Marthe, Princess Bibesco

Marthe, Princess Bibesco, French version of Marta Bibescu (January 28, 1886, Bucharest-November 28, 1973, Paris), née Marta Lucia or Marthe Lucie Lahovary (also spelled Lahovari), great Romanian writer.


Princess Marthe Bibesco, a Romanian aristocrat raised mainly in France, enjoyed a successful literary career during the first half of the twentieth century. Although never formally educated, Princess Bibesco was an avid reader of classical literature and history, and she possessed a deep appreciation and understanding of contemporary European politics. Throughout her life she associated with the elite and powerful on the European continent, as well as noted literary and artistic figures.

Born Princess Marthe Lucie Lahovary on January 28, 1886 in Bucharest, Marthe Bibesco grew up speaking French, as was common among high-ranking members of the Romanian nobility. As the second daughter of Prince Jean Lahovary, Minister of Romania in France, and Princess Emma Mavrocordato, she spent her childhood in Paris, Biarritz, and Baloteşti, her family's estate in Romania. Although not formally educated beyond private primary school in Biarritz, she received additional instruction from her French governess. Her father, uncle, and maternal grandfather were also instrumental in cultivating her interest in history and politics. In 1892, Marthe's brother Georges, only son and heir to the Lahovary name and fortune, died of typhoid fever. His early death deeply marked the family; their mother was in perpetual mourning over his passing, and Marthe's own worldview and spiritual beliefs were heavily influenced by this misfortune. Her elder sister, Jeanne, died of cholera in 1911, and her younger sister Marguerite killed herself seven years later. Marthe's mother and favorite cousin also took their own lives.


On her first introduction into society, in 1900, she met Crown Prince Ferdinand, the Heir Apparent to the Romanian throne. Engaged at the age of fifteen, Marthe Lahovary married a distant cousin, Prince Georges-Valentin Bibesco in 1902. He was an important industrialist from a distinguished Romanian family, served as ambassador to France, and was a noted civilian aviator. He was instrumental in founding the International Aeronautic Federation and later became its president. At the age of seventeen Marthe nearly died while giving birth to the couple's only child, Valentine. Theirs was not a happy alliance, and Georges was unfaithful throughout their union. During the early years of her marriage Marthe found solace in reading and writing.

Despite the birth of a daughter, Valentina, in 1903, despite her wide circle of friends, Marthe was bored. When George was sent by King Carol I on a diplomatic mission to the Mozzafar-al-Din Shah of Iran, in 1905, she eagerly embarked on the trip, recording her observations in a journal. Along the way, she stopped at Yalta, where she encountered the exiled Russian writer Maxim Gorki. In 1908 she published her first novel, Les huits paradis (The Eight Paradises), a travel documentary based on hers diplomatic trip to Persia by automobile with her husband. It won critical acclaim and was crowned by the French Academy. Marcel Proust sent her a letter praising her book: You are not only a splendid writer, Princess, but a sculptor of words, a musician, a purveyor of scents, a poet. Two of her later novels also earned literary distinction: Catherine-Paris (1927), selected by the Literary Guild in the United States; and Croisade pour l'anémone (Crusade for the Anemone, 1931), chosen by the Catholic Book Club of New York. Although a celebrated author and laureate of the French Academy, Marthe Bibesco was never elected as a member of that body. She was, however, proud of her election to the Royal Belgian Academy of French Language and Literature in 1955. Other honors she received included nomination in 1958 to the Académie des Jeux Floraux de Toulouse, a literary society founded in the fourteenth century, and designation as a Chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur in 1962.

Princess Bibesco's literary works fall into several categories. Her early fictional works are loosely based on her own life and experiences abroad. Non-fiction works include books, stories, and articles about the many illustrious people she knew intimately: writers, politicians, diplomats, monarchs, and aristocrats. Not only did she produce a large body of published works, she was also a prolific letter-writer. She corresponded extensively with friends and family and used some of their letters to create works such as La Vie d'une amitié: Ma correspondence avec l'abbé Mugnier, Churchill ou le Courage (Sir Winston Churchill: Master of Courage), and Échanges avec Paul Claudel. Her literary endeavors also included screenplays and theatrical pieces, as well as several historical novels written under the pseudonym Lucile Decaux. In Switzerland, she began work on Isvor, Pays des saules ("Isvor, Land of Willows"). It was Marthe's Romanian masterpiece, where she brilliantly conveyed the everyday life and customs of her people, the extraordinary mixture of superstition, deep philosophy, resignation and hope, and the unending struggle between age-old pagan beliefs and Christian faith.


Marthe Bibesco counted among her circle of friends several monarchs, the closest of whom were King Alfonso XIII of Spain, the Kronprinz Wilhelm of Germany, and King Ferdinand I of Romania. Two of her most beloved friends were British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald and Lord Thomson of Cardington. Lord Thomson served as British military attaché in Romania during the First World War and later became Air Minister of Britain. He was killed in an aircraft accident in 1930. Other powerful men she knew well included Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill, French senator Henry de Jouvenel, and Commanding General of French Forces during World War I, Prince Charles-Louis de Beauvau-Craön. The princess also befriended literary figures such as Edith Wharton, Marcel Proust, Jean Cocteau, Anatole France, Rainer Maria Rilke, Enid Bagnold, Paul Valéry, and Paul Claudel. One of her closest friends was the abbé Arthur Mugnier, who is known for converting J. K. Huysmans to Catholicism.

Princess Bibesco experienced first hand many of the tumultuous events of early twentieth century Europe. During World War I she served as a nurse in a Bucharest hospital under German occupation but was forced to leave the country before the war's end. She also hosted unofficial diplomatic meetings in her palaces Posada and Mogoşoaia, bringing together representatives of warring governments who could not meet or negotiate in public. In 1938, as a guest of the exiled Spanish king, she witnessed the arrival of Hitler in Rome on his official visit to Italy. Marthe's family was torn apart and her fortune lost during World War II and the subsequent Communist takeover of Romania. She fled to France in 1947, never to return to Romania, but her daughter and son-in-law did not manage to escape. They were placed in detention for nearly nine years by the Communist government.


The postwar years brought financial difficulties to Princess Bibesco. Then in her sixties, she was responsible for supporting her two grandsons while their parents were in captivity. She had no regular source of income after her estates in Romania were confiscated by the Communists. In order to care for her family and live more comfortably, she sold family jewelry she had taken out of Romania. She also depended on the kindness of her wealthy friends. Writing became her livelihood rather than merely a lucrative hobby. With her numerous literary connections she was able to write articles and stories for publications such as Paris-Soir, The Saturday Evening Post, L'Illustration, Les Nouvelles Littéraires, Harper's Bazaar and Vogue. Although she was productive during this time, she was unable to complete what she considered her life's work, La Nymphe Europe, which would be a multi-volume history/genealogy of Europe based on her intimate knowledge of the European aristocracy. Despite years of research and preparation, only one volume, Mes vies antérieures, came to fruition during her lifetime. The second volume, Où tombe la foudre, was published by the executor of her estate after her death.

Princess Marthe Bibesco died quietly at the age of eighty-seven on November 28, 1973 in her home on the Île Saint Louis in Paris. In January 2001, a national poll of the most influential women in Romania's history placed princess Marthe Bibesco in the first position as the woman of the Millennium and of the 20th century.

2 comments:

Coldprairie said...

Excellent article. Well written and interesting.

Anonymous said...

Yes, excellent article. Taken from Wikipedia, where it was written by me.