For most of the 1940s and 1950s, Prince Mike Romanoff was one of the best-known and best-loved figures in Hollywood. A man of great generosity and unparalleled charm, he not only owned and ran the swankiest restaurant in Beverly Hills, but was also a close friend to many of the stars who thronged there to see and be seen. Romanoff (1890-1971) was one of Humphrey Bogart’s most cherished companions, and a favourite acquaintance of David Niven, who wrote a warm and admiring appreciation of him in his best-selling book of Hollywood anecdotes, Bring on the Empty Horses. By the time he appeared as a guest on the panel show What’s My Line [1957; below], Mike was so well known that, almost uniquely, the panellists had to be blindfolded, and, to prevent the immediate identification of his distinctively fruity British accent, he himself was permitted to communicate only with a whistle.
All of this might have been considered par for the course for someone who full styling was Prince Michael Alexandrovitch Dmitry Obolensky Romanoff; who habitually smoked cigarettes monogrammed with the imperial Russian ‘R'; who had been schooled at Eton, at Harrow and at Winchester, and had attended not only Oxford and Harvard, but also the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, Cambridge, Yale, Princeton, the Sorbonne and Heidelberg. It might have been only a little remarkable for a man who – at least according to his own account – had driven a taxi for the French army during the defence of Paris and then fought on the Western Front as a British lieutenant, and on the Eastern Front as a Cossack colonel; who “knew the Sudan like the back of my hand”; who had won the Legion d’Honneur for some act of unspecified gallantry, and had gone on to defend the Winter Palace against rampaging Bolsheviks; had served six years in solitary confinement for killing a German nobleman in a duel; and who was able to produce at least some proof that he enjoyed a close, if oddly hazy, relationship with the former ruling dynasty of Russia. [Niven pp.147, 150, 152; Johnston, Education pp.247-9] It was, however, a truly startling achievement for a man who had actually done none of those things, and who was, in reality, no sort of aristocrat at all.
Mike, who stood little more than five feet tall, and might, in the opinion of one critic, “have been more plausible as the Great Mogul or the Akhoond of Swat” than as a Russian prince [Johnston, Downfall p.11], had been born altogether far more modestly as Herschel Geguzin, and had begun life as the son of a dried-goods merchant who owned a shop in Vilna, Lithuania – then part of the Russian empire, and then subject to intermittent pogroms that made life difficult and dangerous for its Jewish inhabitants. Geguzin’s father died before he was born, and, coming to the United States alone at the age of 10, the future Prince had passed most of what was left of his childhood being shunted from children’s asylum to reform school in the poorer districts of New York, “the celebrated bad boy of six New York orphan homes to which he was successively committed.” [Johnston, Education p.246] The remainder of it Geguzin – now known by the crudely Anglicised name of Harry Gerguson – spent working, rather in the style of Anne of Green Gables, as an orphan farmhand in Illinois. [Pejsa pp.10, 17-22] Mike’s reinvention of himself as a respected, self-possessed and wealthy Hollywood businessman is, thus, a great American story: a triumph of grit, chutzpah and good humour over the sort of grim circumstance that destroyed the lives of tens of thousands of less remarkable individuals. What lends his story true greatness, though, is the sheer vivacity and style with which Geguzin persisted in playing his part, despite repeated exposures and the occasional jail sentence.
