marie pondering on Ducky’s relationship: “She is such a noble character, she feels everything doubly. And really Ernie adores her, but alas! he is not a man and she wants somebody to keep her in life, of whom she could be proud! But where is one to find such a man nowadays? I often look round and can only deplore the weakness and want of energy of the stronger sex! Believe me we women are a thousand times better!” (292)
- Missy on her husband’s weakness: “You know, I had illusions about Nando in former days, but now I must [say] that he has a very weak character and this frightens me greatly for the future. For people will not respect him and he will get more and more suspicious and discontented.” (296)
- Missy had herself vaccinated against smallpox in 1898: “I am feeling rather miserable, as I have been vaxcinated, I thought I ought to decide myself to do it once as there is always small-paux about & you know that pretty Madame Perticari caught it last year and is completely disfigured…” (364)
- Marie coming to Missy’s rescue after her affair became public knowledge: “I am not one of those mothers who abandons their daughters at the least little fault and leaves their sad destiny at the mercy of those who believe they have the right to oppress them and crush them morally, to kill all their force of character, all their courage in life because of past faults.” (404) YOU GO, MAMA BEAR.
A Few Amusing Quotes
- Marie to Missy, 1893: “In many cases (but positively not in all!) honesty is the best policy.” (145)
- Missy to Marie on Ducky, 1893: “Ducky sent me some of her new photographs which I did not find good at all, it is so funny how bad she always is on her photographs.” (115)
- Marie to Missy, 1895: “It is Sunday and she [Baby] has been excused from going to church by the extreme dullness of today’s preacher.” (214)
- Marie to Missy, 1897: “Flirt, amuse yourself, but don’t loose [sic] your heart, men are not worth it and if you could, really could see their lives, you would turn away in disgust…” (283)
- Marie to Missy, 1898: “When the wife is full of life and energetic it is the only way to have peace in the house.” (328)
I have no caveats about this book. There are plenty of footnotes to identify who Marie and Missy are talking about, and Mandache includes summaries at the beginning of each year to give you a little background and preview of what’s coming.
But I do have a piece of advice: you might want to read something about the people involved first so you’re not scratching your head too often. I recommend Hannah Pakula’s The Last Romantic, a biography of Queen Marie of Romania. I’d read it years before, but after finishing this book, I need to go back and re-read parts of it. There are things that happen off the page, like the discovery of Missy’s first (?) affair, and the turmoil it plunged her whole family into. She didn’t tell her mom when it was happening, and only confessed later, once a lady-in-waiting started telling the whole world about it. Because that revelation happened outside the scope of these letters, you get to read the aftermath. Mandache’s notes provide some context, but if you’re like me and want more detail, you may want to keep secondary resources at hand while reading.
Should You Read It?
Absolutely. This book was incredibly entertaining and informative. I was sad to see it end, and eagerly await the next volume.
Author: Karina Urbach
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Available at: Amazon
The first third of the book introduces the concept of a go-between and explains how they functioned prior to and during World War I. A go-between is a civilian working as an unofficial diplomat thanks to their connections, linguistic ability, and ability to move in high social circles. Obviously, aristocrats and royals fit the bill perfectly. They were ideally suited to float ideas and ask sensitive questions to high-ranking enemies during wartime, when ambassadors and rulers were unable to do so officially. Their conversations kept these dangerous subjects off the books – making this an admittedly hard subject to research. Mad props to Urbach for taking on such an elusive subject.
As a primary example for the pre-Hitler period, Urbach selects Prince Max Egon II zu Fürstenberg, who served as a go-between for the imperial Austrian and German courts. Other go-betweens covered include Prince Sixtus of Bourbon-Parma, the Dowager Duchess of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha and her four daughters: Queen Marie of Romania, Grand Duchess Victoria Melita of Russia, Infanta Beatrice of Spain, and Princess Alexandra of Hohenlohe-Langenburg.
Next, the book looks at a few more examples of go-betweens in the inter-war and early WWII years: Carl Eduard, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Princess Stephanie Hohenlohe, and Prince Max Egon zu Hohenlohe-Langenburg. All three of them worked on Hitler’s behalf to further the relationship between Germany and Great Britain. Urbach shows how Carl Eduard’s sister Alice whitewashed his Nazi career in the post-war aftermath, how Stephanie Hohenlohe blew her cover leaving Lord Halifax’s home, and how Max Hohenlohe overstated his influence with decision-makers in the Third Reich.
These stories are fascinating, but in the end, Urbach asks and answers the inevitable question: did these go-betweens make a difference? Unfortunately, in every case but one, the answer is ultimately no.
Most online reviews of this book are glowing. I hate to say it, but I feel like I’m missing something. Although I respect the hell out of the research that went into this book, its organization and follow-through felt patchy and incomplete. It’s missing a lot of context, background information, depth, and points of comparison and contrast.
Let's start with the title. Is this book a comprehensive look at Hitler's go-betweens? No. It only covers a select number of German aristocratic go-betweens largely focused on Great Britain. Surely there were go-betweens for other Axis enemies, but they're not covered.
Urbach barely mentions Prince Philipp of Hesse (maybe because Jonathan Petropoulos’s Royals and Reich covered his story in depth?). While Hesse was mainly a go-between for the Italian royal family, he also had substantial contact with British royals, including George, Duke of Kent. This book feels flat without incorporating him into the narrative because he fits the bill so precisely. Why exclude him from the analysis? Why not compare his efforts to those of her chosen subjects?
As another example, despite Hitler being in the title, he barely figures in the book. Although Carl Eduard and Stephanie met and socialized with Hitler, we’re not given much information about what Hitler said or thought about them. The notable exception is Hitler’s statement that Carl Eduard must not be captured (i.e., he should be killed first, if it came to that). Carl Eduard was one of his earliest supporters, and may have been involved in unsuccessful attempts to influence Edward VIII, but had largely receded in importance by the end of the war. If Hitler spoke further about Carl Eduard, we’re not told. Much of the go-betweens’ work seems focused on Goering, Ribbentrop, and Himmler instead. That begs the question...how much did Hitler know what they were doing? We’re not told. And because Hitler is at best a distant presence in the book, the title feels like click-bait.
Here are a few more of my issues - YMMV:
- Not all quotations are cited. As just one example, Urbach mentions a quote from Kaiser Wilhelm II where he “ranted that Jews should be ‘erased’.” (233) No citation.
- There are generalizations with no support. I get it – no book can cover every aspect of a topic. But this happened often enough that I noticed it, which means it happened too often. For example, Urbach tried to make a point about aristocratic bloodlines being devalued in the post-WWI period. She argues that “purists” believed highborn bloodlines “transferred negative qualities. Being ‘mongrels’, whether dogs or human beings, implied imperfection.” (61) Okay, but can we get an example of who, precisely, felt this way? A quote from a reputable writer of the time making this point? Because if we're going with the dog metaphor, inbreeding - always a problem for royals, if not aristocrats - produces the opposite of mongrels. A more likely common viewpoint about royals and aristocrats might be that they were inbred and weak, not strong hybrid mongrels. In the next paragraph, Urbach does provide an example - but it's indirect and ineffective. That example is the Talleyrand-Perigord family, but the one newspaper article Urbach cites doesn’t ding them for their “impure” bloodline. It talks about how hard it is to figure out how to treat property owned by people who split time between countries that are now at war. A much better example of this would have been the Bourbon-Parma family. Prince Elias’s ownership of the historic Chateau de Chambord was contested by the French government for decades because he was an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army. So not only did she *not* support the bloodline point, she didn’t have the most effective example of the point she digressed into. As a second example, Urbach mentioned Hitler making fun of the “degenerate aristocracy.” (168) But we’re not given any examples or quotations to support this. Wouldn’t that seem like a natural inclusion?
- Some important threads are not followed up. On the next-to-last page of her conclusion, for example, Urbach mentions Hess (the Nazi who flew to Scotland, attempting to use back channels to investigate options for a separate peace with Great Britain). Why only bring him up with two hundred words to go? Who were his back-channel contacts in Britain? Were they his contacts or Hitler’s?
- There is not enough background information on the circumstances that prompted the go-betweens’ work. Unless you already know exactly what happened to the Sudetenland, for example, you’re going to be confused during the Stephanie Hohenlohe chapter.
- There are some random value judgments that felt out of place. I’m all for including personality in history writing. But I’m not sure I’m okay with value judgments on a person's appearance or intentions. Here, Urbach describes King Alfonso XIII and Queen Victoria Eugenie of Spain: “Looking at photographs of Victoria and Alfonso, even their visual differences are striking. While she had an intelligent face with inquisitive eyes, her husband looked like the cliché of a shifty gigolo (a cliché he tried to live up to by producing a multitude of illegitimate children).” (73) She also refers to Carl Eduard of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha's sister Alice as “devious” for whitewashing her brother's Nazi past. Possibly. But consider the fact that Alice’s memoir was also called For My Grandchildren. Would you tell your grandchildren every sordid detail of your brother’s past, especially in a public forum like a published book? Before I condemn Alice as devious, I’d need an analysis of what she wrote elsewhere, in material not intended for said grandchildren. Did she cover up Carl Eduard’s past everywhere? Or just in this one source, which was never intended as a tell-all?
Should You Read It?
If you can get it from a library, yes. Despite my caveats, I recommend this as an introduction to the people mentioned and the diplomacy of the time.
Author: Judith Listowel
Publisher: Dorset Press
Available at: Amazon
This was a fun, fast read – although I don’t agree with the author’s conclusion about Mayerling. The book is well written and Listowel evaluates other sources honestly and intelligently. That being said, she bases her final conclusion about Mayerling largely on hints dropped by the descendant of the man who last possessed the Mayerling papers, Austrian prime minister Count Eduard Taaffe. This does not seem reasonable to me, but YMMV.
In short, Listowel believes Rudolf was murdered by commando sharpshooters of the Austrian army, at the order of his relative, Archduke Albrecht. Why? Because Rudolf had participated in some sort of treasonous Hungarian scheme that was apparently worth killing him over.
The murder theory hinges on several retellings, all of them second or third-hand:
- Prime Minister Eduard Taaffe had possession of important papers relating to the Mayerling tragedy, given to him by Emperor Franz Josef. Taaffee swore he’d keep them secret. Those papers passed from Eduard to his son Henrich to his grandson Edward. When Edward Taaffe died suddenly in 1967, the papers should have been inherited by his cousin, Group Captain Rudolph Taaffe. But Rudolph claimed he didn’t have the papers and had never seen them. He believed Edward Taaffe hid them someplace secure, possibly the Vatican. Rudolph Taaffe believed Rudolf was murdered by the Austrian army because of his participation in some sort of Hungarian conspiracy. He said he had no proof, but this was his opinion based on “certain letters I have read and from my conversation with my cousin Edward. He talked about Mayerling, but he never showed me the papers” (236). He believes Prime Minister Taaffe knew of the plot and said nothing because he wanted Rudolf gone. Later, Rudolf said, after the crown prince’s funeral, Prime Minister Taaffe told Franz Josef what had really happened.
- The German ambassador to Vienna, Prince Reuss, wrote to Bismarck that Emperor Franz Josef only agreed to the suicide story to prevent investigation into what was actually a murder, which would have revealed Mary Vetsera’s presence with Rudolf. Reuss also wrote that he heard from the papal nuncio, Monsignor Galimberti, that the bullet “did not pass from right to left, as is officially stated, but from back left behind the ear upwards…the revolver found by the bed did not belong to the Crown Prince, and all six bullets had been fired.” (243) Reuss’s dispatch also said that Mary’s gunshot wound was at the top of her head, not the temple. When Mary’s body was exhumed and reburied in 1959, the people who opened her coffin did not see a bullet hole in the skull – but the very top of the skull was missing.
