"Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea,
And love is a thing that can never go wrong,
And I am Marie of Roumania"

-Dorothy Parker, Comment

"I am the most beautiful queen in Europe."
-Queen Marie of Romania

The 1920s' very own celebrity royal, Marie of Romania brought a much-needed veneer of glamour to the remote monarchy. With her tearful hospital visits, charitable events and glitzy international jaunts, the media princess of the Jazz Age was a blueprint for the starry-eyed young things of later decades. At home, she manoeuvred through the intrigues of Romanian politics while engaging in a string of affairs and giving birth to Romania's proto-fascist King Carol II.

Sleeping Beauty

The future Balkan queen was born in Kent in 1875, the nearest thing to an English princess that the nineteenth century could deliver. Her father, the Duke of Edinburgh and second son of Queen Victoria, had married Grand Duchess Marie of Russia, an alliance orchestrated by two Danish princesses in the hope that it might calm the antagonism between the rival empires. The wedding did nothing to stop Russia declaring war on the Ottoman Empire in 1877.

During her childhood, which she split between the family home at Eastwell Park and Victoria's Osborne House, young Marie was universally known as Missy, but could still count herself lucky - her sisters, somehow, acquired the nicknames of Ducky and Baby Bee. At the age of eleven the Duke was transferred to a naval command in Malta, where Marie would catch the eye of Britain's eventual King George V. When the Duke inherited the German duchy of Coburg, the family moved once again; Marie took to their Sleeping Beauty-style castle at once, although not to her German governess.

Marie might well have married George had it not been for the battle of wills between Victoria and the Grand Duchess. Victoria favoured the match with her kinsman, while Marie the elder - who had taxed Victoria's patience when she arrived in England by insisting that her Imperial Russian title gave her precedence over the other princesses at court - had set her heart on fixing her favourite daughter up with a Hohenzollern, the German royal house.

Ferdinand, the lucky prince, was the heir to the Romanian throne; the Romanians had invited a Hohenzollern to take the crown to avoid the entire Romanian nobility jostling for the honour. He was not particularly prepossessing, and would have preferred to marry his mother's Romanian lady-in-waiting Helene Vacarescu, but such marriages were forbidden by the constitution since, sperm counts permitting, they would lead to a Romanian heir. Marie and George's courtship was frustrated by the Duchess of Edinburgh, and she married Ferdinand in 1893, when she was barely seventeen.

If Marie walked up the aisle expecting romance, her loveless honeymoon at a hunting lodge should have cured her of the delusion. Her English relatives pitied the young girl sent into what they thought of as a 'semi-barbarous' country, and Marie shared their despair when she arrived in her new country and was presented to the ladies of Bucharest society, whose French she could not understand. The teenage Crown Princess regularly cried herself to sleep, and her homesickness was compounded when Ferdinand made her pregnant within two weeks of marriage.

Blithe Spirit

Marie bore her first son, Carol, later that year, and promptly fell out with her mother-in-law, Elisabeth of Wied - who had once nearly married the Duke of Edinburgh. So far, so newlywed, although few newlyweds have had to contend with a spiritualist queen who turned her residence into an invalids' sanctuary and penned novels filled with purple prose under the pseudonym of Carmen Sylva. Marie might have thought herself a more unfortunate Prisoner of Zenda; Elisabeth's spiritual home was a high-society production of Blithe Spirit. When Marie first came to Romania, Elisabeth had been serving a two-year banishment for setting Ferdinand up with Vacarescu, one of her devoted handmaidens.

Carol's birth was followed almost immediately by that of Princess Elisabetha, named after the Wied woman herself. Marie's confinements tended to be painful, and she reacted angrily when Elisabeth - who had lost her only child - hung around her maternity bed telling her that the experience should be the happiest moment of her life.

