‘A Most Interesting Figure’: February 1-15, 1923

Before she was a princess, in 1906

Once hundred years ago this month, Grace Kingsley had a chat with yet another person with big Hollywood ambitions, Princess Margarita Orlova. She said she was in town to study filmmaking, and she knew exactly the sort of stories she wanted to tell:

…the long-forgotten ones whom she will bring to life are the people who lived in the ancient Mexican civilizations whose relics now being exhumed in Mexico are making the world gasp with their revelations of art, science, and big human drama. These people are to come to life on the screen!

With the enterprise, backed by Mexican and American capital, even the lost city of Atlantis may come to life. Stirring stories of the Aztecs, the Toltecs, and last, but more important and vivid, stories of that mysterious civilization which built itself pyramids and cities and temples at Yucatan and other places, which now are being unearthed down there, are to live on the screen.

Orlova had a point: there are still an awful lot of stories not set in Europe or the U.S. that could make great films. The Princess wasn’t wrong when she said, “Modern stories are pale beside the rich drama portrayed in the pictures and prehistoric writings found in these temples and pyramids. And you in the United States really have no idea what is being done down there in Mexico in the way of research work.”

Kingsley knew her readers, and she mentioned what they really cared about: “Princess Orlova is to engage her technical staff and most of her actors in this city.” However, she did warn that Orlova merely expected to “affiliate with one of the big companies soon.” Most of her audience would have known that ideas are nothing–if you don’t have the money, you don’t have a film production.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the Princess was a fraud. Kingsley, while staying polite, hinted that she didn’t take her seriously. She mentioned that Her Highness had no Russian accent, she was a “firm believer in reincarnation,” and the article opened with the silly line “And the princess waved her fairy wand and they all came back to life!”

Happily, while Orlova was a great big liar, she was charming and fairly harmless. Unlike what she told Kingsley, she wasn’t born in Paris, her parents were not Scottish and French or named Marhanno. She did have a lot of different names in her 84 years. She started out as Clara May Russell and she was born in San Francisco, California on May 14, 1877. Her parents were William Henry and Nora Bowen Russell. Her father was born in Houlton, Maine (and lived in Carleton, New Brunswick, Canada) and her mother in St. John, New Brunswick. Clara had a younger brother, Hugh, and a younger sister, Gertrude. By 1900, they were all living in Oakland, California, and William Russell was working as a master mechanic for the Southern Pacific Railroad.

She married James H. Barry Fitzpatrick probably in late 1902 (the records haven’t been digitized yet). He was a theatrical manager. That same year she launched her career as dramatic reader, under the name Margaret Barry. She toured the United States, reading passages from works like Hugo’s Les Miserables, Materlick’s Monna Vanna, and Ibsen’s  A Doll’s House, as well as selections from Shakespeare. They had a son, Russell Barry Fitzpatrick, on June 25, 1904 when they were in Hagerstown, Maryland. She told reporters that she’d been educated at UC Berkeley and did advanced work in Rome, Paris, and London, but I couldn’t find records to back any of that up. However, she did travel by ship from London to New York in 1909, so she might have actually done the series of readings in London reported on in the San Francisco Call in 1909. They said she won “many friends by her personal charm and ability.”

In 1910 she divorced Fitzpatrick. There were signs that it was acrimonious in the newspapers, but there was probably more to the story than got printed. In June of that year, after she’d been granted the divorce and custody of Russell, Fitzpatrick brought a suit to reopen the divorce proceedings, claiming she’d gotten the divorce and custody of their son through fraud, and one Charles A. Carver had been involved. Fitzpatrick hadn’t known the divorce had been granted (for cruelty and non-support) until he went to Buena Vista, Colorado, in order to “punish” the two.

In 1911 things got uglier. In May he accused her of threatening him with a gun if he didn’t return some letters. She then told the newspaper that she did visit but without a gun, to ask him to stop writing harassing letters to her father. She also claimed that Charles Carver was her stepbrother, and Fitzpatrick’s insinuations about their relationship were untrue.

After that, the story disappeared from the papers, and so did J.H.B Fitzpatrick. According to their son’s 1919 passport application, he died in Ithaca, New York. Russell Fitzpatrick became a magazine writer. He married Dorothy Cavanaugh in 1932, and he served as a Warrant Officer in World War 2. He died in Sacramento on June 23, 1982.

