Incidents of War - The Grand Duke and the Actress
Like many other scions of ruling families, the Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich Romanov (1850-1908), fourth son of Tsar Alexander II, did his bit in uniform. In Alexei’s case it was a naval uniform.
While still a junior officer, the Grand Duke accompanied a Russian squadron on a world cruise in 1871-1872. During this cruise, Alexei spent several months in the United States, where He visited 34 cities, donating large sums to help the poor, while attending fetes and galas, hobnobbing with the rich, the powerful, and the social climbers, and reportedly cutting quite a swathe through the ladies. In the course of the tour, on January 14, 1872, he celebrated his 22nd birthday on a buffalo hunt in Nebraska, with William “Buffalo Bill” Cody as his guide and in the company of Lt. Gen. Philip Sheridan, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, and the Brulé Sioux Chief Spotted Tail.
Now although like many other princely officers, Alexei tended to be promoted fairly rapidly, he did prove a surprisingly good officer. He performed his duties well, and despite being given command at a rather younger age than normal in the Russian service, demonstrated some skill as a ship handler and captain.
Nevertheless, when, his brother Tsar Alexander III appointed the 31 year old Grand Duke High Admiral and Commander of the Imperial Navy in 1881, there was some question as to his suitability for the assignment. Surprisingly, Alexei proved a diligent naval administrator, and particularly devoted himself to building up the Russian fleet. By 1903 he had helped increase it by 32 battleships, six armored cruisers, 17 smaller cruisers, 23 gunboats, and squadrons of destroyers and torpedo boats.
Meanwhile, like many another nobleman, the duke acquired a series of mistresses (apparently he never married, despite rumors linking him in marriage to the mistress who bore him his only known offspring, a son). Around 1900, the Grand Duke acquired a new mistress, an actress at the French Theatre in St. Petersburg named Mademoiselle Balleta. Alexei spent a lot of rubles on La Balleta, how much can never be known, and she presumably expressed her gratitude appropriately. Now this was hardly unusual for the times. But in 1904 a little problem developed, as the Russo-Japanese War broke out in the Far East. During the war the Russian fleet did not do well, a series of reverses being crowned by a disastrous defeat in the Battle of Tsu-shima Straits (May 27–28, 1905).
Blame for the navy’s poor showing was popularly attributed to Alexei. And he certainly deserved it. While he had done a fairly good job of expanding the fleet, he had done little to root out corruption or improve training, which were the principal causes of the Russian disaster. Surprisngly, La Balleta became a lightning rod for the hostility aimed at the Duke. Rumors circulated that he had dipped into navy funds to buy her gifts. Things began to get too hot for her in St. Petersburg. At one performance, she no sooner appeared on the stage when people began hissing and shouting rude comments. The very next day she left for Paris, where Alexei had given her what Princess Catherine Radziwill called “a gorgeous apartment” near the Champs Élysées. A few days afterwards, Alexei was dismissed from command of the navy by his nephew, Tsar Nicholas II.
Alexei also headed for Paris, where he settled into a house on the Avenue Gabriel. Over the next few years the Grand Duke was a frequent visitor to La Balleta’s digs near the Champs Élysées, which he found so comfortable that he reportedly often “forgot” to return to his own place. In fact, it was in Balleta’s apartment that he caught pneumonia, from which he shortly died, in his paramour’s arms.
With the Grand Duke gone, La Balleta’s meal ticket went too. Apparently never having put anything aside for a rainy day, she soon found herself in a financial bind. She managed for a time to get by through the sale of the jewelry, art works, furnishings, and other items that Alexei had given her, but eventually vanishes.
Years later, evidence was forthcoming that Balleta actually had been a Japanese spy, though apparently the pay wasn’t all that great, or maybe she just couldn’t hold on to her money, however she acquired it.