In the middle of World War I, Queen Marie of Romania wrote to her first cousin, King George V of Great Britain: “I never imagined that it would be the lot of our generation, we who are children together, to see this great war and in a way to have to remodel the face of Europe.”
Grandchildren of Queen Victoria alongside the Kaiser of Germany, the Queen of Norway, the Queen of Spain, the Tsarina of Russia, the Queen of Greece, the Crown Princess of Sweden and countless German royals, that is in fact very much with what George and Marie were tasked in the 20th century. For the royal men, they at least had something approaching an education and training to complement such a job, but for Queen Victoria’s granddaughters, born and raised in the height of the Victorian Era, it was by far easier to stumble as they were dropped in the midst of increasingly politicized foreign courts with few tools to leverage.
As for Marie, Bucharest was far from home and her husband a far cry from her first love (George V), but despite a tyrannical father-in-law, an unstable mother-in-law, a series of affairs, illegitimate children, proximity to Russia and a shared heritage with Germany, she established herself as a popular and effective queen consort to the Romanian people.
Marie, always known as Missy, was born on October 29, 1875 to Queen Victoria’s second son, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, and his wife, Grand Duchess Marie of Russia. Her parents’ marriage had begun as a love affair, one for which Alfred had fought any number of roadblocks to see through, but Marie found life in England onerous and her English in-laws even worse. The beloved daughter of the Russian Tsar, Marie was horrified that she was preceded in the court hierarchy by her husband’s female relations. Over the years she developed a strong antipathy to anything British, much in the way that her sister-in-law, the Princess of Wales, was similarly prejudiced against the Germans.
Missy’s early years were spent in her parents’ estate in Kent, Eastwell Manor, surrounded by her siblings. Her elder brother, Alfred, was a year older, while they were joined in the nursery by Victoria Melita (“Ducky”), Alexandra and Beatrice. The family split their time between Kent, Clarence House in London (now the home of today’s Prince of Wales) and Osborne Cottage on the Isle of Wight. Summers at Osborne and frequent visits to Windsor ensured that the Edinburgh children saw much of their august grandmother, Queen Victoria, who Missy referred to later as her “wonderful little old Grandmamma.”
Alfred’s naval career demanded that his time be spent away from home and so it was that Marie was the central figure in her children’s lives. She was an attentive and loving mother, if strict, and even as her children grew older she continued to both fiercely protect and berate them in equal measure. In 1886 Alfred took up command of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Squadron and moved his family to Malta. It was the end of Missy’s residence in England, but for the next three years she was able to enjoy a private, informal existence during which she became a skilled horsewoman and enjoyed more freedom than she ever would again.
In 1889, following the death of the childless Duke Ernest of Saxe-Coburg, older brother to Queen Victoria’s late husband, Prince Albert, the Edinburgh family moved once more to Coburg, with Alfred and Marie its new Duke and Duchess. By then, however, Missy had already attracted her first suitor – the second son of the Prince of Wales, Prince George. Like Alfred (another second son), George was also a Navy man and had been stationed in Malta at the same time as the Edinburghs. He was a frequent visitor and often played the role of companion to Missy and Ducky, though his preference for the older sister was clear.
They began writing letters to one another, screeds that grew more emotional as Missy grew older and they were separated by distance. Early in 1891 he wrote: “It is nearly nine months since I have seen you, but you are constantly in my thoughts.” The proposed match between the cousins was blessed by both of their fathers, but the mothers in question had never gotten along and Marie was horrified by the idea of her daughter marrying into the British Royal Family. She ordered her daughter to make clear that there could never be an engagement between them, which she dutifully did.
Only 16 at the time, we have no way of knowing the depth of Missy’s feelings, but she kept gifts that George gave her during their courtship until her death and they remained close friends for the whole of their lives. In 1901, well after they had both married other people, she wrote to him that those years in Malta were the happiest she ever had. Then destiny took over – in January 1892 George’s elder brother passed away and the following year he became engaged to his brother’s fiancee, Mary of Teck. It’s hard not to wonder if Missy or her parents ever kicked themselves thinking of how close she had come to being Britain’s queen.
The suitor Marie chose for her daughter instead was Ferdinand, Crown Prince of Romania. Nephew of the childless King Carol I, Ferdinand was in desperate need of a wife following his scandalous affair with a lady-in-waiting of his aunt, Queen Elisabeth. The relationship caused an uproar in Bucharest and, because the Queen encouraged it, resulted in the exile of both women. Both Carol and Ferdinand were members of the junior branch of the Hohenzollern royal family (the ruling family of Germany of which Kaiser Wilhelm II was then head) – as such, it was deemed a respectable opportunity for Missy by her mother despite the faint trace of “foreignness” with which most of western Europe still regarded Romania.
The couple met in Germany, seated beside each other at a dinner party, and quickly got along, Ferdinand attracted to Missy’s beauty and extroverted personality and Missy to his kindness. They were swiftly engaged, news of which dismayed most of the BRF. Queen Victoria commiserated with George, who she knew to be heartbroken – for that matter, perhaps it’s unsurprising that he and Mary of Teck were engaged within months – and referred to Missy as “a great victim … to be enormously pitied.”
