The Tale of the Little Prince — Never Kid a Kidder ( Part 1 )

8 Dec

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The University of Harvard rightly boats that it is one of the most respected educational establishments in the world, and in particular it boasts a business school whose name is synonymous with the smartest business brains in the world. You can be reasonably sure that there are no flies on a Harvard man—- or woman.

Established in 1636, Harvard is the oldest institution of higher education in the United States and boasts over 360,000 Alumi around the world. Despite being the very epitome of the American ideal, Harvard was always open to accepting students from foreign lands and from backgrounds which were entirely foreign to the great and the good of American society.

So it came to pass that in 1923 Harvard opened its doors to  Prince Michael Alexandrovich Dmitry Obelensky, a young refugee from the Bolshevik Revolution. Prince Michael Alexandrovitch had applied to enter Harvard and was rapturously received by no less a personage than the president of the University as if the Prince were conferring a great honour on this most ancient of American universities by honouring the campus with his very presence alone. The Prince was a student of engineering, enrolled in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and for two full terms he held court at the University with his easy wit and charm. He played chess and backgammon for the University team, was clearly bright and intelligent, and was widely popular!

However, rubber cheques, it turned out, were not acceptable currency in and around Harvard and when his bank account turned out to be as fictitious as his title, a greatly embarrassed president swiftly awarded Prince Michael Alexandrovitch the order of the boot and spectacularly sent him on his way.

You see Prince Michael the phoney had persuaded the authorities that the educational certificates he had earned during his youth in Russia had not survived the Revolution.Further investigation showed that he had spent some time in London before arriving in New York, and Scotland Yard records showed that in London he had succeeded in running up a series of convictions for larceny and fraud. In fact he had only been spared prison by agreeing to be deported to Guatemala!

However, he ended up in America but was deported to France after the Harvard affair, and even in Paris he succeeded in getting into some trouble eventually spending a period in prison for vagrancy among other things– an ignominious end and fall from grace for a once “respected Russian aristocrat”.

Except that Prince Michael was of course no aristocrat at all — and there was no prospect whatsoever that deportation from the United States,ignominy and a spell in a Paris jail were ever going to keep him down.

Our Prince was born altogether far more modestly as Herschel Geguzin, and had begun life as the son of a dried-goods merchant who owned a shop in Vilnius, Lithuania – then part of the Russian empire and subject to intermittent pogroms that made life difficult and dangerous for its Jewish inhabitants. Geguzin’s father had died before he was born, and, coming to the United States alone at the age of 10, the future Prince had passed most of what was left of his childhood being shunted from children’s asylums to one reform school after another in the poorer districts of New York, earning the title of  “celebrated bad boy” of no less than six New York orphan homes to which he was committed.For the remainder of his childhood, Geguzin – now known by the crudely Anglicised name of Harry Gerguson – spent working, rather in the style of Anne of Green Gables, as an orphan farmhand in Illinois.

After the deportation and the time in Paris, it is astonishing that “Prince Michael” was able to return to America – but return he did.

What made this all the more remarkable was that he was instantly recognisable standing at barely 5ft tall, and that he returned with an absolute belter of a disguise this time posing as……. Prince Michael Alexandrovitch Dmitry Obolensky Romanoff the last of the Romanov princes — yet at the same time he claimed to be a Jewish boy from New York who just happened to have a slightly English accent!

By 1936 The little Prince was once again facing extradition as he could not prove that had ever obtained any right to enter America in the first place, and once again his various schemes for loans and whatever had fallen foul of the law. Accordingly, he quickly borrowed a car and headed west popping up successively in Wichita, St Louis, Chicago and Kansas City. In these cities he would introduce himself as the Russian prince and con his way into staying in some of the swankiest apartments and homes in town. He enjoyed a fairly successful social season in Newport, where the evidence suggests that he contrived to attend a ball given by the Vanderbilts. Throughout this period, he lived on “loans” fraudulently obtained on the basis of false promises of repayment, and by persuading sundry art dealers to let him have works of art that he convinced them he could sell, on commission, in the Russian colonies. It is even suggested that he succeeded in borrowing some money by “pledging” the Russian Crown jewels!  In short, the Prince became a confidence man, and a pretty good one, too.

Eventually he arrived in what was so obviously a natural home for such a character– Hollywood California, and by this time his transformation into the Russian Prince was complete– in fact so complete that it was scarcely credible with everyone knowing that he was a complete and utter fraud — pretending expertly not to be a fraud.

Originally he was paid to work at the Clover Club casino, where he was hired to simply appear each night with his air of mystery and amazing stories. His mystique attracted crowds who spent heavily, though the casino owners knew at the same time that occasionally he would win big at the tables.

In due course, with the financial assistance of some famous backers, he struck out for himself and opened Romanoff’s restaurant becoming the most celebrated restaurateur in Hollywood with all the stars, and the great and the good queuing up for a table.

By this time, he habitually smoked cigarettes monogrammed with the imperial Russian ‘R’; and told stories about being schooled at Eton, at Harrow and at Winchester, attending not only Oxford and Harvard, but also the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, Cambridge, Yale, Princeton, the Sorbonne and Heidelberg. This might have been only a little remarkable for a man who – at least according to his own account – had driven a taxi for the French army during the defence of Paris and then fought on the Western Front as a British lieutenant, and on the Eastern Front as a Cossack colonel; who “knew the Sudan like the back of my hand”; who had won the Legion D’Honeur for some act of unspecified gallantry, and had gone on to defend the Winter Palace against rampaging Bolsheviks; had served six years in solitary confinement for killing a German nobleman in a duel; and who was able to produce at least some proof that he enjoyed a close, if oddly hazy, relationship with the former ruling dynasty of Russia.

