The life of Princess Natasha Pavlovna Paley sounds like something straight out of an avant-garde film. Wealthy, famous, and fabulously stylish, Princess Natasha’s life should have been an easy one, but calamity followed her every step of the way. Ultimately, Natasha’s story is about the pursuit of happiness—and what one does when every road leads to tragedy.
Natasha’s life didn’t exactly start off on the right foot. The product of a scandalous union between Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich of Russia and a commoner named Olga Valerianovna Karnovich, the royal family in Russia largely ignored the existence of Natasha and her older siblings, Vladimir and Irina. Despite this, Natasha’s parents still managed to give little Natasha quite the glamorous life.
Natasha’s life of luxury began at her birth on December 5, 1905. Born in the stylish city of Paris, Natasha lived in a home in Boulogne-Billancourt, one of the most affluent parts of the city. There, her parents employed a household staff of sixteen maids, gardeners, cooks, and tutors that waited on Natasha and her siblings hand and foot. Unfortunately, her sheltered upbringing meant she was ill-equipped for the dark days that waited ahead.
When Princess Natasha Paley turned seven, her entire life changed in an instant. The current Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, finally forgave Natasha’s father for his scandalous marriage and invited his new family to return to Russia. By May of 1914, Natasha’s family settled in Tsarskoe Selo, a palace that was likely more grand than anything Natasha had ever seen in her life.
Little Natasha spent three happy months in Russia, growing close with the royal Romanov family… but her world was about to be turned upside down again.
When WWI broke out, little Natasha found her family being slowly sucked into the conflict. In August of 1915, her brother, Vladimir, joined the army, determined to protect his country. Natasha’s brother soon became a lieutenant and went on to become a decorated hero with the Order of Saint Anne. It should have been a proud moment for Natasha, but more heartbreak was on its way.
Just a year after her brother left to fight in WWI, Natasha’s father followed in her brother’s footsteps. Despite his ill health, he took command of a Guards regiment, leaving young Natasha behind. This was probably a hard hit for poor Natasha, who was close to both her brother and father. Although the two eventually returned home, this was just a taste of the horrors in store for Natasha.
In March 1917, a 12-year-old Natasha Paley watched her life and family continue to fall apart. An explosive wave of revolution swept across Russia, and Natasha witnessed the brutal fall of the Russian monarchy. She watched as the new Russian Provisional Government exiled the former Tsar Nicholas II to Siberia, along with his family.
Clearly, it was time for Natasha’s family to flee—but it wouldn’t be so easy.
Despite the intense unrest rippling across Russia, Natasha’s family made a fatal mistake. They decided to stay in the country. They believed themselves safe and continued living in their lavish palace amidst the political upheaval within the country. To say this didn’t exactly earn Natasha’s family much sympathy is an understatement.
In fact, their inability to see the dangers ahead of them would cost them dearly.
As the months wore on, Natasha and her family found themselves in dire straits. As the revolutionary Bolsheviks rose to power in October 1917, their situation quickly took a turn for the worse. First, the Provisional Government put Natasha’s father under house arrest, cut the family’s telephone line, and had all exits of their home put under guard.
This isolation was already bad enough, but there were more trials ahead for Natasha.
On November 13, the Bolsheviks ransacked Natasha’s family home. They took her father’s guns, and nearly incarcerated her ailing father as well. They eventually released him, but more loss awaited Natasha. A little over a month later, the Bolshevik government took possession of all property held by Russian banks on December 27.
Natasha’s family lost all the wealth they had deposited into the banks—and they were about to lose even more.
Without funding and support, Natasha’s home of Tsarskoe Selo quickly deteriorated. By early January 1918, Natasha’s family couldn’t even afford to heat the palace; they had to move out. The revolutionary Bolsheviks took ownership of Natasha’s former home, and Lenin himself even took the family car. And as if it wasn’t enough to lose her home, things were about to get worse.
Natasha, her sister, and her mother continued to suffer at the hands of the soldiers that had taken over their home. The men forced Natasha and her family to cook and do their laundry, all while they taunted and jeered at her. Later in life, her family even confessed that the men regularly forced themselves on young Natasha. It was a horrific life that Natasha had to endure—and the tragedies just kept coming.
In March 1918, the Bolsheviks ordered all male members of the Romanov family, including Natasha’s brother, to register at Cheka headquarters. It was a chilling omen of things to come. Shortly after, Natasha’s brother was sent into exile; this was the last time Natasha would ever see her beloved older brother, ever again.
On July 18 of that same year, the revolutionaries executed Natasha’s brother, along with several other of her relatives. That was just the beginning of the heartbreak awaiting Natasha.
