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A story of incest, revolution, robbery, and infidelity, with a guest appearance by the Titanic.
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It’s always to strange to me when one of the most famous jewels in the world is surrounded by mystery, half-truths, untruths, and more questions than answers. The Yusupov black pearl necklace qualifies on all counts. It’s so famous it’s infamous (if you speak Three Amigos), but hardly anyone knows a thing about it.
The mystery begins right away – how many pearls are in the damn thing? It’s 30 or 42, depending on which source you believe. If you believe specificity indicates accuracy, then Cartier by Hans Nadelhoffer is your go-to source. According to Nadelhoffer, the Yusupov black pearl necklace contains 30 black pearls weighing 937.84 grains (334).
Sounds legit, right? I mean, who makes up the weight of pearls to two decimal points?
Not jewelry expert Nadelhoffer, that’s for sure.
But immediately after giving us these convincing statistics, Nadelhoffer launches into the necklace’s provenance by saying Catherine the Great had three illegitimate kids with her lover, Grigori Potemkin, known as the “Demoiselles d’Engelgardt” (334). Um, no. Nadelhoffer might be a jewelry expert, but he’s not a royal history expert. If you don’t believe me, believe Simon Sebag Montefiore, who wrote an extremely well-researched 632-page book about Potemkin. The Demoiselles d’Engelhardt did exist, though…and we’ll get to them in a sec.
So, to recap, the necklace has 30 pearls, per Nadelhoffer.
But if you believe the dozens of newspaper articles published at the time of its sale, the necklace consists of 42 pearls, not 30. Every single article in every single newspaper I found said the necklace had 42 pearls…so which is it?
The answer may lie in this picture from the Yusupov jewel album:
The black pearl necklace pictured has — you guessed it — 30 pearls.
The Saga Begins
THE NECKLACE’S STORY BEGINS with Catherine the Great, its first documented owner. She gave these pearls to her lover (and likely secret husband), Prince Grigori Potemkin.
Potemkin had no kids that we know of. He did, however, have a very special relationship with several of his six nieces. And by “very special relationship,” I mean incest. Yes, this dude had affairs with at least three of his nieces. The upshot for them was inheriting vast quantities of money and jewels when he died.
Here we come to another point of divergence in the sources.
According to Nadelhoffer’s Cartier book, the black pearl necklace went from Potemkin to his niece Alexandra’s husband, Count Branicki. From there it went to Alexandra’s great-granddaughter, Maria Rosa “Bichette” Branicka, who became Princess Radziwill. Bichette then left the pearls to Zinaida Yusupova…but there’s a big problem with that story. Bichette died in 1941. Zinaida died in 1939. Kinda hard to leave a dead person a bunch of pearls.
There’s a much simpler version of the story, which is that the pearls went to Potemkin’s youngest niece, Tatiana—one he probably didn’t have an affair with. This makes a shit-ton more sense because Tatiana married as her second husband Prince Nicholas Yusupov. Occam’s razor, you guys.
Tatiana also ended up with a black pearl called the Azra and a 17-carat pink diamond named the Ram’s Head. Not a bad haul, especially considering she didn’t have to sleep with her uncle to get them.
So how does that get us to the guy who first sold the black pearl necklace, Prince Felix Yusupov? Hold onto your hats as we go through a whirlwind of people who use the same names over and over again. I wasn’t consulted—don’t blame me.
TATIANA’S ONLY SON BORIS had an only son Nicholas, who married another Tatiana. This one, Tatiana de Ribeaupierre, was painted by Winterhalter (wearing a gorgeous tiara, BTWs).
Tatiana and Nicholas had one surviving child, a daughter named Zinaida. She inherited the black pearl necklace…and a fortune so large it was beyond counting. You think I’m joking, but I’m not. According to a cousin, Serge Obolensky, the Yusupovs didn’t even know how much property they had. He also said it would have taken two months to make the rounds between the properties that they did know about. Nice work if you can get it, right?
Zinaida had the world on a string—she was the richest heiress in Russia and drop-dead gorgeous. Just look at that photo. Some historical figures I just can’t imagine in modern times. Others seem like they’d fit right in, and Zinaida is one of those. And does anyone else think she looks a little like Emily Blunt?
With a face like that, Zinaida could have married anyone. Empress Maria Feodorovna tried to set her up with Alexander of Battenberg, the Prince of Bulgaria. At least two Romanov grand dukes and two Obolensky princes had the hots for her. Instead, she fell for an army officer, frustrating the hell out of her family. She and her officer, Count Felix Sumarokov-Elston, didn’t seem to have much in common. Zinaida was warm-hearted and intellectual—she loved music, art, and ballet. Felix…didn’t. He was handsome and charming, but was most at home in military company. In this case, opposites attracted.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I meet people who are rich and beautiful and perfect and happy, I want to hate them for it. It’s a personal failing, I know. But I don’t feel this way about Zinaida—quite the opposite, in fact.
By all accounts, she was sweet and sincere, and having all the money in the world never changed this. She gave millions to charity, and built schools, hospitals, houses, and a theater for the servants who lived on her country estate, Arkhangelskoye. According to her son Felix, she raised her kids with one simple edict: “The more you have, the more you owe to others.”