- Rudolf’s friend and newspaper publisher, Moritz Szeps, published a report after Mayerling that contradicted the official medical opinion published after Rudolf’s death in one key detail. According to that official report, Rudolf held the gun to his temple and shot. In Szeps’s article, he wrote that Rudolf held the gun to this throat, below his right ear. Because of lazy censors, this article made it into print. Listowel believes this discrepancy indicates that Szeps had more accurate insider information. Since Szeps’s account tallies with Galimberti and Reuss’s account, Listowel believes that where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
- A descendant of Rudolf’s told Listowel that Rudolf had been murdered by two sharpshooters who had orders to kill him if he hadn’t killed himself by 6:30 am. They crept into the Mayerling hunting lodge at about 7 am and shot him.
Listowel says the murder is what caused Franz Josef to keep what happened at Mayerling a secret – not the fact that Rudolf had shot Mary.
But there are a few problems with this story.
First, Listowel never explains how Archduke Albrecht knew that Rudolf planned to commit suicide that very day. We know Albrecht spied on Rudolf, and we know several people knew Rudolf had been talking about suicide for awhile. But is it really possible they knew the *exact* day and time he was planning to do it? He and Mary were at Mayerling for two nights, if I remember correctly. How did they know Rudolf was planning to kill himself on the second night? Why didn’t they send their sharpshooters in on the first night? It doesn’t make sense.
And when and where did this Hungarian conspiracy take place? What evidence did Albrecht have? It’s one of the conundrums of the Mayerling conspiracy that many authors believe Rudolf was involved in something sketchy, but no one has ever found proof. Listowel herself writes, “Despite thorough, patient research by many experienced historians, not a scrap of solid evidence to bear out this allegation has ever been unearthed” (163).
It’s said that a plan for Rudolf to come out in support of Hungarian language rights in the army might have been unfolding during Rudolf’s stay at Mayerling. Several telegrams he received there might have told him the plan was off or had failed. But if so, that meant Albrecht didn’t yet have evidence of his treason, if supporting a pro-Hungarian language initiative could be called that. Why send sharpshooters to kill a guy you don’t have the evidence to convict? And would Albrecht really have decided to kill Rudolf for treason rather than turn him in to his father, who was exceedingly pedantic and duty-bound when it came to following the rules? I’m not convinced. That’s hanging a lot of responsibility on Albrecht, and I don’t know enough about him to judge whether he was capable of that.
Listowel also notes that one of Galimberti’s sources was the Grand Duke of Tuscany, who is not a reliable witness. For example, he said that he and Franz Josef saw a doctor picking glass out of Rudolf’s brain and skull. But there’s no way that’s true, for reasons discussed in books by Judtmann and King/Wilson. So anything Galimberti told Reuss is suspect if it came from the Grand Duke.
Plus, we know that Franz Josef’s efforts to obfuscate what happened at Mayerling predate Rudolf’s funeral (which is when he learned about the murder, according to this theory).
Long story short, there just isn’t enough credible evidence for me to believe this theory. Did none of the sharpshooters ever talk? Compare this situation to the Romanov murders – several of the executioners talked afterward, despite being sworn to secrecy. That evidence might surface someday, but until it does, I’m not convinced.
A Couple Interesting Tidbits
- In a census form, Emperor Franz Josef once filled out the occupation field with “self-employed civil servant.” (231)
- In 1929, William Randolph Hearst offered Eduard Taaffe’s descendant, Edward Taaffe, $200,000 for any info he had on Rudolf. Taaffe said these weren’t his secrets to sell. (232)
- Rudolf supposedly had an illegitimate child with an illegitimate daughter of Tsar Alexander II (not one of the Dolgorouky children). This woman fled to America, had the baby in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and died not long afterward in Missouri. The child, a boy, lived his entire life in America, claiming a connection to the Habsburgs. I had never heard this story before and tripped out big time. Listowel includes a brief retelling of this story in the appendix, so it’s not vetted and likely untrue.
Should You Read This?
If you’re super interested in Mayerling, yes. If you’re not – or only casually interested – read Judtmann’s book instead. Then, if you’re still interested, try this one.
Subtitle: The Führer’s Vendetta Against the Austrian Royals
Author: James Longo
Publisher: Diversion Books
Available at: Amazon
I’d had this book on my wishlist for awhile – and one day while browsing Amazon, I saw a $2.99 price tag and scooped up the eBook. Total score! It’s the story of Franz Ferdinand’s children and grandchildren, played out against Hitler’s rise to power, the Anschluss, and World War II. Hitler, an Austrian, had a strange hatred for the Habsburgs, and specifically, for Franz Ferdinand’s children. That hatred, argues Longo, was based on the way Hitler saw Franz Ferdinand: as willing to embrace and protect the multi-national character of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Hitler wanted the opposite - in short, to remove all but ethnic Germans from the empire and join it with Germany. Once Franz Ferdinand was gone, Hitler transferred that hatred to his children, who were respected members of society. Respected, but not powerful enough to escape Hitler’s reach.
I won’t give too many more details because I don’t want to spoil the story for you. Let’s just say that the women in this story – Sophie Hohenberg (mother and daughter), Archduchess Maria Theresa, Countess Rosa von Lonyay Wood, Maisie Hohenberg, and Elisabeth Hohenberg – all kick ass.
The book interlaces Hitler’s story with that of Franz Ferdinand and his three kids. We see Hitler as a high-school dropout in Vienna, angry at being rejected and reduced to taking menial jobs – like shoveling snow in front of the Hotel Imperial as Karl and Zita arrive to attend a reception there. We see Hitler’s flight to Bavaria to avoid both being arrested for fraud and compulsory service in the Austro-Hungarian army. We see Franz Ferdinand and Sophie assassinated in Sarajevo. Then we see Hitler enlist in the Bavarian army and earn decorations for bravery in World War I.
After the war, the book continues to intertwine Hitler’s story with that of Franz Ferdinand’s three children. While Hitler took a class in oratory and tested his skill in getting people to do what he wanted, Franz Ferdinand’s daughter married and moved to Czechoslovakia. His two sons remained in Austria, having been evicted from Konopiste, their childhood home, by Czech president Tomas Masaryk. Ernst became a farmer in Styria, while Max became a politician, driven to help bring back a constitutional monarchy. Both men spoke out against Hitler and paid the price.
Immediately after the Anschluss in 1938, Hitler ordered them arrested. According to Longo, they were the first two Austrian “criminals” deported to Dachau. Himmler assured Ernst’s wife the brothers would be “treated fairly there, without any danger to their lives.” (178) Pffft – as if.
The story of what happened to Franz Ferdinand’s three kids during the war is horrifying. I don’t want to give too much away, because if you don’t know what happened, reading this book can feel like a suspense novel: will they survive…and if so, how? I read this in two sittings – it was that interesting.
Most of these are from the first half of the book because I don’t want to include any spoilers.
- The author mentions Crown Prince Rudolf, but emphasizes the mystery of his death: he “died by his own hand, or by assassination. The government’s clumsy cover-up made the truth elusive.” But, as far as I know, modern scholarship and forensics have pretty well proven it was a suicide. The assassination theory came from other Habsburgs via secondhand information and has little if any evidence to back it up. I was surprised to see Longo give it credence here.
- At one point, Franz Ferdinand’s chauffeur was Ferdinand Porsche.
- King Edward VII of Great Britain convinced Emperor Franz Josef to take his one and only ride in a car. Franz Josef hated it and never did it again.
- I love this quote about Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie: “Her longtime American friend, Maria Longworth Storer, wife of the United States Foreign Minister to Austria-Hungary, wrote, ‘The Archduke Franz Ferdinand was captivated, not only by his wife’s unusual beauty, but by her brilliant mind, and the Christian zeal and integrity of her character.’” (65)
- According to Longo, the Austro-Hungarian government refused to pay for the autopsies and embalming of the bodies of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. Instead, their children’s uncle, Count Thun, had to sell Sophie’s jewels and a property of Franz Ferdinand’s to clear debts and make sure the kids had enough cash to live on.
- “Germany’s Crown Prince publicly declared to an American newspaper, ‘Undoubtedly this is the most stupid, senseless, and unnecessary war in modern times.’ Kaiser Wilhelm II reprimanded his son for telling the truth.” (95)
- Kaiser Wilhelm II once offered to make Franz Ferdinand’s oldest son, Maximilian, the duke of Lorraine – an idea aimed at ending the constant tug-of-war between France and Germany for that disputed territory. Archduchess Maria Theresa reminded him of this offer during the war, but he said the time wasn’t right to start negotiating for peace.
- Maximilian Hohenburg married a Lobkowicz! Countess Elisabeth Waldburg-Wolfegg’s grandmother was Princess Marie Lobkowicz Waldburg-Wolfegg. After my deep dive into Eleonora (Lobkowicz) von Schwarzenberg’s life, I’m always on the lookout for more connections to her family.
- In the immediate wake of the Anschluss, some countries were granting political asylum to political refugees. Britain was not one of them – at least not for Max and Ernst Hohenberg: “Prime Minister Chamberlain ordered no exit visa be issued for Prince Ernst Hohenberg and instructed the staff to immediately expel him and his family from the [British] Embassy.” (151)
- Elisabeth Hohenberg’s father, Prince Maximilian IV of Waldburg, lived on the highest hill in the area – with clear radio reception for uncensored news broadcasts from Switzerland. Hard of hearing, he turned up the radio as loud as possible so everyone nearby could hear what was *really* going on. “The Prince was so loved in the region that not even the Gestapo dared tell him to turn his radio down.” (182)
- There are a couple recurring grammatical errors. Mildly annoying, but not a deal breaker. For example, the text frequently refers to Sophie’s “lamb broach.” A “brooch” is a jewel. To bring a topic up for discussion is to “broach” the subject. That’s something a copyeditor should have caught. And for half the book, Franz Ferdinand’s kids are referred to in plural possessive as “the Hohenberg’s” instead of “the Hohenbergs’ ” (i.e., the Hohenberg’s home, the Hohenberg’s final days). Still not a deal breaker, but something else a copyeditor had many chances to catch.
- If you care about endnotes, buy the paperback or hardback, not the eBook. If you buy the eBook version like I did, you’ll notice as you read the text that there are no footnotes/endnotes. Frustrating, yes? If you’re like me, when you see an interesting tidbit or direct quote, you really want to know where it came from. Well, you can’t…until you get to the end of the book, that is. Apparently, the publisher didn’t include the superscript note indicators in the actual text – they just included all the notes at the end. That’s supremely unhelpful because you can’t (easily) pair the note with the specific quote or piece of information it refers to in the text without an insane amount of digital page flipping. Ugh. If you care about sources, spring for a paper copy to make your life easier.
Should You Read It?
Yes. If, like me, you didn’t know much about what happened to the Hohenbergs during World War II, this is fascinating.
You might also enjoy The Assassination of the Archduke by Greg King and Sue Woolmans (affiliate link), which focuses more on Franz Ferdinand and Sophie less on the kids – but was written with the cooperation of their descendants.
Author: Princess Ileana of Romania
Publisher: Rinehart & Co.
Available at: Amazon
The book opens in New England, where Ileana lived with her kids following her flight from Romania after the Communists took over. When she flashes back to tell you about her life, she starts by selecting an object – a sapphire and diamond kokoshnik tiara – that she inherited from her mother.
She tells us about Sonnberg, the schloss she and her husband, Archduke Anton of Austria, bought in 1934. They lived there, 30 miles outside of Vienna, through the Anschluss and the first part of the war. Anton was conscripted during the Sudetenland crisis, and remained in the Luftwaffe for years. In May of 1944, Ileana and their 6 kids left Austria for Romania, and stayed there until 1948. Her decision to move was based, at least in part, on the knowledge that shit was about to get real. If the Russians were going to invade Austria and Romania, she preferred her family to be “where every man was my friend.” (107)
The family stayed in Romania through the end of the war, and until the Communist regime made life untenable for her after King Michael’s abdication. All her property was seized, her castle sealed and put under guard. The book ends when she and her family are exiled and forced to leave Romania. We’re told briefly that she next went to Switzerland and then Argentina, but she doesn’t detail anything that happened there.
