Scandalous Royal Romance: King Carol II of Romania and Magda Lupescu

The story of how King Edward VIII of Great Britain abdicated the throne for the ‘Woman I Love,’ the thrice-divorced Wallis Warfield Simpson is well known.  Countless books have been written; TV and miniseries have been produced about what many people consider to be one of the greatest and most scandalous royal love affairs in history.  While the love story of King Carol of Romania and his mistress Magda Lupescu is nothing more than a footnote to history.  Like Edward, Carol refused to give up his flame-haired Pompadour.  However, unlike King Edward VIII, Carol actually managed to regain his throne, ruling for almost ten years before the coming war and his own autocratic style forced him into exile.
He was born on October 15, 1893 in Peles Castle to Crown Princess Marie (born Princess Marie of Edinburgh) and Crown Prince Ferdinand of Romania. Soon after Carol was born, his care and education was taken over by Queen Elisabeth and King Carol.  Marie was allowed no say in the education of her children, and her husband did little to support her against the King and Queen. Marie was an adoring but ineffectual parent. She found it difficult to even scold them at times, thus failing to properly supervise them. Consequently, Carol grew up wilful, spoilt by everyone.  He was convinced that he knew right about everything. Finally he was sent to Potsdam, to his father’s old regiment. Outwardly his behavior improved. The discipline and regimen of the army suited his love of rules and protocol.

The prince grew into a striking young man, over 6 feet tall, with blond hair and blue eyes. Once he became of age, his parents cast around for a suitable bride for him, finally settling on the Grand Duchess Olga of Russia.  While the couple met, there was no interest on either side.  Prince Carol had already cast his eyes elsewhere.  The object of his desire was a young Romanian woman named Zizi Lambrino.  Although Zizi was related by marriage to an aristocrat, she was both Romanian and a commoner and it was an unspoken rule that members of the royal family could not marry commoners.  As a film director famously once said, ‘the heart wants what the heart wants,’ and Carol was determined to marry Zizi.  The couple eloped in the fall of 1918.

Because he had deserted his post, Carol faced the possibility of being court-martialed. His parents were understandably upset at his actions. Marie, in particular, considered Zizi to be nothing more than an adventuress.   Carol was sentenced to 75 days in prison for desertion and pressure was put on him to have the marriage annulled.  Although they were no longer married, the affair continued, leading to the birth of Carol and Zizi’s son Mircea in 1920. Hoping to take his mind off of his love life, his parents decided to send him on 8 month tour around the world. Although he continued to write to Zizi, his feelings eventually petered out.

His parents breathed a sigh of relief when Carol eventually proposed to Princess Helen of Greece and Denmark. Finally their son had made an appropriate match. Known as ‘Sitta’ Helen was tall, fine-boned and slim.  Her father, King Constantine I, gave his consent only after he was assured the affair with Zizi was over.  The royal couple was married on March 10, 1921 in Athens.  The couple honeymooned at Tatoi before sailing for Bucharest to start their married life.The marriage was at first happy, but soon soured. After the first euphoria, they realized that they had very little in common.  Carol was intellectually curious, while Helen preferred shopping and interior design.  He spent hours on his stamp collection, hating it when Helen would interrupt by sitting on this lap.  

On 25 October 1921, Helen and Carol's first and only child Mihai (Romanian for Michael) was born. There were complications and for a while neither mother nor child were expected to pull through. The baby was rumored to have been born premature (he was born only seven and a half months after his parents' wedding), but the fact that he weighed nine pounds at birth fueled speculation that Helen had become pregnant before the wedding.  To recover her strength, Helen took her baby son and went to stay with her parents in Athens for four months. By the time that Helen fully recovered from the difficult birth, her husband had moved on.  He had met the second woman who would shape and some say destroy his life.  Her name was Elena Lupescu.  She has been called an adventuress, a home wrecker, a femme fatale, and one of Europe’s last great courtesans.  Even her date of birth is shrouded in mystery.  

She was born in either 1896 or 1899, in Moldavia.  Both of her parents, although born Jewish, had converted to Christianity. Her father changed the family name from Grunberg to the less Semitic Lupescu.  Even how she received her nickname is up for grabs.  She herself said that she was given the nickname by an Italian journalist but there are others who say that ‘Magda’ was Bucharest slang for prostitute.  There were rumors when the family moved to port town of Sulina on the Black Sea, Elena’s mother ‘entertained’ the naval officers nearby while her father played cards.

