You would hardly expect Russian nobility to be watching election returns tonight. in fact, a large number of them had gathered at the Fifth Avenue apartment of Prince and Princess Alexander Romanoff to celebrate their ancestors who came to power without the help of an election.
The occasion for the unusual gathering was the publication of the Romanov (the traditional spelling) family album, a collection of rare and surprisingly informal photographs of Nicholas II and Princess Alexandra and their five children, with introduction and text by Robert Massie and picture legends by Marilyn Pfeiffer Swezey.
Count Vassili Adlerberg, whose father was Governor General of St. Petersberg in the days of Czar Nicholas, seemed to have direct ties to the life in czarist Russia pictured in the book: "I remember dinners and balls in a most luxurious way. And I remember my mother being asked at breakfast what flowers she would like on her dinner table. Violets, she would say, and violets would be there. Can you imagine violets in Russia in January?" Adlerberg said they were flown in from the south of France.
Although his grandmother Xenia Romanov was the czar's sister, Alexander Romanoff never knew the czar. "I would have to have been a very old man for that," said Alexander. His parents left Russia as teenagers and he has visited the country only twice as a tourist.
In fact, the tall, slender prince is modest about his royal connections. "You can call me prince or Alexander or Romanoff, whatever makes you comfortable," he offered shyly. Prince Romanoff and his wife, Mimi, the animal sculptress and jewelry designer known as Mimi di N, greeted guests in the marble foyer with a grand staircase to their duplex apartment overlooking Central Park. "This [apartment] is my real jewel," said Mimi, who was wearing no jewels except for small stone earrings with her deep green gown.
Among the more than 60 guests were Prince Alexander's brother, Prince Nikita, his wife Janet, Princess Helen Obolensky, Princess Marina Wolkonsky, Count and Countess Rudi Crespi, Theodore and Alexandra Schlesinger, and Prince Alexis Scherbatow, head of the 140 member (and growing) Russian Nobility Society. They sipped vodka, ate steak tartare and smoked salmon on Russian pumpernickel and were serenaded by a six-piece balalaika orchestra.
Pulitzer Prize winner Massie first discovered the photographs while researching Romanov memorabilia in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University when he was working on his book "Nicholas and Alexandra."
"It was like discovering gold," said Massie, who first became interested in Czar Nicholas when he learned his own son, Bobby, was a hemophiliac like Nicholas' son. Massie decided to learn how the empress and Nicholas II dealt with their son's disease.
Swezey, guest curator for the Faberge Collection at the Virginia Museum, first glimpsed the same photographs when she was stranded in New Haven during a hurricane and could not get back to Washington. She was working at cataloguing the collection later when publisher Alexis Gregory decided to have his Vendome Press publish them in a book.
Gregory says he is not surprised by the tremendous interest in things Russian at the moment. "It has to do with nostalgia," he said. "Kids are reading Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Everyone is fed up with modern Russia, but [they] look back on pre-revolutionary Russia as a more civilized time." He also pegs it to the appeal of all things royal. "The only royal family that has any clout today are the English. What else is left? The Dutch and the Danes are small beers."
At one point, Gregory and Swezey could not resist the rhythm of the balalaika players. They put down their glasses and danced freely around the room while others, including former Ballet Russe dancer Eugenia Delarova Doll, clapped to the music.
When the crowd thinned out, guests were served pasta and fresh ham with straight vodka. No one tuned in the election returns.