Like his bride? Within hours of the newspapers landing on British breakfast tables, a flustered Buckingham Palace was issuing denials, prodded by an indignant Connaught family which knew that the reports of a betrothal were wholly baseless.
The source of this non-betrothal lay in Denmark, where the Dowager Empress and her sister Queen Alexandra had as usual holidayed together that summer in the house they jointly owned at Hvidore. Eavesdropping courtiers, listening to their eager talk about Michael’s marital prospects, had somehow translated hope into fact, telling the Reuters agency in St Petersburg that what the sisters intended had already happened. Wisely, the Dowager Empress and Queen Alexandra kept silent, pretending to be as baffled as everyone else.
Two years later, in October 1908, they tried again, sending Michael to London, where the Queen ‘paired’ him off with Princess Patricia for a weekend at the British royal family’s country home at Sandringham, 100 miles from London.31 Michael was polite, but disinterested. The only woman he was then interested in — or ever would be again — lived in Gatchina, and was married to a fellow officer in his regiment. Her name was Madame Nathalie Wulfert. Five years later it would be why he would find himself an exile in England.
2. SCANDALOUS EXILE
MADAME Nathalie Wulfert — known as Natasha — was five foot six inches tall, slender, fair-haired and possessed of deep-set velvety blue eyes which once seen would be rarely forgotten. In December 1907, when Michael first set eyes on her, she was twenty-seven, elegant, poised, and very beautiful, with a way of holding herself, a look about her which turned eyes wherever she went. Her taste was impeccable, she had immense charm, she was unquestionably clever and at the dinner table she could converse easily and knowledgeably about books, theatre, ballet and opera. Her friends included the young composer Sergei Rachmaninov and the famed basso Fedor Chaliapin, and she could claim acquaintance with some of the best-known sculptors and painters in Russia. That was more than could be said of the conventional Guards wife in small-town yet snobbish Gatchina, where salon conversation rarely rose above the trite. However, these same salons had something to talk about when Natasha arrived — a divorcée with a four-year old daughter from her first marriage to a Moscow pianist, Sergei Mamontov, who worked at the Bolshoi opera.
Although divorce had become more common in recent years, it still came with a considerable stigma in conservative circles, and that included the narrow world of Gatchina. The Dowager Empress, like her London sister Queen Alexandra, frowned on divorce and would not entertain anyone who had parted in that way. Since the Blue Cuirassiers was her regiment, divorcées could expect a cold reception from the wives of senior officers. As Natasha would swiftly find out, she was not welcome in the higher salons, and as the wife of a mere lieutenant it was doubtful if she ever would be.
Natasha had been born in a rented summer dacha in Petrova, on the outskirts of Moscow, on June 27, 1880, some eighteen months after Michael. Over the next twenty years her father, Sergei Aleksandrovich Sheremetevsky, had built up a successful law practice, employing eleven lawyers in all, and for a time was a deputy in the Moscow City Duma.1 Well-known in Moscow, he lived comfortably in a spacious apartment, No 52, at 6 Vozdvizhenkan, close to the Kremlin.2 Of his three daughters, Olga married a promising lawyer Aleksei Matveev — destined to play an important role in Michael’s life — Vera a successful businessman, and Natasha, the pianist Mamontov who hoped one day to be a conductor, which in time he would be.
Unfortunately, one score he could never conduct harmoniously was his marriage. Inevitably other admirers stepped into his place, and after five years Natasha was divorced and had become wife of Lieutenant Vladimir Wulfert, with an apartment home at 7 Baggout Street, close by Gatchina’s Warsaw railway station. She and her daughter Tata had been there only a few months when Michael first set eyes on her in early December, 1907, in the regimental riding school;3 having introduced himself, he would never look at another woman ever again. In his case, it was love at first sight.
Michael was very correct, and although local society gossiped inevitably about the way he danced attendance on Natasha, her husband made no complaint, seemingly flattered that he had found himself in a Grand Duke’s inner circle, dining in the palace, a welcome guest at every function at which Michael played host, and in his own mind with prospects of unexpected advancement in a regiment where otherwise he might spend years trying to get on the next rung of the ladder. However, as months passed, the public face of the marriage concealed its failure behind the closed doors of Baggout Street. Wulfert was a violent man, prone to rages, and an indifferent step-father to Natasha’s daughter Tata. By June, 1909, the marriage collapsed, and Natasha walked out never to return. After that the new man in her life became the adoring Grand Duke Michael. The scandal struck when Wulfert, blaming Michael for the break-up, challenged him to a duel.4 When news of that reached Tsarskoe Selo in July 1909 a furious Nicholas immediately despatched Michael to command a provincial cavalry regiment, the Chernigov Hussars, in faraway Orel, 240 miles south of Moscow. Wulfert was also removed from the regiment, and given a staff job in the Kremlin.
However, Michael was not giving up on Natasha. By November 1909 he had installed her in a house in Moscow, which he treated as his weekend home, swearing never to ‘leave or abandon’ her. Within weeks she discovered she was pregnant and on July 24, 1910 she gave birth to an illegitimate son to be named George, after Michael’s elder brother who had died so young in the Caucasus. Although subsequently Natasha was granted a divorce from Wulfert — but only after Michael paid him 200,000 roubles (more than $3m in today’s value) to go away5 — her prospects remained that of being Michael’s mistress and never his wife. There could be no Marriage No 3; she accepted that as did Michael. He regarded her as ‘his true wife’, but both knew that could never be written on a marriage certificate in Russia. All they could hope for was that they should be allowed to live quietly, and privately, away from the public gaze.
That seemed to be the resigned response of Nicholas, and even Empress Alexandra, after the birth of baby George. Natasha was banned from joining Michael in Orel, but she was allowed to stay at his nearby country estate, Brasovo. Michael was also allowed to take her abroad on holiday, provided that they travelled incognito. However, in 1911, two years after Michael’s banishment to Orel, Nicholas decided that it was time for him to return to public duties in the capital, as colonel and commandant of the Chevalier Gardes, the premier cavalry regiment in Russia. Michael pleaded that he would prefer to go on serving quietly in Orel, with his family close by, than be back in the limelight of St. Petersburg, but Nicholas would not hear of it. In consequence, and dreading it, in January 1912, Michael and Natasha found themselves back in the capital, but apart.
MICHAEL had been told by Tsarskoe Selo that if he brought Natasha to the capital he would not be allowed to see her publicly, set up home with her, or move back into the Anichkov Palace on the Nevsky Prospekt, his mother’s home and the place where he had been born; instead, he would have to live in modest quarters at the regimental headquarters. Given that choice, he took the quarters.6
For Natasha and the two children he rented a huge 28-roomed apartment at 16 Liteiny, in the fashionable heart of the capital. Natasha protested, saying that it was far too big — ‘I don’t even have the furniture’, she told him. ‘To live on my own in an empty house is very depressing’.7 Nevertheless she moved in, and tackled the business of turning the echoing apartment into a comfortable home, though it was one few would ever visit.