As we learned in the first chapter, because of her bad health (arthritis and bursitis), she came to the U.S. in May of 1950 for medical treatment. She later moved there, since two of her kids had already gotten scholarships to schools in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. She fell in love with Newton, Massachusetts and settled there. That brings the book full circle with the opening chapter, where she describes learning to cook in her new American kitchen.
What You’ll Find
- A lot of detail about nursing and hospital work in Romania during the war. While still in Austria, she visited a hospital for Romanian soldiers in Vienna. That led to her helping them with paperwork, cheering them up, raising money for their care, and advocating for their needs in Vienna and Berlin. This led to nursing and caring for them herself, and later – in Romania – to setting up a hospital and running it with more energy than I’ve ever had in my whole life. There are plenty of anecdotes about the joy and horror of nursing, including a soldier who came to them with frostbite. When they began to peel off his trousers, frozen and caked with blood and dirt, his frostbitten flesh – as brittle as if it had been burned by fire – broke off above the knee.
- What it was like in Romania when the Communists took over. In a word, terrifying. Russian patrols could shoot first and ask questions later, or commandeer your vehicle and then shoot or arrest you if you annoyed them. Education changed, becoming a narrow agenda of Party politics and altered or heavily edited history. Almost every aspect of life for normal people, from the food supply to civil rights, got worse. Ileana also mentions a touching moment with a hospital inspector who was a Party member. He was so disillusioned because the Party had done nothing to help the working class with all the money pouring in from taxes (“social insurance”). “I cannot understand it; I really cannot! And I have lived for this day!” the man told her. (279)
- Houses in Austria were taxed according to the number of rooms. Ileana’s Schloss Sonnberg had 35 rooms.
- Immediately after Hitler annexed Austria, Ileana called her mom, Queen Marie of Romania, to let her know she was all right. They normally spoke English with each other, but the German phone operators now insisted they both speak German. A few weeks later, Hitler’s aide-de-camp sent Queen Marie flowers and an apology for forcing her to speak German just to have a phone conversation with her daughter.
- Ileana did not join the German Red Cross because “to do so involved swearing fidelity to Hitler, and this I could not do.” (57)
- During the war, the Kunsthistoriches Museum of Vienna used Ileana’s mother’s old rooms in Schloss Sonnberg to store period furniture that had belonged to Maria Theresa – her cradle, a chair, and writing table, among other items. When the Russians later occupied the castle, she reports, they destroyed the furniture.
- After caring for a couple of soldiers who had been blinded, she helped found a school for seeing eye dogs at Sibiu.
What You Won’t Find
- Much detail about her husband or their marriage. She keeps pretty quiet about him. We’re not told, for example, that the marriage was encouraged by her brother, Carol II, and he refused her husband permission to live on Romanian soil, hence their move to Austria. He’s not mentioned as being with them in America, which come to find out, he wasn’t. They divorced in 1954.
- Much detail about her difficult brother, King Carol II, or her nephew, King Michael. She wasn’t in close contact with Michael, and only managed to see him a few times. Everything was perfectly friendly when they did, but at one point, Ileana’s public efforts on behalf of her hospital led to tension with the government.
Should You Read It?
Absolutely, if for no other reason than to understand how much people sacrificed during World War II. Also, her shining and selfless love for her country and its people is a good refresher of what patriotism really means.
Subtitle: Edward VII’s Mistresses
Author: Theo Aronson
Publisher: Lume Books
Available at: Amazon
As always, Aronson’s narratives are crisp and entertaining. Here, you get the stories of the three mistresses mostly compartmentalized into their own sections, but you also get crucial updates on each woman as we’re learning about her successor. It didn’t shed much light on Edward VII, if that’s what you’re looking for, but it does give you a glimpse into three fascinating women’s lives:
- Lillie, the society beauty turned actress who had endless wit and charm.
- Daisy, the aristocratic society butterfly who later became a socialist and a blackmailer.
- Alice, the gentle wife whose daughter called Edward "Kingy."
One interesting thing this book does is explode the story about Queen Alexandra allowing Alice Keppel to see the dying Edward VII. That’s not exactly what went down…and Aronson explains how that story got started in the first place.
- County house party hijinks: Lillie Langtry told the story about that time Edward hoisted a donkey into the host’s son’s bedroom. Then they dressed it in a nightgown and put it in the guy’s bed. Wow. Just…wow.
- Battenberg baby: In 1881, Lillie Langtry bore an illegitimate daughter whose father was Prince Louis Battenberg. He later married Princess Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine, one of Queen Victoria’s granddaughters. The girl, Jeanne-Marie, didn’t learn who her real father was until she was 20!
- Rejecting Leopold: Daisy Maynard (the future Countess of Warwick) was at one point earmarked as a bride for Queen Victoria’s hemophiliac son, Prince Leopold. He was in love with someone else and so was Daisy, so it never came to pass.
- Embarrassing Rudolf: Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria was shocked and embarrassed when, during a London visit, he went with Edward, Prince of Wales to a restaurant. At 2 am, Edward asked the orchestra to play a can can, and started dancing it with the Duchess of Manchester. Rudolf shooed away the waiters, whispering, “…they must not see their future King making such a clown of himself.” (153)
- Ask Eugenie: When Alice Keppel went sightseeing in Paris with the former Empress Eugenie, a palace tour guide showed them the pen Napoleon I had used to sign his abdication. “Nope,” said Eugenie. She went over to the desk, opened a secret drawer, and pulled out a pen. “That’s the pen he used,” she said. Is it true? Or was Eugenie just messing with them? Either way, I love that story. (305)
None, really – this book does exactly what it says it will do.
I did get the feeling that Aronson doesn’t like Queen Alexandra, but tried hard not to show it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; everyone is allowed to like or dislike historical figures as they see fit. I personally like Alexandra, so it was interesting to see moments where Aronson’s exasperation with her crept into the narrative.
Should You Read It?
If you’re looking for a fun, fast historical read, yes.
If you’re looking for background on Edward VII, yes.
If you’re looking for deeper insight into his character, no.
Subtitle: Napoleon’s Great Love
Author: Christine Sutherland
Publisher: The Vendome Press
Available at: Amazon
In January of 1807, 37-year-old Napoleon met the 20-year-old Marie Walewska at a ball in Warsaw. While fighting the Russians, he was headquartered in Poland. The Polish aristocracy flocked to him as their savior, hoping he’d (a) trounce the Russians, and (b) reinstate their country as its own entity. Poland had disappeared off the map after being partitioned several times between Prussia, Austria, and Russia.
At the time, Marie was married to Anastase Walewski – a man 50 years her senior (eww). When Napoleon pursued Marie, her husband was all for it. If she could get his attention and promote Polish interests with him, what was the harm? There was everything to gain and nothing to lose.
At first, though, Marie was terrified. Napoleon was literally the most important man in the world. And she was a staunch Catholic who didn’t want to betray her marriage vows. But on the other hand, she loved her country – and here was her best chance to serve it.
It seems that on her second visit to Napoleon, she gave in and slept with him. (There were lots of tears on her first visit, and that must have been a buzzkill.) Sutherland’s version of the story is that once she slept with him, they eventually fell in love.
But Is That Really What Happened?
But I’m not entirely convinced either of them truly loved the other. Was Napoleon infatuated? Was it lust at first sight? Yes and yes. Once he got to know her, did she charm him with her personality? Yes. But I’m just not sure it was more than that, at least on his end.
After their initial weeks together in Poland, Napoleon left for Tilsit to meet and make peace with Tsar Alexander I. Then it was back to Paris to, you know, run his empire.
About two years later, Napoleon summoned her to Vienna while he was hashing out a peace treaty with the Austrians. They resumed their affair. Marie was clearly still on his mind, but it doesn’t mean she was his great love. She was beautiful, sweet, and easygoing – with none of the drama he’d come to associate with Josephine. And because he was pretty much master of the world at this point, it was easy for him to summon people across countries. There must have been some correspondence between them, but what has survived is extremely limited, and only from Napoleon’s point of view. We have none of Marie’s letters to him to fill in the gaps.
How Marie Changed History
During their Viennese sojourn, Marie got pregnant with his child. This convinced him he was in fact capable of founding a dynasty – something he hadn’t been sure of before, since he and Josephine had no kids together. But instead of elevating Marie to the throne, he married Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria. He was already making these marriage arrangements before Marie had even had her baby.
Marie was relegated to the background – still important as the mother of his child, but never again to be his mistress.
Napoleon set Marie up with a house in Paris, and she divided her time between France and Poland. Napoleon saw her and his son occasionally, and Marie remained entirely loyal to him.
But Napoleon’s loyalty always lay with his wife, Marie Louise, whom he hoped would come join him in exile. Even on Elba, when Marie Walewska was the one who came to see him and offer to stay with him, Napoleon was a dick to her. He hid her from his mom (also visiting at the time) and forced her to leave when island gossip mistook her for Marie Louise and people started asking when they’d get to pay their respects to the empress. He had his people hurry her off the island in a storm, less than 48 hours after she’d arrived.
See what I mean? A dick.
Sutherland freely admits the lack of documentation on Marie Walewska is a problem – it’s the first sentence in her author’s note. And to make matters worse, most of the memoirs that mention her were written and published during a time when her son with Napoleon, Alexander Walewski, was Napoleon III’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. He didn’t want his mother’s reputation tarnished with 40-year-old gossip, so he tried to keep references to her affair out of published materials.
That means our big caveat here is that any attempt to flesh out this story is based on conjecture.
We just don’t know how Marie felt about Napoleon. We know she came when he summoned her. We know she chose to live mainly in France. We know she went to Elba. We know she married another man after Napoleon sent her away from Elba. That’s about it. Filling in any motivation for these actions is all guesswork. Marie did dictate a brief memoir a few months before her death, but we can’t be sure she was telling the whole truth. She wanted to leave a tidy version of events for her sons – not to clear the historical record once and for all.
And we don’t really know how Napoleon felt about Marie. At the time this book was written, there were 14 known letters he sent her. The first several are full of infatuation – but over time, they became more formal and transactional. What are we supposed to do with that? We can’t assume anything, either that he loved her or didn’t love her.
So in the end, this isn’t a great love story – it can’t be. It’s the pieced-together story of an affair. How much you enjoy this book will be based on how much that intrigues you.
Should You Read This Book?
If you’re interested in Napoleon, yes.
If you’re interested in Polish history, yes.
If you’re looking for a fantastic historical love story, maybe not – because that’s not what this is.
Subtitle: The Facts behind the Legend
Author: Fritz Judtmann
Publisher: George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd
Available at: Amazon
This is one of several books on Mayerling I’ve read lately, and it’s by far the best. If you’re not familiar with Mayerling, that’s the name of the hunting lodge where, in 1889, Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary shot his teenage mistress, Mary Vetsera, and then shot himself. The crown’s efforts to cover up the murder-suicide only led to numerous conspiracy theories that have never died out.
Judtmann never intended to research or write about Mayerling. But in 1957, he inherited the “Hubertus Clock” from the only daughter of Emperor Franz Josef’s physician. But when Judtmann set out to research who’d given Franz Josef the clock in the first place, he found a box of papers relating to Crown Prince Rudolf that was not housed with the rest of Rudolf’s papers. In that box, he found a document from 1912 in which Heinrich Count Taaffe (son of the former Austrian prime minister) said that his father’s Mayerling papers had been lost.