Meanwhile, the Duke of Cambridge (Queen Victoria’s cousin), wrote that he was “disgusted to see the announcement of the marriage of poor pretty nice P. Marie of Edinburgh to the Prince of Romania!! It does seem too cruel a shame to cart that nice pretty girl off to semi-barbaric Romania and a man to the knowledge of all of Europe desperately in love with another woman.”
“Aunt Beatrice [Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter[ is not at all delighted at Missy of Edinburgh’s engagement, and thinks about Ferdinand as we all do. Neither my Mama nor Uncle Afred seem much pleased. It seems Marie was perplexed and did not know what to do. There were different suitors, and this was thought the best way to solve the question. Still my family regrets it. Missy is till now quite delighted, but the poor child is so young, how can she guess what is before her?”
Vicky’s words were prescient, as time would tell, but in the meantime the young couple were married on January 10, 1893 at Sigmaringen Castle overlooking the Danube River, less than three months after Missy’s 17th birthday. The honeymoon came as a shock to the new Crown Princess, who had never been informed of exactly what marriage entailed – nor what came of it. Of that time, she later wrote: “He was terribly, almost cruelly in love. In my immature way I tried to respond to his passion, but I hungered and thirsted for something more.”
Or, as Queen Victoria wrote to Vicky:
“Yesterday poor little Missy was married – the irrevocable step taken ‘for better, for worse.’ I ought not to tell you now, who have this so soon before you, what I feel about a daughter’s marrying, but to me there is something so dreadful, so repulsive in that one has to give one’s beloved and innocent child, whom one has watched over and guarded from the breath of anything indelicate [that she] should be given over to a man, a stranger to a great extent, body and soul to do with what he likes. No experience in life will ever help me over that.”
Missy’s first few weeks in Bucharest were dismal. In addition to feeling desperately homesick and finding her new home in the royal palace dark and depressing, she also wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t figure out why. It fell to one of her ladies, upon being told the girl’s symptoms, to tell her that she was pregnant. When Missy responded by looking panicked and confused, the woman said, “You don’t mean to say no one ever told you?” And so it was that Missy learned from where babies came already expecting her first.
Missy gave birth nine months after her wedding to a son named Carol after his great-uncle. Queen Victoria and Marie had to directly intervene with the Romanian court to insist that she be given chloroform to help with labor – Romanian doctors firmly believed that “women must pay in agony for the sins of Eve.”
While Ferdinand and King Carol were overjoyed that the succession had been secured, Missy, unsurprisingly, felt little attachment to her newborn. Depressed and isolated of all society, she was in no shape to take to motherhood. Unfortunately for her, within three months she was pregnant again, this time delivering a daughter, Elisabeth, in the autumn of 1895.
Shortly after this, Queen Elisabeth finally returned to Romania following a three-year exile. Where her husband was a cold, stern and militant, Elisabeth was dramatic, colorful and eccentric…but not in a good way. She held grand salons for poets and artists, basking in the attention of her audience, which often veered into the bizarre and absurd. She often took sitting at an open widow of the royal palace where she would speak to passersby of her husband, her spirituality and other personal, private matters. Despite needing a friend and confidante, Missy never took to her and the feeling was mutual.
The other factor at play was the presence of Missy’s cousin, Princess Charlotte of Prussia, eldest daughter of Vicky and sister of the Kaiser. Married to Bernhard of Saxe-Meiningen and always known to be difficult (in fact, she suffered from mental illness at various points in her life), Charlotte was on the outs with her brother thanks to losing her diary and its contents having been read by him. She spent her time in Bucharest schmoozing with the King and Queen and, jealous of her younger, prettier cousin, making up lies about Missy that further soured relations.
The Princess’s only respite came from trips abroad when she could visit her mother and Ducky, the latter already trapped in her own unhappy marriage with another first cousin, Duke Ernst of Hesse (eldest son of Queen Victoria’s second daughter, Alice). In May 1896, the two sisters went to Moscow for the coronation of Alix of Hesse and Nicholas II as the Tsar and Tsarina of Russia. Missy later wrote:
“I was enjoying myself with all my heart. In fact, the joy of it all, the glamour, the beauty, the atmosphere of constant admiration which surrounded me, had slightly gone to my head. My suppressed youth and spirits were responding almost dangerously to all this spoiling and adulation…This was indeed an inebriating contrast to the life I led at Uncle Carol’s court.”
Both women had such a good time that they in fact began affairs with two Russian brothers – Grand Dukes Boris and Kyril, the former of which became attached to Missy.
Upon her return to Bucharest, King Carol finally relented and allowed the younger couple their own private residence – Cotroceni Palace – on the outskirts of the city. The move not only allowed Missy more privacy, but greater autonomy, including the ability to socialize with Romanian nobility freely. Perhaps Carol’s initial hesitancy to permit this access is understandable given that his own wife once said that Romania was “a country where one was not even ashamed, but rather proud, of one’s immorality.”
Missy became the toast – and indeed head, in many ways – of Romanian society. Her fixation on socializing, her new friendships and continued “foreign” habits and mannerisms finally prompted the King and Queen to take custody of Missy’s young children, insisting that they were able to provide them with the stability and education they would need later in life. Missy fought back, but she had little leverage and few friends positioned to help. The Queen’s worst tactic was spreading gossip and innuendo to the children themselves, particularly Prince Carol.
