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Zina Rachevsky and the Vanderbilt heir's lavender hi-jinks

For you Zina Rachevsky fans - and you are legion: here's a wacky story from Confidential Magazine, July 1956. It's not really so much about Zina, but she is the connecting factor between two men, who may or may not have been involved with each other as well as with her.

 Zina rachevsky,peter howard, vanderbilt heir, Liam Barker, Confidential magazine july 1956
Confidential Magazine, July 1956

Scandal and intrigue, with our Zina caught in the middle of two suitors, one gay, the other straight.

"One night in Rome in 1953, a handsome young member of the exclusive Vanderbilt clan with international fame as a Romeo left his suite at the American Palace Hotel and tiptoed across the hall to another apartment. Once inside, he felt his way to the darkened bedroom and then slipped quietly into one of the twin beds.But a moment later there was pandemonium. With a roar of surprise, the blond Vanderbilt heir, Peter Howard, sat bold upright in the bed and snapped on a light. He stared incredulously for a moment at Princess Zina Rachevsky, the delectable dish beside him. the he leaped out of the bed covered only by comfusion and almost collided with a dark-haired Adonis who'd been slumbering in a twin bed across the room."

Turns out that Peter was actually after Liam. Peter and Zina had been engaged but theirs had been a platonic affair. Peter, of course, was gay.  Liam was Zina's new lover.

 2 zina rachevsky, peter Howard, LIam Baker, gay scandal 1956
Confidential Magazine, July 1956

"... Peter had really hoped to share a pillow with Liam, but since Liam and Zina had switched sacks that night, the Vanderbilt clans gay deceiver had found curves when he had expected to find Liam..."

Peter had arrived in Rome a few weeks earlier to catch up with his ex (and platonic) fiancee Zina, who was staying in Rome with her new lover. The three palled around for a while

"After a few weeks of innocent fun with his playmates, Peter suggested a flying trip across the Mediterranean to Tunisa to catch the apperance of his sepia friend Hazel Scott at the Tunis Municipal Theater. Zina bowed out but she suggested that Liam keep Peter company on the jaunt. Liam agreed to go when Peter assured him it would be an all-expensed-paid vacation.

The fun-bent pair shepherded Hazel Scott around Tunis's late-hour spots for several nights when her chores at the keyboard were finished..."

Hazel Scott with Charles Mingus backup, 1956.

Hazel Scott, Peter's "Sepia friend" was quite a phenomenon. Jazz pianist extraordinaire, "the darling of Cafe Society, "she had had a brilliant career with live performances, sound recordings  and in Hollywood films until she was blacklisted and moved to Europe.  She had been married to New York City congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr..   The video above was one year before her rendezvous with Peter Howard and Liam Baker. Zina, alas, was not with them, but it's a fascinating detour.

After their trip to Tunesia Peter and Liam went off to El D'Jem, where more hijinks ensued. Boy chases boy, boy avoids boy, boy threatens to leave other boy without money stranded in the desert, boy gives in and etc etc. What really happened we do not know. But the two of them made it back to Rome, and that's when, according to the Confidential story, Peter snuck into the Zina and Liam's room, hoping to hop into bed with Liam. Again. Or not.

 3 Zina Rachevsky, LIam Barker, Peter Howard, Vanderbilt heir, gay scandal 1956, confidential magazine

Confidential Magazine 1956

 4 zina rachevsky, lavender hijinks 

After climbing into the wrong bed, Peter Howard suggested a marriage Blanche with Zina, "without asking her to give up Liam" They declined. And left for Paris. Peter soon persued Christine Jorgensen, but apparently she wasn't interested either.

Maybe some of you Zina fans and friends who were around her those days will be so kind as to write and fill in some details.

514uswXSw0L._SS500_ Biography of Hazel Scott by Karen Chilton


This is written by Ronald Petrou. Ronald and I first spoke on the phone about a year ago, after he had read my posts on Zina. He sent this yesterday as a response to one of my Zina posts, and he gave me permission to reprint it here as a blog entry.

I knew Zina and Conrad Rooks in Athens in 1962-63. She was my living example of a "White Goddess." I had been reading Robert Graves and found Zina to be the embodiment of a woman with the gifts of beauty, generosity of spirit, and inclination whose task was to inspire men. One day she gave me as a gift, Ziddhartha, by Hermann Hesse. She was the only woman I have ever known who in conversation looked directly at me with her wonderful, large blue eyes, and asked me, "Ron, what do you think?" with such sincerity that awakened a new sense within me of who I was and what I could do.

I became friends with her husband and was for 6 months involved with him in New York in 1964-65 while he was making Chappaqua. I met Zina for the last time during that period and went for a walk with her from her midtown hotel to the hip restaurant, PJ Clarks. She took my hand and we walked along the electrically charged New York City streets as if we were two children or two lovers. Her nature was sexual and innocent at the same time. After I dropped her off at her hotel a few hours later, I accidentally put my hand to my face and discovered the scent of Zina’s perfume. I smiled and her presence remained with me for several hours. I can recall in detail that walk and that scent even now.