That document sent Judtmann on a quest for information about Rudolf and Mayerling. This book is the result of years of careful research, a search for the descendants of people who played a role, and a close examination of all the facts known up to that point (the late 60s).
What I Liked
In a word, a lot.
- It’s complete. Judtmann goes through the story in chronological order – no jumping back and forth like in Markus’s book or retelling in multiple layers like King/Wilson’s. He also reconstructs carriage routes on maps, and includes a reconstructed floorplan of the Mayerling lodge. He doesn’t ask you to take his word for stuff, in other words – he shows you what you need to know to understand what’s going on. He also tells you when different versions of the same document don’t agree.
- It’s thorough. I mean, dude. This guy went to the amazing lengths of finding historical documentation on average transportation time on specific streets in 1888/89 in Vienna to verify stories about cab rides Rudolf, Mary, and Marie Larisch took. Judtmann takes nothing for granted, in other words. You might think something this detailed is dry, but I found every aspect of his research fascinating. He also built a timeline of telegrams between the various people involved to track how and when the pope learned of Rudolf’s suicide. It’s a thing of beauty.
- It’s a pleasure to read. I say this mostly in contrast to Markus’s book, which was choppy and uneven at best. This book takes its time in the best possible way.
Yes, there are a few, but they’re minor.
- When it comes to Rudolf and Mary’s relationship, older sources tend to put their first meeting in November of 1888 (including Judtmann and Morton). Later sources tend to move this date backward to either April of 1888 (Markus) or even earlier (King/Wilson). Keep in mind that this part of the story is surprisingly fluid, and I don’t think anyone has done a good comparison of the available sources on this point.
- One tiny pet peeve – in the first paragraph, he says Mary Vetsera was 18. She was still 17 (but other references in the book properly cite her age as 17).
- Because so much happened after this book was published (what with the grave robbing and such), you might want something a little more current to get up to speed after you read this. All of Judtmann’s research is still valid, and it’s the best place to start.
Should You Read This Book?
If you’re only going to read one book about Mayerling, make it this one. If you’re not interested in Mayerling, this is probably more information than you want – but it’s still worth reading as a fascinating story of how one goes about unravelling a mystery.
Translator: Emile Burns
Publisher: V. Gollancz
Available at: Archive.org
The bulk of this book is about Cecilie’s childhood – her ancestry, memories of her parents, the places she loved in Mecklenburg-Schwerin, visits to Russia and Cannes, and the like. She carries the story through her marriage to Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia in 1905.
In terms of style, it’s a little syrupy. Here’s an example: “The close personal relations between the prince and the people of his country always seemed to me to be particularly beautiful in my native land; these relations had been maintained and consciously tended from earlier and simpler times.” (25) She describes her father as “the most lovable and kindly being that has ever existed” (28) and Schloss Schwerin as “one of the finest royal seats in North Germany” (31). All that may be true, but the superlatives for everyone and everything are relics of a different writing style from a gentler time.
In the final chapter, “Up to My Silver Wedding,” she admits she was going to stop writing after she described her wedding. That final chapter doesn’t contain much specific information about the important events that happened during this period of her life, like the war, or the fallout when her husband was accused of war crimes. It’s mostly a meditation on the virtues of the German people and her love for her country.
I don’t think she had a single bad thing to say about anyone in this book.
Is it possible she was that positive of a person? Of course.
But I doubt it. If you contrast this version of events with, say, gossipy Catherine Radziwill’s version of her life, these are two circles in a Venn diagram that do not overlap. Even if we assume Radziwill cannot be fully trusted, there are other sources that mention the trouble in her marriage. There’s no hint of that in her telling, which is presumably why she didn’t want to cover these years with any depth.
This is also nothing short of a canonization of her mother-in-law, Empress Augusta Viktoria. After having read John van der Kiste’s biography of her, the impression I got was that Augusta Viktoria wasn’t especially beloved by anyone other than her children. But Cecilie praises her to the moon, and gives no hint of the small-mindedness or bigotry that other sources reveal.
She also sidestepped any mention of the negotiations her father-in-law, Wilhelm II, made with her mother, Dowager Grand Duchess Anastasia of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, to keep Anastasia away from Berlin after Cecilie’s marriage. Her scandalous behavior was too much for Wilhelm, but you’d never know it from Cecilie’s description of her engagement and wedding preparations.
And you know what?
That’s fine – this is a memoir, not an unbiased history.
I’m nosy, but no historical figure should feel obligated to feed that sort of nosiness. If this is the story Cecilie wanted to tell, who’s to say it’s incomplete or inadequate? Not me.
- The composer Flotow was once director of the Schwerin Court Theater.
- A funny translation: the medieval torture device that we know as the “Iron Maiden” is here translated as “Iron Virgin.” (39)
- In Cannes, Cecilie and her family befriended Mrs. Robert Goelet: “She had lost her only daughter, who was of my own age, soon after one of our joint expeditions to the islands, and I think she was so fond of me personally because I somehow reminded her of her dead daughter.” (83) Mrs. Robert Goelet was Harriette Louise Warren, whose daughter Beatrice died in 1902 of pneumonia. Her husband’s cousin, Peter Goelet Gerry, married Mathilde Townsend, who bought the Yusupov black pearl necklace from Cartier.
- Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich liked to tease Cecilie because of her height: “…because of the height to which I had shot up he called ‘Spargelgespenst’ (asparagus ghost), a name which I could not shake off all through my childhood. In revenge I called his dear wife, Aunt Beth – Elisavetta Mavrikievna nee Princess of Sachsen-Altenburg – ‘Great grand-aunt.’” (152)
- Princess Wilhelm of Baden (Princess Marie Romanovsky, Duchess of Leuchtenberg) “always dressed in a man’s style, that is, a jacket with a waistcoat and tie, which gave her a rather severe appearance. But she was very friendly and exceptionally beloved among her people.” (188)
- On the morning of her wedding, the Japanese Prince Arisugawa and his wife came to present gifts from the Emperor: “This occasioned a peculiar situation, inasmuch as my mother, who was in fact a Russian Grand Duchess, and the Japanese took no notice of each other – for Russia and Japan were still at war with one another!” (230)
- She fiercely defends Kaiser Wilhelm II against accusations that he was (partly or wholly) responsible for World War I: “Never has a greater and more shameful lie been spread through the world, and never has the honour of a great and peace-loving nation been more wantonly defamed than in this accusation, which was then actually upheld in a so-called ‘Treaty’!” (244)
- She sidesteps the accusations of war crimes against her husband, the crown prince: “As the new Government had refused to allow his further service in the army, there was nothing left for him but to go for a time to a neutral foreign country.” (251)
Should You Read It?
That depends on what your goals are.
If you’re looking for gossip, look elsewhere.
If you want a gentle travelogue and tales of a time gone by that take you from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean to St. Petersburg, you’ll enjoy this.
Author: Agnes de Stoeckl
Publisher: John Murray
Available at: Abe Books
Agnes Barron’s parents were Irish, and moved to Paris after they married. Her father inherited “the enormous fortunes of the house of Barron, Mexico,” but preferred to live in Europe. The Mexican connection intrigues me, but she doesn’t talk much about it in this book.
There are plenty of lighthearted funny moments in the beginning – she describes (in excruciating detail) the décor of her mom’s receiving room in their Paris mansion. “The taste of that time was indeed atrocious,” she writes, and boy, she’s not kidding. The room was upholstered in yellow and red, with matching poufs and curtains with pom-pom tassels.
She grew up in a very cosmopolitan family – they spent the Season in London, and summered in Dieppe. That’s where, as a young girl, she met her future husband, Baron Alexander de Stoeckl, who worked for the Russian embassy in London.
Alexander’s father had also been a Russian diplomat. Stationed in Washington, DC, he’d married an American named Eliza Howard. She was the only American-born woman in the diplomatic corps during Lincoln’s presidency. After her husband’s death, Eliza settled in Paris.
Five years after they first met, Alexander married Agnes. The couple had a daughter, Zoia.
Agnes & Grand Dukes
After a few years as a diplomat, her husband took a position attached to the household of Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich. As Agnes says, “I was thrown into the most frivolous, smart, corrupt society of the time” (56). But years later, something went wrong with that relationship. Agnes says, “…after many happy years, our relations with Countess Torby became difficult, for reason of no interest except to ourselves.” (74) Whatever the conflict was, society took sides. Agnes notes that King Edward VII took her side.
Agnes and Alexander didn’t have any trouble finding a new position. Grand Duchess George Mikhailovich (born Princess Maria of Greece and Denmark) asked that Alexander be made her chamberlain, to be paid from her private fortune. Nicholas II approved, and in early 1908, the Stoeckls took up their new positions – and were finally able to visit Russia. Staying out of Russia had been one of the conditions of working for Grand Duke Michael, since his morganatic marriage made it difficult (if not impossible) for him to return legally.
Agnes and Alexander stayed with Grand Duchess George for years, traveling with her to England in 1914 for her daughter Xenia’s health. They were unable to get back to Russia when war broke out, and because of the revolution in Russia, they never saw Grand Duke George again. The Bolsheviks imprisoned him, but he was able to write to them occasionally so they had some vague idea of what was happening to him. Agnes’s daughter Zoia even suggested someone go talk to Litvinoff, “the non-recognised Bolshevist Ambassador” to beg for George’s freedom. Agnes went, but in the end, her visit didn’t help. The Bolsheviks shot George in early 1919.
The revolution also cut off Grand Duchess George’s appanage payments, and Agnes and her husband had to economize – fast. She spent most of what personal savings she had left on Zoia’s wedding in late 1918. Zoia married Alik Poklewski-Koziell, who had as groomsmen Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich and Count Joseph Potocki. Grand Duchess George’s daughters, Nina and Xenia, were bridesmaids.
Agnes On Her Own
In 1921, the Grand Duchess remarried and Agnes and her husband were on their own. She describes the next 10 years as “the most bitter in my life.” (183) Agnes found work as a saleswoman – first for linen, then gowns. When her husband got sick, she started selling jewels to help pay for his care. He died on July 23, 1926, leaving Agnes to make her way alone in the world.
She took a job as a sort of fashion marketer for Reville, where her royal connections helped bring in new clients. She worked there for over two years and hated it. “I was so unhappy going there in the morning, crossing Oxford Street, that I often wished a bus would run over me.” (187)
In 1931, her daughter and grandkids moved in with her while Zoia’s husband relocated to Katowice, Poland, where he’d been offered a job. To help support her family, she and Zoia sold the last of their jewels. Once her daughter was settled in Poland, she visited frequently. His family’s palace, Lancut, was an oasis of luxury that reminded her of better days. The Duke and Duchess of Kent came for a visit at Zoia’s request – as Agnes notes, “the first time a member of the British Royal Family had visited that country” (204).
Agnes divided her time between London and Poland. When we get to 1938, the book changes dramatically – instead of a fluid narrative, we get selected entries from Agnes’s diary, beginning on September 14, 1938. In August of 1939, she left Poland, aware that it might be for the last time. Her diary entries give a short but interesting glimpse of how people who lived on the border with Germany saw war preparations being made even as Hitler spoke of peace. Zoia and the kids joined her in London later that month.
Continuing their friendship with the Duke and Duchess of Kent, Agnes and Zoia visit Coppins frequently. She notes that both George and Marina thought war could be prevented, as late as August 30, 1939. Agnes and Zoia both believed they were wrong – they’d seen German fortifications being built along the border with Poland firsthand. When the Germans bombed Poland on September 1, Zoia’s husband survived. He made it from Poland to the Romanian border and fled, just ahead of the Germans. He made his way to Paris and then to England, where he rejoined Agnes and Zoia.
