Imposters are a recurring theme in American literature. The two strongest contenders for the title of Great American Novel both concern imposters who assume exalted roles. Jay Gatz becomes the Great Gatsby and posed as a gentleman of culture and accomplishment to give a respectable front for a New York gangster. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, con men — the Duke and the Dauphin — commandeer Huck and Jim’s raft. Both men are suspicious characters, ragged and dirty, treacherous, and often drunk — but Huck and Jim accept their story because, having heard stories of romance and chivalry from Tom Sawyer, they are ready to believe any outlandish act from aristocrats.
In 1943, The Post ran an article on a royal pretender who lived from one scam to the next for years, yet kept a wide circle of friends and admirers who knew of his imposture. In “The Downfall of Prince Mike” (March 20, 1942) [PDF], Alva Johnston informed readers that Prince Michael Romanoff, the leading imposter of the twentieth century, had degenerated into a successful businessman.”
During the 1920s, “Michael Romanoff” traveled between New York and Hollywood, posing as the last living member of the Russian royal family. He lived off the generosity of people who were flattered to extend credit to a man claiming to be a cousin of Czar Nicholas. In addition to walking off with these loans, he also pocketed the proceeds from the sale of paintings, which he brokered for an art dealer.
Then, in 1927, while working for movie studios as an expert on Russia, he was denounced by a real Russian emigré. He told the studio executives that the Prince was, in fact, Harry Gerguson, an orphan from New York’s lower East Side.
Harry had been resettled to a small Illinois town, where he had grown up without family or identity. Hungry to be recognized and respected, he noticed how people quickly deferred to anyone they considered their social superior.
Having observed that the Oxford accent was the heaviest social artillery a man could have, he crossed the Atlantic on a cattle boat in order to acquire it. He spent years in England doggedly polishing himself. In 1915 he tried himself out prematurely on English society under the name of Willoughby de Burke and landed in jail. Ordered out of England in 1921 for impersonating and marauding, Mike became a spot of color at the Ritz bar in Paris, where he was taken up by wealthy Americans. Bad-check trouble in France caused him to migrate to the United States.
Arriving at Ellis Island, he made the mistake of overplaying his part of a wandering British noble. He bragged to immigration officials that he had spent eight years in a German prison for killing a German baron in a duel. He was immediately detained and ordered to be deported. Before the officials took action, though, he stowed away on a ferry and slipped into New York.
A few days after his escape, Mike changed into Prince Obolensky. New York newspapers printed a sympathetic interview with Obolensky on the troubles of an impoverished nobleman seeking employment. Everybody thought it a hilarious joke, he said, when he offered himself as a secretary, a clerk or a laborer. The interview won him some gaudy week ends, but no work. From there he went to St. Paul, where he was féted by railroad and lumber kings. One of his rich friends sent him to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard.
It was a patten that repeated throughout his life. People continually offered favors and opportunity to this faux noble.
When he felt he had milked the one coast enough, he moved to the other. In time, his charade became public knowledge, but no one seemed genuinely angry with him. Celebrities ‘adopted’ him. He became a pet of the social elite. Some of his victims even forgave his debts.
Harry might have been a con man, but he was a professional. He knew when it was time to give up the game. So, in the 1940s, he opened a restaurant and abandoned his royal scams. He never fully abandoned his persona, but he stopped trying to convince people of his title. In time, he even became something of an expert on imposters.
One day when he was haranguing about the incompetency of the current crop of phonies, the Prince was asked what advice he would give to a young phony just starting out.
“I would advise him to stay out of it,” said Mike. “There’s too much competition.”