How an Early Hollywood Family Became the Original Kardashians

In the 1920s, there was a clan of brothers and sisters with a taste for money, a gift for spectacle, and a knack for hooking up with the right people

They arrived in Los Angeles in the 1920s quietly, elegantly, arrogantly, like the royalty they purported to be, and for a while they were treated deferentially—like royalty. Their stay proved to be noisier, having exploded and exposed their pretensions. Coming or going, there had never been a family quite like them. They cut a swath through Hollywood as real-life super-romantics, earning the sobriquet “The Marrying Mdivanis,” though they might just as easily have been called “The Divorcing Mdivanis,” “The Swindling Mdivanis,” “The Gold-digging Mdivanis,” “The Litigious Mdivanis,” “The Brawling Mdivanis,” or eventually “The Tragic Mdivanis.”

But that is getting ahead of the story. In the course of the soap opera that constituted the lives of the three Mdivani brothers and two Mdivani sisters, they commanded news attention and generated gossip that cascaded through Los Angeles, America, and Europe, and in so doing they were cultural pathbreakers. In many ways they were the first modern celebrities, people who were known for being well known and not much else; they were among the first to turn personal reinvention into a national obsession; they were among the first to transform a family name into a monetizable brand without selling anything but the name. And they were among the first to live out a cautionary tale about the brief half-life of fame. They were the Kardashians 80 years before the Kardashians, and they left their imprint on their adopted city and country long after they had been forgotten—the forgetting, ironically, being a big part of the imprint. Once, everyone in the world knew their name and its pronunciation—Dee-VAH-Nee, with a silent M. Now nobody knows them.

David Mdivani and actress Mae Murray married on June 27, 1926, in Beverly Hills and divorced in 1933

Photograph courtesy Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The rise of the Mdivanis probably couldn’t have happened anywhere but in Los Angeles because, like Hollywood and its environs, they subsisted on enchantment, on the confusion of the real and the make-believe, and on an attraction to the exotic. And like the movies, they were, in a sense, created objects. The Mdivanis—the name was said to be derived from the Persian word for “sitting on a divan,” which was a perfect description of their aspirations—were definitely not your conventional immigrant strivers. They were born in the Russian state of Georgia, where the family claimed prominence, calling themselves princes and princesses, though one wag at the time said that “princes are almost as numerous in their native Georgia (south of the Caucasus) as colonels or judges in Kentucky.” Their father, Zakhari, a military officer, became an aide-de-camp to Czar Nicholas II. Their mother, a Pole, became a confidant of Rasputin. But when the revolution broke out, Zakhari Mdivani first led White Russian forces against the Bolsheviks and later became governor of a breakaway state that included Georgia and had declared its independence from Russia. When the Bolsheviks won, he fled to Turkey and then France, supposedly leaving extensive oil holdings behind.

Back in the old country, David, Serge, and Alexis
 had been wild and debauched. By one description,
“They rode like Cossacks, fought like hellcats, and
seduced every peasant girl in sight.” They obviously 
made an impression. The family was impoverished
when the Mdivani sons met Marshall Crane, of the
Crane stationery company. At the time Crane was serving on the Near East Relief Committee, an American charity that provided aid to starving Armenians. Crane took a liking to the boys and brought the two eldest, David and Serge, to Dalton, Massachusetts, sometime in the late teens and then to Andover, where Crane enrolled them in the tony Phillips Academy prep school. They didn’t make the most of their opportunity. An acquaintance said that after graduation, the two were in New York “scraping a living in a menial position” and boarding in a small rooming house with a “few pathetic mementoes of former wealth.” David eventually departed for Oklahoma to work in the oil fields, and then for Texas, professing to know something about oil from his father’s holdings. Mainly, though, the brothers coasted on their heritage. “Georgia Royalty” headlined a Houston paper in 1924 when Serge announced he would be visiting David there.

