Lupescu, Elena (c. 1896–1977)

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Lupescu, Elena (c. 1896–1977)

Mistress and later wife of the ruler of Rumania, widely thought to be the power behind the throne, who heightened political tensions in her country throughout the 1930s. Name variations: Helena; Elenutza; Magda; Madame Lupescu; (nickname) Duduia. Pronunciation: Loo-PES-que. Born on September 15, possibly in 1896, in Hertza, Moldavia, Rumania; died on June 28, 1977, at the resort town of Estorial outside Lisbon, Portugal; daughter of a small-town Jewish druggist named Nicolas Grünberg Wolff, who changed his name to the Rumanian equivalent, Lupescu, and Elizei Falk Wolff, later Elizei Lupescu; attended Pitar Mos convent school, 1907–13; married Ion Tampeanu or Timpeanu, a lieutenant in the Rumanian army, in 1916 (divorced 1920); became third wife of the exiled Carol II (1893–1953), king of Rumania (r. 1930–1940), on July 5 (some sources cite June 3), 1947; no children.

Moved with her family to Jassy (1912); began love affair with Prince Carol (1923); during Carol's trip to England, started open relationship with him, which forced him to renounce his right to the Rumanian throne (1925); Carol's son Michael became heir to throne (1926); on death of King Ferdinand of Rumania, Michael named king, regency established (1927); returned with Carol to Rumania where he became king, also founding of the Iron Guard (1930); Carol established a royal dictatorship (1938); German-Soviet alliance, start of World War II (1939); loss of Rumanian territory; under German and Russian pressure, Elena and Carol forced into exile (1940); death of Carol (1953).

Elena Lupescu was one of the most colorful and politically influential figures in Rumania during the first half of the 20th century. Her personal tie to Prince (later king) Carol II of Rumania gave her enormous power, but it also provided Carol's political enemies with a potent weapon to use against him.

The kingdom of Rumania went through decades of political and economic turmoil following its creation in the mid-19th century. Ruled by kings drawn from the Hohenzollern family of Germany, it was endowed with rich resources, such as oil and fertile land. Nonetheless, the predominantly peasant population remained impoverished. Rumania's peasantry showed its temper by striking out at the country's Jewish minority in 1899 and rising up in a massive rebellion in 1907.

The political scene was traditionally dominated by venal leaders, both in Parliament and within the royal court. During World War I, Rumania was invaded by Germany and Austria and temporarily forced out of the conflict in 1917. Nonetheless, the country ended up on the winning side. As a reward for its efforts, it obtained the vast province of Transylvania, a traditional goal of Rumanian nationalists. A postwar land reform took place, stimulated by fear that the Russian Revolution might promote a new peasant uprising in Rumania, but the economic status of the peasantry remained pitiable. Opening the country up to foreign investors and rapid industrialization brought no widespread benefits, but it did heighten the opportunities for the legendary corruption at the top of the system.

The woman who dramatically shook Rumanian affairs was born in the small town of Hertza located in the northern province of Moldavia. Her various statements about her age make her date of birth uncertain, but it seems likely she was born in 1896. Her father Nicolas Grünberg Wolff was a Jewish druggist. Her mother Elizei Falk Wolff was from Vienna and was also Jewish. In the face of Eastern European anti-Semitism, first her mother, then her father converted to Christianity. In a further effort to assimilate into a hostile society, Elena's father changed Wolff into its Rumanian equivalent, becoming Mr. Lupescu. She herself became known in her family by the nickname Elenutza.

The young woman grew up in the port city of Sulina on the Black Sea and then in Bucharest,

where in 1907 she was sent to a convent school, Pitar Mos, run by German nuns. Her six years of study there gave her a fluent command of German. Even before she had finished her school years, she had become a conspicuously beautiful young woman, with reddish hair, an alabaster complexion, and green eyes. Traveling with her family to the resort city of Sinaia or their new home in Jassy, she easily attracted the attention of young men.

In 1916, in the midst of World War I, Lupescu was married to an army lieutenant named Ion Tampeanu, though she continued to see other men, notably army officers. Her complaints about her husband's lack of funds—he was not considered a particularly promising or successful officer—led to violent quarrels. In 1920, the marriage ended in divorce. Sources disagree over which member of the couple initiated the proceedings.

