Russian Beauty

Tsaritsa Alexandra Fyodorovna (Alix of Hesse)

In 1899, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna was preparing for the arrival of her third child. This time, Russia anxiously awaited an heir. Relatives ardently prayed for a boy, and several mystical rituals were performed for Alix by a number of shamans said to have the powers to influence the gender of an unborn child. The Empress bathed in blessed waters, arranged icons on the walls of her room, lighted candles and incense. The happy preparations were soon halted, however, by the difficulty that this pregnancy caused her.

Tormented by unmerciful cramps and nausea, Alix took to her bed in the second month and had to use a wheel chair for mobility. Further hardships were brought on by the fact that her eldest daughter, Olga, then four, was sick with typhoid fever. Alix was constantly tired and anxious, and the pressure inflicted upon her by the Romanov family, for whom providing an heir to the Russian throne was of key importance, did nothing to help. Her husband did his best to amuse her, taking her out on daily rides in the park, reading aloud to her and spending as much time at home as his duties to the country permitted. At last, in the night of June 14, the child was born.

As she arrived, there were no congratulations, no happy gasps at the fact that she was the most beautiful and healthy baby Alix had yet produced. The room was silent. Another girl was born. It seemed, as the cannons in St. Petersburg fired 101 times — the traditional announcement for the birth of a Grand Duchess — that only her mother and father welcomed her arrival.

Tsar Nicholas, despite the pressure and disappointment of the family and court, despite the unrest of the people, continued to be the perfect father. He was glad of the birth, glad that his beloved Alix was recovering, and glad of his third child, be it a girl or a boy. His diary recorded happiness untainted by the strain of politics: “A happy day: the Lord sent us a third daughter — Maria, who was safely born at 12.10! Alix hardly slept all night, and towards morning the pains got stronger. Thank God it was all over quite quickly! My darling felt well all day and fed the baby herself… The evening was marvelous.”

Maria, or Marie, as she is often called in English, was a strikingly beautiful and robust child, with rosy cheeks and the adorable plumpness of a cherub. Grand Duke Vladimir, upon seeing her for the first time, remarked that she had the face of one of Botticelli’s angels, and took to calling her “the Amiable Baby” as she was always smiling and cheerful. She was a very fine little girl, the same in coloring as Olga, but on a grander and more vivid scale. She had the same shape of the face and similar light brown hair, streaked in gold and curling lightly over her forehead. But her eyes, called “Marie’s saucers” by the family, were what set her apart — a dark royal blue in color, they were enormous, deep, unforgettable eyes, lined by long dark lashes and bringing to mind the princesses of Russian fairy-tales. Above them were the fine level brows of the Romanov family.

The baby soon grew into a good-natured, wholesome little girl, tall for her age, the picture of glowing health and color. Marie had definitely taken after her father’s side of the family, and was made of big bones like her grandfather Alexander III. She appeared very stout in comparison to her slender, dainty elder sisters, and her weight was for long the subject of tender concern in the family. Olga and Tatiana teased her about it unmercifully, calling her a “fat little bow-wow” and “our good old fat Tou-Tou.” Among other nicknames were “Mashka” — a common Russian diminutive of her name — and Mandrifolie, a playfully elegant French variation.

Marie’s tastes were very simple, though she was taught to act like a lady in the highest sense of the word since her days as a toddler. In spite of all the hours she spent learning and practicing court etiquette, she remained her sweet, unaffected self, bold and spontaneous, with an innocent curiosity towards everyone she met. She was completely unafraid of new people, very easy to speak with, and her warm heart and good humor never failed to impress. Her English tutor, Sydney Gibbes, remembers her as “the most affectionate and friendly member of the family.” Many remarked that to the people she loved, she had the benevolent and somewhat gauche devotion of a dog. Miss Eagar, the children’s nanny, remembers Marie during the Tsar’s illness with the typhoid:

When he was ill in the Crimea her grief at not seeing him was excessive. I had to keep the door of the day nursery locked or she would have escaped into the corridor and disturbed him with her efforts to get to him. Every evening after tea she sat on the floor just inside the nursery door listening intently for any sounds from his room. If she heard his voice by any chance she would stretch out her little arms, and call “Papa, Papa,” and her rapture when she was allowed to see him was great. When the Empress came to see the children on the first evening after the illness had been pronounced typhoid fever, she happened to be wearing a miniature of the Emperor set as a brooch. In the midst of her sobs and tears little Marie caught sight of this; she climbed on the Empress’s knee, and covered the pictured face with kisses, and on no evening all throughout his illness would she go to bed without kissing this miniature.

As the third daughter, Marie had a hard time gaining acceptance from her siblings. Olga and Tatiana had only eighteen months between them, while Marie was significantly younger, and thus the baby, the odd one out and the butt of Olga and Tatiana’s jokes. With her obedience and warm personality, almost angelic in her ways, she was constantly held up as an example to her sisters, and this caused further teasing — she was declared a stepsister because she was so good, and was often left out of their games. Miss Eagar records a particular incident:

One day Olga and Tatiana made a house with chairs at one end of the nursery and shut out poor Marie, telling her she might be the footman, but that she should stay outside. I made another house at the other end for the baby, then a few months old, and her, but her eyes kept traveling to the other end of the room and the attractive play going on there. Then she suddenly dashed across the room, rushed into the house, dealt each sister a slap in the face, and ran into the next room, coming back dressed in a doll’s cloak and hat, and with her hands full of small toys. “I won’t be a footman, I’ll be the kind, good aunt, who brings presents,” she said. She then distributed her gifts, kissed her “nieces,” and sat down. The other children looked shamefacedly from one to the other, and then Tatiana said, “We were too cruel to poor little Marie, and she really couldn’t help beating us.” They had learned their lesson — from that hour they respected her rights in the family.

Things became better with the birth of the youngest of the Romanov sisters, Anastasia. Though two years younger than Maria, Anastasia had a stronger personality and Marie soon came to be ruled completely by her. Together, they were called the “Little Pair,” while Olga and Tatiana were the “Big Pair.” Being associated with a girl younger than she caused Marie to take on the habits of a younger child, and she was treated like a baby for much longer than she should have been. However, this did not hinder her sweet spirit from shining through in her devotion to her baby sister.

Miss Eagar writes: On our return to Tsarskoe Selo the Empress manifested symptoms of whooping cough. It speedily spread to the nurseries and the four children. The Russian nurse and I contracted it. I had told the children they were to be most careful not to cough on anyone, or that person might take the disease from them, and they were very obedient. One day the little Grand Duchesses Anastasia was coughing and choking away, when the Grand Duchess Maria came to her and, putting her face close up to her, said, “Baby, darling, cough on me.” Greatly amazed, I asked her what she meant, and the dear child said, “I am so sorry to see my little sister so ill. I thought if I could take if from her she would be better.”

But good and sweet-tempered though she was, she was also very human. When still a very little girl, she was one day with her sister in their mother’s boudoir, where the Emperor and Empress were getting ready to have tea. The Empress had delicious small vanilla wafers called biblichen, a favorite of the girls, but it was a rule at the palace that no one ask for anything from the tea table. As Miss Eagar entered to fetch the children back to the nursery, she found Marie standing in the middle of the room, her eyes swimming in tears and her mouth contorting as she hastily swallowed something.

“Dere! I’ve eaten it all up, you can’t eat it now,” she stammered, and Miss Eagar, properly shocked, immediately suggested bed as a suitable punishment. The Empress agreed, but the Tsar intervened, and begged that she be allowed to stay.

“I was always afraid of the wings growing, and I am glad to see she is only a human child,” he explained, smiling, and it is needless to say that the little criminal was pardoned.