What drew them to Los Angeles is unclear. It was likely more fortune hunting, possibly of the oil kind (David would say he worked in the Doheny oil fields) but also undoubtedly of the romantic kind. The Mdivani brothers certainly seemed to appreciate the force of their personalities, the magnetism of their looks, and above all, the sway of their title, real or not, on the unsuspecting film community. They were right out of central casting for European royalty. Most described them as striking—Serge “dark and Latin-looking” and the “more manly” of the two, according to one of his wives; David, “fair and Nordic” and the “more classically handsome.” An acquaintance said of David that what he remembered best about him was “all that blond hair parted in the middle. There was so much of it, and it was so wavy.” Another acquaintance said that David reminded her of a “large dog” and that Alexis, who had stayed in Europe in those early years while his older brothers were cavorting in L.A., “might have been handsome had it not been for a pair of jug ears that gave him the tough aspect of a prizefighter.” That aspect wasn’t entirely misleading. All three of the brothers, despite their affectations, were rather surly and quick-tempered and ready to use their fists.

But in L.A. they didn’t strike jaws or oil. They struck the ambition of their new city’s fellow social climbers, and they struck hearts. The ambition and the romance weren’t very far apart among movie folk. The film community of the 1920s occupied a central place in American culture, but its stars didn’t have the social status to match their popularity, and it chafed. The Mdivanis exploited the distance between the two, promising to bridge the gap with their European aristocracy. And there was another gap they promised to bridge that was pervasive in Hollywood: the gap between reality and fantasy. It was one thing for a movie star to be regarded as a princess by an adoring public and quite another to be a real princess—actual titled nobility. The Mdivanis could provide the latter.

The wedding party of David Mdivani and Mae Murray (center, with bouquet) included best man Rudolph Valentino (third from left) and movie producer Irving Thalberg (center).
The wedding party of David Mdivani and Mae Murray (center, with bouquet) included best man Rudolph Valentino (third from left) and movie producer Irving Thalberg (center).

Photograph courtesy of Hargrett Rare Book / Manuscript Library

In a city of reinvention the Mdivani brothers
played at being louche nobility. David found himself invited to a party that actress Pola Negri was hosting for her visiting mother, because Negri had been told by mutual friends that he was charming and well mannered and would make good company for the older woman. Born in Poland, Negri had achieved film stardom in her own country and then in Germany, working with director Ernst Lubitsch, whom she followed to America in 1922, becoming the first European actress to be recruited by the studios. She rapidly became one of the biggest stars on the screen here, too. Whether or not David had already been scheming to use his entrée to land a movie queen, he found Mae Murray, the silent-film actress and fading beauty known as the “Girl with the Bee-stung Lips,” at Negri’s party sleeping on a brocade couch. He awakened her with a kiss, telling her, “In my country this is how it is done.” The courtship was as fast as the introduction. By one account Murray suffered a fall, called David to escort her to the doctor’s office, and the two resolved to wed. They were married on June 27, 1926, within three weeks of meeting. According to Negri, David arrived at her home shortly before the wedding in a “terrible state of agitation,” saying that Murray wanted to marry him but that at 41, she was 14years older than he; the age difference frightened him.
 Just not enough, apparently.
 It is impossible to say whether, after his brother’s conquest of Murray, Serge targeted Negri. She was a much bigger star than Murray—“the passion flower of the screen,” as fan magazines called her. And offscreen, too. Moonfaced, voluptuous, and smoldering, she had well-publicized romances with an actor named Rod La Roque as well as Charlie Chaplin and, most notable of all, Rudolph Valentino, to whom she claimed to be engaged when he died in 1926, not long after being best man at the Murray-Mdivani wedding. Tabloids featured photos of Negri, draped in black, collapsing at the funeral.

As she tells it in her memoir, she was living in a rented beach house in Santa Monica in February 1927, trying to shake her gloom over Valentino, when David came up the beach one Sunday and asked whether he and his brother could change there to go swimming. It was Negri’s first sight of Serge, whose “splendidly robust physique” caught her attention. Though she was piqued that neither offered their condolences, Negri admitted that she felt as if she had “suddenly been transported back to another place in a happier time” as she watched them frolic “like healthy, frisky animals.” This would be the first of many Sunday visits that she said helped bring her out of her “bewildering sense of loss.” But when Serge eventually professed his love, she insisted, she felt no sexual attraction, which “certainly put me in a minority among the women of this world.”

