Curtain Calls - Travels in Albania, Romania and Bulgaria
by Leslie Gardiner
Readers Union, Newton Abbot, 1977

Scandal at the Quiet Nest

"I found myself surrounded by a swarm of excited women in strange attire, prattling a language I did not understand. They called me Sultana and each one wanted to touch me; they fingered my clothes, patted me on the back, one old hag even chucked me under the chin . . . amongst a labyrinth of mud huts did they drag me with them, making me enter their hovels, put my hand on their children, sit down on their stools . . ."1

Marie of Romania was recalling days of liberty as Crown Princess when, a free person on a horse, she would canter past cartloads of Turkish women huddled in dark wraps, being transported to some unspeakable destination . . . past mud-built villages, howling dogs, tiny churches and fat mosques and acacia groves . . . through wretched towns where silent obese Turks eyed her, women crouched like black crows in a line on a wall, entrancing children in baggy cotton trousers raised their kohl-painted eyebrows and snapped their red-lacquered fingers at her.

This is the land you see when you are stacked up over Varna at the height of the holiday season, waiting to land at your Black Sea resort—a scrub country of grey goat pasture, limestone outcrops, the stalks of dead trees and the cracked earth of dry ponds. It is still the Dobrudja, south of the delta, south of Constanza; a disposable counter in Balkan politics. The old frontier, marked today with a stone slab at the roadside, was some thirty miles south of the present one. After 1940, that piece went to Bulgaria. Halfway between old and new frontiers, threatened by the two prongs of a blossoming vacationland, so far no more than threatened, sleeps Balchik by the sea. Marie of Romania kept its picture in her mind from the one brief visit she made as Crown Princess: tiny Turkish houses scrambling down a gap in the limestone cliffs. As Queen, when the time came to prepare the last palace in her collection, she sited it at Balchik.

It was 1926, only twelve years on from that sunny day at Constanza when the Tsar and all the Romanovs came down in their black-and-gold yachts. The Tsar and the Romanovs were gone, King Carol and his Queen were gone. (Amiable and witless to the last, Carmen Sylva died tuned in to the archangels, Raphael in particular, and she broadcast their messages to her people.)

Ferdinand was King, Marie his Queen. 'Ah, si j'étais roi,' was her constant complaint. She believed that the nation would respond to her as to no other sovereign, that only she, manipulating the rulers of Europe as she manipulated her admirers, could bring the prestige and prosperity which Romania deserved. The slide of the Romanian Hohenzollerns into degradation and misery had already begun, with Carol, now Crown Prince, absenting himself from his regiment in time of war, marrying Zizi Lambrino and getting her with child and shooting himself accidentally on purpose to avoid the consequences. The marriage was annulled and Carol made handsome amends by offering a perfectly proper proposal to Princess Helen of Greece. They were married, but even before Helen's first child, Michael, arrived her husband's name was being linked with that of Madame Lupescu.

By 1926 the monarchy was in a tangle. Carol announced that he no longer wished to be considered a member of the royal family and his father, in the last year of his reign, at a solemn conclave, pronounced the destitution of the heir apparent.

Prince Nicholas, after an undistinguished career at Eton, had entered the Royal Navy and was serving in the Mediterranean Fleet, frightening the Maltese to death by tearing round the narrow streets on a Red Indian motor-bike. Stories are still told in naval wardrooms about the Valletta prostitute who set up in business for herself under the sign BY APPOINTMENT TO H.R.H. PRINCE NICHOLAS OF ROMANIA.

His mother was having better luck with her daughters. A dedicated matchmaker, Marie was determined to see the three girls nothing less than queens. Elisabeth had become Queen of Greece—a queen without a throne, it was true, and soon to be without a husband, for the marriage did not work out. Marie the second daughter, "Mignon", plump, soft and shy, the sort of girl mothers warn their sons against, had taken King Alexander of Yugoslavia for a walk in the forest at Sinaia and come back engaged. 'Mignon, my prosperous Queen,' her mother was able to cry a few months later, when she visited the newly-weds in Belgrade. Life was smooth and pleasurable for the placid Mignon until the day in 1934, at Marseille, when her husband was assassinated.

