…and lived happily ever after with someone else.
This is the story of Princess Xenia Georgievna of Russia, best known for her entanglement in the longest-running royal mystery of the 20th century. We’ll get to that hot mess, but I think the rest of her life is way more interesting.
Princess Xenia was the second daughter of Grand Duke George Mikhailovich and Princess Maria of Greece and Denmark, born in 1903. But in case you thought being a princess is all tiaras and glitter, think again — sometimes you catch chicken pox from the tsar’s kids.
In 1910, Xenia and her older sister Nina got a bundle of Christmas cards and presents from Tsar Nicholas II’s kids, who were down with the chicken pox. So when Xenia and Nina opened the presents, of course they came down with it, too.
But Xenia didn’t recover.
According to her mom, chicken pox turned into blood poisoning, which became peritonitis and then pericarditis. The doctors shook their heads and said there was no hope.
Then, Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna got permission to bring St. Seraphim’s relics to Xenia’s bedside.
The relics had never left Moscow before, but Xenia’s condition was grave enough to warrant drastic action. Two days after priests installed the relics on a special altar, Xenia whispered faintly, “Mama, you can send the Holy Saint home; I am cured!” ¹
But “cured” wasn’t the right word. She couldn’t walk for months, and weighed next to nothing. Her mom later wrote, “Nobody will ever know what that child suffered.” ²
Everything Falls Apart
In royal circles, it was no secret that although Grand Duke George loved his wife, Maria didn’t return the favor. By the summer of 1914, she was ready for a trial separation.
Maria wrote in her memoir that she left Russia because the doctors told her Xenia needed the bracing Yorkshire air. Her grandkids heard differently.
But two weeks before their scheduled departure, Gavrilo Princip killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo. Did Maria suspect war was coming? If so, she was desperate enough to leave George to risk it.
Maria, Nina, and Xenia waved goodbye to Grand Duke George at the train station in Warsaw. But by the time they arrived in Yorkshire, all anyone could talk about was war. Armies were mobilizing. Diplomats were packing up shop. George sent a telegram asking them to come home as soon as possible.
But Maria had gone to London to visit family.
By the time she got back to Harrogate to collect the girls, Britain had declared war. Or at least that’s what Maria wrote…I can’t help but wonder if she intentionally dragged her feet.
In any case, they were stuck in England now. “Feel completely crushed and so anxious. A real hell of a position. May God have pity on His World,” Maria wrote in her diary. ³
Her daughters resented her for separating them from their father. It created a wound that never fully healed.
Xenia’s worried dad sent telegrams every day, and Maria did petition the British government for permission to leave. They refused. Land travel was impossible, and the sea route was too dangerous, thanks to German submarines.
As the war dragged on, Maria moved to London and enrolled Xenia and Nina in school. They befriended Mrs. Nancy Leeds, a wealthy American widow engaged to Xenia’s uncle, Prince Christopher of Greece and Denmark.
Then, in March of 1917, terrible news filtered back from Russia: there were riots in St. Petersburg, the tsar had abdicated, and the government had fallen.
The letters and telegrams from Grand Duke George stopped.
By mid-1917, he’d made it as far as Finland in an attempt to get out of Russia legally, and was waiting on local authorities to give him the green light. He waited too long. They arrested him. Only the occasional letter now got through to England — the last one was dated November 27, 1918.
Two months later, the Bolsheviks shot George, along with his brother and two cousins, in the Fortress of St. Peter and Paul.
Maria broke the news to Xenia and Nina on February 5, 1919, when she finally learned the truth.
Xenia only had one memento of her dad, a toy she’d brought with her. It was a red mohair Steiff teddy bear George had commissioned just for her. His name was Alfonzo.
Xenia kept him until the day she died.
A New Life
Xenia was now a princess without a father and without a country. The revolution liquidated her family’s money and property. On the plus side, her mom’s Greek family regained their throne in 1920.
Maria, happy at last, declared she’d marry the first Greek she met upon their return. She wasn’t joking, either. That man turned out to be the guy driving the boat who brought her family back to Greece, Pericles Ioannides.
You can imagine how well this went over with her daughters.
In August of 1920, Xenia’s uncle, Prince Christopher — now married to Nancy Leeds, who took the Greek Orthodox baptismal name of Anastasia — invited them to hang out with him in Italy.
On the way to Venice, Maria, Xenia, and Nina bumped into Nancy’s son from her previous marriage, also on the way to their family reunion. Since William “Billy” Leeds is going to figure prominently in our story, let’s take a moment to meet him.
Billy the Kid
Billy’s father had been one of the richest men in America.
Where’d he get it all? In a word, metals. His nickname was the “Tin Plate King” and he made a ton of money from a merger with J.P. Morgan’s U.S. Steel.
When he died in 1908, he left an estate worth between $30 and $40 million. Not surprisingly, Billy grew up to be tabloid fodder — they called him “The World’s Richest Boy.”
His mom, Nancy, was paranoid about kidnappings. She hired two detectives to follow Billy everywhere, and a chauffeur and footman to take him to school. But then Nancy noticed something about rich young American men — “They do not work and most of them drink.” ⁴ So she enrolled Billy at Eton instead, hoping the British influence would keep him from turning into an Edwardian Kardashian.
Billy didn’t grow up to be a drunk, but he did have a taste for danger. He loved travel, sailing, racing speedboats, and flying.
A Whirlwind Romance
In 1921, a year after their family reunion in Italy, Princess Anastasia got sick and needed emergency surgery. Billy rushed to Athens to be at her side.
During the surgery, the doctors diagnosed incurable cancer and Prince Christopher asked them to keep it from Anastasia so she could live out her remaining years in peace. He took her to Paris to recuperate, and Billy, Maria, Xenia, and Nina followed.
