Saturday, 11 September 2010

Commuting on the Orient Express

Princess Marthe Bibesco was the darling of Europe.  Born at the turn of the century in Romania which was just emerging as a player in Europe after being dominated for so long by the Ottoman Empire, her striking looks, her chestnut locks, her emeralds, her precocious education and her wit made her a figure of international gossip. 
Enchantress (Marthe Bibesco and her world) by Christine Sutherland is a real hagiography.  But no matter.  I can live with that.  Especially as I learn that the woman had her OWN bespoke carriage on the Orient Express that she practically commuted on, shuttling backwards and forwards to Romania, Paris, Berlin, Bucharest and London.  Oh, and let's not forget pre-revolutionary St Petersburg.  When the train drew into her stop for her country house in the Carpathian mountains, young gypsy girls with yellow and orange striped flounces skirts would greet her by singing and handing her through the carriage window earthenware pots of wild strawberries covered with sage leaves.  At this point in the book I practically swooned with envy. And who wouldn't?  (Due to extreme generosity of BF I was whisked back from Venice on said train for a 'special' birthday and have spent many an idle hour working out if I sold my flat how long could I actually live on the train.  Answer: Two years. But what a two years they would be!) But Marthe, of course, didn't have those worries. Pretty wealthy anyway, her books were bestsellers and she raked it in.  She was adored by two Kings, a Crown Prince and a British Prime Minister. More or less at the same time.  Whilst she was married.  Crikey.
She opened her doors in Romania during WW1 as a hospital (and very fetching she looked too in a sort of nuns habit, reading to injured soldiers and holding the hands of the wounded) and helped her husband set fire to the oil fields so that the Bosche wouldn't benefit.
Back in Paris, Proust was an intimate friend as was Anatole France.  Her cousin Anna, Countess of Noailles was a bit sniffy about her - jealousy I suspect as Marthe was undoubtedly the uncrowned Queen of the Left Bank.  Antoine and Emmanuel Bibesco were also cousins - and Marthe fell in love with that enigmatic tortured man, Emmanuel, not realising that he was gay and the love could never be returned.  (He came to a mysteriously sticky end, and his devoted and debonair brother, Antione,  was comforted by Enid Bagnold of National Velvet fame.  He thundered at Enid - 'Never speak of this! And never speak of your silence!'  She later wrote a play about them both and on the first night there was the most terrible storm and the theatre flooded.  Antione exacting retribution,)
Kings, Queens, Princes and Princesses, Earls, Lords, Ministers and mere politicians flocked to Marthe for advice and entertainment.  She knew everyone in power and sincerely believed in a united Europe.  Of course when Hitler came to power she wept.  Then dried her tears and settled down to write some more books. 
Her only child, a daughter, Valentine, was not very close to her and Marthe certainly didn't let motherhood cramp her style in any way.  After her husband caught syphillis from one of his many consorts Marthe never kissed him again - but great affection held between them and he would rush to her side when she was operated on in Paris and nearly died.
Cecil Beaton photographed her in later years and remarked that her intelligence shone through her wattles.  Oh dear. And Enid Bagnold wrote that she adored Marthe but it was such a chore having her to stay as she would bring a ladies maid that insisted on ironing the silk sheets that Marthe demanded every day - causing upset 'below stairs' (The sheets, by the way, travelled in a separate steamer trunk and were drenched in her personal perfume of lilacs)
That world has long gone, but echoes of it are probably still to heard in corners of Europe, and a glimpse of the Carpathian mountains from any train, let alone the Orient Express will still have me swooning.

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