Marie was an avid dreamer. One of her favorite places was in Tsarskoye Selo on the far bank of the Children’s Island, where she loved to lie among the daisies and forget-me-nots and lilies-of-the-valley, feasting her imagination on the romance of the spot. Strong in her artistic leaning, Marie had a significant talent for drawing, and sketched very well, always with her left hand. In the classroom, she was fairly accomplished, but rather indifferent to her studies. A tendency towards idleness and daydreaming were the distress of all her tutors, but her affable nature put her on a special foot with the servants — though most of the family was close with the palace staff, Marie had a decided talent for talking to common people. She knew every kitchen boy and horse tender, and asked them often of their families, never forgetting a name or a birthday. She loved little children, playing and fussing over them for hours on end; many contemporaries noted that she would instinctively pick up a baby and cover it with kisses.

When she grew up she would have made an excellent wife and mother. In fact, this was her most ardent wish. She is remembered to have said that all she wanted in her future was to marry a soldier and have twenty children. A favorite pastime of hers was imagining the day when this would come true. In a letter to her father, she writes: “Yesterday afternoon Anastasia and I were at the nurses’ school, the children drank tea and I fed them with gruel and I thought about you when the gruel ran down their chins and we cleaned their chins with spoons.”

As she grew, Marie began to lose the fat that had so troubled her mother. In her early teens, she was a budding belle, perhaps not yet as elegant as her gorgeous older sisters, but striking none the less. Tall, made of big bones, with honey-gold in her hair and sapphire-blue in her eyes, the colors displayed in startlingly deep hues that radiated from her along with her cheerfulness and charm, she was becoming the typical “Russian beauty.” She began to like clothes and perfume, though she did not take the liking to quite the level Tatiana did. People who knew Marie tell us that her favorite perfume was Coty’s Lilas, and her favorite ring one that her parents gave her when she turned sixteen, set with Buchara diamonds.

Marie had a girlish fascination with officers. Even when little, she is remembered by her nurse Miss Eagar to have sat on the windowsill as a regiment of her father’s marched past, watching with wide deep-blue eyes the glamorous uniforms and handsome faces, until finally she exclaimed, “Oh! I love these dear soldiers. I should like to simply kiss them all!”

Miss Eagar, though greatly amused, stopped herself from laughing and replied that “nice little girls don’t kiss soldiers.” Hearing this, Marie was silent. But a few days later at a children’s party, one of Grand Duke Constantin’s children, then twelve and in the Corps de Cadets, tried to kiss his little cousin Marie and was suddenly fended off as she put her little hand over her mouth.

“Go away, soldier,” she said with great dignity. “I don’t kiss soldiers.”

Of course, the boy was greatly delighted that his new cadet’s uniform had let him pass for a real man in the Imperial Guard.

When she grew older, Marie acquired a habit of developing fleeting crushes on handsome young men from her father’s dashing regiments, and the matter was one of constant gentle teasing and concern in the family. She was an excellent flirt, playing billiards for long hours with officers, old and young, and of course making eyes at the dashing officers of the family’s favorite yacht, the Standard. But flirtations were not always frivolous fun. At the age of eleven, Marie received a note from her mother that opens to us a secret of some sorrow in her young, loving nature.

“I had long ago noticed that you were sad,” wrote Alexandra Feodorovna, “but did not ask because one does not like it when others ask. Try not to let your thoughts dwell too much on him. I know he likes you as a little sister, and would like to help you not to care too much, because he knows you, a little Grand Duchess, must not care for him so. Be brave and cheer up and don’t let your thoughts dwell so much upon him. It’s not good and makes you yet more sad.”

In 1914 came the war, bringing officers and uniforms aplenty, and though she was too young to be a nurse, Marie spent a great deal of time among the wounded in a hospital she sponsored. She asked them about their wives and children, about their lives at home and about the battles they had taken part in, and then told them simply and without reservations about herself. She tried to help out as much as she could around the hospital, and the fun she had with the men who were recovering, and who were sent on errands along with her, was immeasurable. A humorous incident that took place when she was cutting ice with some officers, and of which she wrote to her father, testifies to that:

“It was such fun. Krylov lost the biggest and the best scrap-iron in the middle of the pond, having fallen on the prow. Then Khadov went to help him get the scrap-iron out, and they both nearly dipped. Finally I went to hold them by the uniforms. All this was happening on a piece of ice already drifting, so some sisters held it with hooks. In command today was not Fedotov, but the other one, you remember, he came to the tower, the one with such chubby cheeks? So we call him ‘cheeks.’ He made a terrific fuss and shouted orders from the bank. Mama was sitting there on the bank in her armchair, and we all laughed, long and hard.”

