An interview with one of the last living Russian countesses before her death in 1991.
By Robert Hudson Westover
Part One of a Series
Part One of a Series
Countess Olga de Chrapovtisky was born into a world of striking contrasts. On one side, Olga’s side, there was such opulent wealth that it would make a billionaire of today blush. The other side eventually destroyed a system they had little to no investment in—in other words: they had nothing.
The Russian Empire’s elite not only controlled nearly all wealth, the daily operational powers of government were invested in them as well. Proximity by either birth or friendship to the Tsar was hugely beneficial to one’s future prospects. Olga’s family had both.
Had the empire of the Tsars’ continued, I have no doubt that Olga would have married into the Tsar’s family and could have possibly been a Grand Duchess. This was the trajectory of her life as the reader will discover in the following interviews.
|Olga C. Morgan (right) with her sister Maya Auchincloss (left) |
and brother-in-law Hugh D. Auchincloss Jr. dressed
in traditional Russian costumes.
(Hugh would later marry Janet Bouvier,
becoming Jackie Kennedy's stepfather.)
When most people think of Russia they conjure up images of glistering onion-shaped gold and enamel domes. Or they think of guards with bearskin hats and people speaking in a heavy Russian accent. And this is all true—and was true in Olga’s time as well.
However, what most people don’t know is that there was a very Western European side of Russia during Olga’s time. The well-heeled of the imperial court spoke either English or French—with near perfect annunciation. The Russian language was for addressing “the masses.”
A visitor to the Court of Tsar Nicholas II would hardly be able to tell the difference between the Tsar’s court and that of Buckingham Palace, except for the excessive display of wealth. One famous philosopher once said of the Tsar’s court “All the combined magnificent of the courts of Europe could but match St. Petersburg…”
This was Olga’s Russia.
In March of 1983, renowned historian Richard Pierce interviewed the former countess now “just” referred to as Mrs. Olga C. Morgan. Olga’s entire childhood and early adult life was in close proximity to Tsar Nicholas II and his family. Although Russian, Olga’s mother, Margaret Taylor, was an American railroad heiress and a native of Milford, Connecticut.
Conducted at Olga’s home in Laguna Beach, California, Dr. Pierce’s interview is now housed in the archives at U.C. Berkeley.
Several years later, Olga allowed me to interview her as well. Over a period of three weeks I obtained several hours of conversation I have yet to completely transcribe. Because Olga did not know Dr. Pierce very well, she was somewhat withheld in the intimate details of her life in Imperial Russia. And, since Dr. Pierce was only interested in her imperial background, the interview does not delve too deep into her life as an exiled countess living in the United States. For instance, there is no mention of her third marriage to J.P. Morgan’s nephew Jasper Morgan, nor is there a reference to her sister, Maya, marrying Hugh D. Auchincloss Jr, the future stepfather to Jaqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis.
Olga C. Morgan, a former Russian countess,with Robert Hudson Westover
at her home in Laguna Beach, California
Olga called me her godson and I referred to her as my godmother. From the time I met her (I was 16) she held enormous sway over my life, but that’s a story I cover in my soon to be published book “Lessons in Nobility.”
Throughout the interviews in this article, I have inserted in italics some of the responses Olga gave to me when I asked the same or similar questions and other facts that I have since become aware of through research on various projects related to Olga’s unique life. Additionally, I have taken the privilege to edit some of Dr. Pierce’s transcriptions.
As mentioned above, I have recently finished a manuscript on my time with Olga. Because the work goes into much of Olga’s life after the Russian Revolution I have kept the following interviews focused mainly on Olga’s life in imperial Russia.
Note: All photographs are either the property of the author, used by permission or thought to be in the public domain.
A Compellation of Two Interviews with Olga C. Morgan
Location: Mrs. Morgan’s villa overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Laguna Beach, California. 1983 (Pierce)/1991 (Westover)
Olga’s Earliest Memories of Her Family
RP (Dr. Richard Pierce): Could we begin with a short autobiographical sketch, including a bit about your family?
Morgan (Olga C. Morgan): I will do my best! My mother, Margaret Taylor, was born in 1870. The family had become wealthy; I think it was in railroads. Henry Augustus Taylor, her father, built the library in Milford, Connecticut, and they have his portrait in oil there.