That didn’t dissuade Serge. When Negri left Los Angeles to visit her mother in France, Serge appeared on the train with a corsage, and when she sailed on the Mauretania from New York, Serge was onboard there, too. As they disembarked, he offered to secret heraway to Paris to avoid the press, only for her to find that he had summoned his family—his parents, two brothers, and sisters Nina and Isabelle Roussadana—to the Hôtel Plaza Athénée to await the couple’s wedding in two weeks. Serge sent his father out to tell the press the news as Negri stood there dumbstruck over a wedding she had neither anticipated nor wanted. To persuade her, she said, the Mdivanis pressured her “with the talent with which they were so excessively endowed—the talent for charm and wit.” And she succumbed. Negri, like Mae Murray, now had her prince. Serge, like brother David, had his star and her fortune. And the press had its headlines, which thrust Serge into the repertory company of celebrity. Despite her trepidations—she got a prenup agreement—Princess Negri enthused to reporters, “Serge has decided to give up everything, even his title and his heritage, if necessary. But he asks nothing of me, since he realizes I have a great career and I belong to my art.”

The marriage didn’t begin auspiciously. They postponed their honeymoon when Serge began frequenting a casino in Vigny before their departure. “Each morning I would be presented with an affectionate smile from my new husband and an astronomical bill from the casino, where he apparently never won,” she would later write. When they returned from the honeymoon and Negri resumed work, Serge was apoplectic, complaining that he was losing face by being called “Mr. Negri.” To assuage him, his wife set him up in real estate with an office on Wilshire Boulevard, but he blew the money on investments gone sour. When Negri discovered she was pregnant, they left Hollywood behind and retired to her château in France. But she miscarried, began drinking, and only roused herself after accepting a movie role. Furious, Serge stormed off. The two temporarily reconciled before the stock market crashed. Then Serge returned to Los Angeles to find that his wife’s enormous fortune was gone. And now so was he.

Back in Europe, Serge and David’s younger brother, Alexis, and their two sisters were aggressively gold digging, too. Nina, the eldest Mdivani, had married a prosperous international attorney. Twenty-four years her senior, Charles Huberich had been captivated by the dark beauty in Paris, where her father engaged him to provide counsel to sell the Mdivani oil leases in Russian Georgia. Subsidized by Huberich, Nina embarked on a life of leisure, traveling the world, becoming a patron of the arts, and numbering among her friends Colette, Diaghilev, Isak Dinesen, and Cocteau. She even wrote a book—a compilation of Georgian folktales.

Isabelle Roussadana, known as “Roussy,” was the more conniving of the sisters, “insuring herself against poverty,” wrote an acquaintance, “by methods that would have shocked even Becky Sharp,” Thackeray’s quintessential social climber in Vanity Fair. Roussy had drawn attention in Paris with her looks—she was tall, sleek, and stunning, with streaked ash blond hair—but also by cultivating an image as an eccentric, always accompanied “by two monkeys dressed in rich Oriental brocades and aglow with diamonds and emeralds and other jewels,” wrote her onetime sister-in-law Pola Negri. It was an artist’s affectation. She was a sculptor who specialized in busts of famous individuals—including, during a trip to Boston, former president Calvin Coolidge and former Supreme Court justice Charles Evans Hughes—and in trophies awarded for aeronautic competitions. “I am wedded to my art,” she told a reporter during her Boston foray, “but any suitor may have his monument made.”

In truth she wasn’t entirely wedded to her art. Her studio in Mont- parnasse was close to that of the Spanish artist Josep Maria Sert, who had painted the murals for New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel. According to the biographers of Sert’s wife, Misia—who was herself a muse to, and friend of, an assortment of artists, from Stravinsky to Renoir to Chanel to Ravel to Proust—Roussy wandered “like a stray cat” into Sert’s studio one day and “was picked up, examined, fondled, and adopted.” Sert was lovestruck. Roussy was struck, but not necessarily by love.

