Riviera rani

I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that you’ve never heard of Molly Fink. It’s a name which by rights should be attached to a bespectacled secretary in a screwball comedy, and if I add that she was born in 1894 and grew up in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, your head will probably not be aswarm with exotic visions. But Esme Mary Sorrett Fink (to give her equally unpromising full name), would embark on a journey which took her from Raj India to the Riviera in a life marked by privilege, glamour and scandal.

It was a trip to Sydney which Molly undertook with her mother in 1915 which changed everything. Because also in the city at that time was a certain Martanda Tondaiman, the dashing, cricket-playing Anglophile Rajah of Pudukottai, a small, largely barren principality in southern India. In then-unenlightened Australia the rajah received bad press for daring to adopt Western dress. But it was nothing compared to the hostility he would face after meeting the aforementioned Molly Fink in a Sydney hotel in 1915 and marrying her the same year.

Raj overlords from King George V down frowned on the mixed-race marriage, and officials secretly sought out dirt on the Australian bride (before begrudgingly admitting she wasn’t a gold-digger). The British deployed protocol with practiced, passive-aggressive pettiness (as they would later with Wallis Simpson and Diana Spencer), stipulating for example that Molly not be styled “Her Highness”, as a rani would normally have been. The rajah, whose line had always been loyal to the British, was understandably bitter about the rebuff.

Nor were the rajah’s own subjects thrilled that their sovereign had chosen an Australian Catholic as his rani. Nonetheless the couple headed to Pudukottai where Molly soon became pregnant, while also falling seriously ill. It transpired that she had been poisoned by oleander, a potentially lethal plant which can also induce miscarriages; suspicion fell on members of the rajah’s family. The couple decided to leave, but with the First World War raging in Europe they were more or less obliged to return to unfriendly Australia. After a visit lasting only a few months, Molly would never see her husband’s fiefdom again.

Molly gave birth to a son, Martanda Sydney Tondaiman. The rajah became a noted horseracing identity but in 1919 the couple left Australia to fight for Molly’s status and their son’s inheritance. To no avail. In 1920 the couple were told that Martanda Jr. would never inherit the throne, and so the Rajah effectively abdicated, appointing his brother to rule in his place.

Having negotiated a large financial settlement, the couple settled in Cannes in 1922. The rajah turned again to horseracing, and Molly turned heads at racing fixtures in outfits by Chanel, Lanvin and Vionnet. The fashion-forward rani was a friend of Jean Patou and bought the first-ever Schiaparelli evening dress.

Molly by Cecil Beaton

The rajah died unexpectedly in 1928, but by that time Molly had developed a taste for the high life. Among her friends was Lucy, Lady Houston, a rich widow who had variously been a chorus girl, suffragette and an outspoken supporter of Mussolini. She once gave Molly a cheque for 1000 pounds, saying “you look so sad, my dear Molly…go and buy yourself something pretty to cheer yourself up” (Lady Houston’s strange end came in 1936 when, distraught over the abdication crisis, she stopped eating and died).

Cartoonist and writer Osbert Lancaster leaves a memorable image of Molly in Cap d’Antibes accompanied by “her teenage son with gilded toe-nails and made up to the nines, feeding asparagus tips to a pet tortoise with a diamond-encrusted shell.” Martanda Jr. was sent to a boarding school in Switzerland where his fellow pupils included the future Shah Reza Pahlavi and Baron de Redé.

Molly with Cecil Beaton

Molly became friendly with Cecil Beaton, travelling with him to New York, along with Anita Loos. Molly stayed in the city during much of the Second World War, and was active in raising donations for Australian and Canadian servicemen. Her own money was out of reach on the other side of the Atlantic and so she worked at department store Bonwit Teller to make ends meet.

Towards the end of the war Molly returned to London where she became increasingly reclusive, depressive and alcoholic, doting on her beloved Pekinese dogs. One of her last acts was to organise the donation of much of her impressive wardrobe to the Museum of Costume (now Fashion Museum) in Bath. She died in Cannes in 1967, remaining largely unknown apart from a hard-to-find book published in 1991 entitled Molly and the Rajah : race, romance and the Raj, from whence come the images and much of the information here.

Oh, and her son? Mother-fixated Martanda Jr. moved to New York and clearly hadn’t moved on from his early bling habit; he landed in Sing Sing after a jewel heist before being deported to Cuba. He would end up dying alone in Florence in 1984.

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17 comments

  1. Grant Fink

    Molly – Esme Mary Sorrett Fink is my Great Great Aunty

  2. This afternoon we saw the Cecil Beaton portrait of Molly at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. It was part of the exhibit “Maharajah: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts” which had been organized by the V&A. We had never heard of her before, but were immediately interested in her story. Thank you for providing the background we wanted. Fascinating blog!

  3. Grant Fink

    Nothing you don’t already know by the looks of it. Are you aware she is decendent of Prussian Jews who emigrated to Australia in 1861 on the clipper sufolk from Guernsey in the Chanel Islands. Our common line goes back to one Moses & Gertrude Fink nee Ascher. Gertudes father was Simon Ascher who figured quite allot in the Great synagogue of London. Gertude also had a brother Joseph Ascher who was a famous composer. Aschers were Dutch jews

    • I seem to recall from the book that her father had converted from Judaism, so it’s great to get some more background information. It’s such an extraordinary story – I’m surprised she isn’t better known in Australia. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

  4. On this link you will find about 24 pictures of Molly and the rahja as well as one with her son Sydney.
    I’ll send you a few more links that may be of interest.
    By the way I am interested in any photos you may have of her. I am also in contact with Martanda Tondaiman family in India.

    • Many thanks for the link – none of these turned up in my original research. I was reliant on the Book (Molly and the Rajah) for images and I don’t have any others which weren’t used.

  5. Molly had a Sister Ida and a Brother Oswald. Do you know anything about them by chance

  6. I guess people forget fast when it comes down to the little that is known now of her, but when they met almost 100 years ago it was considered a scandal in Australia that a white woman was marrying a black man as he was considered back back in those years. Australia was also firmly in the grasp of its White Australian Policy. The press was probably the biggest offender and made there time in Australia cut short. India was not much better with the English and the rajas own people being accused of poisoning her. Their son Sydney was convicted of a jewelry hiest and died un married and destitute. His Indian family tried to get him to come back to them but he refused probably through shame.

  7. Pingback: Dress-down Friday: Molly Fink « Strange Flowers

  8. Alex M.

    A parallel story is of an Australian bookie named Bellamy who moved to Mandalay and married a daughter of the last king of Burma. The Burmese kings had hundreds (?) of children so this in itself wasn’t remarkable. They met no racial prejudice that I know of. Their own daughter became one of the four wivesof Ne Win, the Burmese dictator – unlike the kings, Ne Win was a serial polygamist only, and I think she was number 3. The marriage was very brief – he’d apparently been attracted by the cache of the royal connection, but June Rose proved to be too Westernised for him. She’s still alive so far as I know, tho very elderly, and if so she lives in Florence where she runs a cooking school.

  9. Pingback: Angus McBean | portraits « Strange Flowers

  10. Hello
    Please see this http://newyorkjewelrydiary.com/2009/12/the-prince-cartier-and-i/

    Marthander did not die alone.

    I was a very close friend.

    I am so lucky to have inherited his and the Rani’s papers and belongings which I privately treasure and did share some with the V&A.

    I wear his 1930’s Cartier watch with fondness.

    Oh.. King George and Queen Mary were both fond of the Rani. Their correspondence that I own reveals an honorable and truthful relationship.

    Mr Conway- please do feel free to contact me as a responsible author.

    Clive Kandel

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