Tribute to Robert K. Massie, 1929-2019

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On 2nd December 2019, Robert K. Massie, best known as author and historian of pre-Revolutionary Russia, passed away at his home in Irvington, New York at the age of 90. The cause of death was complications associated with Alzheimer’s Disease.

Life, Education and Career

Robert Kinloch Massie III was born in Versailles, Kentucky on 5 January 1929. He later grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, graduated from Yale University, and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University where he read Modern History. For four years, he served as an air intelligence officer aboard aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean and the Pacific. 

Mr. Massie was on the staff of Newsweek from 1959 to 1962, where he was a book reviewer, foreign news writer, and United Nations Bureau Chief. His writing has also appeared in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The New York Times, Architectural Digest, and other publications. Over the years, he worked as an historical adviser to, and has made frequent appearances on, a number of national television programs and documentaries.

Massie was married twice. His first wife, Suzanne Rohrback (from 1954 to 1990), an author whose books about Russian culture (Land of the Firebird: The Beauty of Old Russia in 1980 and Pavlovsk: The Life of a Russian Palace in 1990),  brought her to the attention of Ronald Reagan and into international politics.  The couple had a son and two daughters. In 1992, Massie remarried his literary agent Deborah Karl. The couple had a son and two daughters.

Books: Nicholas and Alexandra

Robert K. Massie, spent almost half a century studying Tsarist Russia, his personal interest in the last Imperial family was triggered by the birth of his eldest son Robert Jr., who was born with hemophilia, a hereditary disease that also afflicted Tsar Nicholas II’s son, Alexei.

His first book, Nicholas and Alexandra (1969), which remained on the New York Times Bestseller List for 46 weeks, was translated into seventeen languages, and made into a film that was nominated for numerous Academy Awards. Though nearly 1,000 pages long, it sold more than 4.5 million copies and is regarded as one of the most popular historical studies ever published. Praised in The New York Times as a long-needed and balanced account of the last tsar and his family. In his study, Nicholas comes across not as the “stupid, weak or bloodthirsty” monarch, as he is often been portrayed by his Western counterparts.

Nicholas and Alexandra made Massie a celebrity, phoned by strangers who invited him for lunch, and a magnet for relatives and alleged relatives of the Romanovs. He discussed hemophilia with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and with Earl Mountbatten of Burma, a grandson of Queen Victoria.

It was Massie’s now classic study of Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, which presented the most comprehensive study of Russia’s last Imperial family in a whole new light, but it was far from perfect.

During his research for Nicholas and Alexandra, Massie did not have complete information because the Soviet government would not permit him access to the Romanov archives. During the Soviet years, access to these files were restricted solely for propaganda purposes only. It was only in 1991, when the Soviet Union was dissolved and the Romanov archives were open, did Massie complete their story, writing a continuation, The Romanovs: The Final Chapter (1995)

Film: Nicholas and Alexandra (1971)

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In 1971, Massie’s bestseller was made into a British biographical film directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, written by James Goldman, and starring Michael Jayston as Emperor Nicholas II and Janet Suzman as Empress Alexandra Feodorovna.

The film won Academy Awards for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration and Best Costume Design and was nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Janet Suzman), Best Cinematography, Best Music, Original Dramatic Score and Best Picture.

Despite the detailed production design, photography and strong performances from the cast, Nicholas and Alexandra failed to find the large audience it needed to be a financial success.

It is interesting to note that aside from its historical inaccuracies, not a single scene was filmed in Russia. This of course is due to the fact that in 1971 Russia was still the Soviet Union, and the discussion or promotion of the last tsar was still taboo. Instead, the film was shot entirely in Spain and Yugoslavia.

Other Books

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Massie penned two additional books on the Romanov dynasty: Peter the Great: His Life and World (1981), which won a Pulitzer Prize. His biography led to the production of Peter the Great (1986) which became a major network miniseries, winning three Emmy Awards.

Two decades later he wrote, Catherine the Great (2011), which was awarded the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction by the American Library Association.

And we cannot forget two additional pictorials for which Massie wrote the introductory text: Last Courts of Europe: Royal Family Album, 1860–1914 (Vendome Press, 1981) and The Romanov Family Album (Vendome Press, 1982), the latter of which is highly sought after by collectors to this day.

His other works include Journey (1975), Dreadnought: Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War (1991),  and Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (2004), among others.

While Massie’s books have sold more than 6 million copies, however, he will always be remembered for Nicholas and Alexandra, which captivated a whole new generation with detailed accounts of Nicholas II and his family. For many it was Massie’s now classic study which launched their personal interest in the Imperial family, leading them on a quest for for accurate and truthful information. For that alone, we owe Robert Massie an immense debt of gratitude.

Robert K. Massie is survived by his second wife Deborah Karl, their son, Christopher, and two daughters Sophia and Nora Massie; and his son Bob Jr., and two daughters, Susanna Thomas and Elizabeth Massie, from his first marriage; as well as seven grandchildren and one great-grandson.

© Paul Gilbert. 4 December 2019

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