A Rose That Held a Princess's Secret
Princess Marthe Bibesco had it all—beauty, brains, and a long line of men dying to be her paramour. But what to get the aristocrat who has everything? For one of her lovers, the answer was not diamonds or priceless art, but rose petals.
The artifact you see above was discovered in Bibesco’s papers at the University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Center. There, you can learn much about both Bibesco, a Romanian princess who was a celebrated literary light in the early 20th century, and the aristocratic circles in which she traveled.
By all accounts, Bibesco was a ravishing beauty. But her appeal went deeper than that: She knew how to exercise influence through her enormous social circle, and embraced her role as socialite and power broker. “I am the needle through which pass the filaments and the strands of our disjointed Europe to be threaded together in a necklace,” she wrote, and indeed her alliances brought together royals and relatives from both sides of the Balkans.
Though she found a niche as an author and a huge social circle, Bibesco didn’t find happiness with her husband, a wealthy prince—and her cousin—whom she married when she was 17. But her married status didn’t keep her from assembling quite the collection of high-profile lovers.
One of them, French Prince Charles-Louis de Beauvau-Craön, was serious about his love. But Bibesco was religious, and didn’t want to get a divorce. This left the prince heartbroken, but no less determined to express himself to his lover. He wrote her reams of love letters and, at one point in June 1911, even inscribed his amorous emotions on rose petals.
Bibesco pressed the flowers and saved them for the rest of her life. Many years later, conservators discovered them among her papers at the Ransom Center, where they’d landed after being purchased from antiquarian book dealers in the 1960s and 1970s. But unfurling century-old flowers presented a real challenge to the conservators tasked with documenting Bibesco’s life. During a conservation project in 2016, digital archivist Genevieve Pierce joined forces with a paper conservator, Jane Boyd, to figure out how to get the petals open. Instead of starting with the century-old flowers, they wrote in ink on other types of flowers, then pressed them and tried to open them to see if there was a way to do so without the petals disintegrating.
Eventually, they hit on a method: They put the two flowers in a humidification chamber, using a damp brush to humidify them even more. Finally, they coaxed the flowers open and looked at the messages hidden inside. They found something sweet: the names of the princess and her lover.
Today, the flower petals have been digitized for easier viewing and tucked into carefully created boxes designed to preserve them for another century. It’s easy to imagine the celebrated beauty opening her love letter, inhaling the flowers and their fervent message, then tucking them together in her belongings to return to during a private moment.
Did the relationship last? Alas, no. After a decade, she moved on. But not from affairs: She had many other relationships, some with famous men like Ramsay MacDonald, England’s first Labor Party prime minister. Flowers may withstand the test of time, but not every relationship does.