As for the black pearl necklace, it doesn’t look like she wore it often. Her son Felix later wrote that she didn’t like wearing jewels much at all. In his memoir, however, he did say that his mom wore black pearls to host a dinner at their palace in honor of Li-Hung-Chang, a Chinese statesman.
Zinaida and her husband had three sons, by which time she was really ready for someone else with two X chromosomes. When she got pregnant a fourth time, she bought a layette for a girl. But the power of positive thinking didn’t help. That baby was yet another boy, Felix. Later, Felix would write in his memoir that she dressed him like a girl until he was five. That was common practice in aristocratic circles, though. Don’t let Felix fool you into thinking this influenced his later—shall we say—proclivities.
The Yusupov Curse
YOU MAY HAVE NOTICED that up until the generation where Zinaida had four sons, the Yusupovs who inherited the pearl necklace tended to be only children. There’s a good reason for that—the Yusupov curse.
Yusupov family lore traces their origins back to a descendant of Mohammed’s nephew, the Prophet Ali. After centuries of loyalty to the Golden Horde, they became khans in their own right in the Crimea. Then, a Yusupov ancestor switched sides and allied himself with the grand dukes of Muscovy instead. Several generations later, Khan Abdul-Murza Yusuf made that switch official by converting from Islam to Orthodoxy. He took the name Dmitri, and Tsar Feodor gave him the title of Prince Yusupov.
But according to family lore, the Prophet Ali (or a Muslim sorceress working on his behalf) was really ticked off about that conversion. Ticked off enough to lay a curse on the family that no more than one male heir per generation would live past age 26. Seems to me like a better curse would have been for no male heirs to live at all, but I’ve never cursed anyone, so maybe the goal is annoyance and grief rather than extermination.
Here’s how the curse shakes down from where we picked up the story:
- Tatiana Vassilievna: 2 sons, one died in infancy. Sole heir: Boris Nikolaevich
- Boris Nikolaevich: One son. Sole heir: Nikolai Borisovich
- Nikolai Borisovich: One son and 2 daughters; son died in infancy, one daughter died at age 19. Sole heiress: Zinaida Nikolaevna
- Zinaida Nikolaevna: 4 sons, 2 died in infancy. You can see the whole family in the photo below. From L to R: Felix, Nikolai, Felix Sr., Zinaida
“Yeah, but Zinaida still had two sons left.”
Yes, yes she did.
Until her elder son, Nikolai, fell in love with an engaged woman, followed her on her honeymoon, fought a duel with her husband, and was killed instantly with one shot to the heart. He was 25, almost 26.
The curse had struck again.
That duel changed Zinaida forever. It broke her heart so completely that she withdrew from society and never went to the ballet or theater again.
That brings us to her sole surviving son, Felix.
PRINCE FELIX YUSUPOV IS famous for one thing and one thing only: he’s the guy who killed Rasputin. Strictly speaking, however, that’s not true. He’s the guy who fired the first shot at Rasputin. A co-conspirator, Purishkevich, fired a few more shots that were the proverbial nail in the coffin and the icy waters of the Neva finished the job. As for Felix, let’s just say he’s the guy who helped kill Rasputin.
Rasputin’s murder is like the entire game of Clue in a single story—was he killed with poison in the basement, a bludgeon in the stairway, or a revolver in the courtyard? It’s a rabbit hole that will steal as much time as you give it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Also, if you go to the Moika Palace in St. Petersburg today, you can see a creepy recreation of the murder scene with wax figures. That link takes you to a YouTube video, straight to the part with the freaky wax figures.
Anyhoo, before he became a murderer, Felix became a husband. In 1914, he married a very beautiful and very important girl—Princess Irina Alexandrovna, the only niece of Tsar Nicholas II. This surprised a lot of people because (a) Felix was bisexual, and (b) he and Irina barely knew each other. According to Felix, he told Irina everything about his checkered past, including numerous transvestite adventures in three countries. As he wrote in his autobiography Lost Splendor, “Far from being perturbed by what I had told her, she showed great tolerance and comprehension.”
At the wedding, Irina wore a Cartier tiara made of rock crystal and diamonds, a present from Zinaida. Among her other wedding gifts were 150 jewels, including 12 tiaras and 24 necklaces (King, 112). After a honeymoon in Europe, Egypt, and Jerusalem, Felix and Irina settled down to a life of wealth and privilege and lived happily ever after.
That’s not what happened at all.
The Most Expensive Game of Hide and Seek, Like, Ever
IN MARCH OF 1917, when the Russian Revolution broke out, Felix was far from the center of the action in Petrograd (St. Petersburg’s patriotic new wartime name). As a consequence of the Rasputin murder, he’d been exiled to a Yusupov estate in central Russia.
But when he got the news about chaos in the capital, Felix knew shit was about to hit the fan. And when it did, life would be a whole lot easier with suitcases full of cash money, y’all. So he and Irina went back to the Moika Palace in Petrograd.
He hid some of the family’s jewels and other precious objects in five secret rooms in the basement. Then he smuggled two Rembrandts, a bunch of diamonds, and several strings of pearls down to Crimea, where his parents and many Romanovs had fled.
He went back several times to hide more treasure in both the Moika Palace and the family’s Moscow home, which had once belonged to Ivan the Terrible. There, Felix built a fake wall under a staircase, blocking off a cloakroom. That’s where Soviet officials later found Irina’s rock crystal and diamond Cartier tiara…along with 12 of her other tiaras.