A few days later, Billy borrowed Prince Christopher’s car and proposed to Xenia on a moonlight drive.
She said yes, eager to escape the mother she resented and a new stepfather she wasn’t crazy about.
Both mothers were horrified. They begged the kids to wait until they were older. Billy and Xenia refused. The mothers gave in, afraid the kids would make good on their threat to elope.
They married in Paris that October, with Xenia’s cousin Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich (one of the conspirators who’d murdered Rasputin) as a witness. Her uncle, Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich (“Sandro”), gave her away.
Xenia was 18. Billy was 19.
New York State of Mind
Xenia and Billy settled in New York and, at first, everything was great. They were rich, good looking, and had society at their feet. They hobnobbed with socialites, politicians, and movie stars. Billy bought a beautiful estate on Long Island, Harbourwood, which they renamed Kenwood.
There, Xenia — obsessed with animals — kept around 100 pets. She especially loved her big dogs, schnauzers and German shepherds. She also got involved in show riding and horse breeding.
In 1925, they had a daughter, Nancy.
As for Billy, his restless spirit only strengthened over time and Xenia got swept up in his adventures. In 1927, with Billy sitting behind her, she test-drove a new 500hp torpedo speedboat over Long Island Sound, reaching 63.07 miles per hour (blazing fast for the time).⁵
Later, Billy bought that boat for $75,000. One day, he planned to take it out with Xenia and their house guests, Fred and Adele Astaire. Billy and Adele got into the boat first. But when he started the motor, it exploded in flames. Billy grabbed the unconscious and burned Adele, lifting her back onto the pier, where Xenia and Fred were still waiting to board. Then he pushed the boat away before a second explosion destroyed the boat entirely.
The newspapers ate it up — Billy was a real-life action hero.
A Royal Circus
But once again, what should have been a fairy tale…wasn’t.
In a turn of events that will shock no one, the couple eventually realized they didn’t have much in common. Billy loved being out at sea on his yacht, the Moana, but Xenia preferred to stay home. They began spending more time apart.
Then, in 1927, Xenia got involved with the Anna Anderson case. Some believed Anna Anderson was actually Grand Duchess Anastasia, a miraculous survivor of the Romanov massacre at Ekaterinburg in 1918.
Xenia volunteered to host Anna Anderson in the United States, in part to try and figure out if she was really Anastasia. She came to believe in her, but Billy wasn’t a fan; he hated the media circus surrounding Anna Anderson and didn’t care for the woman herself. The feeling was mutual.
The strain of Anna Anderson’s antics took its toll on an already disintegrating marriage.
William and Xenia divorced in May of 1930. She got custody of Nancy and moved into a small cottage in nearby Syosset, Long Island.
After the divorce, Billy told the press, “I’m just not the marrying type.” ⁶ Then he married a girl he’d saved from drowning and later gave her the 43-carat Nassak diamond as an anniversary present.
Mother Knows Best
In 1936, Xenia met a younger man — a tall, blond stablehand at the Long Island Meadow Brook Hunt Club named Herman Jud. You’ll see rumors online that he was her horse trainer, that they’d had an affair during her marriage.
It’s not true.
Those rumors confuse Jud with her actual horse trainer, Charlie Plumb, who denied any personal relationship with Xenia and married in 1939.
Xenia fell in love with Herman, but decided to wait until Nancy was older before pursuing a relationship. She moved to Glen Cove, bought a large house, and focused on her daughter’s upbringing and education. Neighbors referred to her only as “the Princess.”
But when Nancy turned 18, the timing just wasn’t right for Xenia to move on — it was the middle of World War II and Herman had joined the Navy. So she waited patiently. When Nancy married in 1945 and Herman got back from the war, safe and sound, Xenia felt free to follow her heart.
She married Herman Jud on August 10, 1946 at her home in Glen Cove. She was 44; he was in his 30s. She gracefully slipped out of the society pages, living a quiet life with the man she loved.
Xenia died in 1965.
Be My Teddy Bear
In 1989, Xenia’s daughter put her mother’s beloved teddy bear, Alfonzo, up for auction.
A collector named Ian Pout bought the bear for £12,100 pounds. The next year, Steiff released limited edition “Alfonzo” and “Baby Alfonzo” reproductions. Pout wrote a book about Alfonzo, subtitled “The World’s Most Romantic Teddy Bear.” Today, Alfonzo is in his new home at the Teddy Bear Art Museum in Billund, Denmark.
It’s fitting. He belonged to a princess who survived illness, war, revolution, scandal, and divorce to find happiness in a simpler life out of the spotlight. What’s more romantic than a happy ending?
¹ Grand Duchess George, Diary, 144.
² Grand Duchess George, Diary, 143.
³ Grand Duchess George, Diary, 159.
⁴ Broyles, “Richest Boy.”
⁵ Albany Evening Journal, “Motorboat.”
⁶ Flynn, “Palace.”
Broyles, Susannah. “The World’s Richest Boy — the Life of William B. Leeds.” Museum of the City of New York Blog. Accessed August 11, 2020.
Christopher, Prince of Greece and Denmark. Memoirs of H.R.H. Prince Christopher of Greece. London: Hurst and Blackett, LTD, 1938.
“Fire Destroys Leeds’ Yacht.” Amsterdam Evening Recorder, July 9, 1928.
Flynn, Joan King. “From Palace to Hicksville.” The San Francisco Examiner, December 29, 1946.
George, H.I. & R.H. Grand Duchess. A Romanov Diary. New York: Atlantic International Publications, 1988.
“Whale-Fluke Motorboat Is Guided by Mrs. Leeds at 63.07 Miles an Hour.” Albany Evening Journal, November 21, 1927.
Header image, background: Romanov gathering with Grand Duke George Mikhailovich (Xenia’s father) on the right. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.