Polo Widows


Louise Astor Van Alen Mdivani

Alexis and Serge Mdivani, two Georgian princes who fled to Paris after the Soviet invasion of their birthplace in 1921, excelled at marrying wealthy women and creating polo widows, the latter skill financed by the former.

In 1931, Alexis Mdivani married Louise Astor Van Alen, but in 1933 he dumped her to marry Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton, who gave her new husband a string of polo ponies as a wedding present, and rarely saw him after that; he spent most of his time on the polo fields of Hurlingham and Ranelagh. When she divorced him in March of 1935, she described herself as “just a polo widow.”

Had they remained married for a few more months, Hutton would have become a widow for real. In August, Alexis took up with the 26-year-old Baroness Maud von Thyssen-Bornemisza, wife of Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza de Kászon. While her husband was away from Paris, the Baroness slipped down to Spain for a sunny tryst with Alexis. But then the Baroness got a frantic phone call from her maid in Paris saying the Baron had returned early and was furious at her absence. So the lovers packed in a rush and headed for Perpignan to put the Baroness on the first train for Paris.

Alexis was at the wheel of his Rolls Royce, also a gift from Barbara Hutton, doing about 100 mph on the Spanish roads when he tried to pass a truck, caught the edge of a culvert on the far side of the road, ran into a tree and flipped five times. Alexis’s head went through the windshield, left his shoulders and kept on going. The Baroness survived but lost an eye, bit off most of her tongue, and was seriously disfigured. To add insult to injury, the Spanish newspapers noted she was not wearing underwear at the time of the crash, and dubbed her “the princess without panties.” She spent a month recovering in the hospital and, after a polite interval, the Baron divorced her in 1937.

On to Alexis’ brother, Serge. He married actress Pola Negri in 1927, but she lost a fortune in the stock market crash of 1929 and Serge divorced her in 1931. Two weeks later he married opera singer Mary McCormic, who in turn divorced him in 1933. In February of 1936, months after his brother’s death, Serge jolted society by marrying his former sister-in-law, Louise Astor Van Alen Mdivani, who had been unattached since Alexis had divorced her.

Like his brother, Serge had a passion for polo, and less than two months after the wedding he was playing at the Gulfstream Polo Club in Florida. His team, the Georgians, was trailing the Texans 4-2 in the final of the Southeastern Polo Championship when Serge reached out and swerved across the line of play to take the ball away from Cecil Smith. Crossing the line of play is a foul in polo, and one made all the more egregious on this occasion by the considerable heft of Cecil Smith, his 10-goal rating and the speed of his mount. The horses collided and both men were thrown to the ground.

Serge was unhurt, but as he began to rise from the grass, his pony kicked him in the head. This time, he did not get back up. Louise had been in the stands; she ran out onto the field and Serge died in her arms. She was now a polo widow in the grimmer sense of the phrase.

Fortunately, there is something of a happy ending to all this, at least for Louise. She went home to Newport to mourn and there met a handsome young Englishman named Alexander “Sandy” Saunderson. They fell in love, married, and divided their time between an apartment in Paris and a home in Santa Barbara. Mrs. Saunderson, “Lulu” to her friends, was known for her tea parties, her wit and her philanthropy. She enjoyed breakfast in bed every morning and lived a long and full life. She died in 1998, at the age of 88.


One comment

  1. those two had a tough time keeping their heads . . . let’s have a motion picture about them please.

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