Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Prince Alexander Romanoff

In Memoriam. 10.8.02 - Alexander Romanoff, who died a little more than a week ago in London, was a longtime resident of Manhattan, along with his wife Mimi (pictured right with Alexander). He was a very familiar face to the social set, particularly in cultural circles. His name often brought him notice from some stranger who might wonder if the prince were related to those Romanoffs — Nicholas and Alexandra — which of course he was. His presence was also remarkable in that he was tall, willowy, with a very pallid complexion, and eyes that seemed (to this observer) to express the memories of the pain and anguish of his doomed forebears.

I saw the Romanoffs fairly often. Princess Romanoff, Mimi to her friends, is a very warm and friendly woman with a fascinating background and pedigree of her own. She was born a Niscemi, to a noble family in Palermo. Her family home, the Villa Niscemi, still standing, was also the birthplace of a close relative, Fulco Verdura, the international jewelry designer. Mimi and her sister Marguerite were the last owners of the villa (which I photographed on a tour of the property outside Palermo two years ago – see archive), and gave it to the city of Palermo which now uses it as the Mayor’s office.

I never knew Prince Alexander except to say hello to. He had a diffidence about him, a certain shyness that tends to evoke a corresponding shyness in me, if that is possible. As gregarious as I am by nature, I too tend to be shy when in the company of the less gregarious. I tell myself that it is out of respect for their wishes, although I’m not so sure of that explanation.

In retrospect, I do regret that I never did take the chance or make the opportunity to talk with Prince Romanoff because it turned out that we shared similar interests in history, and he, unlike me, had in some cases a deep and even scholarly knowledge of it.

He came from a background that is hardly imaginable to most of us. Not so much for its splendid and even outrageous heritage but because it was one so mentally isolated from most folk. It was a heritage of privileged luxury anchored to a way of life that can be described as unreal and unrealistic except to its habitués and their retinue. Calling another human being “your highness” or “your excellency” or “your grace” seems almost quaint in this age of rocketry and ever-threatening annihilation. The idea, for example, of referring to a British royal as “sir” or “ma’am” rather than by their name is an absurdity. It presumes a respect that is far from mutual and, considering some of those who bear the titles, even ludicrous.

On the other hand, men like Prince Romanoff, who came a generation after the great fall of a monarchy, but was brought up in its ever-present epilogue, had to adjust to “our” world, to the “real” world – all the while living in the previous psychic state of his parents and their forebears. These men and women, when they are wise, have a special knowledge of life and the historical experience, that eludes most of us. They too, often know poverty, or something close to it, so that the fellowship of human experience is also within their ken.

Whether any of this was so, or not, with Prince Alexander Romanoff, I shall never know from firsthand experience. From across the table, or across a room, or even in passing on the street, he had the bearing of a very kind and sensitive man who had lived, did live, in a world that was maybe “too much with us ....” An intriguing fellow, to be sure.