Over the next several years, Elena Lupescu became a prominent member of Bucharest's café society. Her name was linked with a number of men who had become wealthy during the war and the immediate postwar period. Dissatisfied with the prospect of a permanent liaison with an individual from this circle, Lupescu deliberately set out to become the mistress of the crown prince.

Prince Carol had already gained a reputation as an attractive but irresponsible member of the royal family. In 1918, he had abandoned his duties as an army officer and eloped with Jeanne (Zizi) Lambrino , the daughter of a general. The marriage, to a woman his parents deemed unsuitable, ended formally with an annulment in early 1919, but Carol kept seeing Zizi for another year. A more acceptable marriage to Princess Helen of Greece in 1921 quickly produced a child, Michael, but all of Rumania knew that their relationship broke down soon after.

Elena approached the task of meeting Carol with energy and zeal. Through her contacts in Bucharest society, she was able to attend events put on by charities of which Carol was the honorary head. These efforts apparently succeeded, and Carol began to ask about the attractive redhead. A dashing sea captain named Tautu emerged as the link between the two. A frequent party-giver, he was both a friend of the crown prince and a friend, possibly even a former lover, of Elena. At one of Tautu's parties in 1923, the two finally met formally, and Carol quickly became infatuated.

Tautu inadvertently played a role in solidifying the burgeoning love affair. Alarmed at Carol's growing affection for Elena, Tautu staged a dramatic scene in front of her and the crown prince in the midst of a party. Throwing Elena's nightgown in her face, he made it clear that she had been his lover. Elena defused the situation with a remarkable display of coolheadedness. She asked dramatically if there was a gentleman present who would "protect the honor of a helpless woman." Carol took her arm in a display of support.

At first, they were discreet about their meetings, but, in time, King Ferdinand I of Rumania confronted his son with knowledge of the love affair. Carol gave an insincere pledge that he would give up Elena. When the king learned that the romance was continuing, it was Elena who responded by temporarily dropping out of sight. By now, Bucharest society whispered incessantly about "Duduia," Carol's affectionate name for Elena. The term meant "young lady" in the dialect of her native Moldavia.

Events took a dramatic turn in 1925 as Carol's relationship with Elena became entangled with Rumanian politics. Sent to Britain for the funeral of Queen Alexandra of Denmark , Carol was supposed, according to his mother Queen Marie of Rumania (1875–1938), to get a lesson in royal responsibilities. In fact, Elena secretly also left Rumania, met him in Paris, and carried their love affair to a new level of passion. Carol thereupon informed King Ferdinand and Queen Marie that he was renouncing his right to succeed to the throne. The queen, particularly outraged, proclaimed to her son, "One doesn't give up a throne for a Madame Lupescu." (During these dramatic events, a newspaper reporter misstated her first name, making her into "Magda Lupescu." As her biographer notes, "Magda was somehow such a suitable name for the girl friend of a Balkan prince" that the press continued to use it for the rest of her life.)

The political dimension of the scandal reflected the hostility of national leaders like Ion Bratianu to Carol as a future king. They apparently encouraged Lupescu to meet Carol in Western Europe, in order to widen the gap between Carol and his family. They also convinced the king to dispatch an army general with orders to Carol to return to Rumania, knowing that Carol was likely to refuse such a tactless overture. They were not disappointed. On December 28, 1925, Carol renounced his right ever to return to Rumanian soil along with his right to the throne. His young son Michael now became next in line.

Carol may well have been shocked by the speed with which his renunciation of the right to succeed his father was accepted and absorbed by the Rumanian political system. He had perhaps hoped that a wave of public sympathy in Rumania would let him keep both Lupescu and his rights to the throne. The scandalous semi-royal couple now found themselves wandering in Western Europe, and they settled in Paris in the spring of 1926. The French newspapers lavished attention on the two of them.

The relationship between the exiled prince and his glamorous mistress reflected their respective personalities. Carol's weak and indecisive nature could not stand up to Elena's firmness. Fearful of her temper, he became increasingly dominated by her will. For example, when she reinvented and glamorized the story of her past life for visitors, he beamed with delight. Meanwhile, Princess Helen of Greece, the mother of his child, obtained a formal divorce from her straying husband in 1928.

