Cosmopolitan, Accomplished Life of a 20th-Century Princess


By Christine Sutherland

Farrar, Strauss & Giroux

318 pp., $30

She was a great beauty, a talented writer, a Romanian princess adored by powerful men in Germany, France, and Britain. Her life included literary triumphs, personal tragedies, great wealth and aristocratic status, two world wars on her doorstep, and then exile from her homeland - with some fame but no longer any fortune.

"Enchantress: Marthe Bibesco and Her World," by Christine Sutherland, is a tale with the sweep of romantic fiction. It is in fact a true story that encapsulates the culture and politics of 20th-century Europe through the life of a remarkable woman.

Born in Romania before the turn of the century, Marthe Lahovary was married at 16 to George Bibesco, scion of one of the country's noble families. "I stepped onto the European stage through the grand door," she wrote on her wedding day. Her father, who had been educated in France, held the post of foreign minister.

Fluent in French at an early age, Marthe spent the early years of her marriage under the tutelage of her stern mother-in-law, who saw to it that she got a thorough education in European history and literature. An old peasant woman, Baba Outza, saw to it that she was also well-versed in Romanian folk traditions and tales. Meanwhile, her husband, George, was chasing fast cars and women - but also adding to the family fortune.

Marthe was bored, despite the birth of a daughter, Valentine. When George was sent by the king on a mission to the Shah, she eagerly embarked on a trip to Persia, recording her observations in a journal.

Launching a literary career

The travel memoir she wrote about what she saw, "Les Huit Paradis" ("The Eight Paradises"), launched her on a lifelong career as a successful writer of both nonfiction and novels. She became the toast of Belle Epoque Paris, moving easily among the literary and power elites. She was awarded the Prix de l'Acadme Franaise and met Marcel Proust, who sent her a letter praising her book: "You are not only a splendid writer, Princess, but a sculptor of words, a musician, a purveyor of scents, a poet."

Among the European nobility, divorce was social death, but dalliance was not. While Marthe and George continued in what was sometimes actually a mutually supportive partnership, they pursued their own interests. A French prince fell in love with Marthe, an affair that lasted for a decade. The German Kronprinz (the Kaiser's son), though married, wrote warmly affectionate letters to her for 15 years. In Paris, she also encountered the Roman Catholic Abb Mugnier, converted from her Orthodox faith, and began an extensive, frank correspondence with him that was to last 36 years.

When Romania at last entered World War I on the Allied side, Marthe worked at a hospital in Bucharest until the Germans burned her home in the Carpathian Mountains. She fled the country to join her mother and daughter in Geneva. There she continued to write. For most of her life, she wrote every morning until lunchtime. Her journals alone fill 65 volumes.

In Switzerland, she began "Isvor: The Land of the Willow." Sutherland calls it Marthe's Romanian masterpiece, writing that it "conveyed brilliantly the everyday life and customs of her people, the extraordinary mixture of superstition, childlike philosophy, resignation and hope, and the unending struggle between age-old pagan beliefs and Christian faith."

For the Bibescos, however, life after the war was more cosmopolitan than Romanian. Marthe rebuilt Posada, her mountain home, and began restoring another family estate, Mogosoa, a splendid Byzantine palace with a mile-long drive. When Valentine married a Romanian noble in a dazzling traditional ceremony, three queens attended, creating a protocol puzzle.

Moving around Europe, acclaimed as each new book appeared, Marthe "gravitated toward power." The prime minister of Britain, Ramsay MacDonald, found her fascinating. She visited him often. He wrote many touching, tender letters to her. Their close friendship ended only with his death.

Accompanying George, who was now chasing fast planes - in addition to his women - Marthe flew everywhere. Whatever she wrote was a critical success and also sold well. But it wasn't enough money for the heavy expenses of her Mogosoa project, so she began writing popular romances under a pseudonym and articles for magazines under her own name. She had a long-term contract with The Saturday Evening Post. As the winds of war began again to sweep across Europe, Marthe began to prepare. Her older grandson was sent to school in England in 1939 (he was not to see his homeland again for 56 years). Romania entered the war, this time on the wrong side.

Marthe had a passport and connections that enabled her to leave in 1945, never to return. The communists took over and confiscated all the Bibesco property.

Life in Paris after WWII

Eventually, Valentine, her husband, and their younger son were released from Romanian detention and allowed to go to England, where Marthe, now totally dependent on her writing for money, bought them a home. She remained in Paris, cherishing the 1962 award of the French Lgion d'Honneur.

Now a grande dame, she enjoyed her last great friendship with a powerful leader, Charles de Gaulle, who took a copy of "Isvor" with him when he visited Romania and told her in 1970: "... you do personify Europe to me."

"Enchantress," the first biography of Marthe Bibesco in English, is based on her voluminous diaries, letters, and published correspondence. Sutherland's narrative moves swiftly and gracefully, and the cultural and historical context gives it depth. The result is a highly readable and informative life and times. But additional photographs of Marthe (with dates), a map, and an index that lists more than names would have been useful.

Sutherland's poignant epilogue reports that in 1995, Marthe's grandson was invited to Bucharest by a recently formed foundation "dedicated to 'the person and writings of Marthe Bibesco' with the object of using her work and ideas to help with the 'speedy integration of Romania into the European community of nations.' " The foundation plans to translate her work - written in French - into Romanian.

* Ruth Johnstone Wales is Page 1 editor of the Monitor.

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