Strangely, the book ends with the Duke of Kent’s death in 1942. It’s as if his death robbed Agnes of the strength or will to share more about her experiences during the war. Or maybe she thought that was the last event her readers would be interested in. Either way, the last diary entry we get is from August 24, 1942. The half-page epilogue is short and simple – it doesn’t mention what happened to her, Zoia, or Alik during the rest of the war. It just says her end can’t be long now.
But it wasn’t – she lived to age 94, dying in 1968.
- Baron Alexander de Bodisco, the Russian minister plenipotentiary posted to Washington, DC in the early 1850s, married an American girl named Harriet Williams. She later lived in St. Petersburg.
- De Bodisco’s replacement was Baron Edward de Stoeckl, Agnes’s father-in-law.
- One summer, there was a reception at the Russian legation in Washington. A “Monsieur Davidoff” who later became the Russian minister in Tokyo suggested to Eliza de Stoeckl that she greet a visiting Russian admiral in Russian. He taught her a phrase, which she learned and duly repeated at the party. Unfortunately, this was a prank – he’d taught her how to say, “How do you do, you son of a bitch?”
- As a child, Agnes’s husband watched Lincoln’s funeral procession.
- While in Paris in 1913, Grand Duchess Anastasia Mikhailovna (widow of the Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin) told Baron Maurice de Rothschild she wanted a ball. But it was August, and no one was in the city. So he rounded up whoever walked into the Ritz, whether he knew them or not, and invited them to his ball. Normally, guests were allowed to wander in and out of his rooms at will, but not this time. When Agnes tried to show her daughter Zoia around, they found the doors locked. When Agnes asked Maurice why, he said it was because he didn’t know any of the guests. When Agnes asked why, he said the Grand Duchess wanted a ball, and he made it happen – even if he had to do it with hundreds of people none of them knew.
- One time, Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich had a crush on an American girl, and wrote her love letters in English. When he showed her a couple of them, Agnes was surprised how good they were. Later, when she went to borrow a book from his library, he saw that one she grabbed and told her not to take that one – it was an anthology of love letters, the source of the suspiciously good letters he sent his crush.
- While in Russia, with Grand Duchess George, Agnes and Alexander went to a party where the author Elinor Glyn was also a guest. It was her first trip to Russia, and she asked Alexander, “When do the orgies begin?” (89)
- While in Claridge’s Hotel in London with Grand Duchess George, Agnes threw herself a birthday party with lots of activities like “potato races, three-legged races and other mad games.” The widowed Queen Alexandra “wished a high-kick trial; she said she could kick higher than anybody.” So Alexander de Stoeckl held up a toy over his head. Alexandra kicked high enough to touch the toy, but fell backward and smacked her head on the floor – hard enough to come up bleeding thanks to a tortoiseshell comb in her hair. “She said it was no matter. We were rather worried but it proved nothing serious.” (101)
- In the biggest stomach-churning WTF in the entire book, Agnes describes the beginning of her trip to England in 1914 aboard Nicholas II’s yacht “Almaz.” That yacht took them as far as Odessa, during which time her daughter fell for the captain. But that’s not the WTF part. Apparently there was also this: “There was a monkey on board who lived with a rabbit; I hated to see them together. The monkey would pull the rabbit’s eye out and let it go back with a snap – the rabbit was quite hypnotized by the monkey.” (143) I’m queasy. I’m actually queasy, this is so gross.
- Before leaving Poland in the wake of the German attack in September of 1939, Agnes’s son-in-law Alik saved one tiny heirloom: “the cars were announced. The guns could be heard. Alik went into his writing room, still filled with objects dear to him. On a small table his eyes fell on a Faberge electric bell. He took a pocket knife and cut the cord: ‘At least the Germans won’t get this’, so a little silver was saved and the bell!” (235)
Should You Read It?
Yes. There are so many interesting tidbits here. They’re not always historically significant, as you can tell from my selection above, but if you’re interested in royals, they’re fun and revealing.
After reading several other firsthand accounts relative to World War II and its run-up (Bella Fromm’s Blood and Banquets, Missie Vassilchikov’s Berlin Diaries), it was interesting to add the last eighth of this book as a comparison, with its descriptions of Germany’s preparations for war from a Polish perspective.
Because of Agnes’s life, the mood of the book is a pretty consistent downward trend – we go from riches to royals to war to scraping to get by to slight recovery to war again. But if it feels depressing to read, imagine what it was like to live that trajectory. This book is well worth a Saturday or Sunday afternoon to see what that was like.
Subtitle: On a Tightrope between Love and Abuse
Author: Riëtha Kühle
Available at: Amazon (digital only)
In the author’s words: “This book was never meant to be entertaining; it is quite simply a chronological collection of all available facts directly or indirectly related to Princess Auguste.”
But it is entertaining if you’re interested in 18th century royalty. Augusta’s mom was Princess Augusta of Great Britain, a sister of King George III. Augusta’s husband was Duke (later king) Friedrich of Wurttemberg. Her father was Duke Karl of Brunswick. Her sister-in-law was Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna, later Empress of Russia. Tangentially, all their stories help illuminate Augusta’s.
Augusta was distantly related to Catherine the Great, who took her under wing when she arrived at the Russian court with her husband, whom Catherine had appointed as her governor-general of Vyborg (Finland). But Friedrich was…a dick. There’s no way around it. He was a dick. He was verbally and physically abusive to Augusta (and his second wife). He was moody, petulant, selfish, and almost incapable of seeing a situation from anyone else’s point of view. At the same time, he was smart and resilient – even Napoleon later described him as the most intelligent man on a throne in Europe.
Augusta was smart, too, but no one gave her credit for it. She was also fiercely independent and did NOT like being told what to do – at least not by Friedrich. She stood her ground against Friedrich, against her father, and even against Catherine the friggin’ Great when it was necessary. No one gave her credit for this, either.
Prior to this book, when Augusta was mentioned at all, it was as a flighty, flirty woman who just made things difficult for everyone. For Friedrich, by irritating him and not doing what he wanted 24/7. And for Catherine, by poaching hot guys at the Russian court that the empress was interested in. Neither of these things are actually true, but somehow, that’s what went down in history. Long story short, Auguste and Friedrich separated, and Catherine arranged for her to chillax and recover at Castle Lohde in Estonia. She sent her there with an old friend, Wilhelm Pohlmann, to look after her and run the castle and manage her expenses. But less than two years after her arrival, Augusta was dead.
That’s the only incontrovertible fact the public knew.
Stories and gossip flew between Brunswick and Russia. The two most popular versions of the story went something like this: (a) Catherine imprisoned and murdered Augusta for daring to have an affair with someone she had dibs on, or (b) Augusta slept with (or was raped by) Pohlmann and died giving birth to his illegitimate child.
Neither of these versions are true.
You’ll have to read this book to find out what really happened.
I got nothin’. Seriously. This book was a labor of love and it shows.
Does it veer into occasional tangents, about other unfortunate relatives from Brunswick who perished in Russia? Yes.
Does it linger quite a while on Augusta’s parents at the beginning of the book? Yes.
By the very nature of a tangent, these digressions don’t necessarily affect Augusta’s story. But with them, you get a richer picture of the time Augusta lived in and her family history. Just be aware that you’re 21% into the book (page 136 of 590, according to Kindle’s readout) before we get into the meat of Augusta’s story.
The only real caveat I have is that there’s only an electronic version of the book – no hard copy exists (yet?). And because of the digital format, the author had to make a decision how to present footnotes and endnotes. So footnotes are hyperlinked using one set of numbers, and endnotes are given but not hyperlinked, then provided at the end of the book. But the note that explains this appears at the end of the book, so I spent awhile being very confused by the two sets of numbers, only some of which were hyperlinked.
Should You Read It?
Yes. If you have any interest in August or her family, this book is a must.
If you don’t have a specific interest in her, it’s still a great look at Catherine the Great and how she dealt with a man who was a notoriously abusive husband in her court.
In the best possible way, this book makes anything I was working on obsolete. The author put 10 years of research and travel into this book, and nothing I could do as a total amateur (or, as I like to put it, a girl with an internet connection) could compare.
Subtitle: The First Modern Princess
Author: Elisabeth Basford
Available at: Amazon
The challenge in reading – and, presumably, writing – this book is that it’s subtle. Mary’s life wasn’t as dramatic as, say, her German or Romanov relatives who faced revolution as an aftereffect of war. On the surface, she lived a relatively guarded, placid life.
Of course, every human being has fears, wants, needs, and other relatable emotions, and Mary is no different. But she struggled to keep so many of those emotions under wraps that it’s not always easy to tease them out again.
This is a very well-done biography, but it must be said that the subject isn’t the most engaging royal of her generation. That doesn’t mean she isn’t worthy of attention. It just means you’re not going to get as cracking a story here as you do with, say, Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark (her sister-in-law) or Princess Marie Louise (her first cousin once removed).
The author does a very nice job of clearing up a few misconceptions about Mary’s life – particularly, why she didn’t attend Princess Elizabeth’s wedding to Prince Philip in 1947, and what Downton Abbey got wrong about her life.
What this book does very well is force you to respect the role of a working royal. It’s called “work” for a reason. Actors frequently talk about how exhausting press junkets are when they have a new movie or TV show being released. Well, imagine the movie is your whole life. It doesn’t end. And neither does the junket. Sure, you have a few co-stars to share the burden with, but you have to be ready to go, to answer questions, to smile for the camera, to look your best, to hit your mark dozens of times per month, hundreds of times per year. It’s exhausting. And Mary did it without complaining because it was her duty. You can’t help but come away from this book feeling like she had an iron will that she only ever imposed on herself.
I’m going to have to go back to that Famous Jewel Collectors book, though, because this book didn’t put much emphasis on jewelry. When Mary married, Basford notes that she didn’t have much of a collection, so that’s what she asked for when people wondered what to get her. The only time she’s mentioned as taking pride in her jewels, though, was at Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. She collected 18th century fans, Fabergé trinkets, and linen…but there’s nothing about her having a passion for jewels, either wearing them, revamping them, or acquiring them. A mystery that requires more digging!
- In the fall of 1914, Mary had the idea to give a Christmas gift to every British soldier fighting in World War I. She raised enough money to give a gift to more than 2.5 million people (soldiers, sailors, prisoners of war, nurses, and next of kin of casualties). After the initial gift had been sent out, they kept making more of the brass tins filled with cigarettes, sweets, spices, chocolate, and other little goodies. When the Lusitania sunk in May 1915, it went down with 45+ tons of brass coming from New York to make more tins. It took until 1920 for all the gifts to be delivered. (55)
- When Mary and her husband Harry inherited and moved to Harewood House in 1929, they found the 40-acre lake perfect for hockey matches. They would take the kids out and play, along with residents from the estate. Mary’s position? Goalie. That. That right there is the kind of detail I love because it’s so humanizing. (141)
- Mary suffered from Graves Disease, an autoimmune disease that sends the thyroid into overdrive. It wasn’t diagnosed until 1935, and an operation seemed to help. (178)
- Mary’s son, George, became a prisoner of war during World War II – he was held at Colditz with other high-value prisoners. In March 1945, Hitler signed his death warrant but the camp commandant refused to carry it out since the war was all but over. (214)
None, as long as you go in knowing that we’re talking about a life of duty. This is not a gossipy bio – this is a calm, measured bio.
Well, there is one nitpicky point I’ll drop here. I’m sure it’s a product of faulty copy-editing (and maybe an automated spellchecker), but the show Downton Abbey is repeatedly referred to as Downtown Abbey.
Should You Read This?
If you’re a fan of her mom, yes.
If you’re a fan of the modern royals, yes – this is a good look at how the role of a working royal began to evolve.
But if you’re a thrillseeker who prefers big drama in her biographies, this might not be your cup of tea.
