During the last couple of years, I have taken more and more interest in the upper crust of British society during the 1920s-1930s. It is a fascinating time period for one, since World War One changed the world in so many ways. Women were forced out of their homes to work with the war effort and when the war was over, it was not that easy to take the newly won freedom away from them. They started to ask for the right to vote if nothing else. But since so many men had died, their chances of getting married were also slighter and they needed to find an occupation for themselves. Another fact which is very interesting is the working class standing up for themselves and refusing to comply with the old feudal system, where they were nothing but dispensable. A boy and a girl no more had to go in to service after entering their teenage years, they could actually choose factory work instead, which had fixed salaries and fixed working hours.
But the upper class, they are interesting to study, because they desperately tried to cling on to their old ways. That is why people love to watch Downton Abbey. Because it is such a foreign world to us and while most of us sigh and find it very romantic, a few of us realize that only a very small minority of people, ever lived like that. And in the 1920s-1930s they desperately fought to keep their place in society and not being done away with. But by the end of World War Two, there was no place for them anymore. They were as outdated as an old cheese full of mold. The world around them were not going to tolerate their behaviour anymore nor play along. Which is why I take an interest in reading about these people. Because I ask myself the question, why? How could it be possible to live a life like theirs and not feel how ridiculous it was? Their lives really were pointless and they did nothing to contribute to anything, but keep the stores, hotels and night clubs in business. But in the long run, it is like they just said in a documentary about Titanic: The shipping companies were taught a lesson when Titanic went down, that their most important customers were the poor emigrants, since they were the ones who kept the companies in business, not the few people in first class. And these customers could not be locked up and let to drown, like their lives did not matter as much as the rich’. Britain’s true asset in the 1920s-1930s were not the decadent aristocrats and rich, but the people who made up the backbone of the country, the people who have always carried their nations on their backs: the people who earn their living.
I have read over the last couple of years, biographies on the Curzons, the Mitford women, Edina Sackville and in every biography, two people always pop up: The Duke and Duchess of Kent. They were the popular people you wanted at your party. They were the fashion icons, or at least the Duchess was. But when you search for books about them and photos, there is precious little written about them and posted on the internet. The only thing I could find about them, a year ago, when I wanted to read more about them, after reading about Edina Sackville, was the book “George and Marina: The Duke and Duchess of Kent” by Christopher Warwick. (After it arrived, I no longer was in the mood for reading it! Till this year.)
Since the author is supposed to be a real writer, one with many biographies behind him and having written a lot of newspaper articles, I thought that it would be a great book, well researched and a fascinating read. I expected to know everything about George and Marina after finishing it and have a full understanding of why they were so popular in the 1930s. Not so. After finishing the book, I am angry and feel disgusted. In Swedish the word for the book is “tillrättalagd”. Google translate gives the word “sanitized” and at first I highly objected to using the word, but it actually is a perfect word for the book. It is a sanitized version of the truth.
A truth which is not allowed to get out even though it already is out. Warwick hints at it and says that allegations were made, but he will not get in to it in depth, since I guess he fears the Palace? Or what does he fear? In every TV-series about the time period, Prince George, youngest son of George V, turns up and shows himself as being more or less homosexual. Only a fool does not notice. (See the new version of “Upstairs, Downstairs” for example.) It is a truth acknowledged as Jane Austen says, that Prince George’s sexual appetite was as voracious as a hungry lion’s for fresh meat, when hungry. But the royal family does not allow people to look in to it nor write a book about him. Can it really be worse than “Prince Charles wanting to be Camilla Parker-Bowles’ tampon”? Or Prince Harry showing up at a party dressed as Hitler? Princess Diana having an affair with her riding teacher or whatever he was and dating a Muslim? Hardly! They can’t cover up Edward VII’s bedhopping nor can Prince George’s escapades be hidden from the world forever, when the only thing he did, was following in his grandfather’s steps! To try to push it to the back, like the author does, like it is not important, only makes me as a reader, angry. I am not a fool and don’t like to be treated as such. If one discloses that he allegedly had affairs with the Cambridge spy Anthony Blunt, the theater man Noël Coward… and prefered the “blond good looks of German boys” and that he had affairs with Catholic women both before and after his marriage and especially was enticed by black women, then I don’t think that you can just drop it. If you say A you have to say B, like my dad always said. Sex was a VERY big part of the Duke of Kent’s life and this must have caused both marital strife in the short marriage of the Kents, it also must have demanded a lot of covering up, by both press and of the secret service, so why avoid the topic? In a newspaper article, it has also been disclosed that he had an out-of-wedlock child, who lived a most unhappy life, because the truth was kept away from him. In a biography, these things are what makes a person come alive, tell who the person really was and what he or she was like. But the author does not deliver on this point at all. As a matter of fact, this is a biography on Marina, not George! He is given only 14 pages and those are full of the history of how his parents came to be married and about the Duke of Windsor, his infamous brother. So the title of the book is definitely wrong!
