Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Royal Receptionist

My father’s office in Hamburg was in the former Gestapo HQ.  It was the North German Station of MI6 and of course I never actually got inside his office, only to a small reception area which, I remember, had a two-way mirror. When he came to collect me he would say ‘Ah, I see we have you in the interrogation chamber’.
But before I could even get that far I had to approach a sort of cinema-style ticket booth with bars separating any visitor from Vera, the multilingual receptionist. Her full name was Princess Vera Constantinovna (Romanov) and she was a great-granddaughter of Tsar Nicholas I, the last Tsar of Russia. My father had previously worked for an organization which screened the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons left in post-war Europe. When he moved across to Intelligence he took Vera with him. She was always very nice to me. At Christmas she received masses of greetings cards, many from other European royalty such as Queen Mary, the Queen Mother, the King of the Belgians and others. She would pass them to me through the bars of her little keep so I could see the royal signatures.

When I next visited my father’s office in the summer vacation I found that she had gone, moved to Paris so my father said, where she was looked after by the Russian Orthodox Church. Later I heard that she moved to New York and worked for the Tolstoy Foundation.
I remember my father saying that Vera was the last surviving member of the Romanov family who could remember Imperial Russia. And she was my friend.