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By JACK MAJOR

While the United States doesn't have a royal family, we've always had people fascinated by kings, queens, princes, princesses, dukes, duchesses and the rest.

In the early 20th century, and especially after the Russian revolution, the USofA attracted tons of so-called royalty — or nobility (I'm not sure of the difference beyond whether someone is in line for the throne).

Most "royals" who, for various reasons, fled their countries, were impoverished and looking for rich spouses. Or, if they already were married, for someone foolish enough to keep and feed them, the way they might a pet poodle.

Trouble is, it has never been easy to tell whether a stranger from a foreign land is actually a prince ... or a gypsy. Anyone can claim to be titled, especially someone from a small country virtually unknown to Americans. (Face it, we're lucky to locate our home states on a United States map.)

Titled expatriates usually were allergic to real work, but what they lacked in ambition they made up for with an arrogance that impressed many Americans; at least, those who were easily impressed — and rich. Those pursued for matrimony discovered their wealth had a way of disappearing shortly after saying,"I do!"

WHICH BRINGS US to the Mdivani family from Georgia ... not the Georgia that borders the Carolinas, Alabama and Florida, but the Georgia long associated with Russia and now an independent country with one foot in eastern Europe, the other in western Asia.

This particular family was loyal to the Russian czar, and when the Bolsheviks overthrew Nicholas II and killed his family, it became a good idea for supporters of the czar to get out of Dodge.

One legend says the marrying Mdivanis were descended from a long line of Georgian nobility. That’s a crock. There was no Georgian nobility.

Yet when five Mdivani siblings surfaced, first in Paris and later on the happy hunting grounds of New York and Hollywood, the sons were referred to as princes, the daughters were princesses. The three Mdivani brothers — Serge, David and Alexis, left to right in the photo at the top of the page — were very much in the news in 1933.

Cynical American journalists and the Russian press said the Mdivanis were not titled at all. Indeed, their father, once an officer in the czar’s army, would later say he may have been the first man to inherit a title from his sons.

A member of the family attempted to set the record straight, while at the same time justifying the titles, by claiming the czar had recognized General Zakhari Mdivani as a prince, not because he was royal, but because he was noble. (So in that sense, Dwight D. Eisenhower might have become a prince before he was elected president.)

THE MOST BELIEVABLE explanation may be the following, from a story entitled 'those mmmarrying mmmen," which I found on the blog nursemyra.wordpress.com.

“In 1923 a General Zakhari Mdivani appeared in Paris. As a Mohammedan chieftain of the Caucasus, he was recognized as a Bey or Prince by the Russian Imperial Court which acknowledged all Georgian ‘Princes’ possessed of a pair of shoes, a stone house, a flock of sheep and a rifle. Prince Mdivani had little money, but he had his jewels; five children, three boys and two girls, all very good looking.”

(It has been said that in Georgia, men who were not considered "princes" were in the minority.)

Zakhari Mdivani's children would become known as the "Marrying Mdivanis," especially the three sons — Serge, Alexis and David. Their sister, Nina, also was active in the matrimonial department, though she attracted less publicity. Sister Isabelle was the family disgrace — she actually had a part-time occupation (sculptor) and married only once.

The three sons all claimed to be princes, the daughters called themselves princesses. They all had a royal bearing, which fit the perception that prevailed at the time — if it looks like royalty and dresses like royalty and talks like royalty, well, who are we to disagree?

THE MDIVARI "PRINCES" received much more attention than the "princesses" because they pursued famous women. They began making news in the United States in the 1920s, but their fame — such as it was — peaked in 1933 when each brother either was getting married or divorced.

Grabbing the most attention was Alexis Mdivani, who was doing both. First he was divorced from Louise Astor Van Alen, a descendant of John Jacob Astor. His brothers chased actresses and singers, but Alexis concentrated on heiresses.

So it was that Alexis Mdivani's second wife was Barbara Hutton, heir to the Woolworth fortune, which would be hers in November, 1933, when she celebrated her 21st birthday.

 

Syracuse Journal, June 16, 1933
PARIS (INS) — Barbara Hutton, one of America’s wealthiest heiresses, and Prince Alexis Mdivani of Russia, visited the American consulate today and drew up the necessary papers legalizing their forthcoming marriage in the United States.

The couple was accompanied by three lawyers and the bride-to-be’s father, Franklin L. Hutton of New York. The couple will be married in a civil ceremony next Wednesday, with religious nuptials the following day.

 

When reporter John Kobler of the Universal News Service asked her about her upcoming marriage, Miss Hutton said:

“We’re going to be married in the Russian Church, and have our honeymoon at Lake Como. Afterwards we’re going to Venice and Biarritz and then to America. We’re making plans to live in New York.

“Except for writing and developing an interest in Chinese art, I have no plans except to continue the usual mode of life, with everything in moderation — gaiety, nightclubs and travel.”

