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Even though Vladimir's cupidity went before him, he was redeemed by his exemplary good taste. He was keenly intelligent and cultured, a man whose refinement thus raised him above the level of merely an "old buck about town." He was extremely erudite—history and art being his passions—an amateur painter of some talent, and a collector of icons. In St. Petersburg he served from 1876 to his death as president of the Imperial Fine Arts Academy and enjoyed an extremely influential position in the art world. Russian money was always welcome in Paris and, as British ambassador's daughter Meriel Buchanan recalled, Grand Duke Vladimir "did not merely engage in reckless extravagance" when in Paris, "but... spent many hours at museums and art galleries, collecting paintings and antiques."

The Russian aristocracy fitted in perfectly with Le Tout-Paris of the Belle Époque, which operated as one large private club with its own rules. The French press regularly titillated readers with stories of the vices and eccentricities of the grand dukes, particularly tales of their behavior at Maxim's restaurant, "where everybody except the épouse légitime [legitimate spouse] went" for a rollicking night out. Here you could just as easily rub shoulders with "Prince Galitzine, Prince Karageorgevitch, Prince George of Greece, and, of course, Vladimir and his sons." A tale was also told of a cousin of Vladimir's, Grand Duke Sergey Mikhailovich, who was well known for gambling for high stakes in Cannes. At Maxim's one evening, Grand Duke Sergey presented his mistress, Augustine de Lierre—one of Paris's grandes cocottes (high-class prostitutes)—"with a 20-million franc necklace of pearls tastefully served on a platter of oysters." Other grand dukes vied over the favors of her fellow courtesan, the Spanish dancer La Belle Otero, who on one occasion returned from a trip to St. Petersburg with a traveling case full of diamonds, emeralds, and rubies.

Grand Duke Vladimir was as lavish in his tips as his spending, even "adding a number of unmounted gems to the gold coin tossing" at Maxim's on one occasion. As his cousin Grand Duke Alexander—better known as Sandro*—later recalled, Vladimir's visits to Paris "meant a red-letter day for the chefs and maîtres-d'hotel of the Ville Lumière, where, after making a terrific row about the 'inadequacy' of the menus he would invariably finish the evening by putting a lavish tip in every hand capable of being stretched out."

By the late nineteenth century, so popular were the wealthy Russians in Paris that they were nicknamed "the Boyars." At his famous cabaret in Montmartre, the singer Aristide Bruant would yell out "Here come the Cossacks" whenever the Russians descended for an evening's carousing. On such occasions the Russian grand dukes tended to favor the private rooms—or cabinets particuliers—in which to enjoy the charms of French courtesans. But sometimes when the Boyars were out for a whirl, their behavior got out of hand: one particular count was "partial to making pincushion designs with a sharp-pronged fork on a woman's bare bosom," and a group of Russian officers "played an interesting little game with loaded revolvers. They'd turn off all the lights, then fire in every direction. The extent of the human damage was hushed up but the material damage was stupendous, and their equerries paid royally for the frolic."

Not all grand dukes came away unscathed, however. One such unnamed but very wealthy one had spent the night at a restaurant with a couple of ladies of the night, only to be overcome by tiredness. While their victim slumbered, his companions had helped themselves to all his personal possessions, including his clothes, leaving him only his white tie, which they tied round his neck before departing. When the maître d'hôtel went to the room a couple of hours later to check on his guest and present his bill, he discovered "a stark naked figure snoring heavily on the sofa." On being aroused, the grand duke was presented with a bill for five hundred francs, but had no means of paying. The police were sent for and, wrapping the grand duke in a tablecloth, put him in a cab to take him to the police station. It took some persuasion for them to relent and take the grand duke instead to the Russian embassy.

* Everyone knew Grand Duke Alexander as Sandro. In order to spare the reader from an endless litany of grand duke this and grand duke that, he will be referred to as Sandro throughout.

Another grand duke who was a regular patron of Paris nightlife was Vladimir's bachelor brother Grand Duke Alexis [Actually Alexey, but he was better known by the French form of his name as he spent so much time in Paris], who in 1897 had bought a luxurious apartment at 38 rue Gabriel on the Seine's Right Bank. Good-looking, and fairer than Vladimir, Alexis was remembered by Queen Marie of Romania as "a type of the Vikings who would have made a perfect Lohengrin, as Wagner would have dreamed of him." Tall, like all the Romanov grand dukes, Alexis was, however, heavily built and prone to being overweight, with a loud voice and larger-than-life manner to match his size. Like his brother Vladimir, he was an uninhibited pleasure-seeker. He made no bones about his love of wine, women, and carousing with gypsies, his unrepentant motto being "you must experience everything in life." His cousin Sandro dubbed him "The Beau Brummell of the Imperial Family." He certainly was the archetypal man-about-town; in fact, the burly Alexis bore no little resemblance to his hedonistic fellow royal, King Edward VII, who had also taken the sexual and culinary delights of Paris to his heart as Prince of Wales. Alexis was no intellectual or aesthete like his brother Vladimir, but rather a plain-speaking, good-natured navy man who could be an interminable bore on the subject of his glorious past days in sailing ships (equally, he would draw a veil over his incompetence as an admiral of the fleet during the naval battles of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05). As Sandro quipped, "His was a case of fast women and slow ships." Alexis made frequent extravagant trips to Paris with Vladimir—so much so that it was a common joke in St. Petersburg that "the ladies of Paris cost Russia at least a battleship a year." There was much gossip about money destined to fund the construction of new battleships and cruisers for the Imperial Navy making its way into Alexis's pockets during his tenure as commander in chief of the Imperial Fleet—but he was not alone in his brazen siphoning off of money from the treasury; this was but one of many "gigantic swindles" that helped boost the revenues of the unscrupulous Russian grand dukes.

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