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Pretending to be a Russian prince: how an immigrant from Russia became the 'Emperor of Hollywood'

In Hollywood, Michael Romanoff was enthusiastically called the "emperor." However, he received this title from the best people in the American film industry only in the second half of his life, when at the end of 1939 he opened Romanoff's restaurant in Los Angeles (California), which quickly turned into a real Mecca of the creative intelligentsia. More details about the life of Romanoff told the publication Lenta.Ru.

Photo: Shutterstock

Russian tsar of American cinema

Dean Martin or Charlie Chaplin loved to dine at Romanoff's - this is where the events that made Hollywood glory in the 1940-1950s took place. It was in Romanoff's that Errol Flynn rolled the famous feasts at which everyone was fed suckling pigs. It was here that Jane Mansfield "accidentally" fell out of her dress in the presence of Sophia Loren and photographers. It was here that the favorite desserts of Marilyn Monroe and Katharine Hepburn were prepared.

Michael has been the focus of all Hollywood scandals for 20 years. And he made a name for himself thanks to famous friends.

The Hollywood period of the life of "the most amazing liar of the XNUMXth century" - with stellar scandals, drunken fights of the winners of "Oscars" and paparazzi sleeping under the doors of his establishment - was probably the most calm and even a little boring.

Romanoff managed to make the name in the first half of the turbulent XX century.

Articles about the incredible adventurer and impostor began to appear in the American and British press as early as the 1920s. And although they described mainly the offenses of Romanoff, one cannot fail to notice how the authors admired this brilliant fraudster.

Little man in the big city

Romanoff's life is like a real detective story. Especially considering that more or less reliable data about his adventures are diluted with an incredible number of legends created by Michael himself, his fans and ill-wishers. Even the date of his birth is called different in different publications.

According to the dossier of The New Yorker magazine from 1932, Herschel Geguzin was born on February 20, 1890 in the Russian Empire in the city of Vilna (present-day Vilnius) into the family of a haberdasher. His father died early, his mother began to trade in the family shop, and in 1900 she decided to send little Herschel with her cousin to seek a better life in New York.

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Ten-year-old Herschel either did not find a common language with his relatives, or he was distinguished by a restless nature from birth, but very soon he began to run away from home, and once did not return at all. This is how the period of his wanderings across the United States began.

In the orphanage, where the boy eventually spent five years, from Herschel Geguzin, he turned into Harry Gerguson - this was his first fictitious name. There, the guy was taught tailoring, which in the future more than once helped to survive in the most difficult times.

Probably, during this period of vagrancy, the main character traits of the future "Emperor of Hollywood" developed - Harry learned to lie brilliantly, get out of any situation and never lose his composure. If his life was more calm and secured, he would definitely become a brilliant actor. And although Harry already became one, his path to this was not entirely traditional.

Across the ocean

In 1909, 19-year-old Harry Gerguson signed up as a sailor on a cattle carrier going to Great Britain. Having disembarked at the port of Southampton, he went for a walk in the city and never returned to the ship.

This is where the territory of legends begins. Some believe that Oxford was his first stop in England. Harry either worked there as a tailor, or was a valet for a wealthy American student, or even ended up in an asylum for the mentally ill near the famous university, but for good behavior he was allowed to walk and communicate with students and teachers.

Be that as it may, Oxford English, brilliant manners and versatile erudition will become the main weapon of Romanoff and open the door to high society for him.

Almost nothing is known about the period of Harry's life from 1914 to 1918. However, later the events of the First World War and the Great October Revolution would become an excellent source of enrichment for him. And it is precisely from that troubled time that he will come out in the form of a real aristocrat Michael, or Michael, Romanoff.

Birth of Prince Romanoff

After the end of the First World War, Harry appeared in London and became known in the upper strata of society under the name Wilby de Bruck. How he managed to get to the very peaks, no one knew. But the suave young man with brilliant manners quickly gained popularity in the aristocratic environment.

Moreover, they say that Harry became friends with the Prince of Wales himself - the future King Edward VIII - and so fascinated him that he even undertook to "settle the affairs" of high-ranking officials at court.