In other words, she simply wanted to party, but with a husband in tow. Not just any husband, however. As she explained to reporter Edward Hunter of the International News Service:

“I like the life Alexis leads. All the American men I know are business men or want to be business men. Once they marry a girl, they wrap themselves up in business again.

“Alexis is amusing, smart and interesting. It won’t be like marrying a foreigner at all, since he is a real cosmopolitan. It is mean of people to say that Alexis followed my millions around the world.”

Mean, maybe. But also true ... as she would discover immediately after the wedding. And while Alexis Mdivani was no business man, he did like to play polo. He liked it more than anything, except maybe spending his wife's money and chasing other women.

(Americans have a peculiar view of polo, that it is a sport played only by the wealthy. The Mdivanis, perhaps because of the family background in the Caucuses, were skilled horsemen who recognized that playing polo impressed people almost as much as claiming you are a prince.)

Franklyn L. Hutton, father of the bride, had misgivings about the marriage from the start, but like many fathers, he caved in when she assured him of her deep, abiding love for her pseudo prince and how he would make her so very, very, very happy. Especially if he had his very own speedboat.

 

Syracuse Journal, July 17, 1933
VENICE, Italy (INS) — Gondolas, swimming, fashionable teas, brilliant dinners, music and lots of moonlight all make up the daily honeymoon program of Prince Alexis Mdivani and his bride, the former Barbara Hutton, American heiress of Woolworth millions.

Venice as a place for such glorious living has appealed to the new princess; she is thinking of buying a famous palace, situated in full view of the bay. The palace is now owned by the Princess Anastasia of Greece.

There is, however, a problem. Italian customs officials insist on a deposit of 50,000 lire ($3,875) to allow entry into the country of a speedboat which Franklyn L. Hutton, Barbara’s father, had given the couple. The gift threatened to spoil the honeymoon because Barbara had already overdrawn her monthly allowance and did not have funds to make the deposit

She tried to get officials to rescind their order, but they didn’t budge. Finally, Barbara telegraphed her father.

At first Hutton did not want to spend the money and told the couple they would have to live within their allowance, but he changed his mind when he learned the deposit would be refunded when the boat was taken out of Italy. He sent the money and the boat is expected soon.

 

By the time "Princess" Barbara came into her inheritance, her faith in her marriage had been shaken, but her husband hadn't exhausted his collection of "I'm sorry" cards.

The story below says she inherited $10 million; I've read elsewhere that her inheritance was closer to $100 million, though most sources place it at $50 million. Whatever the actual amount, it was enough to keep Mdivani interested in prolonging his marriage awhile.

 

Syracuse Journal, November 13, 1933
NEW YORK (Universal) — Princess Mdivani, who was, until her marriage last June, Barbara Hutton, will celebrate her 21st birthday tomorrow and come into full possession of the $10 million fortune left her by her grandfather, F. W. Woolworth.

One week from tomorrow Doris Duke also will become 21 years old and she, too, will then come into full possession of a $30 million trust fund created by her father, the late James B. Duke, tobacco magnate. Three years hence, when she becomes 24 years old, she will inherit one-half of the Duke estate, which was appraised at $101.6 million.

 

Meanwhile, Alexis Mdivani's brothers, Serge and David, had been dumped by the famous wives they had married a few years earlier, Serge to opera star Mary McCormic and David to fading movie star Mae Murray. (Serge had been married previously to actress Pola Negri, who had had affairs with Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino.)

The brothers inspired this funny newspaper column:

 

Syracuse American, July 16, 1933
By J. B. L. LAWRENCE
HOLLYWOOD — Did you ever hear of the Mdivani Alumnae Association?

There are two chapters — one in Hollywood, the other New York.

Qualifications are very strict! To join, one must be a princess by right of marriage to one of the Mdivani lads from Georgia. If there happen to be any Mdivanis in that Georgia place down No’th Ca’lina way, it don’t count. This Georgia must be over in Transcaucasia. (You try to find it, for a change!)

There’s one thing about being a member of the ol’ alumnae association — feeling of good fellowship and a common spirit. (This is, if princesses can have anything as common as that!)

Take members Mae Murray and Mary McCormic, for instance. (They’s the Hollywood chapter.) No sooner did they join the Alumnae Association than they became pals. They even have a battle song which goes: “Here’s Mdivani in your eye!”

It all started years ago when the Mdivani family found there was a world outside Georgia and a group of princelets migrated. One, named David, married Mae Murray. Another married Pola Negri. They called him Serge, although his father had been a general. Friends say he always hoped to be called “Gen.” when he grew older, or at least, “Serge-Maj.!”

Once David was arrest for speeding and the cop asked him his occupation. “Husband!” proclaimed David, proudly.

The Mdivanis are all princes of the “court,” only the court happens to be that of old King Divorce.