In 1897 Ferdinand grew ill with Typhoid seriously enough that Missy was called to his bedside to say goodbye. His months of illness and convalescence briefly brought the couple closer, but by the end of the year she had embarked on a second affair, this time with Lieutenant Zizi Catacuzene, a member of the Hussar regiment. The relationship wasn’t a secret, nor was the sorry state of the royal marriage itself. In the end, it was the King who intervened and insisted that it was broken off – and it was the King who found himself on the receiving end of an upbraiding from none other than Missy’s mother, Marie, who wrote of her son-in-law:
“Worst of all [his faults was] his sensual passion for Missy [which] finished by…repulsing her…Nando will himself avow that he treated his wife like a mistress, caring little for her emotional well-being in order to constantly assuage his physical passions.”
Indeed, Missy had written to her mother:
“All intimate life with a man is difficult for me. My husband sees me cry…he is awfully sorry, he wants to console me, he has every intention to do so, his heart is full of love, he begins to kiss me then he forgets that, and tries to console me by giving way to just that which I dread most on earth.”
And lest we feel too sorry for Ferdinand, he was in fact carrying on his own extramarital affairs, only the King didn’t care about those too much.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, Missy became pregnant in 1897 and it wasn’t clear who the father was. The scandal broke and Bucharest erupted, prompting the Princess to flee for her mother’s house in Coburg. Incredibly, we don’t know what happened next. Missy returned to Bucharest after several months without a child. Historians have speculated that the child was either stillborn or anonymously placed in an orphanage, but however that pregnancy ended, Missy never told a soul outside of the family, and whoever she did tell never kept their mouths shut.
If that wasn’t enough intrigue, it nearly happened again two years later. By now, Prince Carol and Princess Elisabeth were five and four, thus creating a gap in Missy and Ferdinand’s nursery that spoke to their difficult relationship. When Missy became pregnant for a fourth time in 1899, Marie wrote to her daughter, “My plan is to take you immediately to Coburg, where we cant wait until you give birth. I will take care of the rest.”
Except the King wouldn’t hear of it and insisted the Princess remain in Romania. The stand-off ended when Missy finally confronted him face-to-face and told him that not only did she want a divorce, but the child she was carrying was the son of the Russian Grand Duke Boris. The King relented, Missy gave birth to a daughter in Coburg in January 1900 and, scared by the thought of divorce, the young couple entered a new phase of their marriage – one in which they settled into at least some sort of resigned friendship and partnership. And the child, Marie, but always called Mignon, was acknowledged by Ferdinand as his daughter, whoever her father truly was.
Six months later, Missy’s father, Alfred, died of cancer. The family had already been wracked with grief when the only son and brother, Affie, committed suicide in February 1899 at the age of only 24. Missy returned to Coburg once more to grieve with her mother and sisters, during which time the below photo was taken:
The next death came in January 1901, this time on the Isle of Wight, when Queen Victoria passed away at Osborne House, ending her 63-year reign at the age of 81. Missy later wrote:
“In a way she was the arbiter of our different fates. For all members of her family her ‘yes’ and ‘no’ counted tremendously. She was not averse from interfering in the most private questions. She was the central power of directing things…and her palaces, whilst she breathed within their walls, had something of shrines about them, which were approached with awe not unmixed with anxiety.”
In the summer of 1902 Missy returned to England for the coronation of her uncle, King Edward VII, at which point she was reunited with her cousin, George, the new Prince of Wales. During her stay she accepted a brunch invitation at Cliveden, the Buckinghamshire estate of the Astor family where she met the siblings Pauline and Waldorf and quickly struck up a close friendship. In the coming weeks and months, Missy repeatedly returned to Cliveden and when she finally returned to Bucharest, the trio kept in touch via letters and the Astors made an annual trip to see her. It was Waldorf, in particular, with whom Missy grew attached.
Even so, she gave a full endorsement of Nancy Shaw when she arrived on the scene in 1906, even going so far as to write to the near stranger that she should accept Waldorf’s marriage proposal. We don’t know Nancy’s reaction to the note, but though the two women were friendly, they never grew close despite Missy’s attempts. Nancy found the Princess strange, and worse she found her too close for comfort with her new husband. The letters stopped, but the friendship continued. When Nancy gave birth to her first child, William Waldorf Astor, in 1907, Waldorf made Missy a godmother despite his wife’s protests.
In the midst of all of this, two more family developments occurred. Missy’s sister, Ducky, divorced Duke Ernst of Hesse, a rare formalization of an unhappy marriage within the extended Royal Family. The separation was procured in 1901 after Queen Victoria’s death – the couple finally feeling free to do so – and four years later, Ducky married Grand Duke Kyril of Russia, the same man she began a relationship with when in Moscow with Missy in 1896.
Missy was hardly one to judge a family member for being embroiled in scandal, but as the future queen of Romania she decided to commit to staying in her marriage and fulfilling her duty. On August 18, 1903 she gave birth to another child, Prince Nicholas, and though there was speculation that Waldorf Astor was the father (this being before his marriage to Nancy), Ferdinand acknowledged the infant as his own. In fact, Nicholas was almost certainly Ferdinand’s son and the two resembled one another in looks.
