Self-Styled Russian 'Noble' Was Prince of Beverly Hills

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Hollywood stars went out at night during the 1940s and '50s, Romanoffs restaurant was their playground, where highbrow desserts and high-living actors mixed with celebrity fistfights and legendary elan.

Fans loitered at the entrance to catch a glimpse of their favorite stars. Inside, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz would be doing the rumba and Joan Crawford the Charleston. Myrna Loy and her producer husband, Arthur Hornblow Jr., celebrated their divorce there, and Jayne Mansfield famously upstaged Sophia Loren when her breasts "accidentally" fell out of her dress.

Errol Flynn hosted feasts of roasted suckling pigs there. MCA executives held court to set actors' salaries. Gossip columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper finally made peace. And the restaurant owner, a self-styled prince who called himself Michael Romanoff, dined daily with his two English bulldogs--Socrates and Confucius--and handed out toothbrushes to patrons.

It was a time when everyone who was anyone in Hollywood ate at Romanoffs, Chasen's, Perino's or the Brown Derby, then hit nightclubs like the Mocambo, Ciro's, the Cocoanut Grove or the Trocadero.

Those were the days when a star was a star and a restaurant was not just a hangout or a famous dish but an establishment in which to see and be seen.

Romanoff, crowned by Life magazine as "the most wonderful liar in the 20th century U.S.," helped to mold the culinary and social character of Beverly Hills for more than two decades.

Under the mythical cloak of a suavely elegant Russian noble, Romanoff was perhaps the world's greatest impostor. Legendary for his charm and outrageous tall tales, he remained tight-lipped about the stars' secrets. He rose from the slums of New York City to become a toast of Hollywood. Almost everyone knew him to be a grand old fraud, but they loved him in spite of it--or maybe because of it.

Although he claimed to be part of the Russian imperial family to win the hearts of celebrities, immigration officials listed him as Hershel Geguzin, a name he later changed to Harry F. Gerguson. He was born in 1890 in a Jewish village in Lithuania. His father died before his birth, leaving a widow with six children to raise.

When he was 10, his mother feared for the safety of her incorrigible youngest and sent him to America with a cousin.

Still rebellious, he ran away from the cousin, as well as from orphanages and assorted brutal caretakers. He survived on the streets of New York by working odd jobs as a newspaper boy and a bellhop. His thirst for an education came late in his teens, when he worked his way through a private high school.

After graduating, he worked on a cattle ship bound for England. There, he honed his skills and picked up an Oxbridge accent. When he was caught impersonating an English aristocrat and throwing a lavish party that he couldn't afford, he was tossed into jail for the duration of World War I. Scotland Yard listed him as "a rogue of uncertain origin."

Before returning to America in the early 1920s, he lived in Paris, working at a library where he met two Russian gentlemen who impressed him enough to try his hand again as a master of disguise. This time, he went with Russian nobility, calling himself Prince Michael.

Back in the U.S., he hopscotched between the East and West coasts, playing bit parts on Broadway and working in Hollywood as an extra. He even grandstanded by democratically downplaying his supposed imperial birthright--he said he was the nephew of the last czar--and foregoing the title of grand duke. " 'Prince Michael' is good enough," he'd say.

Trail of Unpaid Bills

Caught up in the swirl of cocktail parties and movie premieres, he also left a trail of unpaid hotel and restaurant bills and a few broken hearts. His charade as a Russian aristocrat was blown at a Hollywood dinner party in the late 1920s, when former Maj. Gen. Theodor Lodijensky of the Russian Imperial Guard confronted him. Lodijensky, who was working as a technical director for one of the studios, said he had known the original Prince Michael Romanov in Russia.

Romanoff "can't even speak Russian," Lodijensky snorted.

But the truth didn't matter; the growing legend did. In the 1920s, people loved fantastic stunt stories, and Romanoff was the darling of the press. Despite the disclosure that he was an impostor, he continued living his fantasy, eager to oblige the scandalmongers.

When word spread that he was a regular at the Clover Club, a casino, huge crowds followed. The club is said to have repaid Romanoff for his presence by allowing him to win tidy sums.

In the late 1930s, restaurateur Dave Chasen invited him to eat for free. It was there that Romanoff's restaurant career got going.

Once he was reportedly dining with a group of unruly and drunken friends, who felt ignored as they yelled orders at the waiters. Some of them turned to him and said: "Mike, you're going to open your own joint."

In 1939, his friends, from financiers Harry Crocker and John Hay "Jock" Whitney to celebrities Charlie Chaplin, James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Darryl F. Zanuck, Joseph Schenck and Robert Benchley, bankrolled him with a total of $8,000. With this and a few thousand of his own, he leased space in a building at 326 N. Rodeo Drive and opened that same year.