Ileana the youngest girl was not quite of marriageable age, but it was understood that King Boris of Bulgaria would be interested when the time came. A rapprochement between the two countries which glared at each other across the Danube was centuries overdue.

Long before she started collecting kings for sons-in-law, Marie had collected palaces and castles, and she had also constructed a small fortress of affection in the hearts of all right-thinking Romanians. (A few wrong-thinkers existed: one might cite the militants who upset the royal train schedules from time to time, inflamed by a railway worker named Gheorghiu-Dej.) Though something of a Mrs Jellyby in her domestic life, arguably responsible for some of the sorrows of her children, she was the mother of her people, a Joan of Arc, a Florence Nightingale and a Catherine the Great rolled into one.

It had started in 1913 in the Second Balkan War, when Romania squabbled with Bulgaria over the spoils of the First and Marie discarded the pretty Cossack riding-habit and put on an equally becoming Red Cross outfit to organise the cholera camps. It had continued through the First World War, when she rallied a dispirited nation and marshalled heads of states, Allied and hostile, to support her on the principle that blood was thicker than politics.

Ferdinand pursued an indeterminate path throughout that war, half-heartedly leading his armies in the field, bemused by awful dilemmas and conflicts of loyalties. He failed to join the Central Powers, his name was expunged from the Great Book of the Hohenzollern and in his ancestral home of Sigmaringen he was mourned as dead. Up to the summer of 1918 it looked as though he had sacrificed his honour for nothing: Bulgaria attacked across the Danube, a crack German mountain battalion (led by Lieutenant Erwin Rommel) poured over the Carpathian wall and captured Bucharest, the Russians collapsed and the Bolshevists massed on the Black Sea frontier.

Marie's Rosciori, the Red Hussars, exquisitely accoutred, monocles firmly screwed in, trotted into action with admirable bravado and their colonel-in-chief's name for a battle-cry. 'Regina Maria!' They were cut to ribbons in an afternoon.

Marie toured hospitals, handed out medals to the wounded, wrote her first best-seller (My Country) and gave the proceeds to the Red Cross, sustained morale behind the front, remained un-quenchably vivacious and became the inspiration of fighting forces trapped in a conquered land. The court had to flee to Jassy (now Iasi), the old capital of the Moldavian princes. 'We travelled overnight,' she put in her diary, 'and arrived in time for breakfast. I slept beautifully. I like sleeping in the train.'

All came right in the end. Capitalising on her fame at home and abroad, Europe being rather short of heroines, Marie appeared uninvited among the statesmen at Versailles. Could not Romania's delegates be trusted with the job? her husband asked. She thought not. The opening session of the Peace Conference suggested to her that Romania was being slighted, that all the little eastern states were being lumped together. 'Romania needs a face,' she told the press in Paris, 'and I have come to show mine.' At forty-two, it was still an astonishingly fetching one.

The French reacted with predictable gallantry. 'A Queen like that,' Clemenceau told the Romanian general Antonescu, 'should be received with full military honours, Marshal Foch at their head.' Crowds gathered to cheer her on her well-publicised "secret" missions to other western countries and chasseurs, lancers and foot guards provided her escorts. Paris and London were grand spectacles of the brave and the fair, pageants with casts of thousands, but Queen Marie of Romania stole a good part of the show.

She confided to the French leaders that the British lacked interest in Romania, because of their historical disdain of small nations . . . she told the British the same about the French. She returned to Bucharest more heroic than ever, for the Versailles settlement not only met Romania's claims to Transylvania, the Bukovina and the Banat in full but gave her the marvellous bonus of Bessarabia, more than doubling the country's pre-war population. From then on it was Greater Romania.

