Articles

THE WORLD’S MOST GLAMOROUS WIDOW

The story-book Duchess of Kent, exiled in one war and widowed in another, still dazzles European society with her aura of romance and high fashion. Her striking beauty once caused a commando veteran to fumble the Queen’s cloak

McKENZIE PORTER January 15 1951
Articles

THE WORLD’S MOST GLAMOROUS WIDOW

The story-book Duchess of Kent, exiled in one war and widowed in another, still dazzles European society with her aura of romance and high fashion. Her striking beauty once caused a commando veteran to fumble the Queen’s cloak

McKENZIE PORTER January 15 1951

THE WORLD’S MOST GLAMOROUS WIDOW

The story-book Duchess of Kent, exiled in one war and widowed in another, still dazzles European society with her aura of romance and high fashion. Her striking beauty once caused a commando veteran to fumble the Queen’s cloak

McKENZIE PORTER

PUBLIC appearances of that beautiful war widow the Duchess of Kent have been so few in the past year that London gossips believe she wishes to slip into obscurity and leave the role of royal glamour girl to Princess Margaret.

The Duchess still gets more fan mail than any other member of the monarchy—including marriage proposals from obscure optimists all over the world. In her home, The Coppins, Iver, Buckinghamshire, she still keeps a police whistle handy in case detectives fail to intercept crackpot suitors who sometimes prowl the grounds. Mass-production dressmakers still whirl off an avalanche of copies for adoring stenographers every time the Duchess is photographed in a new creation. And contemporaries, who remember how she dazzled the world on her marriage in 1934 to King George V’s youngest son, still speak of her nostalgically as Marina.

But during 1950 she made only three formal public appearances. One American correspondent in London has described her as “the Widow of Coppins.” But there is no hint in her manner that she has retired into that bleak mourning which prompted Rudyard Kipling to call Queen Victoria “the Widow of Windsor.”

Instead the Duchess’ activities suggest that time has healed her grief for the debonair husband who was killed with the RAF when his aircraft hit a Scottish mountainside in 1942, and that she is now determined to rid herself of royal chores and enjoy her private life.

She divides her time between three healthy happy children, her relatives in Greece, old family servants and the bright set of Mayfair. She usually travels incognito as “Mrs. Green.”

The Duchess is the poorest member of the Royal Family and gets no pay for launching ships, opening exhibitions or attending city centenaries. The only money she receives from the State is $l,200-a-yrar pension as the widow of an air commodore with three children. The late Duke of Kent left $474,000 of which $257,000 remained after death duties. Most of this went into trust for her eldest son, the present Duke of Kent. In 1947 the Duchess sold pictures and antiques which belonged to her husband for $276,000. The next year she sold some of his books for $3,000. The only important material possessions remaining are The Coppins, which she is not selling, and some magnificent jewelry.

At 44, Marina Schleswig-Holstein-SonderburgGliicksbourg, Princess of Greece, Duchess of Kent, Countess of St. Andrew’s and The Lady Downpatrick remains entirely fascinating.

Her dark brown hair shows no grey. Her green-rimmed brown eyes that her father once called “fox eyes” have a youthful sparkle. Although she has more Danish and Russian blood than Greek, her nose is classical Athenian. High on her right cheek there is a small nervous hitch that sometimes gives her face a whimsical, slightly lopsided look.

At a postwar concert for the Commandos’ Benevolent Fund a sergeant-major, helping the Queen with her wrap, goggled so intently at the Duchess that he placed the wrap on the Queen’s shoulders inside out.

The Duchess of Kent has more royal blood than any other woman in the King’s family except Queen Mary and the Princess Royal. Her father was Prince Nicholas, second son of Prince Wilhelm of Denmark who accepted the Greek crown in 1863 and called himself George I of the Hellenes. Her mother was daughter of the Grand Duke Vladimir of Russia and cousin of the late Tsar.

Gay Blade for a Poor Princess

If she observed royal precedent, very few men would now be eligible for her hand. It was rumored in 1945 she would marry Prince Charles of Belgium, who was then acting regent for his exiled brother, King Leopold. Society gossip links her name with Noel Coward, London’s suave playwright-composer with whom she has been photographed, and with Cecil Beaton, the court photographer and stage designer. Anthony Eden, Britain’s No. 2 Conservative who recently was divorced, also has been mentioned as a favorite.

The Duchess, who is a talented artist, has painted portraits of both Coward and Beaton. Last March one of her paintings was hung in a Women’s International Art Club exhibition in London. It was called “Portrait of a Young Man.” Lively curiosity was displayed in his identity. But the Duchess wished the subject to remain anonymous. Nearly 450 other paintings were offered for sale. But not “Portrait of a Young Man.”

She’s a strong-willed woman and friends say if ever she marries again it’s doubtful she will let court precedent influence her choice. When she was a girl she was at a family conference over the breakup of her elder sister Olga’s engagement to Crown Prince Frederick of Denmark. Marina, according to the published memoirs of an uncle who was there, startled her elders by snapping: “Why the hell should Olga marry him if she doesn’t love him? I wouldn’t.”