 

Variously he also claimed to have killed Rasputin, had been given the titles Count Gladstone and Comte de Rochemonde, had been a spy under the name Captain Shaughnessy and was a relation of the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers.

What was most amazing, however, was that such an existence was a truly startling achievement for a man who had actually done none of those things, was none of those things, who knew none of those people— and who was, in reality, no sort of aristocrat, soldier or spy at all– with everyone knowing it.

His ridiculous fame became such that he regularly appeared on TV games shows and when he was meant to be a mystery guest on one show, it was decided that his peculiar accent was so recognisable he was asked to communicate with the panellists by  simply blowing a whistle!

As the years passed and the fame grew there was no letting up on the professionalism of his con artistry. He became close friends with the likes of Humphrey Bogart and David Niven, married a beautiful woman many years his junior and gained a level of respectability and celebrity whilst all the time maintaining his great act or con.

He would meet and greet members of the English establishment and regale them with tales of their own family and playing cricket in little known village cricket fields of their acquaintance. He spoke to them in such detail about the family history, local surroundings and villages that they were convinced he was actually telling the truth about being there and knowing their family. Quite how he achieved such knowledge and detail was never disclosed.

Romanoff’s restaurant was recognised as the best in Hollywood, and he lived out his days and nights there in opulent grandeur disposing the favoured seating arrangements of the stars, according to his own personal liking for them, despatching the disliked to the corners of a back room which he would occasionally deign to visit to refold an untidy napkin and see that its crest, of the double-headed eagle, appeared on top.

The Prince may have been a phoney-baloney, but it’s hard to fake genuine good taste and Romanoff had it in spades. The French cuisine he developed was the finest in the city, and drew all the local gourmands, who tolerated his insults and his habit of having his bulldogs dine with him at his table. They happily paid his high prices, but were treated to high quality food. He ran a constantly packed house full of people who were only referred to in town by just a single name:  Zanuck, Mayer, Cohn, Gable, Cooper, Sinatra,— all soon became regulars, along with an endless roster of famous faces.

If you were lucky enough to get a table– even one at the back of the house– when walking to the table with the maitre’d you may have to pass Lana Turner, Groucho Marx, Jack Benny, Sir Cedric Hardwick, Clifton Webb, Robert Morley, Cole Porter, Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, and Otto Preminger on the way.

The little Prince became known for his trademark spats, moustache and walking stick, and an impeccable (albeit faux) Oxford accent all of which helped to charm his way into Tinseltown society, and became much sought after for fancy soirées and polo matches. When Hollywood film-makers needed a technical adviser for a movie set in Europe, Romanoff claimed to be an expert on everywhere and everyone who had ever lived anywhere you could think of, and drew a comfortable salary for advising on “authenticity” of all things European. Yet everyone knew that was all bullshit and everyone was in on the gag. Most of the locals were self-invented, although perhaps not on quite such a grand scale–so they let him get away with it because they loved keeping company with a man of such bottomless chutzpah.

In the Restaurant he insisted that everyone should wear a tie much to the disgust of Humphrey Bogart who preferred to go open necked. During the filming of the Maltese Falcon, Bogart and fellow Star Peter Lorre came into the restaurant  wearing giant bow ties in mock protest.

The restaurant was also the seen of one of the most famous photographs in Hollywood when in 1957 a photographer snapped Sophia Loren and Jayne Mansfield at a table with Loren gazing surreptitiously at Mansefield’s ample bosom which is barely covered by her chosen dress.

Such events did nothing to harm the reputation of the Little Prince who by this time held sway in his own fantasy court.

However, perhaps the greatest evidence of the transformation of the boy from Vilnius into a widely accepted phoney prince came with the strange tale of a Lieutenant Commander Bernstein who was cutting a dash as an officer and hero in the casinos and clubs in Southern California. One night the Lieutenant Commander was regaling the company with his tales of heroism in the South Pacific when the Little Prince, who was listening, suddenly declared that he had an announcement to make.

The company looked round, and the diminutive dapper man brought himself up to his full height, pointed at the Lieutenant Commander and said ” He– is a phoney!”

The crowd were stunned and over the protest of the angry officer someone asked the well known restauranter  ” How do you know that?”.

Prince Michael Alexandrovich Dmitry Obelensky Romanoff sometime son of Czar Nicholas III, graduate from half the universities of Europe, treasurer of the Russian Crown Jewels, Killer of Rasputin, Cossack Officer, and true child of a long deceased shop owner from Vilnius, simply stared back and diffidently announced to one and all: ” Well, I know a little bit about phonies — and this man sometimes forgets to limp! Besides– his cheques bounce! He is a phoney and a fraud!”

A few days later Bernstein was arrested by the FBI and charged with impersonating a Naval Officer and for illegally passing cheques!

He had been trumped — by the little Prince!

All of which goes to prove– Never kid a kidder!

 

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One Response to “The Tale of the Little Prince — Never Kid a Kidder ( Part 1 )”

  1. W Mcdonnell (@waco61) December 9, 2013 at 8:11 am #

    what a great story and the pic of Sophia Loren and Jayne Mansfield is a humdinger lol

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