If her film career was brief, and her talent unspectacular, Natalie Paley was, on the other hand, the answer to a Hollywood publicist's dream. She was a fascinating creature from a wealthy and famous family, the quintessence of French chic, and almost too beautiful to be real. Her romantic and tragic life was one that no mere fiction could have equalled. From Czarist Russia, to 1930s Parisian high society, and then on to the elite circles of Hollywood and New York City, her life blossomed, then faded. In the end, all that remained was a sad and lonely woman who had graced her century as a rare, but wasted, flower.
Lap of Luxury
Countess Natalie Pavlovna de Hohenfelsen was born at her parents' estate, 2 avenue Victor Hugo (now 4 avenue Robert Schuman), in Boulogne-sur-Seine, close to Paris, France, on December 5, 1905. She was the last child of Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovitch of Russia, who was the son of the late Emperor Alexander II, who had been assassinated in 1881. Natalie's mother was also an aristocrat, Olga Valerionovna Karnovitch, soon to become Countess de Hohenfelsen, a noblewoman from Hungary.
Paul and Olga had met in St. Petersburg around 1895, but she was married to an officer, and was the mother of three children. Grand Duke Paul already was the father of two, and a was a widower; his wife princess Alexandra of Greece had died in childbirth. It was love — secret love — at first sight between Paul and Olga, but not secret for long. On January 9, 1897, Olga gave birth to a son, Wladimir, by Grand Duke Paul. Olga was granted a divorce from her husband and soon left Russia to marry Paul in Livorno, Tuscany, Italy, on October 10, 1902. Their daughter, Irene, was born on December 21, 1903. Not long after, the King of Bavaria gave Olga the title of Countess de Hohenfelsen, a title that was to be handed down to her descendants. They were still vacationing in Rome when Grand Duke Paul was instructed that his nephew, the reigning Czar Nicholas II, had banished him and his wife from Russia. This seems a high price to pay for their new happiness, but Paul and Olga were so in love with each other that such punishment could not separate them.
They settled in Paris and bought one of the most beautiful townhouses in Boulogne-sur-Seine, where Natalie was born in 1905, completing their family. Their luxurious house earlier had belonged to Princess Zenaide Ivanovna Youssoupoff, but had been closed since her death in 1897. Paul and Olga employed a household staff of sixteen maids, gardeners, cooks, and tutors. Wladimir, Irene and Natalie had an incredibly happy childhood with all the advantages of a priveleged upbringing, and for a time, utterly protected from the outside world. Though their parents had a busy social life, the children were very close to them and they ate their meals together, an unusual custom for children of their time and station. On Sundays, the whole family would enter the Russian church on Daru street, but would only attend private mass with the priest who had christened Natalie.
Forgiveness came from Czar Nicholas II in January 1912, and Grand Duke Paul decided to leave France immediately to visit his family in Tsarskoe-Selo, the Czar's residence, near St-Petersburg. Paul felt at home again, and decided to build a luxurious palace full of precious antiques, and decorated with silver and gold. Set amid lovely grounds, the palace needed 64 domestic servents, but beyond the lovely grounds was a nation mired in poverty and seething in discontent.
Little Natalie, insulated from the grim realities of Romanov Russia, was excited about the trip and discovered a whole new family in Russia, including her maternal grandmother, her half-sisters and half brothers. She made friends with her cousins, Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, Nicholas II's daughters. If this was a golden moment in Natalie's life, it was short lived. Three months after they had settled into their new life, the guns of August 1914 erupted, and the roar of cannons would blast away more, much, much more, than the innocence of her childhood.
The Murder of a Family
A shadow now had darkened Natalie's carefree life. Her brother, and most of the men of the family, joined their regiments to do battle against Austria and Germany. Though he was in poor health, the Grand Duke decided to ignore his doctor's advice and left to take command of a Guards regiment in 1916. The war went well at first for Russia, but when the Germans threw in the full weight of their strength, everything began to unravel. In March 1917, after disasterous defeats on the battlefield, the Czar was deposed and the more than 300-year rule of the Romanov's ended. New leaders tried to establish a government more representative of the people, but tragically, democracy would become a distant dream. In November Lenin's Bolshevik faction seized power by force and installed a brutal dictatorship, beginning a more than 70 year reign of oppression and murder.