Mae sued David for divorce back in 1931, just five years after they were married. At the time she said he beat her as regularly as he ate — and he ate plenty! She took him back, but now she wants a divorce because it made him wild when her public called her “gorgeous!”

Mary McCormic, who married her Serge a few days after Pola Negri gave him the official go-by back in 1931 also, is separated from him because he was cruel to her.

Louise Astor Van Alen, Mrs. ex-Prince Alexis, and the former Barbara Hutton, Mrs. Present-Prince Alexis, both hail from New York society, not being on the stage as are the other three princesses.

To give Princes David and Serge full credit, they did make a try of business — the oil business, which Mary McCormic and Mae Murray are now trying to save by their united action. But from what shareholders in the oil company feel about it, one would judge that it would have been wiser if the princes had stuck to their husband job. It seems to be much more profitable.

Sponsors of the Mdivani Alumnae Association are hoping business keeps up. If, in the next few years, they get enough members, they’re going to build a club house.

When Mary McCormic was married to Serge, she said: “Marriage is gorgeous and does lovely things to the voice.” She should have added, “to the illusions and the pocketbook, too!”

 
 

Another newspaper columnist, Helen Rowland, wrote a piece that appeared in the Syracuse Journal on July 18. At first it seems decidedly old fashioned, almost insulting to women, when she refers to the Mdivanis as the American woman's greatest boon and benefactors.

"By bringing romance to Hollywood and inspiration to its stars," she writes, "they have sent a vicarious thrill through the hearts of every little movie fan from Maine to California."

However, it soon becomes clear that Ms. Rowland's idea of a thrill is not flowers and moonlit walks on the beach. And when she says Mae Murray and Mary McCormic said their husbands were perfect lovers, we know they mean David and Serge Mdivani were terrific in the sack ... because they couldn't do anything else right.

"To be wooed by a man who can give her romance is a liberal education for any woman," wrote Ms. Rowland, "And to have had a perfect lover just once in a lifetime is more than nine out of ten women can hope for."

It wasn't often a columnist in the 1933s gave such a ringing endorsement to the one-night stand.

Certainly Mae Murray and Mary McCormic had nothing nice to say about their Mdivanis as husbands. Ms. McCormic was the more outspoken on the subject:

Syracuse Journal, October 19, 1933
NEW YORK — Between crunches of celery in her suite in the Astor Hotel yesterday, Mary McCormic vouchsafed an inside idea of how if feels to be a princess.

The singer, here for a vaudeville engagement and hoping shortly to make a theatrical invasion of Russia, home of her Georgian prince husband, Serge Mdivani, has a separation action pending against him, and he a divorce complaint against her.

“Do I hope the prince marries again?” she asked herself.

“I certainly do! I’d hate to think I was the only dope in the world.”

So how does it feel to be a princess?

“It feels something like this,” she said. “I put on my hat and coat to go out. The prince says, ‘What for?’ I say, “Fresh air.’ He is insanely jealous. The prince says, ‘Stick your head out a window.’ ‘I’ll catch cold,’ I say. He says, ‘Wear your coat.’ And the princes goes out and locks the hotel door and I have to stay in all day, and if I want fresh air I have to stick my head out the window.

“Life with the prince was just a piling up of Asiatic stupidities.”

But perhaps the prince was a good business manager, not?

“Not. He was a business meddler.”

Mention of Samuel Insull, fugitive former head of a vast utilities empire, in the divorce complaint of Mdivani was ridiculed by Miss McCormic. Utterly ridiculous, she said, adding:

“I saw Mr. Insull many times. He was an old friend, and I owned Insull stock. Serge encouraged every interview I had with Insull. The prince hoped to get some tips on the stock mark.”

The princely exchequer, now, how was that?

“I paid for everything we had. He never had a penny; never did have and never will have. When his father, a grand old gentleman, died, he and his brother said they were going to Europe, to the funeral, to return in three weeks.

“My oil company in Venice, California, went broke, and we found Serge had cashed a $10,000 check on our joint account, leaving $67 in the bank. And then he didn’t go to Europe to the funeral at all! He played around New York having a good time.”

Mary McCormic’s prince, Serge, and Mae Murray’s prince, David, are now trying to get a settlement under the California law making “community property” divisible, 50-50.

But Miss McCormic said she bought the oil wells before she married the prince.

Another Mdivani prince, a brother, Alexis, is the husband of Barbara Hutton, Woolworth heiress.

Miss McCormic was back on the West Coast a few days later, getting her divorce and also making headlines for her confrontation with a journalist.

Gloversville & Johnstown Morning Herald, November 18, 1933
LOS ANGELES, November 17 (AP) — Mary McCormic, who can sing and slap with equal virtuosity, was sued for a million dollars today by the woman she “smacked” on the jaw in a newspaper office Wednesday night.

