25 Minutes


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]:

President Wilson
Queen Marie
General Harts
Princess Marie
Princess Elizabeth
Infanta Eulalia
Mrs. Wilson
Dr. Grayson
(the author, Edith Helm)
General Biffal
Madame X [the Queen’s lady-in-waiting]

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!

Notes

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.

LOL that crown!

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.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Rocky's Dad says:

    Woodrow Wilson seen by Queen Marie of Romania, Paris Peace Conference 1919

    April 11th 1919

    “Lunched with the President accompanied by my sister [Beatrice, Infanta of Spain, née Princess of Edinburgh (b.1883-d.1966); married with Alfonso (Ali), Infante of Spain in 1909; her nickname was Baby Bee], daughters and suite. A small party and a most pleasant meal. Being profoundly interested in the old gentleman’s ideas and ideals I encouraged him to expound his theories, which he was very willing to do, and was, I think, pleased at the attention with which I listened. He spoke much and well.

    President Wilson is exactly as he has been described. He is a born preacher and might be a highly cultivated clergyman. Very convicted of always being right, there is something slighty patronising about him, but at the same time he is quite homme du monde, polite, amiable, even somewhat ceremonious. Very ready to argue, he is however, owing to his superior, detached attitude ‘qui le fait planer au-dessus du commun des mortels’, certain that he will always have the last word. Although not unsympathetic, he nevertheless awakes that certain feeling of antagonism particular to those who, because of their aloofness, are convinced of their undiscussable superiority. It makes one wonder if they are absolutely genuine. I can only hope that Wilson is genuine, so as to justify the extraordinary confidence Europe has in his arbitration. Many of his own compatriots look upon him as a fraud, and there is a large party in the United States, eagerly awaiting his downfall; for such is the world.

    We had one pass of arms. He very sanctimoniously preached to me about how we should treat our minorities, demonstrating how very important this was and spread himself out at great length upon this topic, becoming exceedingly unctuous and moral as he warmed to his subject, treating me the while as a rather ignorant beginner who could profit of his advice. No doubt I could, but he struck me as being rather too fond of the sound of his own voice, so finally, when he paused to take breath, I mildly suggested that he was evidently well acquainted with these difficulties because of the Japanese question in the United States?

    Upon this he bared his rather long teeth in a polite smile, drew up his eye-brows and declared he was not aware that there was a Japanese question in America! Not being a preacher, and as I was his guest, I merely shrugged my shoulders and dropped the subject…

    Before leaving, I got him to promise he would call Brătianu [the Romanian prime minister] so as to give him a chance to lay our situation before him. But I had the feeling that if there had been time, I could do much more with the President than our Prime Minister who spoke no English; besides I always rather enjoy a skirmish.”

    (Source: Diana Mandache, Later Chapters of My Life. The Lost Memoir of Queen Marie of Romania, Sutton, 2004

    I must confess I was quite amused by the image of a perplexed Wilson, taken aback by Queen Marie’s reference to the Japanese question. Quite a witty woman.

    And now you know. Vai, ce bine!

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  2. Rocky's Dad says:

    “I also have no idea who the “Infanta Eulalia” was who attended the luncheon.”

    Your Edith Benham Helm made a total talmeş-balmeş (“jumble”?). According to Queen Marie’s own Memories, she lunched with the President accompanied by her sister, daughters and suite. The Queen’s sister was Beatrice, Infanta of Spain, née Princess of Edinburgh (b.1883-d.1966)

    And now you know. Vai, ce bine!

    Like

  3. Rocky's Dad says:

    “I also have no idea who the “Infanta Eulalia” was who attended the luncheon.”

    It was Ileana (not Eulalia), Queen Marie’s youngest daughter. “In 1919, Elisabeth and her sisters Maria and Ileana accompanied their mother, now Queen Marie, to Paris at the Peace Conference.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elisabeth_of_Romania)

    And now you know. Vai, ce bine!

    P.S. I thought you were done with Romania (“But no more. I am, as they say, done. Romania? You’re on your own. I am done trying to use my tiny spoon to help bail out your boat.”)

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  4. VLADIMIR PUKIN says:

    Gee, i guess after a global conflict that took lives of millions, one of the most important criteria of geopolitics must have been weather or not a woman arrived 25 minutes late at some dinner.
    Of course this WW1 Monica Lewinsky hasn’t worth a Wikipedia page, since making coffee, providing gossip (even in writing) and wiping presidential child butt would never make history.

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  5. Chuck Burns says:

    The letter was very interesting. I enjoyes reading it. Letter writing is a lost art with the advent of so called “social” media and twitter that requires 140 character BS comments. The picture of Queen Marie, Wish we could see her in color. I bet those eyes are a beautiful blue. I have been to Bucharest several times. It seems there are two groups of Romanians, those with brown eyes and those with blue eyes.

    Like

  6. Kyle says:

    This is one of your best posts so far, I love reading about the Romanian Royal Family. Enjoying your work!

    Like

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