Natasha’s father initially managed to escape execution, but the revolutionaries captured him by July 30 and took him in Spalernaia prison. In a desperate attempt to keep the family safe, Natasha’s mother moved to a home that was closer to the prison, leaving Natasha and her sister, Irina, in the care of their governess. With her family forced apart, Natasha lived a lonely existence, surrounded only by servants—but even that didn’t last for long.
Barely three months after her father’s imprisonment, Natasha Paley found herself being kicked out of her home—again. The government repossessed the dacha Natasha lived in along with her sister and their governess. Evicted from their home, Natasha and her sister moved in with their mother in Saint Petersburg. By now though, Natasha’s mom wised up to the danger her family was in, and arranged a daring escape plan for Natasha and her sister.
By early December, Natasha’s escape plan was in motion. After saying goodbye to their mother, Natasha and her sister took a streetcar to the Ochta train station. There, they hopped into a cattle wagon, which took them on a strenuous four-hour journey outside the city. Afterward, Natasha and her sister jumped out of the cattle wagon into the snow, where a horse-drawn sleigh awaited their arrival. Natasha’s journey was not over yet.
After riding for some time in the sleigh, Natasha and her sister finished the rest of their journey on foot. For miles the two walked, freezing and physically exhausted. After a whopping 32 hours of traveling, the sisters finally made it to their destination: Terijoki, the Finnish frontier. From there, Natasha and her sister continued on to Vyborg, where the pair anxiously waited for their parents—but they were in for a dark surprise.
When the family was reunited, Natasha and her sister were greeted by a horrifying sight. Her mother arrived safe—but her father was gone. In January of 1919, the revolutionaries had executed Natasha’s father and tossed his body into a mass grave. Unfortunately, neither Natasha nor her mother could do much about it—they couldn’t even bury her father’s body.
With little recourse, Natasha and her remaining family escaped to Sweden, beginning their life of exile.
Natasha Paley and her family stayed in Sweden until the spring of 1920, before settling in France. Natasha’s mother managed to sell off her remaining jewels, which let the family live a relatively comfortable lifestyle in one of the upper-class neighborhoods of Paris. Natasha even attended a boarding school in Switzerland, continuing her education.
Sadly, a dark shadow prevented the now-teenaged Natasha from making any friends at school.
In a magazine interview she gave later in her life, Natasha revealed the awful truth of why she was unable to make any friends at school. The tragedy of her father’s imprisonment and execution, as well as the execution of the Romanov family, made it difficult for her to connect with the girls her age. Unable to have fun with the other girls, Natasha eventually found solace from an unexpected source.
The execution of her family gave Natasha, as she put it, “a taste for sad things, poetry, [and] the icy and lightning antechamber of death". Her somber fascination with the grim reaper didn’t exactly make her a fun companion for the girls at school, but they eventually came to respect Natasha’s dark outlook on life. After completing her schooling, Natasha returned to Paris to live with her mother, where her odd life as a Parisian socialite began.
At age 21, Natasha met Lucien Lelong at a Charity Bazaar put together by her mother. Natasha’s aristocratic background and ethereal beauty enraptured Lelong, a prominent French couturier and hero of WWI. After the meeting, he offered Natasha a surprisingly humble job at his fashion house as a saleswoman in the perfume department.
Natasha accepted and entered a whole new world of glamor.
Natasha didn’t stay in the perfume department for long. Her delicate features and elegance quickly became an asset for Lelong’s company, and Natasha soon found herself becoming a model for the fashion house. Natasha stood out with her silvery-gray eyes and pale blonde hair, and soon, she became one of the most sought-after models in Paris. Her fashion sense, however, was what really pushed her over the top.
Elegant, and with a taste for fashion that many described as “exquisite,” Princess Natasha Paley refused to follow the latest fashion trends, preferring to lead them. Usually dressed in black or white chiffon gowns, a red or purple cape, and her signature hat and gloves, Natasha attracted a strong following among the Parisian elite.
With that, both Natasha’s and Lelong’s reputation grew—and trouble followed closely behind.
Soon, it became apparent that things between Natasha and Lelong weren't strictly all about business. On July 16, 1927, Lelong divorced his wife, Anne-Marie Audoy, and began a relationship with Natasha. The two shared a deep love for arts and fashion, and it seemed like a match made in heaven. Unfortunately for Natasha, not all was well with their relationship…
Natasha’s new beau had a nasty reputation. Many people said that Lelong was quite the player, and was especially known for having affairs with other men. Despite this, Natasha found the wealth and security offered by a marriage with Lelong too enticing to ignore. Eventually, and against the advice of her family, she married him on August 9, 1927.
