Friday, June 23, 2017

The Prince That Lived In King George, Virginia

For local historians, the Tayloe family has an important role in the early history of King George County. But did you know they had ties to one of the most famous impostors of the 20th century?

An early settler to the Northern Neck, the Tayloe family had ties to other major families like the Lees and Taliaferros and they held land in several counties. One of those pieces of land was Powhatan Farm in King George. As the land was divided over several generations, Powhatan Farm came to be held by Bladen Tasker Tayloe. Falling on hard times in April 1935, Bladen sold Powhatan Farm at public auction to John W. Walters from New York. Mr. Walters would eventually sell the farm in 1955 to the current owners, the Guest family.

While the Guest family may have real royal connections, there was a Russian Prince living at the farm before they purchased it. Prince Michael Alexandrovitch Dmitry Obelensky Romanoff. Don't worry if you've never heard of him. I only knew him from Miracle on 34th Street (1947) when the Doctor is trying to argue his case that Kris Kringle isn't a danger to society and he says:

"Why there are thousands of people walking around with similar delusions, living perfectly normal lives in every other respect. A famous example is that fellow — I can't think of his name — but for years he’s insisted he’s a Russian prince. He owns a famous restaurant in Hollywood and is a highly respected citizen."

That's right, Prince Michael Alexandrovitch Dmitry Obelensky Romanoff, or Prince Mike if you prefer, was an imposter.

Prince Mike went by countless aliases, false names, and false titles. He claimed to be everything from a Count to a Captain and a Vanderbilt to a Rockefeller. In the end, or really the beginning, he was Harry Gerguson. In 1935, with Mr. Walters as the new owner of Powhatan Farm, Prince Mike came to take charge of the farm. Using the alias John William Adams, and posing as a professor from Yale, Prince Mike took over managing the farm. Reportedly in ruins, he kicked out the sheep living in the house and made repairs, built roads, and cleared fields.

Prince Mike was apparently isolating himself so that he, acting as the Yale Professor, could write "The Philosophy of History." Despite his isolation, he did make friends; a horse named Betty and a cat named, of all things, Gerguson. He was friendly with the Tayloe family as well, even gifting them a small puppy that would end up bearing his name.

From Return to Powhatan by Roberta Love Tayloe

His self-imposed isolation only lasted a year. He made a trip to Richmond to see a show and was identified by a society reporter as Prince Mike. He would leave King George in an old, junky car and would turn up in Hollywood a few years later sporting a wad of cash, a fancy car, and a new restaurant.

Prince Mike would become Hollywood royalty after opening his restaurant. Here are a few names from the very long list of Hollywood types he associated with; Charlie Chaplin, James Cagney, Jack Benny, Barbara Stanwyck, Clark Gable, and David Niven. Prince Mike reportedly only came back to the Fredericksburg area once shortly after his re-birth in Hollywood as a restaurateur. He would eventually die in September of 1971, nearly a decade after closing his famous restaurant.

One parting ironic twist. Prince Mike's early childhood was nearly a mirror to that seen in Boys Town (1938) staring Mickey Rooney. As an orphan and runaway and petty criminal, Prince Mike needed a father figure in his life to set him on the right track. While he wouldn't find it until he left King George, both Prince Mike and Mickey Rooney would follow the same path, this time in real life, as they served as pallbearers for Errol Flynn in 1959.


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