Royal Biography Becomes Her Crowning Glory

Times Staff Writer

Except for Dorothy Parker's poem, few people would even know the name.

Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,

A medley of extemporanea;

And love is a thing that will never

go wrong;

And I am Marie of Roumania.

And with Dorothy Parker's poem, the great question has always been: who is/was Marie of Roumania?

She was the granddaughter of both Queen Victoria of England and Czar Alexander of Russia. She also is the subject of Hannah Pakula's biography, "The Last Romantic," published this spring by Simon & Schuster.

A Teen-Age Fascination

Pakula, 51, wife of screenwriter-director Alan Pakula ("Sophie's Choice," "All the President's Men") and a former Los Angeles resident who moved to New York in 1979, recently returned to "flog" the book. As to why she would even contemplate a biography of Marie of Roumania--much less spend 10 years on the research and writing--it all goes back to her teen-age fascination with that poem. Pakula, by her own admission, is an obsessive sort who follows up on her curiosity. (And in doing so, she opted for the English spelling of Roumania preferred by Marie rather than the American spelling, Rumania, or the frequent usage, Romania.)

Consider a few little stories about Marie and her family. Like that incredible time when Marie, always so vain, descended on Paris, rapidly buying 60 gowns, 31 coats, 22 fur wraps, 29 hats and 83 pairs of shoes, to give herself the appropriate "queenly air" at the Versailles Peace Talks. Marie's sister, Victoria Melina (but everyone called her Ducky), had a mad passion for a Russian grand duke named Kirill for whom she eventually divorced her husband. It was true love, but poor Ducky had all the courts of Europe and everyone else she'd ever met in an uproar. Then there were those bizarre salons of Marie's mother-in-law, Elisabeth, who called herself Carmen Sylva and believed creative work was good only if it was spontaneous, untouched by criticism or revision. Every day the clever Elisabeth/Carmen discovered new talents in herself and her friends.

With families like that, biographers don't tire of their subjects.

Indeed, talk with Pakula and it's one delicious tale after another, with the chic biographer--who's sipping coffee in a starkly modern suite at the Beverly Wilshire--relating each with the relish of one who's passing on a new and fascinating tidbit of gossip.

Inevitably, though, the question must be raised: Isn't it interesting that Pakula--a beautiful, sophisticated, socially prominent woman--would write about another beautiful, sophisticated, socially prominent woman?

The comparison obviously had never occurred to Pakula and, it was obvious, she didn't like it. Marie was royal, she bristled. "I'm Jewish, from a small town, Omaha. To compare us, it's reaching. It's like comparing apples and oranges."

Irresistible Comparisons

Yet for many people, the comparison is irresistible. Maybe because both Marie and her biographer seem to have a sense of glamour, of style. Pakula didn't have to write a book to be featured in Women's Wear Daily, and with the publication of "The Last Romantic," she made Vogue.

Some readers, studying the photo of the queen on the book's cover and Pakula's photo on the back, even see a physical resemblance between the two women.

The Hollywood Connection

Nor has Pakula's Hollywood background hurt the book. Few histories, after all, attract attention in the national press or prompt celebrity-laden parties on both coasts. (Los Angeles' lionizing of the author took place at Spago.)

In any case, such comparison shouldn't detract from the validity of the biography. Pakula, nee Cohn, who went from Westlake School for Girls in Los Angeles to Wellesley College in Massachusetts and the Sorbonne University in Paris before graduating from Southern Methodist University in Dallas with a degree in comparative literature, married during college and had children almost immediately. But she always wrote as an avocation. Through her first marriage (she was widowed at age 35) and into her second (to Pakula), she regularly published book reviews and short humorous pieces--though these she dismisses as "silly essays on subjects like shopping bags."

She also has always had an inclination for what academics call "serious scholarship." New York Times book reviewer John Gross observed, "Mrs. Pakula doesn't allow herself to be carried away by the more florid aspects of Marie's personality. She is a level-headed commentator who sets the queen firmly in her historical context."

