Thursday, April 19, 2012

Alexander and Elizabeth

The marriage of the future Tsar Alexander I of Russia and the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Alexeievna in September 1793 was one of the highlights of Catherine the Great's life and reign. Dubbed by contemporaries as the marriage of "Cupid and Psyche", the couple won universal acclaim throughout Europe because of their angelic appearance and their charming nature. It was an arranged marriage, but Alexander and Elizabeth started their married life genuinely fond of and happy with each other. Sadly, marriage bliss for the couple was short-lived. The unfathomable Alexander drifted away from Elizabeth, got a mistress, and fathered several illegitimate children, while Elizabeth - with her placid nature and retiring ways - became a solitary and melancholy figure, neglected by her husband and treated with indifference by his family. It was only towards the end of their lives that the couple had a reconciliation - they were finally reunited and promised to devote themselves to each other. But this new-found happiness was cut short by Alexander's sudden death at the age of 47. Elizabeth, now a tired and broken woman, followed Alexander to the grave 5 months later.

The relationship between Alexander and Elizabeth was best summed up by the Countess of Choisseul-Gouffier in her memoirs:

"What a difference would it have made in the happiness of both, if they had been able to understand each other! They seemed to have been made the one for the other; the same goodness, the same gentleness and intellectual power. Yet there seemed to have been one point on which their hearts could not meet. Why is it that death alone has reunited such perfect souls?"

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Asian Venus

The very first time I saw a picture of this lady was more than a year ago and I was immediately captivated by her otherworldly beauty. I made some research at the Internet about her identity and found out that her name was Fawzia, a princess of Egypt and former Queen of Iran.

She was called an "Asian Venus" by renowned photographer, Cecil Beaton. He described her as a woman blessed with a "perfect heart-shaped face and strangely pale but piercing blue eyes".

Princess Fawzia was born on 5 November 1921 in Alexandria, Egypt. She was the eldest daughter of Sultan Fuad I of Egypt and his second wife Nazli Sabri. One of her ancestors was a French army officer who served under Napoleon Bonaparte, later converted to Islam and oversaw the overhaul of the Egyptian army.

Shortly after Fawzia's birth, Fuad I dropped the title 'Sultan' in favor of 'King' and enacted a new constitution that would limit the power of parliament. He then embarked on a program that would modernize Egypt and its image abroad. With these new changes, the Queen and her daughters were allowed to appear unveiled in public.

Queen Fawzia of Iran, 1942.
Photographed by Cecil Beaton.
At the age of 17, Fawzia was engaged to the future Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. They were married on 16 March 1939 in Cairo, and soon after the wedding Fawzia moved to Tehran. Two years later, Mohammad Pahlavi succeeded as the new Shah of Iran, and Fawzia became Queen.

As the new Queen of Iran, Fawzia became an instant celebrity. She was photographed everywhere she traveled, wearing the latest Parisian couture. She appeared in different magazines like Vogue and Life, and was hailed as Persia's beautiful and glamorous queen.

However, marriage life for Fawzia and the Shah was far from being a happy and ideal one. Although Fawzia had given birth to a daughter, Princess Shahnaz, she was unhappy and felt miserable in Tehran. Her strained relationship with her husband was further complicated by her sisters-in-law's meddling. They disliked Fawzia and were jealous of her beauty. Unfortunately, Fawzia could not handle them. She spent more and more time in Egypt, and one time when she came back from a long vacation, she asked for a divorce. The divorce was granted, but one of the major conditions of the divorce was that their daughter must be left behind in Iran. Fawzia was not allowed to see her daughter; it was only when Princess Shahnaz was already 18 years old that she saw her mother again.

After her divorce, Fawzia moved back to Cairo where she met and fell in love with an Egyptian colonel. They married on 28 March 1949, and the couple had two children.

Today, Fawzia was the most senior member of the deposed Egyptian royal family. She currently resides in Switzerland.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Opera's Greatest Beauty

Praised as 'the most beautiful woman in the world', Lina Cavalieri was a legendary opera singer and the most photographed star of her time.

Born as Natalina Cavalieri on Christmas Day 1874 in Italy, Lina lost her parents at a very young age. She grew up in great poverty, selling flowers and newspapers in Rome. She was then taken to a Catholic orphanage, but the strictness of the nuns prompted her to run away with a touring theatrical group. Eventually, she made her way to Paris, where her beautiful singing voice obtained her work as a singer in cafe-concerts. She then performed at a variety of music halls and other venues in Europe. Once she was able to save enough money, she begin her voice and singing lessons under a certain Mme. Marchesi, with whom she worked diligently for two years.

Gradually, Lina's talent, and her extraordinary beauty, made her the talk of Europe. She then made her way to Russia, performing Neapolitan songs in different theaters in St. Petersburg. It was here that she met and fell in love with Prince Alexander Bariatinsky. It was said that he persuaded Lina to be an opera singer and paid for her voice lessons at Mariani Masi in Milan. In 1900, she married Prince Bariatinsky, and at the same year, made her opera debut in Lisbon.