This photo of Barry in front of the Sphinx was published in the Star (Washington, D.C) on December 16, 1917, when she was in the news for her relief work in Russia.

Fitzpatrick had been right about her relationship with Carver, and she married him. Charles Andrews Carver was born on August 30, 1876 in Chicago. He’d been a noted athlete when he attended Yale. He was a Far Eastern agent for the Pearson Engineering Corporation, and the two travelled extensively. When they weren’t on the road, they lived in Manhattan.

Margaret Barry and George Walcker in The Death of Eve

Barry continued her career in the theater. In 1910 she added ‘dancer’ to her resume when she played the title role in The Death of Eve by William Vaughn Moody in Alameda, California. The dance told Eve’s story after she decided to return to Paradise. She finds her son Cain who’d been banished to the desert and they travel to the tree of knowledge, where she dies. According to the San Francisco Call, “Mme. Barry’s art is that of a symbolic dancer, and her poetic readings add a touch that the emotional dancers fail to give.”

She toured with this piece, and In January 1911 Johannes Reimer reviewed her recital. He said,

Margaret Barry’s performance yesterday at noon at the Stockton was one of finished art. Her tremendous personality spoke through it. It takes art to walk out on a bare platform without staging and costume and yet in her rendering of the first and last scene of The Death of Eve carry you far from time and place back into the very beginning of human tradition into the vitality of the pastoral days of humanity, among the fields and the herds of our most distant ancestry. For not this alone, but to awaken in you a feeling of the magnitude of the fundamental mother-love and its loveliness and the death of the one whom we in our fancy have depicted as the mother of all mothers.

She got to perform it in London in December 1913, at a recital at the Little Theater. The New York Clipper said, “her fine voice and artistic posing were much admired.”

In 1915, she danced in The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam with Mrs. John J. Spreckles Jr. in San Francisco

Although I haven’t found any travel records for them, she and Carver reportedly lived in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) for a time. In August 1917 Barry was in Los Angeles, lecturing on war conditions in Russia and raising money for refugee children and the Russian War Relief Fund. Two months later she appeared in several strange news stories spread by leaders of a Russian civilian relief organization that said she was to meet the deposed czar’s daughter Tatiana when her boat docked in San Francisco and escort her on her visit to the United States where she would either assist with relief efforts, look after her father’s investments or do a lecture tour (newspaper stories differed). They said Tatiana had escaped captivity via a sham marriage to a chamberlain’s son, which was supposed to have given her more freedom of movement around Russia. They claimed she took the opportunity to escape to Harbin in Manchuria, then to Japan, and she was on a steamship to the Pacific Coast. However, reporters asked steamship agents about the story, and they had no record of such a passenger. Furthermore, the Russian embassy knew nothing about it. Two days later Barry told reporters that she didn’t dare chaperone Miss Romanoff, because German spies were after her. With that, the story left the newspapers. It was all nonsense: at this time, the real Tatiana Romanoff was being held by Communist revolutionaries and she was executed along with the rest of her family in July 1918.

She played a character called only “Cynthia’s mother” in The Moonshine Trail (1919).

Barry was living on West 78th Street in Manhattan in 1918, according to Carver’s draft registration. Her next world to conquer was the movies. In 1919 J. Stuart Blackton hired her to play Sylvia Breamer’s mother in The Moonshine Trail (1919), a melodrama about the evils of alcohol. In the May 17th announcement in Moving Picture World, she was called a Russian actress, because despite being born in California, she’d done most of her work there. They also mentioned that she’d appeared in some filmed legends for Pathe Freres in London. She went on to play small parts in other Blackton melodramas like Dawn (1919) and Respectable by Proxy (1920), but she didn’t get noticed by the critics.

By the January 10, 1920 Census she was living alone in Manhattan on East 57th Street, so apparently her second marriage had ended. She told the census taker she was widowed, but Carver was far from dead. He went on to marry a third time and move to Los Angeles where in 1940 he gave his profession as a “physical culturist.” He died in 1953.

Later that year, she went on a trip around the world. On November 30th, she arrived in London from Port Said with a brand-new name: Margarite Orlova. According to the steamship record, she traveled with Vladimir and Nina Orlova, and she told the company that she was Russian, too. The Orlovas had a son named Nicholas who wasn’t on the boat; Margarite would later claim that he was a prince and she’d married him, then they moved to Vera Cruz, Mexico. I couldn’t find any records of that, but the visiting Mexico part wasn’t outlandishly impossible, unlike the rest of her story.

