Thursday 1st December

Murdered Russian porter with two unknown figures (5)

If this is to be my last month on earth and I do indeed die on December 30th, what will there be to remember me by? Where are my memento mori? Let’s see … £136.47 in my Santander SupaSaver account (earning interest at 0.0001% p.a.), a conviction for cycling without lights (contested all the way to the Crown Court), a brief moment of fame when a wayward Luis Suarez strike smacked me on the bonce, caught in slo-mo on MOTD2, and a couple of witty wordplays published on the Guardian Letters page, bottom left section. I’ve been reasonably kind to children and dumb animals and I’ve refrained from any attempted assassinations although, not being christened Oswald, this was statistically unlikely anyway.

But my great works are still to come. Will it be that my late-flowering talents never flower at all? Will I never be recognised as a misunderstood giant of literary criticism whose insight into the influence of St Teresa of Avila on Tess of the d’Urbervilles went unappreciated for so long? I fear I won’t be a Man of Letters refusing his Nobel Prize on a point of obscure principle. As for my musical career … well, OK, that was never going to happen, but it would have been nice to play several more notes, possibly even in the right order.

Googlers searching on ‘Alexander Hogg’ will not find me, only the great map-maker of the early nineteenth century, best known for publishing the journals of James Cook, or the Kiwi politician who became Minister of Labour in 1909. That Alex Hogg, with his squat figure and receding hairline, looks worryingly like the old man I might yet become if I can somehow circumnavigate the great sounding cataract that threatens to engulf me on December 30th.

Meanwhile I see that on YouTube there is a television interview that Felix Yusupov gave right at the end of his life here. Fifty years on, the old scoundrel was still being asked about the single event which had come to define his life. For the fifty-thousandth time, Yusupov tells his story and, of course, every re-telling is subtly different and unreliable.

But does Yusupov, near death, ever tell the truth about what happened that December night in 1916? Now that his old friend, Oswald Rayner is dead and Felix has no need to protect him, perhaps he can speak freely and make his peace with his Maker. I contemplate a screenplay.

My working title is Yusupov and Rasputin because the relationship between those two men is, of course, the heart of the story. Both are charismatic faith-healers whose icy gaze in grainy photos still transfixes the viewer a hundred years on. If they had some sort of physical relationship, it is best left to the imagination – they seem to have attracted and repelled each other in equal measure.

Yet if Yusupov was ever “in love”, it was not with Rasputin but with Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, his boyhood friend and eventual co-conspirator. Dmitri was an absurdly handsome Guards officer (as well as cousin of Nicholas II) who seems to have encouraged the young Felix to dress up in all his mother’s finery in a futile attempt to parade incognito amongst St Petersburg’s drinking-dens. No doubt the homesick Felix sent countless billets doux from his sodden eyrie in Oxford to his insouciant chevalier (too much French? It was the language of the Russian court, after all …) but Dmitri would have been more interested in his preparations for the 1912 Olympics where he finished just outside the medals in the equestrian events.

When it came to the murder plot, Dmitri went along for the ride, both literally and metaphorically, tipping the turbulent priest out of the boot of the Roller and off the Petrovski bridge, but I doubt if his heart was really in it. The scandal may have cost him his military career but advancement in the White Army was of limited value in 1917 anyway. Like Felix, Dmitri got out just in time. Exiled to the Persian front, he managed to escape via Teheran and Bombay before finding his way to that last redoubt of Imperial Russia, Paris, where he dreamt up lucrative business ideas with his latest lover, one Coco Chanel. The first four formulas didn’t quite hit the mark but Chanel No. 5 was certainly a winner for the new playboy of the western world.

In the days before the Sunday Times Rich List, Felix Yusupov may just have been the richest man in the world. The Yusupov family’s land covered 675,000 acres and included highly profitable mining and oil interests. Modern estimates are that Felix was worth around ten billion quid in today’s money but that seems a little conservative – it would put him a little behind Roman Abramovich in the yacht-building stakes. While Abramovich and the other perestroika lottery winners have managed to shift their ill-gotten treasures offshore (and to Stamford Bridge) before the rats get at them, Felix was caught a little bit on the hop by the 1917 Revolution. It was a case of how much could you carry out of the country under your arms or, if necessary, sewn into the lining of your baby’s nappies, as many of the Yusupov family jewels had to be.