Some, including Marie, held that Marie alone achieved it. Official Romanian delegates have written rather sourly that her function was decorative and that, if anything, she hampered their work. The modern historian would point out that it was Allied policy all along to create a Greater Romania as a cordon sanitaire against Bolshevism.

H. Charles Woods2 left a portrait of the metropolis of victories about the time Queen Marie returned from Versailles. Bucharest's population is much increased, hotels are full and people continue to flock into the capital. All is dirt, disorder and poverty. Trains come and go sporadically, with unlit, unheated, windowless coaches. Only the Simplon-Orient express (Paris and Istanbul) keeps anything like proper time. The national finances are in an incredible mix-up. There has been no budget since 1914, paper money lies about the streets like snowflakes, the cost of living is two hundred per cent up on the previous two years. The index of corruption has soared in sympathy. "There is nobody and nothing who and which cannot be bought." Power is shared by the old gang and the newly-rich, but they will not introduce tax measures because the main burden must fall on themselves.

Marie, finding her country in a grim mood, swept off on further travels. She took England by storm, danced a quadrille with King George the Fifth and Queen Mary, took her seat in the gorsedd of the bards at Llangollen and wrote a piece for a daily newspaper called "My Ideal Man". Her fan-mail was delivered in a truck and it added up to one massive outburst of praise for her good looks, courage, charm, stamina, artistry, authorship, botany and tapestry-work. "As a dress designer," The Times reminded its readers, "Queen Marie might have earned, had it been necessary, a large income." And, it might have added, a fortune on the stage.

With her son Nicholas and daughter Ileana she hit America in 1926 and rode the crest of the wave called ballyhoo—which comprised flivver and sedan, Alphonse Capone and Babe Ruth, knee-length skirts and rayon stockings, Emily Post and Dorothy Dix, Florida real estate and Teapot Dome, the Dempsey-Tunney fight and the funeral of Rudolf Valentino.

Marie underwent the 'Hey, Queenie' of United States informality, the jokey impertinence of cartoonists and a lot of bewildering hospitality, and she figured in a quatrain by Dorothy Parker. Her good-natured readiness to take part in stunts brought out the worst in the impresarios of a tasteless era: Marylin Miller impersonated Princess Ileana in the musical Rosalie, a sillier-than-usual love-story about a foreign royal highness and a West Point cadet; thousands of gullible citizens paid good money to kiss the Queen's hand; Robert Sherwood wrote the play The Queen's Husband, a soppy comedy based on what he imagined life at the Bucharest court to be; civic heads mauled each other in the Queen's presence over the question of who was to sit beside her; somewhere in Canada she stood patiently smiling while a whole city of thirty thousand people passed before her.

John Mason Brown3 remembered her as "a handsome, strong-willed enervatingly energetic woman . . . dripping with pearls and diamonds, who whistle-stopped round the country from one red carpet to another on the luxurious trains which the railroads put at her disposal." Heywood Broun thought there were not half a dozen actresses in the States who could fill her role so well. A journalist on the Toronto Star4 called her "a first-rate bridge-player, a second-rate poetess, a very high-grade puller of European political strings . . . who uses more make-up than all the rest of the royal families combined" - she was none of those things and she did not, but Hemingway relied on hearsay and he seems to have had an obsession about make-up - it was he who put about the story of the lipsticked cavalry officers.

Homecoming, 1926. The bells of Bucharest chiming, the formal reception at the railway station, the laughing, cheering mobs in the streets ... it was a vivid memory for one young Romanian:6

'In the drawing-room at the palace the Queen was kissing her friends, greeting hundreds of people, handing out gifts from America - chewing-gum and marshmallows. We liked the marsh-mallows, but no one cared for the chewing-gum. Servants were carrying the big steamer-trunks through the corridors, each labelled in large white letters THE QUEEN OF ROMANIA. I had to stand in the corridor, there was no room inside. At a door at the far end, King Ferdinand appeared. I was shocked. I had not seen him for some months, and hadn't realised he was so ill. He wore his robe de chambre and shuffled along the corridor like an old man, thin and jaundiced. He heard the noise of the excited people round the Queen, and he stopped and turned and went back into his room. He carried a newspaper, I remember. It was the last time I saw the King.'