David Niven, who knew Mike better than most, suggested that there was good reason for his life-long role-play: “As the years passed, it seemed as though he increasingly came to believe a large part of his Romanoff fantasy.” [Niven p.149] Alistair Cooke, the British foreign correspondent who wrote a weekly ‘Letter from America’ for more than 50 years, saw things rather differently; for him, Geguzin “did not pretend to be Prince Michael Romanoff of Russia. He pretended, and managed, to be a great comic pretending to be Prince Michael Romanoff of Russia.” [Cooke p.66] For Alva Johnston, though – a journalist who wrote in an early (and highly influential) profile of Geguzin in the New Yorker – it was his subject’s very transparency that made him both interesting, and a success. Mike was a fraud whom everyone knew was a fraud, but had great fun pretending not to. “He is widely admired today, not for his title, but for his own sake. He has convinced a fairly large public that a good imposter is preferable to an average prince.” [Johnston, Education p.245] Which is to say that, in an America awash with real impoverished Russian aristocrats, a solitary fake one turned out to be far more fascinating. Seen from that perspective, it is perhaps not so surprising that Hollywood proved to be the Prince’s natural habitat. “He cashed in,” a later profile in Time explained, “on the fact that he is one of the few genuine, 24-carat phonies in a city where thin plating has often been known to pose for the real thing.” [Time, 6 Nov 1950]
Part I: The Making of a Prince
Of course, not even a man of Herschel Geguzin’s great intelligence and talents could become Prince Michael Romanoff overnight. In fact, he served a lengthy apprenticeship, beginning, most probably, at some point early in the Great War years. He was then living in Britain and, according to the records of Scotland Yard, he was arrested four times in London, around 1921, for passing bad cheques in various tobacconists, tailor’s shops and jewellers’. One magistrate gave him a suspended sentence; a second jailed him for a day; a third, for reasons lost to history, released him on condition that he sailed immediately for Guatemala. Geguzin then popped up in Paris, where he regularly obtained small loans secured against the several million dollars’ worth of Russian treasure that, he assured freshly minted acquaintances, would arrive any day from Leningrad. [Johnston, Education p.249] In 1923 he genuinely did attend Harvard for a term or two; he was a student of engineering, properly enrolled in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, having persuaded the authorities that the educational certificates he had earned during his youth in Russia had not survived the Revolution. There he fraudulently ran up a bill of well over $200 with a bootmaker named M.P. Toohy, and Toohy’s evidence, given to a reporter from the Harvard Crimson, reveals something of his methods in this period:
“I was caught once,” he said, “but never again. He paid his first bill of $50 promptly, but on the morning of the Yale game he came to me with a story of how his allowance had not arrived, so I loaned him $100, receiving a note in return. When I came to add up what he owed me, I found it was $257.”
[Harvard Crimson, 24 March 1924]
From Cambridge, Alva Johnston’s researches show, Mike travelled to the Midwest, where he popped up successively in Wichita, St Louis, Chicago and Kansas City. He was arrested in Manhattan, but enjoyed a fairly successful social season in Newport, where the evidence suggests that he contrived to attend a ball given by the Vanderbilts. Throughout this period, he lived on “loans” fraudulently obtained on the basis of false promises of repayment, and by persuading sundry art dealers to let him have works of art that he convinced them he could sell, on commission, in the Russian colony. [Johnston, Education pp.249-57] In short, the Prince became a confidence man, and a pretty good one, too.
Being a successful con man demands an unusual combination of precisely the personal qualities with which Mike was well supplied. Intelligence is of critical importance, naturally – not academic talent, helpful though that is, but the ability to think swiftly on one’s feet, to vary one’s story according to the circumstances, and to keep tabs on an ever-lengthening list of lies. Ego, in the form of an invincible self-confidence is crucial, too; so is charm – by the bucket-load wherever possible. A certain psychopathic streak, however, rarely goes amiss, for con men, in order to con, have to become intimate with their victims, and hence they understand, better than most criminals, just what damage they are doing to their marks’ bank balances and their self-esteem. It was only in this last quality that Mike was lacking, but, in the end, it was his very lack of ruthlessness that proved to be the making of him.