Elena was well-educated, sent to a Roman Catholic convent in Bucharest run by German nuns, learning to speak fluent French and German.  What they called a ‘pocket Venus’, Elena was striking rather than beautiful with pale skin, flaming red hair, green eyes, and an hour glass figure.  She was flirtatious, possessing a bawdy sense of humor, which made her a great favorite with soldiers.  After Bucharest was invaded by German troops during WWI, Elena decamped to the new capital of Jassy where she would join the crowd of young people who paraded up and down the main street.  None of her flirtations were serious until she met an army officer named Ion Tampeanu. Obsessed with her, he pursued her relentlessly until she eventually capitulated and agreed to marry him in 1916. But it was a misalliance from the beginning. Elena had no intention of changing her ways now that she was married.  She grew bored with garrison life, and indulged in several affairs. When her husband could no longer keep in her in the luxurious lifestyle that she wanted, she left him after four years of marriage.

The couple met at a charity gala that Elena had finagled an invitation to.  Bold as brass, she arranged a seat within his sightlines, and spent the entire evening gazing at Carol without once averting her gaze.  The Prince was curious to meet this woman who stared at him so boldly.  Finding out her name, Crown Prince Carol persuaded a friend to throw a party and invite her along. At the party, Elena changed tactics. Wearing a virginal white dress, she let the Prince do all the talking, while she stared at him with limpid eyes.  At the end of the party, he offered to drive her home, but she demurred claiming that it wouldn’t do for her to be seen with a married Prince. The Prince’s friend, Captain Tautu, became alarmed at what was going on. He knew Elena and may even have been one of her mother’s special friends.   When he called her a ‘dirty whore’, Elena asked if there was anyone who would defend her against such slander.  The Prince gallantly came to her aid, sweeping her out of the party but into his life.

Soon after meeting Elena, Carol stopped sleeping with his wife completely, and barely saw his toddler son.  He told his friends that his wife’s slim frame repulsed him compared to more voluptuous body of his mistress. Still he kept the affair a secret for two years, until he finally told his parents that he loathed Helen. His parents were incredibly disappointed, this was the second their son had failed in what they considered his royal duty.  And this time it involved a royal princess, the mother of the heir to the throne, not a commoner who could be bought off with an annuity. Helen, of course, was devastated. Although his parents tried to convince him to give up Elena, he refused.  Not only did she make him feel independent and more like a man, but she also mothered him at the same time. His relationship with his parents became increasingly strained.  His father famously compared to him to Swiss cheese.  His mother tried to use her influence to try and get rid of her.
The affair came to light when Elena met the Prince in Paris after his trip to England for Queen Alexandra’s funeral.  The couple then traveled openly together to Italy. For the first time the affair was reported in the Romanian press.  Although the Prince was ordered to come home, he refused. Instead, he offered to fake his own death, so that he could disappear without a trace.  He was now given a choice, either give up Elena or renounce his right to the throne.  He chose the latter course.  He was no longer Crown Prince Carol of Romania but plain Mr. Carol Caraiman, condemned to permanent exile.  His son, Michael, was now proclaimed the heir apparent.  Like Wallis Simpson after her, Elena claimed that she had nothing to do with Carol’s decision. While that might be true, he would never have taken the course of action if he hadn’t met her. Soon after Carol signed the papers, he began to regret his decision.

Although not broke, Carol no longer was able to afford the luxurious lifestyle that he was used too. He had a legacy from his Great-Uncle which would support the couple, but there would be no royal palaces. Instead they settled into a modest 10 bedroom villa in Neuilly, just outside of Paris.  They lived a very frugal if indolent lifestyle. Carol spent his time to his hobby of stamp-collecting (like his cousin George V), playing bridge with friends, talking walks in the Bois de Boulogne, and going to the cinema.  Magda prided herself on being an efficient housekeeper, although they had a hard time keeping any staff.