King Ferdinand died of cancer in July 1927. Towards the end he had a little joke for his ministers: 'Carol is a good boy really, a very clever boy. You know, he's like Emmenthaler cheese - excellent but for the holes.'

On his deathbed he wrote to  the chief minister, another Bratianu: "I cannot face the future without thinking with a father's heart of the fortunes of my dear son Carol [who was then living abroad with Madame Lupescu] ... I wish him a happy and honourable destiny. I have denied myself, in the public interest, the great joy of seeing him once more . . ."

Like Marie, we are surrounded by a swarm of excited women in strange attire. They belong to the egg-plant cannery of Balchik and they are giving us confusing directions for the palace, Tenka Yuva, the Quiet Nest. Round the ravine, under the trades-union chalets, down to the gatehouse which is smothered in American vine and has wartime mines at its portals, down through the deer-park, down past the waterfall on a track hardly wide enough for a pony-cart ... it is all downhill to the Quiet Nest.

The gardens are in the care of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. Visitors may enter. Half a dozen gypsy women, in faded blouses and sackcloth aprons, are camouflaged among roses, michaelmas daisies, geraniums and cacti which overflow the herbaceous borders and the steep flagged paths. Evidently the gardeners cannot keep pace with the growth. Stop to speak to them and they slouch off to another job. It's unlikely that anyone remembers, anyhow.

We have been told to look out for the terraces, one for each of Queen Marie's children. The sixth is cut off short by the overhang of the cliff. Carol's terrace? No, Mircea's. Her youngest son died of typhoid at the age of two.

The Quiet Nest is not, and never was, a proper palace, it is more of a seaside villa. Within the park, which falls to the sea on a stiff gradient, Marie of Romania amassed enough treasures to fill several museums and enough junk to stock a few western antique shops and eastern bazaars.

Millstones on the paths, three decorative mills against the trees, echoing the Sans Souci of Frederick the Great; baths, fountains, stoneware, ceramic jars, Celtic and Oriental crosses, a rustic well, an alabaster throne, a row of white Illyrian pillars (contributed by Alexander of Yugoslavia) beneath a pergola of roses . . . crammed in this corner of Balchik bay are all the relics of a woman who loved curios, who was never afraid to ask for what she took a fancy to, and on whom admirers showered their gifts.

The house is well-proportioned, white plastered, with carved chestnut balconies and plum-coloured pantiles. From above, the spreading wings of the roof resemble the plumage of an exotic bird alighting on its Quiet Nest in the cypress thickets. The blue spike of a minaret out-tops the trees. Passing sailors could mistake it for a lighthouse and once they might have heard the sirens' song from an aeolian harp inside the weathervane. But the harp is blocked with swallows' nests, and the custodian says that as fast as he cleans it out they block it up again.

The building is a rest-home for artists and writers. We are spending the night there and, since it is a quiet time of the year, I am shown to the ground-floor apartment originally designed for King Ferdinand. It is bare and white, with one modern picture (strong-armed harvesters) and a frieze of madonna lilies. They are the only madonna lilies left at Balchik and a gardener says the others, which Queen Marie planted and which grew so profusely in the limestone soil and sea air, have been carted away to the Euxinograd palace, the Government guest-house thirty miles down the coast.

Ferdinand did not sleep here. He died before the Quiet Nest was completed. His widow did, and whom she might have slept with supplies legends for guides to entertain western tourists with. To be fair to the eastern Europeans, they are only retailing gossip which circulated during Marie of Romania's lifetime—gossip which is purged of its original malice for, as the manager of the Balchik rest-home says, 'What is the use of being a Queen if you can't take a lover?'

