Princess Zinaida Yusupova was the greatest Russian heiress of her day. She was famed not only for her dazzling beauty and wealth, but also for her intellect and the lavishness of her hospitality.
Her family, the Yusupovs, were immensely wealthy. They owned many properties throughout Russia, among these were the Arkangelskoie Estate (with its paper and textile factories), and sixteen sumptuous palaces in St. Petersburg, Moscow, the Crimea, France, Germany, and Britain. They also possessed a huge and valuable collection of paintings, sculptures, and jewelries.
Being the only the surviving child of Prince Nicholas Borisovich Yusupov and Countess Tatiana Ribeaupierre, Zinaida solely inherited the vast properties of the Yusupovs. As a young woman, she had numerous suitors, among them the Crown Prince of Bulgaria, but she married Count Felix Sumarokov-Eston, an officer of the Russian Imperial Guard. They had two sons, Nicholas and Felix, the latter would eventually gain fame as the man who murdered Rasputin.
Below is an excerpt from Prince Felix Yusupov's memoirs about his mother.
By the age of seven, my mother was well versed in social usage. She knew how to welcome guests and carry on a conversation. Once when my grandmother was expecting a visit from an ambassador, she asked her daughter, who was still a small child, to entertain him till she came downstairs. My mother laid herself out to please the old gentleman, offered him tea, biscuits, cigarettes... she labored in vain! The ambassador, as he waited in majestic silence for the mistress of the house to appear, paid no attention to the child. Having shot all her arrows, my mother could think of nothing else she could do for her guest until she bad a sudden inspiration and asked: "Perhaps you'd like to go to the bathroom?"
My mother was lovely. She was slim and had wonderful poise; she bad very black hair, a soft olive complexion and deep blue eyes as bright as stars; she was clever, cultured and artistic, and above all she had an exquisitely kind heart. No one could resist her charm, and far from being vain and proud of her exceptional gifts she was modesty and simplicity itself. "The more you have," she used to tell us, "the more you owe to others. Be modest, and if you do happen to have any advantages don't let those who are less favored know it."
She had had numerous suitors from every country in Europe. But she refused all offers, even those of royalty, as she was determincd to choose her own husband. My grandfather, who in his mind's eye saw his daughter on a throne, lamented her lack of ambition. He was bitterly disappointed when be found that she had decided to marry Count Felix Sumarokov-Elston, a mere officer in the Guards.
My mother had a natural gift for dancing and acting which would have enabled her to vie with the best professionals. At a great fancy-dress court ball where all the guests had to appear as sixteenth-century boyars, the Tsar asked her to perform the Russian national dance. Although she had not rehearsed with the orchestra, she improvised so skillfully that the musicians followed her movements with case. She took five curtain calls. Stanislavsky, the famous manager of the Moscow theater, after seeing her act in a charity performance of Les Romanesques, play by Edmond Rostand, begged her to enter his company, insisting that her right place was on the stage.
Wherever my mother appeared she brought a delightful feeling of light and well-being. Her eyes shone with kindliness and sweetness. She dressed with quiet elegance, was not fond of jewelry, and although she owned the most beautiful gems wore them only on great occasions.
The Infanta Eulalia, aunt of King Alfonso XIII of Spain, once came to Russia on a visit and my parents gave a reception for her in our house at Moscow. In her memoirs, the Infanta gives a description of my mother: 'Of all the parties given in my honor, none impressed me more than that of Princess Yussupov. The princess was a most lovely woman, whose marvelous beauty stands out as typical of a period. She lived in extraordinary luxury, in a setting of unsurpassed splendor, surrounded by works of art of the purest Byzantine style, in a great palace the windows of which gave onto the city of a thousand cupolas. The magnificence and luxury of Russia, blended with the refinement and distinction of France, reached its culminating point in the Yussupov palace. At the reception in question, the Princess wore a court gown studded with the finest diamonds and pearls. Tall, exquisitely beautiful, she wore a kokoshnik set with enormous pearls and equally large diamonds, worth a fortune. A dazzling array of fantastic jewels from the East and the West completed her costume: ropes of pearls, massive gold bracelets of ancient design, pendants of turquoises and pearls, multicolored, glittering rings... All these gave to Princess Yussupov the majestic splendor of a Byzantine Empress.' [The kokoshnik is our court tiara.]
When I was a small child, my greatest pleasure was to see my mother in evening dress. I remember particularly a dress of apricot velvet trimmed with sable which she wore at a dinner given in our house on the Moika in honor of Li-Hung-Chang, a Chinese statesman who was making a short stay in St. Petersburg. To complete her toilette, she wore a set of diamonds and black pearls. At this dinner, my mother became acquainted with one of the stranger forms of Chinese politeness. At the end of the meal, two of Li-Hung-Chang's Chinese attendants brought in a silver basin, two peacock feathers and a napkin. The Mandarin took one of the feathers, tickled his throat with it... and vomited his entire dinner into the basin. My mother was horrified, and turned an inquiring glance upon the diplomat seated on her left, who had lived in the East for many years. "Princess," said he, "you should consider yourself highly flattered, for such behavior on the part of Li-Hung-Chang is a tribute to your delicious food; it is meant to convey his Excellency's readiness to start his dinner all over again."
My mother was a great favorite with the Imperial family, particularly with the Grand Duchess Elisabeth, the Tsarina's sister. She was deeply devoted to the Tsar, but her friendship with the Tsarina did not last. My mother was too independent to conceal her opinions, even at the risk of causing displeasure. Under the influence of certain members of her immediate circle the Tsarina ceased to see her. In 1917 the court dentist, Dr. Kastritzky, on his return from Tobolsk where the Imperial family was imprisoned, brought us a last message from the Tsar: "When you see Princess Yussupov, tell her that I now see how right she was. If I had listened to her, many tragic events might have been averted."