As the swinging 1960’s dawned, Greek-born Princess Olga of Yugoslavia decided to make her first journey “across the pond” from Europe to “the Big Apple”. The occasion was to attend the birth, in September 1961, of the firstborn child of Olga’s much-loved daughter Elizabeth and the latter’s American husband, Howard Oxenberg.
Following an eight-hour air journey in first class, the Princess arrived in New York, on the evening of 20 September, in a gale and sweeping rain. She was met by Elizabeth, Howard and the Greek Consul and whisked to Elizabeth’s Manhattan apartment at 983 Park Avenue. Olga would actually stay with a friend of her daughter, Countess Atalanta Arlen, at the latter’s ‘luxurious Louis XVI double flat’, where she was given the use of the owner’s bedroom and boudoir. However, the Princess did not have long to wait for the arrival of her grandchild: On the afternoon of 21 September Olga and Howard accompanied Elizabeth to Doctors Hospital where, in the early hours of 22 September, she gave birth to a daughter. Soon, father and royal grandmother were gazing contentedly at the new arrival through the glass screen of the hospital’s baby nursery. A somewhat exhausted Olga then returned to her luxury lodgings and slept until late. However, at noon she returned for another hospital visit, followed by a walk through Central Park. This, the Princess noted somewhat disapprovingly, was ‘full of squirrels and dirty, screaming children!’ Later, during the evening visiting hour, she looked on disdainfully as ‘crowds had gathered at the glass window at 8[pm] to see their babies, like a zoo!’
As Olga had still not had a chance to see much of the city, some friends took her up to the 82nd floor of the Empire State Building to admire the ‘staggering view’. Howard then drove his mother-in-law through Manhattan’s main streets to give her a flavour of Manhattan. The duo then dined together at the Hemisphere Club restaurant on the 48th floor of the Time-Life building. Being alone, they had ‘a long talk’ and the Princess noted enthusiastically that Howard ‘has nice, honest opinions and ideas…’ There was also the opportunity for Olga to pay a visit to the United Nations and listen to President Kennedy give a speech on nuclear proliferation and the current situation in Berlin (where a wall had just been built to prevent East Berliners disaffected with the communist regime from escaping to the Allied zones). The Princess, descended as she was from the Romanovs, kept a beady eye on the Soviet delegation’s reaction to the President’s discourse and observed reprovingly that they didn’t clap. Her appetite whetted, Olga returned the next day to take in a session of the Security Council and later dined with the United States chief representative to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson.
However, the Princess’ thoughts soon returned to the practicalities of everyday life and she rushed to Bloomingdales to buy her new granddaughter (whom she learned was to be named Catherine) a Moses basket. She then hired a Cadillac and chauffeur and journeyed out to Glen Cove, Long Island to visit her cousin Xenia (‘Thomas’) in her cottage there. Xenia was the younger daughter of Olga’s late Aunt, Princess Maria of Greece and Denmark by her first marriage to Grand Duke George Mikhailovich.
On 1 October Elizabeth and Catherine came home to Park Avenue. Olga helped sort through the baby clothes and assisted Howard with making-up a bed for the nurse in the dining room. The Princess then enjoyed a trip to Broadway to see the musical “Camelot” and even managed, next evening, to embrace Noel Coward at the opening night of his musical “Sail Away”. Thereafter, events took a downward turn when Olga spent several days in bed and complained of feeling washed out. When her concerned hostess called in the doctor, he confirmed that the Princess had a particularly virulent case of flu. Fortunately, by mid-month she had recovered sufficiently to be taken on a long drive via the Bronx to New Jersey and back to Manhattan’s East Side via Harlem. It was all such a novel experience.
On 18 October, baby Catherine was christened by a Greek Orthodox priest in the drawing room of Greek shipping magnate Basil Goulandris’ Manhattan apartment. Olga gave her firstborn granddaughter her heart-shaped turquoise and diamond brooch to commemorate the occasion. Then, despite an on-going period of dental treatment, the Princess ventured to the Stork Club to enjoy the United States’ ‘national dishes’ of a hamburger followed by apple pie. Her horizons were further expanded when she attended a Polish Ball, at which the “twist” (which she described as ‘the new crazy sexy dance’) was performed. There was time too for a weekend visit by train to snowy Washington (where Olga stayed at the Ladies Club as the guest of the philanthropists Mr and Mrs Robert Bliss). She made time visit the National Gallery and to meet a childhood friend, Leonid Ouroussoff, who had lived in the States for thirty years. Leonid took her out to Arlington to view the Pentagon and he and the Princess also paid a visit to the Lincoln Memorial and explored the Capitol. On the final day, Olga accompanied Mrs Bliss to Dumbarton Oaks, the Bliss family’s former home in Georgetown, which had recently been donated (together with the Bliss’ Byzantine art collection) to Harvard University. After attending a ‘huge’ lunch in her honour, a tired but happy Princess boarded the train for her return journey to New York.
As her New York visit drew to a close, Olga made a visit to the Saint Sava Serbian Cathedral on West 26 Street and quizzed the priest on work being done to assist Yugoslav refugees in the United States. At a ladies’ luncheon hosted by Elizabeth she met the actress Merle Oberon; while Joan Fontaine was also introduced to her at a farewell dinner given by Adlai Stevenson. The Princess summed up her trip by noting that she had ‘met with so much affection and kindness.’ Indeed, so much so that she would make a return visit to the Big Apple in October 1965.
Robert Prentice is the author of Princess Olga of Yugoslavia Her Life and Times which is published by Grosvenor House Publishing and is available to purchase on Amazon and other outlets both as a hardback and an e-book.