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Pomp and Circumstances of Nobility Among Us : Some Live Like Kings, While Others Have to Work for a Living

Times Staff Writer

Park La Brea is the last place you’d expect to find a baron. But that’s where Baron Frederick von Soosten has his Los Angeles home, inside one of those gray structures that overlooks similar gray structures.

A few days ago, Von Soosten was having a spur-of-the-moment cocktail party for his titled friends--countesses and barons and baronesses and a prince and a marquis. When someone suggested that Von Soosten went to a lot of trouble to set up the party, he stared with incredulity and said, “But darling, this is what I do!”

Such is the life of some nobility who live in Los Angeles, one party flowing into another, a polo match here and there. This may be the life style most associated with aristocracy, but it is hardly typical.

Not everyone who is titled lives life in the fast lane. Some come here to live quietly off of family wealth, seldom making known their blue-blood heritage. For others, dwindling (or nonexistent) family fortunes have forced them into the job market, where they often drop their title and become ordinary citizens.

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False Images

Some say having “baron” or “count” in front of your name can create false images of untapped wealth--a winter cottage in Gstaad, drawers crammed with jewels and a nose that is permanently upturned.

Those who live here and use their titles do so knowing that in many countries without reigning monarchies (Germany, Austria and Italy, for instance) titles were legally abolished years ago.

Renate Friedemann, German consul, said titles were outlawed in Germany during the Weimar Republic (1919-1933), but came back into acceptance after 1945. Those who insist on using a title do so, she said, because it has been in the family so long they simply consider it a part of their name and heritage.

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So just who are the nobility among us? Besides Von Soosten, the inveterate party-giver, there is a Sicilian-born prince who works in the film industry, a baroness who is a graduate student, a baron who is co-owner of a nightclub, an Italian count who is a marketing and public relations executive and another baron who is an art director.

While there is no way to determine the number of titled people living here, some are listed with their titles in the the Los Angeles Blue Book, the society register of Southern California. Others keep in contact with the foreign consuls, and still others can be found only through the privileged company they keep.

Von Soosten is one baron who still likes to be known as such. When asked why, he produced a letter from a friend that said, essentially, if you’ve been called by your title all your life, just because there is no longer a king doesn’t mean you have to give it up.

Claims Never to Have Worked

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The baron, whose white hair matches his white short-sleeve shirt and pants, claims never to have worked a day in his life. Instead, he plays tennis and travels. There is a house in Germany and one in La Jolla, and he also stays with friends here and abroad.

His aunt, the late Baroness Margaret von Soosten, adopted him when he was a boy after his parents died. She was married to Edward Schweitzer, whose father was the head of the Bayer aspirin company. Frederick said when his aunt died she left most of her fortune to the church.

“My income is drastically reduced now. I have about $60,000 a year to live on, which is enough for a single guy, but when you have $40 million, that’s a helluva lot of difference. But I don’t have to worry. I have a Rolls-Royce and a yacht and I travel and do whatever I want to do. It’s not the money I used to have, darling. Times have changed.”

Has he found it hard to adjust? “Not at all. I just go out the same! We have parties every night. Every night there’s someone here or I’m at someone’s house.”

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Through these parties a coterie of nobility has developed. Some work, some don’t have to, some are wealthy, some poor.

“How do we know each other?” Von Soosten said, thinking. “God, we do. I know everyone in town. All the barons, all the counts, all the princes, we all know each other.”

He decided the network grew mostly through travel and through parties, like the one given that day. Joining him in the back room of the apartment, where tropical fish swam lazily in a tank, were English actress Hermione Baddeley, an Egyptian prince and Countess Cis Zoltowska, who had blue-black hair and shocking pink nails to match her shocking pink belt. After her came the Marquis de Yzbek, who has a goatee and long graying hair. On his jacket are six or seven jeweled pins, and his fingers, with the nails grown long and painted a faint gold, are covered with very large rings. He is 70 but looks years younger.

