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Ridiculously Rich

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I have met only one White Russian princess. At least, I might have. Anna was in her mid-70s when I walked into her all-night bar in Ostend at the close of a hitchhiking holiday to Switzerland in, I think, 1965. She made an arresting sight. I remember a startlingly pale complexion, the pallor exaggerated by vivid lipstick, dark eyeliner and a navy blue scarf. Her pink-dyed hair was as fine and unruly as candyfloss. There was about her a Miss Havisham air of defiant, dotty decay.

Since the only other customer was an apparently mute blind man, Anna passed the time by recalling for my benefit her turbulent life. Claiming the title of princess, she told of a privileged existence shattered by the 1917 Revolution, flight into exile, the chaos of war and, afterwards, the struggle to build a new life now drawing to its close in reduced circumstances. I was captivated. But was she telling the truth? Maybe not. However, her history was not wildly improbable. Almost any Russian émigré of that age at that time would probably have had an extraordinary tale to tell. As for being a Russian princess, Wikipedia lists over 300 Russian princely families. I like to think she was genuine.

The Russian Revolution spawned a stream of old régime memoirs, many detailing the now familiar but still horrific story of the fall of the Imperial family. Few accounts, however, can be as diverting and candid as that by Prince Felix Youssoupoff. Born into a family richer than the Romanovs, this perfumed peacock lived amidst all the trappings of stupendous wealth. It all ended, of course, in 1917. But Felix, who fled Russia with jewels and two Rembrandts in his luggage, was unapologetically determined to memorialize his gilded past. He also had a parallel story to tell, one by which he was subsequently defined. He murdered Rasputin: or so he said.

The result was Lost Splendour, first published in French in 1952 as Avant l’Exil, 1887–1919. It is a wonderfully self

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I have met only one White Russian princess. At least, I might have. Anna was in her mid-70s when I walked into her all-night bar in Ostend at the close of a hitchhiking holiday to Switzerland in, I think, 1965. She made an arresting sight. I remember a startlingly pale complexion, the pallor exaggerated by vivid lipstick, dark eyeliner and a navy blue scarf. Her pink-dyed hair was as fine and unruly as candyfloss. There was about her a Miss Havisham air of defiant, dotty decay.

Since the only other customer was an apparently mute blind man, Anna passed the time by recalling for my benefit her turbulent life. Claiming the title of princess, she told of a privileged existence shattered by the 1917 Revolution, flight into exile, the chaos of war and, afterwards, the struggle to build a new life now drawing to its close in reduced circumstances. I was captivated. But was she telling the truth? Maybe not. However, her history was not wildly improbable. Almost any Russian émigré of that age at that time would probably have had an extraordinary tale to tell. As for being a Russian princess, Wikipedia lists over 300 Russian princely families. I like to think she was genuine. The Russian Revolution spawned a stream of old régime memoirs, many detailing the now familiar but still horrific story of the fall of the Imperial family. Few accounts, however, can be as diverting and candid as that by Prince Felix Youssoupoff. Born into a family richer than the Romanovs, this perfumed peacock lived amidst all the trappings of stupendous wealth. It all ended, of course, in 1917. But Felix, who fled Russia with jewels and two Rembrandts in his luggage, was unapologetically determined to memorialize his gilded past. He also had a parallel story to tell, one by which he was subsequently defined. He murdered Rasputin: or so he said. The result was Lost Splendour, first published in French in 1952 as Avant l’Exil, 1887–1919. It is a wonderfully self-serving record of an almost wholly unproductive life of enthusiastic indulgence. Felix’s world was so far removed from normal human experience that it seems, says Nicolai Tolstoy in his introduction, ‘almost to belong to a land of faerie’. Born in 1887 to the glamorous Zinaida Youssoupoff and the stern Count Felix Sumarokov-Elston, Felix inherited through his forebears – a collection of murderous Tartar princes and various intimates of Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great – a fortune of such bewildering magnitude it was impossible to gauge its extent. At the time he came into his inheritance the family owned four palaces in St Petersburg and three in Moscow, and at least thirtyseven estates in different parts of Russia, plus countless mines, mills, oilfields, stud farms and factories. By his own admission, Felix was imperfectly equipped to handle this wealth. For the first five years of his life he was dressed as a girl. His mother, having borne three sons, had a yearning for a daughter. This doubtful caprice, which Felix relished, affected him for the rest of his life. Monstrously vain and possessing feline good looks, he found he could attract attention by ostentatious display and a capacity to shock, a talent not always used with discretion. Thus this ‘horrible little beast’ – his own description – spent his youth taking his pleasure where he found it. Egged on by his brother Nicholas, he continued to cross-dress, wearing his mother’s gowns and jewels on night-time excursions to the fleshpots of St Petersburg, once appearing as a female singer at a café-concert and even, while attending the opera in Paris, arousing the interest of Edward VII. Soft-hearted Zinaida, a consummate society hostess but a less than impressive mother, did not have the heart to discipline him. His father branded him a ‘guttersnipe and scoundrel’ more suited to mix with convicts in Siberia than to exchange pleasantries with the Imperial family. There was, however, one constant feature in Felix’s erratic life, the annual family migration to the Youssoupoff estates scattered throughout Russia. ‘One stretched for 125 miles along the Caspian Sea. Some were so far away we never went there at all.’ For longer trips, the family used a private railway coach comprising a vestibule aviary, dining-drawing room, panelled bedrooms, kitchen and servants’ quarters. Felix observes that ‘another coach fitted up in much the same way was stationed at the Russo-German frontier, but we never used it’. In a similar blithe allusion to his wealth, he says elsewhere that ‘it was considered good form to have one’s laundering done in London or Paris’. Generally, winter was spent in the Moika Palace in St Petersburg and a nearby dacha at Tsarskoye Selo, summer at the Archangelskoye Palace outside Moscow and autumn in the Crimea. The labyrinthine basement of the Moika was stacked with enough priceless objets d’art to fill a museum, all forgotten and abandoned to the dust; the Archangelskoye contained a library of 35,000 books and, bizarrely, a working life-sized automaton of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But away from this pampered parade, there is another side to Lost Splendour: a portrayal of Mother Russia a century ago in all her strange, at times almost mystical, variety. Gypsies with ‘copper-coloured skins, ebony hair and blazing eyes’ entertain wealthy guests to nights of dancing and singing filled with ‘frenzied gaiety’; on a moonlit night in a horse-drawn sleigh Felix and his brother see a ghost train pass silently through a forest – a servant crosses himself and whispers, ‘The powers of evil’; a foppish but simple-minded Count spends his hours lighting and blowing out matches without saying a word; a band of beekeepers is composed solely of elderly singing castrati; a Grand Duchess believes that if she is with her doctor, and he is wearing a hat, she becomes invisible. Hardly anyone seems entirely sane. Passions flare with fierce intensity. Felix’s brother is killed by a jealous husband in a duel over a love affair after a clairvoyant predicts his death, reappearing as a ghost with out-stretched arms. A lovelorn suitor rides his horse into the family dining-room and throws a bunch of roses at the feet of the Prince’s mother, outraging her husband Count Felix. Outwardly unbending, the Count is devoted to his wife, presenting her with a birthday present of a mountain in the Crimea, an extreme gift even by Youssoupoff standards. Meanwhile, desperate poverty and inequality brood darkly offstage. Self-centred though he was, Felix was not insensitive to the sufferings of others and was later known for his philanthropy. Disguised as a beggar, he spent a night with the homeless in St Petersburg and was horrified by the half-naked ‘dregs of humanity’ as they drank, quarrelled, fought and openly copulated. ‘How in our times could a government allow human beings to be reduced to such abject misery?’ he asks. In 1909, aged 21, the errant Prince left for Oxford University where for the next four years he intermittently studied the fine arts in between riding to hounds and smoking dope. The rigours of student life were alleviated by the attentions of a Russian chef, a French chauffeur and an English valet. Inevitably, Felix was soon seduced by the pleasures of London where he took rooms in Curzon Street, mingled with the beau monde and startled onlookers by strolling through the streets with a pet cow, Felicita, which he had bought on a whim in Jersey. Anna Pavlova, in town with Nijinsky for a season at Covent Garden and soon to become a friend, told him: ‘You have God in one eye and the devil in another.’ But the real devil in this engaging memoir is Grigori Rasputin. The story of the lecherous priest who held malign sway over the weak-willed Tsar and Tsarina, partly through his inexplicable ability to ease the symptoms of their son Alexei’s haemophilia, is well known. Felix first met Rasputin in 1909. He was unimpressed.