Author: Sofka Zinovieff
Publisher: Pegasus Books
Available at: Amazon
If you’re like me, you hear the word “Dolgorouky” and think about Tsar Alexander II’s second (morganatic) wife, Ekaterina. Sofka Dolgorouky comes from that family, but isn’t descended from that particular branch of the family tree. Her mother was Countess Sophy Bobrinsky, a descendant of Catherine the Great through her son with Grigori Orlov, Alexis Bobrinsky. Her father was Prince Peter Dolgorouky. Nowhere in this book is Ekaterina Dolgorouky mentioned, but it would have been nice to know how she was connected.
Born in 1907, Sofka’s early years were lived in luxury. Her parents separated – her mom, Sophy, was more interested in becoming a surgeon and a pilot than in being a proper St. Petersburg hostess.
During the Russian Revolution, her family fled to Crimea, and then to Europe in 1919. Sofka drifted between Rome, Paris, Glasgow, and London. In Britain, she befriended the Duke and Duchess of Hamilton, and became the duchess’s secretary. Later, she worked for Laurence Olivier.
She married Leo Zinovieff and had two kids, Peter and Ian. They divorced, and she remarried Grey Skipwith, probably the true love of her life. They had a son, Patrick. Throughout these years, she lived life on her own terms. She neglected her kids (there’s no getting around this fact). She took numerous lovers (around 100 during her lifetime, by her own count). She didn’t care about social norms and didn’t care that neither of her in-laws particularly liked her. She was unabashedly, unashamedly herself, for better or for worse.
When World War II broke out, Sofka crossed the channel to help her mom, who was ill in Paris. She ended up in Vittel, a Nazi prison camp – not a concentration camp, but a prison camp for women with British passports. There, she met the communists who would convince her that socialism was the only way to reverse the terrible economic and social inequity she’d seen up close and personal in Russia but also in Britain.
In the prison camp, she learned that her husband (who’d joined the RAF) had been killed in action. After an intense period of mourning, she had a short-lived affair with another woman, and fell in love with a Jewish man who would be deported and killed in a concentration camp. She also developed lifelong friendships with some of the other imprisoned women.
After the horrors of war, Sofka drifted once more between London and Paris. She joined the Communist Party, but doesn’t seem to have done much more than attend meetings and do a little public speaking. She had an MI5 file, but it mostly reported on her social comings-and-goings. Later, she worked as a tour guide for Soviet-approved groups and was able to cross the Iron Curtain.
Throughout her life, she loved books, poetry, words, and language, but reading became even more important to her as she slowed down. Having settled in Cornwall with the last love of her life, a man named Jack King, she traveled less and read more. She gave her diary to her granddaughter, the author, which eventually led her on a quest to retrace Sofka’s steps and learn more about her life.
- Sofka (the author’s grandmother) claimed in her autobiography that she was being groomed as a potential bride for the heir to the throne, Alexei. She’d been told this by her own grandmother: “Later in life, Granny told me that it had been decided that the next Empress had better not be a foreigner and the Child was among the suitable candidates and was to be groomed for the post…” The author’s uncle told her this simply wasn’t true. Her reaction? “I prefer to believe that this story reflects the lost hope of Sofka’s wistful grandmother rather than pure invention. Sofka herself was proud enough to mention it, and skeptical enough to reject it as irrelevant.” (58)
- Sofka’s mom, Sofia Dolgorouky, was one of the first women who went to the Ecole Militaire d’Aviation in France in 1913. She brought a plane back with her and kept it at Gatchina.
- Sofka’s uncle, Sergei, was Grand Duchess Xenia’s lover. He was married, and his wife died mysteriously in Crimea during their exile. “She had been ill, possibly with pneumonia, and had taken too much medicine. Gossips said it was suicide; life had become unbearable for her after discovering that her marriage was a convenient screen for Sergei’s long-standing affair with the Grand-Duchess Xenia” (74).
- Sofka helped arranged the wedding of Margaret Douglas-Hamilton, who married Jimmy Drummond-Hay in Salisbury Cathedral. Later, Pamela Bowes-Lyon would marry Margaret’s brother, Malcolm Douglas-Hamilton.
- Her son, Patrick Skipwith, was in the 1948 movie Anna Karenina (starring Vivien Leigh). He played Anna’s son, Sergei.
- This isn’t an academic work, so there are no footnotes and a limited bibliography. She does a pretty good job of telling you where a piece of information came from, so this isn’t a deal-breaker - just something to be aware of if you’re mining this for information as well as reading for pleasure.
- The book combines two threads: the author’s search for facts about her grandmother, and her grandmother’s life story. At times, the switch between the two was distracting – especially in the initial chapters, when the average reader is struggling to differentiate between all the similarly named historical figures (Sophy, Sofka the grandmother, Sofka the author). Later in the book, when the author’s trying to figure out the truth about what happened at the French prison camp, these threads are more compatible, more valuable to the story, and less jarring.
- A lot of the author’s descriptions during her travels were negative and that eventually turned me off. In general, she describes tourists as fat, loud, and annoying. She describes many food and smells as gross or disgusting. These were her emotions and her experiences, so I’m not suggesting she should have changed or eliminated them. I am saying that it ended up conveying the impression that unless something was luxurious and perfect, she didn’t like it – and if a person wasn’t helpful in her search, they were annoying. For example: the other woman in the train compartment on the way to Russia “smelled more strongly than anyone I’ve ever encountered and snored like a bull all night,” (25), tourists in Crimea “all carried too many bulging plastic bags and made a good deal of noise” (71), there, she saw “vividly sunburned Russians in very few clothes; this was evidently the ‘nylon’ season” (73); the Crimean tourist complex was “vast, unappealing…hideous” (73). The hotel’s breakfast was “spectacularly unappetizing: fatty sausages floating in water; fly-blown bananas chopped into segments with the blackened skin skill on” (75); nearby sanatorium residents were “eating fried things out of grubby plastic boxes” (77), and the administrator was “an unfriendly peroxide-blonde” (77). You get the picture.
Should You Read It?
Yes. Despite the caveats, there are so many fascinating tidbits here. The author did a brave thing in talking to estranged or distant family members about her grandmother – because many of them didn’t care for her and told stories about her that ended up not being true. It was fun to read as a piece of emotional journalism (aside from the negative descriptions) as well as a story about her grandmother’s amazing life.
Subtitle: The Way It Was
Author: Zoia Belyakova
Publisher: Ego Publishers
Available at: Amazon
Here are the three essays in the book:
Daria, Nicholas II’s Forgotten Cousin
This is a brief look at the life of Countess Daria Beauharnais, Duchess of Leuchtenberg, a second cousin of Tsar Nicholas II (they were both great-grandchildren of Tsar Nicholas I). The last of the Romanovs to stay in Russia, Daria and her husband made it until 1937…when their luck ran out. Daria’s mother was a granddaughter of Field Marshal Kutuzov – she married Duke Eugen Maximilianovich. Belyakova points out the historical irony of Kutuzuov’s descendant marrying a descendant of Empress Josephine (not of Napoleon, though). She first married Prince Leo Mikhailovich Kotchubey. She divorced him in 1911, had a brief second marriage to Captain Vladimir E. Gravenitz, who committed suicide. When the revolution broke out, she made her way to Bavaria, obtained Bavarian citizenship, then went back to Russia. Why? No one knows. As she struggled to survive with no money and no home, an Austrian citizen named Victor Alexandrovich Markezetti saved her from freezing in a snowdrift. They married, and stayed on as Soviet citizens. They were arrested in 1937 on suspicion of being spies. They were both executed.
All Fell in Love with Ella
The longest essay in the book covers Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna, born Princess Elizabeth of Hesse and by Rhine (“Ella”). Much has been written elsewhere about Ella, so you’re probably familiar with her story. The good news is that this account contains some new information, particularly about Serge and Ella’s Petersburg residence. There are also a few quotations about Serge and Ella from Russian-language memoirs, so chances are there’s something new for you here even if you’ve read books on Ella before.
The Crimean Captives
This covers the Romanovs held captive in the Crimea between 1917 and 1919, when most of them fled aboard the HMS Marlborough, including Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna and her daughter, Grand Duchess Xenia. It feels like a prequel to The Russian Court at Sea, which describes what happened on the Marlborough (spoiler alert: not much). This section includes a number of unpublished letters from members of the imperial family. If you're interested in this topic, it's also covered well and extensively in Once a Grand Duchess (a great biography of Grand Duchess Xenia by John Van der Kiste and Coryne Hall).
- You should already have a good understanding of the Romanov family and the Russian Revolution before reading this book. It’s written for people who already know the basics, so they aren’t repeated here. For example, the names of family members and government ministers are provided, but not explanations of who they are or how they’re related to the essay’s subject. You just need to know it or be willing to go look it up.
- The English translation was a teensy bit rough in places. Don’t let that scare you. It’s always understandable, just not always the smoothest read.
- Some quotes aren’t footnoted, while others are. For example, we get this tidbit about Grand Duke Sergei: “German princesses seemed boring to him, ‘except one,’ he used to say, and everyone knew whom he meant.” (49) But where did that little quote come from? It’s not footnoted, so we don’t know.
Should You Read This?
If you’re devoted to the Romanovs, yes. If you’re obsessed with Ella, yes. If you’re just a casual reader of royal history, there are fuller accounts you’d probably enjoy more.
Subtitle: The Tragedy of Mayerling
Author: Carl Lonyay
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Available at: Amazon
First things first: if you’re a woman, you’re probably not going to get along with ol’ Carl here. Throughout the book, he’s disdainful toward women (Stephanie, her mother-in-law Empress Elisabeth, and Elisabeth’s mother-in-law Archduchess Sophie). He absolutely loathed Stephanie, and that hatred permeates every page she’s mentioned on. He didn’t care for Elisabeth, either, but he’s marginally more fair to her than to his aunt-by-marriage.
Here are a few examples:
- How he prefaces a quote from Stephanie’s memoir: “…Stephanie, the second daughter of King Leopold II, blazons forth with her customary lack of modesty and good taste:” (60-61)
- How he makes fun of her for things beyond her control: “Her voice was powerful and closely resembled the foghorns of the Danube tug-boats.” (110)
- In which he advocates spousal abuse: “In his wife, all those qualities were united which were repugnant to him – her hardness of heart, her aggressive contrariness, her monumental tactlessness. She was a bully, a bore, a nagger, and a fool. Having regard to Rudolf’s lack of self-control, it is indeed difficult to explain how he was able to resist the natural reaction to the nagger, namely, to perpetrate an act of violence against her.” (119)
- In which he pretends to have knowledge of female sexuality: “Now it is a fact that women, when sexually neglected, become irritable, which makes life with them very unpleasant. But when a woman is already unpleasant by nature, like Stephanie, then sexual neglect renders her utterly unbearable.” (121)
I can’t even.
In that third quote, he’s basically saying he doesn’t understand how Rudolf kept from beating the shit out of Stephanie. That is unacceptable in a book he purports to be based on “all the authentic documents known to exist. In it no place is given to romantic fictions...” (xiii)
But let’s move on. This is not a book about Stephanie. This is a book about Rudolf.
So what does it say about Rudolf? Less than one might imagine, considering his closeness to potential source material. There is not much here to differentiate the chapters on Rudolf’s early education and young adulthood from the standard biographies that had already been published by Mitis and Bibl. Lonyay himself acknowledges his debt to both these authors.
Overall, his conclusion is that Rudolf’s mental illness – which led to his later suicide – stemmed from a lack of parental love. Rudolf’s first tutor, the evil Gondrecourt, instilled a mistrust that developed into a sort of paranoia and led Rudolf to see enemies where there were none. Add to that the disastrous marriage (waaaaay overplayed by Lonyay), his lack of an heir, the never-ending reign of his father during which he held no power or responsibility, and you have a recipe for Rudolf wanting to escape it all via suicide.