The black pearl necklace was one of the items Felix managed to smuggle out of Petrograd. He also brought a pair of enormous diamond earrings that had once belonged to Marie Antoinette, the Pelegrina pearl, and the Azra pearl, among others.
There, he and his family waited anxiously for events to settle down. They hoped the Bolshevik revolution was just a blip and the Romanovs would soon be restored to the throne. They weren’t, the Bolsheviks closed in on them, and they had to bail with Irina’s grandma, Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, on a British dreadnought on April 11, 1919. They would never return or see any of their 47,000 hidden paintings, jewels, treasures, and trinkets again (King, 203).
When the HMS Marlborough docked in Malta, Felix and Irina left their only child, Bébé, with his parents. They had no idea where they were going to settle or what they’d do for money. Until they knew, it seemed best to leave their daughter with her doting grandparents. Zinaida and Felix Sr. went to Rome, where they proceeded to spoil Bébé rotten, by most accounts.
Grandparents—you gotta love ‘em.
Felix and Irina made their way to Paris, then London, then Paris again. They kept Zinaida’s black pearl necklace with them.
But it didn’t take long before the entire family was running low on cash. Zinaida asked Felix to sell the black pearl necklace. He asked around but didn’t find any takers, whether due to the asking price or the sinister reputation of black pearls I don’t know.
But by 1921, Felix had money troubles of his own.
Short on cash, he’d made a deal with the American art collector Joe Widener. Remember that last name – it’s going to come up in the story again.
Felix entrusted (read: pawned) his two Rembrandts to Widener for £100,000, with the stipulation that he had until January 1, 1924 to buy them back (Dobson, 132). But before Widener gave Felix the hundred grand, he changed the terms of the deal. Now, Widener said, if Felix did buy the pictures back, he had to keep them for ten years before selling them. Felix was like WTF, dude, we had a contract. Widener ignored him, probably because he had possession of the paintings and possession is 9/10 of the law.
Felix had no choice but to cling to the tenth of the law that possession, by definition, was not. In November of 1923, he and Irina hopped a ship and sailed to New York, hoping to sell more jewels and sort out the mess with the Rembrandts.
American Immigration vs. A Dude Named Felix
THEN, AS NOW, IMMIGRATION was a hot-button issue. Ye Olde La Migra paid close attention to foreigners coming into America and decided to turn Felix away. Why? Thanks to the international press coverage of Rasputin’s last night on earth, Felix was a documented assassin.
“I think there’s been a misunderstanding,” Felix said. “An assassin kills many people. I only killed one. Besides, if you ask people in Russia, I did them a solid. No one liked that Rasputin guy anyway. We cool?”
La Migra popped open Felix’s suitcase full of jewels and art objects. “Yeah,” they said, swiping the suitcase. “We cool.”
“FUCK,” said Felix.
The black pearls were in the confiscated suitcase.
Long story short, Felix eventually paid $12,000 in duty fees to get the black pearls back. According to a New York Times report and Serge Obolensky, customs charged the duty because the pearls were unstrung. Had they been left strung in a necklace, he might have been able to declare it as an antique without paying a dime. The devil’s in the details, as they say.
You might notice that two of our sources, King and Nadelhoffer, say Felix brought the black pearl necklace into the U.S. to sell in 1922, not 1923. This can’t be right. The U.S. papers had a field day with his customs battle over the pearls, and that coverage clearly dates the event to November and December of 1923.
Land of Confusion
As a side note, the customs incident is probably where the fallacy of the forty-two pearl necklace came from. According to the Times, Felix brought forty-two unstrung black pearls into the U.S. But according to Nadelhoffer, we know only thirty of those were from Catherine’s necklace. What gives?
Twelve pearls aren’t really enough to make a full necklace, so these extras may have been loose pearls or part of another jewel that was dismantled or unstrung prior to being sold. There’s a strange (and possibly apocryphal) story from the year 1919 about a diamond theft in the Yusupov London home; Felix’s friend Serge Obolensky says a string of black pearls was also stolen. If nothing else, this story supports the theory that the Yusupovs had more black pearls on hand than the ones in Zinaida’s famous necklace.
Cartier to the Rescue
IN ADDITION TO INADVERTENTLY creating a shitload of confusion about the number of pearls in Catherine the Great’s necklace, U.S. customs kept the diamonds Felix had intended to sell. They did this for two reasons: (1) they couldn’t figure out how much duty to assess on them, and (2) a rumor went around that Felix had absconded with some of the Russian crown jewels (untrue), and customs didn’t want him selling stolen goods in the U.S.
Finally, customs agents offered Felix a deal. They’d let the diamonds go…if he paid 80% of their value to redeem them (Dobson, 138). Felix didn’t have that kind of money. Friends tried to help him sell the black pearls and other trinkets he’d brought with him, but there were no takers—once again, maybe because black pearls were considered unlucky, or maybe because of that unfortunate rumor that they belonged to the Russian state. No one wanted to buy stolen goods only to have to return them if the law ever caught up with Felix.
In the meantime, expensive New York living burned through their savings, and Felix and Irina economized where they could. According to author Christopher Dobson, by Christmas of 1923, Irina would go out at night wearing the black pearl necklace, then come home and wash their undies in the bathtub (138).
