The Grand Duchess of Charlottesville

Picture1In 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

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.