The poem by Robert Graves, “The White Goddess,” captures some of Zina's magic.

All saints revile her and all sober men
Ruled by the God Apollo's golden mean --
In scorn of which I sailed to find her
In distant regions likeliest to hold her
Whom I desired above all things to know
Sister of the mirage and echo.

It was a virtue not to stay,
To go my headstrong and heroic way
Seeking her out at the volcano's head
Among pack ice, or where the track had faded
Beyond the cavern of the seven sleepers:
Whose broad high brow was white as any leper's
Whose eyes were blue, with rowan-berry lips,
With hair curled honey-colored to white hips.

Green sap of Spring in the young wood a-stir
Will celebrate the Mountain Mother,
And every song-bird shout awhile for her;
But I am gifted, even in November
Rawest of seasons, with so huge a sense
Of her nakedly worn magnificence
I forget cruelty and past betrayal,
Careless of where the next bright bolt may fall.

Zina is a living presence for me even now, 47 years after I met her.

However, although she once invited me to go with her to Katmandu when she was having difficulties with Conrad, who was then known as Russell, not as her lover but as her friend and the teacher for her young son, Alexander, I recognize now that I was wise to go my own way.

I am sure that in the spiritual world or here in our world if she has reincarnated, she carries with her gift-giving capacities few human beings possess.

Ronald Petrou

SW Straus Family and NY architecture

Harriet straus rachevsky, zina rachevsky, vladimir rachevsky
SW Straus' daughter, Harriet Straus Rachevsky. 1929. Harriet is Zina's mother.I got this photo on eBay several years ago. It came with this text:

Harriet Straus Rachevsky, Vladimir Rachevsky, Grand Duke Boris Russia
This text shows that Harriet's husband, Vladimir, was the brother in law of  Grand Duke Boris. Not royalty himself. I also have several  passenger lists from transatlantic voyages in which he appears  as Vladimir Rachevsky, engineer. Not Duke or anything royal. This text brings up an interesting question: Why was the marriage secret? My hunch is that the dying SW would have been livid that Harriet planned to marry someone not Jewish. Her two sisters, Louise and Madeline, had married Jews, as had everyone else in the family. My own grandfather (a Spiegel, not a Straus, but still...) had explicitly forbidden my mother from marrying a Kike, which to him meant a Jew of Eastern European descent, not the good kind from Germany, or even a Sephardic Jew. My mom did, in fact, marry a Kike - my father - and my grandparents grew to adore him. But to marry a Christian in those days was not something you'd tell your dying father.

update: a relative on the Rachevsky side of the family found me through this blog. Ain't google amazing?!! According to him, it seems that the Rachevsky's were, in fact Jewish. Converted to Catholicism, for a variety of reasons, including safety, but Jews nevertheless.

Now that I look at the pictures of Zina, Mrs Grand Duke, she does look Jewish. I mean, she looks like several Jews I know in Russia. . I'm keeping the rest of this post in, because I don't know if Vladimir told Harriet he was Jewish, and even if he did, he was a Russian Jew, not the "good" kind, a German Jew.

From Growing Up Rich by Anne Bernays -  a wonderful novel about a German Jewish family in New York in the 1940's. The heroine is Sally Stern, a fourteen year old girl. Sally's mother is speaking to Sally about her (Sally's) step Grandmother. She is refering to a conversation Sally and Oma Lucy have had about Jews passing for Gentile.

"Oma Lucy has very firm opinions about 'passing.' She thinks it's a sin. It's her hobbyhorse, dear. Of course, she's the ultimate snob herself. Did you know that when she refers to any Jew who isn't the acceptable kind - not German or Spanish - she always uses the word 'little' in front of their name. Little Mrs. Steinberg, little Mrs. Epstein. It's a dead giveaway. I don't think she's aware she does it. Oh, she'd be horrified to hear what I'm telling you. And don't you go repeating it to her either."

Grand duke boris Russia, Zinaida Rachevsky  
Grand Duke Boris and his wife Zinaida (Rachevsky) This is not our Zina. It is her father's sister. I think she is gorgeous.

Meanwhile, Harriet's father, my great uncle Simon William Straus, had been busy changing the skylines of three major US cities. He built the Ambassador Hotels in New York, Atlantic City, and Los Angeles.

Ambassador hotel ny postcard
Ambassador Hotel, New York City. The building has been torn down.

Ambassador hotel ad 1941 blog
Advertisement from The Hotel Ambassador, New York City.
Ambassador hotel atlantic city
Ambassador hotel Atlantic City, NJ
Here's a juicy little tidbit from an Atlantic City history website
In May of 1929, mob kingpins from around the country, including Lansky, Lucky Luciano, Dutch Schultz and Al Capone, gathered for a three-day national convention in Atlantic City's Ambassador Hotel....The gangsters gathered at Atlantic City's Ambassador sought to find ways to end their bloody wars, coordinate their national racketeering activities and reign in Capone, whose ferocity unnerved even them.
Straus building chicago

The Straus Building, Chicago.