Naturally, he took a modest fee for his services. However, soon the aristocrat de Bruck disappears from London, but the Russian prince Mikhail Romanoff was “born” in Paris.

Here he also made his way to the very top and became a regular at elite parties and receptions, but now he presented himself as the closest relative of the deceased Nicholas II and told incredible stories about the escape from Russia, engulfed in revolution.

Because of these tales, he was able to borrow money from wealthy gentlemen. He promised to return everything with interest as soon as the trusted people deliver the "gold of the Romanovs" from St. Petersburg. And they almost always believed him.

In the early 1920s, Paris was one of the main centers of white emigration from the disintegrated Russian Empire, and it was quite easy to pretend to be a representative of the aristocracy who fled from the "bloody Bolsheviks" in the French capital.

The impostor was so gallant and charismatic that not everyone paid attention to the fact that the "Russian prince" did not know a single Russian word. He could only explain himself in French to the waiter. The title "Prince Mikhail Alexandrovich Dmitry Obolensky-Romanoff", taken by Gerguson, could also be exposed by any person who knew Russia at all.

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When they still tried to catch Romanoff in a lie, he turned aristocraticly pale, pulled himself into line and immediately tried to throw the glove in the offender's face. It was said that he never looked so much like a real prince as he did when he was exposed. The composure of the great swindler and his charisma were so strong that either the whistleblower was suppressed and apologized, or those around him tried to hush up the impending quarrel - no one doubted that the duel would really take place.

During the period of life from 1914 to 1918, different bikes go around. If we put them together, we get the following: during these years he served a six-year sentence for the murder of a "German nobleman" in a duel, fighting simultaneously on the western front of the First World War as a British officer and on the eastern front as a Cossack colonel of the Russian army. He was also in Palestine at the same time as part of the French Foreign Legion. And he defended the Winter Palace from the Bolsheviks.

Favorite crook

And although Michael should have had many enemies, and they really did, most of the society treated him with very warm feelings, even those whom he robbed. Some considered this a good lesson, while others - the payment for communication with a really outstanding person.

One personality trait of Romanoff, surprising to a professional fraudster, captivated people - he was never a curmudgeon-hoard.

He could easily walk the money he received from the scam in the company of those who had just been swindled. It seemed that his adventurous ventures were made not for the sake of enrichment, but for the love of intrigue, risk, the role of a kind and generous aristocrat.

And it's easy to believe in knowing how many times he was left with nothing. Sometimes, a few days after the next brilliant Parisian ball, amazed acquaintances found the "Russian prince", who had just given them champagne and treated them with black caviar, asleep on a park bench.

For all his gracefulness, Romanoff did not give up on the simplest methods of fraud. During 1920-1921, the "heir to the throne of the Russian Empire" was arrested four times for trying to slip counterfeit checks to tailors and tobacco workers. In 1922, the patience of European law enforcement officers ran out, and Michael was deported back to the United States.

A man without a passport

Back in the New World, Romanoff seemed to try to settle down a little. He received a residence permit (he never had citizenship) under the name Michael Romanoff and even entered Harvard. True, after studying for a year, he dropped out of the university.

Leaving his studies, Romanoff began to ply between Europe and America, trading on ocean liners in his favorite way - charming wealthy aristocrats and businessmen, borrowing money from them and dissolving into space at the port of arrival. Nomadic life continued until the early 1930s, but after 40 years, Michael clearly decided to secure some stability for himself.

At the same time, Romanoff had really serious problems with the US Migration Service. Michael faced a long sentence for being in the country without legal documents. It all ended with the impostor trying to commit suicide in custody. After that, they did not put him in prison, but put him on a steamer going to France. True, there are rumors that the prosecutor, who was fascinated by the manners and intellect of the defendant, offered him to stage a show with a fake suicide.

But soon Michael returned to the United States again. And in 1958 he received a citizen's passport. The document was personally signed by the President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and there was a legend that Romanoff and Eisenhower met immediately after the First World War in Europe, and the President ordered to give an old acquaintance a passport by pull when he learned about his plight.