He looked like a lascivious, malicious satyr. I was particularly struck by the revolting expression in his eyes which were very small, set close together and so deep-sunk in their sockets that at a distance they were invisible. There was something base in his unctuous countenance; something wicked, crafty and sensual.

By 1916, when Russia was reeling under the German assault, Rasputin had become a scapegoat for the nation’s ills. Felix believed that only his assassination could save the country. ‘Who will carry out such a deed when there are no decisive men left in Russia?’ he was asked. ‘One of them stands before you at this very minute,’ he replied On the night of 29 December, Felix invited Rasputin to a soundproof basement flat in the Moika Palace with the promise of an introduction to his wife, the Tsar’s niece Irina. By his account, he fed the sinister savant enough cyanide-laced cakes and Madeira to fell several men before resorting to shooting him in the chest. Rasputin still stubbornly refused to die, escaping to an outside courtyard. There he was finally dispatched with further shots and his corpse thrown by fellow-conspirators into an ice hole in the Neva. No one could accuse Felix of being a great literary stylist. Much of Lost Splendour is loosely structured, seemingly written on impulse as recollections pile up in disorderly heaps. But his account of one of the most notorious murders in modern history flows compellingly, albeit in decidedly purple prose. How can we fail to be drawn in as the fatally wounded beast stares at the Prince with ‘an expression of diabolical hatred’, foams at the mouth and clasps him in a vice-like grip – ‘it was the reincarnation of Satan himself who held me in his clutches’? How much of this account is true? The detail is so melodramatic as to invite suspicion and some facts do not add up. While the Prince undoubtedly lured Rasputin to his death, no trace of cyanide was subsequently found in the priest’s body. Other evidence points to a fellow-plotter, Grand Duke Dmitri, who never revealed what happened that night, pulling the trigger. The full truth will probably never be known. The memoir ends with Felix steaming into exile from the Crimea aboard a British dreadnought that George V had placed at the disposal of the remaining Romanovs. Thereafter, he and Irina were cushioned in exile in Paris by the proceeds of the sale of the jewels and Rembrandts that the Prince had so judiciously plucked from the Moika, as well as a profitable libel case against MGM in 1932 for a film suggesting that Irina had been Rasputin’s lover. Felix died in 1967 and Irina in 1970. They had been happily married for forty-three years, although the old rogue never entirely quelled suspicions that he was gay. ‘I have often been accused of disliking women,’ he says. ‘Nothing is further from the truth. I like them when they are nice.’ It is a typically opaque statement from a man whose memoir contains its own elusive mysteries. What a tale he had to tell.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 55 © Patrick Welland 2017


About the contributor

Patrick Welland, a retired journalist and now a freelance writer, still mourns the lost splendour of Fleet Street in the days of hot metal, the oddness of which the Prince might have appreciated on one of his earthier excursions.

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