Rostislav of Russia.
In late 1927, while Fred Prince prepared to leave America for the duration of its financial collapse, Aleka Galitzine was traveling to Chicago from Ellis Island by the most frugal means available, day coach. Her November 28 arrival coincided with an impromptu reunion of displaced Russian aristocrats, among them her mother, Princess Galitzine; Prince Michael Cantacuzène; and Princess Natalia Paley, a granddaughter of Alexander III.
Chicago society, in a flurry with the presence of so many titled foreigners, was feting the impoverished nobility with enthusiasm. Aleka enjoyed their hospitality but, hoping to secure a permanent situation in America, wasted no time in seeking employment. She was relieved to be hired as a clerk at The Fair, a moderately priced Loop department store.
The Fair, State and Adams Streets.
The following June, Prince Rostislav left his mother’s grace and favor sanctuary on Windsor Castle grounds to follow Aleka to Chicago, where he, too, found employment as a clothing salesman. When three months later — on September 14, 1928 — the nearly destitute Rostislav and similarly insolvent Aleka were married in the city’s Louis Sullivan-designed Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral, it was a major social event in the fall calendar of the city’s elite. The exotic ritual featured elaborately robed Orthodox priests, who chanted the service in Russian with responses from a choir sheltered behind an ornate screen. The bridal attendants — all male — were 14 ushers who included several European princes and future American statesman Adlai Stevenson.
Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral, 1121 N. Leavitt St.
The harsh contrasts in the newlyweds’ post-Revolution lives became striking when they emerged from the privileged environment of the dimly lit church to be lustily cheered by their shop clerk colleagues gathered on the sidewalk outside.
The bride would be known as Princess Rostislav. In Russia, Imperial family members — sons of grand dukes and grand duchesses — were without surnames, thus her new husband was simply Rostislav of Russia, or Prince Rostislav, though to intimates he was “Ulka” or little duck. Following a three-day honeymoon, the couple returned to their jobs and to their new home in the apartment Aleka’s mother and brother had taken at 38 E. Walton Place in the fashionable Streeterville residential district.
It was the continuation of a life in which the new Princess Rostislav balanced an active social life among the city’s elite with a career she was mounting at the edge of the fashion world. In addition to working as a department store saleswoman, she was lending aristocratic endorsement to such products as ladies shoes.
Soon, she also added her name and image to newspaper display advertising for such products as McLaughlin’s Manor House Coffee, but the emphasis was usually consistent with the high-fashion image she was constructing.
The discount department store that employed Aleka recognized her worth as a personification of value within the context of great style and launched a series of newspaper ads with the princess as its spokeswoman. In some of these, the dignified display endorsements on behalf of The Fair appeared almost indistinguishable from surrounding articles about figures from the entertainment world, and each featured a studio portrait of Princess Rostislav with an interview. In a representative ad, the copy quotes Aleka’s description of a recent dinner party at which two businessmen are discussing the exquisite Chesterfield furniture being offered at The Fair, “priced much lower than you would ever expect.” It was a tidy package for her employer and provided needed additional income for Aleka.
The couple carried on an active social life, which local newspapers reported in a continuing sequence of photographs of the beautiful young princess, tall and slender in stylish attire, usually escorted by the equally elegant Rostislav in white tie and tails. Aleka’s solid reputation as a socialite and fashion figure aided in steadily lifting her career from sales associate to fashion consultant. In March 1931, she was featured in a Chicago Tribune article about enterprising society women, which stated, “Princess Aleka Rostislav exerts her talents in selling and planning costume ensembles.” And, by September, she was a buyer for a Michigan Avenue shop, which sent her to New York for the fall openings.
Rostislav’s brother, Nikita, “the new emperor of Russia.”
Rostislav, who continued to work as a clothing salesman, was not adapting to commercial America in the adept manner of his wife. Years later, she would explain his reticence by noting how “desperately shy” he was; on the other hand, as Rostislav of Russia, he bore a heritage that was difficult to disregard, even in egalitarian America. In January 1929, his brother, 28-year-old Prince Nikita, had been named the new emperor of Russia by “the supreme Russian monarchist council” in a secret meeting in Paris.
