Prince Felix Youssoupoff

Prince Felix Youssoupoff (1886-1967) was born into a Russian aristocratic dynasty more wealthy than the reigning Romanovs. The title came through his mother Princess Zenaide Youssoupoff who rivalled the Empress Dagmar as the arbiter of taste at Tsar Alexander III’s court. The Princess Youssoupoff was said to have bowls filled with gemstones in her Moika Palace apartments simply for the pleasure of running her fingers through the treasures. Fabergé, Cartier, Chaumet and Bolin reset her fabulous jewellery collection –including Catherine the Great’s Ram’s Head diamond and Mary Tudor’s La Pelegrina pearl – in Belle Epoque fashion.

Prince Felix inherited his mother’s legendary beauty and, at the prompting of his elder brother Prince Nicholas, took to appearing in St Petersburg at night dressed in his mother’s gowns and jewels from the age of twelve. As he wrote in his memoir Lost Splendour (1953) ‘by day I was a schoolboy and by night an elegant woman’. So convincing was Prince Felix that Imperial Guardsmen would pursue him around St. Petersburg’s cafes and theatres. Attending the opera in Paris as a woman he caught the eye of King Edward VII who dispatched an equerry to ask Prince Nicholas whether the enchanting woman in his box would consent to diner à deux with the old philanderer.

Prince Felix’s father Count Sumarokov-Elston (who was granted permission from the Tsar to call himself the Prince Youssoupoff) drew the line when it was discovered his son was sneaking out of the Moika Palace in drag after dark and cavorting with gypsies. The Count dispatched his son to England where he read Fine Arts at University College, Oxford. The prince found kindred spirits in Oxford’s debauched Bullingdon Club where he met future British secret agent Oswald Rayner with whom he would plan the assassination of ‘mad monk’ Grigory Rasputin of which more anon.

Lost Splendour tells an amusing tale of Prince Felix’s 1903 visit to his first London tailor Davies & Son during which his bulldog Punch tears the seat out of another customer’s trousers: this the same dog he acquired in Paris then hired a prostitute to accompany the hound across the channel dressed as a baby. In 1908 the prince’s brother Nicholas was killed in a duel by a jealous husband making Felix the heir to the Youssoupoff fortune that included 10,000-acres of Russian land. Much to the court’s surprise Prince Felix wooed and won Tsar Nicholas II’s niece Princess Irina. They married at the Anichkov Palace in St. Petersburg in 1914.

The couple were returning to Russia having honeymooned in Cairo, Jerusalem and London when war was declared and Kaiser Wilhelm II refused the Youssoupoffs permission to leave Berlin. Arguably it would have been safer for them to stay in Europe but the prince and princess made their escape by train. Their only daughter Bébé was born in 1915. Though Prince Felix converted a wing of the Moika Palace into a hospital for Russian troops, his evasion of conscription due to his now being an only son and heir brought down the opprobrium of the tsar’s sister the Grand Duchess Olga. She bemoaned the ‘utterly unpleasant impression he makes – a man idling in such times’.

Perhaps stung by the criticism that he was an idle, effete dilettante Prince Felix began to plot with the Grand Duke Dimitri to remove the man they considered the most dangerous in Russia. The charismatic monk Rasputin had, through his faith healing appeared to keep the tsar’s haemophiliac only son Alexei alive, warped the mind of the unpopular Tsarina Alexandra. With the tsar serving on the front, the tsarina was acting as regent. Neurotic, shy and chronically ill Alexandra had alienated church, state, army and aristocracy. According to the tsarina’s enemies Rasputin ruled in all but name.

On the night of December 30th 1916 Rasputin was lured to the basement of the Moika Palace where Prince Felix and the Grand Duke Dimitri were waiting with pastries and wine laced with poison. The monk ate, drank, danced and sang with no discernible effect so, in Prince Felix’s words, ‘a shudder swept over me, my arm grew rigid, I aimed at his heart and pulled the trigger’. Even a gunshot failed to kill Rasputin who somehow managed to drag himself into the courtyard where Felix, Dimitri or both beat him to death before disposing of the body through a hole cut in the ice on the River Neva.

The Tsarina ordered the Prince and the Grand Duke to be shot but only the Tsar could sign the death warrants of his own family. The Grand Duke was exiled and the Prince and Princess Youssoupoff retired to their estates outside Moscow.  Prince Felix was at his villa in the Crimea – the Russian Riviera in the twilight years of the tsars – when the February Revolution erupted in 1917. The Tsar abdicated for he and Alexei and his immediate family were executed by firing squad the following year. Prince Felix and Princess Irina escaped into exile on board HMS Marlborough; a British warship sent by King George V to rescue his aunt the Dowager Empress Marie.

The Youssoupoff’s fared better in exile than many of Russia’s displaced aristocratic families. Prince Felix had made a daring raid on the Moika Palace to retrieve two Rembrandts and the best of the family jewels including a pair of diamond earrings that once belonged to Marie Antoinette. The treasures he could not carry were concealed in secret rooms that were only discovered in 1925. Prince Felix and Irina settled in Paris where they established a short-lived couture house christened Irfé. The Youssoupoff jewels were gradually sold-off (many to Cartier) as were the Rembrandts.

Salvation came in 1932 when the Youssoupoffs sued MGM over a defamatory portrayal of Princess Irina in the film ‘Rasputin and the Empress’. They were awarded the then huge sum of £25,000 and the case was the landmark that necessitates all films and books to include the get-out clause ‘the preceding was a work of fiction, any similarities to a living person…’. Though even Prince Felix’s niece Princess Olga Romanoff confirmed that he ‘batted for both sides’ and dabbled in transvestism, he and Princess Irina lived as a devoted couple for over fifty-years. They died within three months of each other in 1967.

The Prince Youssoupoff listed in the Henry Poole & Co customer ledgers didn’t tally with the date (1895) until research confirmed that Prince Felix’s father the Count Sumarokov-Elston had permission from the tsar to take his wife’s title as his own after the death of his father-in-law. A recent reassessment of two index ledgers in the Poole’s archive dated from 1900 to 1921 clearly pertains to Prince Felix though the absence of customer order books that correspond means the trail runs cold. The inclusion of Prince Felix Youssoupoff suggests that the indexes may be two of the few records that survive from the Paris branch of Henry Poole & Co.

(c) James Sherwood


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