In my version, Yusupov creeps back to the Moika Palace and half-inches a couple of his own Rembrandts. These are intended to fund his life in exile and in the years after the Great War he finds a suitable art-pawnbroker, Joseph Widener. But when the Russian émigré has trouble finding the cash to redeem these priceless works, Widener takes the opportunity to make off with the masterpieces himself.

There’s no space for all that in my play, nor for the Nazis’ negotiations with Yusupov around 1942 – he claims to have said a firm “no” to the idea of being installed as a puppet-ruler of Russia once the Panzers had laid waste to Stalingrad. I know little of Paris and Stalingrad but plenty about Univ, so my focus is on his undergraduate years: crashing his car, meeting a strange boy with a Brummie accent called Oswald Rayner, sweet-talking the college authorities, entertaining Anna Pavlova in his suite of rooms overlooking Hyde Park, arranging for herds of cows to be shipped from England to St Petersburg, gazing at the Shelley Memorial, dreaming of Dmitri and plotting the perfect crime.

Somewhere in this stew you find the lovely Princess Irina, the porcelain doll who followed dutifully in Felix’s wake for the remainder of their tethered lives. There she still is in that extraordinary television interview from their bedroom at Rue Pierre Guerín 38 bis in Paris’s 16th arrondissement. The dead-eyed Irina is wearing what looks like a garishly-spotted nightgown, rubbing her hands feverishly as Felix, his eyes well hidden behind some enormous black sunglasses, dutifully serves up his party-piece one last, unconvincing time.

By then Irina has spent fifty years in her Paris salon, chain-smoking and playing solitaire – what story would she have told if anyone had been so insolent as to ask her? Was she seduced by Rasputin? Was Felix motivated by sexual jealousy? That’s the plot of the 1932 MGM blockbuster, Rasputin and the Empress, but the Yusupovs sued the American dream-weavers though the English courts. Yusupov cheerfully admitted being a murderer but the suggestion that he was a cuckold as well was an affront to his dignity. The Yusupovs were awarded 25,000 English pounds in damages, almost enough to compensate for the unfortunate loss of their Rembrandts. It was a salutary lesson for MGM and all those of us who would fiddle with history for our own nefarious ends.

If the London courts are now the destination of choice for billionaires’ ex-wives who hope to maximise their divorce settlements, much the same applied to image rights cases in the thirties. I remember Phil’s dad telling us all about it on the terrace at the Casa Magni. The key precedent had been set by another Univ graduate, Cyril Tolley, in 1931. Tolley was one of the great golfers of the day, winning the Amateur Championship in 1920 while still an undergraduate and famed for his jousts with Bobby Jones.

JS Fry, the confectionery manufacturers, made the mistake of selecting Tolley as one of the subjects of a series of cartoons created for advertising purposes. The ex-Univ man was caricatured in mid-swing with a bar of Fry’s chocolate slipping out of his back-pocket. Tolley sued for defamation and libel, arguing that the cartoon implied he had compromised his amateur status. He was not, repeat not, being paid in chocolate bars. The case went up via the Court of Appeal all the way to the House of Lords before a definitive judgement in Tolley’s favour. The principle of image rights had been established and Felix Yusupov was one of the first to take a boat across the Channel and cash in on the generosity of the English courts.

But not the last. In my role as self-appointed and unofficial Univ historian, I should point out that a third alumnus of the college achieved a similar and even more newsworthy triumph in 1967. Prime Minister Harold Wilson, a Junior Fellow at Univ in the late 1940s, successfully sued popular beat-combo, The Move, on account of promotional materials associated with the hit single ‘Flowers in the Rain’. Once again the offending item was a cartoon postcard, this time depicting Wilson in the bath with his secretary, Marcia Falkender. Wilson duly established that this was disgusting, depraved and despicable (the banner headlines on the cartoon, in fact) and won what proved to be an enormous pay-out. All royalties from the Move’s song would go to charities of Wilson’s choice in perpetuity, despite the fact that the songwriter, Roy Wood, and the band had nothing whatsoever to do with their manager, Tony Secunda’s publicity stunt. This was a verdict which has cost Wood a seven-figure sum (and counting).

So I had better watch what I say about my illustrious forebears at Oxford’s Oldest College™, saints the lot of them, even the self-confessed murderers and despots. They can afford expensive lawyers and I don’t want to fund anyone’s residential fees at the Fletcher Memorial Home. But if you are reading this after December 30th, you will probably need to sue my estate.

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