The boatman Hassan; the head gardener who cultivated for her a black rose (it, too, was transferred to the Euxinograd, where it died); the Italian architect Fabrice ... in the Balchik story they join the list of lovers. The list is headed by the Crown Prince of Prussia before the First World War, and Waldorf Astor of Cliveden, whose wife Pauline did indeed complain that Marie was writing to him every day, and must stop it. It continues, according to various participants in the drama of Marie of Romania in the nineteen-thirties, with Rosciori hussars, Russian grand dukes (during visits to Saint Petersburg), a Polish count, a German envoy, Colonel Joe Boyle the Canadian paymaster who organised supplies ranging from a Rolls-Royce to bars of chocolate for the royal family during the grim part of their war, Prince Stirbey, from whose house Marie launched her Red Cross campaigns, two or three minor Romanian politicians, Colonel Eugen Zwiedeneck her major-domo at Balchik, a young aide at Balchik . . . The reports are not confirmed, and on this aspect of the Queen's private life her surviving daughter Ileana writes to me:

"I think you have to be very careful not to give the impression that Mama was a passionate woman. She was a great romantic and of course, being very beautiful, men fell for her, but she herself regarded this quite apart from a romantic point of view and was flattered but was seldom moved by these romantic attachments; she just accepted with a kindly smile. She hated hurting anyone's feelings . . . The only men we can say truly played a part in her life apart from my father were Lord Waldorf Astor, Prince Barbu Stirbey and Colonel Joe Boyle."

A younger member of the royal family says: 'Great-grandmama was very naughty. Stable-boys and everything.'

Queen Marie spent more time at Balchik as the years went by, eventually becoming almost a recluse there—or a prisoner. She retired from active interference in politics after her husband's death, when a regency council was formed (to govern for Michael, the boy king of the postage stamps) without herself in it. This was her reward for creating a Greater Romania, propping up a diffident monarch, making Romania's name ring round the world . . . The trouble was that, like many a central European and Balkan mother-in-law of this century, Marie was too fond of meddling with matters which did not concern her and which she did not properly understand.

In 1930 came the sensational return of the exile: Carol, the dispossessed heir. He landed in a private aircraft and was welcomed with acclaim, marched on Bucharest and accomplished a quiet coup against his little son.

History and the popular press have been hard on Carol II of Romania. He is the weak-chinned would-be dictator, a drunkard, intriguer and womaniser; a Byzantine character. Close to former royal circles, they speak with some embarrassment of the defect which destroyed the dynasty :

'I hardly know how to put it . . . Carol was . . . well, you know about Cleopatra's nose ? Half an inch longer, and the history of the world might have ... it wasn't Carol's nose, it was another organ... half an inch shorter, and our history . . . you follow me? Lupescu was the only woman who could ... eh? You understand?'

His forty-year affair with Madame Lupescu required enormous sacrifices by both; and they remained faithful to each other; in different circumstances that would have been one of the world's great love stories. Carol was reasonably abstemious in those days, decisive, intelligent, hard-working, devoted to his country . . . western newspapers portrayed him as the exact opposite and King George the Fifth, who took some of his opinions from the headlines in the Daily Express, called him "that bounder".

Carol showed courage under threats from the Axis powers, while his mother made friends with Frau Goebbels. Governments collapsed, prime ministers fell like autumn leaves, the King made several clean sweeps of political parties and by 1938 he was leader of the National Front of Rebirth, a fascist regime.

So many heads rolled that Queen-Mother Marie felt insecure. She had to apply to her son for permission to travel, and sometimes he refused it. She was sixty, matronly, clear-skinned, with a beauty which would never fade, but she suffered from pernicious anaemia, with which is often associated a persecution complex. During a brief absence, her French gardener and her "man of confidence" died suddenly at Balchik—rumour spoke of poison. During another a devoted aide was struck down by what was described as a brain tumour. For the first time in her life Queen Marie knew fear and helplessness and looked about her for a protector. She found no one, only Colonel Zwiedeneck the morose old major-domo, who loved to wallow in alarmist propaganda. "I am absolutely defenceless," she wrote in her diary.

