Helen Saker-Parsons considers the fascinating similarities between the sons of two very important men who were killed in tragic circumstances – John F Kennedy and Tsar Michael II of Russia.
George and John: two men, born fifty years apart into families famed for their power as well as their curses. As young boys, both saw their fathers and their uncles murdered, these personal tragedies having global implications. Neither boy lived to middle age, both killed by a sense of adventure and not an assassin’s bullet. When John Kennedy Junior published his magazine he titled it ‘George’ after Washington: the first President of the United States. He was probably unaware of the existence of another George – Mikhailovich - also known as Count Brasov, with whom his life had strong parallels.
John Kennedy Junior was only two years old, on November 22, 1963, when the world saw his father shot on their television screens. His father held the highest profile of all world leaders as President of the United States. His public death was a contrast to the secretive nature in which George’s father met his demise, although theoretically he too held the potential to lead one of the most powerful countries of the time. It was June 1918, when George was seven years old and his country was in the midst of a Civil War. Three months earlier the Tsar of Russia had abdicated on behalf of himself and his son and nominated his younger brother, George’s father, Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich as his successor. Although Michael had refused the role unless it could be ratified by an elected assembly, as long as a Romanov heir existed they could be a threat to the Reds. He was thus taken from his place of exile, a hotel room in Perm, by four Bolsheviks and driven by horse-drawn carriage to the forest with his personal friend and secretary, Brian Johnson, on the pretext of catching a train from a remote railway crossing to a safer place of hiding. George’s father was allegedly shot at point blank range with his arms outstretched to his friend. Forty-five years later and the Communists were to be blamed for the murder of John Junior’s father: his killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, was a Marxist, ex US marine having defected to the Soviet Union (there are several other several theories regarding Kennedy’s death though).
But whereas the image of John, the toddler in the miniature duffel coat standing and saluting his father’s coffin at Arlington cemetery on his third birthday is etched in memories, George was not to know of his father’s death for some time, rumors being put about that he had escaped from his house arrest in Perm and was planning a counter-revolution. Attempts by his mother to find out the truth saw her arrested and imprisoned. A few weeks after her arrest, Natalia pretended she had developed tuberculosis and was moved to a nursing home from which she escaped. Despite determined efforts and countless rumors of sightings Natalia was forced to have her husband declared dead in July 1924. An eternal flame marks JFK’s place of burial; for Michael Alexandrovich, a plain cross was erected in the woods almost eighty years after his death, in 1996, on the spot where his body was once thought to lay - a local boy at the time having allegedly seen the corpse and marked the spot by carving an M and an A onto a nearby tree.
John Kennedy Junior was brought up with the world’s pity; George Mikhailovich relied on other nations for his survival. In spring 1918 the Danish Embassy arranged for his passage to Germany. Accompanied by his nanny, Miss Margaret Neame, who posed as the wife of an Austrian officer with George as her son, they travelled with false passports - in the name of Silldorff - on a train carrying prisoners-of-war being repatriated back to Germany. A Danish officer, Captain Sorensen, assisted them, since neither spoke German. George's mother and half-sister Natalia were smuggled out of Russia to Kiev, in German-controlled Ukraine, by the Germans. As soon as the war ended the Royal Navy then evacuated the two women to England where they were joined by George and Miss Neame in a rented house in Wadhurst, Sussex, just after Easter 1919.
It was not only the death of their fathers which both boys endured, but also the murder of their uncles. Senator Bobby Kennedy, JFK’s brother, was assassinated on June 6, 1968, in a Los Angeles hotel. Although the act was initially blamed on a lone Palestinian assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, it too has been subject to decades of debate and conspiracy theories. The reasons were more straightforward for the execution of George’s uncle, Tsar Nicholas II; a month after his brother’s murder, he was shot alongside his wife and children by a Bolshevik firing squad in a basement room in a prison in Yekaterinburg.