Instead of leaving the country, Grand Duke Paul and his wife, not seeing the dangers ahead, decided to stay in their luxurious estate amid the upheaval. As Czar Nicholas and his family were deported to Siberia, Natalie's family was held prisoner in its own house. Each day brought new humiliations. Drunken soldiers were now living in their home. In January 1918 their home was turned into a musuem, and Olga was made to serve as a tour guide of her former treasures. Lenin himself was now riding in their fabulous car. The little girls and their mother were later sent to other quarters and forced, for the first time in their lives, to cook and wash, while they endured the taunts of their new masters. Though she never discussed it in any of her personal papers and letters, her friends and family later confessed that Natalie had been sexually abused by soldiers during their captivity. For the rest of her life, this crime would affect her relations with men.
Worse was to come. Wladimir was jailed in Viatka on March 22, his father arrested on July 30. In desperation, Olga, with the help of a few remaining friends, organized her daughters' escape. It was a cold night in early December when the girls left their mother and took a streetcar to the train station of Ochta. After a trip of four hours they had to travel in a cattle wagon, then they jumped into the snow and took a horsedrawn sleigh. Finally, they walked for miles in the frigid night air before they crossed the Finland border. Their frightening 32-hour journey was over, and they were at last safe. Taken to a sanatorium, they anxiously awaited their parents' arrival.
Their father never made it. Grand Duke Paul was killed in January 1919, and tossed into a heap along with the bodies of other victims. Fortunately, Olga reached Finland and her children. She was recovering slowly from the tragedy of her husband's death and surgery from a breast tumor when she received a letter telling how her son Wladimir had been killed earlier, in July 1918. With other members of Russian nobility, Grand Duchess Elisabeth Federovna, Natalie's aunt, among others, had all been tortured, thrown alive into a coal mine, then stoned to death. The ex-Czar Nicholas and all his family were murdered.
A New Start
The Countess and her daughters moved to Sweden, where they stayed until the spring of 1920, then, they came back to France to sell their beautiful townhouse at Boulogne-sur-Seine and buy another in one of the upper-class neighborhoods of Paris, at 50 rue de la Faisanderie, in the 16th district. With her few jewels left, she bought a villa in Biarritz, on the Atlantic coast, where the family would often gather in the future. Later, she would sell her house and buy a smaller one in Neuilly. Though she managed to run her business and devote her life to charities, Olga increasingly looked pale in her black gowns, a very small, broken old woman. One of the most elegant women of fin de siecle Paris, and a customer of the exclusive couturier Paquin, she was now often seen by her visitors in an old bathrobe and slippers, her face heavily wrinkled. Her magnificence, her self confidence, were gone. In 1928, when she learned that her treasures, jewels, paintings, silver, statues and antiques would be sold by the Soviet government in a fabulous auction in London, she went to England and tried to get them back. Her many lawsuits in English courts all failed.
Natalie and her sister were sent to a prominent boarding school in Switzerland, but Natalie was unable to mix with the others pupils. As she confessed later in a fashion magazine interview, she felt ". . . so different from the others. At twelve, French girls were still reading Robinson Crusoe and watching Douglas Fairbanks movies. At twelve, I was taking some bread to my father in jail. How could I have been like them? I was mute, I would not play. But I was reading a lot. I had faced death, so close. My father, my brother, my cousins, my uncles, executed, all Romanoff's blood splashed on my adolescence. This gave me a taste for sad things, poetry, the icy and lightning antechamber of death. Soon, my classmates understood me. And respected the way I was, as strange as it have may seemed."
The sisters came back to Paris, where Irene married Prince Theodore Alexandrovitch of Russia, one of the late Czar Nicholas II's nephew's, on May 31, 1923. But Natalie, though she wasn't lacking suitors, would not consider marriage. Like most other aristocratic Russians who had survived and settled in France, Natalie went looking for a job. She found one when she went to Lucien Lelong's fashion house, 16 avenue Matignon, near the Champs Elysees, where she was signed as a model.