"I do love glamour and it is fun to write about her clothes, her jewelry, the folk ways of a people. It's fun to describe a dinner party with the Hapsburgs," Pakula said as she contemplated the suggestion that both she and Marie share an aura of glamour.

The First Modern Queen

"But part of the book was a study of a queen in the 20th Century. She was the first modern queen and she was an original."

Pakula has told interviewers that it was serendipity that she wrote about Marie of Roumania: her teen-age fascination with the Dorothy Parker poem, then years later--at a time when her husband was suggesting she tackle something meatier in her writing--coming across a reference to Marie in Lesley Blanchard's 1974 book "Pavilions of the Heart: The Four Walls of Love."

"The book was about the love nests of various people around the world. And after reading about Marie, I thought, wow, who is this woman and why has she disappeared from history?"

Pakula's timing also may have been serendipitous. In addition to the more traditional sources--people who knew Marie or her family, the archives at Windsor Castle, the Library of Congress, the Bibliotec in Paris, letters, books and other accounts--Pakula was the first biographer allowed access to the Roumanian archives in Bucharest. There she and a friend, short-story writer Barbara Thompson Davis, read the 100 diaries, which Marie had kept with an eye for publication, and more than 1,000 letters.

Roumania's government, Communist since overthrowing Marie's son King Carroll II in 1940, has officially disparaged the Roumanian royal family. Why Pakula was allowed access to Marie's letters and diaries, "I'll never know. I think there's a resurgence of interest in the royal family. But I doubt the book will ever be translated into Roumanian.

"It was a wonderful dichotomy," she said with a broad smile. "Inside the archives, they were very good to us. Outside, we could never even mention Marie's name. It fascinated me. It was like living two lives."

"The Last Romantic" was written like no book should be written--which Pakula readily acknowledges. Her initial approach was fine, a year of part-time research on "the folk ways of royalty," mostly the court of Queen Victoria. Then another year on the politics of the Balkans. Finally, heavy into the subject with interviews, visits to the castles of anyone even slightly related to Marie and total absorption in the subject.

Never Visited Roumania

All this time, however, she never went to Roumania.

And all this time, Pakula was writing. After seven years, she had a 1,000-page first draft, which only her husband had seen.

Almost immediately, she secured an agent. And almost immediately, the agent sold the book.

At this point Pakula decided a visit to Roumania would be a good idea--just to fill in some gaps, get a feel for the country itself, since correspondence with the Communist bureaucracy had offered no hope of being allowed into the archives.

Then the surprise of being invited to the archives and unlimited access to the letters and diaries.

Rewriting the book took another two years--working full-time. "I went through chapter by chapter, cutting and adding. This book may seem thick and heavy now (at 540 pages including index and bibliography), but you should have seen it before. I had 250 pages on the Victorian court, now it's 26."

Obviously, "The Last Romantic" was a bigger undertaking than Pakula had ever conceived, but never, she said, did she find it hard to adapt herself to the discipline and restrictiveness.

"I loved creating this world. I'd sit in my office, pictures of various people around me, books stacked high.

"It just takes obsession. It's like unraveling a mystery, it comes layer by layer. . . . Sometimes you'd spend three weeks working on something no more than a phrase of a sentence. And in the end, it might even be edited out. Alan would come home in the evening and want to know everything that had happened, what Ducky had done that day. . . . When we traveled, wherever he was going, I had work to do. Alan was in Washington with 'All the President's Men.' I was at the Library of Congress. We went to Russia as part of a government exchange. I went to all the castles and homes of Marie's uncles.

"It (the book) gave me a center to my life."

As for movie rights--no, she said, but there has been talk of a mini-series. More biographies? Definitely. But as to whom, she's not saying, except that she has two subjects in mind, both contemporaries of Marie since she already has so much material--and so many more delicious little stories.

Not gossip though. "I don't like that word because it connotes that something is not necessarily true. But you get these delicious little stories and it's wonderful. What I want to do is write something that is legitimate history, but also fun to read."

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