SW also held the underwriting mortgage  of $6,000,000 on the construction, building and land of the Pershing Square Building, which was right next to Grand Central Station, on 42nd Street and Park Ave.  It was owned by The Pershing Square Corporation, of which Seward Ehrich was the treasurer. Seward Erich had just married Louise Straus - Harriet's sister and Zina's aunt. The marriage tookplace at the Italian Gardens of The Ambassador Hotel. The building was designed by John Sloan, architect at York & Sawyer.

Pershing square ny times 1931
Pershing Square Building Plans Completed, NY Times 1921
Pershing square circa 1922 postcard

Pershing Square, NYC, 1922 postcard

Pershing Square now. It is a trendy restaurant.

Building was nothing new to the Straus family. SW's uncle, Jacob Straus, Jewish pioneer and businessman in Ligonier, Indiana, built this beauty.
Citizens bank, ligonier Indiana founded by Jacob Straus

Citizens bank, Ligonier Indiana founded by Jacob Straus

And that's it for today's Straus family history. If you are interested in reading more about the Straus/Spiegel clan, and about reclaiming Jewish roots, I highly recommend An Orphan In History by my brother, Paul Cowan. (It's on my Powell's booklist). For a great read about German Jews in New York City in the 1940's, I recommend Growing Up Rich, by Anne Bernays.

more about Zina Rachevsky

Did you know Zina. I'd love to hear from you. Drop me a line in the comment section.


 With Tibet in the news recently, I thought I’d expand on a piece I have on my website about  my cousin Zina Rachevsky and my travels in Nepal.

Zina Rachevsky

  In the 1980's I lived in Woodstock, NY, practically in the shadow of the Tibetan Buddhist Monestary Karma Triyana Darmachakra (KTD). Although I was not a practitioner, I lived with one, which I thought gave me some in-law status.

White Tara, tibet goddess, liza cowan painting
White Tara, acrylic on canvas by Liza Cowan

In 1985 my partner and I decided to go to India and Nepal. She wanted to see the Lamas and Tibetan Buddhist shrines and I was in search of information about my cousin Zina Rachevsky, who, it is told, had been the first foreigner to study with Tibetan Lamas, (or second after Alexandra David Neel.) 

Zina and her family had always been somewhat of mythical figures in my family. For one thing, the Straus family was fabulously wealthy. In 1921, Simon William Straus -  (Zina's grandfather, my grandmother's brother)  founder of SW Straus & Co., held loans on new buildings across the us worth $150,000,000. (NY Times, Dec 3, 1922) In 1924 they completed construction on  the Chicago building that is now known as Metropolitan Tower, the first Chicago structure taller than thirty stories. It was then known as "The Straus Building." SW Straus owned the Ambassador Hotels in Los Angeles, New York City and Atlantic City. He died in 1930. The company went into recievership, it went under, in 1932 after defaulting on bonds totaling over $200 million.

Zina was born in 1930, the same year her grandfather died. Zina was known to us a wild child, but in the 1950's, when I was a child listening to the stories, that could be another way of speaking of an independent, curious woman. She spent much of her early adulthood working as actress and gaining a reputation as an international socialite, knew the Beat Poets, and eventually made her way to India and finally to Dharma.

Zina Rachevsky  
Zina Rachevsky, actress 1953

Zena's father, we knew, claimed Russian nobility. While the Russian nobility fable is a large part of Zina’s current mythology, in my family we were more interested in our side, the Jewish side. Zina's mother and my mother were first cousins. Zina's grandfather and my my grandmother were siblings. They were all German Jews, who had been in the United States since the middle of the 19th Century, and had made their fortune first as peddlers, then as bankers with huge real estate holdings throughout the country. They settled first in Ligonier,  Indiana, creating one of the first and largest Jewish communities in the midwest.  The family then moved on to Chicago and then to New York.

Zina, in the stories written about her, is usually referred to as a Russian Princess. It is  not likely that Zina actually thought of herself as a Russian Princess. Certainly the rest of the family knew that her common-born father's common-born sister had married a dethroned Russian Duke, which doesn't equal royalty by any inheritance laws anywhere. Not a drop of royal blood coursed through her veins. However, it was a clever way of branding herself when she was creating a name for herself as an actress and a showgirl. The meme seemed to have stuck with  her friends and acquaintences and became part of her public persona. Certainly, it made her memorable, and most likely reduced the amount of anti-Semitism that might have been an obstacle in those days.

Update: It turns out, in fact, that the Russian Rachevsky's were most likely Jews as well. Converted to Catholicism, for various reasons, but Jews. Did Zina know this? I don't know. But it seems that she was, by blood, 100% Jewish.

I didn’t think much about Zina until I became interested in Tibetan Buddhism. She had visited us in New York only once, but I had no memory of her. But when I found that Zina had been involved with Lamas in India and Nepal soon after the Chinese invasion of Tibet, I knew it was something worth investigating.