- Ilinca Stroe
Elena Lupescu: A Femme Fatale to Interwar Romania
When it comes to the most hated women in the history of Romania, she probably comes second only to the other greatly loathed Elena, communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu’s wife. Elena (Magda) Lupescu loomed large in Romania’s fatal course of destiny from the mid-1920s to 1940. Streaked with gossip, rumours, scandal, royal bedchamber secrets and the published recollections of friends and foes, her history is one of many guises: a seductress who perverted a king’s sacred sense of duty to his country; the grey eminence, the “power behind the throne” that rapaciously pulled the strings of Romania’s politics and economics for a whole decade of turmoil; a semi-prostitute who defiled the image and reputation of the Romanian Royal House; a loyal lifetime companion to a misunderstood afflicted king; a daring, self-confident, bossy chic woman who was too modern for her time. She was probably all of that, but above all she was King Carol II’s love of his life.
“Duduia” (“the Damosel”), as he nicknamed her, “Lupeasca” (“that Lupescu woman”), as the time’s hostile press dubbed her, and the person whom Encyclopedia Britannica defines as a “Romanian adventurer” was born in Iaşi to a family that was, according to a Police report, of Jewish descent. (However, in her own 1927 memoirs Elena mentioned, “we are not Jews, although we were said to be. I have very dear Jewish friends and, if I were Jewish, I’d be proud of it.”) She was educated at one of the best girl schools in Romania at the time, the Bucharest-based “Diaconesele”, run by Bavarian nuns of the Institute of Mary from Nymphenburg. Aged 16, she got married to an officer of the Romanian Royal Army, Ion Tâmpeanu, but garrison life did no agree with her flamboyant personality and, after a few affairs she is said to have had, that marriage ended in divorce.
A “tall redhead with milky-white skin and green eyes”, Elena was a woman with full shapes who reportedly had a “peculiar swing of the hips” which either seduced or, alternately, scandalised the onlookers. As a socialite who organised home-held poker soirées to entertain men of the world, she was a witty, well-versed conversationalist (the type you enter into a conversation with when you want, but you only stay as long as you can), she had a good sense of humour and her taste in fashion could pass, in that day and age, as “extravagantly stylish”. And so it was “that woman, seductive rather than beautiful, who had the king on his knees for life” - as conservative politician Constantin Argentoianu remarked in his memoirs.
The two met, apparently, at the screening of “The Nibelungs” at the cinema of the Royal Cultural Foundation. It was, maybe fatefully, 14 February 1925 - Lovers’ Day. They were introduced by Tudor Posmantir, a photographer and, rumours had it, dealer of pornographic albums. (For Carol, at that time a Crown Prince who had been married for four years to Helen of Greece and Denmark, was still always on the lookout for women who could satisfy his reportedly insatiable sexual appetite. Or uncontrollable need. Because at this point the hushed, shameful history whispers that Carol suffered from priapism and he was, put bluntly, simply addicted to sex as a means of alleviating his affliction.) The love affair just exploded: since the Court urged Carol to remain faithful to his wife, he fled the country, renounced his right to the throne, got reunited with his “Damosel” in Paris and went together to Italy, where they scandalously made the front page of newspapers.
Exiled together in the West, a few years followed of almost domestic happiness spiced up with insatiable passion. As Elena recalls in her 1926 memoirs written at their modest Paris villa, she was “the readhead who loves Carol ardently”. The people passing by their home might “imagine an evil woman behind those walls, a lewd woman who has succeeded in laying her claws on a prince of noble descent, turning him into a victim of love.” Instead, the two led the life of any regular couple, “we sweep, we dust, we cook, we lay the table, we do the dishes. It’s true that the prince too wants to help, contributing his bit to the housework.” Life was, she maintained, “sweet as when you love and are loved back.” Nothing was too hard to accomplish in that household “which hides in its privacy as much love as our marriage does” – where marriage was that year still wishful thinking. For while Carol did divorce the Crown Princess in 1928, he and the Damosel were only able to get married as late as 1947.