“Aristocracy is essentially a question of character, of culture,” said the countess, formerly a painter and jewelry designer, now a perfume maker. Her heritage is Polish and Viennese, with a little Spanish thrown in. “There is a French saying, it is very important, I will translate it. It is ‘noblesse oblige, ' nobility obliged. Nobility is not just to take things or have things, it is to be responsible and reliable and of perfect character, not to be corruptible. But I don’t think (the title) makes any difference nowadays. If you are a nice person people will like you. If you want for your business an important appointment, with the title you might easier get it. But if you don’t have something good to say, you will be out faster than anybody else.

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“People say how does it feel to be a countess? It feels nothing. If you are somebody who has something, who knows something, then that is important.”

Added the marquis, who said his father was the Khan of Turkestan, “A title gives you a reason for being. It gives you a feeling of security when you’re uprooted. And it’s fun and adds glamour! The whole thing is, if you come to America and you don’t know how to do anything and you’re not young and glamorous and you’ve got a handle on your name, quite often rich American ladies will entertain you, and this sometimes is very helpful.”

At this point Von Soosten noticed an emerald ring the size of a walnut on the marquis’ hand. “It was part of a necklace that my stepmother owned,” he explained. “It’s just . . . it’s not much. The baron has all sorts of treasures but he never wears them. He keeps them hidden away.”

“I have diamonds!” Von Soosten said, dashing out of the room to retrieve them.

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“I know you do, but you never wear them. You say you’re going to. He says it’s very vulgar to wear those big things,” the marquis said and laughed.

Von Soosten came back into the room with a diamond tuxedo shirt stud and showed it around. “I took these out of my mother’s tiara. I have about 10 of them.”

“Ooh, how lovely,” the marquis said. “That’s gorgeous, Frederick. They’re newer cuts than mine. They’re beautiful, just magnificent.”

“Well, they’re not very new,” Von Soosten protested.

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“They’re 1920s, mine are about 1780s.”

“Everything’s relative, my dear,” the countess said.

Prince Alessandro Tasca di Cuto works in the film industry; he and his granddaughter Angeria Rigamonti live in a modest condominium in Hollywood. It’s a long way from their roots in Palermo, Sicily, but Tasca doesn’t seem to mind.

He makes his living working for London-based Film Finances, giving guarantees of completion on films and seeing that the budget is spent “on the film and not on buying yachts for the producer.”

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Tasca chooses not to use his title when it comes to business matters and seems to keep a good sense of humor about it all. The title, along with a string of others too numerous to mention, dates from about 1060. “I think like all titles (this one came from the fact that my ancestors) were bigger bullies than others and they grabbed more land. So if you had so much land it was a principality. Each title represented a piece of land.”

A Royal Socialist

His father was both a prince and one of the founders of Sicily’s Socialist Party, Tasca said. That unusual combination didn’t keep the family from having a slew of servants and taking frequent trips all over Europe while he was growing up.

The threat of fascism caused Tasca to leave Italy for the United States. He wanted to make it on his own, and took a job as a mechanic at New York Edison. Despite his charmed upbringing and his training as an engineer, he said he didn’t feel the work demeaned him. His philosophy is that “nothing is beneath me, and nothing is above me.”

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Myriad Jobs

After that there were myriad jobs, including being a page at a stock exchange (he was on the floor the day of the crash), and a newspaper reporter.

He went back to Sicily for 30 years, then left again with his wife when he feared the country would be overtaken by communists. This time he chose to live in Los Angeles.

The fact that he carries the title of prince doesn’t come up very often. Once on a movie set when someone referred to him as a prince, as in a nice guy, someone chimed in, “Well, you know he really is a prince.”

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“So then everyone came over and said ‘Are you really a prince?’ I think people are more embarrassed (than impressed), he said. “They always want to know how to call you.”

“I feel special, yes, but I don’t know if it’s because I was born and raised and educated as a prince, or because it is my character. I certainly feel special. I think that 99% of the people you meet are morons,” he said without a trace of condescension in his voice. “I don’t know why, I just do.”

Despite Tasca’s reluctance to rely on his title, there is evidence that it is still very much a part of him: His autobiography, which he has been working on for years, is tentatively titled “The Life of a Prince.”