The other thing that set the Prince apart from the sort of amoral “big con” men for whom ruining a man by separating him from the whole of his life savings was all in the day’s work was the limited scale of his thievery. He was, in fact, never a truly great crook – “Romanoff squandered his genius on petty objectives,” Alva Johnston wrote. “Some of his greatest strokes were planned merely to finance himself over the weekend” [Johnston, Education p.245] – but the inherent modesty of his ambition was also what made it possible for a surprisingly large proportion of his victims to retain genuine affection for the man who had ripped them off. According to David Niven, “all his crimes had been what he termed ‘moves of self-preservation’ – failing to return things he had borrowed without asking, selling objets d’art which did not belong to him and passing enough dud cheques on both sides of the Atlantic to provide his own ticker-tape parade.” But “all these misdemeanours had been perpetrated in what he considered to be the best possible cause – to help Harry F. Gerguson to live in the style to which Prince Michael Alexandrovitch Dmitry Obolensky Romanoff would have been accustomed.” [Niven p.148]
You may have been struck, in considering what it is that makes a great confidence man, that the very qualities that lend him stature as a crook are precisely those that would have made the same man a success in any more conventional career. Con men are themselves aware of this, and sometimes describe their choice of profession in terms of the language of addiction: it is the thrill of pulling off a con, of fooling intelligent men into willingly handing over their money, that keeps them on the wrong side of the law. Or, as James W. Ryan (better known to the criminal fraternity as the Postal Kid) memorably put it: “Once a heavy-gee [safeblower], always a heavy. And it’s the same with the con. When the mark is being played for a big chunk, there is a kick in it just like there is to the heavy when a big peter [safe] is being knocked off.” [Maurer p.172]
It is for this reason, one presumes, that there are relatively few examples of a successful con man going straight. Herschel Geguzin, however, was the exception that proves the rule, for, over time, the endless trouble of taking petty scores off those he had been forced to expend considerable effort on, to turn them into friends, began to seem less and less worthwhile. He began to experience a hankering to settle down – one that was almost certainly compounded by a temporary deportation (one disadvantage of the Romanoff ploy was that Mike was unable to prove he qualified for American residency) followed by a six month jail sentence, served in France for vagrancy. Two more years back in New York, fighting a second deportation order and, more problematically, the worst effects of the Great Depression, were enough to convince the Prince it might be better to go straight. [Pejsa pp.87-98] In the autumn of 1936, helped by the few friends who were in funds in Gotham, he acquired an old Ford convertible and set off for the west. Hollywood was beckoning.
Herschel Geguzin was not the only man attracted by the lure of Hollywood, of course; throughout the 1930s tens of thousands of hopefuls thronged to the world capital of film-making every year, and practically all of them were disappointed. Mike had the advantage of notoriety – his colourful career had earned him sufficient newspaper coverage over the years for his appearance in Los Angeles to be deemed worthy of a column in the LA Times. But even the Prince, for all his charm and adaptability, struggled at first, though he was able to make a few dollars hiring himself out as an historical consultant on some of the many movies being made with Russian or British themes. [Ibid pp.105-06]
The turning point came with an introduction to the Clover Club, a casino on Sunset Boulevard whose management proved to be thankfully aware of the drawing power of a Russian ‘Prince.’ They
prevailed upon him to come in for at least part of every evening, with the promise that he would win well from time to time. What worked for the Clover Club also worked for Mike, who prided himself on his poker bluffing skills. He soon contracted with James Oviatt, the best haberdasher in town, to furnish him with an entire wardrobe suitable for his ascending Hollywood position. Mike paid the bill a few dollars each month, and later Oviatt proudly attested to the fact that his customer always paid on time.
This more or less legitimate employment appealed to Mike, who was also able to use a considerable skill at chess and backgammon to earn money legitimately. More importantly, it began to win him entry into the sort of Hollywood circles that would prove vital to his later career. One of the most important acquaintances he made during these months was that of Irving ‘Swifty’ Lazar, the legendary agent, who in memoirs written 40 years later vividly recalled his own first encounter with the Prince:
The Clover Club was practically a Hollywood institution. Moguls and stars went there to play for especially high stakes. I went to look, and, maybe, place a small bet. But the crap games and chemin de fer were out of this world: ten thousand dollars on the line, ten thousand back of the line. I stood in the corner with my hundred dollars in chips and timidly placed it on “don’t pass,” figuring that if they were going to get anyone, it wouldn’t be me.