Madame Lucien Lelong
Lucien Lelong, born in Paris on October 11, 1889, inherited his famous fashion house from his father. Already the father of a little girl, he was a hero of WWI and had been made Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur and had received the Croix de Guerre because of his loyalty and courage on the front. With her aristocratic background and her sparkling beauty, Natalie was an invaluable windfall for Lelong's business. For Natalie, this man's position was synonymous with power, money and security. As Natalie warmed to the thought of marriage, her family and friends saw their union as a misalliance. Despite this, the couple contracted a civil marriage on August 9, 1927. The next day, followed by a pack of journalists, they were married in a religious ceremony at the Orthodox church Saint Alexander Newsky. But if the bride, wearing one of her husband's beautiful creations, attracted the admiring stares of hundreds of spectators gathered in front of the church, her look seemed vague and dreamy. Perhaps she was still lost in nightmarish visions of the atrocities that haunted her mind.
Lucien Lelong's reputation grew with the help of his lovely and delicate wife whose taste was exquisite. Ethereal and glamourous, draped in black or white chiffon evening gowns, and red or purple capes, she would not follow any fashion trend, but would dictate her own. Hats and gloves were her signature, and she would wear them in her own very personal and elegant way.
A new darling of the best fashion photographers, soon her name and picture were appearing in the newspapers, not only in the fashion pages, but in the society columns as well. Not merely basking in the light of her husband fame, she was cleverly establishing an image for herself in the Parisian elite.
Though they shared the same infatuation for the arts and fashion, too many things separated the newlyweds to bring them true happiness. Too involved with his work, and in love with one of his famous models who was doomed to die of tuberculosis, Lelong never grew to understand his wife's languor, or her frequent outbursts of temper when she was out of the limelight.
Natalie was devastated by her mother's death in November 1929, at age 64, from the cancer she had successfully fought nine years before. Olga was put to rest in Lelong's family vault in Colombes cemetery. With the loss of her mother, Natalie's childhood memories were scattered to the wind. Even her ties to Irene were now part of the past. While Natalie had become a socialite, her older sister was living a very quiet life revolving around charity work and a school for little Russian girls.
With her husband's affection going to another woman, Natalie searched for consolation. Spending the summer of 1930 in Venice, she embarked on an affair with charismatic dancer Serge Lifar, whose talent was applauded around the world. A former lover of ballet master Serge de Diaghileff, he was the ideal companion for Natalie. Sexually abused as a child, she never considered love other than platonic, a poetic coalescing of two souls instead of two bodies. Their relationship lasted almost two incredible years, until Natalie met another man whose sensibilty and creativity could match Lifar's talent. Again, her choice was strange.
Legendary writer Jean Cocteau was conspicuously homosexual, and a genius whose life reflected his art. Yet his addiction to opium had begun to ravage him. Sadly, he would share his affliction with Natalie who, along with actor Jean Marais, would be among the most important liasons of his life, as she was the only woman he ever wanted to marry, though they never had any sexual relations.
After several quarrels and reconciliations, Natalie definitively left Cocteau in the fall of 1932, though they saw each other until the winter of 1933. Cocteau never got over his loss of her.
The Movie Years
After leaving Cocteau, Natalie decided to move out of her husband's house, and life. She bought a beautiful apartment on the Esplanade des Invalides where she entertained society and the most prominent artists, who would often come for dinner. But she was becoming tired with her artificial life and needed a challenge. She continued to look ravishing in the profusion of photographs released in connection with the Lelong fashion house, but her mind was far away and her eyes reflected it. As naturally as she had turned to modeling, she turned to the movies in the spring of 1933.
For her first effort, L'Epervier, directed by her husband's famous cousin Marcel L'Herbier, and gowned by her husband, she studied acting with a famous Belgian actress, Eve Francis, the former wife of director Louis Delluc and a favorite of Paul Claudel. L'Epervier's plot was common but the cast was interesting. The story relates the adventures of an aristocrat, Count George de Dasetta, played by Charles Boyer, and his wife Marina (Natalie Paley), two crooked gamblers who live a luxurious life until she leaves him for a young diplomat, Rene de Tierrache (actor Pierre Richard-Willm). Then, informed of his suicide attempts, the unfaithful wife returns to her husband. Filmed on location in Parisian studios of Joinville, Biarritz and Rome, L'Epervier was the mirror of Natalie's life though few could have noticed at that time. If it was not one of the big movies of the year, it was a personal victory for a woman whose life had seemed so empty. "A star is rising, lit up by a flame of promises," and "a ray of sunlight on a snowy landscape," were some of elegant descriptions inspired by her screen presence, including, "She looks like an Andersen character, one of those inscrutable fairy tale characters with an angel face."
