In the 1920s, there was a clan of brothers and sisters with a taste for money, a gift for spectacle, and a knack for hooking up with the right people
Heiress Barbara Hutton and her husband, Alexander Mdivani (center);
they were caught in flagrante when he was married to an ambassador's granddaughter.
They arrived in Los Angeles in the 1920s quietly, elegantly, arrogantly, like the royalty they purported to be, and for a while they were treated deferentially—like royalty. Their stay proved to be noisier, having exploded and exposed their pretensions. Coming or going, there had never been a family quite like them. They cut a swath through Hollywood as real-life super-romantics, earning the sobriquet “The Marrying Mdivanis,” though they might just as easily have been called “The Divorcing Mdivanis,” “The Swindling Mdivanis,” “The Gold-digging Mdivanis,” “The Litigious Mdivanis,” “The Brawling Mdivanis,” or eventually “The Tragic Mdivanis.”
But that is getting ahead of the story. In the course of the soap opera that constituted the lives of the three Mdivani brothers and two Mdivani sisters, they commanded news attention and generated gossip that cascaded through Los Angeles, America, and Europe, and in so doing they were cultural pathbreakers. In many ways they were the first modern celebrities, people who were known for being well known and not much else; they were among the first to turn personal reinvention into a national obsession; they were among the first to transform a family name into a monetizable brand without selling anything but the name. And they were among the first to live out a cautionary tale about the brief half-life of fame. They were the Kardashians 80 years before the Kardashians, and they left their imprint on their adopted city and country long after they had been forgotten—the forgetting, ironically, being a big part of the imprint. Once, everyone in the world knew their name and its pronunciation—Dee-VAH-Nee, with a silent M. Now nobody knows them.
The wedding party of David Mdivani and Mae Murray (center, with bouquet) included
best man Rudolph Valentino (third from left) and movie producer Irving Thalberg (center).
The rise of the Mdivanis probably couldn’t have happened anywhere but in Los Angeles because, like Hollywood and its environs, they subsisted on enchantment, on the confusion of the real and the make-believe, and on an attraction to the exotic. And like the movies, they were, in a sense, created objects. The Mdivanis—the name was said to be derived from the Persian word for “sitting on a divan,” which was a perfect description of their aspirations—were definitely not your conventional immigrant strivers. They were born in the Russian state of Georgia, where the family claimed prominence, calling themselves princes and princesses, though one wag at the time said that “princes are almost as numerous in their native Georgia (south of the Caucasus) as colonels or judges in Kentucky.” Their father, Zakhari, a military officer, became an aide-de-camp to Czar Nicholas II.
Their mother, a Pole, became a confidant of Rasputin. But when the revolution broke out, Zakhari Mdivani first led White Russian forces against the Bolsheviks and later became governor of a breakaway state that included Georgia and had declared its independence from Russia. When the Bolsheviks won, he fled to Turkey and then France, supposedly leaving extensive oil holdings behind.
Back in the old country, David, Serge, and Alexis had been wild and debauched. By one description, “They rode like Cossacks, fought like hellcats, and seduced every peasant girl in sight.” They obviously made an impression. The family was impoverished when the Mdivani sons met Marshall Crane, of the Crane stationery company. At the time Crane was serving on the Near East Relief Committee, an American charity that provided aid to starving Armenians. Crane took a liking to the boys and brought the two eldest, David and Serge, to Dalton, Massachusetts, sometime in the late teens and then to Andover, where Crane enrolled them in the tony Phillips Academy prep school.
They didn’t make the most of their opportunity. An acquaintance said that after graduation, the two were in New York “scraping a living in a menial position” and boarding in a small rooming house with a “few pathetic mementoes of former wealth.” David eventually departed for Oklahoma to work in the oil fields, and then for Texas, professing to know something about oil from his father’s holdings. Mainly, though, the brothers coasted on their heritage. “Georgia Royalty” headlined a Houston paper in 1924 when Serge announced he would be visiting David there.
What drew them to Los Angeles is unclear. It was likely more fortune hunting, possibly of the oil kind (David would say he worked in the Doheny oil fields) but also undoubtedly of the romantic kind. The Mdivani brothers certainly seemed to appreciate the force of their personalities, the magnetism of their looks, and above all, the sway of their title, real or not, on the unsuspecting film community. They were right out of central casting for European royalty. Most described them as striking—Serge “dark and Latin-looking” and the “more manly” of the two, according to one of his wives; David, “fair and Nordic” and the “more classically handsome.” An acquaintance said of David that what he remembered best about him was “all that blond hair parted in the middle. There was so much of it, and it was so wavy.” Another acquaintance said that David reminded her of a “large dog” and that Alexis, who had stayed in Europe in those early years while his older brothers were cavorting in L.A., “might have been handsome had it not been for a pair of jug ears that gave him the tough aspect of a prizefighter.” That aspect wasn’t entirely misleading. All three of the brothers, despite their affectations, were rather surly and quick-tempered and ready to use their fists.
But in L.A. they didn’t strike jaws or oil. They struck the ambition of their new city’s fellow social climbers, and they struck hearts. The ambition and the romance weren’t very far apart among movie folk. The film community of the 1920s occupied a central place in American culture, but its stars didn’t have the social status to match their popularity, and it chafed. The Mdivanis exploited the distance between the two, promising to bridge the gap with their European aristocracy. And there was another gap they promised to bridge that was pervasive in Hollywood: the gap between reality and fantasy. It was one thing for a movie star to be regarded as a princess by an adoring public and quite another to be a real princess—actual titled nobility. The Mdivanis could provide the latter....MUCH MORE