My mother met my father, Nicholas de Chrapovitsky, a Russian naval officer, at a ball in Washington, D.C.
|Margharita (Margaret )Taylor. (1894)|
A year later she went to Paris and married him in the church in the Rue de Russe she had become Orthodox and they went to Russia. Of course, after America it was a very difficult place for her to live; she didn't speak the language, so she always had an English companion with her who helped her translate.
RHW (Robert Hudson Westover): What Olga did not reveal here is why Margaret Taylor, essentially ran off with a Russian count. Being from one of the most prominent families in New England, it was a bit surprising to “society,” as Olga recounted to me. (“Society” at that time was the term for the ruling class.)
Count Nicholas Chrapovitsky. (1894)
(Hugh D. "Yusha" Auchincloss III
photo collection. Used by permission.
The truth was that Margaret really didn’t have a choice. Since her mother’s death, her father had slowly begun to erode the social standing the family once had. “He had whores around the place and mother had had enough…” Olga told me during one of our interview.
RP: Do you know when they met, or what had brought him to the United States?
Morgan: I don't know. That's the trouble, there are so many details that I don't know. I know she met him in Washington, D.C., but I don't even know the date of their marriage. I only know that I was born on December 19, 1896, so obviously they must have been married for at least a year before that.
RHW: Through newspaper articles, I have discovered that Olga’s father was a Romanov and a decedent of Peter the Great. Count Chrapovitsky was a friend of Nicholas II as well. Margaret went by Margarita. I don’t know why Olga refers to her as Margaret. Perhaps she was just simplifying her mother’s name.
Nicholas and Margaret did meet at a ball in Washington, D.C. and it was in 1894—the year of the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. The Russian naval fleet had come to visit the event and for a time was moored in New York Harbor.
RP: Could you relate some of your earliest memories?
Morgan: My earliest recollections, strangely enough, are mostly of life in the country, where we went in summer. We used to go someplace I don't even know where it was near St. Petersburg, on the water. My father was away most of the summer. And it had a beach, and I remember we used to go down to the beach, and we had a little carriage, with a pony, that we drove around, with a governess, obviously. That I remember quite vividly, but I remember very little of life in town, and of studying with governesses and all that.
Then I have a very strange recollection of when I was very small, about five or six. My sister and I slept in a room where we each had a bed, and at night I used to see a little devil, walking around my bed. I could have sworn that it was a little black devil, so there must have been some stories I was told that affected me like that, because I really saw him, and when I'd get up in the morning and try to get my toys out of the closet I was always standing off in case he jumped out because I thought he lived in the closet with my toys. That's a very early recollection of when I was in town. I don't remember where we stayed in the country. We always rented different places; I don't remember what they looked like. I only remember that they used to be near that beach.
RHW: The Chrapovitsky’s townhouse in St. Petersburg, 14 Fontanka 14, was enormous and survived the Revolution and World War II. When Olga’s family lived there, the lobby had a large stuffed Russian brown bear with its paw extended out so that callers could leave their cards. The home was large enough to have dozens of servants living in it. Some of them where proficient enough with musical instruments that when needed, the family could summon its own orchestra.
Morgan: My father was killed in the Japanese War, in the Battle of Tsushima May 27-28, 1905, and I know very little about him. I hardly ever saw him because he was always stationed on the royal yacht, the Standart. He was there all summer.
I remember only that when we went to the United States during the summer of 1905, as we got off the ship all the correspondents threw themselves on my mother and said "Did you know that your husband was lost in the battle?" And mother had had a premonition while she was onboard; she kept saying "I think he's dead."
But otherwise she didn't know; it was a rather cruel thing to do, a terrible welcome. He was on the Alexander III. The whole fleet was sunk, many by their own volition, because they did not want the Japanese to take them prisoners. They were all regarded as heroes, so we became ladies-in-waiting to the Empress as one of the rewards for being daughters of heroes.
The New York Times
June, 7 1905
RUSSIAN COUNTESS HERE
REFUSES TO BELIEVE HER HUSBAND WAS LOST FIGHTING TOGO
The Countess Chrapovitsky, widow of Count Chrapovitsky,
second in command of the Russian battleship Alexander III,
which was one of the vessels of Admiral Rojdesvensky 's
fleet that was destroyed in the battle of the Sea of Japan,
arrived in New York last night on the North German Lloyd
liner Kaiser Wilhelm II.
The Countess, who was accompanied by her two little
daughters, was met by her brother, Henry Taylor of
Milford, Conn., and left for that place soon after the
Kaiser Wilhelm docked.
