Royals Rule: crowned heads in Manhattan
By CHRISTOPHER MASON
"I know we're not supposed to curtsey in America," says Nan Kempner, who nevertheless sank to the floor amid the frenzied throng of paying socialites as Diana, Princess of Wales swept into Christie's on Park Avenue recently to promote the sale of her castoff gowns for charity. "I love a good curtsey," adds an unrepentant Kempner. "I always believe it's terribly good exercise for my knees."
For a city that once celebrated the triumphant inauguration of George Washington following a war fought to banish the tyranny of monarchical rule under England's King George III, New York seems curiously gripped by royal fever.
Even Henry Kissinger, it seems, is caught in its thrall. Like everyone else who paid $250 dollars to be jostled in the crowd at Christie's, the noted fashion arbiter and sometime secretary of state was observed thrusting himself forward in the direction of the princess, apparently thwarted in his ambition to engage her in a chat.
But the clamor is not merely for visiting royals with tabloid star appeal. New York is also home to dozens of folks graced with foreign titles - some dubious, some genuine, some purchased, some gained by brief marriages and flaunted brazenly post-divorce, and almost all, it might be argued, obsolete.
"I find it laughable that all these people still use their titles," says Richard Mineards, whose reporting on the British royal family for the E! Entertainment T.V.'s Gossip Show seems to have inspired him with disdain for what he considers New York's riffraff royalty. "I suppose they're tempted to cling on to them because they impress people here," he sniffs. "But what's the point of a defunct monarchy?"
The ability to coax dollars from the socially curious, perhaps. As if to proclaim that titles are venerated still, New York this spring has offered a dazzling cornucopia of opportunities to curtsey and cavort with royalty and lesser titles - albeit deposed or divorced - in the name of charity. Never since the exiled Duke and Duchess of Windsor were regularly paraded at fund raising fetes during their annual visits to New York during the 1940's has ex-royalty proved to be quite so useful.
Watching the flurry of bows and curtseys to King Constantine II and Queen Anne-Marie of Greece, in town for the New York City Ballet's Spring Gala chaired by their son Crown Prince Pavlos and his American-born wife Marie-Chantal on May 22, one might be forgiven for forgetting that the year is 1997. Or that America is a democracy. And Greece a republic.
The range of New York's resident royals is startling indeed. For glamor and wealth none can surpass Pavlos and his heiress wife Marie-Chantal, whose dowry includes use of the sumptuous Upper East Side mansion and private jet of her duty-free billionaire father Robert Miller. Royals with a more workaday New York existence include the shy and unassuming Princess Marie of Romania, a former nanny, who began her first day as a Century 21 real estate broker in Forest Hill, Queens on July 1st. And the ebullient Prince Amoti Nyabongo of Nigeria, who moonlights as a Brooklyn cop.
The odd predicament of having a last name that is a nation, particularly when it is a place where one is no longer welcome, inevitably inspires ridicule. But the fact remains that whether they choose to exploit them or not, those with royal titles hold a mystique that derives in part from their forebears' participation in the history, power, prestige, and fortunes of their respective countries. Which may explain some of the groveling they encounter.
"Having a title in New York is a definite advantage because it opens doors in society," says Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia, a Sotheby's jewelry expert whose swept back blond hair, gym physique, and impeccable manners give him the aura of a wayward matinee idol. "People are curious to see what you're about."
Such is his consummate skill in playing the role of Prince Charming when he escorts ladies with an unquenchable lust for expensive jewels and social advancement that Prince Dimitri is often able to conjure beaming smiles upon even the mostly tightly pulled of faces.
Not all of his evenings in Manhattan are spent wearing immaculately tailored suits at Upper East Side dinner tables, however. Many have observed Prince Dimitri at considerably less formal gatherings late at night downtown, dressed in an L.A.P.D. uniform whose buttons and handcuffs gleam even more brightly than those worn by Prince Amoti Nyabongo, the Brooklyn cop, by day.
While his title pertains to a nation that no longer exists, the Yugoslav prince is related by birth to practically all the reigning royal families of Europe. "I hope you will point out that there is a major difference between royalty and someone who is merely noble," he says. "Americans never seem to understand the distinction."