To make things worse, the market was already flooded with jewels.
Most were being sold by royals and nobles fleeing the wreckage of three defunct dynasties: the Romanovs, the Habsburgs, and the Hohenzollerns. The Soviets began selling off confiscated jewels as early as 1919.
Poor Felix was a day late and a dollar short. Offloading museum-quality jewels in 1923 was like trying to sell a suburban tract home in 2009—way too much supply, not enough demand.
At the end of his rope, Felix went to the one person he should have gone to in the first place: Pierre Cartier.
The Yusupov family had a long-standing relationship with the Cartier brand—after all, Zinaida had been one of their best customers. Cartier agreed to give Felix a $75,000 advance and took the black pearl necklace (Nadelhoffer, 124).
Not long afterward, Cartier’s hunch about the black pearls paid off. He sold the necklace for $400,000, two-thirds of which went back to Felix (King, 224).
So who bought the beautiful and historic but possibly unlucky necklace?
An American, Mrs. Peter Goelet Gerry. Later reports would cite both her husband and her mother as the buyer, but they’re not right. She bought the pearls for herself.
Mrs. Goelet Gerry had a name.
She was born Mathilde Townsend, an only child who stood to inherit a shitload of money from her grandfather’s railroad fortune. Her mom, Mary Scott Townsend, was one of Cartier’s best American clients. They lived in a luxurious new mansion in Washington, D.C. That house still exists on Embassy Row at 2121 Massachusetts Avenue NW.
Mathilde and her mom were at the very top of Washington society—and poised to take on even more. Mary was perfectly at home hobnobbing with European nobility. She routinely invited the German ambassador, Count von Bernstorff, to the Townsend mansion so he had a place to flirt with her friend Cissy Paterson, whose family owned the Chicago Tribune. Why not aim for someone even more important for Mathilde?
A Good Man Is Hard to Find
AT THE TURN OF the twentieth century, Mathilde’s name appeared in print beside many a titled suitor. It wasn’t hard to see why. She was tall and thin, with thick blonde hair and violet-blue eyes. Her mom’s reported inheritance of $15,000,000 didn’t hurt, either (Welles, 84).
As early as 1904, there was a rumor she was engaged to the Duke of Alba, Empress Eugénie’s great-nephew.
Thanks to this Spanish connection, she and her mom scored an invite to Madrid for the royal wedding. In spring of 1906, King Alfonso XIII of Spain married Princess Victoria Eugenie (Ena) of Battenberg. There, the expat painter John Singer Sargent first saw Mathilde. He painted this gorgeous portrait of her later that year:
Gossip columns assumed Mathilde’s Spanish engagement was a done deal until 1907, when the romance hit a snag. According to a report in the New York Times, Alba needed $200,000 a year to maintain his lifestyle and his “greatly incumbered estates.” But the interest on Mathilde’s mom’s inheritance only paid $250,000 a year. That meant both she and Mathilde would have only had $50,000 a year between them if she’d married Alba.
Cyndi Lauper said it best, folks – money changes everything.
For what it’s worth, though, one of Mathilde’s best friends said that Alba was truly in love with her and had already proposed. It was Mathilde who had refused Alba because of her long-standing vow to marry no one but an American.
But Alba wasn’t Mathilde’s only suitor with a royal pedigree. In 1906, it was also rumored that she was engaged to Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of the U.S. Secretary of the Navy.
If you’re not sure how the hell someone named Bonaparte ended up working for the U.S. government, here’s a quick recap. On Christmas Eve, 1803, Jérôme Bonaparte—Napoleon’s youngest brother—secretly married a beautiful Baltimore belle, Elizabeth Patterson. When Napoleon found out, he was, to put it mildly, mad as fuck. He forced Jérôme to abandon his now-pregnant wife and marry a German princess. Betsy gave birth to their son in London, but was never able to convince Jérôme or Napoleon to acknowledge her son as a full member of the Bonaparte family.
Mathilde’s suitor was that boy’s grandson, Betsy and Jérôme’s great-grandson. And from the looks of this picture, dude was bae all day. Look at that cheeky little smile.
According to multiple newspaper reports, both Alba and Bonaparte had been after Mathilde for years. You have to wonder if the stress got to her. That’s what the New York Times implied in 1908 when they said she spent eight hours a day racing her new car to burn the nervous energy generated by the society season. A chauffeur drove her out to the speedway in Baltimore, then she took over and floored it as fast as “the law allows” for a whopping eight hours a day.
I wish I could have seen that. I think it would have been kind of awesome.
What’s Love Got to Do with It?
WITH NO TRUE LOVE on the horizon, Mathilde did what most Edwardian society maidens did—she went to parties, rode horses, sailed in Bar Harbor, dabbled in charity work, and had her portrait painted.
One by one, Mathilde’s girlfriends all got married. Like Bridget Jones, she must have endured her fair share of smug married couples. In 1910, she turned 25—not old, but no longer young by the standards of the time. It was time to figure out what the future held, whether Mathilde herself was ready or not.
Only one man knew the truth about Mathilde’s feelings for each of her suitors. Archibald “Archie” Butt was one of her best friends, an aide to President Roosevelt who moved in the same elite social circles.
Archie was also in love with her.