She next turned up in New York City in 1922 under her new name. She became a theatrical actress and had a role in a Broadway production, Drifting, from January to February. She told Kingsley that the writer, John Coulton, had written the part especially for her.

Then one hundred years ago this month she had her interview with Kingsley. It’s no surprise that nothing came of her Mexican film ambitions. Her story helped fill up a column, then it was forgotten and life went on. Kingsley did include this snapshot of her in 1923:

“She is a most interesting figure, is the Princess. A statuesque brunette, she has the most brilliant, yet the most kindly black eyes in the world. Her hair is bobbed, even if she does boast a grown son by a former marriage.”

This ad ran in the Eagle Rock Sentinel on December 27, 1923.

Later that year she tried to launch the Orlova School of Drama in Los Angeles, but it wasn’t a success. In September, she ran a bazaar in downtown Los Angeles selling Russian embroidery, posters, and paintings to benefit refugee Russian artists. She was also active with the Los Angeles Opera Club.

So she was keeping herself busy until September 1924 when L.A. Times writer Charles Sloan investigated, and her lies were laid bare. He opened his article with:

The most remarkable masquerade in the social annals of Southern California, possibly of anywhere, came to an end yesterday with the declaration by “Princess” Margarita Orlova, long a feted favorite of local society, that she isn’t really a princess at all and that the amazing history of her life, as told over the teacups to endow her with the glamoring romance of old-world royalty, is largely fictitious.

Slone had decided to look into her background because she was mixed up in a scandal with the Los Angeles Opera Club involving “superhoaxer” Robert Walter Douglas (real name: Robert Andrews). She was a club trustee (a position that was planned to pay $5000 per year—annual club dues were from $25 to $1000) and had been the guest of honor at some of their club programs. Douglas was also the director of a home building company and he was arrested for embezzlement from that on August 8th, 1924.

It looks like the stories she was telling at social events were much wilder than what had gotten into the newspapers before. Slone wrote:

Into the career of Mme. Orlova as it was gathered by those with whom she came in contact was woven all the glamor of Occident and Orient. She was labeled as a beauty who once had turned the heads of half the great men of Europe, as an actress whose artistry was internationally renowned, as a secret agent whose success was chronicled in many a diplomatic coup. But principally she has been famed as the wife of Prince Nicholas Orloff of Russia, as an intimate and protégé of the Czarina, as the heroine of thrilling exploits and sensational melodrama in the perilous days of Kerenskian revolution and the later advent of the internationalists. 

She opens a studio; according to her own account she conceives and attempts to carry out a plan to restore the Russian throne to Grand Duke Nicholas. She tells thrilling stories of Dictaphones and secret service men and diplomatic escapades. Of intrigue after intrigue and scheme after scheme.

And always grew the tale of her romantic past; growing into a veritable maze of drama, comedy, pathos and tragedy. In this the “Princess” seems to have perhaps unconsciously assisted. She spoke of famous personages to her intimates; she told them little personal anecdotes of them, and in these anecdotes she was always present. She did not deny the things she now says are untrue; she met them with silence and little piquant shrugs. Always a wonderful actress, she made wherever she might be a stage and played herself the stellar role: to her always the spotlight…the story of her achievements with which Los Angeles society has been regaled was greatly exaggerated and distorted into something it was not.

At least she was an entertaining party guest! Slone interviewed her in a little white-washed cabin in Laguna Beach, where she was working on a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for a small outdoor theater. She said that “she has never personally claimed to be a princess, and that never until now has she had an opportunity to publicly deny the romantic stories which have made her an international figure.”

Slone then revealed what he’d learned from the City Prosecutor’s office about her real story. Some details are backed up by other records, like her birth in San Francisco and her two marriages.  Others, like her being a protégé of Lord Kitchener and her nursing career at the hospital set up in the Winter Palace in Petrograd, there’s no other evidence for.

Slone also followed up by gathering quotes from people who knew her, like the author of her Broadway play, John Coulton, who summed her up well, saying, “a charming woman, possessing great personality and love of intrigue—but born to be a stormy petrel in this whirl of life!”

