She was the granddaughter of Emperor Alexander II and the cousin of Nicholas II. Her beauty was praised by Remarque and Saint-Exupery, she shone on the covers of magazines and inspired the French elite, but at the same time she was unhappy and ended her life in seclusion. We tell you how an aristocrat in exile conquered the world of French fashion, but could not become happy.
Natalie Paley in 1938
At the beginning of the XX century, the work of a model was not at all the limit of dreams for many girls and was not associated with a privileged life. Therefore, when the aristocrat Natasha Paley told her mother that she would work as a model, this news became akin to a catastrophe for the family.
Natalie Paley was the daughter of Prince Pavel Alexandrovich Romanov, the granddaughter of Emperor Alexander II and was a cousin of Nicholas II. Her family lived abroad for a while, but then returned to the Russian Empire. The usual course of life of an aristocratic family changed with the beginning of the revolution in 1917. When the Bolsheviks came to power, soldiers were placed in Paley’s luxurious mansion, and the family was kept under house arrest. Natalia’s half-brother Grand Duke Dmitry participated in the murder of Grigory Rasputin in 1916, for which he was exiled to the border with Iran. Her brother Prince Vladimir Paley was killed by revolutionaries in July 1918, and a year later her father was shot. Natalia’s mother and two daughters were miraculously saved, and the family decided to flee to Europe.
Sisters Irina and Natalie in childhood
They spent some time in Sweden, and then went to Paris, where many friends and relatives took refuge. Despite the kinship with the royal dynasty, it was not easy for the Paley family. Money became less and less, and Natalie had to get a job. Then the girl said that she had decided to become a model. At that time, the profession was considered “low”, and the mother was horrified by this news. However, over time, she relented and allowed her daughter to work as a model — in full confidence that this girl would ruin her life.
A wide circle of acquaintances allowed Natalie to get into high Parisian society. Here she met Coco Chanel, who admired the beauty of the girl and recommended her to the couturier and founder of the fashion house Lucien Lelong. The designer instantly fell under the spell of Paley and made her not only his favorite model, but also his wife.
Natalie Paley with her husband Lucen Lelong
In the highest circles of Russian emigration, marriage with Lelong seemed extremely unprofitable and even shameful — yet she was a princess with Romanov blood. In addition, there were rumors about Lelong’s unconventional orientation. But Natalie’s career went uphill. She shot for magazines and showed clothes of the most prestigious fashion houses in Paris. Her husband dedicated his new collections to her, and the Parisian beau monde extolled and imitated her impeccable manners. She was a favorite model of the great photographers of her time — Edward Steichen, Cecil Beaton, Andre Durst and George Heuningen-Huen.
While still married, Natalie began dating ballet dancer Serge Lifar, who danced in Diaghilev’s “Russian Seasons”. Serge attracted Natalie with his charisma and talent, and he, in turn, was fascinated by the beauty of Paley. Natalie was well aware of Serge’s homosexuality, but she didn’t care, since their relationship was more sentimental and platonic than physical. The novel lasted two years. In the end, when Serge had to choose between Natalie and his career, he chose the latter. Nevertheless, they remained close friends for life.
Natalie Paley and Victor Kraft in a 1935 shoot
Natalie Paley and Victor Kraft in a 1935 shoot
In the 30s, Natalie begins to get involved in the world of cinema. She was incredibly photogenic, and luxurious dresses from Lelong made her even brighter on the screen. However, Paley’s acting abilities were evaluated by critics much lower than the ability to pose in front of the camera. Despite this, she was invited to Hollywood, where Natalie starred in two films. And in one of the films, her partners were the rising stars of American cinema Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant.
During this period, fate brought her together with the writer Jean Cocteau, with whom she began an affair. This relationship, again, was rather platonic, but Cocteau even considered marrying her. Some historians suggest that Paley became pregnant by Cocteau and had an abortion, which is why she subsequently never had children.
The relationship with Lelong cracked pretty quickly, but officially Lucien and Natalie divorced only ten years later. After parting with couturier Paley married theater producer John Chalman Wilson and began to develop an acting career in the United States, not forgetting about the work of a model. However, she was still unlucky in her personal life, and her marriage to Wilson also turned out to be unhappy – her husband became addicted to alcohol.
Natalie will have two more novels in her life, both times with famous writers. In the early 40s, she met Antoine de Saint-Exupery. A year after they met, he returned to France, but continued to write to her. And soon Natalie met Remarque. His lover then was Marlene Dietrich, a good friend of Natalie. He wrote about Paley after one of the first meetings: “Natasha P. Has a beautiful face, gray eyes, slim as a teenager. A few words, flirting, delicate skin of the face and lips, suddenly demanding… A beautiful, clean, focused face, a long body — an Egyptian cat. At first there is a feeling that you have fallen in love with a cougar …”.
This relationship lasted eleven years. At first they were stormy and passionate, with scenes of jealousy on both sides, but then more and more calm. When Remarque left for Switzerland, Natalie went with him. Their relationship faded when the writer fell in love with actress Paulette Goddard. Natalie decided to return to the USA, to her almost forgotten spouse.
In 1961, John Wilson died of cirrhosis of the liver, and Natalie suffered from a very severe form of depression. For the last decade, the legendary Parisian style icon has lived very lonely, rarely contacting the outside world. She chose the path of a recluse, leaving the modeling business, a lot of friends and went into the shadows for almost 20 years.
In the early 80s, Natalie Paley-Wilson broke her hip neck. Doctors made a terrible diagnosis: the woman will remain motionless until death. Chained to a bed in an empty room, she could not cope with loneliness and committed suicide. Natalie was seventy-six, she didn’t want to be a burden to anyone. “I want to leave with honor,” she wrote in a suicide note.