In February 1907 the Romanian Peasants’ Revolt broke out and Missy and her children, alongside a number of noble families, fled Bucharest for the safer distance of Sinaia. There, she took to spending time with her friend, Nadeje Stirbey, and it was via these trips that she struck up a friendship with her husband, Prince Barbo Stirbey. The Revolt ended in April, but her association with the Stirbeys endured. It was under Barbo’s tutelage that Missy began to show a distinct interest in politics and it wasn’t long before the mutual admiration turned into a passionate love affair. The relationship, as with Missy’s previous extramarital adventures, was hardly a secret, but this time the King didn’t attempt to stand in her way – instead, he encouraged it on the grounds that a highly-educated, decisive and discreet third party in the marriage may well be to everyone’s advantage.
Barbo and the King were in agreement that Missy had the makings of a great queen and leader, but that her time was mostly squandered thanks to boredom. Barbo wrote to Carol, “It’s essential not to break her will, but if we can persuade her to take herself and her duties more seriously, her natural intelligence will do the rest.”
The dynamic wasn’t lost on outsiders either. One observer wrote in January 1907:
“It is often said that when Prince Ferdinand comes to the Throne it will be the Princess who will be the true Ruler, but I feel sure that Her Royal Highness will be far too clever to step outside her own role, and that she will know how to supplement any possible deficiencies of her husband by the savoire-faire and tact which she has inherited from her father and the Royal Family of England.”
On January 5, 1909 Missy gave birth to another child, Ileana, who quickly became her mother’s favorite. Dark where her siblings were fair, many speculated that the girl was in fact the daughter of Barbo, not Ferdinand. Missy gave birth one last time four years later in 1913 when she produced a son, Mircea, on January 3. One of Missy’s biographers speculates that it was this child who was almost certainly sired by Barbo, not Ileana, based on how differently he spoke of the boy in his letters to Missy. Unfortunately, it’s all guess work – both children were, once again, acknowledged by Ferdinand as his own.
In June 1914 it was Prince Carol who became the center of attention when the Russian Royal Family descended on the Port of Constanza on the Black Sea. Ostensibly a family visit, the real intent was to secure an engagement between the 21-year-old Carol and Grand Duchess Olga, eldest daughter of Nicholas II & Alexandra. Olga was horrified by the idea of leaving Russia and the young people showed little interest in one another – the match came to naught.
By then, however, Europe was poised to embark on World War I. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on June 28 and a month later war was formally declared. Romania was in a tricky position and found itself having to decide whether to align itself with the Germany-led Central Alliance or the Triple Entente. Missy, though the daughter of a former Duke of Coburg, considered herself British and the idea of opposing herself to her beloved cousin, now King George V, was abhorrent. She was, however, outnumbered – King Carol, Queen Elisabeth and Ferdinand were staunchly German and, to a certain extent, considered German domination a foregone conclusion.
In the end, fate was decided by King Carol’s passing on October 9, 1914 – the decision had been left for Ferdinand and Missy to decide as their first act as king and queen. Away from Bucharest when the news came, the couple returned to shouts of “Regina Maria!” Missy later wrote, “I knew that I had won, that the stranger, the girl who had come from over the seas, was a stranger no more; I was theirs with every drop of my blood!”
And Missy, as everyone well knew, was well-equipped to handle her husband. In August 1916, Romania entered the War alongside the Allies. To Ferdinand’s government Missy said, “Gentlemen, no one of you realizes so well as I what this has cost him. I am proud of him. And Romania should be.”
To George, she wrote:
“I always knew it would end like that. Indeed I was confident that it would not end otherwise, but the struggles were hard and Nando has made a tremendous sacrifice – the greatest that can be asked of a King and a man, to against his own brothers, again the country he was born in, that he loved…We are separated from England by the whole of Europe, yet we feel that England can be our great support and it is England that we trust.”
Two months later tragedy struck when Mircea died just shy of his fourth birthday from Typhoid. Missy and Barbo, who had stayed by the child’s sick bed through the worst of it, were plunged into grief.
Shortly after the funeral the Germans descended on Romania and Missy and her five remaining children were evacuated to Jassy. In the first days of December they were joined by Ferdinand and the whole of the Romanian government. Bucharest fell to the Germans on December 6 and refugees flooded Jassy. Shortages of housing, fuel and food affected everyone, including the Royal Family. Indeed, the country’s petroleum reserves came into play when Missy approved the burning of the oil fields, so afraid was the government of the commodity ending up in enemy hands. The ramifications of that move were devastating – the fire created uncontrollable flames and poisonous smoke, and Romania had in fact destroyed its own income.
As for Marie, she devoted herself to nursing, going in person to the hospital in Jassy to attend to the sick and wounded. Of that time, she said:
“The remembrance of I keep of those days is of a suffering so great that it almost blinded me…black waves seemed to be rushing in upon me threatening to drown me, yet I was quite calm and continued living and working as though my heard had not been torn from my breast.”
In February 1917, in one of her last acts as Tsarina, Alexandra sent five wagons of supplies to Jassy. “Another beautiful present arrived for me from Empress Alexandra, a quantity of linen, medicines and provisions for the hospitals.” Five months later, Alexandra, alongside Nicholas, Olga and her four other children, would be brutally assassinated.