Mr. Taylor said that his sister was too grieved over the
Misfortune that had overtaken her to talk, and added that
she was not yet certain that her husband was among the lost,
and would not believe so until she received official
confirmation of it.
She heard of the sea battle when the Kaiser touched
at Cherbourg and Southhampton a week ago yesterday.
RHW: According to many accounts of the naval battle, the Alexander III went down with all hands—several thousand men. The Russian’s quickly went on to negotiate for peace. There are no known biographical details concerning Count Chrapovitsky at the Naval Museum in St. Petersburg.
When I asked Olga about her father she did remember her mother telling her how on their honeymoon in Africa, the count went to shot lions all day and left his wife in the hot sun. According to Olga, Margaret nearly died of heat stroke “so he must have been a very selfish man…” Olga added.
Morgan: After my father died my mother never saw his side of the family anymore.
RP: Why this estrangement?
Morgan: She didn't like them. And then, about a year later, she remarried, to Christopher der Felden, or Baron der Felden, but he didn't like to use that because he said it was Germanic.
|Famously shy, the Tsarina turned her back |
to the camera in this picture with
Count Chrapovitsky (right)
Before that, through my father's family, my mother was always invited to all the balls and other affairs at court. But after she married Baron der Felden, she never went to the balls and things like that anymore, but then the Imperial family used to come and visit us—the Dowager Empress, the Grand Duke Michael, and quite a few others; they were very close.
RHW: What Olga leaves out here is that Margaret’s strained relationship with her in-laws resulted in less proximity to the Tsarina, whom she had become close to. Added to this was the fact that Alexandria really didn’t
care for her mother-in-law, the Dowager Empress.
Despite the politics of the court, Margaret managed to keep on relatively good terms with Alexandra but she became very close to the Dowager Empress Marie. So much so that later in life, the empress gave Margaret many sentimental objects one of which was a handkerchief that Olga said “had dried the tears of the Tsar.”
|The Russian Dowager Empress Marie with |
Baron Christopher der Felden (foreground)
In exile, both Margaret and the dowager empress played crucial roles in bringing world attention to Anna Anderson, who claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia. This collusion between the two is well recorded in Peter Kurth’s best seller, “Anastasia, The Mystery of Anna Anderson.”
|The cover photo for Peter Kurth's|
book about the Grand Duchess
RP: You mentioned having governesses, could you describe that? At what age did you have the first?
Morgan: The first was before 1905. She was a French governess, whom we disliked very much. Whenever we did anything that she didn't like she would say "Faite la planche!" which is French for "make the board' so we had to get down on the floor and lie like a board we hated her! And we were never able to tell anyone how much we disliked her, except when we went on this trip in 1905 to America. Then every day we would come out and say "Oh, how wonderful it is, to be without her! How wonderful it is not to have Mademoiselle Mizan around our neck! "
And mother said, "Do you really dislike her that much?" So when we got back she fired her or retired her people didn't fire a governess, they retired her. But when we lived in summer in a country place we had a governess for each day. We had to take a walk with her, eat with her, talk to her, all day, and then the next day it would be a French governess.
In the winter we had the same thing; a governess for each day. It was very strict, we had always to take long walks and do healthy things, and then study that particular language for one day and then another language another day, and so I am very proficient in French. After I have been in Paris for two or three weeks they can hardly tell that I am not French.
RP: So this was from the age of 6 or 7?
Morgan: Yes, and before that. This lasted until my stepfather got very ill. Then we had to break the whole monotony of the thing, because then we went every year to Cannes, Nice and places like that. They thought he had TB and that he couldn't stand the winter climate. So then we had only one governess with us, but then we would get another governess there who could speak French. German was a little bit forgotten at that time. We had the Russian governess come with us, the maids my mother's maid and our own maid to take care of my sister and me, and a valet who took care of my stepfather, so you can see what a large procession of people traveled back and forth.
RP: That was in what year?
Morgan: In 1907, 1908 and 1909, and I think he died in 1910. After that mother was completely broken up; she never went out socially after he died. She was completely devastated. Then we started the routine of the governesses again, but by that time we were much older, so we were able to pick and choose a little bit.
RP: So it was always female tutelage?
Morgan: Entirely female, except for mathematics. Then I had some kind of young man who taught me mathematics I don't think he was a professor; he was probably a student. I was very good at mathematics; I wish I had continued. But otherwise it was always females. We had a butler and a valet in the house, but when the war came on in 1914 then there were no men doing any work for us, except that we did have a coachman, but he must have been a very old man; everyone else went to the front.
