Marthe Bibesco - Literary Glory

Literary Glory

In March 1915 Marthe met Christopher Thomson, the British military attaché, at a Palace soirée; he was arranging for Romania to join the Allies (although he did not agree with the policy, as Romania was unprepared for war). He remained devoted to her for the rest of his life. They corresponded regularly, and she dedicated four books to "C.B.T." Later he was a Labour peer, and Secretary of State for Air. She visited the site of his death in the R101 airship accident on December 1930 with their mutual friend the Abbé Mugnier.

When Romania at last entered the war on the Allied side in 1916, Marthe worked at a hospital in Bucharest until the German army burned down her home in Posada, in the Transylvanian Alps. She fled the country to join her mother and daughter in Geneva after a quarantine exile, imposed by the German occupants, in Austria-Hungary (as a guest of the princely family of Thurn and Taxis at Latchen). There she continued to write. For most of her life, she wrote every morning until lunchtime--her journals alone fill 65 volumes.

In Switzerland, she began work on Isvor, pays des saules ("Isvor, Land of Willows"). It was Marthe's Romanian masterpiece, where she brilliantly conveyed the everyday life and customs of her people, the extraordinary mixture of superstition, deep philosophy, resignation and hope, and the unending struggle between age-old pagan beliefs and Christian faith.

Tragedy didn't spare Marthe, as her younger sister and her mother would commit suicide in 1918 and 1920 respectively.

For the Bibescos life after the war was more cosmopolitan than Romanian. Among her literary friends and acquaintances, Marthe counted Jean Cocteau, Paul Valéry, Rainer Maria Rilke, François Mauriac, Max Jacob, and Francis Jammes. In 1919, Marthe was invited to Prince Antoine Bibesco's wedding in London to Elizabeth Asquith, daughter of the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Herbert Henry Asquith, later Earl of Oxford. Princess Elizabeth Bibesco, who died in Romania during World War II, is buried in the Bibesco family vault on the grounds of Mogoşoaia. Marthe for many years occupied an apartment in Prince Antoine's Quai Bourbon house at which she held literary and political salons.

During this postwar period she rebuilt Posada, her mountain home, and began restoring the other family estate, Mogoşoaia, the palace built in Byzantine style. Again in London, she met Winston Churchill in 1920, starting a warm friendship that would last until his death in 1965. When her daughter Valentine married the Romanian prince Dimitrie Ghika-Comăneşti (October 1925) in a dazzling traditional ceremony, three Queens attended, (Queen-mother Sophia of Greece, Princess Consort Aspasia Manos of Greece and Queen Marie of Yugoslavia).

Moving around Europe, acclaimed as each new book appeared--Le Perroquet Vert (1923), Catherine-Paris (1927), Au bal avec Marcel Proust (1928)--Marthe gravitated toward political power more than anything else. Without forgetting the former Kronprinz, Marthe had a short love affair with Alfonso XIII of Spain, and another with the French Socialist representative Henry de Jouvenel. In the latter case, the class differences shattered their relationship, something that Marthe used as the basis of her novel Égalité ("Equality", 1936). The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Ramsay MacDonald, found her fascinating. She visited him often in London and was his guest at Chequers. He wrote many touching, tender letters to her. Their close friendship ended only with his death.

Accompanying George, who was by then chasing fast planes - in addition to his numerous women - Marthe flew everywhere: the United Kingdom (she counted among her friends the Duke of Devonshire Edward Cavendish, the Duke of Sutherland George, Vita Sackville-West, Philip Sassoon, Enid Bagnold, Violet Trefusis, Lady Leslie and Rothschild family members), Belgium, Italy (where she met Benito Mussolini in 1936), the Italian colony of Tripolitania (Libya), Istanbul, the United States (in 1934, as guests of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor), Raguse, Belgrade and Athens.

Whatever she wrote was a critical success and also sold well. But the money wasn't enough to cover the heavy expenses of her Mogoşoaia project (where the pavement of the Grand Hall is covered with gold), so she began writing popular romances under the pseudonym Lucile Décaux, and articles for fashion magazines under her own name. She had a long-term contract with The Saturday Evening Post and Paris-Soir. In the 1920s and the 1930s, Mogoşoaia Palace was to become the second League of Nations, as the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Louis Barthou, put it. There, annually, Marthe hosted royalty (among others, Gustav V of Sweden and the Queen of Greece), aristocracy (princes Faucigny-Lucinge, Princes de Ligne, the Churchills, the Cahen d'Anvers), politicians and ministers, diplomats and writers (Paul Morand, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry).

As the winds of war began again to sweep across Europe, the princess began to prepare. She visited Germany in 1938 to see Wilhelm, and was introduced to Hermann Göring; she visited the United Kingdom in 1939 to meet George Bernard Shaw. Her older grandson, John-Nicholas Ghika-Comăneşti, was sent to school in England in the same year (he was not to see his homeland again for 56 years). Romania entered the war in 1941, this time on the losing side.

Prince George III Bibesco died on June 2, 1941; their relationship strengthened during his illness, even though he kept his mistresses. After visiting German-occupied Paris and Venice, she made a top-secret visit to Turkey in 1943 together with her cousin, Prince Barbu II Ştirbey (Barbo Stirbey), trying to negotiate Romania's withdrawal from the Second World War. When the Red Army invaded her country, Marthe had a passport and connections enabling her to leave on September 7, 1945. Ironically it was not Marthe but her cousin Antoine Bibesco's wife Elizabeth who was the last Bibesco to be buried on the grounds of Mogosoaia after her death on April 7, 1945. Neither Marthe nor Antoine would ever return to Romania. When the communist government took power in 1948, it confiscated all Bibesco property. She settled in Paris.

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