Orlova was never indicted in the Douglas case, so I don’t think she was a criminal. I suspect he took advantage of her ego, and she was as fooled by him as everybody else was. Slone concluded his article with a quote from her:

“All that I ask in the future is a chance to earn my own living by my own ability and to have granted me the same kindness, the same chivalry, the same friendly and helping hand that Americans give one another in their daily life.”

In 1944, she tried opening another school, this one in San Francisco (J: The Jewish News of Northern California, December 8, 1944).

That’s pretty much what she got — there’s no evidence that Slone’s expose ruined her life. Over the years, according to the social columns, she told wonderful stories about the royalty she knew, but she demoted herself to Countess if she claimed a title at all. She went on to have a pleasant and varied life with plenty of travel, still calling herself Margarita Orlova. She made her living by as an actress and public speaker. She appeared on Broadway again in 1926 in Coulton’s The Shanghai Gesture and was part of its touring company. The Billboard called it “an outright box-office play dealing with wholesale harlotry in an Oriental seaport.” She gave corporate speeches at banquets, and in 1930, spoke in Los Angeles schools on the history and psychology of make-up. In 1937, the list of her lecture topics was “Crashing Worlds,” “Wither Mankind,” “Sepulchers,” and “What Price America,” and she toured the United States with them.

In 1958 she visited Palm Springs with (right to left) Alice Littig Siems and Lady Phyllis Churchill St. Leger. The Desert Sun said they really enjoyed their trip.

She died on July 15, 1963 in Los Angeles. Grace Kingsley was right: she was a most interesting figure.

“Bazaar’s Proceeds to Refugee Artists,” Los Angeles Times, September 23, 1923.

“Blackton Signs Mme. Margaret Barry,” Moving Picture World, May 17, 1919, p.1038.

“California Woman Praised Abroad,” San Francisco Call, July 1, 1909.

“Club’s History Uncovered,” Los Angeles Times, August 7, 1924.

“Comes to get Coin for Czar,” Riverside Daily Press, November 27, 1917.

“Czar’s Daughter is Mystery-Shrouded,” Los Angeles Herald, November 28, 1917.

“Dancers to Stage The Death of Eve,” San Francisco Call, November 7, 1910.

“Dental Women’s Club of Chicago,” Chicago Dental Society Official Bulletin, January 21, 1927, p.4.

“Douglas and Aide Seized on Embezzling Charges,” Los Angeles Times, August 9, 1924.

“Fitzpatrick Accuses His Wife,” Press Democrat (Santa Rosa), June 11, 1910.

“Fitzpatrick Asks to Open Case Again,” San Francisco Call, June 14, 1910.

“Former S.F. Dancer, Now Russ Princess, Visiting Here,” San Francisco Call, December 15, 1922.

Gamble, Mrs. Leo, “Face Value,” Los Angeles School Journal, February 18, 1930, p. 20.

Les Miserables Tomorrow Evening,” Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, CA), January 21, 1906.

“Madame Barry to Star in Classical Readings,” San Francisco Call, September 18, 1907.

“Madame Margaret Barry Tells Another Story,” Stockton Independent, May 19, 1911.

“Margaret Barry to Make Debut in Hugo Drama,” San Francisco Call, June 28, 1905.

“Mme. Margaret Barry,” San Francisco Call and Post, January 4, 1915.

“Mme. Orlova is Visitor in the Capital,” Washington Times, October 21, 1937.

The Moonshine Trail,” Motion Picture News, November 3, 1919, p.3346.

“The New Plays on Broadway,” The Billboard, February 13, 1926, p.42.

“Our London Letter,” New York Clipper, December 13, 1913.

“Pal of Kings’ Confesses Hoax to Win Art Entrée,” Los Angeles Times, August 7, 1924.

Reimers, Johannes, “Sunday Afternoon with Mme. Barry,” Stockton Daily Independent, January 24, 1911.

Sloan, Charles, “Royal Mask Taken Off,” Los Angeles Times, September 7, 1924.

“’Spies After Me; I’ll Not Chaperone Daughter of Czar!’ Mrs. Carver,” San Francisco Call, November 28, 1917.

“Tatiana Escapes,” Los Angeles Times, November 26, 1917.

“Theatrical,” The Billboard, August 15, 1903, p.2.

“Volunteers for Slav’s Relief Sought Here,” Los Angeles Evening Herald, August 10, 1917.

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