In 1927, his father King Ferdinand died, and Carol’s son Michael was crowned King of Romania.  Carol chafed to be back in his home country occupying the throne that he felt was rightfully his.  It took him 3 years, and one aborted coup, before he set foot back in Romania. In the intervening years, Carol and Helen were divorced. Things in Romania were turning in Carol’s favor, his son was still a minor, and the regency was proving ineffective. Carol was so desperate to return that he agreed to give up Elena, let his son keep the crown, and try and repair his marriage to Helen.
Once he returned to Romania, he reneged on all his promises.  First up, he deposed his son.  He then tried to convince Helen to reconcile but she was having none of it. Since the reconciliation with his ex-wife was a no-go, Carol told his Prime Minister that he couldn't live without Elena.  Elena meanwhile slipped anonymously into the country.  During the 10 years of King Carol II’s reign, they were amazingly discreet about their relationship. She never accompanied him to official functions, and she lived in a house on her own, although she visited the King at the palace nightly. However, she didn't exactly keep a low profile.  Elena threw raucous all-night parties that attracted bohemians and sycophants. Carol and his wife began a tug of war over their son Michael.  While the King hoped that his son would soon accept Elena, Helen tried to turn her son against her.  In the end, the King banished her from Romania.  She moved to Italy where her son was allowed to visit her twice a month.

Carol became increasingly autocratic and paranoid.  He spied on everything, including his mother Queen Marie. He alienated members of his family, who refused to obey his edict that they have nothing to do with his ex-wife. For the next decade he sought to influence the course of Romanian political life, first through manipulation of the rival Peasant and Liberal parties and anti-Semitic factions, and subsequently with a constitution reserving ultimate power to the Crown. Of course, every miss-step that he made was blamed on Elena. As if he were incapable of making stupid decisions on his own.  She was a convenient scapegoat for his enemies who delighted in his every misstep and his supporters who couldn't believe he could make so many mistakes.  People couldn't understand the attraction.  Elena often treated Carol with contempt, and it was clear, that he was cowed by her violent temper.   Slowly those who had supported Carol turned against him. First the aristocracy, who were turned off by the people he surrounded himself with. Then there was the Iron Guard, the Romanian equivalent of the Nazi party or the Italian fascists. Although Carol gave the impression that he approved of their policies, he knew that they were financed by the Nazis who thought that he was weak.

Carol tried to steer a neutral path between Hitler and Stalin. The two regimes threatened the territories that Romania had gained after World War I.  Carol threw the leader of the Iron Guard and his top henchman into prison, promising to ensure their safety, in return for Germany support in the event of another world war.  Unfortunately for Carol, the men were killed under suspicious circumstances and the King was thought to be behind their deaths.  To appease Hitler, Carol appointed a pro-German, anti-Semitic Prime Minister named Ion Antonescu.  Instead of supporting the King, he tried to strip him of his executive powers.  Carol refused, and the Prime Minister pressured him to abdicate.  Carol abdicated a day later in favor of his 18 year old son Michael.

Carol and Elena fled, first to Yugoslavia and then to Portugal.  Their belongings filled 9 railway carriages. They grabbed everything they could of value, including several El Greco paintings and allegedly the crown jewels.  The couple didn’t stay long in Portugal.  Fearing for their lives in Europe, they set sail for Cuba and then Mexico where they spent several years.  However, the climate didn’t agree with Elena. They tried South America where Elena took to her sickbed, suffering from what turned out to be anemia.  Fearful that his companion of 24 years might die, Carol married Elena in a civil ceremony at their hotel in Rio in 1947. She was now Her Royal Highness Princess Elena von Hohenzollern.

Now that the war in Europe was over, Carol and Elena returned to Europe, settling down once again in Portugal. The couple lived relatively quietly, spending their time going to the movies.  Carol puttered around in his garden, and worked on his stamp collections.  Elena still treated her husband like dirt, embarrassing him in public.  He would accuse her of overspending, threatening divorce.  Still, he proved his devotion to her by marrying her a second time in the church. In 1953, King Carol II died of a heart attack  in Portugal.  His wife outlived him by 24 years, finally passing away in 1977.  In 2003, their remains were brought back to Romania at the request and expense of the government. They were interred in the Curtea de Argeş Monastery complex, the traditional burial ground of Romanian royalty; but, not being of royal blood, Elena was buried in the monastery’s cemetery, rather than in the Royal Chapel.

To this day, people wonder if Elena Lupescu was the adventuress she was painted to be or if she really loved the King. 


Mihai, not Michai. Helen was most certainly pregnant when she married Carol. Elena was born in 1895, according to records, which I believe I wrote in my book, Queen Victoria's descendants.
Thanks for your comments. I've corrected Michael's name. As for Elena, I've seen it as 1896, 1895, as well as 1899.

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