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Saying Goodbye to a Jewel of a Person

The death of an old friend unveils a blue-blooded past shrouded in mystery.

March 28, 2001|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Marina Calergi and Susan Robles were clerks in the billing department at Union Oil in 1963--a job they looked back on fondly for just one reason in later years: It was where they met and became best friends.

Calergi was petite, pretty and reserved. She had what Robles calls an enchanting European accent and a great sense of fun. People seemed to want to be around her--as if they could sense there was more to Calergi than she presented to the world. There was. But it would be nearly 40 years before her glittering secret would be revealed. From the beginning of their friendship, Calergi would not discuss her past. She was divorced, but wouldn't talk about her ex-husband, even to her best friend. Calergi had started life anew in a little apartment on Descanso Drive in Silver Lake, Robles says, and wanted to keep it at that.

One day, Robles answered the office phone, and a male voice asked to speak to Countess Marina Coudenhove Calergi. Robles asked her friend about the call and the title, but Calergi politely ignored her questions. When Robles asked about a photo of an ancient castle in her friend's apartment, Calergi shrugged and said: "Oh, that's where I grew up," but would give no details.

The two women moved on to different jobs and eventually lived in separate cities, but their friendship became even closer. Calergi bought a modest house in Silver Lake the same year that Robles and her husband bought one in Oregon. By then, Calergi was working as a personal secretary for Robert Fenton Craig, a lawyer and professor at USC. Every year, the two women took a little trip together--but never to any place very swell, Robles says.

In 1975, Calergi's mother died. She asked her friend to accompany her to Europe "to tie up some loose ends." Robles recalls that they stayed in some apartments Calergi's mother had owned, and which her friend decided to sell. The sales prices were small, but what she got was what enabled her to live in modest comfort in the United States.

"One apartment was in Monte Carlo, with views right over the ocean. It was one of those 500-year-old places with marble staircases and wrought iron elevators and solid wood doors about 8 feet tall." Robles remembers being impressed and asking Calergi why she didn't keep it and rent it out.

"But Marina said she liked America and her house in Silver Lake far better," Robles recalls. "She wanted nothing to do with any of it. In fact, her proudest moment in life was when she became an American citizen around 1967 or 1968. She told me then that she wanted nothing more to do with Europe. I could only imagine that she had led a very formal, lonely and unhappy existence as a child."

As the two women grew older, Calergi had some romances, but did not marry again or have children. Robles had five children, and Calergi functioned as an aunt in their lives, Robles says. "When my children were old enough, they went to visit her in California every chance they could get. Her house was always open to them."

The two women talked to each other by phone a few times each week, and visited each other every year.

Calergi didn't like doctors. When she finally went to one, Robles was with her. She learned she had cancer that had spread. There was nothing to be done. She prepared to die, and told Robles that she would be an executor of her will. She mentioned something about some jewelry that had been her mother's that was stored in a safety deposit box.

On the day Calergi died last August, Robles was traveling to be at her friend's side.

To help her administer the estate, Robles started contacting Los Angeles lawyers. "When I told them there was probably nothing except the Silver Lake house . . . they all turned down the job," she says. So she phoned lawyer Matthew Sandy Rae, who had been a friend of Calergi's boss and who had known her in that context. He offered to assist.

When told that jewelry might be in a safety deposit box, the lawyer called Lisa Hubbard, executive director of International Jewelry for Sotheby's. She hopped into her car, she says, and met Rae and Robles at the Bank of America branch at 1st and Hill streets.

"It was a small, skinny safety deposit box, the smallest size you can get," Hubbard recalls. "When I saw it, I thought there could be nothing of great importance inside." Robles says she thought the same thing.

But when they opened the box and unwound the plastic grocery bag and paper towels that hid the contents, Hubbard says they were all stunned. "There was this exquisite suite of jewelry--necklace, large brooch, tiara and earrings." It was all set in silver-topped gold with enormous peridots, which are semi-precious stones of an intense lime-green color.

Hubbard says there are about 200 carats of diamonds in the set. "But it's the workmanship, the extraordinary designs into which the jewels are worked, that make it so precious and so rare. Even the little prongs holding the peridots have tiny diamonds at their tips," she says.

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