After reading the book, which was so drole that I bit off all the skin by my nails on two fingers, I haven’t really learned anything about who these two people really were and what made them popular. I have no idea why people would invite a sex abuser to their parties? Nor why they invited a haughty ugly woman, who felt that she was the only true Princess in Britain, because of her ancestors?
Marina was Princess of Greece when marrying Prince George. But I would not have put on airs had I been her, because her family was no more wanted in Greece than the plague. The entire first part of the 20th century was a history of the Greek royal family having to go in to one exile after the next. And perhaps that was not more than what to expect in a country which was the first democratic country in the world and a country who had to advertise the empty royal chair and fetch a monarch from the Danish royal family’s younger members. Prince Wilhelm’s sisters both married extremely “well”. Alexandra married Edward VII and Dagmar married Tsar Alexander III and became Maria Feodorovna.
Is there any wonder why Prince Michael of Kent looks like both Tsar Nicholas and George V, with all this intermarrying? And that hemophilia was a common disease in the Royal families? BAD GENES! Maybe they should have done what this “Lady” said in a Midsomer Murder episode “If we had not been breeding out, we would all have been gaga!” (one of my favourite lines).
I guess, at the time, it was very popular to take oneself a Russian bride (plenty of Royals to choose from in the Romanov family), because that is exactly what the new king of Greece did. Wilhelm or George I, as he was to be called, married Tsar Alexander III’s 16-year-old first cousin Olga Constantinovna. She came to Greece with her trunks full of dolls! I tell you, without the genealogical charts at the beginning of the book, I would have been totally lost during the entire book, but especially during all the name throwing in the initial chapters about Marina. The 48 first pages are very tiresome because one tries to keep all the people apart.
But George was not the only one who turned to Russia for a bride (or a groom), his son Nicholas (as well as two of his daughters), went there as well to find a wife and settled on his mother’s first cousin Vladimir’s daughter, Elena Vladimirovna. Doesn’t look like the happiest couple but they did raise three happy girls! Princess Olga was born in 1903, Princess Elizabeth in 1904 and Princess Marina, the baby who almost killed her mother, in 1906. They got to grow up in the Nicholas Palace in Athens, a wedding present from Tsar Alexander III.
The only thing one can find out about Marina, by reading between the lines, was that she was cheeky and rude. She got away with basically any behaviour because in Royal circles, arrogance and wilful behaviour has always been put down as “evidence of character and intelligence”. Not quite what one calls it today! She became the leader in all games because she was obstinate and strong-willed “often in conflict with authority” (“The Duchess of Kent” by Jennifer Ellis, 1952). Perhaps it was not strange that Marina became an arrogant person when one looks at her powerful, scheming grandmother Grand Duchess Vladimir (Maria Pavlovna), who even suggested that Tsar Nicholas’ wife Alexandra needed to get rid of or as she said “she must be annihilated”. The book describes some of the grandeur of the Russian courts of the Grand Dukes and Marina’s relatives, but to me it just got irritating because the book was supposed to have been about her and not the Russian scheming Royal family. Grand Duchess Vladimir did get to go in to exile instead of getting murdered and Queen Elizabeth proudly wears all her tiaras. If I remember correctly, Queen Mary, bought them cheaply from the desperate refugee.
When summer of 1914 came around, life changed for the family of Marina. No more trips to Russia and hardly to any other country either. (In 1918, most of the Romanov family were dead of course.) In 1917 the entire Royal family ran off to Switzerland for safety, since they no longer were wanted in Greece. Marina’s grandfather George had been murdered and the matter of succession was never settled satisfactory for the Greeks.