Per Missy’s biographer, Julia Gelardi:
“The queen often traveled over difficult terrain to reach her destinations, then disembarked from her automobile and trampled through mud, snow or parched and dusty ground to battle typhus, depression and death. The stench and mangled bodies she encountered everywhere were enough to turn the stomachs of the hardiest men. One one such visit, Queen Marie was moved to tears by the sight of hundreds of emaciated men lying outdoors near a church under a scorching sun. Carefully, she moved among the ‘parade of skeletons,’ as she called them, touching them as they cried out for her, bony hands thrust forth to grasp her. Marie was deeply moved when one…pulled himself to his feet to thanks his queen for ‘coming down’ from her palace ‘towards their misery, on this Easter Sunday.'”
If there was one silver lining for Ferdinand and Missy during World War I it was that they became immensely popular with their people, their proximity to them in Jassy making it clear that the Royal Family was similarly affected. As for the royal couple, they settled into a healthy, albeit abnormal, dynamic. They celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary in January 1918 at which Barbo gave a speech. Missy wrote:
“Today Nando and I, hand-in-hand, confess to each other that at this hour, in spite of our misfortunes, or should I say because of them, we have become the firmest possible friends, attached to our country in ways not often given to sovereigns.”
Unfortunately, the Central Powers had Romania surrounded and in May Ferdinand signed a peace treaty with them. During the negotiations Missy was beside herself, telling her husband, “If we are to die, let us die with heads high, without soiling our souls by putting our names to our death warrant. Let us die protesting, crying out to the whole world our indignation against the infamy which is expected.”
When Barbo sided with Ferdinand, Missy exclaimed that there were “no men in this country.”
The deal was signed that May and included surrendering the country’s oil reserves for 90 years, giving up the Dobruja region and sending away all Allied soldiers.
The next few months were a blur of activity, but they started with the news that 24-year-old Prince Carol had eloped with his girlfriend, Joana Marie Valentina Lambirno, or “Zizi” as she was called, a 19-year-old Moldavian who had long moved through Romania’s social circles. In order to marry her, Carol deserted his regiment and fled Jassy for Odessa, defying Romanian law. The family was dumbstruck and Missy wrote:
“I felt myself turn very sick. Carol! My honest big boy, at such a moment when the country is in such a state, when all our moral courage is needed, when we, the Royal family, are the only thing that holds it together. I was completely crushed…only Boyle [a friend and councilor] and Barbu [Barbo] knew.”
Ferdinand responded by imprisoning his son for two-and-a-half months at a remote monastery, a stint that ended in a meeting during which the King called his heir a traitor. Missy visited Carol and begged him to agree to an annulment, but Carol refused. In the end, it was only Boyle who was able to convince Carol to give in. The marriage was annulled in March 1919, but the relationship was far from over.
In the meantime, the political tides were turning in Romania’s favor as the Central Alliance was weakening. On November 8, 1918 Ferdinand declared war on Germany and on November 11, the War was finally over. That same month Missy wrote to her cousin, George:
“Your dear letter…you cannot imagine the pleasure it gave me. I never doubted but that you would be a faithful friend and uphold our country and its interests, but to hear it again from you yourself after the awful silence that had fallen upon us for about 9 months was a wonderful moment of happiness.
“I can only tell you dear George that I held firmly as only a born Englishwoman can. Nothing shook me, neither threats, nor misery, nor humiliation nor isolation. At the darkest hours when no news reached us I clung firmly to my belief in your strength and fidelity. I knew you would win and I kept my people from giving way even at a moment when many had become doubters, luck having been from the beginning so dead set against us. And even if you had not been victorious, I would have stuck to you, for me there are not two forms of fidelity. Forgive me for talking so much of myself, but I have been so insulted and flouted since were given over into the enemy’s hands that really it is my hour now!”
Ferdinand and Missy returned to Bucharest, but in March 1919 the popular queen was summoned to Paris where Romania was being beaten up by the United States, Britain, Italy and France for having signed a separate treaty with the enemy during the War. Missy arrived with her three daughters – 24-year-old Elisabeth, 19-year-old Mignon and 10-year-old Ileana – wearing a French blue gown over a petticoat of silver brocade. Face-to-face with George Clemenceau, she smiled when he said shortly, “I don’t like your Prime Minister,” and responded, “Perhaps you’ll like me better.”
After a week of lobbying, she traveled on to London where she stayed at Buckingham Palace as a guest of George and his wife, Queen Mary. There she went about visiting old friends like the Waldorfs and charming the likes of Winston Churchill. She also visited her 15-year-old son, Nicholas, who was studying at Eton College. Of course the heart of the trip was her reunion with George, who never failed to be delighted by his beloved cousin, even as he was bemused by her now foreign customs.
She returned to Paris in the end to continue her work, though one person who never took to her was U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. In one meeting she picked up a photograph of Ileana and said:
“This, Mr. President, is a picture of my youngest daughter, Ileana. My love child I call her. Is she not lovely? My other girls are blonde, like me; but she – oh she is dark and passionate.”
Needless to say, this wasn’t well-received by the Americans.