Her own marriage was generally regarded as a love match. The late Duke was an engaging blade who hunted, golfed, drove fast cars, drank double whiskies, danced well, admired a good ankle,

blithely played hit tunes on the piano and sang lusty parodies of classical ballads. She was an impoverished exile when they met in London in 1928 and when he proposed six years later. Their wedding was a joyful much-publicized event and their life together was happy and busy.

Now the Duchess spends much of her time with her children and during school holidays she usually is at The Coppins with the Duke of Kent, 15; Princess Alexandra, 14, and Prince Michael, 8. The house, a rambling, two-story, 20-room mansion, was left to her husband in 1935 by his aunt, the late Princess Victoria, sister of George V.

When she moved in the Duchess gasped, “I must have air.” She threw out ugly statues, heavy balustrades and loads of Victorian junk. She refurnished with splashes of chintz and brilliant paintwork—dominated by her favorite blue. Now she employs six servants but superintends housekeeping herself.

The Duke of Kent is a blond handsome boy

as tall as his mother. He goes to Eton, owns a model car with a miniature engine and wants to drive a real car. His title of His Royal Highness will pass to his son, then to his grandson and on his death the title will revert to plain dukedom.

Princess Alexandra is an outdoor girl with a mantel full of cups won at horse shows. She goes to a boarding school.

Prince Michael still studies at home with a tutor and he’s a tough, amiable boy. When the grocer in Iver village, a Mr. Platt, hears a small voice saying, “May I work your bacon-slicing machine?” he knows Prince Michael is around. “His ambition,” says Platt, “is to be a professional bacon sheer.”

A few years ago the Duchess and her two boys spent a week end at Bexhill-on-Sea, a Channel resort. Each day the Duchess, wearing an old fur coat, lisle stockings and kerchief, took the boys to the fire hall where they played on the engines.

Rail passengers

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saw her at 6 o’clock one morning having breakfast with the children at Aberdeen station. They were on their way from London to join the King and Queen at Bal later for grouse shooting.

When the older children are at school the Duchess often visits her mother, Princess Helena, who has lived in Athens since the Greek monarchy was restored.

The Duchess’ first home at 3 Belgrave Square, London, was so badly damaged in the blitz she gave it up. In 1946 one of her friends, Mrs. Peter Pleydell-Bouverie, took a house at 4 Buckingham Place and the Duchess has three small rooms on the top floor which she uses when in London.

At The Coppins the Duchess wears tweeds; in London, tailored suits in the mornings and a coat and dress in the afternoons. But her evening wear is usually striking flared gowns with offshoulder necklines or grand collette in brocade, heavy silk or chiffon.

Her hats are bold, sometimes impudent. At the Derby one year she wore a hat which one fashion writer said “hasn’t been paralleled for size since the days of Nell Gwynne.” Imitations of her hats are still sold to shopgirls as “Marina hats.” She prefers simple shoes without buckles and bows but her taste in handbags is expensive —large and luxuriously fitted with gold or jeweled clasps.

Exiled Family Saved From Sea

The Duchess has a flair for hairdressing. When London shops recently advertised “the Marina Coiffeur” she commented: “What is that? I do it differently every time.”

The Duchess of Kent was born on Nov. 30, 1906, in a gaunt marble single-bathroom palace which stands on an Athens hilltop and was the home of her grandfather, George I of Greece. A violent thunderstorm lit the broken grandeur of the nearby Parthenon and tore at the olives on the slopes of Mount Pentelicus. In some ways it foreshadowed the tumult of her life.

She had two older sisters, Olga, who married Prince Paul of Yugoslavia, and Elizabeth, who became Countess Torring of Bavaria. At 14, Marina spoke Greek, Russian, German, French and English.

World War I enveloped Greece in the wolfpack politics of the Balkans and her grandfather was assassinated in Salonika. Her father’s older brother Constantine took the throne but was banished in a court revolution. Marina’s family fled to Switzerland.

After the war Constantine was recalled and Marina’s family sailed for Greece in a fishing boat. The small craft foundered in an Adriatic storm and the royal refugees were saved by a warship.

Constantine declared war on Turkey, lost and abdicated. George II took the throne but was overthrown in 1923. Again Prince Nicholas and his family escaped, this time to Paris.

They were penniless and lived in cheap hotels and small apartments. Nicholas was a fair painter and managed to pay the rent by selling pictures. He found he could get more if he signed them “Nicholas, le Prince.” Marina’s mother worked for White Russian refugees and Marina helped her.

As she grew to beauty Marina raised extra cash by endorsing cosmetics. England first saw her face in Ponds Vanishing Cream ads. The family was so poor that Marina bought 50-cent

blouses and altered them to wear herself. Molyneaux made her a few clothes and she paid for them by endorsing his creations. She did all the family shopping, waiting until market closing time to buy food cheaply.

Even so, she lived gaily with a Bohemian crowd of writers, artists and exiled aristocrats in Montmartre and Montparnasse. Russian kinsmen often drove the taxis they rode in.

In 1928 she visited London for the first time and Prince George took her to “The 400,” “Ciro’s” and other swanky night clubs. But he showed no inclination for a steady romance. Marina went back to Paris.

