It’s no secret that I am fascinated by the “Marrying Mdivanis,” the moniker given to the 5 Mdivani siblings who styled themselves as princes and princesses and who liked to marry well…and often. Marrying and being in the public eye became a family business. Hollywood, enthralled by this glamorous family and with royalty being en vogue at the time (when has it not been?), no one seemed to care that their credentials didn’t really check out. They were part of the “first wave” of princes to hit Hollywood and their actress wives would become some of Hollywood’s first batch of royalty (depending on how you look at it). I’ve written about this before and bits of the post are recycled in the next two paragraphs below (in case they look a bit familiar).
Generally recognized in hindsight as members of the aristocracy who exaggerated their status, the Mdivani brothers (and sisters) were pretty much the epitome of “fake it ‘til you make it.” They weren’t actual royalty, but were high up on the food chain in their homeland, the Russian state of Georgia. Their father, General Zakhari Mdivani had once been aide de camp to Csar Nicholas II. As far as titles go, the Mdivanis may have only been guilty of milking a tradition for all its worth. One news article by the Detroit Free Press noted that all it took to be acknowledged as a “prince” by the Russian Imperial Court was to be someone who “owned a pair of shoes, stone houses, flocks of sheep, and rifles.”
After the tides turned against the Russian royal family during the Russian Revolution, the 5 Mdivani siblings (Nina, Serge, David, Alexis, and Isabelle Roussadana “Roussy”) fled the Bolsheviks to Paris then elsewhere, leaving behind their wealth. The now penniless brothers eventually ended up in the United States making ends meet by working in the oil fields of Oklahoma while hinting of their ambiguous royal status before finally ending up in Hollywood. The artistic Roussy (Princess Roussadana to you) worked in Hollywood making busts of actors, until she realized that a title was a better claim to fame. She sent for her brothers and they took to making Hollywood theirs with apparently one goal: marry rich. Announcing themselves as Georgian princes and princesses, the exotic, exciting, and attractive Mdivanis made a splash in 1920s title-obsessed Hollywood and two of them ended up marrying two of its biggest stars.
Mae Murray and Pola Negri were both popular actresses on the verge of decline when they married their Mdivanis in 1925 and 1926, respectively. Mae was a dancer in the Follies before she made her screen debut in 1916. Over the next couple years she would become a lead actress of the silent era, known for her famous “bee stung” pucker and her vivacity. Pola had been a popular actress in her native Poland then in Germany before being summoned to the United States in 1922, becoming the first European acting import to Hollywood. 1922 was probably the best year career-wise for both. They would be among the top 10 box office stars of the year (Pola was #6, Mae #7), and the only women on the list aside from America’s savvy sweetheart Mary Pickford and the extremely popular Anita Stewart. While Mae had worked her way up the ladder to be as popular as she was in American film, Pola arrived a star. They were both dramatic actresses, but Mae’s films were a bit lighter, slanting more towards romance and jazz era dance numbers where blonde Mae could show off her skills. Raven haired Pola was primarily a tragedienne and vamp.
David and Serge Mdivani were their lean, athletic, and attractive twenty something counterparts. Serge had the dark looks of a latin lover a la Valentino while David was blond and fair.
It was actually Pola’s mother, Eleanor Chalupec, who gave the Mdivani boys entree into the society of actresses like Mae and Pola. He became her bridge partner and was soon invited to parties thrown by and for Pola and her mother. It was at one of these parties that David met Mae Murray. Stories vary of Mae’s seduction by and engagement to David: he found her asleep on a couch at the party and woke her with a kiss; he followed her around for days, eventually sneaking into her bedroom; he chased her; she proposed to him. Either way, they both had something to gain from this marriage: David would have access to Mae’s wealth and Hollywood panache; Mae would go from being a princess of Hollywood in spirit to a bonafide princess (well, in theory). Titles were all the rage in Hollywood at that time and some of Mae’s chief screen rivals had already acquired them. It may have felt good to one-up Gloria Swanson, Mae’s rival for most fashionable actress as well as box office competition, who became a marquise when she married Henry de La Falaise, the Marquis de La Coudraye in 1925. There was also Pola, who herself had come to America on a wave of glamour as the Countess Dambski, having married Polish Count Eugeniusz Dąmbski in 1919 (they were divorced by 1922, the same year she arrived in Hollywood).
In addition to being box office competitors, Mae and Pola had both enjoyed passionate romances with the screen’s most electrifying lover of the time, Rudolph Valentino. In fact, he narrowly pre-dated each of their Mdivani romances. Michael G. Ankerich’s book Mae Murray: The Girl With the Bee Stung Lips, remarked that “Mae’s affair with Rudy continued into the Spring of 1926, right up to the time she married David Mdivani.” Rudy was also dating Pola around this time and they attended Mae and David’s wedding on June 27, 1926 together (Rudy was best man).
