Beverley Nichols, The Sweet and the Twenties
“Humour, surely, is the preserving salt of the novelist; it is an essential quality without which his work turns stale and unpalatable with passage of time.”
Beverley Nichols, The Sweet and the Twenties
See Also: The Art of Folly
“And so first of all I always say before you tell me about your religion, first show it to me in how you treat other people.”
Cory Booker, Pod Save America
Postscript from Nick: It is a coincidence that the surname of the Salem Witch Trial victim in the above image is phonetically identical to the first name of the person quoted. It only dawned on me a few days after the post went live.
“I believe that life is like a circle, that if you live long enough, everything that happens in the beginning connects on through.”
(Little) Gloria Vanderbilt
They say you should be nice to the people you meet on your way to the top, because you will see them again as you tumble back down. Consider the case of everyone's favorite fake Russian prince, Michael Romanoff, proprietor of the legendary Beverly Hills restaurant Romanoff’s, and Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt (whose more famous daughter, also named Gloria, is the recently deceased socialite and jeans designer).
Back in 1924, Prince Michael Romanoff attempted to crash a Newport, Rhode Island ball hosted by Reginald and Gloria Vanderbilt. The Reginald Vanderbilts had spent most of their May/December marriage in Europe hobnobbing with minor royals and genuine Romanovs. As such, Gloria knew enough to quiz the alleged Romanoff exile on his claimed lineage. He became flustered, and when he could not answer her, she ejected him from the party. “The truth of the matter is that you are no more Prince Michael Romanoff than I am—because he does not exist,” proclaimed Gloria, obviously relishing her moment at the top.
Yet, just as surely as ejected guest Michael Romanoff’s fortunes were destined to improve, those of Gloria were fated to decline, and precipitously they did. Reginald died within a year, leaving his widow in significantly reduced circumstances. Though she had a limited income, mostly squeezed from Little Gloria’s trust, it did not prevent her from spending long periods in Europe, frolicking with the hard-core international set.
Gloria imprudently left Little Gloria in the care of the child's unhinged maternal grandmother (Gloria’s mother) and her deceased husband's sister, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (Little Gloria’s aunt). The grandmother, obsessed with having a Vanderbilt heiress granddaughter, decided Gloria was an unfit mother. She conspired to turn Little Gloria against Gloria, and she succeeded brilliantly. Little Gloria began going into such hysterics around her mother that Aunt Gertrude had no choice but to sue for custody.
Ultimately, Gloria lost custody of Little Gloria (now age ten) to Aunt Gertrude in the one of the most sensational and well-publicized court cases of the 1930s. This weakened Gloria’s already tenuous claim on the income from her daughter’s trust. She found herself in the unenviable position of having the fabled Vanderbilt surname without any of the fabled Vanderbilt money. Jane Stanton Hitchcock could have easily been referring to Gloria’s situation when she observed in her novel Social Crimes that being “poor in New York [was] hideously expensive.”
Eventually, Gloria decided upon a resolution pursued by so many who had faced ruin in New York City. She relocated to California. Gloria established a household with her identical twin sister, Thelma, Lady Furness. Decades later, Little Gloria made the observation that her mother and aunt were not just identical twins; they were two extensions of the same person. Indeed, their lives seemed to run parallel. Thelma had made a good match with Lord Furness, a shipping heir, but their marriage was all but over by the time she became the lover of the Duke of Windsor, then styled as the Prince of Wales. Thelma made a fatal error when she introduced her good friend Wallis Simpson to the Prince. When he jilted her for Wallis, it became a personal crisis for Thelma and an abdication crisis for Great Britain. Interestingly, the Duke of Windsor's abdication became one of the few tabloid stories of the 1930s to rival the massive press coverage of the custody battle for Little Gloria.