But things were happening in Romania. Carol’s father, King Ferdinand, died, the regency that followed became weak and unstable in a couple of years, and the situation was ripe for a constitutional coup. And Carol stepped right in. He returned to Bucharest, claimed the throne and on 8 June 1930 was proclaimed King. He had promised, in return, to end his affair with “Lupeasca” and try to restore his marriage to Helen of Greece and Denmark. Promising cost nothing. And it came to nothing. For soon after the coronation, the Damosel joined Carol in Bucharest. He bought her a villa in a select inner suburb, which soon became the hub of decision-making in Romania. Movers and shakers (industrialists Max Auschnitt and Nicolae Malaxa, press magnate Pamfil Șeicaru and blue-blooded aristocrat Marthe Bibesco) attended the informal gatherings of what was called the King’s “camarilla”, presided by the Damosel who now had full control over the monarch. The “craftiest money maker in Romania”, as Time magazine referred to her in 1937, Elena Lupescu facilitated hearings with the King and put in a word with him in exchange for the right price. Corruption, favouritism and nepotism blossomed, and in 1938 Carol II felt confident enough to proclaim a royal dictatorship.
Two years later, however, with Romania trapped between two opposing forces on the rise (Hitler’s Germany and the Soviet Union), Carol decided he didn’t want to be king anymore. In 1940, he abdicated. On board of a train with 12 cars reportedly loaded with valuable paintings and other riches, the ex-“playboy king” and his Demosel left Romania for good to settle in Mexico City. There, as Romania’s situation worsened, they did try unsuccessfully to form a government in exile, but ended up focusing on and enjoying their personal life together. Free from the Romanian Constitution’s limitations (it was forbidden for Romania’s Crown Princes and Kings to marry Romanian citizens), Carol and the Demosel were finally able to get officially married in 1947 in Rio de Janeiro. She became Princess Elena of Romania and heiress of Carol’s fortune.
Each 14 February was celebrated emotionally by the couple as their anniversary. “To the Demosel and me, this is a great day,” wrote Carol in 1943. “It’s the anniversary of our coupling. 18 years have passed since that fortunate day which changed the course of my life. I think few couples have been able to keep up love so constantly over so many years. We’ve been together through so many things, we’ve had good days, but especially painful and hard to bear ones. Our love stood up to them all, and here we are in this welcoming Mexico, where she is my only support, the only person I can count on with love and trust.” And on the same day, three years later: “Today I’ve shed any ambition and design except for that of making her feel at peace, securing for her the place she is entitled to.” Carol’s long-lasting love was anything but shy: “she is the essence of my life, the divine talisman and, in hardship, my supreme shelter. This love is such that I cannot conceive of life without it. I have an imperious need of her, second by second. She’s indispensable to me. Flesh of my flesh. This woman brings me infinite joy.”
He died of a heart attack in 1953 in Portugal. She parted with him forever bending over the coffin and whispering: “Adieu, amour de toute ma vie.” She outlived him by twenty-four years. And when her time finally came, in 1977 at Estoril, she reportedly called out her mother’s name three times in three languages – none of which was Romanian. She and the country whose destiny she (unthinkingly) pushed to a historical chasm, as she claimed for herself the dedicated king it needed so badly in times of crisis, remained at odds to the very end… If anything, an extraordinary love story is left behind, in which a man’s desperate desire for love and a woman’s eagerness to give love intertwine, defiant of duty, righteousness and opposition.
International House Bucharest, through its Romanian Language Department, runs online and face-to-face Romanian courses and cultural integration workshops for foreigners living in Romania or interested in the country’s culture, language or history. For more information, click here. To enrol, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also watch our video series “Your Romanian Class” and subscribe to our YouTube channel, or listen to our series of podcasts “Ascultă româneşte”.