Film studios supplied the wallpaper and decorations and, when Romanoff's silver serving dishes hadn't arrived by opening time, the Brown Derby lent him its ware.

Bogart always occupied Table No. 1, where he ordered the same lunch every day: two Scotch and sodas, an omelet, French toast, milk and then, at the end, coffee and a brandy. When he wasn't busy table-hopping at his own restaurant or putting real pearls in oysters for friends as a surprise, Romanoff was appearing on the silver screen. He made cameos in more than a dozen films, including "Fools of Scandal" with Carole Lombard and "An Innocent Affair" starring Fred MacMurray.

As Hollywood careers rose and fell in the five choicest booths near the bar, Romanoff gained renown for his palate-pleasers, such as his "strawberries Romanoff"--berries sprinkled with orange and strawberry liqueurs, cognac and brown sugar, folded into vanilla ice cream and whipped cream.

He readily confessed that the secret to a good restaurant was not its owner, but a French chef.

"I can't lay an egg, but I'm a better judge of an omelet than a hen," he often boasted.

In 1940, in a ploy to draw attention and reward a beautiful employee, he held a contest in which co-workers chose waitress Jackie Wilmott as "Cinderella Girl." He decked her out in a ball gown and fur and escorted her to the premiere of the Oscar-destined film "Rebecca."

Romanoff was always impeccably groomed in a three-piece suit, short-cropped hair and pencil-thin mustache. Smoking a cigarette and carrying a gold-tipped walking stick, he cut quite a figure hobnobbing with Bogart, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and other members of the Rat Pack.

Marriage at 58

In 1948, at age 58, he put some of his drinking and carousing behind him and married for the first time. His bride was his business manager, 24-year-old Gloria Lister.

A few years later, in 1951, the popular eatery and watering hole pulled up stakes and moved south of Wilshire Boulevard to 140 S. Rodeo. The grubstake was a $25,000 donation from Alfred G. Vanderbilt, who said, "This is the least I can do for my emperor." Romanoff built a $400,000 restaurant, complete with a ballroom, private and main dining rooms, cocktail lounge and penthouse.

On the facade, "Romanoffs"--sans apostrophe--was spelled in large wrought-iron letters with the signature "R" topped by a crown.

When J. Edgar Hoover was in town, he enjoyed the wicked pleasure of Romanoff's restaurants, at a table across from the likes of Bugsy Siegel or Sinatra--both of whom his agency spied on

Once, the notorious jewel thief Swifty Morgan, a friend of Siegel's, is said to have tried to sell Hoover a hot diamond bracelet. Hoover offered him $500.

"Five hundred?" Morgan reportedly exclaimed as he snatched it back. "Why, John, there's a $5,000 reward out for this!"

Hoover would later pull strings to help Romanoff become a citizen, which took an act of Congress because there were no records of his birth.

In 1951, Romanoff made headlines again when he rushed to the side of a friend, film producer Walter Wanger, who--suspecting that movie agent Jennings Lang was having an affair with Wanger's wife, Joan Bennett--shot and wounded Lang in the groin.

Outside the Beverly Hills jail, photographers and camera crews captured Romanoff--along with his maitre d'--delivering silver-domed trays of Wanger's favorite foods, a pair of silk pajamas and a pipe.

It was in front of Romanoffs, in 1952, that William Randolph Hearst Jr., the eldest son of the late publisher William Randolph Hearst, slugged it out with Horace Brown, the new husband of Marion Davies. The actress had been the senior Hearst's longtime companion, but when Brown invited the younger Hearst to their table, he refused. The Hearst offspring were not fond of Davies. Brown took the refusal as an insult; the two men stepped outside and swapped punches.

Romanoffs began to decline after Bogart's death in 1957. It was then that Sinatra took over as Rat Pack leader and invited Romanoff along on trips and movie shoots around the world. With Romanoff and his celebrity friends no longer dining at the restaurant, patrons began to go elsewhere.

For the same reason, his two other restaurants, in Palm Springs and San Francisco, were never very successful.

Romanoffs closed on New Year's Eve in 1962. He was no longer willing to spend the evening rubbernecking with young stars who scoffed at the aura of formality.

"There is no longer room here for an elegant restaurant of this kind," Romanoff said. He also blamed the government for cracking down on expense accounts.

He sold the property in 1963, making a tidy sum. The building was demolished a year later and replaced with an office complex.

His death in 1971, at age 81, made national news, just as much of his fraudulent but fabulous life had done.

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