Two hundred beautifully dressed Washingtonians packed the Sulgrave Club Saturday night to watch a movie.
It was the oldest newsreel in the world, including some 1896 footage, long believed lost, of the coronation of Nicholas II of Russia, and of course it was jerky and scratchy and faded, and the focus blurred constantly, and at that, the film consisted mostly of parades of official functions attended with good-humored patience by Nicholas and his empress Alexandra and their children in the sunny years before Sarajevo and Lenin and Ekaterinburg.
But it was infinitely touching.
You saw the Kaiser and Marshal Joffre, the battlefield of Borodino and the first four-motor plane with its young inventor Ignor Sikorsky. You saw the royal yacht, and armies in white uniforms, and the imperial golden coach.
The shots that stayed with you were the ones that showed the faces, bent old white-whiskered princes, Grand Duke Michael towering a head higher than anyone else, a grinning peasant, and most of all the royal princesses with their long hair down their backs and their glimpsed faces, smoothly pretty if not beautiful, shyly gracious as they performed their public duties, and the heir, Alexis, rarely present because of his bouts with hemophilia.
One haunting scene: midsummer, a reception, the empress standing in a garden receiving an endless line of staff officers, the princesses behind her in white dresses with wide-brimmed hats, and overhead , the million leaves of a giant elm, twirling languidly in the pleasant haze: a lost afternoon, a lost world, retrieved for a moment when we imagine we can lamost hear the voices and smell the grass, and then gone again.
The sense of these people rushing toward their doom is overwhelming, so oblivious and content they seem, so busy, so absorbed in their goings and comings. Some of the officers, as narrator Ivan Obolensky remarked, would be dead in a few months; the murder of the royal family was just four years away.
This Russian Easter dinner benefited the Perinatal Research Center of Georgetown University Hospital, which specializes in the first six months after birth - when hemophilia often strikes. More than one historian has drawn a connection between the hemophilia of Prince Alexis, the influence over his mother by the healer Rasputin, and the resulting estrangement of the royal family from the Russian people which might have been a factor in their assassination.
It was this connection which led Robert Massie to write his best-selling book "Nicholas and Alexandra."
"Our son Robert developed hemophilia," said Massie, a special guest at the dinner, "and I began to read up on it. I went to the library for books about Alexis, and I found a whole stack of memoirs by White Russian refugees."
His wife, Suzanne, who collaborated on the book, had family connections with old Russia, and one thing led to another. Their son, by the way, is working for his divinity and law degrees simultaneously at Princeton.
Massie answered the inevitable questions about Anastasia as though no one had ever asked him before:
"I don't know if anyone survived. But the Sokolov investigation was pretty thorough."
Nicolas Sokolov, a White Russian lawyer, made an obsessively complete examination of the bones and bits found at Ekaterinburg when the Whites retook it, and concluded that all had died.
Massie didn't talk to Anna Anderson, a prominent Anastasia claimant (who speaks no Russian), for when he did his research a decade ago she was quiescent and living in Germany. Now married and living in Charlottesville, Va., she reportedly has given up her claims.
As for the huge imperial fortune rumored to be waiting in a London bank, Massie merely shook his head. "There is no money," he said."It all went at the time of the revolution."
Still,, the aura of elegance surrounds the Romanoffs. A silver clock and some other Faberge rarities were exhibited at the club, and here and there in the crowd you saw a tiara, a row of medals, a wonderfully aristocratic Russian face.
Prince Nikita Romanoff, grand-nephew of the last czar, couldn't make the party, but Prince and Princess Alexis Obolensky did, along with several other members of Washington's White Russian community.