On top of receiving wealth from her new husband, Natasha had another surprising reason for putting up with his infidelity.
Natasha had a strong and distinct distaste for physical love. It was likely because of this reason that Natasha put up with her husband’s passionate affairs, and married him despite his preference for men. In fact, the two went on to have a “white marriage,” or a marriage without intimacy, for the entirety of their relationship—and that suited Natasha just fine. That didn’t mean that she let him get away with everything, however…
Cheating isn’t just about physical intimacy—for Natasha, being cheated on emotionally was much worse. When Lelong began showing a romantic interest in another one of the fashion house’s models, Natasha grew angry at his inattentiveness towards her, frequently throwing angry tantrums that bewildered her husband. Her husband’s cheating ways, however, soon became the last thing on Natasha’s mind.
On November 2, 1929, Natasha faced yet another tragedy. That was the day her mother lost her battle with cancer. The family laid her to rest in the Lelong family vault in Colombes cemetery. The loss absolutely devastated Natasha, who, quite literally, owed her mother her life. With the loss of her mother, and unable to find any emotional fulfillment in her own husband, Natasha traveled abroad.
By 1930, Natasha was in Venice; it was here that Natasha began an affair of her own.
In Venice, a despondent and frustrated Natasha met Serge Lifar, one of the greatest French ballet dancers and choreographers of the 20th century. The two began an emotional affair that, while passionate, lacked the physical intimacy that Natasha vehemently disliked. It’s possible that Lifar, being gay, didn’t mind this arrangement.
The relationship lasted almost two years and only ended when Natasha found love in yet another man.
Jean Cocteau, a brilliant and peerless French writer, became the next subject of Natasha’s affections. Like the other men in Natasha’s life, Cocteau was gay, which, again, suited Natasha’s eclectic tastes in romantic partners. Even though their bedroom life was a passionless one, the two shared a love for all things creative, and the two became close… So close, in fact, that he asked her for a strange and startling request.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Natasha beguiled and enthralled plenty of the men in her life. In fact, Cocteau was so fascinated with Natasha that he asked her to have his child, despite his attraction to men. Natasha, unsurprisingly, turned down his sudden request. It wasn’t long afterward that Natasha decided to leave Cocteau behind, ending their affair in 1932. It was time to take a break from men, and Natasha knew just where to go next.
After leaving Cocteau, Natasha bought a beautiful apartment at Les Invalides in Paris. There, Natasha entertained guests, including prominent members of society and artists. Although her parties allowed her to make powerful connections and made her a member of the Parisian elite, Natasha grew bored with the upper crust of society. In search of a challenge, Natasha made a sudden and drastic career move.
In the spring of 1933, Natasha set her sights on making a name for herself as an actress. She learned quickly under the tutelage of famed Belgian actress Eve Francis, and made her first movie appearance just months later. Her first film, L'Épervier, garnered high praise from critics in movie buffs. They described her as “a star [that] is rising, lit up by a flame of promise".
It seemed like Natasha was finally going to catch a lucky break… but that wasn’t the case.
Full of confidence, Natasha scored several other small roles in a variety of European movies. Unfortunately, these movies didn’t do much to build up Natasha’s reputation as an actress. For example, in 1934, she appeared in Le Prince Jean, which managed to be so boring that it failed at the box office. That may have been the end of Natasha’s film career, if not for a sudden and fortunate turn of events.
Despite these initial setbacks, the studio Twentieth Century Pictures took a shine to Natasha’s beauty and invited her to continue her career in Hollywood. Excited to make a name for herself under the bright lights of Hollywood, Natasha packed a couple dozen trunks and made her way to America, anticipating a bright future as a famous American film actress. Unbeknown to Natasha, things were about to go downhill.
In 1935, Natasha played another small role, this time in the film Sylvia Scarlett starring Katharine Hepburn. While being attached to a film featuring a famous actress sounded great on the surface, Sylvia Scarlett didn’t actually help Natasha’s career. For one, what should have been a fairly routine shoot quickly turned into a dangerous situation, for both Natasha and Hepburn.
During the filming of Sylvia Scarlett, Natasha and Hepburn nearly faced their doom. In one particular scene, Hepburn “saves” Natasha from drowning in a raging sea. Now, since it was the 1930s, neither CGI nor safety regulations had been invented yet, so both Natasha and Hepburn were actually out at sea, with waves crashing and churning around them.
Both Natasha and Hepburn risked their lives to get the scene filmed… And in the end, their efforts were for naught.
