True Confessions of An American Royal (an excerpt)

I discovered that I was a royal (no, not yet a king, but certainly a prince) when I was a five-year-old boy lying awake in my grandparents’ house. A few simple but deliciously poisonous facts which I then possessed—that the English King had been named George and that my step-grandfather’s name was George, that my mother’s birthday was also Queen Elizabeth’s birthday, that the grandfather clock downstairs played Big Ben’s chimes and that Big Ben was a clock in London—led me breathlessly to conclude, as I lay there awake in bed, that I was, of course, in London and a member of the British royal family. Those who have not been born to the purple will doubtless be pleased to snicker at these first, regal intuitions. But, then again, they simply don’t know a thing about the three noble dynasties—the Georges, the Ralphs, the Freds—contending for the crown of our Chappaqua manor like the houses of York and Lancaster. And of course they also don’t know anything at all about the honor of attending the coronation on our black-and-white 14-inch TV or about the shining, 1953 coronation proof set I’d just been given. But this is just exactly what I knew all about in my tiny, majestic bones and that our crumbling, poison-ivy choked Westchester estate—with its rotting ice-house, leaky pool and broken statues, an acre for every day of the year and a lake for every season—had been run since the 1890’s like a petty European principality. So it really wasn’t as if I could have snapped out of it: I was already too far-gone. For by then my little lungs were always sucking in the sweet miasma of imperial decay.

The eventual discovery that I was not a member of the British royal family was, admittedly, somewhat of a setback. Nonetheless, let the record show that I bore my disappointment with composure. Another little boy would now, of course, have renounced the throne quite as easily as he did the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus. But my more robust faith, like that of the churchmen who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope, was already far beyond the reach of ugly facts. For by then I knew very well, from the inscriptions surrounding laurelled heads on my precious coins, that kings are by the Grace of God and not of earthly provenance. Therefore I simply concluded that, though I had been wrong about the details, I had been altogether right about the essentials.

So while other American boys were outside wasting their time on baseball, I was holed-up in my three-bedroom palazzo diligently working on my coinage. The drawings of my profile which I prepared for the royal mint (the large circle of the coin sketched around the circumference of a soup plate) were always encircled by my Latinate titles –Dei gratia rex, fidei defensor. My kingly profile was meticulously modeled on fat-faced Bourbons and haughty Hapsburgs (my closest royal companions) whose coins I squirreled away in a cookie tin. I was also now obliged to spend a considerable amount of time sketching with crayons all the jeweled appurtenances of my regalia—a difficult and usually solitary task, since for this my friends on the coins could rarely be consulted. In fact—with this one exception of my coins—the only opportunity I could now find to enjoy the company of my peers was by repeatedly rereading a history of the English kings in a volume of The Book of Knowledge—my favorite page being a picture of King Canute at the seashore commanding the waves to stop. Long after I have been laid out on my catafalque in purple robes, some future biographer (rummaging through the royal archives for snapshots of me) will perhaps find one of the future king at this stage of his progress toward the throne, standing by his new red Schwinn bicycle, his eyebrow imperiously raised, his forehead surmounted by a princely pompadour brittle with Vitalis.

Of course, it goes without saying that all the elementary-school boys who had memorized the tripe of batting averages remained unimpressed by my ability to name all the English Kings back to Ethelred the Unready. But then again, as one who secretly favored the Tories in the Revolution and could not see that the Canadians had done so badly, I was already (not unlike Charles the Second reduced to fleeing on blistered feet through the Netherlands) suffering the manifold indignities of being a royal child exiled to Ike’s America. For my long hours spent with the many crowned heads of Europe or poring over our commemorative book on the coronation, dutifully learning what it behooved me to know about the ambergris and the scepter and the orb, left me unprepared for the noisy playground and for the jibes of boorish boys who said I threw a baseball like a girl.

My one great triumph—my only respite from such daily impertinences—occurred during my first brief trip to England. For there, seated in a cathedral behind a class of English schoolchildren, I had the extraordinary satisfaction of seeing that not one of them, when asked by their teacher, could tell him the name of the first royal house after the Norman invasion. But I, more learned than they, whispered in my mother’s ear: “Plantagenet.”

Once I was back home again, however, my royal education was still treated with contempt. Even worse, I was beginning to suspect that a mere accident of birth (like my being Jewish, for example) might prove to be an impediment to assuming the royal dignity. But that is when I met Napoleon. I first met him, of course, in the pages of my red-covered Landmark book; but after that, we ran into one another quite often—when I was holding a magazine and he was on the back page in a Courvoisier ad, sometimes at the battle of Marengo on his horse, sometimes wearing his laurel crown and coronation robes. It was one of those inevitable friendships, really, because the “little corporal” and I had so very much in common.

Just exactly like myself, he hadn’t been born in direct succession to a throne, but hanging on by his very fingernails to the lowest rungs of downtrodden nobility. And just exactly like myself, he had endured the jeers of his schoolmates and waited for his time. But best of all, just exactly like myself he hadn’t needed or wanted anyone else to crown him, but had crowned himself—not merely as a king, but as an emperor. And so, at bedtime, it was his book I placed on my back to protect me against nightmares. And by day, following his example, I would imperiously march across the playground—and step out into the midst of hurling dodge balls, shouting: “Ceasefire for the Emperor!”