RP: Where was your house in Petersburg?
Morgan: It was Fontanka 14. After mother remarried, when we moved in the summer we always went to the same country house that belonged to my stepfather, in Gatchina, and that place we adored, for then we had our own animals; we had left them there for the winter.
RP: Gatchina that was where Paul spent so many years, waiting for his mother to die so that he could gain the throne. It was almost destroyed during the war, but they have done a remarkable job of restoring it.
Morgan: It was a beautiful palace. The Dowager Empress used to come and stay there, and behind the palace was a huge park. We children used to take walks there every day, and on the way to the park we used to buy great loaves of bread and feed it to the geese, ducks and swans. And we loved that; it was beautiful.
But it was quite dangerous in the autumn, because then the elk fought; sometimes it was quite frightening. So it was a beautiful, beautiful park; I think that they have left it quite as it was. We also used to drive through it quite a lot, because walking was a little far. We'd drive to it, and then get out and walk, with those loaves of bread to feed the birds.
|Gatchina Palace, Russia|
RHW: Olga recounted to me that on many occasions, the Dowager Empress would visit her mother at their home in Gatchina. One can only imagine what an ordeal that must have been!
RP: This takes us up to what point?
Morgan: Oh, it must be already 1908, 09 and 10.
RP: And still you never were in school, but always with governesses?
Morgan: Always governesses. No, I never went to school, but we bothered mother so much about it that finally she said "All right, once a year you can go and take exams." Which was not pleasant, because we had never seen any of the people who would give us papers. She felt that maybe that would keep us on our toes.
We had very few girlfriends, unfortunately, because we never went to school. There were just children of my mother's friends, so we had about five families with whom we were very close. Among them was the
Countess Tolstoy and all her children and I'm still close to them now.
We attended very few social events. As a social event we used to have dancing class when we were young, which I thought made up for a real social life. And I did go to one ball when I was only sixteen. It was Grand Duchess Olga and she was giving a ball. She came over to the house and she asked me, "Would you like to go to a ball?"
"Oh yes I exclaimed, "I would love to!"
So she said to mother, "I have invited your little girl."
Mother said, "It's not possible! She has not been out in society or anything."
But she then told me, "Never mind, I told her you could go."
So they made me a dress, which had to be covered up, of course, to the neck, with the arms covered and everything, and then I went to the ball and it was very interesting. Everybody was so beautifully dressed. Pushkin describes it as everything gleaming with jewelry and everything beautiful. And I danced. It was in her palace.
|Grand Duchess Xenia|
That was in 1914, in the spring, just before I went to the Crimea. She was the Emperor's sister; she later married a commoner, and she went to Canada and she died there. A book was written about her, it was called Once a Grand Duchess.
RHW: How often did you see the Tsar?
Morgan (interview with RHW): Quite often. In the winter, when we lived in St. Petersburg, we used to go to visit [the imperial family at Tsarskoe Selo], and even in summer, when we were there they used to have parades on the Champ de Mars, and it was very beautiful and very exciting, with wonderful music. The Emperor was always in them!
Before mother married Baron der Feldon we often were invited to play with the Grand Duchess not only at Tsarkoe Selo but also in Crimea.
|Tsar Nicholas II|
RHW: What was your clearest memory of these visits?
Morgan: On one visit to Crimea, we were invited to Sunday dinner at the imperial palace. Later that evening, we played a series of children’s parlor games. I think I was ten years-old or so. The emperor almost always joined in on these games. Anyway, during one particular game, I think it was Post Office, or something like that, the point is is that a certain times in the games the participants are to quickly sit down. I did. Then everyone went suddenly silent. I looked up, and saw the face of the emperor smiling down at me! In a complete state of fear I ran out of the room! Everyone burst into laughter! Even the empress laughed!
RHW: She was rather dower wasn’t she?
Morgan: Oh, yes and most of the time she sat very quietly as we played with the children [the Grand Duchesses]. The Tsarevich never played with us. He usually sat with his mother. Everyone knew something was wrong with him but no one dared ask. Of course, our regular visits ended when mother remarried. We would still see them though, [the Grand Duchesses] on occasion.
I was very strictly brought up I had to have very good manners always, especially when in the presence of the imperial family! My sister and I we were being groomed, you see, for being ladies in waiting. We couldn't have bad manners; you had even to eat in an especially neat way.
