October 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 6
In the delirium of the 1920s, she became, for a little while, the most popular woman in the country
Born to Csar Alexander II’ss daughter and Victoria’s son, the Duchess of Saxe, Duchess Royal of Coburg-Gotha, Princess of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, Princess Royal of Great Britain and Ireland, Queen of Romania, when she arrived in America on October 18, 1926, was to come up at once against what the next day’s New York Times termed “probably the most relentless camera bombardment that anyone has ever been called on to face in the world’s history.” She wasn’t even off the boat yet.
What, the reporters asked, was to be done about her son, Crown Prince Carol, who had run away from his wife and son to live openly in Paris with his horrid mistress Elena (Magda) Lupescu? “He has sinned grievously,” Queen Marie said. “He has made a great mistake with his life and must take his punishment like anyone else, prince or no prince.” She was lovely still at fifty in her gold turban with fluted brown crepe and aigrette floating down one shoulder over her winecolored velour coat trimmed with kolinsky-fur collar, cuffs, and hem, with her brocaded bag and reptile-skin pumps and diamond and pearl earrings. “A very beautiful woman,” the Duchess of Marlborough, the former Consuelo Vanderbilt, had said of her when she was young. “Dazzlingly fair, with lovely features, the bluest of eyes and a luscious figure.” Queen Marie was not in disagreement. “I am said to be the most beautiful woman in Europe,” she once remarked. “About that, of course, I cannot judge because I cannot know. But the other queens, I know. I am the most beautiful queen in Europe.”
How wonderful, she said to the reporters, were the spouting fireboats throwing geysers in the air. She’d like one for her gardens. Did they think she’d be too late to see the fall colors of the trees? “I want to use everything American when I am in America,” she said—eat buckwheat cakes, apple pie, baked beans, corned-beef hash.
“I am glad to have seen you all,” she ended, and went ashore. “The preparations for her reception were the most elaborate in the history of this city,” said the next day’s New York World . Why, exactly, she had come was a mystery. Why anyone should care was also a mystery, but as all social-survey works point out, America in the 1920s was undergoing a personality craze; and so sirens screamed, whistles blew, Governors Island blasted off a twenty-one-gun salute, and more than six hundred policemen escorted her to City Hall, where Mayor Jimmy Walker waited to present her with the Gold Medal of the City of New York. From the skies poured a ticker-tape tribute. “I was not prepared for the custom of throwing papers . . . from the thousands of windows of the extraordinary buildings, whose tops I could hardly see,” she wrote for her syndicated Impressions of America, by Her Majesty The Queen of Romania , which appeared in the papers under the royal crest.
At City Hall Mayor Walker hesitated when called upon to pin the medal on her bodice. “Proceed, Your Honor,” the Queen said. “The risk is mine.”
“And such a beautiful risk it is, Your Majesty,” Walker returned. Sitting in an open car heading for Pennsylvania Station and a Washington train, they passed a building under construction. “Hey, Jimmy,” bawled down an iron-worker, “you made her yet?”
“Tell him yes,” Marie said. In Washington President Coolidge awaited her with dread. Someone who published a stream of passionately romantic, fantastical, mystical tales of magic and fairies, a royal whose varied castles, palaces, fortresses, and mountain-crag hideaways featured, as magazine articles told, great bearskin rugs, painted friezes, soaring vaulted ceilings over rooms jammed with elaborately gilded furniture, huge pots of flowers, tiled flooring, bronze and silver chandeliers, wooden ribbons and roses spilling down the walls, silk cushions, golden canopies, whose army officers routinely wore lipstick and rouge corsets—such a representative of Graustark, the visitor from Ruritania, was not his cup of tea. After her arrival at Union Station with passage through a double file of Marines and a trip to the Romanian legation near Sheridan Circle under clattering sabre-saluting cavalry escort, Coolidge gave her thirteen minutes at the White House before rising to indicate that the interview was over.
There followed his return call to her at the legation, emptied of its staff and filled with flaming red dahlias for her stay. Talking up Romania’s claims for territorial aggrandizement during the Versailles Treaty negotiations, Marie had offered Coolidge’s predecessor Woodrow Wilson what she termed “a few savoury details” about the Russian neighbors menacing her country. Bolshevik free love constituted the subject she discussed. (“I have never heard a lady talk about such things. I honestly did not know where to look, I was so embarrassed,” recorded Wilson’s physician, Dr. Gary Grayson.) She fired no such heavy guns at Coolidge, but had a surprise for him when he rose after their second four-minute meeting. Above all things, his staff made clear, he did not wish pictures taken. But from behind the drawingroom hangings appeared—photographers. A woman who had declined the marriage offer of her first cousin George V of England and refused to give in to her first cousin Kaiser Wilhelm even when his troops occupied her country’s capital, who had spent the Second Balkan War and the Great War going through tragically primitive hospitals and mud and filth while never wearing surgical gloves as did the doctors and nurses when dealing with wounded soldiers covered with such numbers of typhus-bearing lice as to seem immersed in sand (she would not present rubber to her subjects kissjng her hand, she said)—would such a one be overridden by this “dryest, most unemotional thing ever made,” as she defined Coolidge.
The queen returned to New York and a hotel reception for eight hundred, she in black velvet with silver embroidery and train of peacock blue, with a diadem of diamonds and sapphires over a cap of pearls from which flowed ropes of pearls, some reaching her chin and others hanging to her waist to set off the diamond chain bearing an egg-sized blazing blue-fire sapphire that was one of the largest in the world. There followed a zigzag tour across America and Canada, seven weeks and two days, 8,750 miles in her special train, The Royal Roumanian , reviews of the corps of cadets at West Point and the corps of midshipmen at Annapolis, ten thousand to greet her in Philadelphia, mobs in Baltimore, YMCAs, steel mills at Gary, the Daily News Fresh Air Sanitarium For Babies in Chicago, visits to Kansas City, St. Louis, Springfield and Lincoln’s house, detectives, ladies in waiting, maids, delivery boys, photographers, reporters, hairdressers, stewards, cooks, and servants swirling about. “Often have I been obliged,” her column reported, “to put a screen before my bath, so as to be able to continue talking to people during my ablutions.”
In Denver thirteen thousand offered greetings as the governor announced the naming of a mountain for her and a boy in the street brayed, “Hey, Queen! Where’s the king?” (He was back in Romania, reported to be deathly sick from either cancer or the fear that Crown Prince Carol was preparing a coup d’état.) North Dakota Sioux Indians danced about her, and Chief Red Tomahawk gave her a feathered headdress and proclaimed her his sister. In Washington State she spoke at an odd castlelike concrete building one hundred miles from any city, constructed for and dedicated to her by an admirer as a monument to beauty and art and peace. Horse shows and balls and luncheons and chambers of commerce and libraries and museums and schools—six million people saw her, the papers estimated.
It all read strangely in Europe. King Ferdinand sent word that he wished her home. On her last night in New York she spoke on the radio. “I did not come on business. I did not come for the sake of politics. I came for nothing but just to make friends with you.
“Goodbye, America, dear, beautiful America.”
She went away bearing a lawnmower and an ice-making machine back to her semi-barbaric, semi-Eastern, exotic homeland on the road between Berlin and Constantinople. She promised to return. But soon the Depression came and no one in America remained the slightest bit interested in Romania or any Romanian. Twelve years after her visit she was dead.