Romanov conspiracy theories

Between 1918 and 1991 no one knew for sure what had happened to the Romanovs. The Russian government admitted that Tsar Nicholas had been executed but they were close-lipped about the fate of the others. It’s little wonder that conspiracy theories sprang up and imposters stepped forward. Apart from anything else, the Romanovs were worth what would be $300 billion in today’s terms, much of it rumoured to be deposited in foreign bank accounts.

Nicholas II had been a disastrous ruler, quite willing to order his troops to fire on his own people; Alexandra was suspected (unfairly) of sneaking state secrets to her native Germany during the First World War and there was that ill-considered relationship with Rasputin. But no one had any evidence of wrongdoing by the children, the youngest of whom were just seventeen (Anastasia) and thirteen (Alexei). Who could have been barbaric enough to massacre these innocents? It was hard to accept that any government would sanction such a thing. Thus the world’s readiness to believe some or all had survived.

The best-known Romanov imposter was Anna Anderson, who turned up in a Berlin asylum

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Anna Anderson

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Grand Duchess Anastasia

in 1920 and claimed to be Anastasia. Loads of people believed her, including the children of the family physician Dr Botkin, who had died with them in the Ekaterinburg house, their cousin Grand Duke Andrei, and even the composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. Anna Anderson died in 1984, still maintaining that she was the Romanovs’ youngest daughter. DNA tests ten years later showed otherwise, but as recently as 2014, Russian historian Veniamin Alekseyev claimed that the tests had been flawed, the DNA contaminated. He thinks that Anastasia probably did escape and Anna Anderson could well have been her. French historian Marc Ferro goes further by suggesting that Alexandra and her daughters might all have survived, with only the tsar and his son Alexei murdered.

There were several claimants for each of the Romanov children, and the story that particularly fascinates me is that of Larissa Tudor. She made no claims herself but after her death in 1926 rumours began to circulate that she had in fact been Grand Duchess Tatiana. Where did the large sum of money she left her husband come from? Why did he take flowers to her grave every year on the date of Tatiana’s birthday? And why did he have ‘Feodorovna’ carved on her gravestone (Feodorovna was her Alexandra’s patronymic) when according to Larissa’s marriage certificate her maiden name was Haouk?

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Grand Duchess Tatiana

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Larissa and Owen Tudor

Larissa made several contradictory claims about her own background, most famously that she was a belly dancer living in Constantinople when Owen Tudor, an officer in the King’s Own Hussars, met her in 1921. They married in London in 1923 and lived a very quiet life near Lydd in Kent. Larissa died of tuberculosis three years later but after her death rumours began to spread. When neighbours who had known her were shown portraits of Tatiana by author Michael Occleshaw, they all exclaimed “That’s her!”

There are a number of theories about how Tatiana could have escaped from Russia but Occleshaw thinks she was flown out of Ekaterinburg in early July 1918 by British agents and made her way east through Canada and hence to Britain.

What do I think happened? You’ll have to read my new novel The Secret Wife to find out.

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Could the Romanovs have been rescued?

If only JFK had been in a bulletproof limo in Dallas in November 1963. If only von Stauffenberg’s plot to kill Hitler had been successful in July 1944. And amongst history’s other ‘if only’ moments are the various attempts to rescue the Russian royal family in 1917 and 18.

After they were arrested on the 16th of March 1917, the family hoped that they would either be sent into exile in their beloved Livadia Palace on the Crimean coast, or transported to Britain, where Alexandra was closely related to the British royal family (she was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria). Another plan was that they go to Denmark, birthplace of Nicholas’s mother, or perhaps Switzerland, which was neutral in the Great War.

Telegrams began whizzing between European foreign offices as every foreign secretary tried to offload the political headache onto another country. One thing was clear: they had to move quickly because the situation in Russia was volatile. An offer of asylum was sent by Britain on the 23rd March and a plan was drawn up to get the Romanovs to Murmansk, where a British cruiser could collect them. But at that point, King George V got cold feet. Where would they live? Who would subsidise them if they couldn’t get their own money out of Russia? Would his subjects rise up in protest? On 30th March, the offer of asylum was quietly rescinded. It had been their best chance of survival.

The Romanov girls in captivity in Tobolsk

The Romanov girls in captivity in Tobolsk

In August 1917, the family were moved to Tobolsk in the heart of Siberia. Hundreds of miles from the sea it was going to be much harder to rescue them, but still there were several plans. Two businessmen, Jonas Lied and Henry Armistead, proposed to the British Foreign Secretary that they would whisk the Romanovs out of Russia in James Bond style, using a fast motorboat to take them along the river systems to the ocean. However, this had to wait till spring because Tobolsk’s rivers were frozen throughout the winter months.