Her debut in Lisbon was not successful. But this did not undermine her to continue her career as a singer. Fortunately for her, her next singing ventures were more successful. In 1904, she sang at the Opera de Monte-Carlo, and then in Paris. Her singing in New York Metropolitan Opera earned her success when she co-star with the tenor Enrico Caruso.

Lina became a famous beauty of the Belle Epoque. Audiences flocked to see her rather than hear her, although one critic wrote that she ‘has a sincere aptitude for the stage’ and her voice ‘has a certain prettiness’. She had amassed a fortune in just a few short years since her debut. She was considered to have a classical beauty, an hour-glass figure, with charm and personality free from affectation and her taste in dress was exquisite.

Her marriage with Prince Alexander Bariatinsky was not successful. They separated, and Lina had a whirlwind romance and marriage with an American, Robert Chandler. However, the marriage lasted for only two weeks, and with her marriage over, decided to go back to Europe. Her third husband was the French tenor Lucien Muratore, whom she married in 1913. They sang together on stage and starred in silent films.

Lina's fourth marriage was with Paolo d'Arvanni. She returned with him in Italy and retired there, setting up a beauty salon. During World War II, she became a volunteer nurse. But she was killed on 7 February 1944 during an Allied bombing raid that destroyed her home in the countryside of Fiesole, a small town near Florence, where she was placed under police surveillance because of her foreign husband. Hearing an American bomber nearby, Lina, her husband and servants ran to the air-raid shelter in the grounds, but she and her husband were delayed because they were collecting her valuable jewellery from the house. Both Lina and her husband were killed running to the air-raid shelter, while the servants inside the shelter all survived.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Grand Duchess Olga Feodorovna of Russia

Grand Duchess Olga Feodorovna,
born Princess Cecilie of Baden
Grand Duchess Olga Feodorovna of Russia was born as Princess Cecilie Auguste of Baden on September 20, 1839 in Karlsruhe, Baden. She was the youngest daughter of Leopold, Grand Duke of Baden, and Sophie Wilhelmine of Sweden.

Leopold was a strict father, and so Cecilie and her siblings were brought up in almost spartan conditions. Nevertheless, the girl received a good education. She developed a strong temperamental character, and a sharp tongue which later caused tensions between her and her husband's family. Although she rarely showed her emotions, Cecilie was a sympathetic person and always ready to help those who suffer.

When she was 18 years old, Cecilie married Grand Duke Mikhail Nikolaievich of Russia, the youngest son of Tsar Nicholas I, and following her conversion to Orthodoxy, she was henceforth known as Olga Feodorovna, a name chosen by her husband, because he did not like the name 'Cecilie'. Johann Strauss composed the Olga-Polka on the occasion of her wedding (I had written an article about the composition).

Soon after their wedding, Mikhail and Olga settled at the Novo-Mikhailovsky Palace in St. Petersburg. Their first child, a son, the future historian Grand Duke Nicholas Mikhailovich, was born two years later.

Family life for Mikhail and Olga was a happy one. Mikhail was a devoted husband and loved his wife deeply. Olga was also a devoted wife, but she was rather cold with her children. She was the leader in their marriage, the iron will of the family, and was a stern disciplinarian. But she was said to be witty, good-humored, clever, and lively. The imperial family had a very good opinion of Mikhail; they admired his charm and gentleness. However, Olga did not have a good relationship with his husband's family. They thought her sharp-tongued, tactless, and a gossip-monger.

Palace of the Viceroy of Caucasus in Golovin Street. This
is where Mikhail and Olga lived for almost 20 years.
In 1862, Mikhail was appointed as Viceroy of Caucasus by his brother Tsar Alexander II. He, Olga and their three children left St. Petersburg for Tblisi, Georgia, and settled at Golovin Street. As the Grand Dame of Caucasus, Olga devoted her time and money doing charity works, while at the same, caring for her family and raising children. Under Olga's auspices, a school of girls was formed, which was named in her honor - the Olginsky. For the next few years the number of students in this school has grown to thousands. Olga used the bulk of her money in the operation of the school. In the early 70s, an institution to train midwives was also formed, under Olga's patronage. Dozens of other schools as well as orphanages were opened through her effort.

In 1877, at the start of the Russo-Turkish War, Grand Duke Mikhail was appointed overall Commander of the Russian Caucasus Corps, and the Grand Duchess Olga became actively involved in war efforts by setting up hospitals and caring for the wounded soldiers. She became the patroness of the Red Cross Society in Caucasus.

Grand Duchess Olga 
by Winterhalter.
Olga lived in the Caucasus for almost 20 years; four of her seven children were born and raised in Tbilisi.

In 1881, the family returned to St. Petersburg. Olga left with a warm recollections of Caucasus and the years she spent in Tbilisi. She continued to do charity work, without ignoring any petition which were addressed to her.

In 1891, at the age of 51, Grand Duchess Olga Feodorovna died of a heart attack. She was buried at Peter Paul Fortress. She was survived by her husband for another 8 years.

The village of Olginskoe and the street of Olginskaya in Tbilisi were named in her honor.

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