They were an odd couple. She, at 19, was an ethereal beauty; Sert, at 50, was, as a society reporter described him, “bald and short” and “round-shouldered.” And it was an odd relationship—odder still because Misia had also taken a liking to Roussy, befriending her and trying to find her a husband. When Roussy fell ill, Misia escorted her to a sanitarium in Switzerland to convalesce.

It was there that Roussy told Misia that she and Sert wanted to marry. And it was while the three were vacationing in Venice not long after (a shockingly cosmopolitan arrangement) that Roussy literally crawled into their room as Misia and Sert were making love. “From that day on, mute and implacable,” Misia would write, “tragedy shadowed our lives.” With Nina’s lawyer husband as facilitator, Sert divorced Misia and married Roussy on August 18, 1928. According to her biographers, Misia picked out Roussy’s trousseau at Chanel, then, despite her devastation, accompanied the newlyweds on their honeymoon.

Serge married Negri in Paris after surprising her with his wedding plans there.
Serge married Negri in Paris after surprising her with his wedding plans there.

Photograph courtesy of Hargrett Rare Book / Manuscript Library

While she was making her own future, Roussy had long been focused on that of her beloved brother, Alexis, the most entitled of the Mdivani clan. When Negri told her young brother-in-law that he could go far with a college education, he scoffed, “Work!… You are a darling little innocent.” After that Negri concluded, “Alexis had no intention of doing less well than his brothers at the art of living extraordinarily well without ever having to demean himself with actual labor.” He shared his brothers’ charm, too. When Negri bought him a polo pony, she observed, “He had such an irresistible way of making people feel gratified merely by permitting them to do things for him.”

For Alexis, Hollywood royalty wouldn’t be enough. He began spending time in London and Paris with the Van Alen family, which was descended from William Astor, once the richest man in America, and General James Van Alen, a Civil War hero whose son became ambassador to Italy. Jimmy Van Alen, the ambassador’s grandson, attended Cambridge, where Alexis became a hanger-on. When Jimmy spent part of the summer of 1929 at Wakehurst, the Newport vacation home of his mother’s family, he invited Alexis to join him. That may have been when Alexis met Jimmy’s 18-year-old sister, Louise. As Alice Moats, an author and socialite who knew Louise and Alexis, would say, “One divined her tremendous need to love somebody, and it seemed inevitable that she would get a crush” on Alexis. They were married at Wakehurst on May 15, 1931.
 By then Serge’s marriage to Negri was already over. “As I was on my way to the railroad station to leave Paris,” Negri wrote of the dissolution of her marriage in her memoir, “I saw Serge driving down the Champs-Élysées in the open Rolls-Royce that I had bought him. His prima donna was nestled beside him with an arm intimately curled around his neck.” The prima donna, named Mary McCormic, was an opera star who had spotted Serge on an ocean liner as she was headed to a concert tour and he was returning to Paris. “I thought I was on my way to Europe,” she later told reporters, “but when I got my first glimpse at him, I just knew I was Heaven-bound.” She claimed it was passion, not a title, that attracted her. She said she wasn’t marrying “Prince Mdivani” or “any other duke or count.” “As for plain Mr. Mdivani,” she told them, “that is another matter.”
 They were secretly wed in Phoenix on April 17, 1931.

The depression notwithstanding, these were high times in Los Angeles for gold diggers, since there were so many people desperate to recoup their losses, so many eagerly throwing good money after bad. Serge was determined to take advantage of them. He returned to the city with his new bride, who told the press after their nuptials had been revealed, “I am looking forward to a marriage that will always be a honeymoon, and to me, that seems a great deal more important than any stage career.” But that sentiment put the breadwinning on Serge. In pursuing opportunities, the princes David and Serge once again managed to exploit Hollywood’s tendencies to genuflect before nobility, to confuse make-believe with reality, and to embrace the fantasy of overnight riches.