Lambrino, Jeanne (1898–1953)

Rumanian royal. Name variations: Joanna Labrina; (nickname) Zizi. Born Joanna Mary Valentina Lambrino on October 3, 1898, in Roman, Rumania; died on March 11, 1953, in Paris, France; daughter of Constantin Lambrino and Euphrosine (Alcaz) Lambrino; married Carol II (1893–1953), crown prince, then king of Rumania (r. 1930–1940), on August 31, 1918 (marriage annulled 1919); children: son, Mircea Carol Hohenzollern (b. January 8, 1920).

Helen of Greece (1896–1982)

Princess of Greece. Name variations: Helen Oldenburg; Helen of Greece; Helen of Romania; Helen of Rumania. Born on May 2 or 3, 1896, in Athens, Greece; died on November 28, 1982, in Lausanne, Switzerland; eldest daughter of Constantine I, king of Greece (r. 1913–1917, 1920–1922), and Sophie of Prussia (1870–1932); sister of George II, king of the Hellenes; married Carol II (1893–1953), crown prince, then king of Rumania (r. 1930–1940), on March 10, 1921 (divorced, June 21, 1928); children: Michael (b. October 25, 1921), king of Rumania (r. 1927–1930, 1940–1947).

The tug of politics remained strong, and a stream of visitors appeared in Paris to urge Carol to return home. The death of King Ferdinand in the summer of 1927 made Carol's five-year-old son Michael the king, although real power rested in the hands of a council of regents. Carol was outraged during these events by the government's refusal to let him return to Rumania to attend Ferdinand's funeral. With Elena spurring him on, the lackadaisical Carol grew increasingly committed to regaining the throne. The death of Carol's political enemy Ion Bratianu in late 1927 increased his chances for success.

As she became a public figure, Elena made a substantial effort to avoid the limelight. Though she dodged newspaper interviews, the very lack of information about her relationship to Carol fed a wave of rumors. In 1927, she had an autobiography ghostwritten and published in the London Sunday News. With Carol thinking about a return to his country, the document was designed to ease the negative memories of his abdication. Among other points, in a concession to the prevalent anti-Semitism of Rumania, Elena's ghostwriter took great pains to stress that she was not Jewish. The account likewise made her several years younger.

She kept Rumania in a constant state of turmoil for nearly fifteen years.

—Alice-Leone Moats

A comic opera plot to bring Carol back, supported largely by military officers, failed dismally in 1928. But Carol's effort two years later succeeded. It was facilitated, in part, by the ineptitude of the council of regents. The growing economic crisis within Rumania brought on by the worldwide Depression heightened the instability of the political situation. Finally, the leader of the Peasant Party and Prime Minister Iuliu Maniu thought Carol's presence as constitutional monarch would shore up Maniu's government. Maniu insisted, however, that Carol return alone; his mistress Elena Lupescu was not to join him in Rumania.

When Carol flew alone to Bucharest in early June 1930, reporters immediately surrounded Elena, who had been left behind in France. She announced she had pleaded with Carol to return home. Moreover, she stressed how she had "renounced my perfect love." With these words barely out of her mouth, she made her way to Switzerland and then went on to Rumania. In short order, Carol deposed his son Michael and became King Carol II.

Within a few weeks of his return, Carol summoned Maniu to the royal palace to inform the prime minister that Lupescu would return to Rumania. Despite Carol's earlier pledges, he now insisted that he could not and would not live without her. By this time, Lupescu had already returned and was living in seclusion in Sinaia. By the fall, Carol permitted her to appear in public in the country's capital.

Word of her reemergence spread like wildfire even though newspapers, fearful of the king's reaction, refused to put the event into print. The political repercussions were immediate, as Maniu, considered by many the most capable leader in the country, was forced out of office. He had been hopelessly compromised by his actions in bringing Carol back to Rumania with the latter's false promise that Lupescu would remain in the West.

The political scene in Rumania remained troubled. Carol set out to weaken all of the existing political parties in order to strengthen his own position. These political maneuvers took place against the background of continuing poverty and misery for the country's peasant majority. Moreover, Carol's reign was compromised by the popular view that Elena was the true decision-maker for the couple. Rumania's fragmented political system allowed the king, or perhaps Elena, enormous scope in manipulating individual leaders and parties. Meanwhile, a fascist movement led by the charismatic figure Corneliu Codreanu emerged to offer a radical alternative to the existing system. Codreanu's Legion of the Archangel Michael (later known as the Iron Guard) offered a program of anti-Semitism, attacks on the existing form of government, and support for the hard-pressed peasantry.