Then came my first royal romance—with the Countess Francesca of Bergamo—an astonishingly beautiful 16th-century “Lady in Ermine” whom I met one fateful night in a Million Dollar Movie starring Betty Grable. Then, too, came my long, close friendship with the Count of Monte Cristo who (like my friend the Emperor) had claimed a resplendent title for himself—and suffered cruel indignities before finding his illimitable treasure and taking his revenge. For by now I was in the full flower of my adolescent awkwardness—at about the time of my eighth-grade graduation to which my David-Nivenesque step-grandfather, Prince George of our Chappaqua kingdom, came in his white Cadillac and white dinner jacket, so that all the acned riff-raff could see that it was me he’d come to honor and that his majestic grace was mine. And yet not even one of them would ever even begin to understand that our sprawling acreage was a sovereign monarchy the size of Monaco—or ever know anything at all about the hermit’s cave or about the Model-T still rusting in our forest or about wading in the goldfish pond by the statue of a broken-armed cupid.

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It was many years later that I saw it—the intoxicating advertisement in a reputable and glossy magazine assuring me that for a mere 149 dollars I could buy one square foot of the Highlands and become a bona fide Scottish Laird. Of course, I had hoped for a more august title.

There had been, for example, the difficult period during which I was obliged to consider whether to lay claim to the Ethiopian throne. It was the coinage of their Royal Majesties Menelik the Second and Haile Selassie which had first captured my attention—or more particularly it was their title: Lion of Judah. For though I was (or so at the time I mistakenly thought) excluded by my blood from a European crown, here was a royal line of descent from Solomon and the African Queen of Sheba. Regrettably, this claim had not at length proved tenable. However, years after that, my hopes were revived when I learned that a Jewish Princedom in Carolingian France had been ruled by one of the scions of the royal family still, in the ninth century, holding court in Palestine. For then it behooved me to consider the distinct possibility that I, too, was one of the exilarchic princes, that the royal spark had been transmitted to me, either through some obscure cadet line or through one of the Rabbinic dynasties that can trace their lineage all the way back to King David. Unfortunately, however, my genealogic trail petered out in the 18th century, in some remote ancestors from a Polish ghetto. Disappointing though this was, I was later favored with one delirious moment at the New York Public Library where, scouring a list of 3rd-century B.C. Achaemenid princes in a compendium of royal dynasties, I discovered that my very unusual surname—Bazes—had belonged to a one-eyed Parthian prince. In that moment I knew that I had finally unearthed one of my royal forebears. Alas, I soon learned that Achaemenid titles are particularly hard to prove.

But now this wonderful advertisement in the magazine was offering me something real. Nonetheless, before agreeing to accept their tender of a title, I did entertain some scruples. Money was, of course, no object. But I did not want it to be thought that I was relinquishing a crown by accepting a lesser dignity. Then I remembered that the Courtenays had (by marrying off one of their daughters to the son of the French King Louis the Fat) succeeded in capturing the imperial crown of Constantinople. And yet, they had with great condescension agreed (after the centuries had stripped them first of a crown, then of a princedom and then of an earldom) to accept the mere piddling status of a viscount. Nor, I was certain, had they ever consented to forswear the imperial diadem. So I charged the 149 dollars to my American Express card and mailed in my note of acquiescence to the title.

It was only a week or so before the package came in the mail—containing not only a handsome, frameable deed declaring me a Scottish laird in possession of one square foot of the Highlands, but also a yellow plastic card certifying my title, so that I could take the card out of my wallet and show my envious friends what I’d accomplished. Fondly now I recalled that movie scene where Anastasia (played by Ingrid Bergman) is having a terrible time proving her identity to the crusty old dowager Empress (played by Helen Hayes)—that is until Anastasia mentions something only a member of the royal family could possibly know, whereupon the no-longer-doubting old biddy, with tears in her eyes, suddenly drops to her knees and exclaims: “Your Highness! Your Imperial Highness!” Not since the folks from Ovaltine had sent me my Captain Midnight secret decoder had I known such perfect bliss.

But (like, as I am told, a first hit of crack cocaine) my lairdly rank was not enough. Oh, of course I had long known that it was hypothetically possible for an untitled personage to attain a noble dignity. I knew, for example, that Rose Kennedy had been made a countess of the Vatican. But her title had been conferred by the Pope, and I hadn’t yet figured out how His Holiness could be convinced to vouchsafe me a similar honor. But here was an altogether different expedient I simply hadn’t known about before—a stupendous opportunity made possible by the survival of feudal rights in Europe, by the intoxicating fact that certain ancient, noble honors were still vested in the land itself! And so it began: the impassioned nights at my computer. Mine was no mere carnal fever. No: while less blue-blooded men were scouring the Internet in search of porn sites, I was surfing the cyber-sea in quest of noble titles.

Nor was it long before I saw them all lying there in glittering profusion: the Lordships, the English, Irish and Scottish feudal baronies—and, yes, even earldoms. In a sudden, drunken delirium I . . .

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You have just read an excerpt from a longer essay titled “True Confessions of an American Royal.” Contact Terry for more information about his writing.