Only 20 in World He Could Wed

Prince George was a lovable rapscallion kicking up his heels on the Prince of Wales’ giddy trail. As Lieut. Windsor in the Royal Navy he squired Lili Damita in Florida, a Miss Poppy Baring in Cowes, and other pretty women to other popular high-life resorts. In 1933 he was seen around London with Sandra Rambeau, a Cali-' fornia showgirl then playing in a revue called “Monte Carlo Follies.”

When King George V heard about his youngest son’s escapades he is said to have asked: “Who is this Rainbow girl?” When he found out he solemnly presented Prince George with a list of 20 women in all the world who were eligible to become his wife.

George scanned it dolefully until he came on a name he remembered— Princess Marina of Greece. To make his proposal, he flew in the summer of 1934 to a castle in Bohinj, Yugoslavia, where Marina was holidaying with relatives. Her uncle, Prince Christopher of Greece, recalls:

“We all played backgammon in the sitting room until we could hardly keep awake. One by one we went to bed until George and Marina were left alone at opposite ends of the sofa. When I got to my bedroom I found I had left my cigarette case. I went down to look for it. Through the door I saw George and Marina still on the sofa, though no longer at opposite ends. I stole back to bed without my case. Next day the engagement was announced.”

When she heard of it, Princess Eulalie of Spain exclaimed: “George

has picked the poorest and most beautiful princess in the world.” Palace gossip had King George growling: “Young George has taken the finest filly out of the royal stables of Europe.”

The wedding was a national festival. Calypso singers in Kingston, Jamaica, made Marina rhymes which were recorded and sold in London. In Australia manufacturers were forbidden by law to trade-mark their goods with Marina’s name. But throughout the Commonwealth there were Marina dahlias, Marina cocktails, Marina perfumes and a little pillbox hat that remained in vogue three years because it was a Marina hat.

She called him Babe. He called her Mara. They lived in 3 Belgrave Square and often entertained until dawn. When their Rolls-Bentley sports coupé snaked through London’s west end,

crowds ran along the street behind it to catch a glimpse of the Duchess.

Many American newspapers, however, made Marina the target for their shafts against European royalty. The most cutting attack came when Time magazine in 1935 reported that exGreek royalty saw Marina as “a clever ambitious minx scheming to take the throne of Greece and bent on jacking her husband into something more than the youngest and willowiest son of George V.”

No such thought entered the romantic heads of the British. They were delighted when they heard Queen Mary had rebuked the Duchess for being the first royal lady to smoke in public and the first to appear hatless outdoors. It tickled their matriarchal sympathies and at the same time enhanced the Duchess’ appeal. The Queen Mother is fond of Marina. She has given her many of the Teck heirlooms and much valuable jewelry.

The Duchess dug herself deepest into British hearts during the war by becoming a nurse in University College Hospital She didn’t allow the death of her husband to interfere with her duties. As “Nurse Kay” she washed dishes, scrubbed floors. Many nights she worked among bomb casualties in gory operating theatres.

One surgeon conducting a particularly grisly operation suggested she might like to leave. She said: “I come from Greece. I was brought up among suffering. I can bear the sight of blood.”

Couldn’t Nationalize a Duke

A prominent hospital matron says: “During the war I was a young nurse. One night during the blitz I put on my outdoor clothes before I’d finished my work and a sad-faced woman asked me where I was going. It was Nurse Kay. I said I could stand it no longer and was running away. She took me by the arm and pointed out how much I would regret it. Her words gave me the courage to stay.”

The Duchess appeared sometimes in news reels in the uniform of a WREN officer. Three years ago she donned miner’s overalls and scrambled along narrow coal workings two miles under the sea. She came up grinning and said: “I’ll try anything once.”

Eighteen months ago Britain’s Labor Government blushed when its propaganda department put out a poster depicting the perfect baby born and reared under Socialist economy, which then was four years old. The Duchess casually sent word that the picture was a 13-year-old portrait of her older son. Britain rocked with laughter.

Sang radio star Wilfred Pickles:

They nationalized the railways and the mines,

To do the same with pubs is their intent,

But they nationalized a laugh

With a baby’s photograph

When they tried to nationalize the Duke of Kent.

Fleet Street photographers know why the young Duke never appears at public functions. The Duchess is keeping a promise made to her husband that he would accept no official engagements until he came of age.

One photographer who has posed members of the Royal Family for 20 years says: “She’s been a great star

on a big stage for a long while and she knows what the people want. She has taught Margaret a lot about dress and a lot about those light relief roles which secondary royalty can play. Margaret now seems to be taking her place. If Marina is retiring she’s doing it, as always, gracefully.” -¥■

PHOTOGRAPHS IN THIS ISSUE

By—Miller (page 2), International News (5), Star (6), Ken Bell (6), Alex Gray (7), Star (7), Lloyd Knight (10, 11), Star (12, 13), Telegram (13), Miller (16), Planet News (16), Sport & General (17), Wide World (17), A.P. (17), Reuter (17), Miller (17), Ken Bell (18), Harold K. Whyte (18, 19), Ken Bell (27).