Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea,
And love is a thing that can never go wrong
And I am Marie of Rumania.
Queen Marie of Romania (1875–1938) was a statuesque beauty whose reign was notable for diligence, common-sense and decency, attributes not normally associated with Romania but that may have been because Marie was born in Britain. Under Marie, Bucharest was transformed from a Wallachian backwater to one of Europe’s most urbane capitals, a city where Dresden’s porcelain charm met the theatric seediness of the Parisian demi-monde.
Unfortunately, Marie’s heir, King Carol II, very much continued the country’s sordid reputation as a den of swindlers, pimps, Gypsies and loose women; as Bismarck supposedly sneered, “Romania’s not a country, it’s a profession.” King Carol II was a thief and a sex maniac whose arrogance was matched only by his venality and priapism. Romanians were willing to swallow his faults to a degree, but they refused to digest his long-running affair with a red-headed Jewess named Magda Lupescu, whose surname meant “Wolf.” Raised in a rural village, the Wolf slept her way to the top, going from officers at provincial garrisons to the royal palace in Bucharest, where she solidified her influence with a cohort of crooked industrialists desperate to maintain control of the nation. Lupescu’s notoriety as a courtesan eclipsed even that of “The Crow,” a depraved cocaine addict who wore nothing but black dresses and heavy kohl makeup. Gossips whispered that Carol had also slept with the Crow, screwing the bawd until she was finally carried out of the palace semi-conscious and drooling. Later the King abandoned his wife for the Wolf, and together they brazenly swanned around the Continental resort circuit, spending freely from the millions Carol had filched from the Romanian state and deposited in foreign banks.
It was against this backdrop of smuttiness and corruption that the Iron Guard rose up. The Guard was led by an anti-Semitic zealot named Corneliu Codreanu, who instilled in his followers a uniquely Romanian form of fascism. In lieu of revolutionary cells, the underground movement was organized into small, self-contained units called a cuib, meaning “nest,’ whose members drank each other’s blood in vampirical ceremonies of brotherhood. Along with these nests, the green-clad Guardists also had traveling choruses called Death Squads, who got their moniker by risking death or imprisonment as they went from town to town extolling fascism through the power of song.
Codreanu hardly needed minstrels to create an impression, though. Trained as a lawyer, with shining black hair, burning eyes, and hawk-like features, and riding the countryside wearing all white atop a white stallion, he was as if a young and hungry Lucifer had come to Romania to preach crusade. In time, the Guard’s pogroms became so frenzied that even Hitler was disgusted when they fed Jews through the saws of an abattoir, afterwards stamping the corpses “fit for human consumption.”
Eventually a pliable general contrived with the Nazis to suppress the uncontrollable Guard, and its members were hunted down and arrested. Codreanu was garroted by his jailors, who then poured acid on the corpse before burying it in a pit beneath seven tons of concrete. Codreanu’s spirit continued to stalk the land, however, and peasants claimed that they saw his white phantom riding through the night, calling his undead brethren to arms again from out of the grave.
By the end of the war, Romanian soldiers fought with both the Wehrmacht and the Red Army, which only meant the country was bombed, pillaged, brutalized and occupied by each side. In the process, they helped the SS deport almost all of Odessa’s Jews, obliterating that once vibrant Black Sea community of merchants, smugglers and gangsters depicted in the stories of Isaac Babel. Babel was killed during one of Stalin’s purges, murdered more for his writings (and his womanizing) than his Jewishness, though being a Jew did not help. But not even the Soviet inquisitors were perverse enough to inscribe Babel’s corpse as fit for consumption, least of all by poor Queen Marie, who was fortunate to pass away before war and madness wrecked all her efforts to make Romania a strong, respected nation. Sadly, now, the last good ruler of Romania and the most celebrated beauty of her time is almost completely forgotten except as a passing quip in one of Dorothy Parker’s typically acerbic lyrics on the theme of permanence and a pleasurable destiny.
Tobias Seamon is author of the novel The Magician’s Study, a short story collection The Emperor’s Toy Chest, and the novella The Fair Grounds. A contributing writer with the online magazine The Morning News, he lives in Albany, New York.
Photo: “Shells” by Courtney Bernardo