In 1940, one of the most valuable paintings in private possession was Hans Holbein’s Darmstadt Madonna, worth at least $1,000,000.¹ It belonged to a German prince, Ludwig of Hesse and by the Rhine.
When World War II broke out, Ludwig sent the painting to one of his estates in Silesia (modern-day Poland) for safekeeping. But when the Soviet Army marched on Berlin, they occupied Silesia along the way.
To keep the painting out of Soviet hands, a loyal retainer rescued it and drove west, narrowly escaping the bombing of Dresden along the way. After being shot at en route, he arrived in the city of Coburg, exhausted and afraid. …
The problem started with Prussia. In 1866, Prussia picked a fight with Austria to take over as shot-caller among Europe’s German-speaking territories. Those territories now had to pick a side in the war that followed.
King George of Hanover chose Austria. Turns out, he chose poorly.
Prussia trounced Austria and her allies in a matter of weeks. Then Prussia annexed Hanover and seized George’s property and assets, leaving the royal family jobless and homeless. But George refused to abdicate — he’d been crowned and anointed, chosen by God to rule his kingdom. No Prussian could change that.
So he moved to Austria, where his court in exile became a focal point for the anti-Prussian sentiment. When George died, his son — sharing his bitterness against Prussia — also refused to abdicate. …
In 1870, Emperor Napoleon III of France did something really stupid: he declared war on Prussia. The Prussians — better armed, better trained — made short work of the French army. After trying and failing to get himself killed at Sedan, Napoleon III surrendered.
Back in Paris, his wife and regent, Empress Eugénie, scrambled to save the monarchy. Barely sleeping, existing on coffee and chloral hydrate, Eugénie broke down when she heard what her husband had done.
Then the news got worse — the Prussians were on their way to Paris. Eugénie sent the Louvre’s valuable art away for safekeeping and gave her jewels to Princess Pauline Metternich to smuggle out of France in her husband’s diplomatic pouch. …
Future First Lady Louisa Adams spent six years in St. Petersburg while her husband, John Quincy, was the U.S. minister (read about their Russian adventures in my previous story). John left Russia in 1814 to help negotiate a truce with the British. Finally, in February of 1815, he asked Louisa to join him in Paris as he awaited his next post.
Louisa, fed up with Russia, was more than happy to oblige.
There was just one problem.
She now had to get herself, her 8-year-old son, and her son’s nurse across a continent ravaged by the Napoleonic wars. …
If you’re ever on Jeopardy!, here’s what you need to know about Louisa Adams: until Melania Trump, she was the only First Lady born outside the United States.
Her father, a merchant from Maryland, had moved to London for business, where he married and started a family.
In 1795, his 20-year-old daughter Louisa met John Quincy Adams, the son of future president John Adams. The couple married in London two years later but weren’t destined to live a quiet life at home.
Marie Louise was born in 1872, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Her dad — clearly a history buff — named her after Napoleon’s second wife, but the family called her “Louie.”
Her parents, Princess Helena and Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein, lived at Victoria’s beck and call. Once, when Victoria was watching the kids, she sent Helena a reassuring telegram:
“Children very well, but poor little Louise very ugly.” ¹
Louise inherited her grandmother’s blunt honesty and deep family loyalty.
She was close with her only sister, Thora, and her cousin, Alix. That cousin would grow up to be the last empress of Russia, Alexandra Feodorovna. In the picture below, you can already see Alix’s brooding intensity (top left) and Louise’s open sincerity (bottom left). …
When I was little, I never understood why movies about real people featured the following disclaimer: “Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is purely coincidental.”
It was a blatant lie.
Of course, Elliott Ness in The Untouchables wasn’t made up. Neither was Mozart in Amadeus.
So why does that disclaimer exist? Because of a series of bad decisions that can be traced back to Rasputin and the fall of the Russian empire.
In 1932, MGM Studios released the film Rasputin and the Empress. The only movie to star all three Barrymore siblings (Lionel, Ethel, and John), fictionalized the sinister relationship of the “mad monk” Rasputin to the Russian imperial family. …
Born in 1858, Princess Louise of Belgium was the eldest daughter of King Leopold II and Queen Marie Henriette. As parents, these two were not stellar examples, albeit for different reasons.
Leopold, far more concerned with his cash than his kids, was uninvolved at best. Marie Henriette loved her children dearly, but love didn’t mean telling her teenage daughter about the birds and the bees.
Two weeks shy of her seventeenth birthday, Louise was married to her 31-year-old second cousin, Prince Philip of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.
The morning after, Louise slipped away to cry in one of her father’s greenhouses. A sentry found her sobbing in her nightgown and slippers. Later, she wrote that her wedding night left her “bruised and mangled in her soul”; after they hauled her back to the palace, she was “more dead than alive.” …
It helps when everyone involved actually knows it’s a date.
In 1838, Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna Romanov found herself on a blind date with a boy she later described as “the nightmare of my life.” At the time, she was just sixteen years old, the middle daughter of Tsar Nicholas I and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. Although she was smart and pretty, Olga felt invisible next to her seductive older sister and angelic younger sister.
But she wasn’t. Not by a long shot.
In fact, she had no idea just how visible she was to a few members of her extended family. …
There’s a reason “dictator” and “matchmaker” are two separate career paths.
In 1913, Princess Viktoria Luise of Prussia — the kaiser’s only daughter — married Prince Ernst August of Hanover. The sovereigns of Great Britain, Russia, and Greece descended on Berlin to celebrate. Britain’s Queen Mary cried at the ceremony, and the bride danced with Tsar Nicholas II of Russia at the banquet that night.
It was the last big royal shindig before World War I.
And it was definitely an occasion to celebrate — Viktoria Luise had chosen Ernst August for love, bringing the enmity between their formerly warring families (closer) to an end. …