He frequently sat next to her at dinner parties, danced with her at balls, and watched with bated breath as one suitor after another tried to win her hand. He breathed a sigh of relief as she shot each of them down. He hoped it was only a matter of time before the girl next door realized her one true love was the man who’d been standing beside her the entire time.
Once, he even tried to cockblock the competition. At a party, he heard that Lady Paget wanted to marry her son to either Mathilde (rich AF) or Nancy Leeds (richer than rich AF). “Oh hell no,” Archie said. He dropped this lovely little tidbit straight into Mathilde’s ears, knowing it would piss her off to no end. Then he sat back and smiled as Mathilde cold-shouldered Lord Paget, sending the unmistakable message that she was not available for his wife’s matchmaking schemes.
All was well in Archie’s world once more.
Then, on April 8, 1910, he sat next to Mathilde at a dinner party. The conversation revolved around Mathilde’s suitors, as usual. She told Archie she was never going to marry her mom’s choice, the Duke of Alba. “I like old Jimmy, but she [Mom] would find him an expensive luxury,” Mathilde said (Butt, 325).
Then, she said something that changed Archie’s life forever. Instead of Alba, she said, she was probably going to marry her latest suitor, Peter Goelet Gerry.
The smile fell from Archie’s face.
He was devastated, but he had to control his emotions. They were at a dinner party, for heaven’s sake.
Mathilde tried to explain: “Archie, I have got to marry some day, and Peter seems to be the most suitable man I have ever met” (Butt, 325).
But Archie knew “suitable” isn’t how a girl in love describes her fiancé. The next morning, he wrote, “I went through the night like one in a dream and woke this morning as if someone had died in the night” (Butt, 325).
When news of the engagement broke, Mathilde’s mom cried on Archie’s shoulder. He secretly hoped she’d get sick of Peter and leave him. “…she is the only woman who has ever dominated my mind and heart,” he wrote. “I cannot bring myself to believe that she loves him” (Butt, 325).
Apparently, he also couldn’t bring himself to tell Mathilde how he felt about her.
So on May 26, 1910, Mathilde married Peter Goelet Gerry in a couture dress from Paris that cost $15,000. Ordered at the last minute by transatlantic cable, it was sewn in 48 hours and shipped just in time.
She had announced the engagement in late April—mere weeks before the wedding. The ceremony was held in the Townsend mansion, in front of guests that included President and Mrs. Taft.
Someone, it seems, was in a hurry to say “I do.” As if given more time, she might have changed her mind.
Cue Celine Dion in 5, 4, 3…
WHEN ARCHIE RAN INTO Mathilde after the wedding, he wrote that she was “looking lovelier than ever” (Butt vol 2, 446). Peter apparently thought the same thing. He wrote, “A more beautiful woman doesn’t exist in America” (Welles, 85).
Mathilde’s seeming happiness sent Archie into a spiral of misery. He threw himself into work, but the presidential election cycle was grueling, mentally and physically. By 1912, Archie needed a vacation. “Peace out, fools,” he said, deciding to head to Europe for some much-needed R&R.
On the way out, a reporter asked him about his rumored engagement. Archie was forced to admit it wasn’t true. The New York Times printed his embarrassing confession: “This bachelorhood is a miserable existence,” he said. “I…will refuse no reasonable offer to enter the matrimonial field… if this leap year gets away before I get a wife I shall feel very much discouraged.”
Six weeks later, rested and relaxed, Archie boarded the ship that would bring him home from Europe: the spiffy new HMS Titanic.
By all accounts, when the ship struck an iceberg, Archie never tried to escape. Some survivors said they saw him standing next to John Jacob Astor on the deck as the ship went down.
In the picture below, taken on April 17, 1912, newsboys are selling papers with the headline: “Mission of Two United States Cruisers Fails: No News of Maj. Butt or Clarence Moore.” That was five days after the sinking on April 12. Archie’s body was never recovered.
Today, there’s a lively debate about whether Archie was secretly gay. If so, it’s possible that his love for Mathilde was a type of societally acceptable role play. That may help explain why he didn’t try to stop her marrying Peter. It’s a rabbit hole, if you’re interested.
Your Cheatin’ Heart
JUST AS ARCHIE HAD suspected, Peter wasn’t the right man for Mathilde. On paper, he did everything right—he adored her, agreed with her, and let her do anything she want. But all it ended up doing was boring Mathilde to death.
Then, at a New Year’s dinner party on January 10, 1921, she met Benjamin Sumner Welles.
Nothing would ever be the same for either of them.
Welles was a career diplomat eight years younger than Mathilde. He fell for her dignity, her sense of ease, her self-confidence, and her sociability. She fell for the dark intensity that came out in everything he did, from his fastidious fashion sense to his political ambition. Where Peter was meek and mild, Sumner was confident and proud. It was a contrast she just couldn’t resist.
But Welles was a bit of a drama queen. He was married, too, and had cheated on his wife repeatedly with women and, according to his son’s biography of him, men.
Mathilde’s affair with Sumner Welles was an open secret in Washington and New York. Society matrons called Mathilde a homewrecker, and urged Sumner to go back to his wife and kids. It reminds me of that time back in the day, when Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe hooked up and she left Dennis Quaid for him. The tabloids lost their shit over it, and said the affair was too hot not to burn out.
In this case, however, the flame of passion stubbornly refused to burn out.
