Memories of a visit to
by the wife of a US diplomat in the early 1900s
In 1912, five years before the Russian revolution, the wife of a former US diplomat published her reminiscences about the imperial and royal Courts they had been presented to. She retained her anonymity and had her memories published under the title “Intimacies of Court and Society”. The following is a transcript describing a visit to the Vladimir Palace in Saint Petersburg: home of the Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna and her husband Grand Duke Vladimir.
The Vladimir palace is on the Palace Quay, overlooking the Neva, and was built when the grand duke brought his German bride to Russia. Going up the broad stairs of Italian marble, with a marble nymph upon either side peeping from behind green foliage, and where long mirrors give you back your photograph framed in flowers, you pass some fine Gobelin tapestries at the top, and enter a spacious drawingroom. It is hung in rich red velvet and has a curious ceiling of oak, heavily encrusted with gold, and contains three large cabinets filled with the grand duchess's collection of jewelled flowers, the gold stems rising from tiny pots of rock crystal, the leaves formed of jade, and the petals of the roses, orchids, carnations, hyacinths, tulips, violets, etc., made of enamel laid upon gold with a ruby, a diamond, or an emerald at the heart of the flower.
The family dining-room opens into the drawing-room where, upon the wall above the comfortable American fire-places, there are a hundred or more plates of gold, upon which bread and salt have been offered as homage to the family in their journeys among the cities of the empire. And the walls are ornamented with a unique Russian design in gold, which is repeated upon the stamped leather of the furniture. In the different rooms there are rare collections of old Russian things, but the banquet-hall is the only one entirely in the style of the country. There a porcelain stove reaches almost to the ceiling, elaborately painted in the half Eastern, half Western style of the Russian artists ; the ceilings and walls are covered with variegated woods from the Russian forests, and there are large paintings of native scenes which are among the chief treasures of the house. But it is in the ball-room where the family have won their social triumphs with numerous bals masquerades organized by the bachelor son of the house, the Grand Duke Boris. The two ball-rooms are divided by a row of white marble pillars, and with the musicroom connecting, all decorated in white and gold, with painted Cupids upon the ceiling carrying garlands of roses and delicate draperies trailing in soft clouds around the crystal chandeliers. In the private apartments, which are thrown open for a ball, there is a winter garden, where the family generally gather for afternoon tea, and various sitting-rooms opening one into the other, one, however, particularly charming, which, I remember, was hung in pink brocade and furnished a la Pompadour, and which the mistress of the palace used as her boudoir. There the inquisitive guest might find the latest books on bridge and poker, with volumes of Russian poetry, and novels in German, French, and Italian, and not far away the Lutheran chapel, built for her as a bride when she deliberately refused to enter the Russian church.
Beyond the boudoir is a marble swimming-pool modelled after the celebrated ones at Peterhoff, where she takes a cool plunge every morning, and beyond that a studio, where she spends an hour or two every day. But her most intimate room is the Moorish room of the palace, where the fantastic domed ceiling and walls, inlaid with red and blue, paled in interest before the great collection of royal photographs filling one whole corner of the room, nearly every royal personage of the time, but not as one would see them at court or in their photographs sold in the shops the Czar smiling like a boy, and the Kaiser, moustache and military swagger subdued, lounging in a careless attitude ; the unhappy Queen of Portugal as gay as a girl ; even the melancholy, timid Czarina radiant and animated, the Grand Duchess herself as a tiny little girl with her mother, in a quaint German dress, and a big hat in her hand. At a fancy dress ball I remember seeing her for a few moments standing in the centre of this room, the thick fur of a white bearskin at her feet, with the ferocious mouth open and the terrible teeth hanging out, her luxuriant, regal figure clothed in the gorgeous blue robes of the native Russian costume, the gown and head-dress, kakoschnick, ablaze with jewels, and the long velvet train carpeting the floor behind her. She stood the personification of Russian femininity, enchanting in its touch of barbaric wildness and its tinge of Oriental voluptuousness the strong face calculating, yet careless, showing a nature swept by the hot fires of the South, yet as cold as the North one of the most remarkable women of her day, portraying a combination of contradictions best described as most Russian.