Elena was ostracized by much of the country's aristocracy despite Carol's persistent efforts to get them to accept her. Her power remained visible, however, in the stream of petitioners who appeared at her home to ask for favors from the government. In a continuing effort to cover her Jewish origins in a country noted for its hostility to Jews, she encouraged the circulation of a wild rumor that claimed she was the illegitimate daughter of Carol's great-uncle, King Carol I of Rumania, who had ruled the country from 1866 to his death in 1914.

The traditional corruption of both the royal court and the government descended to new depths in the 1930s, with a corresponding fall in Carol's popularity. Rumanian authorities had long been notorious for enriching themselves in office, but the new regime seemed particularly open to such corruption. One former Cabinet minister described the king's motives succinctly: "The second Carol had even more reason than the [other members of the royal family] to want money; after all, he was forced to satisfy Elena's demands." Elena added directly to the atmosphere of scandal by selling her influence; so too did her father, her brother, and more distant relatives. The renovation of the royal palace created an especially lucrative opportunity for corrupt architects and contractors with Lupescu connections.

The unmarried couple maintained a semblance of propriety, although it fooled no one. Elena kept her own residence and rarely visited the royal palace. On the other hand, they played the role of man and wife, host and hostess, king and queen, at private gatherings at the king's villa in Sinaia.

The rising strength of the Iron Guard in the face of government ineptitude and the hardships brought on by the worldwide economic crisis led to flashes of violence. Carol had no steady policy vis-à-vis the Iron Guard. Sometimes he seemed willing to cooperate with it, but, in early December 1933, he sanctioned a brutal crackdown on the organization during which thousands of its members were arrested. In response, Prime Minister Ion Duca was killed by Iron Guard assassins later that month.

In early 1938, Carol ended the pretense of parliamentary government and established a royal dictatorship. The party he founded to match the new system, the National Rebirth Front, was modeled on the Fascist and Nazi parties of Benito Mussolini's Italy and Adolf Hitler's Germany. Lupescu's position in a system that smacked of official anti-Semitism now seemed threatened; these events showed a rare example of the king acting without her direction. In contacts with official German emissaries, she learned that Hitler wanted to cooperate with Carol; the German dictator insisted, however, that she must go into exile in Switzerland. She heatedly refused to consider such a step, and her personal hold on Carol remained secure.

By the close of 1938, both Rumania's international and domestic situations had become critical. The Munich Agreement, which had given Hitler control over Czechoslovakia, brought German power closer than ever to Carol's kingdom. The Rumanian monarch visited Britain, then Germany, hoping to find friends in the international community. At home, Carol's officials, possibly without his knowledge, cracked down once again on the Iron Guard. This time Codreanu and the top officials of the organization were murdered. Hitler was outraged and promised to destroy Carol.

A new spasm of violence followed the outbreak of World War II in September 1939. Members of the Iron Guard assassinated Rumania's prime minister; the government responded by killing Iron Guard members in every province. In a ghastly spectacle attributed by the public to Elena Lupescu, their bodies were placed on display in city squares throughout the nation.

The era of Carol and Lupescu came to a brutal end in 1940. Caught between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Carol found himself helpless as these powerful neighbors tore away at Rumanian territory. Soviet forces occupied the northern regions of Bessarabia and Bukovina. Backed by Hitler and Mussolini, Hungary retook the western region of Transylvania, arousing a violent public reaction among Rumanian nationalists.

In early September 1940, an uprising of the Iron Guard seized key government centers in Bucharest while unorganized mobs took control of the streets. Carol hoped in vain to find a solution to the crisis; Elena was more realistic and began packing. She knew that the anger of the crowds was directed in a personal way at her. At the height of the unrest, Iron Guard forces approached the royal palace where Elena had taken refuge. Using the pejorative nickname by which she had become known, they called out: "Give us the She Wolf."

In these tumultuous circumstances, the key figure was the army strongman, General Ion Antonescu. He was determined to take power, and Carol's unpopularity, heightened by the king's connection with Lupescu, convinced the general that Carol could not remain in Rumania even as a figurehead. Without signing a formal statement of abdication, Carol nonetheless awarded the crown to his son Michael.

