WHEN COUNT AND Countess Sternberg fled Czechoslovakia as the Communists came to power in 1948, their departure had a certain old-world charm. Her lover arranged their escape to the United States and his mistress followed just behind. It was a lucky break that Countess Sternberg's dear friend and protector happened to be the American ambassador in Prague, Laurence Steinhardt. He spirited the Sternbergs to freedom, their young daughter and three family paintings - Old Masters which helped support them as hard-pressed refugees.#TWhen they escaped, the Strenbergs left behind forever a life of balls, shoots (11,000 pheasants felled in one day) and house parties. Castolovice, their main residence outside Prague, was so big Cecilia never did count all the rooms (there were more than 30 just for guests.) Theirs was a rarefield existence. They were dues-paying members of the titled aristocracy of Central Europe, an exotic club in which everyone was related.
Life as Czech refugees in New York was another, and not so cozy, story. Cecilia and Leopold were soon bunking in obscure hotels, and cadging off old friends: George Kennan put them up for an entire summer at his farm in Pennsylvania; Mrs. Harrison Williams (of the Best Dressed List) gave Cecilia her cast-off clothes.
The Sternbergs faced their setbacks with singular good humor. They confronted dwindling funds, misadventures and bad investments with much amusement and no shame. "We thought it all rather a joke," says the countess. To be sure, they kept their spirits up with quite a lot of the hard stuff - slivovice at first, then whiskey, and finally a gallon of cheap California wine a day by the time they bottomed out - in their own special way - in St. Petersburg, Florida in 1952. There, the Countess sold homemade jewelry on the waterfront while the count sat in his underwear on the porch of their cottage (of course, it was on the wrong side of town) drinking wine andreading the Constitution of the United States.
Countess Sternberg credits their survival to the kindness of friends. Certainly the Old Count Network came in handy. (Their eventual salvation was provided by a rich Austrian friend who set them up as innkeepers in Jamaica.) But it is the unexpected modesty and good temper of this pair - and Cecilia Sternberg's breathtaking frankness in reporting their missteps, humiliations and little shortcomings - that make this a diverting story which keeps you reading straight to the end.