Husband Lucien Lelong, John C. "Jack" Wilson
First Presbyterian Church of Ewing Cemetery, 100 Scotch Rd, Ewing Township, NJ 08628
4 Avenue Robert Schuman, 75007 Paris, France
Princess Natalia Pavlovna Paley (December 1905 – 27 December 1981) was a Russian aristocrat who was a non-dynastic member of the Romanov family. A daughter of Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich of Russia, she was a first cousin of the last Russian emperor, Nicholas II. After the Russian Revolution, she emigrated first to France and later to the United States. She became a fashion model, socialite, vendeuse, and briefly pursued a career as a film actress.
During one of the Charity Bazaars her mother gave every year, Princess Natalia, age 21, met Lucien Lelong, a prominent French couturier who offered her a job in his fashion house. She began to work initially in the perfume department, moving soon to model the house's designs. Lelong had inherited his famous fashion house from his father. A hero of World War I, he was then married and the father of a little girl. With her aristocratic background and her delicate features, Natalia was an asset for Lelong's business. Lucien Lelong divorced his wife, Anne-Marie Audoy, on 16 July 1927. Lelong was known for his homosexual affairs, but he offered her wealth and security. Against her family's opinion, who considered the union a misalliance, Princess Natalia and Lucien Lelong married in a civil ceremony on 9 August 1927. A religious ceremony took place the next day at the Orthodox church Saint Alexander Nevsky. Theirs was a white marriage, a union without intimacy.
Lelong's reputation grew with the help of his wife, whose taste was exquisite. Ethereal and glamorous, Princess Natalia would not follow any fashion trend, but would dictate her own. Hats and gloves were her signature. With deep-set gray eyes and pale blond hair, she became a sought-after model, establishing an image for herself in the Parisian elite and becoming a well-known socialite. As a model, she appeared in many magazines, including Vogue. She was a favorite model for the great photographers of her time: Edward Steichen, Cecil Beaton, Horst P. Horst, André Durst and George Hoyningen-Huene.
Though they shared the same infatuation for the arts and fashion, the marriage of Princess Natalia and Lelong was not a success. Too involved with his work and in love with one of his famous models who was doomed to die of tuberculosis, Lelong never grew to understand his wife's languor, or her frequent outbursts of temper when she was out of the limelight. On her part, Natalia began a two-year affair with dancer Serge Lifar. Their relationship ended when she began a passionate but platonic relationship with Jean Cocteau, who, like Lifar and most men she was attracted to, was homosexual. Cocteau wanted to marry her and have a child with her, but Princess Natalia declined the offer. Their affair ended in the fall of 1932.
She bought an apartment on the Esplanade des Invalides, where she entertained society and prominent artists. She continued to work as a photographic model in connection with Lelong's fashion house. In the spring of 1933, she began to pursue a film career and studied acting with Belgian actress Eve Francis, the former wife of director Louis Delluc.
Her first film was L'epervier (1933), directed by Marcel L'Herbier, her husband's cousin. It was the beginning of her career as a movie actress, taking parts in several European movies, including Sir Alexander Korda's The Private Life of Don Juan (1934). She eventually moved to the United States, where she had a small role in George Cukor's Sylvia Scarlett (1935), a film starring Katharine Hepburn, who became a lifelong friend. Princess Paley's acting skills were modest. Her name and her beauty were her main assets, and her film career never took off. In 1936, she returned briefly to France to film The New Men (Les Hommes nouveaux) with Jean Marais, under the direction of Marcel L'Herbier. Les Hommes nouveaux was a success in Europe, but marked the end of Princess Paley’s acting career.
Upon her return to the United States, Princess Natalia settled permanently in New York City. There, she met John C. "Jack" Wilson, a theater producer and director, who had previously been the lover of Noël Coward. After divorcing Lelong on 24 May 1937, Princess Natalia married Wilson on 8 September 1937 in Fairfield, Connecticut. It was a marriage of convenience. Wilson was intelligent, rich and a good companion. Princess Natalia's name and social skills were assets to his business as a Broadway producer. Princess Natalia liked her husband's humor, and his homosexuality suited her distaste for physical love. The couple, who would not have children, settled in an apartment in Manhattan overlooking Central Park. They traveled extensively: Saint Moritz, London, and Venice were favorite vacation spots.
World War II affected Princess Natalia only because her family and friends were living abroad. Though she went back to France in 1947, she spaced out her trips to Europe and spent more time in her luxurious residence: an apartment on East 57th Street in Manhattan. Later, she moved to another one on Park Avenue. She also had a cottage in Montego Bay, Jamaica, and a large property in Fairfield, Connecticut.
On 5 February 1941, Princess Natalia became a naturalized American citizen. She was a well-known socialite in New York City and was popular at fashionable events for her beauty and glamor. For many years, Princess Natalia worked in public relations as a promoter of the fashion house Mainbocher. She was a friend of Elsa Maxwell and became a confidante of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. In the 1940s and early 1950s, Princess Natalia had a lengthy romantic relationship with writer Erich Maria Remarque, who fictionalized her as "Natascha" in his posthumous novel, Shadows in Paradise.
During the 1950s, Wilson's career declined. He was a heavy drinker and became mentally imbalanced. Natalia tried to help him, but he was self-destructive. Confined to a wheelchair, often violent, and in a state of increasing dementia, he died in November 1961, at age 62.
After the death of her husband, Princess Natalia withdrew from society. In the last two decades of her life, she lived as a recluse, surrounded by her pets in her Manhattan apartment. Her only hobbies were watching television and crosswords. She developed diabetes and progressively lost her vision. Her blindness isolated her further. Letters and phone calls to her sister Irina were rare. In the 1970s, her nephew Prince Michel Feodorovich Romanoff went to visit her at her Manhattan apartment. She declined to see him, to prevent him from seeing her sad condition.
In December 1981, Princess Natalia suffered a fall in her bathroom. Doctors diagnosed a fracture of the femoral neck. She was transported to Roosevelt Hospital where, against the advice of her last two friends who feared a fatal outcome, surgeons decided to operate on the same night. Princess Natalia died at dawn on December 27, 1981, at Roosevelt Hospital in New York. She was buried in the churchyard of the First Presbyterian Church in Ewing, New Jersey.