Even so, Missy left Paris with fresh supplies for Romania. A few months later, the country was granted everything it wanted, including a “Greater Romania,” which doubled its size thanks to the absorption of Banat, Bukovina, southern Dobruja, Bessarabia and Transylvania. As one observer put it:
“I know of no one who went away from Paris with more satisfactory annexations than did Marie of Romania…The Queen arrived at the Peace Conference from a kingdom numbering eight million subjects. She departed the ruler of eighteen million.”
As for Carol, he continued to be a problem. Though he temporarily gave up Zizi, he took up with an ambitious lower-class girl who so horrified his parents that they were relieved when he returned to his former wife. When ordered by his parents to go on an overseas trip, he shot himself in the leg. When ordered to join his regiment, he refused. In August 1919 he renounced his right to the throne and in January 1920 Zizi gave birth to a son named Carol Mircea. A month later, Carol left Zizi and returned to his family asking to be reinstated as Crown Prince. Missy, needless to say, was unimpressed.
In the midst of this, Missy lost Barbo. Unpopular and viewed with suspicion, he chose to resign his position in the royal household and left with his family for an extended visit to Italy. The royal couple, but particularly the Queen, were devastated after 12 years of trusted council.
Then it was time for dynasty making – or at least attempts at it. Missy’s first cousin was Queen Sophie of Greece, younger sister of the once troublesome Charlotte of Prussia and the former Kaiser Wilhelm II. When Missy was returning to Bucharest from Paris she stopped with her daughters in Switzerland where Sophie and her family were then living in exile. The families had known each other for years and Sophie’s eldest son, Prince George, was in love with Missy’s daughter, Elisabeth. Back in 1911 he had proposed marriage to her and been abruptly turned down on the grounds that she found him unattractive. At the time she said, “God began the Prince but forgot to finish him.”
Carol and Elisabeth had long been Missy’s problem children – not for nothing, but they were the same children who had been taken from her in their youth and raised in large part by the old King and Queen. Lazy and self-indulgent, neither was interested in the duties associated with their positions. Less attractive than her sisters and approaching spinsterhood, when George proposed again in 1920, Elisabeth accepted.
George accompanied the Romanian family back to Bucharest and Missy, delighted by the match, invited his sisters, Helen (“Sitta”) and Irene to join. Back home, the young people socialized and went on excursions until the holiday was cut short by news that George’s younger brother, Alexander, had died. Missy accompanied the Greek royals back to Switzerland, as did Carol. He had taken a liking to Sitta and during this time proposed. Sitta, still grieving, accepted, later saying:
“I could not face Athens and Tatoi again. To marry Carol and go to Romania, and not to have to live in the place would constantly wound me with memories, seemed in those days of sorrow a kind of deliverance…It was my mother who was so upset, chiefly because of the differences of upbringing and background, and also because she was in despair at the idea of losing me so soon after the grievous loss of Alexander. But I insisted and for some time my mother tried pleading with me, and using every argument to induce caution. I little realized then how true were her warning words. Had I listened, I would have been spared years of misery.”
The marriage, as we will see, was obviously not a happy one, but Missy was delighted by it. “Carol is saved!” she wrote. “She is sweet and she is a lady. Besides, she’s one of the family, since we’re all descended from Grandmamma Queen.”
In December 1920 a referendum brought the Greek Royal Family back to Athens, and George back to his position as its future king. On February 27, 1921 George and Elisabeth were married in Bucharest; one week later, Carol and Sitta were married in Athens. It was the latter couple, however, who made their home in Romania.
On September 27, 1922, King Constantine was once again ousted from power, however this time George did not follow them, but instead succeeded as king, making Elisabeth queen. This was followed less than a month later by the solidification of Missy and Ferdinand’s power when, on October 15, they were re-crowned king and queen of “Greater Romania.” The ceremony was held in Dacia and Missy insisted that it be fully Medieval, embracing the ancient history of the region. Sitta attended the ceremony, but left soon after for Sicily to visit her aggrieved parents. From their house she wrote to Carol:
“Mama’s state simply breaks my heart. I could not possibly leave her just now, I really honestly do not find her well enough, her nerves are in a pitiable state and a mere nothing would cause an absolute breakdown…This suspense is so ghastly, we have meals in Mama’s salon, not feeling at all inclined to sit in a room crowded with strangers who stare so…it’s too too cruel…You can imagine the state we are in and I simply could not leave mama just now, I am so terrified of her getting ill.”
Constantine passed away on January 11, 1923. When Sitta returned to Bucharest she brought Sophie with her and Missy noted, “Yesterday our poor Sitta returned at last, still horribly sad. The death of her father was a terrible and sudden shock, and her poor mother is a sad, penniless, homeless, country-less exile. Too sad.”
Unfortunately the marriage of Carol and Sitta was fast deteriorating. Carol blamed his wife’s many Greek relations, including Sophie, for interfering, but in reality they were a welcome relief for a young woman tied to a serial adulterer whose experience would likely only have been worse had she been isolated in a foreign country. Their only child, Michael, was born on October 25, 1921, however the experience was so physically arduous on his mother that she was forbidden by doctors from conceiving again. The situation only made Carol’s straying worse.
