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LET’S CELEBRATE PRINCE Michael Romanoff; he, of the famed Beverly Hills restaurant.
For those keeping track of such things, this is in my on-going (albeit far from contiguous) celebration of noted restauranteurs: Fernand Point and Howard Johnson were legit; Prince Michael Romanoff was not. On the other hand, the name Romanoff’s certainly sounded a lot more fur-lined than Geguzin’s.
In a sense, Prince Michael Romanoff’s entire life was play acting. Born Hershel Geguzin in Lithuania, he came to New York City at the age of 10 in 1900. In time he became Harry F. Gerguson, a Brooklyn, New York, pants presser. Then his imagination, not to say his reputation, soared. Indeed, in Romanoff’s own assessment, “No one has ever discovered the truth about me–not even myself.”
For a while, Gerguson claimed to be the son of British Prime Minister William Gladstone (who, if true, would have fathered him at age 80). In 1927, he moved to California with the impressive moniker of a nephew of Tsar Nicholas II, lucky enough to have fled the Russian Revolution.
A dapper man, just a tad over five foot, Prince Michael sported spats, a walking stick, a mustache and an impeccable Oxford accent. During a life-long career of grifting, in 1940 he opened Romanoff’s Restaurant in Beverly Hills. One of his grifts was accomplishing this largely on other people’s money. Another was making his Rodeo Drive restaurant the in-place for Hollywood types in the 1940s and 1950s.
Martin Turnbull, author of a series of “Hollywood’s Garden of Allah” novels, wrote, “Only in a town built on the wispy foundations of ballyhoos, baloney and bull could a man like Michael Romanoff open a restaurant like Romanoff’s and actually get away with it for over twenty years.”
Its menu offered delectables such as filet mignon, frog legs, tomatoes stuffed with crab and Strawberries Romanoff. Actually, Prince Michael swiped this last speciality from Escoffier, who called it Strawberries Americaine.
On the other hand, Noodles Romanoff was the restaurant’s creation. Stouffer’s Top of the Rock Restaurant in Chicago inherited it after Romanoff’s closed up shop on New Year’s Eve 1962.
In the 1940s and 1950s, though, Romanoff’s and Prince Michael were all the rage. Actor and fellow rogue David Niven was a close friend. Humphrey Bogart had his own special table there.
During this Golden Age of radio, Prince Michael made appearances on popular shows such as “The Jack Benny Program,” “Duffy’s Tavern,” “You Bet Your Life” and “The Charlie McCarthy Show.”
SiriusXM’s “Radio Classics” recently featured Prince Michael as a guest of Edgar Bergen and his wooden pal Charlie. The episode is also available as a free download from Old Time Radio Downloads.
The repartee was great. On hearing that Romanoff’s serves grouse from Scotland, Charlie asks, “So, have you been to Scotland?” Prince Michael responds, in rich Oxford tones, “Only the Yard.”
Charlie comments on Prince Michael’s cufflinks. “Yes,” he says, “those are from the Royal Crown and this ring is from the Royal Seal.” “And on your vest?” Charlie asks. “That’s Royal Pudding.”
He’s asked, “Is Romanoff’s exclusive?” The Prince responds, “Exclusive?? Why, they’ve thrown me out on several occasions.”
Time magazine, November 6, 1950, said of Prince Michael Romanoff, “he cashed in on the fact that he is one of the few genuine, 24-carat phonies in a city where thin plating has often been known to pose for the real thing.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016