Except, Lonyay notes, he was a coward and needed someone to commit suicide with him. Enter Mary Vetsera.
I agree with Lonyay in this respect – Rudolf and Mary were not participants in a great love story. Rudolf used her, and she allowed herself to be used. This conclusion doesn’t feel shocking to a modern reader, but perhaps this was the first time an author had so dispassionately disassembled the “great love story” fiction.
Aside from the non-stop sexism, you mean?
- The author’s attitude. In the preface, he has the balls to…oh, hell, just read it yourself: “As a regular soldier, courage always appealed to me. Therefore I wish to express my admiration for the courage of those who thrust upon me their uninvited advice on a subject of which they had no knowledge, and which, for the benefit of my work, I avoided accepting.” He should have boiled all that down to two words, and I bet you know which two I mean.
- The lack of much original material. As I read this, it felt like all the interesting tidbits were footnoted, having already appeared in Mitis or Bibl. Of course, Lonyay had access to Stephanie’s papers, so he’s able to add some quotes from her diary and a copy of the Hoyos statement of what happened at Mayerling, which round out the story. But for the most part, this book doesn’t add much to Rudolf’s biography in terms of what other authors have already presented. All the details about his education, early liberalism, and his unsigned articles in friend Moritz Szeps’s newspaper had already appeared elsewhere.
Should You Read It?
Only if you’re doing a Mayerling deep-dive. Otherwise, there’s nothing here you won’t find in a better examination of either Mayerling or Rudolf himself.
Subtitle: The Last Days of a Great Dynasty: The Romanovs’ Voyage into Exile
Author: Frances Welch
Publisher: Short Books
Available at: Amazon
This book covers the Romanov voyage out of Russia on the HMS Marlborough, which left Yalta on April 11, 1919. That ship carried the Dowager Tsarina Maria Feodorovna, her daughter Xenia and her family, three generations of Yusupovs, and the Grand Dukes Nicholas Nikolaevich and Peter Nikolaevich and their families. The book’s purported timeline covers the 16-day trip from Russia to Malta, where they stayed a week before splitting up to go to the south of France, Italy, and England.
But not everyone on board got along. The primary conflict in the book is the bad blood between the “Ai-Todors” and the “Dulbers” – essentially, Maria Feodorovna and her family vs. Nicholas Nikolaevich and his family. During the previous two years of quasi-exile in the Crimea, the two families had as little to do with each other as possible, despite living together at the Dulber estate for several months under Bolshevik guard.
What did that bad blood stem from?
- Nicholas and Peter’s wives, two Montenegrin princesses who were also sisters, had introduced Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra to Rasputin.
- One of those princesses had arrived in Russia married to someone else – and, after a divorce, married Nicholas.
- Finally, Nicholas was a powerful figure within the family, and Maria Feodorovna didn’t always trust that he wouldn’t use that power to usurp some (or all) of her son’s power.
If you didn’t already know all this background info, Welch gives you summaries as it’s necessary within the narrative. But these asides break up what little narrative there is, making the book feel disorganized – a collection of anecdotes rather than a story with a point.
The Problem: Overdramatized Conflicts
My biggest problem with this book? The conflict between the “Ai-Todors” and the “Dulbers” was largely internal. No one had a fist fight or a public screaming match. The kids all played together nicely. In public at least, everyone behaved with decorum. For example, when the Dulbers boarded first, they took the best cabins. Later, when Maria Feodorovna boarded, she was horrified to discover her family and servants had to make do with the leftovers. First Lieutenant Pridham offered to sort things out, and that was that.
Welch tries to make more of this hostility than I thought was necessary.
Yes, Maria Feodorovna wrote about how much she wanted the Dulbers off the ship in her diary, but in most of her public remarks to the ship’s officers, she was neutral, if not polite. Was there tension? Sure. But we’re talking about people who, by their very upbringing and training, kept their emotions inside and tried to behave with decorum and politeness. So there isn’t much of a conflict to present, aside from a few diary entries of Maria Feodorovna’s.
Similarly, Maria Feodorovna’s demands on the ship and its crew supposedly presented a secondary conflict within the book. Welch milks these incidents for all they’re worth.
For example, when the ship docked in Yalta, Maria made “a barrage of requests, then demands and finally threats.” She asked that the refugees gathered there all be taken away on English ships – if not, she was going to get off the boat and go with them. This, we’re told, was among the captain’s “worst fears.” (72) But there are no quotes from Maria Feodorovna or the captain in this section – this is all Welch’s dramatization of the event.
She tells us that, “in exasperation,” the captain gave in. Then she speculates that the captain must have hated giving in. Then we get even more speculation about what Maria Feodorovna might or might not have felt when writing in her private diary: “But perhaps some native survival instinct presented the Dowager from demonizing this man on whom so much of her destiny depended, even in the privacy of her diary. Her report of their exchange is brief and buoyant. She wrote: ‘I have offered an apology to Capt Johnson after which I hope we will be good friends. I also told him that I do not want to leave before everyone from Yalta and surroundings has been evacuated. He is excellent and has promised to do everything he can.’” (73)
So, to sum up, we have an overly dramatized incident where Welch speculated on emotions with little evidence. The only actual quote from a participant summed it up in three sentences, with much less drama than Welch attempted to spin out of it.
The whole book felt like this, to be honest – a stretch to create moments of meaningful drama that were really nothing more than tempests in a teacup. Always skimming the surface, never diving deeply into the history of any of the people mentioned.
To borrow and corrupt a saying from Gertrude Stein, there’s not enough “there” there.
A Few Interesting Tidbits
- Was a British spy in on Felix Yusupov’s plot to murder Rasputin? “According to one report, a mysterious Englishman had come to say goodbye to Youssoupov on the quay: an Oxford friend, the British spy Oswald Rayner. It is now believed that Rayner was at Youssoupov’s palace on the night of the killing.” Unfortunately, because of the lack of footnotes, we don’t know what report Welch is referring to. (41)
- Zinaida Yusupova on her husband’s mustache: “Prince Felix was heavily moustached, later refusing to shave even when Stalin rose to power championing the same look. His wife, Princess Zenaide, complained, in 1922, to one of the Tsar’s nephews: ‘It’s really awful to think Stalin looks exactly like my husband.’” (45)
- While in the Crimea from 1917-1919, Xenia’s kids continued their lessons. Vassily “remembered studying the misleadingly titled Reading Without Tears with Miss Coster. ‘That generally ended up with both of us crying – I from despair and Nana from exasperation.’” (57) This made me laugh.
- After a dinner at the Yusupov Eagle’s Nest home in the Crimea, Felix (Jr.) “had handed out cigarettes which exploded when lit. A lesser joker would have been dismayed by the guests’ reaction: terrified that they were under attack, they ran from the house. For Youssoupov, his guests’ terror was the icing on the cake.” (66)
- Tom Fothergill had to go on shore at one point (before sailing away from Russia) to restock the kitchen: “…sent ashore for food last night and the bill came this morning. 24 cauliflowers for £6!’” It’s always interesting to me what food cost in the past. The last time I tried to buy a cauliflower, it was $2.78 (about £1.99). (127)
- Xenia’s son, Prince Dmitri, emigrated to America and worked as a stockbroker. Later, he “smuggled scotch and gin, in the course of which he claimed to have met Al Capone.” (208)
- Grand Duchess Xenia established a lifelong friendship with First Lieutenant Francis Pridham. She even encouraged him to write his memoirs.
- There are no endnotes or footnotes. I harp on this all the time, but that’s because I’m nosy and want to know exactly where tidbits of information came from. The good news is that because Welch often quotes from diaries and memoirs, you know who said what without a footnote. For the most part, she does a good job of making sure you know whose material she’s quoting. The bad news? When she doesn’t, you have no idea where a piece of information came from - including some of the unpublished sources she used, which you can’t exactly track down.
- One of the sources most frequently quoted is not listed in the bibliography. Maybe this is some academic or publishing protocol of which I’m unaware – if so, ignore this gripe. But the book makes liberal use of Maria Feodorovna’s diary, which isn’t in the bibliography. I wondered if it was one of the unpublished sources she consulted in an archive (several are listed). Nope. On a second pass through the book to write this review, I found it listed in a tiny note on the copyright page.
- There are a couple small mistakes I picked up as a casual reader. You may be able to find more – these are just the three that jumped out at me. (1) Despite having written a book about Anna Anderson, Welch gives an incorrect birth year for Grand Duchess Anastasia (1900 instead of 1901). (2) She mentions that, on her wedding day, Irina Alexandrovna wore a tiara that had once belonged to Marie Antoinette – but it was the veil, not the tiara. The tiara was a Cartier diamond and rock crystal creation, a wedding gift from Zinaida (her new mother-in-law). (3) She also writes that Nicholas II was 5’4” tall – for some reason, I remembered 5’6”, and Google tells me he was 5’7”. Not a deal-breaker, but enough to make me stop and pause.
Should You Read It?
If you can get it from a library, sure - it’s a short read.
If you’re Romanov-obsessed and want to read it because you read *everything* Romanov, go ahead. But there’s nothing new or groundbreaking here, so don’t get your hopes up.
Subtitle: Five Passports in a Shifting Europe
Author: Tatiana Metternich
Available at: Alibris (but try a library - copies are not cheap at the moment)
The atmosphere Tatiana Metternich creates in the first part of the book, when describing Russia before and during the revolution, is palpable. When the revolution broke out, her family fled to the Crimea, where Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna lent them a villa. There, the children’s lessons continued.
I love this detail she gives us about her brother: “While the maid coiled Mamma’s long hair, we learnt our lessons in Russian and Latin writing on large squares of cardboard. Alexander liked the letter ‘Z’ for ‘Zaits’ (hare) so much, he would take it to bed with him.” (8) And in another unforgettable detail, she describes the changes she and her siblings noticed in the way the grown-ups talked: “Nobody dies any more: they are always killed.” (10)
Tatiana’s family left Russia at the same time as Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, aboard a British ship. As refugees, they drifted from place to place: Paris, Brittany, Baden-Baden, Kovno (Lithuania). There are plenty of famous names that crop up in their adventures: Countess Brassova, Countess Sofia Panina, General Wrangel, Empress Maria Feodorovna, Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna, and the Yusupovs.
Tatiana studied art in Munich, where she observed the Nazis rise to power. “Most of our entourage took a critical view, in spite of the improvement of conditions in Germany since the huge number of unemployed had melted overnight…the vulgarity and excesses of Nazi doctrines, as well as their amateurish and brutal elaborations on foreign policy were openly criticized. It could all only lead to disaster, many believed, unless the Western powers did not continue to give in” (56).
But both Tatiana and her sister wanted jobs that were more useful, so they studied shorthand and typing. In Berlin, they were fixtures on the aristocratic and diplomatic social scenes.
Once the war broke out, Tatiana advised a friend to take all her valuable out of the Berlin Bank – she’d seen firsthand what could happen if revolution followed war. Life became a series of food shortages, supply shortages, and bombing raids. She got a job in the Public Relations Department of the Foreign Office, where a friend had advised her to apply but keep her knowledge of Russian a secret. There, she met some of the conspirators who would later attempt to assassinate Hitler in 1944.
But wartime wasn’t all bleak – Tatiana met and married Paul Metternich, a soldier in a German cavalry regiment and the great-grandson of the famous Austrian chancellor. She moved her parents to a Metternich estate in Czechoslovakia, Königswart, where they attempted to sit out the war. Her dad’s advice to Paul when he married Tatiana? “One should leave room for each to develop in their own way, and neither try and impose one’s personality on the other.” (118)
At the end of the war, as the Russians closed in, Tatiana, her parents, and Paul fled Königswart for the Metternich estate in the west, Johannisberg. On foot, they traveled more than 250 miles (about 400 kilometers) to safety.
