In the 1930s, during the difficult days of the Great Depression, the topic of the treasure often came up, Barham says.
Barham's mother was a believer, though. "She said, 'OK, we'll make one attempt.' She put up the money and he went through about $300,000. They got as far as Turkey and the authorities wouldn't let him go on," Barham says.
"My mother was so upset that she'd lost all the money."
Hearst was preparing to bankroll a second attempt to find the czar's jewels in 1951. But the eccentric publisher died before the expedition could be mounted.
For her part, Barham was motivated to pursue the treasure after she co-wrote a cookbook and a book about Rasputin with his daughter, Maria Grigorevna Rasputin. Maria Rasputin revealed that as a child she had been in the room when Alexandra asked Gleboff to pack up the treasure and take it to the Peking bank.
"I got to know Maria very well," Barham says. "She said Papa George had been very close to the czarina and she trusted him. Crazy as it sounds, the story was all true."
Barham waited a year "out of respect for the state funeral of the czar and his family" before attempting to mount a 1999 expedition to recover the jewels, said Chris Harris, a Beverly Hills public relations consultant she hired to help organize the search.
Hopes for the recovery expedition to the Gobi Desert evaporated when the cable network backed out and Barham balked at a Texas university's request for a $500,000 "donation" to help train Mongolian judges in exchange for smoothing the way with Mongolian officials for her to enter the Gobi.
Harris remains confident that the crown jewels are still buried beneath the sands.
"There's no doubt whatsoever it's there. I've talked to people who know what happened back then. This is not a Hollywood story. This is real history," he says.
Others, however, aren't so sure. Russian history expert J. Arch Getty, a UCLA professor, wonders why the czarina would have sent the crown jewels to China by way of the Gobi Desert instead of to Europe. "I can't imagine anything less secure than the Bank of Peking in 1917," he says.
But "what a great story, complete with buried treasure and disappearing maps. I've never heard anything like this. You can't exclude it. A lot of valuable coins and jewels were changing hands under dubious circumstances."
Barham, a widow, lives in Fremont Place, a gated community near Hancock Park long known as a bastion of L.A.'s old money. For years, she was a boldface name in the society columns.
Her 93-year-old mansion is one of the grandest of Fremont Place's 72 estates. Said to be modeled after a Hawaiian hotel, it was once owned by razor-blade baron King Gillette and for decades was the official residence of the heads of the Los Angeles Roman Catholic archdiocese: Archbishop John J. Cantwell and, later, Cardinal James Francis McIntyre.
The place was where high-ranking church officials stayed when visiting Los Angeles and was the focal point of private meetings and high-profile weddings. During Barham's tenure, the mansion has been a center of her social life.
These days, the drawing room at the nine-bedroom, seven-bath estate is the setting for a long-lost 350-year-old chandelier that marks the culmination of Barham's last adventure.
Originally hanging in the medieval St. Donat's Castle in Wales, it was acquired in 1922 by Hearst, who had it converted to electricity and installed at San Simeon. Later, Hearst gave it as a gift to Frank Barham to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles Evening Herald.
But instead of shipping the chandelier to Barham in Los Angeles, San Simeon employees boxed it up and sent it to a ranch owned by Barham in Los Alamos, near Santa Barbara. The box was found there after Patte Barham sold the ranch in 1970 and had the unopened crate shipped to the family's Louisiana estate. An inventory done there this year uncovered the historic lighting fixture that had disappeared nearly 70 years ago.