Meanwhile, Prince Nicholas and his family tried to live frugally and the Prince started to paint for a living. In 1920 the family was invited back to Greece which meant that Queen Elizabeth II’s husband Philip, could be born on Greek soil in 1921, the son of Prince Nicholas’ younger brother Andrew. Marina was 14 years old, had a husky voice and a strong Russian accent. So far, I believed the author describing her, but when he said that she was beautiful and that men were already turning their heads, I must object. I don’t believe it at all, because if you are beautiful at 14 you will be even more so in 1934 and THIS is NOT a beautiful woman:
This is a very plain woman without her jewelry who would not turn any man’s head. THIS, the woman below (from “Manon of the Springs”), is what a beautiful woman looks like according to mathematics, where mouth, angles and everything is in the right place. (Painters did not even know how to paint Marina’s crooked mouth!)
Anyhow, while a war raged in Greece in 1922, Princess Elena took her daughters to Cannes, to put them in the front line for possible marriage candidates and she succeeded, almost, to marry off Olga to the alcoholic Prince Frederick, later Frederick IX of Denmark. The circle would have been closed, but the Prince got cold feet and married Swedish Princess Ingrid , in 1935, instead. The Greek Royal family was once again in exile and they felt it would be a great idea to go to London and let their daughters come out as debutantes. They next dreamed of marrying off Princess Olga, to the Prince of Wales.
Russian born Prince Paul of Serbia, a true anglophile, was in London in 1923 and fell in love with the only beautiful girl of the family, Princess Olga. They married only months after they met, with the Duke of York as best man (George VI).
In the book, it seemed like nothing interesting happened in Marina’s life for years. She did the London season, year after year, without anyone wanting her for a wife. What other conclusion can one draw, when the author doesn’t say anything? Her mother desperately tried to be the successful matchmaker and dragged poor dowdy Princess Elizabeth around to the royal courts in Europe, while Princess Olga above, had to drag around Marina. At the same time as she was popping out babies. In the summer of 1933 the family came together in Olga’s house, in the Julian alps to try to marry off Elizabeth to Carl Theodor Klemens, Count zu Toerring-Jettenbach, and they finally succeeded in marrying off the old spinster! They married 10 January 1934 in Munich.
In 1933, Marina met George at a luncheon party and he found her “too bossy”. In 1934, they started dating and perhaps she was not so bossy after all? Or she was perfect for a bisexual prince? An alibi? Maybe she did not care who she married as long as she could stop her exile life, living in all sorts of countries, and settle down somewhere? She was 27 years old, which was not so young anymore and I am sure the men who went to debutante balls, were not interested in someone as old as her. Besides, there were prettier girls than her to be had and the Russian Royals and Greek Royals were passé, without countries. The author says nothing, either he can’t or he is not allowed to. But in Marina, George had found a playmate, perhaps a woman who would not make a fuss when he had his affairs. She after all received a more prestigious title by marrying him, than what she had, and a more exciting life than what she ever would have with her parents in their Parisian flat. George said according to the author “We laugh at the same sort of thing. She beats me at most games and doesn’t give a damn how fast I drive when I take her out in the car”. Sounds a little like Catherine the Great of Russia, when she tried to make her husband Peter interested in her. Who knows, perhaps Marina already had affairs before his death as well. Maybe their marriage was just a facade to allow them to live the life they really wanted to? The author certainly raises questions when he after George’s death, says that she had affairs but was discrete about them. That was the sort of life these people lived! Bedhopping was the standard thing as long as you were discrete.
One thing the author goes through in detail, is the fact that Marina and George had no problems at all with the Prince of Wales’ affair with Wallis Simpson, nor did they cut contact with them, after the abdication from the throne. David and George were two peas in a pod, “they shared the same sense of humour, the same energy and the same passion for keeping fit. They had similar tastes in music, adored night life, and sometimes formed relationships that were not always considered ACCEPTABLE”. The two brothers were legendary for their nightlife and shared house. They also shared a mistress, Kiki Whitney Preston,
who was part of the Kenya Happy Valley set, known for their decadent ways and having wild sex orgies. She is one of the women, suspected to be George’s illegitimate son’s mother. She was kind enough to introduce George to cocaine and morphine!
