The Rise of Four Dazzling Dynasties
During an American Epoch When Everything Was Possible
In March 1917, Imperial Russia was in a state of extreme jeopardy. The weak-willed Czar Nicholas II had been oblivious to the needs of his people for 23 years, World War I had removed 15 million farmers from the nation’s wheat fields, the rail system was in a state of collapse, inflation was escalating, workers were striking, and severe shortages of coal and food had led to bread riots in the major cities.
During the second week in March, while the czar was away on a capricious journey to the Front, mutinying soldiers joined an uprising of Saint Petersburg citizens, resulting in absolute destruction of law and order. The subsequent arrest of the czar’s cabinet ministers allowed a resurgence of the Duma, or parliament, whose wishes Nicholas had resisted, and even his generals were insisting that he renounce the throne. Finally, the great city of Saint Petersburg fell, and, on March 15, 1917, the czar of all the Russias abdicated.
The last Imperial family of Russia before the July 1918 massacre at Ekaterinburg.
Sixteen months later, at midnight on July 17, 1918, the czar, his wife and their five children were massacred in the basement of an isolated house in Ekaterinburg at the eastern edge of the Urals. Their bodies were trucked 14 miles to an abandoned mine shaft, dismembered, with body parts burned in a gasoline-stoked bonfire and the larger bones dissolved with acid before being dumped into stagnant water at the mine’s floor. The following day, July 18, 11 other members of the Russian Imperial family were murdered and thrown — some still living — into the shaft of a similar deserted mine at Alapayevsk in the Urals.
The British warship HMS Marlborough.
On April 7, 1919, the British Royal Navy sent a rescue ship, HMS Marlborough, to Yalta, the Black Sea resort, where summer palaces of remaining Romanoffs decorated the landscape overlooking the water.
Queen Mother Alexandra of England, sister of Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna.
The extreme urgency of the Marlborough mission was conveyed through a letter the ship’s captain bore from Queen Mother Alexandra of England to her sister, the reluctant Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna, insisting she leave Russia immediately. Among those embarking with the czar’s mother were his sister, the Grand Duchess Xenia, and five of Xenia’s six sons, including 17-year-old Prince Rostislav.
Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna on the deck of the HMS Marlborough.
Within weeks of the rescue of the emaining Russian royal family by the HMS Marlborough, soldiers scouring the countryside for Czarist aristocrats stormed a grand house at Marijno, located halfway between Saint Petersburg and Moscow near the ancient city of Novgorod. The soldiers, carrying a warrant to search the estate, found the widowed Princess Alexandra Galitzine, Lady in Waiting to Grand Duchess Vladimir, alone in the 100-room house with her few remaining servants and the two youngest of her seven children, 16-year-old Prince Nicholas and Princess Alexandra, known as Aleka, age 14.
“It never occurred to me when I was a little girl that the days of the empire were counted,” Aleka later recalled. “I am sure I had the happiest childhood any little girl ever had . . . I remember so well the day five soldiers appeared at our house near Saint Petersburg. Nick’s teeth chattered and so did mine.” After locking the teenagers in their mother’s sitting room for three days, the soldiers thoroughly searched the villa and, once they had taken everything of value, imprisoned the youngsters’ mother and an older sister. When the two women were at last released from custody, it was merely the beginning of a harrowing four years during which what was left of the family made a series of attempts to flee the country.
Their first effort was to cross the Finnish border, where they barely escaped execution at the frontier. In a subsequent attempt, they were imprisoned for three weeks with a Hungarian family of 10 in a single room furnished only with straw. Eventually, Nick and Aleka were released to be incarcerated in separate children’s prisons. When they were discharged, Aleka recalled, “Our condition was desperate. We had no money. All we could do was sell a dress or a pair of shoes to get a little food.” It was a desolate 12 months of often scavenging for food and sleeping in ditches when she, again separated from Nicholas, learned her mother was in Moscow.
Posing as a stenographer, Aleka secured passage on a Red Cross train but, once in Moscow, had no idea of how to find her family. Alone and without money or food, she went into a church to pray for a miracle. It was Annunciation Day. When she raised her head from prayer, she saw through the dim taper-lit Orthodox haze that a woman seated near her was one of her sisters. Within minutes, she was in her mother’s arms.
Freedom came in 1923. Aided by a famine sweeping their immense nation, the Galitzines obtained permission to leave for exile in England, where they joined the White Russian colony gathered there.
Among other highborn Russian refugees in and about London in the 1920s were members of the Imperial family rescued from Yalta during the 1919 Marlborough mission.
The czar’s mother, the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna.
The czar’s mother was given the use of Marlborough House, while his sister Xenia and her sons were assigned to Buckingham Palace for six weeks before moving to more permanent quarters on Windsor Castle grounds. Their new home, the 36-room Frogmore Cottage, had been substantially altered at great royal expense by King George V to lodge his first cousin Xenia and her large household.
The children of Grand Duchess Xenia, including Princess Irina Alexandrovna, left, who would be implicated in the murder of the sinister monk Rasputin and, second from the right, future Chicago socialite Prince Rostislav Alexandrovich.
Following the Galitzines’ arrival in London, Aleka, now a statuesque beauty in her late teens, worked as a nurse while she and her immediate family maintained an active social life within the city’s cozy circle of displaced Russian nobility. And, over the next four years, she formed a close relationship with Prince Rostislav, three years her senior. In 1925, Aleka, with others of London’s strongly bound Russian community, bade farewell to her cherished brother Nick, who left for America where he would settle in Chicago.
Two years later, Aleka followed her brother, expecting to stay in Chicago for the winter and hopefully longer. But when her Holland-American liner, the Ryndam, arrived at Hoboken, the United States Immigration Bureau would not allow her to disembark until a $500 bond was deposited to ensure that she would leave the country within six months. In a gesture grand enough to have been the subject of a New York Times article, Prince Paul Chachavadski, a cousin exiled in New York, came to Aleka’s rescue and posted the bond, allowing her to proceed to Ellis Island and on to Chicago to join her brother.
Carlton House, London.
The previous spring, although the 64-year-old Ogden Armour was not well, he and Lolita Sr. had sailed for Europe and a suite in London’s Carlton Hotel. By late July, he was ill enough for little Lolita to be summoned from California, and on August 16, 1927, Ogden died of typhoid fever complicated by pneumonia. His wife and daughter transported the body back to Chicago and arranged for a grand funeral with 150 honorary pallbearers at the city’s Fourth Presbyterian Church. This final tribute was inconsistent with an evaluation of Ogden’s estate, which confirmed a large deficit — a deficit so large that the $3 million assets of Ogden’s recently deceased mother were being held as security against his personal debts.
Determined to salvage her husband’s reputation, Lolita sold Mellody Farm and all else she could find. She kept raising money, relinquishing everything except the 400 shares of Universal Oil Products. By the end of 1928, she had repaid everything, including the $8 million contributed by his nephews Philip D. III and Lester, and the estate was declared settled.
The valiant tale of the two Lolitas might have ended there if Shell Union and Standard Oil of California had not bought, almost miraculously, Universal Oil Products for $25 million, netting Lolita Sr. more than $12 million. She used part of the money to build a lakefront mansion — not as majestic as Mellody Farm, but she was able to finagle wood paneling from her old home for the library of her new one, as well as a prized 15th century Italian mantelpiece.
House of Armour: The Rise of Four Dazzling Dynasties During an American Epoch When Everything Was Possible, Megan McKinney’s series of articles on this remarkable dynasty, will continue in Classic Chicago over the next several weeks.
Next Sunday: Frederick H. Prince — And Shanghai
Robert F. Carl