The road to the cinema

In the 1930s, Michael appeared on Broadway, where he performed "frivolous songs" in the company of the future comedy legend Bob Hope, and in 1936 he went to Hollywood. Over the years of his rotation in high society on two continents, Romanoff made many connections, including in a bohemian environment, and now these acquaintances have come in handy.

It was rumored that during Prohibition Romanoff traded alcohol in New York in the company of the still very young future Oscar and two Golden Globes winner David Niven. And the actor introduced his friend to the Hollywood elite.

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Although Michael did not need special introductions - he was already known to the whole country and not only. And she knew at the same time as Prince Mikhail Romanoff, and as a swindler and impostor Gerguson. But the universal love for him was incredible. He has long been regarded as an outstanding entertainer, whose accounts of his adventures in newspapers can be read like an adventure novel.

Romanoff was arrested quite often, but usually he got off with a suspended sentence or a nonsense fine, and when the "prince" appeared after another arrest at a new event or reception, the audience greeted him with a standing ovation.

"Emperor" of Hollywood

Romanoff began organizing events for his Hollywood friends in the second half of the 1930s. Then he began to be hired as a consultant on film studio etiquette, he himself began to appear in small roles in Hollywood studios. He played, of course, Russian princes.

It is believed that Michael decided to open a restaurant in Los Angeles after his next party, which was attended by Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogard and other stars of the first magnitude, liked the famous guests so much that one of them said: “Eh, if only I had the opportunity to attend such a holiday every evening! "

Over the years of adventurous adventures, Romanoff learned to cook perfectly himself and knew almost hundreds of recipes for delicious dishes from almost all cuisines of the world. When the Romanoff's restaurant opened in Los Angeles on December 18, 1939, it was a real event for the world of Hollywood celebrities.

Spectacular cuisine and vivid performances instantly fell in love with the public, and the line of "mere mortals" who wanted to dine at the next table with Frank Sinatra or Sophia Loren stretched for months.

For the actors themselves, Romanoff's reputation was a marker of their popularity.

Collecting all the rumors and news of the world of cinema, Michael started a rather tough ranking system for artists. If, at the entrance to the institution, the star was immediately escorted to the table, this meant that everything was in order with the actor's career. But if they were sent under some pretext to wait in a bar, then the artist should have thought - his fame was clearly beginning to fade.

Romanoff's Restaurant played an important social role in Hollywood. For example, it was here that the actors' unions held meetings, and the bosses of the film industry discussed issues that were fateful for American cinema.

In addition, the hottest Hollywood news was printed on a separate page of the restaurant menu, and Michael Romanoff personally wrote the notes. Many stars found out that they were approved for some role, or vice versa - fired from the studio, going to have breakfast at Romanoff's. This establishment has become an integral part of the dream factory, just like the famous giant letters in the Los Angeles hills.

The end of the film

Romanoff bathed in fame and adoration of the stars, as well as the common public for over 20 years, but in 1962 decided that he had enough fame. He closed the restaurant and retired.

True, he still continued to act in films of his friends, and in the famous 1967 comedy "A Guide for a Married Man" he even played himself - the head waiter of the Romanoff's restaurant.

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However, for his closest friends, such as Frank Sinatra or Gregory Peck, the doors of his house were always open. They came to him as to a wise uncle - to tell about problems, ask for advice, have a drink and listen to stories about the incredible adventures of the "Russian prince".

In 1970, Sinatra decided to give his elder friend, whom he did not hesitate to call his second father, a royal gift. He personally organized a grandiose party in his mansion in honor of the 80th anniversary of Romanoff, which was attended by all the leading stars of Hollywood, and Michael received endless congratulations and declarations of love.

And just a year and a half after this brilliant benefit performance, Michael Romanoff died. He had a heart attack in a Los Angeles bookstore. Doctors were unable to help the retired "emperor of Hollywood".

Today Herschel Geguzin, Harry Gerguson, Michael Romanoff are remembered as one of the main stars of the great Hollywood of the 1940-1950s. And the path of this little man from a haberdashery shop in Vilnius to the heights of glory has long turned into a legend. This story would be hard to believe if it were not true. Almost…

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