Now that she was called "the new Garbo" and was often compared to her friend Marlene Dietrich, she began to believe in her own ability, and started a melodrama in 1934 called Le Prince Jean, again with actor Pierre Richard-Willm, directed by Jean de Marguenat. Except for the protagonists, the movie itself (the story of a prince who, after several years in the foreign legion, comes back to his kingdom to find his brother on the throne) is quiet naive and uninteresting and failed at the box office. She had only a very little part in her next, The Private Life of Don Juan, starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and Merle Oberon, directed by Alexander Korda and made for London Films in England. Undiscouraged, in the fall of 1934, with dozen of trunks packed with the latest and finest Lelong creations, she headed for Hollywood after Twentieth Century had called for her. A brilliant future in American films was predicted. Sadly, this was not to be.
Co-directed by Roy del Ruth and Marcel Achard, the glossy musical L'Homme des Folies Bergeres, which began production in December, was the French language version of Folies Bergere. Maurice Chevalier, in his usual debonair character mold, would play, in both versions, the part of two men who exchange identities for a few hours. Natalie had the part of the Baroness Genevieve Cassini, played by Merle Oberon in the English language version. Self-conscious, Natalie was not at her best in this forgettable comedy, released in the spring of 1936, which did not help her American debut.
She was in better company under George Cukor's guidance in Sylvia Scarlett, written for the screen by John Collier from the novel by Compton Mackenzie, starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Brian Aherne. In a secondary part of the Russian exile Lily Levetsky, Natalie was the perfect stereotypical vamp.
From the French city of Marseille, Henry Scarlett (Edmund Gwenn) escapes from his creditors with his daughter Sylvia (Katharine Hepburn) who, to avoid detection, disguises herself as a boy, Sylvester. On their way to England, they meet Jimmy Monkley (Cary Grant) another crook. In London, they try to use a maid, Maudie Tilt (Dennie Moore), in a theft, but Sylvia/Sylvester objects. Hitting the road as entertainers, they meet handsome artist Michael Fane (Brian Aherne) who is embroiled in a relationship with the sexy Lily Levetsky (Natalie Paley). After her father has committed suicide, Sylvia, still known as Sylvester, is determined to continue on with Jimmy, but, as she rescues Lily from a suicide attempt in the ocean, Monkley makes off with her. Sylvia then accompanies Michael Fane on a search for Lily and Jimmy, both believing that the other person loves someone else. Then, on a train they find Lily and Jimmy, but realize the inevitable . . . that they have fallen in love with each other. They stop the train, run off the woods, while Lily and Jimmy quarrel.
Shot on location in Laurel Canyon and Malibu from mid-August until late October 1935, Sylvia Scarlett cost RKO $1 million to make. One of the four Grant/ Hepburn collaborations (the others being Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, The Philadelphia Story) Sylvia Scarlett is notable for showing the ambiguity of Hepburn's own character, reflecting both her feminine charm and her masculine behavior. Although one of the most intriguing films of the 1930s, it was widely panned, and helped stigmatize Hepburn as "box office poison."
Natalie soon forgot she had a career to promote, as she had found in Cukor the perfect friend she longed for. Cukor himself was under her charm. Throughout his life, he kept one of her photos, a Cecil Beaton portrait, in his house, an honor shared only with Katharine Hepburn.
Released on January 3, 1936, Sylvia Scarlett was unusual for its sexual ambiguity. Katharine Hepburn kissing Dennie Moore, and dialogue such as Brian Aherne saying he feels a little queer looking at "him" — Hepburn dressed as a boy — shocked American Puritanism and did nothing to build a following for Natalie Paley. American audiences would not discover her in Le Prince Jean until late 1936, and L'Epervier in 1940, long after her retirement. But she returned to France as a star.
Paradoxically, her Hollywood film career was over almost as soon as it had started. She then made her last movie in 1936, Les Hommes Nouveaux, a drama dedicated to the late marshal Liautey, who had been a hero of WWI in Morocco, starring Harry Baur, Gabriel Signoret, Max Michell and Jean Marais, who had only been an extra on Natalie's first film.