Late in 1930, before Serge’s marriage to McCormic, the two brothers had leased six lots in the Venice oil fields and began selling shares in their new company, Pacific Shore Oil. Who could resist princes? David told one investor that the company was to be a “happy gathering of friends.” Among the “friends” were a movie director named Robert Vignola, an actor named Pat O’Malley, another named Jack Clark, and the star Lowell Sherman, along with Mary McCormic and Mae Murray. All told, the brothers raised about $200,000. By January 1931, a well struck oil, delivering 6,000 barrels a day. As one paper put it, clearly referring to their past financial difficulties, “Mdivanis May Have Something at Last.”

What they turned out to have was a lawsuit. Investors complained that the Mdivanis had paid them no royalties yet awarded themselves salaries of a thousand dollars a month. What was worse, David had sold the company one of his own leases for $11,000. It seemed like a swindle, or at least it did to the state prosecutor. In December 1933, David and Serge were indicted for embezzling more than $30,000 from their company while stiffing their investors.

Buried within the embezzlement charges was an unusual allegation: that the brothers withheld $4,625 to give to Alexis, for a campaign of sorts. It had begun, by one account, on Alexis’s honeymoon with Louise Van Alen when Roussy, already scheming to raise her brother’s prospects, introduced him to another young and much richer heiress, Barbara Hutton. Though just 20, Hutton was as well known as the Mdivanis. Her uncle was a founder of the E.F. Hutton brokerage; her grandfather, the founder of the Woolworth dime store. Barbara was only five when her mother died, and she bounced from relative to relative, lonely and loveless, gaining the tabloid title “Poor Little Rich Girl.” Alexis set his sights on Hutton, and the money his brothers allegedly took from their company was intended to help him woo her. After his wedding to Louise, he had rented a mansion in Paris, where he threw lavish parties on his wife’s dime and openly flirted with his prospective conquest. Louise apparently tolerated her husband’s indiscretions—until the following year, when they were guests at a party at Sert and Roussy’s home in Spain and Louise caught Alexis in flagrante with Hutton. That, said author Alice Moats, ended the marriage.

Serge Mdivani and Negri.

Photograph courtesy of Imagno / Getty Images

For the Mdivanis, the union with the Huttons may have been their greatest triumph— social climbing as high art. It was also a giant marker of the riches of notoriety. Alexis and Hutton were married in Paris in June 1933, in a ceremony described by The New York Times as “among the most publicized and photographed in modern times.” A reporter wrote, “No bride anywhere at no time could have been lovelier than this dainty blonde. She was more than radiant—she was positively angelic.” Hutton said she married Alexis because he was “smart, cute, amusing, interesting, and hangs around all the time,” to which Will Rogers quipped, “Sounds almost like the recommendation for a good Irish setter.” The couple set off the following January on a round-the-world cruise that began in San Francisco and was to end in New York, but Alexis had to jump the train before crossing the California state line for fear of being subpoenaed to testify at his brothers’ trial. Still, he offered David and Serge $100,000 (presumably Hutton’s money), should they need it to pay back their investors.
 The trial—a Los Angeles headline special with its star defendants, its Hollywood witnesses, and a gallery of women cramming the courtroom to glimpse the handsome princes—ended with a hung jury, eight to four for conviction. Undeterred, the state promised to retry them, then suddenly dropped the charges before the retrial.

But neither David nor Serge emerged un- scathed from their Hollywood shenanigans. The scheming may have intoxicated them as much as their lady loves had, making the Mdivani brothers not only perpetrators of romantic fantasy but also victims of it. David’s marriage to Mae Murray had been tumultuous almost from the beginning. She had filed for divorce in 1931, accusing him of having beaten her, locking her in a bathroom, and then beating her again two months later and chasing her with a loaded gun. They reconciled, but she sued him for divorce in 1933, citing his jealousy and the money he had wheedled from her to finance Pacific Shore Oil. Murray petitioned the court to put her husband’s company in receivership. She certainly had a right to feel aggrieved: As the brothers were going to trial, a sheriff’s deputy auctioned off her Venice beach house to cover debts. The home for which she had paid $100,000 fetched $11,000. “These princes in their way make love in the grand manner,” she told the press, “passionately and with romance, but there is no kindness in it.” Yet even as she was terminating their marriage, Murray claimed of David, “Never have I had such a romantic and persistent wooer,” and she confessed, “I am rather lost without him.”