Sumner borrowed $100,000 from his wife’s trust fund to buy jewelry for Mathilde. Passion or not, that’s a dick move. Clearly, his wife thought so too—she filed for divorce in the fall of 1923.
But even then, Mathilde wasn’t sure whether she should leave Peter. She didn’t want to hurt him, but she didn’t want to be with him, either. In Brokeback parlance, she just couldn’t quit Sumner Welles.
Then, through the society grapevine, Mathilde heard that her lover might be sent to Central America for six months. The only thing harder than being with Sumner was being without Sumner. The thought sent her into a tailspin that caused the mother of all impulse buys.
Me, I might impulse-buy a bag of M&Ms at the grocery store. Mathilde impulse-bought the most valuable string of black pearls in the world.
IN JANUARY OF 1924, it’s said Mathilde saw the Yusupov black pearl necklace in Cartier’s New York store, where it had been on display for about a week. The price tag? A cool $400,000 (about $5.8 million today).
“I’ll take it,” she said.
Afterward, she wrote to Sumner. “I shall be poor for years but they are so becoming…You will not like them. I adore them…huge with lights of pink, mauve and gray. I suppose I was crazy but I just get insane days” (Welles, 100).
Mathilde was right about Sumner not liking them. According to an anecdote in the Alexander Palace Time Machine forum, Welles said they looked like “decayed oysters.”
Mathilde didn’t care. She wore them to a social function on January 23, right after she bought them. A guest at a dinner party saw them, and said they looked like black grapes. “You mean sour grapes,” said Mathilde.
Another woman who saw them said they were “worth the money, no matter how much it was” (Dayton Daily News, 3 Feb 1924).
Here she is, wearing what could be the Yusupov pearl necklace. I count about 14 pearls visible in the photo, which means the full necklace is 28-30 pearls, depending on the size of the pearls behind her neck. What do you think? Is this our necklace?
Let’s compare that to the only picture I can find of Zinaida wearing a black pearl necklace. I count roughly 19 visible pearls:
From the photos, it’s clear that Mathilde’s necklace is longer than Zinaida’s…but since Felix brought the black pearls into the U.S. unstrung, Cartier would have had them restrung to sell them. Did they add tiny knots or other spacers? Maybe an ornate clasp that lengthened the necklace? It’s hard to tell from the photo above. Or maybe that necklace just isn’t the Yusupov pearl necklace.
For the moment, the mystery remains unsolved…but now you have a mental picture of what we’re talking about. And after that last picture of Zinaida, I’m full-on girl-crushing.
The Curse Strikes Back
TEN MONTHS LATER, MATHILDE filed for divorce from Peter. Gossip columnists blamed it all on the black pearls. A headline in a Virginia paper actually said, “Black Pearls Cause Gerry’s Marital Wreck.” The pearls were said to have a “sinister influence” that accounted for the shocking divorce proceedings (The Bee, Danville, VA, 10 Nov 1924). Another gossip column replaced the word “sinister” with “evil occult” (Buffalo Courier, 14 Dec 1924).
Fake news? Yeah, I think that’s a safe bet. But Mathilde wasn’t out of the woods yet.
Her divorce was finalized early in 1925. She and Sumner married on June 27. Here they are on their honeymoon in Atlantic City:
They look happy, but almost right away, bad luck struck.
Because of their long and tawdry affair, Mathilde’s new husband lost his job. President Calvin Coolidge, a personal friend of Mathilde’s first husband, went all Donald Trump on her second husband and fired him.
For the next few years, the couple had no real direction or drive. Sumner had a heart attack, started drinking heavily, and scrambled to find something to occupy his restless energy.
In 1929, they built a 49-room house on a 250-acre estate in Maryland, half an hour outside Washington with a view of the Potomac. Franklin Roosevelt liked to come over and drink mint juleps. My theory? Maybe Mathilde sold the pearls to help finance that house.
Because oh, yes, she did sell them…our story doesn’t end here. But unfortunately, this is where the trail gets pretty sparse and, like a Robert Frost poem, starts to diverge. There are two proposed trajectories from this point forward. Unlike Robert Frost, we’re gonna travel a bit further down both of them.
Provenance Possibility #1
According to a thread in the Alexander Palace Time Machine forum (where people really know their shit), Mathilde sold the pearls to an unnamed woman who died not long after the purchase. Subsequent owners included Mrs. Hamilton Rice (Eleanor Elkins Widener) and Mrs. Boyce Thompson (Gertrude Hickman).
There’s nothing we can do about the unnamed woman, me not being psychic or able to communicate with the dead. So I looked into Eleanor Elkins Widener Hamilton Rice (say that five times fast), and as it turns out, she has a few connections to this story. I didn’t find any other mentions of her owning or wearing the necklace, but it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Here are those interesting connections I mentioned:
- Eleanor’s first husband and son went down on the Titanic, just like Archie Butt. Eleanor was in lifeboat #4 with Mrs. Astor – and one of the three strands of crazy-expensive pearls she’d brought on board (insured for a total of $750,000). After the sinking, she donated $3.5 million to Harvard for the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library in honor of her son.
- Her brother-in-law, Joe Widener, was the art dealer Felix Yusupov turned to when he wanted to pawn his Rembrandts – and who changed the terms of the deal while in possession of the paintings.
But is this the correct chain of ownership?
I can’t be sure.