To be royal requires being a member of the immediate family, or directly descended from, a king or queen. Nobles are those whose titles were granted to their family by monarchs or, in some cases, popes. The term aristocracy includes both royals and nobles. "It's taken from the Greek, meaning rule by the elite," says the jeweler prince.
Some who possess titles in New York go out of their way to conceal them out of indifference, modesty, or embarrassment. Upper East Side councilman Andrew Eristoff, for instance, declines to use the noble Georgian title of prince he was born with, and now abbreviates his last name from the less democratic-sounding Sidamon-Eristoff.
Equally reluctant to use her title is the former Queen of Sikkim who, having once inhabited that tiny former kingdom in the Himalayas between Nepal and Bhutan, now lives in Brooklyn Heights. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence who endured a miserable childhood on Park Avenue, she has reverted to her maiden name, Hope Cook, since her divorce from Sikkim's king. A gifted writer, she is the author of "Time Change" (Simon & Schuster 1980) a riveting autobiography describing her whirlwind King-And-I romance and also "Seeing New York" (Temple, 1995) a lively and literate city guide.
Others, however, rejoice in the convenient gullibility of Americans that makes New York the consummate place to market a title. "Right now I'm negotiating to do a line of products using my name on one of the home shopping networks but I can't tell you which one," says Isabel de Bourbon, a vivacious blonde who introduces herself on the telephone as "Isabel, the Duchess of Seville."
The grandeur of her title, she believes, is sometimes confusing to New Yorkers. "Americans don't have an aristocracy which is why I think they're so intrigued," she says, "but I find that most people don't know how to treat me in New York. Europeans are much more used to nobility."
Disdaining Europe as being "terribly slow at the moment," she says she relishes living in Manhattan. "New York's really happening right now," she says. "And what's wonderful is that people in America respect you for working. When you have a leisure life - you know, lots of lunches - you feel a bit guilty."
During her three years living on the Upper East Side in New York she has made many close friends, including Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia and Julia Koch, wife David Koch, the private investor known for his distinctive laugh as "the braying billionaire." So fond are the Koch's of the duchess that they went so far as to invite her to climb aboard their private to accompany them on their honeymoon last year.
"I'm writing a novel inspired by a lot of the things in my life and I've already done 200 pages," says the duchess, who claims that her greatest passions are for impressionist art and horse back riding.
Although divorced from the Madrid-based Duke of Seville and separated from him after only three months of marriage, the erstwhile duchess appears particularly reluctant to relinquish her former title.
The antics of the erstwhile duchess were immortalized three years ago in the New York Post's Page Six after she attended a Fifth Avenue dinner party given for the launch of an aphrodisiac cookbook entitled "An Appetite for Passion." Although the evening was informal and place cards bore only first names, she was reportedly furious to discover that her card bore only the word Isabel, becoming enraged when a co-host refused to change the card to read "The Duchess of Seville."
Ladies formerly married to aristocratic foreigners who persist in using their former titles after divorce are a breed that flourishes in Manhattan, perhaps because the practice is frowned upon in Europe. Those who have tasted the power of their titles to send waiters, shop assistants and socialites scurrying to flatter and accommodate them, however, may find it irksome to forgo them.
One of the reasons, perhaps, that so many minor aristocrats and adventurers wielding dubious titles are drawn to Manhattan is that so many here are bewildered by the minutiae of distinctions between archdukes, dukes, counts, barons, marquises, royal and non-royal princes and their feminine counterparts.
"In Europe the fakes could never get away with it," says Prince Antoine de Lopkowitz, an art dealer based in Manhattan, "but many people in New York seem to be impressed if you have any title at all."
The prince recalls his horror upon meeting a Connecticut hairdresser who introduced himself as Prince Antoine de Bourbon-Palme. "I asked my aunt in Paris who's a Bourbon-Palme and she says she's never heard of him," says Lobkowitz, who is currently negotiating to reclaim his share of family castles and artwork seized in Czechoslovakia by the Communist government in 1948. Since the kingdom of Bohemia that his family once ruled - now the Czech Republic - was subsumed by the Austrian Empire in 1526, he is not strictly royal. "People are always asking me, so I tell them," he says. "I'm like the Grimaldis of Monaco. I'm not Royal. I'm Serene."