As for McCormic, she, too, said her husband had swindled her; she, too, petitioned the court to put her husband’s company in receivership; and she, too, filed for divorce, charging that Serge had hit her and kept her prisoner. “He said that I must remember I was a princess and I could not associate with common people,” she told the press. But the main reason for the breakup was that his ardor, which had been “thrilling and sweet” at the outset of their marriage, became the “possessiveness of the Asiatic who regards his wife as a possession.” As she put it, “East is east and west is west.” Despite her grievances, like Murray, McCormic left Serge without recriminations. Her ex-husband was, she said, the “world’s greatest lover.”

Alexis may have been less the swooning romantic than his older, Hollywood-based brothers, but for him, too, getting married proved much easier than staying married. He and Hutton lived high. To celebrate her 22nd birthday, they threw a party at the Ritz in Paris, for which the orchestra alone was said to have cost $10,000—a figure Alexis denied when the press expressed indignation at such extravagance in hard times. Yet not even Hutton’s fortune could buy happiness. According to Alice Moats, Alexis told Hutton while on their honeymoon that she was too fat, prompting her to go on a “coffee diet” and lose 46 pounds. In the subsequent years Alexis seemed more interested in playing polo, a preoccupation among the Mdivani brothers, than in escorting his young wife. As divorce rumors floated, she insisted to the press that “the Prince and I are quite happy.” In two years the marriage was over. He had burned through his entire $1 million dowry and a share of her fortune, too.

The serial marriages and divorces, the alleged swindles, the insistence on being called princes—these constituted the opéra bouffe period of the Mdivanis. The tragic period was to come. Not long after his marriage to Barbara Hutton ended (she soon married a Count Reventlow), Alexis was visiting his sister Roussy and Sert at their home in Spain with a new paramour. She was Baroness Maud Von Thyssen, the estranged wife of the son of the German industrialist August Thyssen. On August 1, 1935, Alexis was speeding her in his Rolls-Royce to the station in Figueras, where she was to catch a train, when his car hit a culvert, leaped into the air, slammed into a tree, and rolled over five times. Von Thyssen was thrown clear on the third roll, her face and skull fractured. Alexis’s head crashed through the windshield. She miraculously survived. He, just 30, didn’t.

The death of the youngest and most care-free of the Mdivanis cast a pall over the family that was never to lift. Serge sought renewal. Within months he married yet again—this time, oddly enough, to Alexis’s first wife, the 25-year-old Louise Astor Van Alen. Five weeks after the wedding, Serge was on a rain- slicked polo field in Palm Beach, where Van Alen had a home, when his horse was cut off by another player. Both horse and rider fell. As Serge was rising, his horse kicked him in the head. Louise rushed to his side. Medics spent two hours trying to resuscitate him. They couldn’t. His sister Nina, who had been living lavishly but undramatically in Europe, told a reporter, “I hope to stay in Britain for a long time. I am looking for somewhere quiet to live where I can think and keep dogs and forget all the sadness that has come to us this year.” The move to Britain was occasioned by an alteration in her own life. Just after Serge’s death, she divorced her attorney husband and promptly married Denis Conan Doyle, the son of Sherlock Holmes’s creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and a friend of her brothers. It was clearly a step up.

The Mdivani who suffered most from the tragedies was Roussy, who had been the closest to Alexis. After her brothers’ deaths, she took a Mediterranean cruise on a sailboat she christened Saint Alexis, hoping to escape. Frail and sickly, she suffered from a persistent cough, which was finally diagnosed as tuberculosis. By one account, her friend Coco Chanel tricked her into checking into a sanitarium in Switzerland, but Roussy, according to friends, no longer had the will to fight. She died there on December 16, 1938. She was 32.