She who got slapped — Miss Grace Williams — sued the songbird of the opera, and also asked the city prosecutor to charge her with battery and disturbing the peace.

Miss Williams is writing the life of Prince Serge Mdivani, who was divorced here last Tuesday by Miss McCormic.

When the singer learned Miss Williams was in the newspaper office the next night, trying to sell a story disclosing terms of the divorce property settlement, she hopped in a taxi, rushed down, confronted the writer and whaled away with a bare-hand right to the jaw before astounded editors and reporters could pacify her.

Seeking the battery complaint, Miss Williams said Miss McCormic not only struck her, but called her “opprobrious* names” and told her “you can tell the prince that when I see him, I’ll shoot him on the spot.”

The prosecutor’s office set a hearing for November 24 on the question of whether, after investigation, a complaint will be issued.

Deputy City Attorney Newton Kendall said Miss McCormic will be invited to attend this hearing if she wants. She left last night by airplane for Detroit, Michigan, to fill and engagement.

Miss Williams sued for $1 million punitive damages and $1 actual damages.

Miss McCormic’s slap, she said, was “violently and maliciously” administered, causing her “great mental anguish, discomfort, humiliation, shame and ridicule.” She described the singer a “a woman of great wealth and influence.”

*opprobrious: disgraceful or shameful

Mary McCormic wasted no time announcing she had found "the one great romance of my life," actor Harry Bannister. In November she referred to him as "my fiancée." They had been involved with each other 10 years earlier, but did not marry. He later married actress Ann Harding.

Alas, she and Bannister did not wed in 1933, either. Or in 1934. She waited until 1936 to acquire another husband — her fourth — but that marriage, to Homer V. Johannsen, ended seven-and-a-half months later. Bad as Serge Mdivani was, McCormic held on to him for more than two years.

Mae Murray was the woman most injured by her marriage to a Mdivani. Her "prince," David, drove her to the poor house.

He and brother Serge, meanwhile, took over the oil company that had been paid for with money from their wives. Apparently after being arrested for embezzling company funds, the two men landed on their feet and actually made a lot of money in 1934 and '35. Or so some stories said.

Life among the Mdivani's went from weird to weirder in 1935. First off, Barbara Hutton divorced her "prince." Then, after mouthing the usual going-through-a-divorce line ("I'm never getting married again!"), she soon had a second husband, Count Kurt Heinrich Eberhard Erdmann Georg von Haugwitz-Hardenberg-Reventlow. Gesundheit! (They'd divorce in 1938.)

For Alexis Mdivani, time ran out on August 1, 1935, in Spain, when he was is killed in an automobile accident of his own making. His passenger was Else Zarske, aka Baroness Maud von Thyssen-Bornemisza. She was critically injured, but managed to survive. Mdivani was driving much too fast for conditions. His speed was estimated at 87 miles per hour. Ex-wife Barbara Hutton said she was not surprised. "He always drove too fast."

His estate, almost all of it due to Barbara Hutton's generosity, was estimated at $10 million. She received $2 million of it, a return of 20 cents on the dollar for her investment in marriage. The rest of the estate went to other members of the Mdivani family.

INCREDIBLY, shortly after his funeral, his first wife, Louise Astor Van Alen, announced she would marry her former brother-in-law, Serge Mdivani, who must have realized Alexis had had the right idea — woo heiresses, not movie stars. Supposedly this marriage created a big scandal in the social circles of Newport, Rhode Island, where Ms. Van Alen lived at least part of the year.

But tragedy awaited Serge, though, frankly, in reading about it, I couldn't help but laugh. A few months after he and Louise Astor Van Alen were married, Serge was kicked in the head by a polo pony and died.

His widow was all broken up at the time, but it turned out to be maybe the best thing that ever happened to Louise Astor Van Alen because her next husband, Alexander Saunderson, was a keeper. She married him in 1947, moved to Santa Barbara, California, and lived with him happily ever after until she died in 1997.

When Alexis Mdivani died in the auto accident he was just 28 years old. Brother Serge Mdivani was 33 during his fatal polo game. Also dying young, in 1938, was their sister, Roussadana "Roussie" Mdivani, the sculptor who married Spanish painter Jose Maria Sert. She was 33.

David Mdivani, who plundered Mae Murray's fortune, later married oil heiress Virginia Sinclair. He lived until 1984, but in several ways led the messiest life of them all.

Nina Mdivani, the oldest sibling also lived the longest. She was married for 11 years to lawyer and legal scholar Charles Huberich, who handled divorces for Serge and David Mdivani.

Nina Mdivani divorced Huberich in 1936, then married Dennis Conan Doyle, eldest son of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. After some legal battles, she became executor of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle estate, and after her husband's death in 1955, she married her husband's secretary, Anthony Harwood. She died in 1987.

 
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