Eventually, she developed a serious platonic relationship with an officer by the name of Nicholas Dmitrievich Demenkov, or “Kolya,” who was an officer of the day in the Tsar’s Headquarters in Mogilev (at the Russian front). Standing on her mother’s balcony at the Alexander Palace so that she could be seen from the road, she would watch for him to walk by, romantic and tremulous, a girl just on the brink of womanhood. Oftentimes, she would playfully sign her letters to her father, who was at the front, as “Mrs. Demenkov.”

Soon, the Revolution would intrude even upon this, the most innocent play of adolescence. Historical circumstances cut the budding romance short, and nothing ever happened between them, though it is obvious that they adored each other. Within a few short months of their first meeting, Fate would take Kolya into the whirlwind of civil war, and make Marie ill with the measles. Under house arrest, while all of her sisters were ill, Marie was the only one who could help her mother through the torment of revolution, the oblivion as to where the Tsar was, and the uncertainty about the future. Gradually, she felt herself catching the fever too. But bravely, though already weak, she would venture out with Alexandra Feodorovna into the night where St. Petersburg was finally and irrevocably revolting against their innocence in order to ask, with the inborn dignity of a Grand Duchess, for the loyalty of the remaining troops. She thus made her first official appearance before her people — in the cold, with burning cheeks and an old shawl wrapped around her shoulders. Her voice echoing in the darkness, she spoke of her complete trust in the men who had served her father so well, and then arranged for blankets and tea to be served to them while they stood on guard. We do not know the initial intentions of those soldiers. But after Marie spoke to them, they chose to stay.

At last, the terrible day came when she could no longer walk, and Marie became the victim of her own devotion. Aged only seventeen at the time, she had spent herself completely for her mother and sisters, their last pillar of strength in these terrible times. Her constitution was excellent as always, but she had all she could to survive the onslaught of the fever. She was still frail when the family was taken into the darkness of Siberia.

Even here, she found a way to bring sunshine to those around her. She spoke congenially with the soldiers who guarded her family — her captors, if we must say the truth, and yet, eventually, her friends. After confinement in Tobolsk, when her mother and father were taken ahead of the children to Ekaterinburg, it was she who dared to come with them rather than waiting her turn together with her brother and sisters. She knew that her mother needed her, and thus she chose to brave the Golgotha of the Red Urals at her mother’s side. Calmly and efficiently, she went to work preparing the prison house for the arrival of her siblings to make the change easier on them.

On the night of July 17, 1918, she was killed along with her father Nicholas, her mother Alexandra, her elder sisters Olga and Tatiana, her baby sister Anastasia and her little brother Aleksei. She was nineteen.

The Romanov girls — Olga, Tatiana, Anastasia, Marie.

She was never married, never had a baby, never saw her twentieth birthday and never wore a wedding dress. There were so many things she had wished for in her short, devoted life, and never got. Though her elder sisters had been hounded by the media, she had been the third girl and the first disappointment of the country, and relatively unknown. Today, she is the one that is most often slighted when the Romanov sisters are described — we know the mystery of Anastasia, we know about Olga, the Tsar and Tsarina’s first child, and we know about Tatiana, a striking beauty. But Marie tends to stay in the shadows.

Who knows, perhaps with her simple ways and easy smile, this is what she would have wanted. We cannot know that. But whenever one reads of her, there is one icon, one whiff of her that one never forgets — fairy-tale eyes.

Romanov children running on the deck of their yacht. Marie is on the far left.