Meanwhile, Missy’s third child, Mignon, married King Alexander of Yugoslavia on June 8, 1922, leaving Bucharest for Belgrade. Once Mignon gave birth to a son and heir, Peter, in September 1923, Missy was given the moniker “Mother-in-law of the Balkans.”
The only thorn in her side was Elisabeth, who was falling far short of the task ahead of her as queen of the Hellenes. Missy noted of her daughter:
“She seems to me in every way utterly unprepared for such an event. She has as yet neither interest nor love for the country. She has studiously refused to have a child, she knows no one, she cares for no one, she trusts no one.”
Part of her problem was certainly serious mental health issues, including severe depression. Unfortunately no one around her was equipped to help her, including her once loving husband, George. It was a relief to her when, in December 1923, George was forced to abdicate and the two fled Athens for Bucharest, essentially showing up on her parents’ doorstep. The forced dependence on his in-laws placed further strain on George, who already growing fed up with his wife. This was further magnified when Elisabeth struck up a series of extramarital affairs, at one point even making a play for Mignon’s husband, Alexander. As the years wore on, George began to spend more and more time in Britain.
By the end of 1925, it was Carol who was once more causing problems when he left his wife, fleeing for Italy with his mistress, Magda Lupescu. Horrified, Sitta offered to follow him and try to reason with him, but Ferdinand had had enough of his son. In December Carol wrote to Missy:
“I’ve had some time to think things over, my decisions have become firm. The best solution I’ve been able to imagine is that one should find a way of declaring that I’ve been killed in a motor accident, let’s say drowned in the Lago Maggiore, so as to make things pass without any scandal…As I’ll be dead for many, let me dead for everybody. I’ll know how to disappear without leaving a trace.”
Missy wrote back:
“What can I say to you, Carol my boy? What can a mother say to a son who is stabbing her in the heart for a second time? You have everything: a country that needs you, a grand future to make yours, a lovely home, a beautiful and good wife, an adorable child, parents who loved you, whose right hand you ought to have been, parents who are going towards old age, who have given their lives to a mission you were to have completed. All this you give up, tear to pieces, throw away as though it were so much rubbish, and for what?
“Love, Carol, does not mean the blind giving-in to all a man wants…As I told you during that sad interview in Sinaia, what I cannot understand is what is your conception of life? What is your conception of duty? What is your idea of love? Is love for you simply indulgence, simply a letting yourself go to your animal appetites till you are sick of the one who satisfies you, and then you pass on? Is there no fidelity in your code, no restraint…Nothing, noting at all? No ideal, no vision, no dream of the future, only lust, only giving way to each passion which flits across your path?
“Then, my boy, you are right to go, then we cannot understand one another, for we speak different languages, then indeed you are not worthy of standing above others, of being chosen as a leader for a people who need a shepherd.”
And so it was done. Within days Ferdinand had Carol struck from the succession, his heir becoming his four-year-old grandson, Michael. His health however wasn’t helped by the stress of his son’s desertion. Sitta, meanwhile, left for a long stay with her mother in Italy. To recover, Missy undertook an extended holiday in the United States with 23-year-old Nicholas and 17-year-old Ileana. On her way there she made a brief stop in Paris where she saw Carol, now going by the surname “Caraiman.” She returned in the early months of 1927 to find Ferdinand dying of cancer. She was with him when he passed away on July 20 in Sinaia at the age of 61.
The new king was five years old and as such a regency council was formed, which included Nicholas. As for Missy, she was genuinely saddened by the loss of her husband, but could find some comfort from the return of Barbo to help counsel her through the coming months and years. The following summer, Sitta finally agreed to divorce Carol after his years of pleading. Never given the opportunity to be queen, she settled in as the “Queen Mother.”
Carol, meanwhile, decided he wanted to come home. With the regency government unpopular, Missy relegated to the sidelines and suspicion from every corner, Nicholas finally agreed in 1930 to let Carol return.
It was an unmitigated disaster. While many had assumed he would return to Sitta he instead placed her under glorified house arrest, limited her money and reduced her access to Michael, now stripped of his kingship. Instead, he brought Magda into Romania and openly flouted her as his mistress. Finally, in the summer of 1931, they reached an arrangement in which Sitta left Romania, returning once a year for Michael’s birthday while Michael could make two trips per year to see his mother. As for Marie, he was less public in his revenge, but he took seeming delight in stripping her of the inheritance left by Ferdinand and exiling Barbo from Romania.
Ileana was Carol’s favorite sibling, but when she showed signs of siding with Missy and Sitta over him, he retaliated. He purposefully threw her in the path of Anton of Habsburg-Lothringen and the two became engaged. Carol blessed the match, but forbade them from living in Romania and thus, from July 1931 on, Missy was deprived of her youngest daughter.
The next blow would come from Nicholas. On November 7, 1931 he married his Romanian girlfriend, Dumitrescu-Doletti, who Missy described as a “hardhearted, painted little hussy whose on idea is money and luxury in every form, and who is eating up his fortune so that soon he will have nothing but debts.” Though the marriage was again encouraged by Carol, as soon as it was done he divested Nicholas of his military rank and banished the couple from the country. Missy wrote to George around this time:
“Lately I have been living in a world which I no more understand and which has become very lonely; Ileana married, Sitta gone, Nicky banished, but I struggle on, I look beaten, but am I really beaten? I was always a good fighter you remember. But fight against one’s own flesh and blood?”