On the 29 November 1934, the couple was married in Westminster Abbey and the author does the most of all parties before and after. Describing in such detail, in order to fill out the pages no doubt, just like he did on the Russian court and later on the funeral of the Duke. It just is NOT interesting! In Greece the sentiment was “She has no Greek blood and no Greek passport”.
At first the couple settled in London, where George got to live out his “homosexual” side. He chose all furniture, all decorations, planned all meals including dinners, wine, flowers… She had nothing to do in the household at all it seems, except wear the trousers. He was the wife! Marina concentrated on getting the British women addicted to cigarettes instead, and on clothes! They cut their hair like hers and adopted pill boxes on their heads and turbans. She got them to wear trousers and wear cotton clothes.
Ten months after the wedding, she had a son. And later that year, George V’s favourite sister Victoria died, and left her house to the Kents. Here comes the only funny thing in the book actually. The King and the Princess spoke every day and the following dialogue was recorded: “Is that you, you old bugger?” The telephonist who had answered at the Palace answered “I’m sorry, your Royal Highness, His Majesty is not yet on the line.” Oops! He loved his sister so much that he only survived her by about a month, passing away on the 20 January 1936. Which of course threw the country in to a constitutional crises since the Prince of Wales was in no mood for doing the right thing which was his duty. He had been spoiled beyond belief since birth and brought up in an old-fashioned feudal manner, which gave him the impression that he was entitled to do whatever he wanted to, since his job was given to him by God.
When the Kents moved to their new home, Coppins, after George had re-done the entire place to his taste, which actually sounded very nice, his brother did his best to try to make his adulterous mistress in to Queen Wallis. How different from Henry VIII, who would not have gone close to a woman like that! While the Kents entertained Lois Mountbatten and his wife Edwina, Noël Coward, now friend of them both, and other celebrities, King Edward VIII made a nuisance of himself in Europe, forcing people like Marina’s brother-in-law Paul, to receive Wallis Simpson in their homes. When the new King came home, his brother George asked him how he thought he would get away with it and what Wallis would become? What will “she call herself”, was George’s question to his brother and the King answered “Call herself? What do you think? Queen of England, of course!”. In other words, David, King Edward VIII, really thought he was Henry VIII, a dictator who thought he could rule as he pleased. Amazing! The gall! Talk about living in a bubble and not realizing that the law very much pertained to him as well, perhaps even more so to him, in order to protect the country.
Now one could ask oneself, why the whole episode of the abdication is part of this book at all, since the feelings of the Kents are not declared more than that the Duke was sobbing, when David left the country. For the most part, the author really avoids talking about anything of interest. He goes in to detail, who Marina’s all famous relatives were, he says very little on her childhood, just that she was bossy. He skips her teenage years, only claiming that she was beautiful, he skips the 1920s…. In reality, this is more a book on some Royal families’ intermarriages, giving the dates for children born, describing some ceremonies and pointing out some events. Of the Kents marriage, one finds out basically nothing, except that George was running the household, and the fact that they had three children born 1935, 1936 and 1942. So he stopped off in her bed now and then between his mistresses and lovers? So what?
When war broke out in 1939, they had been on their way to Australia to become Governor-General and George had bought all sorts of curtains, sofas, wallpapers and everything else for their new house in Canberra. The appointment had to be cancelled, the Duke joining up with the Navy again and Marina joining the Wrens. Later George, who hated the navy, transferred over to the Air Force instead but Marina did not move over to the WAAFs. She also volunteered as a VAD. Since George had befriended Roosevelt, he was asked to become Prince Michael’s godparent, which he agreed to happily. I don’t know that they ever met though!
During the war, Marina was totally isolated from her family. Her sister Elizabeth being married to a German, was considered the enemy. Her mother lived under the Germans in Greece. Olga and her husband was in house arrest in Kenya for treason, after signing a document which allowed the Germans to travel through Yugoslavia. They lived in the house of the murdered Earl of Erroll, who had been part of the Happy Valley set.
On the 25 August 1942, weeks after the birth of Prince Michael, the Duke of Kent, left Scotland in a Sunderland plane, with a crew of 11 experienced pilots, navigators and gunners. He was to inspect things in Iceland but they never got very far. The plane crashed without any reason and everyone but one died. All documentation of the accident has conveniently vanished. The flight breafing has had the same fate. Noone knows why the accident happened but there has been an immense cover up about it as everything else pertaining to the Duke of Kent. They have even lied about the crash site being in a different place than what it was. But the court did rule, that eleven men who cherished their lives, made all decisions together that day and that there was no reason to fly at a low altitude, which is what they did. Did the Duke insist on flying that day even though he was no pilot?
