Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Russian Prince

It took the death of a famous French restaurant owner, Andre Surmain, 97, to put his name back in the newspaper, but there it was, Serge Obolensky, the Russian prince and former OSS agent whose name was forever in the gossip pages of the New York Post, attending Park Avenue Armory, Metropolitan Opera galas, and anything else festive where the chairs all look alike, with his Social Register 400 and Squadron A buddies.

I once worked with a woman who loved to show me the latest copy of the New York Post and point out that there was Serge, resplendent with a medal or six from Russia or the United States honoring him for his derring-do in WW II.

This was long before the days of the Internet, so finding out who Serge Obolensky was took more than a few strokes of a keyboard. An effort to find out more about Serge was never made by Tina. She just loved to laugh when his name appeared, and it appeared often.

His name is mentioned once in the NYT obituary for Andre Surmain, described in the obit's headline as someone: 'Who Fed the Elite in Epicurean Splendor at Lutèce."

You nearly have to be of a certain age to even know about Lutèce and the other very high-end French restaurants that were once open in NYC. If you can name "Les Six" then you surely have no problem naming Santa's reindeer or Snow White's little buddies.

Once upon a time in Manhatten there were these six French restaurants, Lutèce, La Grenouille, La Caravelle, La Côte Basque, Lafayette and Quo Vadis. Never ate there? Neither have I.

Lutèce was so high-end that there were two menus, both in French, with the assumed host the only one who was given the menu that included prices. It will have to be assumed the prices were quoted in dollars and not francs.

I once read a story that Henri Soulè of Le Pavillon (apparently not in the vaunted six) once listened patiently to a patron complain about his prices, then tore up the check and told them to never come in again. Apparently this must have been a French thing, because Andre Surmain is described as doing the same thing.

If only Julie Andrews in the movie Victor Victoria knew about this when she beat the bill at the restaurant she was plowing through food like a hungry Buffalo. She only needed to complain about the prices she had no intention or means of paying rather than release a sack full of cockroaches in the place. Complaining would have been much classier.

Whatever reputation for stuffiness French restaurants have attained can surely be shown to have its origins in dinning at "Les Six."

Serge enters the picture as having been a partner of Andre back in the post-war days when Andre was struggling to establish himself as a major foodie. Andre had his war stories like Serge, when both were OSS agents and who both parachuted into occupied France, getting shot at while dodging Nazis, Serge doing it when he was 53.

As might be expected of man born in 1890 of aristocratic birth who marries Tsar Alexander II daughter, Princess Catherine Yurievskaya, Serge was a ladies man. His second wife was his mistress during his first marriage. Serge got around.

Oddly enough, there is no day of NYT obituary for a Serge Obolensky passing away in 1978. There is a short archive summary in 1978 which lists his passing, along with many others.

There is a tiny obituary item in a December 6, 1960 edition that describes a Serge Obolensky living in exile in London, 81, who had a son, Prince Alexander Sergeevich Obolensky, who was a "near-legendary" English rugby player, already deceased. His exploits can be found in a British rugby link.

Alexander was a member of Russian aristocracy, stemming from the Rurik dynasty. His father, the one in the 1960 obit, was Prince Sergei Alexandrovich Obolensky, an officer in the Tsar's Imperial House Guards. Apparently the family name derives from the ancient Russian city of Obolensk. His family fled Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Thus, given the popularity of the name Sergei and the number of people who came from Obolensk, there were a probably more than few Serge Obolenskys, probably not related. Our version of John Smith.

Amazingly, there is YouTube footage of Prince Alexander scoring twice in 1936 in a rugby match against New Zealand's All Blacks, always a tough opponent. Young Alexander was killed in a training accident flying for the RAF. He was 24.

The father of the Serge who was partners with Andre was born in 1850, Prince Platon Sergeyevich-Neledinsky-Meletzky, who passed away in 1913. Where the Russians would have put that name in the phone book is a mystery.. Thus he wouldn't be the one dead at 81 in 1960. One does wonder if he was surprised to see his name in the obit section in 1960, and if Serge of the OSS ever knew Serge the Exile.

The Serge we've read about passed away in 1978 in Grosse Point Farms, Michigan, far from Park Avenue, but I'm sure in good surroundings. His life was as they wrote, "reads like a work of fiction." No wonder he was always in the paper. Even in a old friend's obituary 40 years after his own passing.

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