One upping Pola, the Countess Dambski, may have been satisfying for Mae, the new Princess Mdivani, but whatever victory she may have enjoyed would be short-lived.
After Rudy’s sudden and tragic death two months after Mae’s wedding (Pola’s theatrics at his funeral would become legend), Pola would rebound with David’s brother Serge Mdivani and marry him on May 14, 1927, making her a Princess Mdivani as well.
Notably, and to the delight of the press, Mae and David did not attend the wedding, instead taking a trip to Africa. “There were no telegrams of congratulations nor any wedding gifts from the ‘Mae Mdivanis’ to the ‘Pola Mdivanis'” snarked one newspaper. Prior to this, Mae had a spat with Louella Parsons who let the cat out of the bag about Pola and Serge’s plans to marry. All this did was cement the impression that Mae was jealous.
Mae and Pola’s perceived rivalry after they both became known as Princess Mdivani quickly became tabloid gold. While Mae was, according to her biographer Ankerich, “livid at the thought of two Princess Mdivanis in Hollywood,” and irritated at Pola for stealing her royal thunder, Pola’s main source of ire seemed to be more with those who wanted to steal away her title completely. Soon after they wed, the Mdivani family’s royal claims were called into question and they were essentially outed by the press. The Mdivanis (backed by Pola) would fiercely claim that their titles were inherited after being bestowed on the family by the reigning Czar in the 1700s. Lawsuits were threatened, genealogists were consulted, and Serge even offered to go to court to testify on it (he wouldn’t and he didn’t), but the seed of doubt was still planted. The Mdivanis went from royal hunks from abroad to possibly royal, but definitely sensational tabloid fodder. For the rest of their time in the spotlight, they were acknowledged as royalty, but always with a hint of snark and sarcasm. In essence, people just decided to play along, as if aware of the joke while pretending they didn’t know the punch line. The Mdivanis’ unabashed familial trend of blatant social climbing only added fuel to the fire. The “marrying Mdivanis” they became and their exes became known as members of the “ex-princess club” or, even more bluntly and often accurately, “victims.”
A few years into each marriage and Mae and Pola probably would have agreed with that description. Mae was something of a golden princess, sitting high on a glass hill. She lived fast and free and didn’t appear to or seem to believe she could age (perhaps with good reason; she was 41 years old and still a popular leading lady when she married 26 year old David). But when the hill shattered, romantic and impractical Mae had no safety net to fall into. Before she knew it, her millions were spent, her career was gone, and she was a divorcee once again (David had been her fourth marriage) in 1933. They would battle for custody over their son Koran for the next several years.
Pola proved a bit more realistic about the situation and got a prenup before she wed. Still, Serge got to work spending her money in the casinos before they even had a chance to honeymoon (one of his other moves was buying her gifts with her own money). Her Mdivani marriage ended in 1931, just under four years after it began. Pola had suffered a miscarriage during the marriage, a loss which devastated her and distanced the couple. When she lost her riches in the stock market crash, Serge saw no reason to stick around.
Now divorced and significantly less wealthy, the actresses were also no longer the stars they once were. Their Mdivani marriages both signaled the beginning of the end to their careers. Mae had bailed on her film obligations in favor of a honeymoon with David, much to her studio MGM’s chagrin. She soon parted ways with MGM, a misstep which her career would not rebound from. After this, she had a hard time finding work in Hollywood and made her last film in 1931. Pola’s fame took a hit after she married Serge, a move loyal Valentino fans saw as insulting. This and the introduction of talkies signaled the end of her Hollywood career. She left Hollywood when silent films were shown the door and resumed her acting career overseas for the next decade.
As for the Mdivanis, their marriages, lawsuits, and antics kept them a draw for the tabloids, even in death. The youngest Mdivani brother Alexis had already divorced two heiresses (Louise Astor Van Alen and Barbara Hutton) when he died in a car crash in Spain at age 30. Serge married Alexis’ first wife Louise the following year and then died only weeks later after falling and being kicked by his horse during a polo match. David, who had once listed his career as “oil engineer” and then “oil executive” on his naturalization papers and application, came full circle when he married Sinclair oil heiress Virgina Sinclair, though they would also eventually divorce.
The Mdivanis have since faded from public memory, resurfacing only here and there and usually with the hint of a smirk. Still, they remain a fascinating family and an intriguing interlude in Hollywood’s history.
- Gabler, Neal. “How an Early Hollywood Family Became the Original Kardashians.” Lamag.com, Los Angeles Magazine, 29 Nov. 2016.
- “‘Then, You’re Not a Princess, Either!”.” The Ogden Standard-Examiner, 24 July 1927, p. 15.
- Ankerich, Michael G. Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips. The University Press of Kentucky, 2013.
- Kotowski, Mariusz. Pola Negri: Hollywoods First Femme Fatale. Univ. Press of Kentucky, 2014.