This is the part in the book that really tries to tell what sort of person Marina was. It says that she was never absorbed in to the Royal family, properly, since she felt herself of better descent than them, having both Royal and Imperial such, in her genes. She was of the opinion that Royals were of a caste itself and that Europe was composed of dynasties and not of nations. Not quite humble is it? She called George VI’s wife Elizabeth and the Duchess of Gloucester “those common little Scottish girls” and what can one say but that she never grew out of being haughty and rude. Showing character and intelligence right?!
The legend says that she became a poor widow after the Duke of Kent died, because he had left Coppins to his oldest son and his private money in trust for his children. But the author proves that she was by no means a pauper. She sold his possessions at first, in order to maintain the lifestyle she was used to. He gives the money in old world money of course, but those sales alone gave her £112,341 (old money). George VI AND Queen Mary, both gave her private allowances and then when Elizabeth II became queen, she gave her £5000 a year as well as the Parliament awarding her £25,000 a year from the Civil List. The author says that poverty is relative but wants the readers to realize that when she moved in to Kensington Palace, she employed a permanent staff of eleven people and also a private secretary and office personnel. Her car was a Rolls-Royce, she continued to wear couture outfits by designers, her jewelry collection was extensive and she continued to make frequent foreign trips in private and also entertained people in exactly the same style, as when George was alive. In other words, her life did not change one bit with the death of her husband!
The author did not want to go in to any details about her life after George either. He indicated that Danny Kaye was one of her lovers, that is all. But she was discrete with these relationships, just as she was supposed to be according to her class’ rules. Of the three sisters, she was the only one in the public eye in the 1950s. All her other relatives, her mother and sisters, were now private citizens without a country or just having formal titles that meant nothing. But Marina sure made the most of her title. She had the Parliament pay for the renovation of Kensington Palace, where she moved in 1955. They paid £127,000 for it to be fixed for her and the fury was tense when the question was raised, why they should pay for a second home for her and there being “thousands of war widows with no real homes at all”. Good question!
In 1957, the widowed Norwegian king Olav, enlisted King Frederick IX’s help in proposing to Marina. The Danish king recruited the Queen Mother and the young Queen, to help. But to no avail. Marina refused. Why would she marry though? She had everything she had ever wanted: Half a palace, money, jewelry, beautiful clothes and lovers from the political and show business worlds, so why bother with a husband and duties? So Olav remained single too. She also had a lot to do in Britain since she intended to marry her three children off to Royalty. She wanted Edward, the oldest, to marry Margrethe or Benedikte from Denmark, Margrethe the heir to the Danish throne, or Beatrix or Irene of the Netherlands, Beatrix being the heir to the Dutch throne. Alexandra had only one choice, Harald of Norway. Pity he decided on a shopkeeper’s daughter instead! She did not succeed with any of her plans though since none of her children married Royals, but it is assumed they married for love. This planning and scheming just makes the point that her own marriage was probably not even close to a love match. When her oldest son got married, her title should have become Dowager Duchess of Kent but she refused, and chose Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent instead. More regal, right?!
During the years to follow, she was included in all guest lists to Royals weddings around Europe, being related to most, but in 1968, when she was 61 years old, her leg was starting to trouble her. She was falling over without reason and the doctors told her children that she had a brain tumour. They found this out on the 18 July and did not tell her that she only had six months to live. On the 25 August, 26 years after her husband died, she went to lunch, and had a black out that evening. She never regained conscience and died on the 27th. So much for the doctors giving her six months to live. They took George’s coffin out of the vault where he had been resting and took it to the royal burial ground in Frogmore, in the evening of the 28th. On the 29th she was buried beside him. The book ends with that she was the “last truly royal” personality. Sure she was! She acted out her Romanov genes throughout her life even though she long had been an anomaly in a changing world, who did not have room for a person like that anymore. Her siblings were forced to accept facts because they lived where they lived, but she obviously kept up the hope that she still was someone of importance. Just like Wallis Simpson walked around in her French Chateau forcing everybody to call her “Your Royal Highness”. Which planet did these people come from?