Beyond 1910 -- After Margaret’s marriage to Baron der Feldon
RP: During this earlier period [after Margaret’s marriage to Baron Der Feldon], were you able to attend many cultural events? These seem always to have been an important part of Russian life.
Morgan: Do you mean like theaters? No, we were pretty well cut off, you see, because the trains ran very sporadically to St. Petersburg, and to take a train just to go and see a play... We used to see little plays in Gatchina, there were sometimes put on by amateurs and whatever, but that was about all that we saw, a few little ballets and things like that, but we never went to St. Petersburg anymore.
Morgan (RHW interview): But before we moved to Gatchina the cultural events were very splendid. The ballet was marvelous and the opera was very good as well. We always had seats, very good ones, and always in boxes; we never sat in the main portion. We never were taken much to the theater, because it was not supposed to be for young people, but we were taken very often to the ballet and to the opera, at least once a week.
The Last Summer of the Old World
RHW: You spent the late spring early summer of 1914 in Crimea. This was the last summer of the “old world” [as the pre-World War I has come to be known]. What were your clearest memories of this visit?
Morgan: The Grand Duke George and his wife invited me to go visit with them and their two daughters, Nina and Xenia. We were very close, and we remained very good friends. The family had a beautiful home, near the Black Sea. It wasn't a home where they lived all the time. It was just a place where they went in spring and maybe in autumn.
Here, I have picture of the visit (shows a picture of her with men in military uniform). They all belonged to the Tsar’s Crimean regiment. This (second row, sitting) was the Grand Duchess Marie who was once married to the Crown Prince of Sweden which ended horribly! Also we had this lady in waiting, who came with us to see that we behaved. The officers were very handsome! They took us to their regimental place and gave us lunch and then they had the men do a Cossack dance for us. That was an outing!
RHW: Wasn’t the Grand Duchess Marie an adult?
Morgan: Yes, but it didn’t matter. We still had to be accompanied by a chaperone. But aside from the occasional lady-in-waiting that trip was really the first time in my life that I had fun, because I didn't have a governess with me! (Holding another photo) I am here in back, in white, third, there's the Grand Duchess Marie.
|First row on the left, the Grand Duke George,|
on the far right is the Grand Duchess Marie
(Olga is sitting just behind the Grand Duchess)
RP: I suppose much attention was given to dress?
Morgan: We were very clothes conscious, unfortunately, even as young children, because mother bought all her clothes in Paris, and then she had a very famous dressmaker in St. Petersburg where she got other clothes. When I was going to the Crimea, she took me to that dressmaker and got me some beautiful special clothes to wear there. When you were young you were supposed to be completely covered up, never to be decollete in any way, shape or manner. Even in the day we always wore something right up to our neck, and long sleeves. It was very different from today.
RP: And jewelry?
Morgan: We were given a few jewels to wear, but very few. I still have a piece of jewelry which was made for me. My stepfather had a star from someone, it was all diamond chips, you know the kind of diamonds they use in the jewelry in Constantinople. We were taken to the jeweler, and they showed us a lot of designs and I chose one for a barrette, because that's all we wore, you know we wore our hair back through the barrette. It was like a clip; I still have it, but I have it made over into a pin now, because where would I ever wear a barrette? So we did have a bit of jewelry even then, although we were very young, and it was not supposed to be worn by young girls. Mother, of course, was always beautifully dressed, and all the people around me.
RHW: Little did you know but this would be your last trip to Crimea. Did you ever see the imperial family again?
Morgan: No. Not in a social setting. However, the Emperor and Empress, along with the Grand Duchesses and sometimes the Tsariviech, would attend the departure of troops and other duties related to the war and we would see them there, but no, never again for any social gathering. It was on one of these occasions that I first saw Rasputin [at a train station].
RHW: What was that like?
Morgan: Oh, simply horrible. He was just so arrogant! Everyone knew he had a horrible influence over the empress. He was the only one who could save her son, so she believed. He [Rasputin] behaved as if he owned the world. Well, I suppose he did by that point…”
RHW: Yes, he seemed to have such magical powers. I read that the Tsarvich was dying of hemophila and was about to be pronounced dead until a telegram arrived from Rasputin telling the Tsarina to have the doctors leave the child along and that he would recover and he did! Do you think had he been killed earlier the empire would have been saved?
Morgan: Yes. I don’t doubt it for a moment. Rasputin destroyed Russia. Once his daughter wanted to speak with me, and I said to the messenger “Why would I want to speak with that peasant.”