Serge ultimately died in a polo accident.
Serge ultimately died in a polo accident.

Photograph courtesy Imagno/Getty Images

In Hollywood there may be nothing so pathetic as a spent celebrity, which is what David Mdivani was now—no longer glittering royalty but a desperate man pretending to be rich while scrounging for money. He sued Louise Van Alen, Serge’s widow, claiming she had duped him into trading shares of an oil company Serge had left him for a worthless tract of land in Spain. He lost. He sued Josep Maria Sert, Roussy’s widower, laying claim to Roussy’s jewelry. This suit also failed. And he would cable Nina for money, even as she was pressuring him to contribute to the upkeep of their uncle in postwar Paris. No less the roué for his poverty, he was linked to a number of wealthy, eligible women, including Marion Davies’ sister Rose and the French film star Arletty, with whom he had a torrid affair that reportedly resulted in an abortion. He finally captured himself another heiress, Virginia Sinclair, the daughter of oil magnate Harry Sinclair, for whom he had once worked in the Oklahoma oil fields. They wed in 1944.

The marriage was no more successful than his first, though it did land David in the L.A. papers occasionally: Once he disappeared for a weekend and Virginia filed a missing per- sons report; another time he was sued by the El Rancho Hotel in Las Vegas for bouncing a $3,000 check. The most sensational news item described how he filed a $1 million law- suit against a wealthy socialite named Virginia Catherwood for alienation of affection, saying she had lured his wife to live with her in Arizona—this at a time when no newspaper acknowledged the existence of lesbians. (Catherwood had also had a brief affair with novelist Patricia Highsmith and was a model for the lesbian matron in Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, which was the source of the film Carol.) But this was hardly the kind ofpublicity that enhanced David Mdivani’s status. Only Nina, the least voracious of the Mdivanis, seemed to have achieved the family dream of crashing the top social echelons. Her marriage to Denis Conan Doyle was apparently loving, and when he died in 1955, she inherited one-third of the Conan Doyle estate, which meant one-third of the rights to the use of Sherlock Holmes. She also maintained a close friendship with her ex-sister-in-law Barbara Hutton, who lavished her with gifts. She traveled in rich circles, was photographed by Andy Warhol, and drove a customized Rolls-Royce. But living like a Mdivani didn’t come cheap. She eventually spent her way through her fortune with the help of her third husband, Denis Conan Doyle’s secretary, who exploited her the way the Mdivanis had exploited their spouses. In her final years she was ill, overweight, and bedridden in her Manhattan apartment. Even in that state, though, she could at least preserve the Mdivani image, if barely. (She also retained the Mdivani imperiousness, warning her nephew against the “working class,” who have “no refinement of manners.”) There was no image-preserving for David. He was still up to his old tricks, partnering with a friend in the early ’60s to sell shares of mineral leases that he promised would bring investors millions, and not above hustling his own sister. But David had no success. “He has been starving for some response, some recognition, some troubled repose,” a friend wrote to Nina of David’s state after his divorce from Virginia Sinclair. “His pride has been affronted, his dignity has been crucified, and his very person has been placed in a position of helplessness.” In a city of cachet, he no longer had any. At one point he decided to write a memoir with the hope that Hollywood might buy the movie rights. Nina had the same idea. An editor friend encouraged the siblings to work together “before the family is forgotten, and you are both too old to remember accurately or make the effort.” But it was already too late for that. Nina was ill and housebound. David, living alone in Bel-Air, had shrunk, lying in bed all day, refusing to eat. “He looks a thousand years old,” a friend of his wrote to Nina. Nobody cared about the Mdivanis, who had once been the very embodiment of Continental charm and glamour and whose exploits had once made headlines and filled fantasies. They were lost in the ever-growing and ever-churning universe of celebrity. They were lost in faded dreams of Los Angeles, where romance and royalty were anachronisms.
 They were lost.

This feature originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of Los Angeles magazine. 

Facebook Comments