Obituary: Countess Felicia Gizycka

Adrian Dannatt
Monday 17 May 1999 23:02

FELICIA GIZYCKA and Eleanor Patterson made a formidable mother- daughter act. They and the dynamic of their mutual loathing are entwined in modern American history.

Felicia's mother, Eleanor Patterson, known as "Cissy", was granddaughter of Joseph Medill, founder of the Chicago Tribune, and came from rich and influential dynasties on both sides. Her brother founded the New York Daily News and journalism was so much in her blood that she was not only a long-time columnist, news reporter and gossip-jockey, but later became editor of a Washington newspaper and "the most powerful woman in America". She grew up in a massive Washington mansion, a house of such magnitude it even served as the White House for three months. As was the fairy-tale custom of the time, she went to Europe as a debutante and was presented to Emperor Franz Joseph in Vienna.

It was also a custom of the era to view American heiresses as the easiest method to restore European aristocratic fortunes and Cissy was pursued by an impoverished nobleman, Count Josef Gizycki, a hard-drinking ladies' man with a bankrupt estate in Russian Poland. Cissy fell for dashing Count "Gigi" and, despite pleas from her family, married him. No sooner did she reach his dilapidated, freezing "castle" in Narvosielica than she realised her mistake; he told her bluntly that they had sex only to make a child and so that he could gain her $30,000 a year income. In 1905 that child, Felicia, was born whilst the Count was away whoring.

Determined to escape this remote icy wasteland, Cissy enlisted her serfs and fled by sleigh to the Russian border. The Count pursued them to London and - disguised in motoring goggles and fur coat - kidnapped Felicia from a park. She was hidden in an Austrian convent from which, as divorce was not recognised in Europe at that time, an order from the Tsar would be needed to release her. Eventually the US President, William Taft, a Patterson family friend, sent a personal letter to the Tsar and when the Count returned to his estate he was arrested.

Amongst rumours that the family had paid $500,000 in ransom, little Felicia finally toddled into her mother's hotel suite in Vienna. She never saw her father again and a divorce was finally granted in America in 1917.

Felicia Gizycka grew up between her mother's many properties, which included a ranch in Wyoming, a Long Island estate and houses in California and Virginia. By the time she was five she spoke German, Russian and some French learnt in the convent, but little English. Wherever she played she was accompanied by a private detective. Yet, despite the melodramatic custody battle, Cissy seemed overwhelmingly uninterested in her daughter, who was brought up by servants.

Difficulties between mother and daughter were apparent early, Felicia being just as independent as her mother. Cissy described her as "about as easy to drive as a team of young bull moose. I've got to remember every minute that Felicia is half Polish." She refused a formal debutante coming- out but did accept a Washington ball in her honour, with 50 invited for dinner and 100 afterwards.

Wanderlust was strong in Felicia Gizycka. As a teenager she ran away from the ranch at Jackson Hole, rode bareback down a canyon, removed money from her bank account, and took a stagecoach, then a train, for Salt Lake City. She was pursued by a suitor, the young journalist Drew Pearson, whom she rebuffed, however, as a bore. Arriving alone in San Diego she moved into a rooming house and became a waitress in a waterfront bar. For four months she kept her whereabouts hidden.

Drew Pearson was more anxious to find her than her mother, who claimed not to care. He was determined to marry her and persuaded Felicia that she could try marriage for three years and then leave if she didn't like it. In 1925 they married at Long Beach, California, the Chicago Herald- American dubbing her "an international figure ever since she had been the most kidnapped child in the world".

In 1927 Felicia gave birth to her only child, Ellen, a daughter with whom she had a strained relationship. The Pearsons bought a house in Georgetown, Washington, and Felicia reviewed films for the Washington Post, before moving to Manhattan. After exactly three years she divorced Pearson, who was fast becoming an American journalistic legend.

As befitted an independently wealthy young American beauty, Felicia led a life of international frivolity as a classic "flapper". She lived between Biarritz, London, Paris, New York, Washington, Deauville and the hunt county of Virginia, drinking and getting married. "Felicia is going abroad this month - I guess I will have to join her later and pick her out of any new love affair she has fallen into," wrote her mother.

In 1934 she married Dudley de Lavigne in London, an impoverished insurance broker who was part of the Prince of Wales's social set. De Lavigne's sister was married to Viscount Castleross, who, writing as "Cholly Knickerbocker" in a Sunday Express gossip column, described de Lavigne as "tall, slim and not very energetic".

Cissy was surprised to receive a cable announcing the marriage, as "I have never heard this gentleman's name before". However she sent her own lawyer to London to handle the divorce case that followed the same year. Felicia even picked up her own penniless Polish count, Alfred Potocki, who was turned down after demanding a $1m dowry. All this time she was also writing, often for the same publications as her mother; her work included reviews of Paris restaurants for Harper's Bazaar, a job her mother had secretly arranged for her.

Felicia Gizycka's first fiction was published in the magazine Liberty (run by her uncle). Like her mother, she published two novels in her life, the difference being that hers are surprisingly good. The House of Violence (1932) is jazz-age aristocratic experimentalism awash in alcohol and unhappy rich kids: "We might as well get lit, we'll be dead any minute now." Drink, divorce, a distant mother and violent father are the themes, along with constant travel with playboys in pursuit:

No air and the terrible noise, and the drinking, and the women squashed against the men all the time. Here it was again, men with their episodes all like beads and no string through them, and women with their strings desperately trying to string on beads.

Her second novel, Flower of Smoke (1939), was more autobiographical and infuriated Cissy with its portrait of a heartless socialite mother. Their relationship was so bad that, in 1945, Felicia Gizycka announced that she had "divorced" her mother: "I'm tired of being Cissy's daughter." She kept a house in Manhattan and one upstate, but refused Cissy's offer of a floor to herself in the Washington mansion and resolved to live by her writing and $3,500 a year from a grandmother's trust fund. As she put it: "I think my mother thinks more of her poodles than she does of me. She loved me but she couldn't show it. She hated me because she hated herself, and took it out on me."

Before Cissy died in 1948 she changed her will several times, remarking to her chauffeur: "They'll have a damned good fight when I'm gone. I've fixed that!" Indeed, whereas in 1924 Cissy's "beloved daughter" had been her sole heir, she was finally left only (and that "only" is relative) the Long Island estate, North Dakota properties, household furnishings, wardrobe, jewellery and paintings, along with a lifetime tax-free allowance of $25,000 a year, "to keep her off the streets".

Felicia Gizycka filed a formal notice of contest claiming the whole estate, which was conservatively calculated at over $16m. Drew Pearson financed her fight because their daughter Ellen would be disinherited. After protracted legal skirmishing, which naturally made the front page of every tabloid, Felicia settled for a lump sum of $400,000 tax free. "Do I have to wait till I'm the richest girl in the world?" she had written in her first novel and now, at 44, she was wealthy and free of her mother.

She lived in New Canaan and Wyoming and in 1958 married John Magruder, a landscape architect who ran the Alcoholics Anonymous Men's Home in Alexandria, Virginia. Although both Felicia and Cissy were the very opposite of anonymous, they had both been committed alcoholics. This last marriage ended in divorce after a few years and Felicia ended her life alone in a Wyoming retirement community. As she once asked: "I spent so much time hating my mother. How could I ever really love anyone else?"

Adrian Dannatt

Felicia Gizycka, writer: born Narvosielica, Ukraine 3 September 1905; married 1925 Drew Pearson (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1928), 1934 Dudley de Lavigne (marriage dissolved 1934), 1958 John Magruder (marriage dissolved); died Laramie, Wyoming 26 February 1999.

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