- In 1906, Tatiana’s mom, Lidia Viazemskaya, became one of the first female Russian students at Oxford University. Two of her teachers? Miss Moberly and Miss Jourdain. These were the two ladies who later claimed to have time-traveled while visiting Versailles and seen the ghost of Marie Antoinette.
- During the revolution, her mom was arrested in Petrograd and put in a crowded prison cell. There, she met Natalia Brassova, Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich’s morganatic wife. Tatiana says that Natalia was kind to her mother, sharing soap and handkerchiefs, since Tatiana’s mom had been arrested with nothing but her purse. Three days later, “thanks to urgent intervention from outside,” the Cheka released her. (9)
- Tatiana’s dad had seen Rasputin once “at a railroad station and said that his ‘white’ eyes gave him a startling and repulsive appearance, as if he were looking through you…Papa did not approve of Felix [Yusupov] at all, for although everybody had been yearning for Rasputin’s death, Felix’s involvement in his murder was viewed with mixed feelings. However he both accepted and ignored Mamma’s childhood friendship with him.” (49)
- After the Revolution, while the family lived a peripatetic existence in Europe, Tatiana visited her mom at the spa in Kissingen. “…we were taken to visit Würzburg castle by Mamma’s goddaughter, whose father had been the German military attaché in Kovno in 1914. She was accompanied by her fiancé, a handsome young officer, Count Claus von Stauffenberg, who was to make the attempt on Hitler’s life in 1944.” (55)
- Tatiana’s mother-in-law, Isabel de Santa Cruz, had known Emperor Franz Josef: he “would often sit and chat with her at official balls. ‘He was such a dear,’ she told us.” (120) Isabel had been friends with Winston Churchill’s mother (Jennie Jerome) and Empress Eugénie. “The friendship was of ancient origin, for she had even inherited the Montijo girls’ English nurse, Miss Kidd, and remembered cutting up beautiful Worth dresses sent as cast-offs from France, combining a sleeve here with a flounce there to achieve something wearable for her.” (120)
- A soldier in a German cavalry regiment, Paul Metternich (Tatiana’s husband) ended up stationed on the eastern front. At the palace of Pavlovsk during the siege of Leningrad, he found a family photo album and brought it back to Tatiana’s parents to help identify who it might belong to. “They decided it must have belonged to one of Grand Duke Constantine’s murdered sons, Igor, who had been a close friend of theirs. He had died with the Empress’s sister and many other members of his family in 1918, thrown down a disused mine shaft in Alapaievsk in Siberia. They later managed to send it on to Paris to his brother, Prince Gabriel.” (179)
Should You Read It?
Absolutely - I highly recommend this book. If you have any interest in royal tidbits, aristocratic history, or European social history prior to and during World War II, this book has something for you.
When I looked up used copies to post this review, they were all prohibitively expensive - $65+. If you can’t get it from a local library, ask about an inter-library loan. If that doesn’t work, keep an eye on the usual used book sources (Amazon marketplace, Alibris, Abe Books). I paid $25 for my copy, so another cheap copy may pop up.
Author: Annette Borchardt-Wenzel
Available at: Amazon
This book is a good introduction to a few ladies you probably know very little (or nothing) about. That’s both its purpose and its charm. The author herself says that it’s meant to whet your appetite and encourage you to dig further into the life of whichever woman sparks your interest.
Here’s who we’re talking about:
- Caroline Louise (born a princess of Hesse-Darmstadt). Her fiancé, Margrave Karl Friedrich of Baden-Durlach, dragged his feet when it came to marrying her. Then when he married her, he dragged his feet in acting like he was married. But once he did, he fell for her – and her intelligence. She was his sounding board for the rest of her life. They both believed in living within their means, and Caroline Louise invited men of letters, the arts, and science to Karlsruhe. She corresponded with Voltaire. As a result, the city’s prestige increased during their reign. Also under their reign, Karl Friedrich inherited the Margravate of Baden-Baden to add to his Baden-Durlach. She died on a visit to Paris at age 59 in 1783.
- Amalie Friederike (born a princess of Hesse-Darmstadt). When her mom died, she made Amalie promise to marry Karl Ludwig, the heir to Baden and the son of Caroline Louise. She obeyed and they married in 1774. She had a tense relationship with her mother-in-law, whom she felt nitpicked her and harassed her. She bided her time, waiting for the day when she’d be Margravine. But that day didn’t come. Her husband died before his father, and she focused on building Baden’s relationships through the marriages of her six daughters.
- Louise Caroline von Hochberg (born Geyer von Geyersburg). At the age of 19, lady-in-waiting Louise was recruited by Amalie to become a morganatic wife and companion for her aging father-in-law (the widower of Caroline Louise, above). Louise accepted. But over time, as she and Karl Friedrich had kids, she grew ambitious for them. He got her a title (countess), but hesitated when it came to adding their kids to the line of succession. But when Karl Friedrich’s only son died, leaving one grandson as the only legitimate male heir, he changed his tune. She begged Napoleon to enforce the right of her sons to succeed, but he put her off. Finally, in 1806, Karl Friedrich made it official: her sons would succeed if there were no more legitimate male heirs. When Karl Friedrich died in 1811, his grandson Karl asked her to leave Karlsruhe. She came back, and died there in 1820 – never knowing that yes, her son would later inherit the throne.
- Stephanie de Beauharnais (yes, a relative of Josephine’s first husband). Born in Versailles in 1789, Stephanie was the daughter of Claude de Beauharnais, a cousin of Empress Josephine’s first husband. She went to Madame Campan’s Paris school with Josephine’s daughter, Hortense. Napoleon later used her as a bargaining chip to secure Baden’s loyalty, marrying her off to the heir to the throne, Hereditary Prince Karl. The marriage was a disaster at first. No one in Baden wanted an upstart relative of Bonaparte’s, and Stephanie – now an imperial highness after being adopted by Napoleon – thought Karl needed to work harder to win her affection. Eventually, after Napoleon’s fall, Stephanie and Karl found more common ground and their relationship deepened. Two of their daughters survived, but both of their sons died in infancy, leaving Karl’s brother as the last legitimate heir to the throne.
- Sophie (born a princess of Sweden). Sophie’s mother was one of Amalie’s daughters. When it became obvious that the legitimate line of Baden’s heirs would die out and Hochberg’s sons would inherit, someone – Tsarina Elizaveta, Sophie’s aunt – had the genius idea to marry Sophie to Leopold von Baden, Louise von Hochberg’s son. At first, the marriage was blissfully happy. But the Caspar Hauser scandal rocked Baden, changing them forever. The rumor was that one of Stephanie de Beauharnais’s children hadn’t died young after all – he’d been swapped for a dead or dying baby, spirited away to a prison from which he escaped as a young man, with no clue who he really was. When Hauser was murdered in 1833, rumor also had it that Sophie had arranged it, desperate for her husband to keep his throne and her children to inherit it. That suspicion destroyed Leopold and Sophie’s marriage.
- Louise (born a princess of Prussia). The only daughter of Kaiser Wilhelm I, Louise was proud to be Prussian – and this didn’t always go over well in her adopted country of Baden. She married Sophie’s son, Friedrich, and their marriage was a happy one. Louise is a dominant figure in Baden’s history. She was extremely active as an unofficial advisor to Friedrich, as well as in charity work. When she read what Henri Dunant had written about the horrors of the Austro-Italian War of 1859, she took it upon herself to create a group of nurses that would function like a standing army – trained and ready to deploy *before* a war was declared. When the Geneva Convention was signed in 1864, Baden was the first state to sign and join. Two years later, she helped form the first Central Committee of the Red Cross in Baden. Her women’s organization formed the backbone of the Baden Red Cross.
- Hilda (born a princess of Nassau). Hilda married Louise’s son, Friedrich. But because both Hilda and Friedrich were shy, they were happy to let their parents stay in the spotlight. But when Friedrich became Grand Duke in 1907, Louise remained the first lady of the land. Was it because Hilda was too timid to take center stage? Was it because Louise was too used to the spotlight to give it up? It was some of both. Gentle Hilda did what she could behind the scenes to keep Louise happy and boost Friedrich’s confidence. She and Friedrich had no children, which was a major source of heartbreak for her (and disapproval from her mother-in-law).
- In 1772, Amalie and her two sisters (Wilhelmine and Louise) went to Russia. Catherine the Great wanted to choose a bride for her son, Paul. Amalie didn’t get the golden ticket. Paul chose her sister, Wilhelmine.
- Amalie Friederike’s daughter, Louise, married Tsar Alexander I of Russia. It was not a happy marriage, and she avoided discussing politics with him so she was never quite the ambassador and advocate for Baden that her mom had hoped she would be.
- It’s widely believed that Sophie’s youngest child, Cecilie, wasn’t Leopold’s daughter, but the illegitimate daughter of Moritz von Haber, Sophie’s rumored lover. Depending on when Leopold and Sophie stopped sleeping together, It’s also possible that Sophie’s next youngest, Marie, also wasn’t Leopold’s daughter.
- On her first visit to Germany in 1845, Queen Victoria befriended Sophie and Leopold’s daughter, Alexandrine, who had married Duke Ernst II of Saxe-Coburg und Gotha, making her Victoria’s sister-in-law.
- After the revolution of 1848, which left Leopold deeply shaken, he took to drinking frequently, earning the nickname “Champagne Leopold.”
- Always mindful of her husband’s reputation (and lineage), Louise did her best to sweep the Caspar Hauser scandal under the rug. She reportedly searched the Baden archives and moved or hid information she didn’t want tarnishing the royal house’s reputation.
- Hilda was an outdoor girl – she loved to ride, hike, and swim. Swimming was her favorite sport! I don’t know about you, but I never picture Grand Duchesses swimming.
- It’s not footnoted. The author clearly acknowledges this isn’t meant to be a scholarly work, and you can’t fault her for delivering a very readable introduction to these women. Still, if you’re interested in any quotes or tidbits, you have to do the legwork to go find them yourself.
- Because each chapter is strictly chronological, you meet the next Grand duchess of Baden during her predecessor’s chapter. Why is this a problem? Because each chapter tries to look sympathetically at the woman being portrayed (yes, even Louise Caroline von Hochberg). That means that if a woman didn’t like or understand her successor, your introduction to her is from a woman who’s not seeing her good points. In the next chapter, the author glosses over the narrative of the next woman until we get to the point where her predecessor died. There would be too much overlap otherwise and I totally get that, but it does a disservice to the next subject. Her argument for doing this is that it’s exciting to see the same events viewed through different lenses. YMMV.
- Coverage of each woman varies in length. Because this book is based on already published sources, it’s not breaking new ground. If there’s not much out there on one of these women (Sophie and Hilda), their coverage here is dramatically shorter than the coverage of, say, Louise of Prussia. It’s an inevitable consequence of this being a popular history, which is fine. Just know that going in.
- The style might take some getting used to. True, I read this via AI translation. But there was still a definite literary style, with lots of sentence fragments and internal thoughts of the characters—er, historical figures. Here’s an example: “After all, Karl was only the hereditary prince of an insignificant German country - but Stephanie was an ‘imperial highness,’ the adopted daughter of the most powerful man in Europe. She was an important figure now, even higher in rank than Napoleon’s sisters. Karl had better consider it an honor that she would marry him. He should seek her out, should woo her, prove his adoration to her. But there he was, smiling awkwardly and acting as if he were deaf and dumb. Stephanie wrinkled her pretty nose.”
Should You Read It?
If you read German, yes. It’s entertaining, and I like the way it takes you through the entire history of early modern Baden. You’re not going to get a female-centric survey of Baden anywhere else that I know of.
If you don’t read German – and aren’t already researching one of these women – this is probably more effort than any normal human being should invest.
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