In October 1917 Lenin seized power and straight away took a hard line against the erstwhile royals. Alexei, the Tsar’s haemophiliac son, injured himself during the winter and could no longer walk, while Alexandra was mostly bedbound with sciatica, making rescue increasingly problematic. A Russian commissar, Yakovlev, tried to divert a train and get the family to Omsk, a town not yet under Bolshevik control, but this plan was scuppered by militant railway workers.

Instead the Romanovs were taken to Ekaterinburg and placed in the ‘House of Special Purpose’, where they were much more heavily guarded than at any previous accommodation. The net was closing, but still the intrepid Armistead was plotting to get them out in his motorboat. Others had their own schemes but any rescue would have involved a shoot-out with armed guards, which was risky.

Ironically, it was rumours of these rescue attempts, combined with the approach of around 40,000 Czech troops, that forced Lenin’s hand. At around 3am on the 17th of July 1918 the Romanovs were brutally murdered in a dingy basement.

If only George V had been more charitable. If only Henry Armistead had got them out of Tobolsk before winter set in. If only…

Why do actors and actresses have sex with each other?

The answer seems obvious: because they can. Most actors and actresses are better-looking than average, with bodies they spend a lot of time starving and pounding into shape, so they’re not short of offers. And if you were kissing George Clooney/Scarlett Johansson/Ryan Gosling/[insert your personal favourite] on a film set all day, wouldn’t you get just a little bit frisky and keen to try some extracurricular practice?

Affairs between lead actors and actresses are the stuff of legend: Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Bogart and Bacall, Simone Signoret and Yves Montand, Taylor and Burton, Melanie Griffiths and Antonio Banderas, Pitt and Jolie, Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz. … Many directors encourage it for that extra verisimilitude in the performance. Besides, no matter the cultural credentials we as audience may claim, we turn up at cinemas in droves to watch the actors we would like to sleep with – so it does no harm to box-office receipts if the gossip mags confirm they are indeed highly sexed.

Scientists at Newcastle University have researched the personality types of actors and compared them with the general population only to find that they are A/ more extravert than the rest of us (which figures); B/more open to new experiences (I guess they have to be); and C/are much more narcissistic and neurotic than the average (ah-hah!). Maybe it’s that mixture of narcissism (“How wonderful am I!”) and neuroticism (“Can’t you see how wonderful I am? Do you not love me? Does the public not love me?”) that explains the need for the ego-massage of an affair with someone equally as hot as yourself.

I imagine the problem lies in distinguishing ‘real life’ from scripted make-belief. Do they fall for the other person or for the role they are playing? If they want to stay together, how do they make the transition into domesticity? What do they make of each other’s morning breath and the stray pubic hair in the shower?

UnknownCleopatra director Joe Mankiewicz described Burton and Taylor as not so much lovers as “two actors who didn’t know how to get off stage because there wasn’t a scriptwriter around to show them how”. And so they carried on with the performance through fourteen booze-fuelled, tempestuous years.

Burton had his feet slightly more on the ground with his Welsh valleys upbringing, but Taylor had been acting out the fantasy of ‘life as a Hollywood script’ from the age of ten. She hadn’t been exposed to anything else and it meant she would forever be choosing princes who couldn’t actually live up to the hype. She persevered through eight husbands and countless lovers but none could cut the mustard so she hankered after the ones she couldn’t have – Mike Todd, who died in a plane crash; and Burton, who got himself off the booze and found a flesh-and-blood intellectual equal for his final marriage.

Of course, actors and actresses are subject to all the usual complex reasons why any of us have sex with anyone else; but some of them make it much more tortuous – and a damn sight more public.

Always the last to know…

Robert Pattinson found out that Kristen Stewart was having an affair after photographs were taken of her canoodling in a car with Snow White and the Huntsman director Rupert Sanders. Reese Witherspoon allegedly discovered incriminating text messages between husband Ryan Phillippe and Abbie Cornish. Tiger Woods tried to convince his wife he was completely faithful but the sheer number of women claiming to have had affairs with him meant he finally had to put his hands up.

It’s tough being a celebrity (or married to one). Not only do you have the shock and hurt of being cheated on, but there’s often the humiliation of the press or public finding out about it before you do.

Back in Rome in 1962, when Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton got together on the set of Cleopatra, the cast and crew were in on the secret long before their spouses had a clue. When the script called for Anthony and Cleopatra to kiss, the pair lunged for each other and didn’t appear to hear the director, Joe Mankiewicz, calling “Cut!”. (“I feel as though I’m intruding,” he quipped.) Burton indiscreetly bragged in the men’s makeup trailer that he’d ‘nailed’ his co-star in the back of his Cadillac. They used her secretary’s apartment for secret trysts and were often seen sneaking to each other’s trailers for ‘cocktail hour’ with shawls thrown over their heads.