It was in California that Gloria once again came into contact with erstwhile party crasher Michael Romanoff, but now their fortunes were reversed. His Beverly Hills restaurant was located a mile or so from Gloria and Thelma's house on Maple Drive. The restaurant became a glamorous hotspot. By comparison, Gloria and her sister were living more prosaically, a far cry from their dazzling former lives atop international society.
One summer, Little Gloria, then age sixteen, came to visit. Following a whirlwind romance with Howard Hughes, she married mobster-about-town Pat DiCicco. Big Gloria hosted the reception at her Maple Drive home. One of the guests was none other than Prince Michael Romanoff. Unlike the Vanderbilt soiree he crashed in 1924, this time his credentials went unchallenged. And, it seems he did not even feel obliged to behave himself. At the party, he became involved in a scuffle with Errol Flynn and Prince David Mdivani (another person of dubious royal lineage).
Though Michael Romanoff, lived in a glass house, he was not averse to throwing stones. Consider his reason for banning Elsa Maxwell from his restaurant. “No phonies," explained Romanoff, himself a phony prince.
Following the death of Reginald Vanderbilt, Gloria was briefly engaged to Prince Gottfried of Hohenlohe-Langenburg. Through separate branches, he was a great grandson of both Queen Victoria of Great Britain and Tsar Alexander II of Russia. Yet his father was a German prince, and so, in spite of the British and Russian lineage, Gottfried was German by nationality. The directors of Little Gloria’s trust fund quickly put the kibosh on the engagement. How fortunate they did. When World War II erupted, Little Gloria might have found herself stranded in Germany with a step-father who, if not officially a Nazi himself, fought on the side of the Axis during the war. Instead of Gloria, Prince Gottfried married Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh’s sister Margarita, and it was Queen Elizabeth II and the Windsors, not the Vanderbilts, with awkward skeletons dangling from the family tree. See: The Crown, Season 2, Episode 9.
Double Exposure, A Twin Autobiography. In alternating chapters, Gloria Vanderbilt and her identical twin sister, Lady Thelma Furness, relate their strangely parallel lives—the glamorous debutante years, the seemingly happily-ever-after marriages that were anything but, the sensational tabloid scandals and betrayals, and finally, their ill-conceived business ventures and long declines into obscurity. In the Nick Harvill Libraries store, there is a copy of Double Exposure, A Twin Autobiography for sale that is from the library of Truman Capote. Capote was not a disinterested reader on this subject. He and Little Gloria had been friends for decades before falling out over the 1975 publication of “La Côte Basque.” Double Exposure, A Twin Autobiography is not entirely flattering to Little Gloria, and Truman apparently took this to heart, commenting to his biographer Gerald Clarke, “She [Little Gloria] lied about her mother during the custody trial, and she was terrible to her until shortly before she died.” Caveat: This might have been sour grapes on Capote’s part over Gloria's adverse reaction to “La Côte Basque."
Little Gloria … Happy at Last. Barbara Goldsmith’s six-hundred-page, blockbuster book is not so much a biography as it is the story of the Vanderbilt custody case, the events leading up to it, and its cultural significance. Little Gloria declined to be interviewed and when she later wrote her own book on the custody battle, she refuted some of the conjectures made by Goldsmith—most significantly, that young Gloria turned against her mother out of fear that, like the Lindbergh baby, she would be kidnapped and murdered.
The World of Gloria Vanderbilt. This spectacularly produced coffee-table book is organized scrapbook-style. Its images are what grabs one’s attention, but the text is just as compelling. In it, Gloria recalls the trial, its aftermath, and her early marriage to Pat DiCicco. She confesses that she did not wish to marry him but was desperate to escape her mother who was engaged in a torrid affair. The person with whom her mother was involved was a woman, adding credence to the allegations made at the 1934 custody trial that Gloria had a lesbian affair with Nada, Marchioness of Milford-Haven, who (ironically) was an actual Romanov. Her father was Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich. The copy of The World of Gloria Vanderbilt that Gloria Vanderbilt signed to Betsy Bloomingdale, a bridesmaid at Gloria’s wedding to Pat DiCicco, is available via the Nick Harvill Libraries store.