The merchant prince looks distinctly un-serene, however, upon handing out his card with the words New York, Prague, Geneva printed boldly beneath his name and title, along with a family crest incorporating what looks like a lion, an eagle, and a goat. "I know it looks pretentious," he says blushing. "But it's for business."
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Anyone familiar with what passes for high society in New York these days will have discerned that while charm, wit, looks, brains, breeding and even a title are a definite plus, money is king. That being the case, the marriage of Crown Prince Pavlos and Marie-Chantal Miller - who comes with an estimated $200 million share of her father's fortune - is a union guaranteed to melt the hearts of snobs of every stripe.
"Let's face it, they're an irresistible combination," says Nan Kempner. "All that lovely money and a title. And they're so beautiful to look at. And charming. Pavlos has the most beautiful manners of any young man I've ever met."
Friends of the young couple acknowledge that there has been much cynical speculation about their marriage, however, partly on account of the much publicized pomp and extravagance of their wedding in England last year, which was attended by a full flush of royals including Queen Elizabeth II herself.
"Everyone thinks M-C married him for the title and that Pavlos married her for the money but it wasn't like that at all," says Caroline Berthet, a confidante of Marie-Chantal. "It really was a love affair."
Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia concurs. "It's rubbish, all that nasty gossip," he says. "They're very well matched. Anyone can see they adore each other. And I really believe she would have loved him without the title and he would have married her without the money."
Since the couple could one day become the King and Queen of Greece if the country suddenly decided it wanted its monarchy back, Prince Dimitri does not envy their position, however. "Pavlos is a crown prince and I'm not, thank God," he says. "Crown princes in exile are in a tough position. He has more expected of him than I do. It's not an easy destiny, especially because the chances of Pavlos and Marie-Chantal being invited back to Greece don't look too good right now. Which is too bad, because M-C would make a fantastic queen. They'd be great for the country. After all, it's worked in Spain. Juan Carlos went back as king, and it's been a big success."
In marrying her prince, Marie-Chantal would seem to be doing her bit to revive the fashion that raged a century ago for American heiresses tying the knot with financially-challenged titled foreigners. Back then, the phenomenal export rate of marriageable American girls during the 1890's greatly boosted the spirits of impoverished nobility across Europe and did wonders for mending the roofs and preserving the stately homes of England.
By hitching her star to the affable and well-educated Pavlos, however, Marie-Chantal appears to have been spared the fate of Consuelo Vanderbilt, the railroad heiress coerced into marrying the 9th duke of Marlborough in 1895 by her socially ambitious mother, Alva. Ensconced in splendor at the age of 18 as the mistress of Blenheim Palace (the Marlboroughs' country seat in Oxfordshire) Consuelo is said to have endured grotesque sexual tortures from her noble husband, a snobbish, tiny man distinguished by his bad breath and foul manners. Mortified to discover that her scheming had inflicted such indignities upon her daughter, Alva Vanderbilt was inspired during her later years to become an enthusiastic lesbian and a champion of the suffragette movement.
Chairing the New York City Ballet's prestigious Spring Gala this year would seem to be afitting social manouevre on the part of the somewhat conservative Marie-Chantal and Pavlos, particularly since ballet is the art form most readily associated with gracefulness and decorum.
Radiant in a yellow couture ball gown designed by Oscar de la Renta - whose press agent Paul Wilmot also handles the young Greek royals - Marie-Chantal is said to have had much to do with the fact that this year's gala attracted a much younger, good-looking, and better-dressed crowd than usual.
"They've done a wonderful job," says Anne Bass, the New York City Ballet's principle benefactress, surveying the rollicking jeunesse dorÇe on the dance floor with evident satisfaction. "The ballet always needs new blood," she adds, "and to be perfectly honest, the royal title has lent a lot of glamor to the evening. Because the reality is it's very attractive to a lot of people who buy tickets."
Among those standing by the dance floor admiring the lithe beauties besporting themselves is Taki Theodorocopoulos, the shipping heir who has perfected the art of ridiculing Princess Margaret and other British royals in his High Life column in the London Spectator. Clearly, he feels rather differently about their Greek counterparts. "Let me warn you," he says, seeing my reporter's notepad. "I will personally break your arms, your legs, and maybe something else if you write anything nasty about the Greek royal family."
