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    The Tragedy of the Russian Waitresses in Constantinople

    When dining at one of the popular Russian émigré restaurants in Constantinople in the 1920s where the waitresses were all attractive young Russian women--the city’s renowned “dames serveuses” (please see my previous posts)--more than one visiting foreigner was moved by the sight of an exiled Russian officer rising from his table with an expression of somber respect on his face to kiss the hand of the waitress approaching him because they had known each other under very different circumstances in their previous lives. 


    Princess Lucien Murat


    Princess Lucien Murat, a French tourist who took an interest in the plight of the Russian refugees in Constantinople, had a series of similar heart-wrenching encounters with a number of people she had known in pre-Revolutionary Petrograd:  a Baron S., whom she found working as a street bootblack, a Colonel X., who now manned a cloakroom in a restaurant. And then, at a bar

    I fall upon my old friend, the Princess B. . . Fortunately for her, she had once been to America and there had learned the now lost art of mixing cocktails.  Here in Pera, all night long, in order to feed her child, she shakes Martinis and Manhattans.  To talk to her, I climb awkwardly on one of the high, bar stools, my legs hanging loose.  I think of the last ball in Petrograd at which we met.  How beautiful she was that night in a silvery dress, with her marvelous emeralds in a diadem on her lovely forehead. . . . The Princess tells me her lamentable tale, her escape from the Bolsheviks, her flight in a crowded cattle-car . . . A client interrupts us.  She smiles and suggests an American cocktail.  Meanwhile, the “Boss” hovers around, an ebony black, who, in the old days, kept the most fashionable restaurant in Moscow where, many a time, the Princess dined and danced to the music of the tziganes.

    Princess Murat does not mention it, but Frederick Thomas (he is not named in the sketch, which appeared in Vogue in 1922) developed a reputation among Russian refugees in Constantinople as a humane, as well as a watchful, employer, who protected his waitresses from aggressive clients.

    Princess Murat’s reaction to seeing her old Russian friend in Frederick’s employ is jolting because it is a reminder of how anomalous his entire enterprise actually was; how much it depended on a political and social situation that was just a small eddy in the broad flow of history after the Great War; and, consequently, how vulnerable it would be to any shift in the flow’s direction.  Her reaction also provides a glimpse of the dames serveuses from a different point of view than that of an admiring male.

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