“Put it on the pass line,” whispered a gravelly voice with a bit of an English accent. He sounded so authoritative that I did as he said. David Selznick made seven on the opening throw, doubling my money for me.
“Keep it there and take the odds,” the guiding voice urged. I followed his directions for about four rolls. Then he said, “Take your money away.” I did, turning from the table with five hundred dollars in chips. “You owe me twenty percent,” said the man, who, I now saw, was imperious-looking and impeccably dressed. I gave him one hundred dollars and asked his name.
This encounter began a friendship that lasted thirty years.
Another treasured acquaintance was with David Niven, whom Geguzin had actually first met during his New York Prohibition days, when both men had worked as liquor salesmen supplying illegal speakeasies. Niven, who was himself a man of preternatural charm and roguish tendencies, recognised a kindred spirit, and his account of Mike is notable for its penetrating insights. For Niven, the root of Prince’s unquestionable likeability was a humorous talent for the not-quite-plausible improvisation, the half-truth and the flamboyant gesture. When the British actor left Hollywood for Britain in 1939 to fight Hitler, Mike delighted in discussing his own alleged experiences of war, making him a present of a hand-knitted balaclava helmet (“Saved me near St Petersburg, old boy”) and a large blue and white spotted scarf with a burn in the centre (“mustard gas… Cambrai… silk is the only thing against it.”) The balaclava helmet Niven lost, but the scarf he kept long enough to consult a laundress about the mysterious mark of mustard gas it bore. “She told me that careless ironing was responsible for the burn.” [Niven p.154]
“Many of the people who had been ‘taken’ by Mike,” the actor added,
became his most ardent supporters and slowly he evolved from being a full-time imposter and international con-man into [an] honest burgher of Beverly Hills… He foreswore the time-honoured role of ‘free loader’ and now, if he joined a friend’s table for luncheon he would meticulously pay his share if he was in funds; if not, he would sit nibbling a roll and sipping a glass of water. We knew better than to press him…
Niven’s account of Mike’s move into the restaurant business is somewhat at odds with the more careful version given by Romanoff’s biographer, Jane Pejsa, but the broad facts seem clear enough: the Prince leveraged his burgeoning Hollywood connections to generate just sufficient investment to open an establishment on Rodeo Drive that, in time, became legendary for its opulence, fine cooking, warm welcome and – most importantly – it’s host’s impeccably attuned sense of who was rising and who falling in the Hollywood hierarchy. According to Niven,
Mike struck gold. He obtained an option on the lease of a defunct restaurant… His friends became stockholders in the shoe-string enterprise and the place reopened in a blaze of black ties, mink, well-known faces and publicity.
The invitation was a classic:–
I am commanded by His Imperial Highness Prince Michael Alexandrovich Dmitry Obolensky Romanoff to request your presence at a soiree he is giving in his own honour.
Couvert fifty dollars
Bring your own wine and kindly fee the waiters.
Harry Gerguson, Comptroller to the Imperial household
Le tout Hollywood turned out in force, and so many people brought wine that few realised the place had no arrangements whatever for cooking. A sparse menu was serviced by a nearby hash joint on a strictly cash basis (the money collected for the first two ‘couverts’ started the ball rolling): a riotous evening was had by all, and enough money was raised to install a kitchen and launch Mike on a fabulously successful career as a restaurateur.
Part II: Wichita
Let us leave Mike on the brink of what would turn out to be a more than 20-year career in the restaurant trade, lionisation by the great and good of the film colony, and eventually marriage to a beautiful woman who was nearly 30 years his junior, and return to the Prince’s early and formative days in the early 1920s. It was then, as Alva Johnston noted, that he made a brief appearance in Wichita, Kansas, where he was “discovered working as a floorwalker in a department store” and which he left, thanks to a run-in with the police, “after inviting everybody to look him up in New York at the Racquet & Tennis Club.” [Johnston, Education p.252]
Johnston givens no other details of this short period in Mike’s life, and both Pejsa and Niven ignore the interlude. Recently, however, I found a full account of those few weeks in an unpublished typescript written by Charles B. Driscoll, a newspaperman with the Wichita Eagle who, even 20 years after the fact, retained – as did Swifty Lazar – an indelible impression of the eruption of the Prince into his life.