Sylvia Scarlett completely and utterly flopped at the box office, much to Natasha’s dismay. Losing over $7 million in today’s dollars, Sylvia Scarlett was one of the biggest box office failures of the 1930s. The only silver lining for Natasha was that she and Hepburn became lifelong friends after the filming of the movie. This marked the beginning of the end of Natasha’s fledgling movie career.
Natasha’s beauty was what gave her a shot at an acting career, and Natasha knew it. Aware that her acting was modest at best, Natasha began losing interest in furthering her acting career. She filmed one more movie in France in 1936, called Les Hommes Nouveaux, before leaving acting for good. Although Les Hommes Nouveaux did well at the box office, Natasha already knew that acting was not for her. It was time for another change.
Natasha needed a way to escape from it all; her marriage (which was a marriage only in name at this point) and her tragic past as a member of the Romanov family likely felt completely stifling to her. As a result, Natasha returned to New York City, where she bought an apartment and quickly established herself as a fashionable, charming socialite. While living her new life in New York City, Natasha met her next love.
John C. Wilson, theatre producer and director extraordinaire, was next to fall to Natasha’s charms. Artistic, humorous, and completely disinterested in physical intimacy, Wilson was exactly Natasha’s type. The two hit it off, and, by 1937, Natasha knew that Wilson was her perfect companion. She was ready to make another drastic move.
On May 24, 1937, Natasha finally divorced Lelong—yes, they were actually still married at this point! Just a few months later, Natasha tied the knot with Wilson, on September 8. With that, Natasha finally felt free. She could live off of Wilson’s wealth while enjoying his companionship. She, in return, used her name and social skills to enhance his theater business. It was, for Natasha, the perfect relationship, and life was only about to get better.
Natasha spent the next few years living a fabulous life with her new hubby. She traveled extensively; Switzerland, England, Venice, and Jamaica were all frequent destinations for the aging socialite. Natasha owned several luxurious residences and properties and rubbed shoulders with some of the most well-known artists and writers of her day. She finally had it all—or so she thought.
While Natasha’s new beau was rich, well-spoken, and allowed her to live a fabulous life, he had a terrifying dark side. In particular, Wilson drank heavily, and it made him a complete nightmare to deal with. His self-destructive tendencies began to take a toll on Natasha. Soon, Natasha had enough, and she began looking elsewhere for companionship.
The Princess’s next love came in the form of Erich Maria Remarque, the author famous for his novel, All Quiet on the Western Front. Natasha became an unforgettable presence in Remarque’s life; his last novel, Shadows in Paradise, actually featured a fictionalized version of Natasha. Alas, all good things must come to an end.
By the end of the early 1950s, Natasha made her way back to Wilson. What awaited her was nothing short of horrific.
Now approaching his 60s and in poor health, Natasha’s husband was confined to a wheelchair. He displayed symptoms of dementia, and often physically lashed out at anyone around him. Poor Natasha, who tried to help him, took the brunt of his blows. Helpless, Natasha could do little but wait—and tragically, the wait was a short one.
In November of 1961, Natasha’s husband left her side forever. Natasha did not take the news of his passing well.
Natasha’s reaction to her husband’s demise was absolutely devastating. She immediately withdrew from society at large and refused to see any of her remaining friends and family. The woman who had once been a social butterfly became a complete recluse that only found solace in watching television and completing crossword puzzles.
For the next decade, Natasha wanted nothing more than for people to leave her alone. Soon, that became impossible.
By the mid-1970s, the ex-socialite developed diabetes and eventually went completely blind. Natasha’s blindness only served to isolate her further. In the 1970s, a nephew by the name of Prince Michel Feodorovich Romanoff went to visit her, but Natasha, ashamed of her condition, refused to see him. It was a sad state of affairs for the Princess, and it marked the beginning of the end for her.
In 1981, just four days before Christmas Day, Natasha took a nasty tumble in her bath, resulting in a broken femur. Staff at the Roosevelt Hospital rushed to perform emergency surgery, but tragically, the surgery failed and her condition grew worse. After realizing that things for her were about to end, Natasha made one last heartbreaking plea to the doctors and nurses at the hospital.
She wanted a dignified end to her life. Fate would soon grant her final wish.
On December 27, 1981, Princess Natasha Paley closed her eyes forever at the age of 76. After a private ceremony, Natasha’s remaining friends and family buried her beside her husband in Ewing, New Jersey. It was a sad end for the glamorous princess, who never quite shook off her tragic past. Still, she managed to touch the lives of many people in her lifetime, and they’ll likely never forget the enigmatic Princess Natasha Pavlovna Paley.
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