After Elisabetha, Marie resolved not to have a child every year as the family apparently expected her to, and her confidence was bolstered by a trip to Russia for the glorious coronation of her cousin Nicholas II. While battling Elisabeth's efforts to convince the King that Marie was not a strict enough mother for the heir Carol, the Crown Princess found fulfilment in her stables, where she began an affair with a young Hussar lieutenant, Zizi Cantacuzino.

Marie was photographed with the officer in the resort of Constanta, throwing Elisabeth into a predictable rage; although Marie spent some months in exile, the quality time it allowed her with her own family made her rather regretful to return to Bucharest. During her stay in Germany, she gave birth to her third child, Mignon. The American financier Waldorf Astor picked up where Cantacuzino had left off, until the future Nancy Astor intervened; Prince Nicholas was born at the height of Marie's relationship with Waldorf.

Her great love, however, was the nobleman and vintner Barbu Stirbey, whom she met when the grave peasant revolt of 1907 obliged her to move temporarily to the safety of the royal mansion in Sinaia. Stirbey's wife Nadeje was lodging at the mansion too, and he fell for Marie while visiting Nadeje, thereby following the favourite pastime of the adulterous Romanian aristocracy. Princess Ileana, born in 1909, was widely rumoured to be Stirbey's child, as was Marie's last boy Mircea, who died at four months old.

Ministering Angel

While Romania had stood aloof from the First Balkan War, she joined in the Second, when her rival Bulgaria tried to recoup a greater share of the spoils from the Ottomans' European possessions. Cholera swept through the Romanian camps across the Danube, and Marie took herself to the front to nurse the sick and the quarantined, appearing to relate almost effortlessly to the soldiers, doctors and ministering angels she came across.

Marie's star turn as Florence Nightingale was called for again in 1916, when Romania finally entered World War I. King Carol I had once secretly agreed that he would join Germany in the event of war, but the country remained neutral before plumping for the Entente, who were able to promise her Transylvania and the Banat, which then belonged to Austria-Hungary. Carol's death in October 1914 weakened the pro-German party's cause, and elevated Ferdinand to King and Marie to Queen.

Marie had consistently argued against the Germanophiles, and would have preferred Romania to join the Entente there and then. Russia's Brusilov Offensive of summer 1916 made Romanian participation so valuable that the Entente were prepared to make the Transylvanian promise, but the ill-prepared Romanian army proved no match for August von Mackensen's Germans, and Romania's collapse provided Russia with a new front which further stretched her own troubled army.

The queen resumed her hospital duties after the fall of Bucharest, turning a Red Cross uniform into a fashion must-have, and received rapturous thanks from the often gravely wounded soldiers - at least, from those placed in front of her. To the delight of her public, she refused to wear rubber gloves, continually proffered her hands to the dying to kiss, and anointed the eyes of an infantryman whose eyelids had been seared shut.

Between shifts, she produced a book to be sold in the Entente countries to raise money for her wards. My Country, and a sequel published the next year, confirmed Marie's talent as a purveyor of idealised sketches about peasant girls, lusty shepherds, and the ubiquitous raggle-taggle Gypsies, O.

During the war, she had a fling with a Canadian ex-Klondike prospector, Joe Boyle, who consoled her when her son Carol followed in Ferdinand's footsteps by taking up with a Romanian girl, Zizi Lambrino. Carol eventually eloped with her to Odessa, possibly in despair after the murder of the Russian Romanovs, and Marie's disapproval of the pairing was such that she contrived to re-introduce Carol to another old flame of less social standing whom he would never think to marry.

According to Marie, she first met Boyle on the night of Romania's capitulation to Germany, when she "tried to let myself be steeled by the man's relentless energy... when he left me and I said that everyone was forsaking me he answered very quietly, "But I won't", and the grip of his hand was as strong as iron." Had she abandoned Romania, which she contemplated more than once in her early years, she could undoubtedly have forged a stirring career with Mills and Boon.

