I Live Again by Ileana, Princess of Romania
THERE IS one thing I cannot show you in either of my two rooms: one very important thing which I was allowed to bring with me from my old life, and which made the foundation of my new one. You can see it in a photograph of my mother there on the table, but no picture can give you any idea of the living glow and the rainbow fires in the sapphire and diamond tiara she is wearing.
"A tiara!" you say. "Now that is what one expects of a princess!"
Yes, I can agree with you. This was truly a royal diadem. Nicholas I of Russia had it made for his wife, the Princess Charlotte of Prussia, when he became emperor in 1825. Through his granddaughter, my mother's mother, it descended eventually to me. My mother wore it at her coronation in 1922. She chose it also to wear on state occasions during the visit she made to this country. And so the tiara and I both entered the United States twice, and together: once in 1926, when I was one of a royal party receiving an official and impressive welcome in New York City, and when the diadem was suitably packed and guarded; and once in 1950, when I flew from Argentina to Miami—hoping to avoid any public recognition—with the tiara wrapped in my nightgown!
Perhaps this is not your idea of how a princess should care for her jewels? It was certainly a surprise to the customs officer! To the tiara, however, it was only one more in a long series of adventures. A few of these I know about: for example, that it was smuggled out of Russia in 1918 during the revolution there. My mother had given it to me when I was married in 1931. I lent it to her to wear at the Jubilee of King George V of England, and she left it in her bank in London because of unsettled conditions at home. After her death I had no small trouble in claiming it, but I got it away from England just before World War II actually began. I kept it in Austria until 1943, when I smuggled it into Romania, and there I saved it from the Communists when I left in 1948. It went to Switzerland with me, and then to Argentina, where I pawned it to put money into an unfortunate business that failed. Its adventures as a single piece of jewelry were then almost over, for it became evident that I must try to sell it in order to pay our debts.
Because by this time I was suffering severely from arthritis, I received permission in May, 1950, to come to the United States for medical treatment. As I gathered all my forces, physical and financial, to make this trip, I felt desperately that I was nearing the end of my endurance. I pawned everything I had of value in order to leave my family in Buenos Aires the money to live on, and in order to redeem the tiara. I could not afford to insure something whose "breakup" value had once been appraised at eighty thousand dollars, so I decided to wrap it in my nightgown and keep it with me in a small bag. Thus with three hundred dollars, a ticket to Boston, and a hidden tiara, I prepared to enter the United States for the second time.
It was a thirty-hour trip by air—over the Andes and finally over the Caribbean—and I had plenty of time to think. Bursitis in my left arm made me barely able to move it, and my back and feet were one continual ache from arthritis, yet I enjoyed that flight. Since my husband is an enthusiastic aviator, he had for many years flown his own private plane. Our trips to England, to Hungary, and to Romania were made by air as matter-of-factly as you plan to travel in your automobile. Indeed, when there are small children and babies in the family, traveling by air is easier than any other method I have tried.
I remember thinking of this with great feeling in 1941! Pregnant with my sixth child, I drove the other five children (the oldest not yet ten) eight hundred miles across Austria, Hungary, and Romania during wartime. Then I often remembered wistfully how short and easy such a journey had been in the plane—the smallest baby riding comfortably in our aluminum "albie." Perhaps I should explain that an albie is a large, shallow, oval bowl hollowed out of wood, which the Romanians use not only for washing clothes but often as a cradle. When I wanted something in which a baby could rest in the plane, I went to a metalworker in Bucarest and asked him to make me such a bowl out of aluminum, with straps so that it could be carried or could be hung in a car or plane; and we found it very useful.
While I needed no albie on my flight from Buenos Aires to the United States, I felt that I was in a very real sense carrying my children with me, for on the results of my journey their whole future might depend: Six months earlier my two older children had received scholarships in prep schools—one in Pennsylvania and one in Massachusetts—and their letters had been showing a growing confidence and contentment. For most of their lives they had been the victims of war and its accompanying anxieties, first in their father's homeland and then in mine, and the younger children could not remember any other conditions. My husband and I had sought security and a new life for them in Switzerland and then in Argentina, but we had not found it. Could it be that somehow, in the friendly country I had visited as a girl, I might find a new home for them? What princess who is also a mother would not give up a diadem to gain a home for her children!