When Ileana was pregnant with her first child and denied permission to give birth in Romania, George wrote to Missy:
“What a terribly sad letter yours is. In reading it tears came into my eyes, as I fully realise all the misery you have gone through during the last two years. I have seen Sitta and George, and they have both told me of the many insults and unkindnesses that have been heaped upon you; even this last curel act, that Ileana was forbidden to enter the country to have her baby in your house is cruel and disgraceful. I do hope that some day soon we may meet and then you will able to pour your heart out to me.”
Instead, Missy traveled to Austria in August 1932 when Ileana gave birth to a son, Archduke Stefan. Over the years she traveled between Austria and Belgrade frequently visiting Ileana and Mignon and getting to know her multitude of grandchildren. Ileana and Anton went on to have four more children, while Mignon and Alexander had two more sons after Peter.
It was in October 1934, during a visit to England, when news reached her that Mignon’s husband had been assassinated. Eleven-year-old Peter was now king, but he was in school in England, allowing Missy to bring him to her in the immediate aftermath of his father’s death. She traveled with him to Belgrade to be by Mignon’s side.
She returned to England again the following year for George’s Silver Jubilee. She wrote:
“England was a joy, a deep joy. I love it with the love the roots of a tree have for their own soil, something deeper than reason, something fundamental, so to say – basic. Something deep down within me responds to England as it does to nothing else. To the soil, to the people…a sort of delicious, warm pride bubbles up from my depths when I think of England. Everything in me agrees with it, feels at home, at peace…My love for Romania in no way makes me less proud of being English, of feeling English, with every drop of my blood.”
She was heartbroken by George’s death in January 1936 and utterly unsympathetic when she heard of Edward VIII’s abdication that December. “Personally, I am too royal not to look upon David as a deserter,” she said. “There is too much poetry in my heart and soul to be touched by this love story. She is an uninteresting heroine.”
Closer to home, Greece recalled its monarchy in 1935 and summoned Missy’s son-in-law George back to Athens. By then, however, he was technically Missy’s ex-son-in-law, for he and Elisabeth finally divorced that summer, three years after he had thrown in the towel and permanently set up camp in England. The divorce was in fact prompted by Elisabeth hearing rumors that he might be reinstated and, horrified by the thought of returning to Greece, she initiated proceedings in Romania. He returned to Greece in time for World War II, but never remarried. Instead, the throne passed to his younger brother, Paul, upon his death in 1947.
As for Elisabeth, she continued to live comfortably in Romania greatly favored by Carol.
Nicholas returned to Romania in 1935 after his brief exile, but left again in 1937 when he once more fell out with his brother.
Indeed, in Missy’s last years her closest comforts were her two youngest daughters, Mignon and Ileana – ironically, the two most likely to have been fathered by men other than Ferdinand. In Romania, she was devoted to her grandson, Michael, in whom she invested much hope for overseeing the future of Romania. Missy finally passed away on July 18, 1938 in Sinaia of pancreatic cancer at the age of 62. She is buried in Curtea de Argeș Cathedral.
Never reconciled with his mother, Carol was in fact forced to abdicate just two years later. He died in Portugal in 1953, though his remains were eventually returned to Romania. Earlier this year, it was announced that he would be re-interred in the Royal Cathedral, as will Sitta and the youngest of Missy’s children, Prince Mircea.
In the 1940s Elisabeth became a devoted ally of the Communist Party though she would eventually be exiled in 1947. She ended up in Cannes with yet another one of her lovers. When he was denied a title she ended up legally adopting him three months before her death. She passed away in 1956.
Nicholas spent the rest of his life on the continent, splitting his time between Spain and Switzerland. He eventually married a second time, but that union was also childless. He died in Madrid in 1978 and is buried in Prilly.
The Yugoslavian monarchy ended in 1945 and thus Mignon ended her days in England, as was perhaps befitting for one of Missy’s daughters. She was initially buried in Frogmore, Windsor until her remains were transported to Serbia in 2013.
As for Ileana, like Elisabeth, she too grew an affinity for communism that soon soured. She, Anton and their children moved to Switzerland, then Argentina and then finally settled in the United States. She passed away in Youngstown, Ohio in 1991.
Finally, Michael – he succeeded his father in 1940 at the age of 26. He was forced to abdicate by the communist party in 1947, though he stated as early as 1948 the act was illegal and he was still the rightful king. He never saw Carol again after his father’s abdication and didn’t attend his funeral in 1953 – instead, he remained dedicated to Sitta until her death. As for himself, he only recently passed away in December 2017. For the last 20 years of his life he split his time between Switzerland and Romania once he was allowed to re-enter the country. He is buried near Missy, his formiddable grandmother.
Missy is a popular figure in Romanian history, deservedly so. Her legacy is sadly eclipsed by the exploits of her offspring, which she noted at one point by admitting, “I have put queer children into the world.” Even so, she was a good and dutiful queen and a stalwart of her generation of royals. And despite her love for Romania, it is still a little intriguing to think what might have had happened had she and George V ended up married after all.