Rainbow Tour

Even though Romania had been easily defeated, she was treated as a victor at the end of the war, having entered the fray for little more than a week when Austria-Hungary was on its last legs. The 'victory' entitled her to representation at the Paris Peace Conference, although her prime minister, Ion Bratianu, upset the other delegates with his insistence that Romania should be accounted as great a power as Britain or France. Marie was despatched to clean up Bratianu's mess, secure the longed-for Greater Romania and appeal for famine relief: if you want a job done properly, do it yourself. Especially when you have a royal title to help things along.

The Paris trip was the first of what Eva Perón, trailing around 1940s Europe on a similar charm offensive, would refer to as her rainbow tours, and it won Marie much the same level of press coverage from the moment she checked into a twenty-room suite at the Ritz. Her first interview was with the celebrated writer Colette, who gushed that "the morning was grey, but Queen Marie carried light within her" after encountering her aboard the royal train.

Although she failed to charm Woodrow Wilson, who continued to take a stand against Romanian anti-Semitism, Marie returned home with Greater Romania, sixty new gowns and eighty-three pairs of shoes, refusing to risk the loss of a territorial concession because she had skimped on her haute couture.

In 1922, she and Ferdinand celebrated national unification with a grand coronation at Alba Iulia in Transylvania. The event had seemed doomed when the locals, who distrusted Bratianu, refused to participate, and the Vatican would not allow the Catholic Ferdinand to be crowned in a Romanian Orthodox church. Marie saved the day by suggesting that Ferdinand be crowned outdoors as befitted a man of the people, and the entire show bore her theatrical stamp.

Royal women were to wear gold, non-royals to wear her favourite colour mauve, and she herself wore a red-gold gown and mantle embroidered with sheaves of Romanian wheat. Ferdinand had specially commissioned a giant sapphire on a diamond chain for her from Cartier, and her four-pound crown, copied from that of the legendary Princess Despina, gleamed with rubies, sapphires, emeralds and moonstones, and had to be worn in the Byzantine style over a veil of gold mesh.

Marie took another European tour in 1924, when her book The Voice on the Mountain placed her on the cover of Time magazine. Now pushing fifty, she turned heads at the House of Windsor's Court Ball in a silver-laced Moroccan kaftan, although the acerbic diarist Chips Channon noticed that she had apparently painted the goldfish detail on to the garment herself. Her series of sixteen articles the next year, with such edifying titles as 'Can a Woman Make Herself Beautiful?' and 'My Experience With Men', threatened to make her the crowned heads of Europe's answer to Ann Landers.

Her stardom reached new heights in 1926 when she went to America to officially open Sam Hill's Maryhill Museum of Fine Arts; she had been introduced to Hill by their mutual friend, the choreographer Loie Fuller, who had adapted one of Marie's stories for her dance troupe. Her preparatory Parisian shopping trips were front-page material in themselves, and she crossed the Atlantic with a trousseau that occupied fifty trunks. Even before her liner had docked in New York, one American clothing company had advertised copies of her latest gowns based on patterns radioed in from France.

Marie received a ticker tape welcome, and the New York Times thought that her reception in the Big Apple amounted to "the most relentless camera bombardment that anyone has ever been called upon to face in the world's history". Nonetheless, she offended the First Lady, Grace Coolidge, by wearing a knee-length gown in her presence, a controversy erupted over the price of tickets for what was supposed to be a benefit perfomance of Fuller's play, and the Maryhill Museum turned out not to have been finished. Photographers flocked to her North Dakota walkabouts with real-life Cowboys and Indians, where she became an adopted 'war woman' of the Sioux nation.

Mother-in-Law of the Balkans

Yet perhaps Marie's greatest passion during her glory years was arranging the marriages of her children - or rather, arranging those of her daughters while despairing of Carol's. After the Zizi Lambrino debacle, she had convinced him to marry Princess Helena of Greece in 1921, while Elisabetha married one of Helena's brothers, the Greek Crown Prince. Greek Orthodox custom demanded that such a pair of siblings be married within an hour of each other or both marriages would be doomed; Marie separated the ceremonies, in Athens and Bucharest, by a fortnight so that she could attend them both.

