Counterfeit Countess

/Counterfeit Countess

Counterfeit Countess

Radziwill_princess-580x340Princess Catharina Maria Radziwill was born Ekaterina Adamevna, Countess Rzewuska, in St Petersburg, Russia on 30th March 1858. A journalist and only daughter of Count Adam Rzewuski, an exiled Polish noble-man living in Russia. Christened Ekaterina, she later changed her name to Catherine Maria. Whilst living in Russia and a favourite of Tsar Nicholas she married Prince Wilhelm in 1873 at the age of 15.

They settled in the Radziwill family palace in Berlin and moved in the highest social circles, but because of her indiscretions – under a pseudonym she had written a series of articles in La Nouvelle Revue, in which she caricatured the royal family and other nobles. Her political meddling however resulted in her being banished from the imperial German court. In 1886 the Radziwills settled in Russia, where they lived at her country estate on the Volga, and in St. Petersburg during the winter season, alternated with journeys to the most fashionable European holiday resorts. Although she was never officially divorced, the Princess spent more and more time away from her husband and five children until she they separated in 1895 whilst they were in Russia.

She built up contacts with influential people in the journalistic world, and more or less by chance in February 1896 Princess Radziwill met Cecil John Rhodes at a dinner function in London given by Moberly Bell, the manager of the London Times.

Cecil-John-Rhodes-368x340In July 1899 she manoeuvred a passage on the same ship and at Rhodes’s table on the South Africa-bound S.S. Scot, and charmed him into an open invitation for lunch and dinner at his estate, Groote Schuur. However, she soon antagonised Rhodes by her intrusiveness, and he tried to get rid of her by paying her bill at the Mount Nelson Hotel – where she had entertained lavishly and spent more than she could afford – on condition that she would leave the country. The Princess duly departed and arrived in London in April 1900, but returned to Cape Town in July, and in Jan. 1902 started her own periodical, Greater Britain. Their acquaintanceship was slight and they did not meet again until July 1899 when Princess Radziwill joined the ship in which Rhodes was sailing from England to South Africa. From then on she pursued Rhodes relentlessly. Although she hinted at a romantic entanglement, her interest in Rhodes appears to have been largely political.

She was intent on making a name for her-self in South African politics. Rhodes strongly resented her interference in his affairs and went to great lengths to avoid her, but his attempts to shake her off were in vain which purported to up-hold Rhodes’s views. It was partly as a result of the debts incurred in publishing this news-paper that she embarked on a career of forgery. While Rhodes was away in Rhodesia and London, she forged his signature to various promissory notes, which forced Rhodes, although gravely ill, to return to South Africa, these were presented to banks and money-lenders in Cape Town. Rhodes denied signing these. Her forgeries were eventually exposed when Rhodes arranged for one of the notes to be cashed. Legal action was instituted against her and Rhodes returned to South Africa from Europe, against his doctor’s orders, to face her in court. In an attempt to have the case with-drawn the Princess threatened to produce certain papers which, she claimed, incriminated Rhodes, but she failed to produce the papers, or to attend court, and the case went against her.

No action was taken by the authorities as a result of her proven forgeries and it was only when she rashly sued Rhodes for £2 000 that criminal proceedings were commenced. Rhodes died during the preliminary hearing of the criminal case and his death was widely attributed to his insistence on returning to South Africa to confront her. She was committed for trial on charges of forging letters, telegrams and accounts, and sentence of two years’ imprisonment was passed. Rhodes gave evidence in court, but died before the trial ended. On her release from Roeland Street jail in Cape Town in 13 August 1903, after serving 16 months. When she re-turned to Europe she commenced legal proceedings against the Rhodes Trustees, claiming £1 400 000 on the grounds that Rhodes had employed her as a political agent and was the father of a daughter born to her in 1897. There is no evidence to support either of her claims and she withdrew her action before it came to court.

Soon after her return she began to write her memoirs, which were published as “My recollections” (1904). After the death of Prince Radziwill as well as Cecil Rhodes, man and empire-maker (London, 1918). In 1911 and her deportation from Russia as a result of the publication of her Behind the veil of the Russian court (1913; under the pseudonym Count Paul Vassili), the Princess married a businessman living in Stockholm, Charles-Emile Kolb, and later changed her name to Catherine Kolb-Darwin. In 1916 she published Furstinnor i Röda Korsetts tecken, on the work of the Red Cross, and in the same year went to England and the United States to lecture on this subject. She settled in New York and became an American citizen. She died on 12 May 1941 in New York.

Acknowledgment Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa and Dictionary of South African Biography. Image source: Acknowledgment Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa Books to read: Cecil Roads & the Princess by Brian Roberts. Published by Hamish Hamilton London 1969.  ISBN 241 01603 7