EddieElizabeth’s husband, the singer Eddie Fisher, heard the whispers but dismissed them: she was the most beautiful woman in the world and there had always been rumours but he trusted her not to cheat. Big mistake.

After a close friend phoned to tip him off, Eddie turned to Elizabeth as they lay in bed one night and asked her directly: “Tell me the truth: is there something going on between you and Burton?”

“Yes,” she replied quietly.

SybilIt all got a bit less dignified after that. Eddie went to tell Richard’s wife Sybil, who wasn’t greatly surprised because her husband had slept with pretty much every leading lady he’d ever worked with (apart from Julie Andrews). Sybil was prepared to put up with it so long as it ended when filming was over.

It was Richard who wanted Eddie out of the way. He turned up drunk at a dinner party Elizabeth and Eddie were throwing and insisted she had to choose between them.

“Who do you love?” he slurred. “Show me who you love.”

And in front of their friends, and Eddie, she walked over and gave Richard a deep passionate kiss.

Eddie finally took the hint but it would be another year and a lot more heartache on all sides before Richard decided to leave his wife and family to be with Elizabeth. And we all know how that ended…

Years later, Eddie Fisher developed a stage act in which he joked about his ex, calling her “Elizabeth, the nympho of the Nile”. Sybil Burton took all Richard’s money in the divorce settlement and maintained a dignified silence right up until her death on 7th March this year at the age of eighty-three.

Le Scandale

When Kristen Stewart cheated on Robert Pattinson last year, the media worked themselves into a frenzy. It was just like the scandal back in 2005 after Brad Pitt left Jennifer Aniston for Angelina Jolie, when Jolie was characterised as a heartless homewrecker. But this was nothing to the treatment meted out to Elizabeth Taylor fifty years ago when she dared to have an affair with Richard Burton on the set of the movie Cleopatra.

Burton was known for sleeping with his leading ladies while his wife Sybil turned a blind eye. No harm done. He was only doing what actors have been doing since time immemorial. But the public still hadn’t quite forgiven Elizabeth Taylor for stealing husband number three from American sweetheart Debbie Reynolds. She had form.

Elizabeth Taylor's trailer on the set of Cleopatra.

Elizabeth Taylor’s trailer on the set of Cleopatra.

Once news of the Burton-Taylor affair became public, paparazzi followed everywhere, leaping in front of them to explode flashbulbs in their faces and besieging them in their homes on location in Rome. Taylor was condemned by the Vatican cardinals, no less, who called her “an erotic vagrant” and an unfit mother. An American congresswoman, Iris Blitch, tried to pass a motion banning her from ever returning to the United States because her behaviour “lowered the prestige of American women abroad” and “damaged foreign relations with Italy”. And after filming was over, Twentieth Century Fox sued her and Burton for $50 million, claiming Cleopatra would earn less money because the public were so horrified by their antics.

All bets were that Burton would have his fun, while bumping up his price per picture through association with the most famous woman in the world, then he would return to Sybil as he always had in the past. They had the same Welsh roots. They had two daughters together, one of whom was autistic. All their friends and his extended family were on Sybil’s side.

But that’s not how it panned out. His affair with Taylor was tempestuous and dangerously addictive. He gave her a black eye; she made him buy her fabulous jewels. He turned up drunk at a dinner party at her villa and in front of guests made her choose between him and then husband, singer Eddie Fisher. She chose Burton, thus ending her fourth marriage when she was still only thirty years old. Over the next year, she gradually lured Richard away from Sybil with a combination of porn-star bedroom techniques, witty repartee, occasional suicide attempts, and a capacity for alcohol matched only by his own.

After much toing and froing, by Cleopatra’s premiere in June 1963, Richard had finally told Sybil their marriage was over. He lost everything in the divorce – his family, his money, his friends in the English theatrical world and, some said, his credibility as an actor. In return he got the woman he called his “wildly exciting lover-mistress”.

I couldn’t resist writing about events on the film set in my new novel, The Affair, which comes out in May. Of course, all shoots have their problems, but the Cleopatra one was exceptional: it had a budget that started out at $2million but ended up more than twenty times that (adjusted for inflation it’s still the third most expensive film ever made); a star who demanded bowls of chilli to be flown in from Chasen’s in Los Angeles and insisted she needed days off when she was menstruating (or had a hangover); and a huge cast hired for a ten-week shoot who ended up staying for ten months, most having the time of their lives.

Against the backdrop of ancient Rome, Burton and Taylor were creating their own mythology. It’s easy now to characterise them as ego-driven alcoholics who collided and hurt others in the collateral damage; they were original couple who were famous for being famous. But that would ignore the body of exceptional work they created both together and individually: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Under Milk Wood, Where Eagles Dare, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Burton’s theatre work was legendary. Taylor’s charity work, especially for AIDS, was hugely influential.

