Living in Eastern Europe for nigh on 20 years, I don’t really own a lot of paper books. Normally, everything I read these days is electronic. But over the years, I’ve been gifted or inherited a motley collection of English-language tomes that somehow made their way over to this part of the world.
Last week, looking to take a break from the internet (and talk about the f—–g virus), I dug through my box of books. I thought I’d read them all, but I found one that I’d never even seen before, and I have no idea where it came from.
It’s written by Edith Benham Helm, a woman who apparently isn’t famous enough to rate an entry in Wikipedia.
Little known today, she served as the White House social secretary for both the (Woodrow) Wilson administration as well as the (Franklin D.) Roosevelt and (Harry) Truman administrations. She describes herself as having attended more White House parties than anyone in history.
Her book that I found is called The Captains and the Kings and recounts some of her interactions with the movers and shakers of the early 20th century.
Of interest to this blog, however, was her traveling (by boat!) to Paris in 1919 to attend the peace conference and post-war redistricting of Europe.
As the personal aide to Edith Wilson, Woodrow’s second (and apparently far livelier) wife, the author was literally in the room when President Wilson was playing God and deciding the fate of hundreds of millions of people.
The following is a letter that the author wrote to her husband and reprinted in her book. I’ve slightly edited it for punctuation and modern spelling (i.e. “Romania” instead of “Roumania”) as well as adding hyperlinks so you can learn more about who these people are.
Here’s the letter:
APRIL 11, 1919
I am rather putting the cart before the horse, for I didn’t write yesterday, and while today’s memories are fresh, I thought I would put them down.
The great event, of course, was the Queen of Romania’s coming for a luncheon. After saying she would bring four from her own household, yesterday morning [when I] went to call, she said she would like to [also] bring her sister, the Infanta Eulalia.
Great consternation, for we thought it was the disreputable Eulalia who toured America several years ago at the World’s Fair time, I think, and has had many husbands and near husbands.
However, we found that it was her sister or sister-in-law, who turned out to be a very attractive person – not as good looking as the Queen but far more genuine and clever. I think the Queen is rather a spectacular person. She enjoys being at the head of her troops and standing in every way in the limelight.
She was invited [to come for lunch] at 1:00, and the President arranged to meet her upstairs [in the mansion in Paris where the American delegation were staying].
Of course, the President and Mrs. Wilson were ready promptly [on time], and we all went upstairs to wait, looking out of the windows of the drawing room so that the President and Mrs. Wilson would have time to go out to the head of the stairs and meet her.
Nothing infuriates the President like waiting or being late. The Queen had come to establish a propaganda for Romania, a Greater Romania, and she did the worst thing she could do in being 25 minutes late.
Every moment that we waited, I could see from the cut of the President’s jaw that a slice of the Dobruja, or Romania, was being lopped off. At one point, he threatened to go on and begin lunch without her and asked me to telephone the Ritz [Hotel] to find out if she was coming.
By the time she did arrive, he would scarcely go out into the hall to meet her, and it required all of Mrs. Wilson’s powers to persuade him [to do it].
We sat like this [at the lunch]:
I never did learn the name of the lady-in-waiting, for they said one person would come and quite another person appeared.
We had been told that the Princesses, as daughters of a reigning King, would have precedence over the Infanta, but the Queen, when she reached the dining room and saw where we were putting her eldest daughter, took matters into her own hands and put the Infanta next to Mrs. Wilson.
The Princesses are two fat lumps who take no pains to make themselves pleasant or interesting. I was in luck, for General Biffal, who speaks no English, is a very nice person [as is] the lady-in-waiting.
After lunch, we sat around, and the President and the two sisters talked over the political situation, but I must say that the Queen was more interested in expounding her views than listening to what the President had to say.
She begged him, when she left, to do what he could for her country, but I fear the worst with those 25 wasted minutes!
Quite a momentous 25 minutes indeed, considering how everything turned out, eh?
I have no idea who General “Biffal” was supposed to be, but it may have been General Burileanu.
I also have no idea who the “Infanta Eulalia” was who attended the luncheon. Certainly, Queen Marie never had a sister by that name. King Ferdinand’s mother was an Infanta, but none of her children were female. It may have been the sister of one of Queen Marie’s sister’s husbands.
Interestingly, this entire royal line was more or less made redundant within 20 years as countries gained their independence and decided that they didn’t want wacky bluebloods telling them what to do anymore. And the Bolsheviks certainly did their part.
Sad Face Emoji
Whether it was because of Queen Marie’s tardiness or not, President Wilson refused to recognize the borders of “Greater Romania” that were self-proclaimed in 1918 and form the basis of modern-day Romanian identity.
The question of the boundaries of “Greater Romania” became moot in 1940 when Moldova and Northern Bukovina were annexed by the Soviet Union.