Theodorocopoulos insists that his native country would be better off with a restored monarchy. "In Greece we need the stabilizing force of a royal family more than other countries because we're a volatile people," he says. "The Greek royal family was very badly mistreated by the cheap politicians who did him in."
At lunch at the next day at Mortimer's, the society eatery, the Crown Prince and Princess sits at the coveted window table at Mortimer's with King Constantine II and Queen Anne-Marie. Visibly elated at their presence, Mortimer's proprietor Glenn Bernbaum parades toward the rear of the restaurant, having just paid homage at the royal table. "Pavlos is such a nice boy," he says. "He told me that this is his uncle's favorite restaurant in New York, so I asked him, 'Who's your uncle?' You know what he replied? 'The King of Spain.'"
Those intimidated by Mortimer's - where the seating policy can be somewhat draconian but the food reasonably priced - may find that proximity to royal swells does not come cheap elsewhere. If you had decided to dazzle your friends by purchasing a table close enough to the dance floor to feast their eyes upon the Greek royals at the ballet gala on May 22, for instance, it would have cost you $25,000. Had you decided to settle for mere nobility, a table at the French consulate on May 14th to meet a clutch of aristocrats of impeccable pedigree in town to lure rich New Yorkers to help pay for the upkeep of their chateaux, would have set you back $TK. Ponying up to watch a Weight-Watcher-slim Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, sharing a podium with shock-haired boxing promoter Don King to benefit Hale House at the Plaza on June 2nd? $TK. By contrast, a paltry $1,750 to catch a glimpse of a Grand Ballroom-full of waltzing aristocracy at the Russian Nobility Ball at the Plaza Hotel on May 9 seems to be something of a bargain.
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While some impoverished titled Europeans have come to New York and found themselves fortunate enough to win the hearts of Americans who just happen to be wildly rich, others are sometimes obliged to be resourceful in other ways.
Having taken up American citizenship last year after 14 years of living in New York, Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia recently began capitalizing upon her royal title by launching "E," a perfume named after herself, on Q.V.C. Indeed, for a mere $TK, the nation's fervid home shoppers entranced by the notion of aristocratic splendor can purchase the fragrance, which comes as an eau de parfum and body lotion, in boxes emblazoned with a gold crown and florid "E" with the words HRH Princess Elizabeth in royal blue.
Ambitiously seeking to follow in the lucrative trail blazed by Joan Rivers and Ivana Trump, the princess has been backed in this endeavor by her old friend Merv Griffin, the 1960's television host turned gambling casino operator.
"I suppose it was inevitable that Merv would take up with the princess," quips a mutual friend. "After all, someone had to succeed Eva Gabor."
Reached at her midtown apartment the day following her first appearance on Q.V.C., the princess sounds exultant. "I think it's going to be a tremendous success," she says. "At one point we had 800 people calling at once."
When I call Ron Kraut in Merv Griffin's New York office at her suggestion saying I have just spoken with Elizabeth of Yugoslavia, I hear an eery silence. "I think you mean Her Royal Highness Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia," he says, grandly. "I'm her brand manager."
Speaking of his boss, Kraut sounds not unlike a trainee car salesman reading off cue cards. "I don't know whether you are acquainted with Mr. Merv Griffin," he says with a verbal swagger, "but I call him, lovingly, America's host."
Kraut claims that the idea to launch the fragrance came when Griffin ran into the princess and asked her what scent she was wearing. "When she told him it was the perfume she created to match the custom blend worn by her grandmother, her imperial and royal highness Grand Duchess Helen of Russia, he said, 'You're kidding! Let's market that.' "
Kraut speaks breathlessly of the star-studded party that Griffin threw at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles to launch the fragrance. "The beautiful thing is he invited his 300 closest personal friends to celebrate with the princess," says Kraut. "I mean, the loveliest people. Like Mrs. Ronald Reagan."
When the princess arrives for an interview at the Griffin office, across the street from Smith & Wollinsky's steakhouse, she is equally effusive. "Merv was so sweet," she says. "He gave me a wonderful party. Vanna White was there and she told me she adores my fragrance."