Among those entering the doctoral program in German literature this fall at UCLA will be Baroness Katharina von Hammerstein-Equord, a 28-year-old, high-cheekboned blonde who takes the modern approach to nobility.

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“Personally,” she said, “I don’t believe in that kind of a title. I was born into it, it’s nothing that I got by my own qualifications. I use the ‘von’ and I sort of insist on it because it is part of my name. (The “von” prefix usually signifies German or Austrian nobility). The title is not very impressive in the United States. In a way it’s strange, because in Germany (she is from a town called Gottingen in West Germany) when one says one’s name, it would be like saying you’re a Vanderbilt. People take a second look at you.”

Works as a Teaching Assistant

Von Hammerstein has been in the U.S. off and on for four years studying. She’s finishing up her master’s degree in German literature at USC, where she also works as a teaching assistant. She is the youngest of four children, and the first to live outside Germany.

She readily admits that hers is “the poor end of the family. We don’t have a lot of money. We have a lot of old jewelry and antiques, and the fame, but not the money.”

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Still, there is a castle ruin on the Rhine that is owned by the Von Hammersteins, and a few manor houses. Her father, until he retired, was a colonel in the German army. Her mother (her parents are divorced) was a baroness before she married, so there is nobility on both sides of the family. But it was her father who kept the traditions alive.

“He strongly believes that noble people are a special sort of people,” she said, sitting on the floor of the Santa Monica apartment she shares with a roommate. “He was brought up that way, and I guess in a way he made it a part of our education, too. These days it just seems so anachronistic. To me it would seem funny if I was thinking that I was something special just because I happened to have a different name.”

‘A Certain Self-Confidence’

She concedes that having the title has had some effect. “I believe there is a certain self-confidence that probably comes with nobility. The question is whether you rely on it and say, well, I’m noble and I hope the world loves me; or develop it into building up something to be really self-confident about.”

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Family documents trace the family’s history to 1400, but some lost papers are thought to hold the clue to its real roots in 1100. She picked up two booklets from the coffee table; one a family newsletter and the other a list of about 200 family members scattered all over the world. She said it comes in handy when traveling; a Von Hammerstein would never dream of abandoning a relative on the road, no matter how distant the connection.

“Being a baroness is like a funny something extra on me,” she said. “That’s how I really look at the name. It’s a little extra.”

Had the Austrian aristocracy survived, Baron Arthur von Wiesenberger would be a member of the ruling class. Now he is a member of the working class, as co-owner (with Horatio Lonsdale-Hands) of Nipper’s, a chi-chi champagne bar in the Rodeo Collection. There is also one in Santa Barbara and more planned for Dallas, Houston, Aspen and other cities. Grandfather Ivan, he said, was a baron and an aide-de-camp to Emperor Franz Josef of Austria.

“To a certain degree the title is fun,” he said. “There is a lot of romance tied in with the days of heraldry. America has always been enthusiastic about that. But most of it is from another era, and it’s fading fast. Even in Europe families have fallen into financial problems. That grand style of entertaining is not really available to anyone. They watch the quantity of champagne and caviar dwindle every year.”

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Von Wiesenberger declines to use his title and says, “Unless someone hears about it through an old friend, they are unaware of it.”

He admits to a charmed upbringing abroad. But along with that came a strong work ethic instilled in him by his father, an investment banker who also wrote books on investing.

‘Things Changed’

“Things were wonderful up until my father died,” he recalled. “Then things changed. We found the life we lived was beginning to become very hard financially. We had to get rid of a castle we owned outside of Rome and my mother and I went to live in a villa in France.”

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After attending Aiglon College in Switzerland and Davises College in London he came to America to study at Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara and graduated with a master’s degree in motion picture production.

While producing travel and other documentaries he found another sideline: bottled water. He became something of an expert on the subject, writing a book titled “Oasis: A Guide to Bottled Water Throughout the World.” He is still a consultant in the field.