Marie hoped these weddings would tie the Romanian house to the other powerful states nearby, and she duly married Mignon to King Aleksandar of Yugoslavia in 1923. Princess Ileana, then thirteen, had a few more years to wait yet, but press speculation on her future husband oscillated between the obvious choice, Tsar Boris of Bulgaria, and Britain's Prince of Wales.

Both suggestions, in fact, proved to be equally far from the mark: Ileana set her cap at a German prince implicated in a homosexual scandal, and nearly ended up at the court of the notorious womaniser Alfonso XIII of Spain, before becoming engaged to the impoverished Archduke Anton of Austria, a dispossessed Habsburg who was working the pumps at a Spanish petrol station at the time.

Carol, meanwhile, had eloped a second time, with the thoroughly unsuitable Magda Lupescu, and moved to Paris, making him perhaps the only monarch to have previously abdicated twice. When King Ferdinand died in 1927, Carol and Helena's infant son Mihai became King, under a three-man regency dominated by associates of Bratianu, who had passed away shortly after Ferdinand.

Carol attempted to fly back to Romania a la Mussolini in 1928, but Scotland Yard detectives foiled the plan, and he had to wait for his moment until 1930, when he was invited to take up the throne by the National Peasant Party's leader Iuliu Maniu. The highly moralistic Maniu expected Carol to rule as Mihai's regent, and resigned when it transpired he intended to be king.

Dowager Queen

Marie, who was in Vienna at the time, had not known about the coup until it took place, and Carol refused to be guided by her as Ferdinand had been. He reduced her household to a minimal level, and she complained in return that his loose morals were a bad influence on his son, then the subject of a tug of love battle between Carol and Helena. The king reduced Ileana to tears by informing her during her wedding that her real father was Marie's old lover Stirbey, but the final straw for Marie came when he exiled Prince Nicholas.

Nicholas had demonstrated that he was Ferdinand's son by running off with a commoner of his own, but when he returned to Romania Carol's Crown Council suspected that he could be at the centre of a plot to depose Carol. Two politicians came to break the news to Nicholas, but fell foul of Marie, who shouted that Carol had killed his father and now wanted to do away with his mother and brother too; her temper finally failed her entirely, and she threw a punch at the Prime Minister. During the 1930s, she tried to spend as much time outside Romania as she could, and relished the chance to visit more friendly dynasties when she published her autobiography in 1934.

Carol was not averse to co-opting Marie's popularity, when it suited his own ends. After receiving information that an attempt might be made on his life at the 1934 Independence Day parade, he enlisted Marie to ride beside him in a red tunic, white skirt and hussar's helmet; the mother thoroughly upstaged the son.

Still, her potential as an alternative centre of power unsettled the king, who fancied himself Romania's answer to the Italian fascists, and in late 1936 he banned her from making contact with the government as she had been accustomed to do. It was surely little coincidence that her health finally failed her in March 1937, but the continuing argument between Carol and Nicholas provoked a rumour that one prince had pulled a revolver on his brother and Marie had got in the way. She spent the second half of the year on her sickbed at Castle Bran, which she had redecorated in her typical exuberant style, and finally died in July 1938.

Her death, only a few months before Carol would proclaim a royal dictatorship, offered the king the chance to play at orchestrating a set-piece funeral, bedecking Bucharest in Marie's favourite colour, mauve. An honour guard of hussars, wounded veterans and nursing nuns accompanied her coffin to Bucharest's Arch of Triumph, and she was buried alongside Ferdinand at Curtea de Arges, the traditional resting place of the Romanian Hohenzollerns.

Her headstone, unlike the others', contained no record of her life and deeds, presumably at Carol's instigation. The Romanian Communists completed the whitewash after World War II, only allowing her to be mentioned as a member of an 'alien dynasty'.

Read more:
Hannah Pakula, The Last Romantic: Queen Marie of Roumania
Paul D Quinlan, The Playboy King: Carol II of Romania

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