In person, Princess Elizabeth possesses an appealing combination of svelte good looks, regal detachment, and a mischievous grin. "Elizabeth has allure," says her old friend Reinaldo Herrera. "Great manners, great style. She's partied in nightclubs everywhere but she can still wear a tiara beautifully."
The publication of her daughter Christina Oxenberg's well written and largely autobiographical first novel, Royal Blue (Simon & Schuster) this month, however, suggests that having an exiled royal princess for a mother can inspire some unusual identity problems and resentments.
"Dad's Jewish, so I've always considered my sister Catherine and I to be authentic Jewish American Princesses," she says, adding that Howard Oxenberg, a Seventh Avenue businessman, is paying her rent these days. She dismisses widespread speculation that her real father was Jack Kennedy. "I hear it's possible," she says. "But I don't think I look anything like him."
Oxenberg has been told that her mother refuses to read the book. "I hear she calls me a Menendez child for writing it," she says. Were she tempted, however, the princess would discover that the royal-born mother in the novel emerges as a mostly sympathetic character and an affectionate, if distracted, mother. But she may find some passages irksome.
"I have never liked the fire-engine red lipstick she wears," writes Oxenberg. "To me it looks like the bloodied mouth of a predator."
Although mother and daughter both live in Manhattan, they have not seen each other in over four years. "The silence between us probably won't go on forever," says Oxenberg. "This is just a breather. Don't forget, we're Serbian. So we're genetically programmed to squabble."
The fledgling novelist has always found her mother's royal status disquieting. "I asked to be sent away to school when I was 8 years old," she says. "We had to write to our parents but I could never figure out what how to address her on the envelope - Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia or Elizabeth Oxenberg. And the HRH thing always looked weird."
Oxenberg believes that her actress sister Catherine, who played a princess on Dynasty, has been less troubled by the idea. "I was always the tomboy and Catherine was the little princess," she says. "A friend who was at school with Catherine told me she would always insist on all the other little girls curtseying to her."
Oxenberg jokes that these days she spends most of her time at home channel surfing in the hopes of catching a glimpse of her mother hawking her perfume on Q.V.C. or her sister doing celebrity endorsements on Dionne Warwick's Psychic Friends Hotline.
"If Merv Griffin had any class he'd just give my mother the money," she says. "Instead she has to humiliate herself cashing in on her name like the rest of us."
Ron Kraut explains that a portion of the "royalties" from Q.V.C. will benefit The Princess Elizabeth Foundation, set up by the princess to support humanitarian relief efforts for children in the war-torn former Yugoslavia. (Which is why, she explains, that she is currently struggling to learn the language.) "I really wanted to help people in my native country who are paying for their political leaders' grave mistakes," says the princess, recounting how she met a 16 year old boy in Belgrade who had gone out to buy mushrooms and stumbled on a mine, losing both his legs. "It's ghastly to see the suffering," she says, obviously sincere in her concern. "I've been trying to do what I can, but I got tired of scrounging around for charity. I realized that creating the perfume was the best way to do it - the foundation will get a percentage."
When asked what that percentage will be, the princess is vague. "We haven't worked that out yet," she says, glancing nervously at Ron Kraut. "It will be predicated on sales, but I still have to pay back the backers, and all that. We'll have to see."
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Gazing upon the whirl of dancing princes, princesses, counts and countesses at the Russian Nobility Ball in the packed Grand Ballroom of the Plaza Hotel on May 9th it is startling to realize that the system of aristocracy confounded by the assassination of Czar Nicholas II and his family in 1919 is still alive and waltzing in New York. "We still have a lot of people coming out of the woodwork claiming that they're big high muckamucks," says Ivan Obolensky, a vice president of the Russian Nobility Association, surveying the crowd. The son of Prince Serge Obolensky and the former Alice Astor (a daughter of John Jacob Astor, who went down on the Titanic) Obolensky has as much right as anyone else of his noble background to call himself prince. But he prefers for his name to go unadorned.
"Ivan doesn't use his title, which I think is wrong," says Princess Tatiana Galitzine, who converses in Russian with her husband, Prince Vladimir Galitzine, even though both were born in the United States. "We consider ourselves Russian-Americans," she explains. "We're proud to be American. We pay our taxes. But obviously, our Russian heritage is very important to us."