Von Wiesenberger, 32, has hardly given up his rich-and-famous life style; the club is a magnet for royalty and nobility (“We’ve had Prince Albert of Monaco here and the deposed royal family of Afghanistan, also a lot of ex-royalty”) and he travels often around the U.S. and Europe for business and pleasure.

Asked how to sniff out nobility of dubious origins, he replied, “You could ask a few questions, ask who they know. A lot of it is in the associations.”

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“I generally consider myself a civilian,” said Count Brando Crespi, head of an international communications and marketing firm. Several stories have been passed down through the generations on the origin of the title, but he doesn’t take much stock in any of them. “A title and 25 cents won’t even get you a cup of coffee,” he said.

“A lot of people describe me as a count, so it must be important to them. I’m always looking for what connects people, and something like this separates them. I’m only interested in the title if it can be useful, and I don’t find that playing these social games is useful.

‘It’s Pretty Silly’

“My father was of a different generation” Crespi continued. “He used it all his life. If I lived in Italy I suppose I’d use it a lot more. In L.A. there is another element of ego. It’s pretty silly. I’m in California because I don’t want to live by the old traditions.”

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Crespi, 37, added “I know a lot of people who say they have titles and don’t. They have come to me and said ‘Please don’t blow my act.’ That really comes out of insecurity. A lot of us tend to define ourselves by external symbols; the kind of clothes we wear, the cars we drive. This is another way.”

Peter has had it with “being the baron,” explaining his request for anonymity. A 37-year-old art director, he lived through what he calls his Leslie Howard phase, and doesn’t care to go back to it.

His life now is a synthesis of the old world and the new. The noble identity has been tucked away, like his many pairs of gloves. “I embrace the new life and want to be a part of it,” he said, “but in another way there is something precious about the old ways.”

Peter’s family is German, but he was raised and educated in England. “I was brought up in a fairly quiet environment and never had exposure to the real world or a lot of people. We lived in the country, and when I went off to (design) school I just thought I’d do this because it was lovely, and I could do it.” He studied design at the Royal Academy of Arts and St. Martin’s in London, and at the Rhode Island School of Design.

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He looks back with amusement on his days of hanging out with the “high rollers” in England. “We all played at the ‘20s, the aristocrats who were dressed in white and did the tango and showed how bright and glittering we all were. I don’t think I could do that now, and I certainly don’t see myself doing it at 70 or 80.”

During his first three years in New York he said he “walked around being Leslie Howard for everybody so I didn’t disappoint them. I felt (using the title) hurt me, because you would always be remembered or invited places because of it. Somebody would send you a note saying ‘Wear gloves because everybody loves that.’ ”

‘We Had to Move Well’

Even though he is no longer “The Baron,” he still has enormous respect for the strict training he received. “I was brought up to be a standard of behavior. We had to move well and not slouch and not sneeze, just to do everything beautifully. At big parties the footman would whisper in your ear the number of stairs there were and you’d descend the stairs by counting and never, ever looking down. It was lovely.

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“I very much love the fantasy, and that’s why even now I don’t want to be disappointing, either, so that I was putting hundreds and hundreds of years of shame on my family. Regardless of what place you’re in, financial, emotional, whatever, you owe it to the lineage to make (your life) work.”

He still feels the tug of noblesse oblige, but is learning how to handle it in ‘80s fashion. “My training is that if someone approaches you with a request, you must help them. Since then I’ve had to learn that I might get ripped off. I came to America with far too many manners. People are infatuated with it but ultimately they think you’re a fool. They don’t understand it and they tire of it very easily.

“I want to see what happens here (without playing up the title). I don’t want to burst on the scene with hair slicked back and white gloves and say, ‘Here I am!’ I might very laughably be mistaken for a waiter. The new crusade is to find the future, to try to create the best new world that your privileged, obligated self can do. Come to where it’s happening and be a part of it, rather than shine the silver and be the custodian of what was. I think people like me have an obligation to do that. I’m sure for privileged people in other centuries it was fun to be that. Now it’s fun to be this.”

‘A title gives you a reason for being . . . a feeling of security when you’re uprooted.’

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