Double Exposure, Take One. Frank Sinatra provides the commentary for his pal Prince Michael Romanov in Roddy McDowall’s book of celebrity portraiture. He basically gives away the game on the validity of Romanoff’s claim, declaring that he can neither confirm nor deny Mike's royal status, but as a human being, he is “more than a prince,” he “is a King!”
Romanoff, Price of Rogues, The Life & Times of a Hollywood Icon. This biography of Michael Romanoff points out that as the arbiter who determined which A-Listers were seated in the five front booths at Romanoff’s, the faux prince wielded more power than the for-real Romanovs who escaped Russia with their lives but precious little of their wealth. The book at times borders upon satire, particularly the section in which an expatriate Russian general becomes irrationally obsessed with refuting Michael Romanoff’s claim, to the point of insisting the faux prince be arrested.
“Being well dressed…does not mean going to a great couturier. In the day, practical things. The exotic is for summer and evening.”
Hélène Rochas, “The Tao of Hélène,” W Magazine
Image Credit: Alexis, The Memoirs of Baron de Redé
“Painters are apt to talk well, writers badly; for by the end of the day they are tired of words.”
Osbert Sitwell, The Death of a God, and Other Stories
“Jovial banter prevails between the hotel servants and the guests, but our insular aloofness is respected. We have trained the waiters in the dining-room not to give us iced water and our chauffeur not to ask us questions. There is here the exact opposite of the English custom by which the upper class are expected to ask personal questions of the lower.”
Evelyn Waugh, Hotel Bel-Air, February 13, 1947, The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh
Image Credit: The Face of the World
“There’s nothing tragic about being fifty. Not unless you’re trying to be twenty-five.”
William Holden, Golden Boy: The Untold Story of William Holden
“We seldom count a happy marriage as a real accomplishment and yet it so clearly is—it is virtually an aesthetic achievement. It requires the same sense of proportion, creativity, empathy, patience perseverance, equanimity and generosity of spirit as does the making of a novel or play. … Anyone who has ever had a happy marriage knows that it is never stable, never finished; it changes every day and is always being created or at least celebrated anew.”
Edmund White, Christopher Isherwood, Liberation, Diaries 1970-1983
Christopher Isherwood died a generation before gay marriage was legalized in the United States. Nevertheless, Edmund White, in his preface to Liberation, Diaries 1970-1983, praises the thirty-year relationship of Isherwood and Don Bachardy for what it was—a marriage. In the same time period in which Elizabeth Taylor and Zsa Zsa Gabor signed as many divorce papers as they did film contracts, Isherwood and Bachardy, legally prohibited from marrying, remained together.
Their relationship is currently the focus of a museum exhibition. If visiting Berlin this summer, check out "My Dearest Sweetest Love" at the Schwules Museum.
See Also: Chris & Don: A Love Story
Image Credit: Checkered Past, A Visual Diary of the '60s and '70s
Peggy Guggenheim was once walking back to her art-filled Venetian palazzo with her friend John Malcolm Brinnin. Per Brinnin's memoir, they stopped to rest just steps from the door. They were approached by a "disheveled couple in a hurry," neither of whom recognized Guggenheim. The man inquired, “Pardon me, ma’am. How do we get to this Guggenheim museum of art?” Without disclosing her identify, she replied, “Straight ahead. You can see the gate from here.”
The gate in question was the work of Venice resident Claire Falkenstein. Only, the Venice Claire Falkenstein called home was half a world away. She lived in Venice, California. In the copy of The Peggy Guggenheim Collection of Modern Art that Guggenheim signed to Falkenstein, she makes note of this connection. That copy is currently for sale via the Nick Harvill Libraries store.
“If you have loved some woman and some country you are very fortunate and, if you die afterwards it makes no difference.”
Ernest Hemingway, via Hemingway on Love