Although she was reluctant to make another film, she was convinced by Marcel L'Herbier to play the part of a beautiful widow, Countess Christiane de Sainte-Foy, caught in the secrets of her troubled past. The premiere, on December 22, 1936, was a phenomenal success, but Natalie had already made up her mind about her life. Her conventional marriage, more a formality than a true and faithful love; her career, unpromising since her beauty seemed her only asset; and her past, so full of tragedy; all were things she wanted to escape.
She settled in a beautiful apartment in New York City, and there became, as in Paris, a fashionable and charming lady with whom any elite gentleman would love to be seen. She was a favorite of Elsa Maxwell, the Iowa-born celebrity gossip columnist and chic hostess. Natalie became a frequent guest of Maxwell's memorable parties, like the "Barn Dance", a masked ball held at the Waldorf-Astoria for citified dandies wanting to make fun of rustic simplicity, even as they were charmed by it. Several ducks, pigs, lambs and donkeys had been brought in as the exclusive hotel was decorated with haystacks. Aristocratic Natalie, as beautiful as ever, came dressed as a shepherdess.
Shortly after her divorce from Lelong on May 24, 1937, she made the official statement to the press that she would marry a theatrical producer, John Chapman Wilson, the following September. Wilson, born in 1889, was a native of Trenton, New Jersey. A brilliant student, he had worked with his father for a while in his Wall Street office, but found the stage irresistable. Time and time again, he tried vainly to sell his scenarios. Then he met actor Noel Coward in 1925.
Their relationship, a stormy love affair marked by drugs, alcohol and infidelity, was practically over by the early 1930s. It would be amusing to know what the worldly Coward, a circumspect guest at the wedding, thought of Wilson's union with Natalie. Perhaps the bride and groom could be equally cynical about their arrangement. Wilson knew that his beautiful and popular wife could open many doors for his business as a Broadway producer. Natalie, for her part, liked her husband's humor, and his homosexuality suited her distaste for physical love. Once again, she was searching for a friend, and nothing more.
By now, Saint Moritz and London felt as familiar as Venice for Natalie and her husband, who were tirelessly traveling around the world. When in New York, they lived in a chic appartment on East 57th Street. Later, they purchased another one on Park Avenue, a cottage in Montego Bay, Jamaica, and a large property in Fairfield, Connecticut. In view of her indifference to the world, it was hardly surprising that WWII touched her only because her family and friends were living abroad. Though she went back to France in 1947, she would space out her trips in Europe to spend more time in her luxurious residences, principally in her Connecticut estate, which her husband sold in the spring of 1957.
Since Wilson was a heavy drinker, whose habit gradually was spiralling out of control, most of their friends had deserted them by the late 1950s. Toward the end, his mental imbalance manifested itself in his bedroom decor, a nightmare of black furniture, black walls, black curtains, and even black sheets. Natalie tried to do what she could to help him, but he was self-destructive and she could do nothing more. Confined to a wheelchair, often violent, and in a state of increasing dementia, he was a shadow of his former self when he died in November 1961, at age 62.
The world that once welcomed her so warmly was growing colder, and Natalie slipped inexorably into obscurity after her husband's death. So many of her friends, the witnesses of her former splendor, were now dead. Jean Cocteau, Erich Maria Remarque, Coco Chanel, Noel Coward, Lucien Lelong, and so many others, had departed. Now, she was condemned to loneliness. After 1975, she shut herself off from the world and became a recluse. She even refused to see her few remaining friends and family, though she took their phone calls, but when she became blind, she was grateful to find a few admirers who took care of her until the end. In 1978, she was deeply moved when dancer Serge Lifar sent her a short letter, using a Pushkin quotation: "We shall never forget our first love. The heart of Russia won't forget you. And you, my heart will never forget you."
On December 21, 1981, she had fallen in her bath and had broken her femur when she was rushed to the Roosevelt Hospital emergency unit. After surgery had failed and her condition had worsened, she whispered to her doctor and nurses, "I want to die in dignity."
She was 76 when she passed away on December 27. After a very private ceremony, she was interred alongside John Chapman Wilson in a New Jersey cemetery. The pale, flickering light sparked by her little brush with fame had never freed her from the tragedies that darkened her life. Now, finally, she was free.
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