Anxious, weary, in pain, but strangely hopeful, I finally arrived in Miami, where the long flight was interrupted. I lined up for customs inspection, glad to see that no word of my arrival had preceded me on this second entrance into the United States. I had not realized how public the inspection would be, and when it was my turn and I answered that I had something to declare, I asked if I could unpack my bag in private. The officer was good humored, but a little impatient with my hesitation. When I insisted on it, he made it clear that he thought I was being a nuisance.
"What have you got there, anyway—a corpse?" he asked me.
However, when he finally led me to an office and I opened my bag, it was my turn to feel a little superior. It was obvious that he did not know quite what to do when a tiara turned up in the luggage he inspected. He touched the central sapphire a little gingerly. Since it weighed 125 carats it was nearly the size of a man's pocket watch. Was it real? he wanted to know. When I assured him that it was, he looked still more harassed, but finally he decided that he would send it to Boston "in bond." Together we wrapped it in a newspaper and put it into a box, which he duly sealed and ticketed. It was with a qualm, I confess, that I watched it put into the luggage compartment of the plane for Boston before I myself embarked. If it should somehow be lost, I was losing everything I had, and it was now out of my hands!
Arriving in Boston, I was told that, since it was Sunday, all offices were closed and I would have to wait to claim my "package." I knew no one in Boston except the friend who, with her husband's help, had arranged for me to come to this country. Since she could not be sure of the time of my arrival, I was to let her know when I got to the airport. I found a telephone and stood looking at it stupidly, giddy from my thirty hours' flight and full of pain. I had no idea how to use an American dial telephone, but I was in the United States, where people are kind. A friendly gentleman found the number for me and called my friend. While I waited for her to come and fetch me I tried to forget my present anxiety by looking back across the years since I had seen her—twenty-five of them, to be exact.
I had been fifteen years old then, learning my way in social work, and an enthusiastic member of the Romanian Girl Reserves. Helen Jackson—dark haired, with a gay, round face and twinkling eyes—had come to Bucarest to help start the industrial section of the Y.W.C.A. there. Her songs and fun put us all at ease, and I loved the opportunities to be with her group of girls. Both they and I were free in the evenings, they from work and I from study —but those pleasant times were far in the past. Helen, her job completed, left Bucarest to carry on elsewhere; I grew up; the years passed, with their joys and griefs. Through mutual friends we had again got in touch with each other, and after twenty-five years we met at the Boston airport. Helen was now Mrs. John Beale, with hair turned gray but kindness still unchanged. I—no longer a teen-ager joining the factory girls of my country in games and songs—was the mother of six children and a lonely wanderer, parted from all I knew and loved. Helen and Jack Beale opened the doors of their home to me until I found a home of my own.
Their solicitude and kindness on that afternoon in May were almost too much for me after so many difficulties. They drove me to Newton along the Charles River, and I found it beautiful—so green and sunny, so clean and free. Then and there I fell in love with New England; it was love at first sight.
In the joy of seeing my two older children again—so changed and grown in the months they had been away—in the need of rest and immediate medical care at the Lahey Clinic (for once I had found a temporary haven I seemed for a time almost to collapse from the long anxiety I had suffered), the diadem was temporarily pushed to the back of my mind. When I did think of it I felt confident of its safety in this friendly country.
Ten days of rest and hospital treatment, however, made me able to find my way to the customhouse and inquire for my "parcel." It took some time for the officials to trace it, and I felt some stabs of alarm until it was finally located in a safe in another building. But even within sight of it there was a further delay—I must get a "customhouse broker"! I had never heard of such a thing, and when it was explained to me I naturally asked:
"But whom shall I get?"
"Oh, we are not allowed to recommend any particular broker, but there are plenty around here," replied one of the gentlemen, waving his hand casually in the direction of the window. I looked out, and my eye fell on a sign across the street: "Stone & Downer, Custom House Brokers." Why not go there? I thought to myself—so I did!