This information may come from Mathilde’s unpublished autobiography, which is in the archives of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York. Turns out, that manuscript is 2,000+ pages.
I asked them about digitizing it, and I have three options: I can go read it in person, pay $1/page to digitize it, or hire a researcher to dig through it for me. At 2,000+ pages, I can’t afford to guess which pages I’d need without taking a look first. I’m hoping to be able to go out there myself early next year to take a look. I’m dying to know what Mathilde said about the necklace, the Duke of Alba, and the Spanish royal wedding.
For the moment, however, I can’t find any further proof that Eleanor ever owned or wore this necklace.
Which brings us to…
Provenance Possibility #2
According to newspaper reports from the 1930s, Mathilde sold the pearls to Mrs. Boyce Thompson, born Gertrude Hickman. None of these sources mention the unnamed woman or Eleanor Elkins Widener as previous owners. Either the newspaper writers didn’t know, or the previous chain of provenance is wrong and the pearls went straight to Gertrude.
Since Gertrude’s name figures in both possibilities, it seems likely that she did own the pearls at one point.
Based on a handful of newspaper articles, it appears Mathilde still owned the necklace in 1928, four years after she bought it. But even the last report I found is sketchy – it’s from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle: “It is understood that Mrs. Gerry is the owner of the famous Youssoupoff pearls,” the article says.
But understood doesn’t mean true.
The society gossip columnist Cholly Knickerbocker notes on December 11, 1932 that Gertrude “is now the owner…” of the necklace, which makes it sound like the purchase might have been recent (Chicago Tribune). Another Knickerbocker column notes that Gertrude bought the pearls from Mathilde. But can we really base an accurate provenance on a gossip columnist writing under a wacky pseudonym?
The last trace of the pearls I can find is in 1936, when another gossip columnist mentioned them as being in Gertrude’s possession—and that they’ll be inherited by her daughter, Margaret—Mrs. Anthony J. Drexel Biddle Jr.
The trail goes dark from here.
Just so you have a bit of background, Gertrude Hickman was born in Helena, Montana in 1877. Her husband, William Boyce Thompson, has a direct connection to Russia. He was a copper magnate and a director of the New York Federal Reserve Bank. In 1917, he was appointed head of the American Red Cross Mission to Russia. He met with Alexander Kerensky of the new Provisional Government, and gave $1 million of his own money to support efforts to keep Russia in World War I (Foglesong, ch 5).
When he died in 1930, his estate was estimated to be worth between $85,000,000 and $100,000,000 (Evening Star). He’d had more, of course, but the crash of ’29 put a dent in his net worth. Still, $100 million IN 19-FREAKING-30 is no joke. I can’t even comprehend that amount of money now, let alone in the throes of the Great Depression.
If the general thread of the newspaper articles is correct, Gertrude bought the Yusupov black pearl necklace between 1928 and 1932. My guess? It happened after William’s death in 1930, when she presumably inherited a metric buttload of cash. She was also named chair of three of his organizations: a plant research institute in New York, the Magma Arizona Railroad, and the Newmont Mining Corporation.
Gertrude lived until 1950. That leaves 14 years between the last mention of the pearls (1936) and her death. Did she sell them? Did she leave them to her daughter, as Cholly Knickerbocker speculated she would?
I just don’t know. Boo.
Do you have any more information about the Yusupov black pearls? If so, please tell me! Click here to contact me.
What Happened to These People?
IF YOU’RE LIKE ME, you’re always left with questions about what happened to the people in the story.
- Zinaida. She and her husband lived in Rome from 1919 to 1928. She’d inherited a villa in Italy, but she sold it to fund her charitable works for Russian emigres and to pay for the medical treatment her husband needed. When Felix Sr. died in 1928, she moved to Paris to be with Felix and Irina. A few years later, in the early 1930s, she had a stroke. Later, a second stroke paralyzed her and she was barely able to speak. Unable to care for her properly, Felix moved her to a nursing home for Russian exiles in Sèvres, France. She died there on November 24, 1939. She still owned two famous pearls, the Pelegrina and the Azra, when she died.
- Felix & Irina. Their financial worries were somewhat eased in 1934 after they won a lawsuit against MGM. In a movie called Rasputin and the Empress, the character based on Irina was seduced by Rasputin. Since this didn’t happen in real life, MGM had to pay up, to the tune of £25,000. They remained in France for the rest of their lives. Felix died in 1967, and Irina died in 1971.
- Mathilde. Despite a sometimes-rocky marriage, Mathilde and Sumner Welles stayed together for the rest of her life. She died suddenly of peritonitis in 1949 in Lausanne, Switzerland, where she and Sumner had gone so he could be treated for a heart attack he’d had in 1948. He inherited most of her estate, valued at more than $1.4 million, while her jewels were left to friends and relatives including her cousin, Thora Ronalds McElroy.
- The Duke of Alba. He didn’t marry Mathilde, but dude did get around. In 1913, he was named as a respondent when the Duke of Westminster filed for divorce from his wife (I wrote a bit about them in this post on 5 Types of Kokoshnik Tiaras). In 1920, he married a Spanish heiress, Maria del Rosario de Silva. You might be familiar with their famous daughter, Cayetana, the Duchess of Alba—she died in 2014. During the Spanish Civil War, the Communists took over Alba’s palace and murdered his brother. As a result, he teamed up with General Franco, serving as the Spanish ambassador to London. He died in 1953.