With power and money often comes decadence. Both boys were born into families famed for their lifestyles. For the women this was reflected in their love of glamour and thirst for romance. Kennedy’s mother, Jackie, took on her late husband’s mantle for ill-advised affairs and high-living, with dubious connections and associations. Brasov’s half-sister too acquired a taste for disastrous relationships. While Jackie was linked with the Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, several Hollywood actors and went on to marry Aristotle Onassis (a man sometimes cited in the death of Bobby Kennedy), George’s half-sister ‘Tata’ eloped from school to marry the actor John Gielgud’s older brother Val, and then went on to two more marriages.
For the men their access to money encouraged a sense of adventure and a love of speed. Both were to die in the summer month of July doing what they enjoyed. John Junior was almost twice the age of George but still less than forty. He was piloting a plane en route to a family wedding with his wife, Carolyn Bessette, when as an inexperienced flyer he apparently lost control in the poor weather conditions. George had inherited his father’s love of speed and automobiles. Whilst at school in England he bought a Norton motorbike that he then took with him to France when joining his mother in her adoptive country after 1927. In 1928, the Dowager Empress Marie died and George inherited one-third of his grandmother’s estate. He bought a Chrysler sports car. In July 1931, having finished his final examinations at the Sorbonne, he set off on a road trip to the south of France with a nineteen-year-old Dutch friend, Edgar Moneanaar, promising his mother to be home for his twenty-first birthday. The car skidded near Sens and they crashed into a tree. Moneanaar was killed. With both thighs broken and severe internal injuries, George was taken to hospital but died without recovering consciousness the following morning.
For some it was not fatalism but fate that killed these two young men: those who believe in the truth of the family curse - though the origins of these curses are disputed. For the Romanovs, Rasputin is often blamed. In a letter Rasputin predicted his own death within the year stating that if he was killed by peasants the tsars would continue to reign for generations to come, but if it was at the hands of the aristocrats then the tsar and his family would be dead within two years. Embittered mothers feature in theories behind the curses for both families. The Kennedy curse allegedly originates from the ‘ol’ country’ when as wealthy farmers in Ireland their ancestors were visited by a desperate starving mother during the famine of 1846. When she was turned away the mother swore on her dying child's life that a curse would henceforth visit the Kennedy family. It started quickly: the Kennedys were evicted from their farm after a rent revolt. Some say the Romanovs were cursed by the mother of a young boy drowned in the Moscow River by soldiers of Tsar Michael I, the first of the Romanov dynasty. In her grief she cursed the new Tsar who went on to lose four of his sons during childhood.
And then there are the Jewish conspiracy theories. The Russian pogroms and a history of anti-Semitic Tsarist behavior are well-documented. Some cite a Jewish conspiracy for the Kennedy misfortunes too. JFK’s father, Joseph, allegedly told a rabbi and his students to stop their prayers while they were on a passenger ship together. Angry, the rabbi cursed him and claimed that his descendants would suffer great misfortune. In another version, it was a Jewish father who placed the curse on Joseph after he refused to help his sons escape from a concentration camp. In yet one more account of the curse, it was an entire Jewish village that cursed Kennedy after they discovered he was dealing weapons to the Nazis.
But what the boys also share is their unfulfilled potential: had both men lived it is possible they would have reached great heights. Kennedy’s political ambitions have been recorded. He saw his magazine ‘George’ as a tool to express his points of view. Brasov himself may have been accepted as the legitimate heir to the Russian throne. In his father’s manifesto of March 3, 1917 he writes of the need for a constitutional monarchy in Russia showing his acceptance of the need for change. It is possible that the rights of succession could have been changed too, acknowledging the irrelevance of a morganatic marriage and pushing forward George as his rightful successor. Indeed many of the exiled Russian émigrés living in Paris in the 1920s preferred him as the legitimate heir. Although history remains fascinated by the families of these young men, both are overshadowed by events that surround their more high profile relatives. But I can’t help contemplating how things might have been different if their own lives had not been cut tragically short.