In praise of Natalia Pavlovna Paley’s legendary glamour

(c) The Earl of Snowdon; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Olivier Messel, Princess Natalia Pavlovna Paley with Lilies, ca. 1935

A professional fag-hag if there ever has been one, today we raise our glasses to the inimitable Princess Natalia Pavlovna Paley Countess von Hohenfelsen, first cousin of the Tzar Nicholas II and one-time wife of couturier Lucien Lelong.

Born in Boulogne-sur-Seine (in a house formerly owned by Princess Zenaide Ivanovna Youssoupoff, nonetheless) on the 5th of December 1905 to the Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich of Russia and Olga Valeriovna Karnovich. Before she was even born, her parents were banned from returning the Motherland for marrying morganatically, a condition that then changed in 1912 when the Tzar Nicholas II revoked their exile and let them come back to St.Petersburg for the celebrations for the tercentenary of the Romanov dynasty. To no one’s surprise, her family lived a privileged life in Russia until the October revolution of 1917.

Escaping first to Finland, then to Sweden and finally to France, Natalia and what was left of her close family (her sister Irina, her mother Olga and her half sister Marianne) settled in a villa in Biarritz, on the Atlantic coast.

Throughout her adolescence, she had difficulties with mixing with other girls her age, later recalling those moments in a seminal interview with a fashion magazine: “(I felt) so different from the others. At twelve, French girls were still reading Robinson Crusoe and watching Douglas Fairbanks movies. At twelve, I was taking some bread to my father in jail. How could I have been like them? I was mute, I would not play. But I was reading a lot. I had faced death, so close. My father, my brother, my cousins, my uncles, executed, all Romanov’s blood splashed on my adolescence. This gave me a taste for sad things, poetry, the icy and lightning antechamber of death. Soon, my classmates understood me. And respected the way I was, as strange as it may have seemed.”

How very Russian, Natalia darling.

At 21 she met couturier Lucien Lelong at one of her mother galas, whom immediately offered her a job at his fashion house, where she started originally within the Perfume department but then she quickly went onto modelling Lelong’s creations herself. Understanding Natalia’s glamour and social position as an asset to his company, he proposed to marry her. They did eventually marry in 1927, but theirs was not meant to be a happy union; While Lelong was very much taken with his own work and his countless homosexual affairs, Natalia began a two-years affair with dancer Serge Lifar and then an intense platonic relationship with Jean Cocteau, who also suggested they got married and had kids, a proposal she decided to decline. Meanwhile, she continued to be photographed as a model for the House of Lelong, where her statuesque good looks made her one of the favourite models of photographers of the calibre of Edward Steichen, Cecil Beaton and Horst P. Horst among others.

Serge Lifar, Nicolas de Gunzburg and Natalie Paley, 1931
Serge Lifar, Nicolas de Gunzburg and Natalie Paley, 1931

Please take in the time to notice that Lelong, Cocteau and Lifar were all complete homosexuals, like most of the men Natalia was fundamentally attracted to and like most of the men that were fundamentally attracted to her.

In 1931 she started her film career, completing a few movies in Europe until she landed in the United States for George Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlett, with Katharine Hepburn, who will become a life-long friend and confidante.

From that point onward, Natalia Pavlovna Paley will spend most of her life in the States, briefly going back to Europe from time to time. In New York she will then meet Broadway producer John Chapman Wilson (who, coincidentally, has previously been one of Noel Coward’s lovers).

Natalie divorced Lucien Lelong and married Mr. Chapman Wilson in 1937 because of his infallible sense of humour and, may we suggest, because of her inherent vice of loving the companionship of a good old homosexual.

She spent the next 24 years becoming the fashion icon and socialite she always deserved to be, also becoming a spokesperson for Mainbocher, mixing with all kinds of haute society and becoming a much welcome fixture within New York’s fashion and social circles.

After her husband death in 1961, she retired from the public eye.

We will always remember Princess Natalia Pavlovna Paley Countess von Hohenfelsen as a grand dame of a lost world who loved the arts but mostly loved her homosexuals, becoming a far-reaching Gay Icon in her own rights.

By Matteo Sarti