When Prince Alexis Scherbatow, the 90-year-old president of the Russian Nobility Association, shuffles up to the podium to make a speech, the room falls silent. "We are honored to have with us this evening His Imperial Highness Prince Nikita Romanoff," he proclaims, whereupon the room bursts into the adulatory applause one might expect at a rock concert for the artist formerly known as Prince.
Though Prince Nikita and his brother Prince Alexander are unemployed and live discreetly on the upper east side with their wealthy wives, they are revered by the Galitzines. "Let's face it," says Princess Tatiana. "A lot of royals these days behave worse than peasants. But we're very happy with Prince Nikita and Prince Alexander. They conduct themselves with dignity appropriate for who they are."
To Princess Galitzine, this year's chairman of the ball, nobility implies duty. "When I married my husband, my father in law told me, nobility entitles you to the same air that everyone else breathes. Just because you are a princess doesn't make you better than anyone else. But they expect more of you, and you have to work harder to earn people's esteem.
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For Princess Margarita of Romania, the elder sister of nanny-turned-Queens'-real-estate-salesperson Princess Marie, a sense of duty to the country from which their father King Michael was exiled, is something that consumes the majority of her waking hours. The chairman of the Princess Margarita of Romania Foundation, she divides her time between Manhattan, Geneva, Paris, London, Brussels raising funds and administering them in Bucharest.
"I think that some people get the impression that if you have a title you must be a frivolous social butterfly or extremely right wing," says Princess Margarita of Romania, who clearly is neither, sitting in a friend's midtown apartment where she usually stays when she is in New York.
"But I'm grateful to have my royal title because it has definitely been an asset for gaining attention for the foundation since the fall of communism in Europe," she says. "It means that when I need to, I can make a splash by getting myself on television to talk about conditions in Romania. People seem to respond to that."
Being recognized in Romania these days as the eldest child of the deposed king is a disorientating experience, she says. "It gave me an insight into what it must be like to be Michael Jackson who gets followed wherever he goes," she says. "It's funny to go from Romania, where everyone recognizes me, to being back in New York, where I become just another normal person pushing a shopping cart around the supermarket."
Having completed a spell of working for her sister's charitable foundation in between working as a nanny and her new job in Queens, Princess Marie admits that people's reactions when they learn of her title are often mixed. "You meet snobs who only seem interested in you because of your title," she says. "But you just learn to be polite and try to ignore them." Having recently moved to New Rochelle with her husband Kazi Mystkowski, she dreams of being able to work closer to her new home. "I'd love to be transferred to White Plains," said the soft-spoken princess. "We'll just have to see how it goes in Queens."
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Social aspirants who buzz around aristocratic folk at the grander courts of Europe have on occasion been maligned as "ermine flees." Such creatures, of course, are not an exclusively European phenomenon. Some gatherings on the Upper East Side during the Spring and Fall social seasons can resemble a frenetic flea circus at full tilt, particularly when England's Manhattan-crazed royals are in town. On such occasions, gossip is the hottest currency.
The ability to regale dinner parties with firsthand tales of Princess Margaret's hauteur is a credential prized among the Upper East Side social set that refers to her knowingly as "P.M." Christopher Walling, the jeweler, has a veritable trove of such stories.
"I saw a look of desperation in her eyes when we were seated next to each other on a mutual friend's yacht in Turkey a few years ago," he says. "I knew she was thinking, 'Oh God, not another social situation where everyone freezes just because I'm here.'"
When I fail to gasp when he tells me that his godmother was Princess Nina of Russia, Walling proffers further details of the intimacy of his royal connections. "My father was psychoanalyzed by Princess Marie Bonaparte in Paris," he boasts, referring to the great niece of Napoleon I who studied with Sigmund Freud. "Not only was she a Bonaparte, but she was married to Prince George of Greece, so she was doubly royal. No-one bothered telling her George was gay," he adds. "He had a lifelong affair with his uncle."
Walling's supply of royal trivia seems limitless. "Not many people know this," he says, gleefully, "but Marie ended up having a clitorectomy because Freud thought it would help her sex life."