Since Driscoll’s account is unknown, and since it confirms, in practically every particular, the sympathetic portrait of Mike Romanoff that others have given, and since it gives Mike’s own distorted account of his youth and early wanderings, it seems well worth publishing it here. The text, as you will see, contains some pretty glaring historical inaccuracies – it’s not quite clear whether the errors are Romanoff’s or Driscoll’s – and has been run through an Optical Character Recognition system at the Western Institute of Irish Studies in Stanford, where the original typescript is held. [For more on Driscoll (1885-1951) – who among other things was an authority on the history of piracy – see ML Jockers, 'A window facing west: Charles Driscoll's Kansas Irish'. New Hibernian Review 8:3 (2004)]
Driscoll’s attention, he recalls, had been drawn to Romanoff by his paper’s police reporter. This man noted that “the cops were having great fun beating and badgering a funny little fellow who said he was a Russian prince.” Driscoll, who had no love for the local police and their brutalities, hurried over to the station house and insisted that they “must let the Russian go free unless they had…”
Part III: A pair of ivory-handled hairbrushes
There is enough to say about Mike Romanoff to make a shortish book, and this post has already gone on long enough. But I cannot close without revealing just a little more about Mike’s antecedents, even though this final tale raises a good many more questions than it answers.
Like any good confidence man, Herschel Geguzin left behind a good number of mysteries when he died, and not the least of them was the puzzle of where he had picked up his drawling Oxford accent and his “incredible store of anecdotal information concerning Eton, Oxford and Cambridge.” [Pejsa p.29] So familiar was he “with all three institutions that he could gossip knowingly about the drinking establishments frequented by the students and hint at confidentialities when it came to the peccadilloes of certain faculty members,” Pejsa writes [ibid]. Niven, who says that Mike occasionally passed himself off in the Midwest as a monocle-touting relative of the Duke of Wellington, told an anecdote in this respect that seems to suggest the Prince’s detailed knowledge of the places he claimed to have been a student at:
Even though by now he was playing his imposter role for a different effect, he still used the trappings of his calling, wearing an Old Etonian tie one day and a Brigade of Guards scarf the next. His conversations still pulsated with ‘when I was up at Oxford,’ ‘during my time as Sandhurst’ or ‘he was a classmate of mine at Harvard’.
… I heard an Old Etonian question him about Eton:
“Who was your housemaster?” he asked.
“You mean who was ‘me tutor’,” countered Mike swiftly, and followed up his advantage by saying, “I suppose you’ll be asking me if I went to Thomas’s in the High Street to get my hair cut?”
Geguzin’s own version of his British years was typically flamboyant, and – as we have seen – it involved his activities during the Great War. “During his many unveilings as an imposter, Mike stated under questioning that he had passed World War I as an officer with a British regiment in France or with Allenby in Palestine.” [Ibid p.153] David Niven, however, told a very different and still more peculiar story – one so odd, in fact, that it seems appropriate to end this post, and this blog for this year, with it:
It was Mike’s British accent that always fascinated me. I could never put my finger on it. It was the sort of camouflage that English curates perfect to cover up honest Cockney voices. This ‘plummy’ delivery never left Mike and even on the very few occasions, those testing times when he took a glass or two too many, it remained as much a part of him as his bristly crew-cut pate and his military moustache.
I could never discover whence this strange sound originated, the secret of its source was locked away in the same little mental strongbox in which he kept his whereabouts during the blood-drenched years between 1914 and 1918. The twin mysteries have never been solved…
Over luncheon I sought to enlist Mike’s help for a project of my own. Robert Laycock was coming to visit me and I wanted Romanoff’s to cater for a party I was planning for him.
“Ah! and how is young Bob?” asked Mike the minute he heard the name. “I haven’t seen him since he was at Eton.”
