Robert Massie, biographer of czars who popularized Russian history, dies at 90

Robert K. Massie attends then ninth Annual Authors Night at the East Hampton Library in New York in 2013.
Robert K. Massie attends then ninth Annual Authors Night at the East Hampton Library in New York in 2013.
(Scott Roth/WireImage)

Robert K. Massie, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who specialized in bestselling and critically praised biographies of the Russian czars and discovered a personal connection to the country’s past through a blood disorder that afflicted both his son and the son of Nicholas II, has died at his home in New York.

Massie, who had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, died Monday, his son Christopher Massie said. He was 90.

Likened to David McCullough and Edmund Morris as a popularizer of history, Massie wrote epic biographies on two outsize czars: the 900-page “Peter the Great,” winner of the Pulitzer in 1981; and the 600-page “Catherine the Great,” winner in 2012 of a PEN award for biography. Massie was praised as both a scholar and literary stylist.


“Massie, who has spent almost half a century studying czarist Russia, has always been a biographer with the instincts of a novelist,” the New York Times’ Kathryn Harrison wrote. “He understands plot — fate — as a function of character, and the narrative perspective he establishes and maintains, a vision tightly aligned with that of his subject, convinces a reader he’s not so much looking at Catherine the Great as he is out of her eyes.”

Massie’s first book drew upon his interest in Nicholas’ heir apparent, the Czarevich Alexei, a hemophiliac like the eldest of Massie’s three children, Robert Jr. “Nicholas and Alexandra” was published in 1967, in the midst of the Cold War, and praised as a long-needed and balanced account of the last czar and his family. Massie’s book also was a commercial success and the basis for a 1971 film adaptation, starring Michael Jayston and Janet Suzman, that won the Oscar for art direction.

Massie thought the film superficial, but took advantage of the publicity to raise money for hemophilia treatment.

“Nicholas and Alexandra” made Massie a celebrity, phoned by strangers who invited him for lunch, and a magnet for relatives and alleged relatives of the Romanovs. He discussed hemophilia with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (The duke was the czarevich’s first cousin), and with Earl Mountbatten of Burma, a grandson of Queen Victoria. He received “fat, bulky envelopes,” one containing a letter from a woman identifying herself as “Mrs. J. Edgar Hoover, Her Imperial Majesty Catherine III Romanov-Hoover, Diplomatic Agent Five Star A.G., Chief of Mission for President Lyndon Baines Johnson.”

His other works included “The Romanovs,” which tackled the mystery of the royal family’s remains after they were executed in 1918 by the Bolsheviks, and a pair of books about the military rivalry between Britain and Germany in the early 20th century: “Dreadnought” and “Castles of Steel.”

Massie and his first wife, Suzanne, collaborated in the mid-1970s on “Journey,” a memoir about their son. The couple, who also collaborated on “Nicholas and Alexandra,” divorced in 1990. Two years later he married literary agent Deborah Karl, with whom he had three children.


Massie served as president of the Authors Guild from 1987 to 1991, and strongly criticized bookstores in 1989 for pulling Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses,” which had angered Muslims and led to threats of violence.

Born in Lexington, Ky., on Jan. 5, 1929, Robert Kinloch Massie was a “bright, fiery boy from an old Southern family,” Suzanne Massie wrote. He was a Rhodes Scholar who studied American and European history at Yale University and Oxford University. After serving in the Navy, he considered going to graduate school to become a teacher or a lawyer. But when his wife became pregnant with their first son, born in 1956, he needed immediate income and looked for a job in journalism. He began as an office assistant at Collier’s, where he would work under Theodore H. White, the future author of “The Making of the President” series. Massie later joined Newsweek as a book critic and the Saturday Evening Post as a features writer.

By the mid-1960s, he was struggling to keep up with their son’s medical bills and was frustrated professionally. For years, he had been anxious to write about hemophilia. He submitted a story to Reader’s Digest in the late 1950s but was turned down, and was no more successful while at Newsweek. The Saturday Evening Post did run a story by Massie in 1963, but declined a separate sketch on the czar’s son. (On White’s recommendation, Massie was signed by Atheneum, for a $2,500 advance.)

Massie had read enough about Russian history to know that little had been told about the czarevich’s hemophilia. At the New York Public Library, where he often spent his lunch hour, he had discovered letters written between the czar and his wife, the Empress Alexandra, which referred often to their son’s condition. Suzanne Massie suggested a book, but her husband was skeptical.

“‘You see,’ Sue said, ‘nobody knows this. It has been completely ignored. You could change people’s thinking about the whole subject,’” Massie wrote in “Journey,” published in 1975.

“Then, as she talked about Russian history, Russian literature, the Russian church, the Russian people she had met, I began to see that there was a book that could be done, and that only we, as parents of a hemophiliac, could do it.”


Italie writes for The Associated Press