Romance on the Orient Express

It is 1889. The fabulous Orient Express, only a few years old, hurtles through the darkness en route from Paris to Istanbul. A terrified young woman runs frantically through the corridor, searching for an unlocked stateroom. At last she finds one, and throws herself into the room.

“Save me,” she cries.

The dark-haired Greek gentleman leaps to his feet, tossing his papers  aside. A beautiful Spanish lady is throwing herself on his mercy? Of course he will help her.

The beginning of a sensational novel?

No. A true story.

The lady in questions was Maria del Pilar Antonia Angela Patiocinio Simona de Muguiro y Berute, the Duchess of Villafranca. She was on her wedding journey with her new husband, Don Francisco, Principe de Borbon y Borbon, a Spanish prince. He was also a madman and was trying to kill her—hence her terrified flight through the train.

The gentleman whose aid she sought was Basil Zaharoff, a man who grew up in poverty in Turkey and Russia and had spent his youth engaged in a variety of activities best left unmentioned. Now, however, he was a man of forty, risen to a position of wealth and power—enough power to enable him to protect the lady from her husband.

They fell in love and remained together until her death, almost forty years later, though it was only near the end of her life that they were finally able to marry. Divorcing her husband, with his royal connections, had proved impossible even though he was committed to an insane asylum where he lived until 1924.

A romantic tale, is it not?

But there are some shadows to it.

Zaharoff, also known as Zacharoff and as Basileios Zacharias, was born in Turkey, the son of a Greek merchant. The family spent some time in Russia (hence the name Zaharoff) at a time when Turkey was not a safe place for Greeks. He lived in various places—and had to leave some in a hurry—but by the time he encountered Maria, he was a highly successful arms merchant.

He and Maria settled in Paris where they lived contentedly and had two daughters. He also continued his activities as an arms dealer, an extremely profitable activity in the years leading up to World War I. On at least one occasion, he is reported to have sold arms to both sides in a conflict that he himself provoked. Later on, it was said that he made a thousand pounds for every death in World War I.

In the 1941 book Men of Wealth, John Flynn describes him:

He was rich and a man of striking, distinguished appearance; a small mustache and imperial and drooping eyelids added an expression of inscrutability to his grave countenance. He cultivated the habit of silence. He avoided displays, public appearances. He took up his place in that foggy, ill-lighted world so fascinating to the readers of newspapers — the world of Behind the Scenes. He had acquaintances, if not friends, among the most important people in Europe.

Zaharoff was known as “The Wickedest Man in Europe” and newspapers called him “The Merchant of Death.” He was also given a knighthood by the British government, and so was styled Sir Basil Zaharoff. The French bestowed on him the ribbon of the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor after Prime Minister Clemenceau assured the Chamber of Deputies that yes, Zaharoff was a French citizen.

A gift to writers, he figured as the villain in numerous novels, plays and stories, though these generally leave out the romantic tale of the encounter on the Orient Express. 

What kind of man was he? A hero or a villain? Or both?

Comments

Basil Zaharoff & Maria, Duchess of Villafranca

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Romance on the Orient Express | Lillian Marek

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