- Jerome Napoleon Charles Bonaparte. He married Blanche Pierce Stenbeigh in 1914. They had no kids, making him the last American Bonaparte. He died in 1945, while walking his dog in Central Park in New York. A snippy NY Sun article says he tripped over its leash and broke his neck. Not how you want to go.
Bonus: Archie Butt’s Eggnog Recipe
THIS IS ARCHIE BUTT’S eggnog recipe, described in a letter to his sister Clara on January 2, 1910. Every New Year’s, he hosted a party and served this stuff to anyone brave enough to eat it. Yes, I said eat it. Remember those old soup commercials – “soup so thick it eats like a meal”? That’s what we have here. As he says, it’s “too thick to be drunk.” Before you go eww, he also reported that “the people went wild about it when they ate it” (Butt, 247). Knock yourself out.
- 1 quart of double cream, whipped very stiff
- 1 dozen eggs
- 1 quart of Bourbon whisky
- 1 tbsp. Jamaica rum
- 12 tsp. sugar (1 per egg)
First, beat the egg yolks to a cream. Add a dessert spoon of sugar to each egg, and whip again. Then add whisky and rum slowly. The cream should be whipped until it’s very stiff. Whip the whites of the eggs separately. Mix. It will remain indefinitely without separating, according to Archie.
So who gained ten pounds by eating this concoction?
The Austrian ambassador, Baron Hengelmuller, and his wife. The Dutch minister, James Loudon, and his wife. The Moltkes. Mathilde’s mom, and the Pattens, who “seldom go out to afternoon affairs.” They must have known the hooch was gonna be fantastic.
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Loose Ends: The Yusupov Black Pearl Necklace
- Where is the necklace now?
- When did Mathilde sell it, and to whom? Was it a private transaction, or did she sell it back to Cartier (or another jeweler/broker)?
- Did Eleanor Elkins Widener Hamilton Rice ever own it? How about Gertrude Boyce Thompson?
- If the necklace was sold back to a jeweler, was it broken up? Were the pearls used in any other pieces, like Nina Dyer’s famous triple-strand of black pearls?
- Where is Mathilde’s portrait by François Flameng? Are there any pictures of it?
Sights & Sounds
- Visit the Moika Palace or see it online – it’s a tourist attraction in St. Petersburg: https://yusupov-palace.ru/en
- Check out the gorgeous Vigée Le Brun portrait of Tatiana Engelhardt Yuspova: Tokyo Fuji Art Museum
- Go see the amazing Flameng portrait of Zinaida Yusupova: The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
- Check out the Yusupov Rembrandts at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.: Gentleman, Lady. They also have Mathilde’s Sargent portrait, but it’s not on display – boo.
- See a Faberge music box that Felix and Nikolai Yusupov gave their parents, Zinaida and Felix Sr., for their 25th wedding anniversary: Hillwood Estate, in the Icon Room
- Drool over the diamond earrings owned by Marie Antoinette and the Yusupovs: Smithsonian Museum of Natural History
- See a copy of Mathilde’s Sargent portrait at the Townsend mansion, now the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C.: Mansion tours
- See memorials to Archie Butt at: Arlington National Cemetery and on the Ellipse near the White House
- The Bee (Virginia)
- Boston Globe
- Brooklyn Daily Eagle
- Chicago Tribune
- Dayton Daily News
- Evening Star
- New York Times
- Philadelphia Inquirer
Books & Articles
- A History of Dupont Circle by Stephen A. Hansen (affiliate link)
- America’s Secret War against Bolshevism by David. S. Foglesong (affiliate link)
- Cartier by Hans Nadelhoffer (affiliate link)
- Lost Splendor by Felix Yusupov (read for free on the Alexander Palace Time Machine website)
- Once a Grand Duke by Alexander, Grand Duke of Russia (read for free on Archive.org)
- One Man in His Time by Serge Obolensky (affiliate link)
- Potemkin: Catherine the Great’s Imperial Partner by Simon Sebag Montefiore (affiliate link)
- Prince Felix Yusupov: The Man Who Murdered Rasputin by Christopher Dobson (affiliate link)
- Sumner Welles: FDR’s Global Strategist by Benjamin Welles (affiliate link)
- Taft and Roosevelt: The Intimate Letters of Archie Butt, Vol I and II (affiliate link)
- The Jewels of the Romanovs by Stefano Papi (affiliate link)
- The Man Who Killed Rasputin by Greg King (affiliate link)
- The Story of My Life by Marie, Queen of Roumania (read for free on Archive.org)
- The Welles of Loneliness: Sumner Welles and the Creation of American Foreign Policy, a thesis by Christopher Alexander Parkes (this is a direct download PDF link)
- Alexander Palace Forum: Princess Zenaida Yusupova – discussion and pictures II
- Alexander Palace Forum: Princess Zenaida Yusupova – discussion and pictures
- Alexander Palace Forum: The Youssupov jewelry
- Phillips Exeter Academy: The Boy from Montana
- Encyclopedia.com: Thompson, Gertrude Hickman
- MUSIC, POST AUDIO: “String Quartet no. 2 in D major” by Borodin, performed by the Czech National Symphony Orchestra. Generously made available via Musopen.org.
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