On an icy winter night, a diamond-bedecked young woman in a ball dress passed rapidly through the streets of St. Petersburg in an open sleigh. Who could have identified this madwoman with a boy belonging to one of the most respectable families in town?
Who indeed? Felix Yusupov, said boy, was a Russian prince from a stupendously wealthy family, born in 1887 and best remembered for his role in the 1916 assassination of Rasputin, which precipitated his departure from Russia. With the revolution in the following year Yusupov was permanently severed from his homeland.
In the early 20th century, however, Yusupov treated the decline of the Romanov era as his own personal burlesque, recounted in his hilarious, disturbing, selectively candid autobiography Lost Splendour, exhibit A in the case of Peasantry v Nobility.
Yusupov was the ultimate irresponsible son of privilege. His mother, certain that Felix would be a girl, dressed him accordingly until he was five. When being pushed along the street he would menacingly ask strangers, “look, isn’t Baby pretty?”
Soon Yusupov was indulging his own costume fantasies. An early prank was to disguise himself as a Sultan, with the Arab servants in his retinue as slaves and his beloved French bulldog Gugusse dolled up as an old whore.
A later vignette finds Yusupov at 12 in a restaurant dressed as a woman, drunk on champagne, flinging pearls at nearby diners. Being found out by his parents as a café singer in drag a few years later didn’t stop his further dress-up escapades, such as attending a St Petersburg opera ball as Richelieu in a flowing cape, “its train carried by two little Negroes”, or the Bal des Quat’z Arts in Paris, dressed in one of Nijinksy’s stage costumes (lent to him by Diaghilev).
Once in exile, the man who had embodied the excess and callousness of the ruling elite returned to what he knew best – frocks. He and his wife Irina, niece of the last Tsar, founded the couture house Irfé in 1924, but despite a promising start it soon foundered. In 1928 Janet Flanner, the New Yorker’s long-time Paris correspondent, noted the closure of Irfé’s London outlet and was already calling Yusupov “one of the most tragic, unromantic figures of the Slavic refugee colony.”
The house shut its doors in 1931, but the A-list assassin remained an object of curiosity in high society, and an aggressive litigant whenever he felt his role in Rasputin’s murder was misrepresented.
Yusupov died in Paris in 1967, but 40 years later came an unusual coda to his short-lived fashion enterprise. With the rise of free-spending resource-rich Russians, and prompted by renewed interest in the country’s imperial heritage, Irfé was relaunched in Moscow (or GasVegas, as it is sometimes known).
And so Rasputin’s killer has finally returned to GasPutin’s Russia.