By Steen Vedel
This fantastic narrative from the tumultuous time of the Russian Revolution was given to me by the author's daughter, Sophie Koutousova, who was married to a Dane, Kai Winkelhorn.
I met the couple on my first visit to New York in 1966 when I was there on behalf of my company, The Royal Copenhagen Porcelain Manufactory. We wanted to open a subsidiary in the USA and I spent a month or so in New York to find the right venue.
Before my departure my boss, the managing director of the company, suggested that I looked up the Winkelhorns. They were friends of his and he thought that they would be interesting for me to know. This first meeting led to a long friendship which lasted until they both passed away. Kai Winkelhorn died already in 1983, while Sophie died in 1995, 86 years old.
Kai Winkelhorn went to New York just before World War II and got a job with Goldman Sachs. But at the outbreak of the war he wanted to help battling the Germans and enlisted in the US Army. But the USA was not at war at that time, so the solution was that he was seconded to the fighting forces in England where he became an important member of the SOE, the agency which helped the various underground movements in occupied Europe and was partly founded by a number of merchant banks, probably also by Goldman Sachs. He was particularly concerned with the efforts to help the Danish resistance, and organised weapons deliveries by parachute drops in Denmark and also by smuggling Danes from England to Denmark where they joined up with the Danish resistance forces.
Before he left New York he had met and married Sophie Koutousova. She had been married at a very young age to a Russian aristocrat, but that was not successful, so they divorced and she came to New York to live with her mother, sister, and stepfather who had come to New York earlier in the thirties from Paris where they had lived as immigrants since their escape from Russia in 1918. The stepfather became receptionist at the Carlisle Hotel and worked his way up, so that he eventually became managing director of the hotel. Sophie or Sofka, as she was called by friends, lived thus until her marriage in their apartment at the hotel.
After the war she and Kai reunited and had two daughters Sarah and Bibi who, I believe, are still alive and living in the United States.
Over a period of 20 years from 1965 I visited New York about twice a year and we often met.
In 1976 Royal Copenhagen staged a large exhibition in Houston, Texas. The main exhibit was the famous Flora Danica dinner service which was originally produced for the Empress Catharina of Russia, but as she died before it was completed the dinner service was taken over by the Danish Royal family in 1804. To make something of this story in the media we contacted Sophie and through her got in touch with Prince Alexander Romanov who lived with his Italian wife in New York. He was a grandson of Grand Duchess Xenia, who with her husband (her uncle) had escaped to England in 1918. He accepted to go with us to Texas to give a Russian flavour to the show and Sophie also went with us. We had a hilarious time, and the only picture I have of her is taken at a Texan barbecue with one of the local oil millionaires. During the visit we found time to go to the local art museum and by strange coincidence there was a group of Russian tourists. I asked Prince Alexander if it was not nice to hear Russian spoken there, to which he answered: " They do not speak Russian, they speak Soviet.”
Sophie kept in touch with many Russian émigrés, such as Prince Galitzin from London, Maria Wassilchikoff, who wrote the famous ”Berlin Dairies”, and also a lady in Seattle whom I visited once. She lived in a great mansion filled with valuable paintings and Fabergé art pieces she became senile and her staff robbed her of all her valuables.
Sophie and Kai visited Denmark on a number of occasions. They had many friends here among the Danes who had participated in the resistance during the war, among them Flemming and Jutta Junker, Eduard and Elsebeth Tesdorph, Captain RDN Poul Adam Mørk, Sven Truelsen, Ole Lipmann, my boss Erik Lindgren and his wife and many others.
During my many visits with them we talked about everything, but Russia. She was very intelligent and interested in what went on in the world and polite as she was she would always rather talk about what I was doing and planning. But I did once ask her to tell me something about Russia before the revolution. She could not tell me much, after all she was only 9 when they fled the country. But she said that life was of course pleasant in their large house in Petersburg. However, staff trouble was becoming a problem for her mother, who would spend the entire morning in her dressing room sorting out complaints from the cook who thought that they had too many guests for dinner and from the footman who complained about the visitors who did not thank him or tip him for polishing boots etc.
I asked her how she, her sister and her mother came out of Petersburg. She said that the day when they had decided to leave, they stood on the step of their mansion and the roaring masses were thronging around these aristocrats who were about to escape. Then her mother took the two children by their hand and shouted ”Who would want to harm the children of Koutousov ?” And the people stood aside and let them go.
One has to know that it was General Koutousov who defeated Napoleon at the battle of Borodino in 1812, a victory which has never been forgotten in Russia. The soviets have even made a fantastic film of this battle, just as it is vividly described in Tolstoy's ”War and Peace”.
Then she gave me the pamphlet with her mother's description of their dramatic journey to freedom.
In her small apartment in East 97th street in New York there were only few mementoes of her Russian past, among them an amateur photo of her standing next to Tsar Nicolai II of Russia, he wearing a simple army uniform and she in a white dress and with a small straw hat, she looking up with a smile to this formidable man. The picture was taken about 1916 when she was 7 years old.
On one of my visits in the late eighties she told me that her grandson Kai had been as a student to visit Petersburg and Moscow where among other activities he had looked up one of her cousins who had survived. I asked her how that could be, and she answered that by lying low several aristocrats had kept alive there, albeit without any money. She did not herself wish to go to Russia.
Even in her older days she was very beautiful and coquettish, as the following small notes will describe.
As I have said we met at least once every time I visited USA. She would ask me to lunch at her club, the Cosmopolitan Club, which was for ladies only. She normally met me in the hall, but once when I was not sure when I would be arriving she told me to say who I was at the reception and whom I should meet. I told her that I would say my name and say that Mrs. Winkelhorn, my aunt, was expecting me. ”You will say nothing like that Steen. You can say that I am your cousin.” "Of course, Sophie", I said, "I do apologise". I was her junior by 22 years.
Once she took me to a museum near the Palisades outside New York where they have the famous Unicorn Tapestry and wonderful European paintings. We went by bus, and as she entered she said to the driver. ” I am a senior citizen” – Then she did not have to pay more than half fare. ”May I see your ID”, said the driver. She showed it to him and she was very amused for the rest of the day that he had thought that she was under the age of 65. She was then at least 77 years old.
Apart from history, art and politics and environmental issues she was interested in a number of charitable organisations and once took me to the Fountain House of which she was a founding member. It is a privately run place in New York for mentally retarded people, a place with workshops and a restaurant which they run themselves with the help of qualified social workers. She wanted me to help start up a Fountain House in Copenhagen. I did not have the time, money or inclination, but I believe that one was started.
She was not religious. In West 97th Street the Winkelhorns lived just across from the Russian Orthodox Church, but she never went there. She was respectful of the Church, but the life that she had experienced had made her a non-believer, she said.
The Winkelhorns were not rich, nor were they poor. Apart from their New York apartment they had a house in the country in Connecticut, and they could always entertain and travel as they liked.
Sophie and Kai were one of the most devoted couples I have ever met. They were in love until he died, and she grieved for years after his death. My love for Sophie – and Sofka, as I was allowed to call her - was purely platonic, but we were kindred spirits and felt as if we were related by family. We jokingly made plans for a wedding between my daughter Alexandra and her grandson, Kai, who were of the same age. But alas they never even met.
With this introduction I have tried to give a picture of one of the most fascinating women that I have met on my way through life.