As the 50th anniversary of the Cleopatra premiere approaches, and Richard Burton’s star has finally been laid next to Elizabeth Taylor’s in the Hollywood Walk of Fame, maybe it’s time to remember them as actors who achieved great things, as well as entertaining the world with what they themselves referred to as Le Scandale.

Are those with Titanic-themed products coming out for the centenary simply jumping on a bandwagon?

A cartoon in today’s Sunday Times books section shows a bookseller drowning under an avalanche of Titanic books. In fact, there are 78 books about the Titanic scheduled for publication in the UK this year, up from 68 last year and just 10 the year before. This ‘avalanche’ extends to virtually every other form of media, with James Cameron’s 3D feature film, Julian Fellowes’ TV mini-series, loads of TV documentaries, operas, theatre productions, concerts, new museums … see Greg Ward’s calendar of events at http://blogtanic.wordpress.com/events-calendar-2/.

Cartoon from the New York Herald, 17 April 1912.

I have written two Titanic books myself, one published last year and one coming out in 10 days. Have I jumped on a bandwagon, along with all these other writers, musicians and artists? The term has an implication of opportunism, a hint that we might not have chosen this topic were we not pretty sure that it would be popular – and I can’t speak for anyone else but personally but I would have to hold my hands up to this. I earn a living from writing and have to choose subjects people want to read about or my income will dry up. Publishers are on a regular look-out for anniversaries in order to hitch their wagon to publicity generated by other media, and my non-fiction Titanic book was the result of a commission from a far-sighted publisher back in 2009.

However, I don’t think anyone who has a Titanic product coming out around this time has created it without caring deeply about what happened in the north Atlantic on the night of the 14th/15th of April. You can’t immerse yourself in the subject without becoming emotionally involved. I also think most of us were already Titanoraks and the centenary just brought an opportunity to get our work out there. I’ve been passionate about the Titanic story since I was a teenager. Both my grandfathers worked in shipbuilding on the River Clyde and I grew up knowing about the great luxury liner that sank on its maiden voyage. The story really got under my skin when I saw the film A Night to Remember, and I think I’ve been waiting for a chance to write about it since then.

Of course, it’s important to remember that this is the centenary of a tragedy in which 1,500 people died, and many of them are still remembered by living relatives. There is a line that shouldn’t be crossed, so that we are commemorating events but without being disrespectful to the dead. None of the books and other media I’ve come across so far have been in bad taste, although there are forums where some argue that the costume cruises to the site of the sinking are a step too far.

The Titanic is part of our cultural memory. Before April 1912, the word “titanic” meant “colossal, strong, all-powerful”, after the Greek gods called Titans. Now it has become synonymous with catastrophic disaster, one that could so easily have been avoided. It is a subject that still creates controversy and makes us analyse our own moral values and, as such, a prime arena for artists working in all media. I welcome the diversity of artistic interpretations that is emerging and personally am going to take in as many of them
as I can.

Does period accuracy matter when you’re writing historical fiction?

Costa award-winning author Andrew Miller said on the Today programme that he chooses a historical period and a setting for his novels then pretty much does what he likes with them. If you write gasp-out-loud prose like his, with extraordinary ideas and unforgettable characters, that’s absolutely fine with me.

Julian Fellowes was recently criticised for using colloquialisms in Downton Abbey that weren’t in use during the 1910s in which series 1 and 2 were set (http://slate.me/wA8R9e). Did it spoil our enjoyment of the shows? Not one iota. In fact, using the jargon of the era can make dialogue confusing for modern readers and slow the pace of the narrative.
If you’re telling a story, you don’t want to weigh it down with phrases that require clunky explanations, such as ‘goldbrick’ (1850s), ‘barnburner’ (1840s) and ‘horsefeathers’ (1920s).

We long ago accepted that characters in Hollywood’s historical epics dress and talk more like movie stars than ancient Greeks or Etruscans. If your story and characters work, you have an entertaining product, whether it’s a novel, a TV series or a film. So why do I knock myself out trying to ensure my historical novels are accurate?

Partly it’s because I like reading books that I can learn from and I’m hoping my readers feel the same way. I love immersing myself in an historical situation and trying to imagine what it must have felt like to be there, breathing the air. Before I had Reg, one of the main characters in Women and Children First, buy a hot dog from a hot-dog seller in Times Square, I made sure that hot dogs were sold there in 1912 (they were, but it was too early for burgers in America). I read the works of contemporary authors, especially Edith Wharton, to get a feel for the way they spoke in
New York society at the time. I consulted old editions of Vogue for the clothes upper-class ladies would have worn.

And although I invented some characters on board the Titanic, I made every single description of the ship and its sinking factual… at least I hope I did.

But feel free to let me know if you come across any bloopers!