Rostislav’s brother-in-law Prince Felix Yusupov, murderer of Rasputin.
Also hovering over the family was the infamous slaying of the monk Rasputin by Rostislav’s brother-in-law, Prince Felix Yusupov. The Siberian monk, favorite of the late czarina, was a widely believed catalyst in the downfall of Imperial Russia; nevertheless his assassination remained controversial.
The Siberian monk Rasputin, whose hold over the czarina was thought to have destroyed the Empire.
The 1932 film Rasputin and the Empress, starring the three Barrymores, revived interest in his notorious murder by Prince Felix, husband of Rostislav’s sister, Princess Irina. Soon after the film’s release, a British court awarded Irina $127,373 in damages, and she would receive an additional $250,000 settlement in New York resulting from a libel suit against Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Lionel, Ethel and John Barrymore costumed for their roles in Rasputin and the Empress.
It was true that Rasputin’s death was the result of multiple attempts on his life by Prince Felix in the Yusupov palace on the night of December 29, 1916. The cyanide poisoning, six gunshot wounds, choking, beating and submersion in the Neva River were all a matter of record; however, the film incorrectly implied that the monk had been intimate with Princess Irina; therefore, she was considered an injured party and well compensated for possible damage to her reputation.
Ethel Barrymore as the empress.
In December 1933, Fred Prince, returning to America from his French estate, granted a rare shipboard interview. Before disembarking from the Europe in New York Harbor, he announced the acquisition of a “substantial” interest in Armour & Company. “Enough,” he added, “to give me a hold on the company.” This was confirmed a month later, when, after a turbulent stockholders’ meeting, he emerged as finance committee chairman; by 1935, he was chairman of the Armour board.
During the same year, Princess Rostislav, now manager of a major store dress department, was assembling frequent society fashion shows and guiding an increasing number of the social set in selecting their wardrobes. In early 1937, she formalized her high-end activity with a friend, Mrs. Laurence Meeker. Together, they opened a “studio” on E. Delaware Place far from the bustle of the Loop. The little shop made its debut in an afternoon party and fashion show featuring young society figures as models and continued with a champagne reception to which men joined to toast the new venture. Aleka’s career as an entrepreneur was launched. The new shop would be the focus of her attention for the next several years, interrupted briefly by the birth of her only child at the end of 1938. The boy, also named Rostislav, was allowed the surname Romanoff.
“Princess is a Mother” was the caption for this 1938 newspaper picture.
Aleka’s relationship with Nicholas, the brother with whom she had experienced so many of the vicissitudes of her life, was the closest bond she had known, and they were together often. On the evening of October 31, 1944, Nick was visiting in the apartment Aleka shared with her husband, and she invited him to stay for dinner. Rostislav objected, stating that he did “not want company” in a manner so aggressive that he finished the sentence by striking her. During an after-dinner game of gin rummy, he again became angry, this time twisting Aleka’s arm.
The following day, she engaged a lawyer and, charging cruelty, was able to obtain an almost immediate divorce; within days, Princess Rostislav became Mrs. Aleka Romanoff. She continued to strengthen her shop, and the Prince returned to Europe, where life was far more in keeping with his temperament. It was an environment in which, according to his sympathetic former wife, “You do not have to project yourself quite so much.”
A photograph of Aleka, which was printed repeatedly in newspaper stories about the princess.
As the Delaware Place shop expanded, it acquired the name Chez Nous. And, in 1946, Aleka and Mrs. Meeker, with a third partner, Mrs. C.M. Knutson, leased a prominent space on the city’s premier fashion block, Oak Street, where they opened a larger version of Chez Nous that prevailed for many years and has remained a retailing legend. Stylish consumers, both locally and those visiting from the East and abroad, soon made the boutique a shopping destination. Chez Nous was prized for reliable fashions, but even more for the presence of the fun-loving, glamorous — yet dignified — personality of its owner, whose deep laugh and charming Garbo-esque mystique vivified the shop.
House of Armour: The Rise of Four Dazzling Dynasties During an American Epoch When Everything Was Possible, Megan McKinney’s series of articles on this remarkable dynasty, will continue in Classic Chicago over the next several weeks.
Next Week in Classic Chicago: The Wood-Princes
Robert F. Carl