In 1918, Russian revolutionaries forced Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, and children into the basement of a house where they’d been held captive, opened fire, and killed them. They buried the corpses in an unmarked grave in a secret location. Days later, a rumor surfaced that one of the tsar’s daughters had escaped the slaughter.
In 1920, a young woman jumped off a bridge in Berlin. German police rescued her. Her body was riven by scars. She had no identification and refused to give her name. She was committed to an asylum as Madame Unknown.
People there said she spoke German with a Russian accent and carried herself with a noble bearing. One of them claimed she told her she was a daughter of the tsar. Rumors about her spread far and wide. Romanov family members, former attendants, and friends of the tsar’s children came to see her. For two years, she refused to discuss her background with them or confirm their suspicion that she was a Romanov. Then a former imperial family guard finally drew her out, and she told him she was Anastasia, the tsar’s youngest daughter. That statement ignited a firestorm that burned for seventy years.
I met this woman in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1968. I was a student at UVA. My roommates and I rented an apartment from Jack Manahan, a wealthy genealogist. One morning when I delivered the rent check, he introduced me to a little, old woman, reclining on a divan in his living room. “This is my new wife,” he said, “the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanova.”
The lofty title and their relative ages (she looked twenty years older than Manahan) surprised me. Eager to explain, he coaxed the duchess to tell me her story in German, while he translated.
She said the basement gunfire wounded her, and she collapsed on the floor. A soldier bayoneted her and bashed in her face with his rifle-butt to finish her off. When she talked to me that morning, she held a shawl over her mouth. Manahan said she did this to cover ruined teeth.
As the soldiers hauled away the bodies, a guard realized she was still barely alive. He dragged her away, escaped to Romania, and nursed her back to health. After she bore his child, he was shot and killed, leaving her with no means of support. She put the child in an orphanage and went to Berlin to seek help from German Romanov family members, but no one believed her. She despaired and tried to kill herself.
She told her story well. She spoke softly, but with intensity, her eyes riveted to mine, coy but insistent, gauging my reaction to each detail, watching my every move. It sounded like a fantastic lie, but I found myself hoping it was true.
That morning, I wondered why she spent so much time telling her story to a college student with no influence, but later I learned that she had spent her entire adult life making her pitch to anyone who would listen and she’d earned a large following of believers that way, including members of the Romanov family and Anastasia’s childhood friends. In the 30’s they helped her file suit in German court, laying claim to the tsar’s wealth. They alleged she knew things only Anastasia could have known. Many court-appointed forensic experts came down in her favor. Doctors concluded she suffered from a foot deformity that had also afflicted Anastasia. Others compared the biometrics of her ear to the princess’s ear and thought they were the same. Graphologists said her handwriting matched Anastasia’s penmanship.
While the case dragged on, her advocates brought her to the United States. Using the pseudonym, Anna Anderson, she became the toast of New York City’s high society. The famous Russian pianist and composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff, paid for her lodging. Her life inspired a host of books, plays, and movies. Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar for portraying her in Anastasia in 1956.
When I met her, those halcyon days were gone. Her case, by then the longest running litigation in German judicial history, remained undecided. Pushing seventy and out of money, she was staying with a supporter in Charlottesville when Manahan stepped in, paid her living expenses, and married her to prevent her deportation.
She moved in with him in the winter of 1968, and for the next eighteen months, I and my roommates watched her bizarre and unstable behavior in amazement, while Manahan seemed to follow her down the rabbit hole. They were convinced KGB agents were out to kill them. Anastasia refused to eat anything other than potatoes on some theory that the KGB couldn’t poison spuds. She wouldn’t let Manahan turn on the heat for fear the KGB would pump poisonous gas through the air ducts. When one of my roommates delivered the rent check, she met him at the door, emitted a blood-curdling scream, and fainted on the floor, claiming he was the spitting image of Grigori Rasputin, the Romanov’s holy man, who died forty years earlier.
By the time we graduated and moved out, I wasn’t sure they should be running around free, but things only got worse after we left. The German court finally handed down a ruling in Anastasia’s case. Forty years of litigation ended in a draw. The court found insufficient evidence to establish or refute her claims.
That seemed to be a tipping point for them. Over the next decade they dumped garbage off the back stoop, took in sixty stray cats, and let the front yard grow into a jungle of briars and brush. Neighbors filed complaints, but they somehow managed to fend them off and stay in the house until 1983 when a neighbor found them in Manahan’s living room suffering from Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.
A judge ruled that Manahan wasn’t fit to take care of Anastasia and committed her to a psychiatric ward. Manahan promptly smuggled her out. A thirteen state man-hunt ensued. Police found them in a field in Amherst, fifty miles south of Charlottesville, living in Manahan’s car. Anastasia died two months later in 1984, and Manahan soldiered on alone until his death in 1990. For an interesting article about them, see Jack & Anna, Remembering the Czar of Charlottesville Eccentrics at http://www.readthehook.com/86004/cover-jack-amp-anna-remembering-czar-charlottesville-eccentrics.
Not long after Manahan’s death, evidence surfaced that seemed to verify her story. The Russians found a mass grave, containing the bones of the tsar’s family. Mysteriously, the remains of his son and one of his daughters were missing. Anna Anderson’s supporters exulted, presuming that the missing daughter proved her claim.
The triumph was short-lived. DNA analysis came along in 1994 and proved she was Franziska Schanskowska, a mentally ill Polish factory worker, who disappeared in 1920, about the same time Madame Unknown jumped off the bridge in Berlin. And the grave with the missing corpses? In 2007 a second grave coughed up bones with DNA that matched the tsar’s missing son and daughter.
Reflecting back on those days in Charlottesville, I find the truth more incredible than the fraud. Franziska Schanskowska lived into her eighties. For sixty years, from the bridge in Berlin to her deathbed, her admirers housed, fed, clothed, and bankrolled her. She never had a job, never earned a penny. This unschooled impostor deceived international sophisticates and fought the Romanov family to a draw in the courts for a half century.
Remembering the gnomish woman who sat across from me in Manahan’s living room and told me her story, I understand how she fooled so many. Her charming fairy tale was much more appealing than the harsh truth. I wanted to believe it, and I can attest that she clearly seemed to believe it, too. I wonder if the mentally ill Madame Unknown lost her real identity in her web of lies somewhere along the line, like an actress lost inside the fictional person she played.
Whatever she thought, I’m glad Manahan never learned the truth. An avid genealogist, he valued bloodline above all else and reminded me every chance he got that he was the son-in-law of the Tsar of Russia. Despite his craziness, I liked him and I’m glad he never knew that his Russian princess was really a Polish peasant, for it surely would have broken his heart.