Along with their longtime courtier Ernesto Urdareanu, various servants, five dogs, and tons of paraphernalia, Carol and Elena fled by train to Hungary. As they approached the border, they learned that Iron Guard bands were waiting to attack the train. Lupescu was their main target, and she had a nervous collapse due to the strain. The train, moving at full speed, crossed the frontier as bullets peppered the passenger wagons. Elena lay in the train's bathtub to shield her from danger, while Carol shielded her with his body.

The fugitives went on to Switzerland, France, and Spain before settling in Mexico in 1941. Urdareanu remained their constant companion in the role of chief royal servitor, and Elena busied herself with the Red Cross. She and Carol were pleasantly surprised to discover that British and American expatriates in Mexico welcomed them into local society. They also found an unexpectedly warm welcome from the Soviet ambassador to Mexico. In 1944, this intermediary for Joseph Stalin hinted to Carol that the Soviet government might aid him to regain the Rumanian throne. With this in mind, Carol and Elena moved to Brazil. Located farther from the eyes of the American government, Brazil seemed a more comfortable spot from which to launch Carol's return. The couple soon discovered, however, that the Soviets had no serious interest in promoting their return to Bucharest.

One dramatic event took place during their Brazilian exile. In the summer of 1947, Lupescu seemed near death from pernicious anemia. Carol responded to the crisis by finally marrying her. The Brazilian government removed all legal obstacles to an immediate ceremony, and the longtime lovers were formally linked in marriage on July 5. A few days later, aided by a series of blood transfusions, Lupescu made a spectacular recovery. Following their marriage, and at the insistence of the courts in Brazil, she was known as "Her Royal Highness Princess Elena of Rumania."

Searching for a permanent refuge in a cooler climate, the two used their connections in the Brazilian government to get permission to take up residence in Portugal. They settled in Estoril, a fashionable seaside resort near Lisbon, set up a small but formal royal household with Urdareanu as royal chamberlain, and entered Lisbon society, although their welcome turned out to be a tempered one. The women of the Portuguese aristocracy in particular rejected instructions that they were required to curtsy to "Princess Elena." Carol and his wife found themselves entertaining noblemen who conspicuously left their wives at home.

Elena spent her last years with Carol playing an increasingly dominant role in his life. The former king had little to do besides writing his memoirs, and he found himself constantly in her company and under her supervision. A signal event in their routine was a formal ceremony in 1949 in which they were married by the authorities of the Rumanian Orthodox Church.

When Carol died suddenly on April 3, 1953, most of his family refused to attend the funeral. Thus, Elena was the central figure at the final ceremony, calling out that she too wished to die, and collapsing in the arms of the other mourners. Afterwards, she also found herself at the center of an ugly family dispute over Carol's financial resources. Legal records indicated that he had died leaving only a modest bank account, but Elena continued to live in considerable luxury. She had to fend off lawyers representing Carol's blood relatives who were convinced she had squirreled away a fortune in Rumanian assets.

Following Carol's death, in a basically meaningless gesture, Elena announced that his son Michael should not inherit the throne. With Rumania now under Communist control, it was a matter of no practical importance that Carol had not formally abdicated in 1940. Nonetheless, for her own reasons, Elena felt the claim to the crown should go to a more distant member of the Hohenzollern family.

Elena Lupescu remained in Portugal after becoming a widow. She lived in seclusion for almost a quarter of a century, and died at Estoril on July 28, 1977.

The story of the Jewish outsider who rose to power alongside the ruler of Rumania remains one of the most unlikely but fascinating tales of the 20th century. John Gunther has called her "one of the most remarkable women of the time." For Alice-Leone Moats , "Lupescu's life is a striking example of just how much stranger truth can be than fiction."


Gunther, John. Inside Europe. Rev. ed. NY: Harper & Brothers, 1938.

Moats, Alice-Leone. Lupescu. NY: Henry Holt, 1955.

Pakula, Hannah. The Last Queen: A Biography of Queen Marie of Roumania. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1984.

Seton-Watson, Hugh. Eastern Europe between the Wars, 1918–1941. 3rd ed. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1962.

Stavrianos, Leften. The Balkans since 1453. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1958.

suggested reading:

Elsberry, Terence. Marie of Roumania: The Intimate Life of a Twentieth-Century Queen. NY: St. Martin's, 1972.

Polonsky, Antony. The Little Dictators: The History of Eastern Europe since 1918. London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California