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LOS ANGELES | L.A. THEN AND NOW

Self-Styled Russian 'Noble' Was Prince of Beverly Hills

August 25, 2002|CECILIA RASMUSSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Hollywood stars went out at night during the 1940s and '50s, Romanoffs restaurant was their playground, where highbrow desserts and high-living actors mixed with celebrity fistfights and legendary elan.

Fans loitered at the entrance to catch a glimpse of their favorite stars. Inside, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz would be doing the rumba and Joan Crawford the Charleston. Myrna Loy and her producer husband, Arthur Hornblow Jr., celebrated their divorce there, and Jayne Mansfield famously upstaged Sophia Loren when her breasts "accidentally" fell out of her dress.

Errol Flynn hosted feasts of roasted suckling pigs there. MCA executives held court to set actors' salaries. Gossip columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper finally made peace. And the restaurant owner, a self-styled prince who called himself Michael Romanoff, dined daily with his two English bulldogs--Socrates and Confucius--and handed out toothbrushes to patrons.

It was a time when everyone who was anyone in Hollywood ate at Romanoffs, Chasen's, Perino's or the Brown Derby, then hit nightclubs like the Mocambo, Ciro's, the Cocoanut Grove or the Trocadero.

Those were the days when a star was a star and a restaurant was not just a hangout or a famous dish but an establishment in which to see and be seen.

Romanoff, crowned by Life magazine as "the most wonderful liar in the 20th century U.S.," helped to mold the culinary and social character of Beverly Hills for more than two decades.

Under the mythical cloak of a suavely elegant Russian noble, Romanoff was perhaps the world's greatest impostor. Legendary for his charm and outrageous tall tales, he remained tight-lipped about the stars' secrets. He rose from the slums of New York City to become a toast of Hollywood. Almost everyone knew him to be a grand old fraud, but they loved him in spite of it--or maybe because of it.

Although he claimed to be part of the Russian imperial family to win the hearts of celebrities, immigration officials listed him as Hershel Geguzin, a name he later changed to Harry F. Gerguson. He was born in 1890 in a Jewish village in Lithuania. His father died before his birth, leaving a widow with six children to raise.

When he was 10, his mother feared for the safety of her incorrigible youngest and sent him to America with a cousin.

Still rebellious, he ran away from the cousin, as well as from orphanages and assorted brutal caretakers. He survived on the streets of New York by working odd jobs as a newspaper boy and a bellhop. His thirst for an education came late in his teens, when he worked his way through a private high school.

After graduating, he worked on a cattle ship bound for England. There, he honed his skills and picked up an Oxbridge accent. When he was caught impersonating an English aristocrat and throwing a lavish party that he couldn't afford, he was tossed into jail for the duration of World War I. Scotland Yard listed him as "a rogue of uncertain origin."

Before returning to America in the early 1920s, he lived in Paris, working at a library where he met two Russian gentlemen who impressed him enough to try his hand again as a master of disguise. This time, he went with Russian nobility, calling himself Prince Michael.

Back in the U.S., he hopscotched between the East and West coasts, playing bit parts on Broadway and working in Hollywood as an extra. He even grandstanded by democratically downplaying his supposed imperial birthright--he said he was the nephew of the last czar--and foregoing the title of grand duke. " 'Prince Michael' is good enough," he'd say.

Trail of Unpaid Bills

Caught up in the swirl of cocktail parties and movie premieres, he also left a trail of unpaid hotel and restaurant bills and a few broken hearts. His charade as a Russian aristocrat was blown at a Hollywood dinner party in the late 1920s, when former Maj. Gen. Theodor Lodijensky of the Russian Imperial Guard confronted him. Lodijensky, who was working as a technical director for one of the studios, said he had known the original Prince Michael Romanov in Russia.

Romanoff "can't even speak Russian," Lodijensky snorted.

But the truth didn't matter; the growing legend did. In the 1920s, people loved fantastic stunt stories, and Romanoff was the darling of the press. Despite the disclosure that he was an impostor, he continued living his fantasy, eager to oblige the scandalmongers.

When word spread that he was a regular at the Clover Club, a casino, huge crowds followed. The club is said to have repaid Romanoff for his presence by allowing him to win tidy sums.

In the late 1930s, restaurateur Dave Chasen invited him to eat for free. It was there that Romanoff's restaurant career got going.

Once he was reportedly dining with a group of unruly and drunken friends, who felt ignored as they yelled orders at the waiters. Some of them turned to him and said: "Mike, you're going to open your own joint."

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