Walling's assertion would appear to be contradicted, however, in "Freud's Women," (1992) by Lisa Appagnanesi and John Forrester. "Marie underwent an obsessive quest to cure what she understood as her frigidity," they write, "by re-siting her clitoris closer to that most recalcitrant of female organs, the vagina."
History, alas, does not relate whether the royal surgery proved successful.
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While there are many rich New Yorkers who display a passion for deposed royalty in Manhattan, those who also own houses in Palm Beach tend to allow their ardor to find even less inhibited expression while tending their Florida estates. Indeed, Palm Beach is to certain New Yorkers what the Riviera has long been for Parisians, a millionaire's playground with a coast lined with mansions designed for lavish entertaining where, away from the critical glare of the big city, the twin obsessions of burnishing social status and flaunting wealth flourish prettily in the sun.
But it is Palm Beach which specializes in that most competitive of sports, the lining up of the grandest titled Europeans and aging Hollywood stars as house guests for the winter season, in order to parade them as trophies at an inexorable round of lunches, cocktails, and dinners.
The clamor for movie stars, while bizarre, is almost universal. But what is it that the rich find so alluring about folks with titles? "When you've reached a certain level of accomplishment in your life what else is there?" asks socialite Audrey Gruss, who shuttles between Park Avenue, Palm Beach and Greenwich, CT, by private jet with her Wall Street investor husband, Martin Gruss. "I know people laugh about everyone in Palm Beach running after titles, but it's more than that," she insists. "If you've made your own fortune, you become curious about people born with recognition, who haven't had to work for it."
She and her husband entertain only a few, she says. "We really only have the Yorks," she says, referring to Sarah, Duchess of York and her former husband, Prince Andrew. "But they're good friends." One of the boons of entertaining titled European folk, she adds, is that "you know they'll be charming and well behaved. And for a hostess, that's always a plus."
When royalty is otherwise occupied, nobility will suffice. Locals consider one of the greatest social coups pulled off in recent Palm Beach history to be that of New Yorkers Irwin and Terry Allen Kramer in landing the current Duke and Duchess of Marlborough as house guests at their spanking new 40,000 square foot Italian palazzo, overlooking Lake Worth and the ocean.
"It's considered a pretty big deal when Sunny Marlborough comes down there," says a New York socialite who winters in Palm Beach, "so it's pretty funny watching everyone crawling all over the Kramers trying to get an invitation." She points out that the couple's former home in the Bahamas - so enormous it was said to give the nearby Lyford Cay Beach Club an inferiority complex - was known locally as "the Kramertorium." Since their new domain in Palm Beach is even bigger and grander, however, the nickname has been upgraded accordingly. "The Kramers call it 'La Follia,'" says their neighbor. "But everyone else calls it 'Blenheim-Sur-Lac.'"
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The Greek royals in New York known as "the Bohemians" are Prince and Princess Michael of Greece, who divide their time between an apartment in Paris and a spacious loft in SoHo, where the buzzer on the door simply reads, "Greece."
Prince Michael, a cousin of King Constantine II, is an astute scholar and the author of 10 books that reveal a well-informed fascination and preoccupation with royalty. His wife, Princess Marina of Greece, is a successful sculptress and painter who when she exhibits her work uses her maiden name, Marina Karella. (Thus, she may be described as the artist formally known as Princess.)
Clearly devoted to each other despite an exotic marriage that includes much independent travel, the Greece's, as their friends refer to them, are attentive parents to two strikingly beautiful daughters, Princess Olga and Princess Alexandra, both of whom live in New York. Olga, who received her undergraduate degree at the aptly named Princeton, is enrolled in the architecture program at Columbia. Alexandra, who went to Brown and also attended the equally apt Royal College of Art in London, is currently at the Bank Street school studying to become a kindergarten teacher whilst teaching part time at the Park Avenue Christian Day School.
Asked how the school is dealing with the unusual predicament of having to decide how a princess without a surname should be addressed, the mother of a 4 year old student marvels at the simplicity of the solution. "They call her 'Miss Greece,' which is pretty cute, and the kids all adore her," she says. "But don't you think it makes her sound like a contestant in some beauty pageant?"
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