Everyone was very matter of fact about the whole thing, both then and the next day, when we all met by appointment in an office of the customhouse on Atlantic Avenue. Everyone was very matter of fact until the parcel was opened, and the officials saw what had been lying about the office for ten days—for even I, who was so familiar with it, felt always a thrill of delight at the radiance of blue and white fire when the tiara was suddenly brought into the light. The faces of the men revealed their shocked amazement. They gasped. Then one smiled, relieved.
"But of course you have this insured!" he said.
"Oh, no," I told him calmly. "Why should I? It has escaped the Nazis and the Communists safely. Naturally I did not expect to lose it here!"
They were evidently uncertain whether to laugh or to scold me, but from that moment we were all friends. One of the men asked me to autograph a visitors' register he kept—"with all your titles and things!" he explained; and I was tempted to draw him a little sketch of the tiara as a souvenir. The age of the jewel was found to make it free of customs, so eventually I walked off with it under my arm—still in its somewhat battered cardboard box. When it was rewrapped with the help of Mr. Irvine, who represented my "Custom House Brokers," I tucked it under my arm again and walked up State Street to the post office, where I mailed the package to a jeweler in New York. That was not its last journey. Sometimes it was guarded by police, at other times my son carried it about in the subway! Finally, after much trouble, worry, and heartbreak, it was sold for a sum much below its value. It was both beautiful and splendid, but my children were in need. As it stood, it neither fed us nor clothed us nor warmed us. I could not even wear it!
So I was grateful on the day when it was gone, even though I felt a traitor to the past and all the proud heads that had worn it. I wondered if my ancestors were turning in their graves—and then I remembered that hardly any of them have graves any more. Does this sound strange to you? It is because the Communist and the revolutionist fear the dead and destroy their bodies. Those graves of heroes which have been shrines for the people, those tombs of rulers which bear testimony to the proud history of a nation—all of them are violated. The remains of bodies are dug up and burned, their ashes are scattered, and the ground is leveled. So it may well be with the graves of my parents, although when I was exiled in 1948 theirs had not yet been touched.
Even then, however, there had begun a violation of which this destruction of graves is but a symbol. Before I left Romania I talked about this with Emil Bodnaras, then Communist Secretary of the Cabinet. I asked him why the Communists were circulating slanders which they knew to be false.
"But surely you can see why this must be," he told me calmly. "You and your class must go. The past must go. As we destroy the very ashes of the dead so that nothing remains, so we must destroy every vestige of love and respect for their memory in the hearts and minds of the people. What your mother did for the people—what you have done for them—must first be tarnished and then blotted out."
Well, the graves have been destroyed. It remains to be seen if the past can be wiped out so simply and completely. Perhaps it will be like my tiara, lost to me in one form but still helping and protecting me in another. Surely this is what our beloved dead would wish for their children—and for the country that was also like a loved child to them. What they have left us, whether it is a diadem or a tradition, they wish us to use for our good. If the forms they found useful must be altered to fit our changing times, their blessing is on us while our purposes remain, like theirs, on the side of right and goodness.
So it was with no permanent regret that I gave up my diadem. It had been a gift from my mother, and what it enabled me to do I consider also her gifts: to pay my debts of two years' standing; to make a first payment on a home in New England; to go back to Buenos Aires and bring the other four children to the United States; to put them into the schools where they had been given scholarships; to take a respite in which I could regain my health and find a way of earning my livelihood. "Il faut faire face à la vie, car la vie aime les braves." It is necessary to confront life, for life loves the brave: so my mother once wrote in a book she dedicated to a friend. Many years later, in a time of great trouble for me, I found and opened that book—and the message was as if my mother had spoken to me in that hour.
My parents' early training of me has been of great value, as has been the gift of cheerfulness and natural love for people that God has blessed my nature with. But the real strength to carry on my life, to face disappointment, and strangers, and loneliness, to determine to "live again," comes from something much deeper within me—from the inner force which absolute faith gives. It has sustained me through the past, and I have firm confidence that it will sustain me through the future. But it is only of the past I can speak as I pause in the present to describe something of what it was like to be a princess—a princess with a sapphire and diamond diadem!