The Magazine

Duchess Wannabe

"Anastasia" fooled some of the people all of the time.

Dec 3, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 12 • By JUDY BACHRACH
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A Romanov Fantasy

Life at the Court of Anna Anderson

by Frances Welch

Norton, 340 pp., $24.95

In 1921, in an insane asylum just outside Berlin, an inmate registered as Fräulein Unbekannt ("Miss Unknown") gradually came to inhabit the demanding persona of the Grand Duchess Anastasia. At that point, the youngest child of the last czar of Russia, Nicholas II, and his wife Alexandra, was very likely dead, shot when she was just a teenager along with the rest of the Imperial Family. But it is also true that the Bolsheviks, who aimed at her and her family three years earlier, were hopelessly drunk and the scene of the massacre chaotic.

As both royal parents were without a doubt murdered in Ekaterinburg, along with at least four of their five children and their remaining servants--one of whom made the mistake of struggling to her feet after a round of bullets and declaring, wrongly as things transpired, "God has saved me!"--there wasn't anyone left within her immediate circle to dispute the claims of a lunatic. The body of Anastasia, the most mischievous and spirited member of the Romanovs, was never--then or since--discovered, so anyone, really, could adopt her identity.

And as Frances Welch makes clear in her intelligent and often incongruously droll account of fraud and contagious credulity, in the case of Anastasia, anyone did. Even Hollywood swallowed the bait, sort of: Fans of Ingrid Bergman may recollect that, in a 1956 film costarring Yul Brynner, the actress played a role based in large measure on the cunning Fräulein, who received $30,000 from Twentieth Century Fox for her acquiescence. The studio, in turn, basically declared her to be the real ticket.

Always, however, there was plenty of evidence to suggest that a dose of healthy skepticism might have been in order. In the first place, Fräulein Unbekannt didn't dream up the royal identity for herself: It was suggested to her by a fellow asylum inmate who, on perusing the tabloids of the day, informed Fräulein U that she was actually a ringer for the (dead) Grand Duchess Tatiana, Anastasia's older sister. When this incarnation was disbelieved by the czarina's lady-in-waiting--who, on meeting the young woman, found her to be far too short to be Tatiana, dead or alive--Fräulein U casually remarked, "I never said I was Tatiana," and easily slid into the persona of Anastasia instead.

Or did she slide so easily? Throughout the history of Anna Anderson (as the would-be Anastasia ultimately permitted herself to be called by ever-changing sets of courtiers of assorted nationalities), there were a vast number of personal oddities on display, clues that might give pause to observers of normal intelligence. For example, the Grand Duchess claimed early on, before she grew more practiced, to have given birth to a child fathered by a common soldier on December 1, 1918: That would have been five months after the Bolsheviks shot her family. The new Anna/Anastasia was, significantly, a lot homelier than the original, and unable to speak Russian, although this last deficiency was explained away, as Welch dryly notes, by "supporters [who] maintained that the language had too many bad associations for her." She remembered almost nothing about Imperial Russia: "That is so far back and so dead, all so past," was her unvarying reply to the curious.

Academic triumphs also seemed to elude her, most notably the ability to count or tell time. The less biased might attribute these frailties to limited schooling and limited means--as, indeed, proved to be the case: Our Fräulein was actually born in Poland and used to wash bottles in a brewery--but her legions of fans were obdurate. You could be a Romanov and an illiterate! Why not? Or better still, a Romanov and an amnesiac! A German psychoanalyst--and what does this say about the profession?--declared after examining her that "the curious amnesia is a result of a more or less deliberate engagement of the will. It is probably a case of loss of memory by auto-suggestion."

In other words, Professor Karl Bonhoeffer concluded unequivocally, the patient was, however damaged by personal trauma, indeed "the daughter of the Tsar" and not at all a fruitcake just because she kept 40 cats, some with maggots, or "a deliberate fraud." Nor was he alone in his opinion. The University of Mainz came to the conclusion that she was absolutely genuine; as did the anthropologist Otto Reche, the respected graphologist Minna Becker (who had a hand in authenticating Anne Frank's diary), and most important to Welch's story, Gleb Botkin, son of the Imperial Family's devoted physician and Anna's most devoted acolyte.