“Now, Mike,” I said patiently, “Bob Laycock is twenty years younger than you. You were never at Eton with him or anybody else for that matter.”
Mike looked pained.
“I did not suggest that young Bob was a schoolmate of mine – I merely mentioned the fact that I had not seen him since he was at Eton.”
It was always fun to play along with Mike so I gave him a cue – “And where did you meet him while he was a schoolboy?”
“At Wiseton, of course, he was home after the summer ‘half’ and Sir Joseph had invited me for the weekend for a spot of country house cricket.”
Wiseton was indeed the Laycock home in Lincolnshire and Sir Joseph was certainly Bob’s father so I could not suppress a start of surprise. Mike noticed this and pressed home the advantage.
“Yes, old Joe and I were very close, and Kitty too, of course … too bad she lost a leg on their honeymoon.”
Mike had obviously had reason somewhere along the line to research the Laycock family very carefully, but the mental picture of him in blazer and white flannels, sitting in a deck chair, sipping tea and eating cucumber sandwiches while waiting his turn to bat was too much even for me.
“Mike, please,” I said, “please don’t get into a thing with Bob Laycock about his mother having only one leg because he may not appreciate it, and he’s a very rough character indeed… he was chief of all the Commandos, you know.”
“And the youngest General in the British Army,” said Mike unmoved, “I’m very proud of him.”
I shook my head. “Mike, please, on this one occasion, please don’t press your luck.”
There was a pause –
“After luncheon,” said my host, “we will go to my house, I have something to show you which may put your mind at rest.”
Back at Mike’s white stucco residence on Chevy Chase Drive, he took me up to his bedroom: there he nonchalantly displayed a pair of ivory hairbrushes. The ivory was a little yellow with age, but what brought me up standing was the insignia in worked silver on their backs. It was something I knew very well – the crest of the Laycock family.
“A present from old Joe,” said Mike smugly.
Bob Laycock duly arrived on his visit and the party catered by Romanoff’s was a great success. I had warned Bob about Mike and hoped against hope that Mike would stay off the subject of Wiseton.
Far from it. For a large part of the evening, Mike cornered Bob, who seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the company of the Mini-Monarch, from whose expressive gestures I could see from across the room that both cricket and hairbrushes were being discussed at length. Nothing awful happened, however, and the happy guests finally departed. After they had gone, Bob and I had a night-cap and held the usual post-mortem on the evening.
“What did you think of Mike?” I asked.
“Fascinating,” said Bob, “he had me stumped completely – there is no question but that he has been to Wiseton and no question at all that he has played cricket there. There is also no question that long ago a team of Durham miners came over to play. I well remember it because Father was so furious – when they left it was discovered that someone had swiped his favourite hairbrushes.”
Prince Michael Alexandrovich Dmitry Obolensky Romanoff remained enigmatic when I tried to pump him.
“Golden days, old boy,” was all he would say, dreamily. “Golden days.”
He steadfastly refused to answer my question:
“What was Harry F. Gerguson of Chicago doing down a Durham coal mine?”
Anon. “Russian ‘Prince’, notorious in university last fall, wanted on charge…” Harvard Crimson, 24 March 1924.
Anon. “Mike’s place.” Time, 6 November 1950.
Alistair Cooke. The Americans. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979.
Charles B. Driscoll. East and West of Wichita. Unpublished, undated typescript (c.1948) in the Western Institute of Irish Studies, Stanford University.
Alva Johnston. “The downfall of Prince Mike.” Saturday Evening Post, 20 March 1942.
__________. “The education of a prince.” In David Remnick (ed)., Life Stories: Profiles from the New Yorker. New York: The Modern Library, 2001.
Irving Lazar, with Annette Tapert. Swifty: My Life and Good Times. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.
David Maurer. The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man. New York: Anchor Books, 1999.
David Niven. “The Emperor.” In Bring on the Empty Horses. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2006.
Jane Pejsa. Romanoff: Prince of Rogues. The Life & Times of a Hollywood Icon. Minneapolis: Kenwood Publishing, 1997.