Morning on Balchik bay. A soft air from the sea, which is grey and murky, rolling baulks of timber and strings of onions on to the beach. Boats like the boat we travelled the Danube in are bobbing under the wall. A fellow-guest, a paunchy professor of philology, is already out there, up to his waist in water, swinging a rod. Fishermen lie back on a quadrilateral of net, like firemen on a blanket. Smoke rises from the cannery chimney and the thump of a pile-driver comes through the water from the new harbour extension. I look down on this from Queen Marie's little chapel, which has attenuated pseudo-Byzantine frescoes on its doors, one of the Queen with a church in her hands and the other of Princess Ileana with a boat. (As a young girl, Ileana was nearly drowned at Balchik.)

Female workers with raucous screams have settled like a colony of gulls among the dahlias. A Moslem woman from the town is peering into Queen Marie's silver well, the well of Allah, looking for the face of the boy she hopes to bear. In the shade, under a plane tree, his bald head like the dome of a statue, his olive-green pillbox hat on the bench beside him, sits Bai Simeon. He moves the hat, we sit down with him. He talks in a flat, complaining voice.

Bai ("Uncle") was gardener's boy at the palace and he is probably the only man left in this town who knew Marie of Romania.

'He says she was much loved,' the interpreter reports. 'He says they built a road for her, all the way from Tolbuhin, it was the first asphalted road in the Dobrudja.'

He says ... he says . . . Among other things, Bai says that Ileana was to have married King Boris of Bulgaria, but when the King arrived at the Athenee-Palace hotel in Bucharest someone whispered that the princess was already pregnant and he left at once. (This is most unlikely.)

He says that Ileana's daughters are now washing dishes in a workers' cafe. (Not true : they live respectably, with their titles, in Germany.)

The Queen's illness, he goes on, was not an illness, it was a gunshot wound. I must know that both her sons were bewitched by Madame Lupescu. In the course of a quarrel at the Quiet Nest they raised their voices and the Queen heard them. She entered the salon just as Nicholas drew his revolver to fire at Carol. Instead of hitting his brother he hit his mother, who had rushed between them. She died of that wound. The cause of death was not an infection of the liver, as the newspapers said, it was the infection of some blood transfusions.

'Have you told anyone about this before?'

'No one asked me before.'

True or false? In 1937 the press scented a mystery about her illness, and an American interviewer6 tackled her about it. Marie answered : 'I've heard anecdotes about myself, I hear all the stories, someone always comes and tells me . . . Shot by my son? No, I've heard nothing about that. My illness started with a haemorrhage and narrowed down to two controllable ailments, phlebitis and anaemia. Not cancer, thank God.'

That hardly amounts to a denial, but Princess Ileana calls the shooting episode "complete bunkum". "In cold historical fact my brothers never actually quarrelled face to face. Carol always used emissaries to do his dirty work for him. They never met at Balchik as far as I can remember, and they certainly never had words in front of their mother . . ."

Bai Simeon spills cigarette ash on his green smock, rubs at it and makes it worse, puts his cap on and salutes. The audience is over. He stumps off to supervise the garden-women, for he is in sole charge of everything outside the Quiet Nest - the deerpark, the garden of Allah, the columns and statues and curios, the terraces and the alabaster throne on the ledge above the foreshore. He is getting on in years, his feet are troubling him, he wears the livery of the Republic and the shabby, unkempt air that goes with it; but he must have been a good-looking young fellow forty years ago and I wish I had thought to ask him whether . . . But it happened a long time ago, no doubt the old man's mind is clouded with more recent memories, what we are speaking of is pre-history for him, a legendary era of which the facts are dissolved in the fiction.

1 My Country (Hodder and Stoughton for The Times, 1916).
Contemporary Review,
January 1921.
3 The World of Robert E. Sherwood (Hamish Hamilton, 1965).
Ernest Hemingway:  Article in
Toronto Star Weekly,  15 September 1923.
5 Georges Duca: conversation with author.
6 Vernon McKenzie:
Through Turbulent Years (Bles, 1938).