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.
A Dance with Destiny
The disastrous set-up happened in Prussia, during a visit to her mother’s father, King Friedrich Wilhelm III.
One day, there was a lunch dance for younger members of the family, where Olga danced with Crown Prince Maximilian of Bavaria. One of Olga’s Prussian aunts, Elise, became fixated on the idea that Max should marry one of Alexandra’s daughters.
Max did his part by developing an instant obsession with Olga.
He took one look at her, realized she was the spitting image of a woman in a painting on the castle wall at home, and figured it was a sign. They were clearly meant to be together.
As they danced the cotillion, Max told Olga about his castle of Hohenschwangau, his favorite poets, and what he expected from his future wife. Olga was confused — why would someone she just met start talking about what he wanted from a wife?
She didn’t understand that Max was trying to fill her in on everything she’d need to know as the future Queen of Bavaria.
Bored out of her skull, Olga looked around for someone to rescue her, but none of the other boys wanted to cut in. Everyone else knew this was Max’s grand romantic gesture, and no one was going interrupt that moment.
Finally, when the music ended, Olga escaped with a sigh of relief.
Run for Your Life
The next morning, Max cornered her again. This time, she was outside, taking a walk through the palace grounds. Instead of listening to him pontificate yet again about what he expected out of a wife, she ran.
She straight-up ran away…and Max chased her.
Olga dashed around the pond like a horror movie heroine, looking for safety. Finally, she caught up with one of her uncles and clung to him, gasping with relief. She refused to let go of Uncle Wilhelm until they were safely in the midst of a crowd again.
But Olga’s aunt, Elise, had seen all the commotion and was fed up with her niece’s antics.
Elise thought Olga was being a tease at best, and cruel at worst. It was up to Olga’s mom, Alexandra, to intervene and set the record straight. Alexandra told Elise not to pester Olga because she was too young to understand what Elise and Max wanted from her.
And then, to avoid any further drama, Alexandra took Olga aside and explained what Aunt Elise wanted — for her (or one of her sisters) to marry Prince Max.
Olga, horrified to the depths of her soul, cried out, “No, no no!”
Was Olga being willfully obtuse? Could she really have been so blind where Max was concerned, especially if everyone around her had it figured out?
We know Olga was book smart, speaking three languages by the time she was five years old. But she wasn’t street smart — no sheltered daughter of the tsar could be. In any case, she spent the rest of their Prussian vacation avoiding Max so he had no chance to propose to her.
The Hard Sell
Two years later, Olga and her mom were on vacation in the posh spa town of Bad Ems in Nassau. It was probably the last place she expected memories of Max to pop up. But then his parents — King Ludwig I and Queen Therese of Bavaria — dropped by to say hi.
It wasn’t long before Olga realized where Max had gotten his strange intensity from. One day, while passing each other alone in a hallway, King Ludwig handed Olga a poem and told her to read it out loud. She did.
When she got to the phrase, “rose and lily,” Ludwig interrupted her with a cry: “That’s you! I want you in marble and oil.”
A little older and a little wiser, Olga didn’t run away this time. She just smiled, made no commitment to be painted or sculpted by kooky King Ludwig, and slipped out of the hallway.
But the Max flashbacks weren’t over yet.
Olga had another famous visitor in Ems: the Duchess of Leuchtenberg, born Princess Augusta of Bavaria. The duchess brought her beautiful daughter, Théodolinde, to hang out with Olga.
Now, according to Olga, Théodolinde was hopelessly in love with Prince Max.
She also had the crazy idea that, if she couldn’t have Max, she wanted him to have the object of his desire — Olga.
In her mind, all she had to do was convince Olga to accept Max, and all would be right with the world. So Théodolinde talked Max up big time, telling Olga how much she’d love being Queen of Bavaria.
Olga was like, “Seriously? Are we going to do this again?”
In the end, Théodolinde should have saved her breath. She had zero effect on Olga.
A Test of Strength
But Olga’s trials and tribulations weren’t over yet.
On the way home from Bad Ems, she and her mom stopped in Darmstadt…where Max just happened to be visiting his sister.
It was another set-up, of course. The grown-ups wanted to give Max a second chance to impress Olga.
As Max spoke, she looked for a spark of compassion, animation, something, anything she could relate to…but found nothing. She later described Max’s “complete lack of light, natural character.”
In the end, everything about the set-up felt forced and artificial. The parental ambush had backfired.
“I needed a husband who would lead me by virtue of his strong heart,” Olga wrote. “But Max did not meet such a need at all.”
Later, in a typical teenage emo moment, she compared herself to Iphigenia, the daughter King Agamemnon killed in order to mend fences with the goddess Artemis.
The “Nightmare” Ends
In late 1841, Max sent a message to the Russian court: he was visiting nearby Mecklenburg and wanted to stop by and see Olga. As Olga later put it, he was “burning for a reunion with me.” When her mom asked if it was okay for Max to come over, she was afraid to say no.
And so Max was invited to St. Petersburg.
But this time, Olga was saved by the bell. When the courier came back with letters from Munich, there was one from King Ludwig and Queen Therese, Max’s parents. In it, they said Max had already proposed to someone else, so there was no point in him coming to Petersburg. They refused to divulge the name of Olga’s savior.
When she heard the news, Olga was ecstatic.
“Who was happier than me! A burden fell from my heart and I jumped for joy. Since my visit to Berlin in 1838, the famous Max had been the nightmare of my life.”
So who did poor Max marry, if not Olga or Théodolinde?
He chose Princess Marie of Prussia. Both of their sons eventually became King of Bavaria, although they were declared mentally unfit to rule and eventually deposed. One of those sons? The famous King Ludwig II, who built Schloss Neuschwanstein and died mysteriously at Lake Starnberg in 1886.
As for Olga, her long and tangled romantic history didn’t end in 1841. It went on for four more years, during which she shot down several potential suitors, lost one to a sister, and asked her father to test the limits of Russia’s relationship with Austria in pursuit of a boy she’d never met. Her story is interwoven with that of her sisters and cousins, all part of a book I’m working on (slowly). All quotes in this story come from her memoir.
Olga, Königin von Württemberg. Traum der Jugend goldner Stern. Reutlingen: Günther Neske, 1955.
Header image, Olga: Painted by Alexey Vasilievich Tyranov in the 1840s. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Background: Schloss Hohenschangau, painted by Ferdinand Jodl in 1836. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.