Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

The Prince of Darkness

Jul 01, 2024 by Marlene Wagman-Geller


            When compiling a guest list, one should be wary of who is excluded. In the Grimm Brothers’ Sleeping Beauty, (Aurora in the Disney version), a king and queen neglected to invite a fairy to their feast to celebrate their daughter’s birth. Infuriated at her omission, she vowed retribution. Her curse: on the princess’s sixteenth birthday, she would prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. Had an American ambassador’s wife heeded the warning of the German fairy tale, she would have saved her child from one of the most heinous chapters of history. 

            Insofar as she was the possessor of the gifts of beauty, wealth, and acclaim, Muriel White was the twentieth century Sleeping Beauty. Muriel was born in Paris, on October 12, 1880, (my birthday, not my year of birth). Her father, diplomat Henry White, was a signer of the Treaty of Versailles who earned the praise of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Muriel’s mother, Margaret “Daisy” née Stuyvesant Rutherford, descended from several of America’s most eminent families. Writers Edith Wharton and Henry James praised her beauty that John Singer Sergeant captured in a portrait. When Daisy took ill, Muriel, fluent in six languages, served as hostess. As a golden girl of the Gilded Age, the expectation was Muriel would make a marvelous matrimonial match.

            However, at age twenty-nine, Muriel was still single, a fact she laid at her mother’s door. The Whites had attended a dinner in Rome presided over by the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to the royal Italian court. Sparks flew between Muriel and the Viscount Lascelles, heir to the fifth earl of Harewood’s estate, an attaché at the British embassy in Paris, and easy on the eyes. The ambassador’s daughter felt she had found her Prince Charming-but the weaving sisters determined a different destiny.

            Because Daisy had neglected to invite Donna Nicoletta, the Duchess of Grazioli, to a grand reception in Rome, retaliation followed. After discovering that Viscount Lascelles was in love with Muriel and planned to propose, the Duchess, through machinations worthy of a Maleficent, destroyed the match. Thwarted in his pursuit, the Viscount married Her Royal Highness Mary, the Princess Royal, the only daughter of King George V and Queen Mary. A despondent Muriel found solace in a man who led to a singular destiny.

            While in Berlin to attend official functions at Kaiser Wilhelm II’s court, Muriel met Count Hans Christoph Seherr-Thoss, (Manni), from one of the oldest noble families in Prussia. As the first-born son, he was heir to several castles in Silesia; his family tree included Catherine the Great. For her fiancée, Muriel was willing to part with her family, country, and religion.

            In honor of the nuptials of the ambassador’s daughter, the Dames des Halles offered their well-wishes. The clique held the traditional privilege of welcoming a future queen to their shores. When Marie Antoinette had first entered Paris, the Dames des Halles had greeted her with a welcome procession.

            The White-Seherr-Thoss wedding took place in Paris’ St. Joseph’s Church in the greatest social event of the season. The father of the bride held a reception at the American embassy that included 500 guests. The bride received splendid gifts: a sapphire and diamond bracelet and ring from Manni, a pearl and diamond pendant from financier J. Pierpont Morgan, a white and gold dinner service of Sèvres china from the French president. The American Aurora was on the road to her happily ever after in Castle Dobrau-a Polish word that translates to good.

            The expression the times makes the man applied to Countess Seherr-Thoss who became a dramatic persona in World War II. Muriel was visiting Queen Geraldine when Italy invaded Albania that forced the royal family to flee. As the storm clouds gathered over east Europe, the wealthy American woman was in the eye of Europe’s storm. While her husband was in bed with the Nazis-the Count invited Hermann Göring to hunt at Dobrau-Muriel never let the Hakenkreuz supplant the cross. In 1937, Muriel hosted a dinner for an American friend when two SS officers barged past the butler and stormed into the dining-room.  The enraged bulls demanded to know why no party flags flew from their home. While the countess responded it was because she did not support The Third Reich, her husband assured them they were welcome to hoist their flag. Muriel’s retort, “Very well, hang the flags upside down in the hall bathroom, and make sure they trail on the floor!” Muriel’s contempt of Hitler’s henchmen extended to her husband who she referred to as “her weaker half.” She divorced the father of her three children.

            Shedding her earlier anti-Semitism, Muriel used her diplomatic contacts to obtain a life-saving visa for tailor Arthur Lederer, who had sewn clothes for the royal court, Hungarian counts, and the Maharaja of Jaipur. Arthur fled to Australia; his wife brought along the key to her front door in Vienna as a memento of their lost world.  The heiress with a heart was instrumental in the escape of two British pilots from Lambinowice, a prisoner of war camp situated on the outskirts of her estate. The American woman was aware Auschwitz awaited if word leaked of her activism against The Third Reich.

            Dobrau transformed to a prison as the Nazis had confiscated the countesses’ passport, sealing off the escape route to America. In 1943, a black car with SS officers pulled up to the entrance of the ancient estate. The countess hurried to her castle’s tower; it was time for her rendezvous with the spinning wheel. Muriel’s tragedy was instead of a fairytale life with Prince Charming, the spinning sisters had decreed her destiny was the Prince of Darkness.

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