Danse Macabre

The Rockefeller and the Ballet Boys

Another spectacular will contest is dividing the dinner parties of tony America. The recently deceased was Margaret Strong, a plain-Jane Rockefeller who always attracted effete men. Her first husband was the ballet-mad Marquis de Cuevas. Her second was nearly forty years her junior: Raymundo de Larrain, who gave her a wheelchair and new teeth for the wedding. And then, according to her children, milked her out of $30 million. On the eve of the trial, the author investigates a society redolent of black orchids.

February 1987

There is no one, not even his severest detractor, and let me tell you at the outset of this tale that he has a great many severe detractors, who will not concede that Raymundo de Larrain, who sometimes uses the questionable title of the Marquis de Larrain, is, or at least was, before he took the road to riches by marrying a Rockefeller heiress nearly forty years his senior, a man of considerable talent, who, if he had persevered in his artistic pursuits, might have made a name for himself on his own merit. Instead his name, long a fixture in the international social columns, is today at the center of the latest in a rash of contested-will controversies in which wildly rich American families go to court to slug it out publicly for millions of dollars left to upstart spouses the same age as or, in this case, younger than the disinherited adult children.

The most interesting person in this story is the late possessor of the now disputed millions, Margaret Strong de Cuevas de Larrain, who died in Madrid on December 2, 1985, at the age of eighty-eight, and the key name to keep in mind is the magical one of Rockefeller. Margaret de Larrain had two children, Elizabeth and John, from her first marriage, to the Marquis George de Cuevas. The children do not know the whereabouts of her remains, or even whether she was, as a member of the family put it, incinerated in Madrid. What they do know is that during the eight years of their octogenarian mother’s marriage to Raymundo de Larrain, her enormous real-estate holdings, which included adjoining town houses in New York, an apartment in Paris, a country house in France, a villa in Tuscany, and a resort home in Palm Beach, were given away or sold, although she had been known throughout her life to hate parting with any of her belongings, even the most insubstantial things. At the time of her second marriage, in 1977, she had assets of approximately $30 million (some estimates go as high as $60 million), including 350,00 shares of Exxon stock in a custodian account at the Chase Manhattan Bank. The location of the Exxon shares is currently unknown, and the documents presented by her widower show that his late wife’s assets amount to only $400,000. Although these sums may seem modest in terms of today’s billion-dollar fortunes, Margaret, at the time of her inheritance, was considered one of the richest women in the world. There are two wills in question: a 1968 will leaving the fortune to the children and a 1980 will leaving it to the widower. In the upcoming court case, the children, who are fifty-eight and fifty-six years old, are charging that the will submitted by de Larrain, who is fifty-two, represents “a massive fraud on an aging, physically ill, trusting lady.”

Although Margaret Strong de Cuevas de Larrain was a reluctant news figure for five decades, the facts of her birth, her fortune, and the kind of men she married denied her the privacy she craved. However, her children, Elizabeth, known as Bessie, and John, have so successfully guarded their privacy, as well as that of their children, that they are practically anonymous in the social world in which they were raised. John de Cuevas, who has been described as almost a hermit, has never used the title of marquis. He is now divorced from his second wife, Sylvia Iolas de Cuevas, the niece of the art dealer Alexander Iolas, who was a friend of his father’s. His only child is a daughter from that marriage, now in her twenties. He maintains homes in St. James, Long Island, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he teaches scientific writing at Harvard. Bessie de Cuevas, a sculptor whose work resembles that of Archipenko, lives in New York City and East Hampton, Long Island. She is also divorced, and has one daughter, twenty-two, by her second husband, Joel Carmichael, the editor of Midstream, a Zionist magazine so reactionary that it recently published an article accusing the pope of being soft on Marxism. Friends of Bessie de Cuevas told me that she was never bothered by the short financial reins her mother kept her on, because she did not fall prey to fortune hunters the way her sister heiresses, like Sunny von Bülow, did.

Margaret Strong de Cuevas de Larrain, the twice-titled American heiress, grew up very much like a character in a Henry James novel. In fact, Henry James, as well as William James, visited her father’s villa outside Florence when she was young. Margaret was the only child of Bessie Rockefeller, the eldest of John D. Rockefeller’s five children, and Charles Augustus Strong, a philospher and psychologist, whose father, Augustus Hopkins Strong, a Baptist clergyman and theologian, had been a great friend of old Rockefeller’s. A mark of the brilliance of Margaret’s father was that, while at Harvard, he competed with fellow student George Santayana for a scholarship at a German university and won. He then shared the scholarship with Santayana, who remained his lifelong friend. Margaret was born in New York, but the family moved shortly thereafter to Paris. When Margaret was nine her mother died, and Strong, who never remarried, built his villa in Fiesole, outside Florence. There, in a dour and austere atomosphere, surrounded by intellectuals and philosophers, he raised his daughter and wrote scholarly books. His world provided very little amusement for a child and no frivolity.

Each year Margaret returned to the United States to see her grandfather, with whom she maintained a good relationship, and to visit her Rockefeller cousins. Old John D. was amused by his serious and foreign granddaughter, who spoke several languages and went to school in England. Later, she was one of only three women attending Cambridge University, where she studied chemistry. Never, even as a young girl, could she have been considered attractive. She was big, bulky, and shy, and until the age of twenty-right she always wore variations of the same modest sailor dress.

Her father was eager for her to marry, and toward that end Margaret went to Paris to live, although she had few prospects in sight. Following the Russian Revolution there was an influx of Russian émigrés into Paris, and Margaret Strong developed a fascination for them that remained with her all her life. She was most excited to meet the tall and elegant Prince Felix Yusupov, the assassin of Rasputin, who was said to have used his beautiful wife, Princess Irina, as a lure to attract the womanizing Rasputin to his palace on the night of the murder. In Paris, Prince Yusupov had taken to wearing pink rouge and green eye shadow, and he supported himself by heading up a house of couture called Irfé, a combination of the first syllables of his and his wife’s names. Into this hothouse of fashion, one day in 1927, walked the thirty-year-old prim, studious, and unfashionable Rockefeller heiress. At that time Prince Yusupov had working for him an epicene and penniless young Chilean named George de Cuevas, who was, according to friends who remember him from that period, “extremely amusing and lively.” He spoke with a strong Spanish accent and expressed himself in a wildly camp manner hitherto totally unknown to the sheltered young lady. The story goes that at first Margaret mistook George de Cuevas for the prince. “What do you do at the couture?” she asked. “I’m the saleslady,” he replied. The plain, timid heiress was enchanted with him, and promptly fell in love, thereby establishing what would be a lifelong predilection for flamboyant, effete men. The improbable pair were married in 1928.

From then on Margaret abandoned almost all intellectual activity. She stepped out of the pages of a Henry James novel into the pages of a Ronald Firbank novel. If her father had been the dominant figure of her maidenhood, George de Cuevas was the controlling force of her adult existence. Their life became more and more frivolous, capricious, and eccentric. Through her husband she discovered an exotic new world that centered on the arts, especially the ballet, for which George had a deep and abiding passion. Their beautiful apartment on the Quai Voltaire, filled with pets and bibelots and opulent furnishings, became a gathering place for the haute bohème of Paris, as did their country house in St.-Germain-en-Laye, where their daughter, Bessie, was born in 1929. Their son, John, was born two years later. Along the way the title of marquis was granted by, or purchased from, the King of Spain. The Chilean son of a Spanish father, George de Cuevas is listed in some dance manuals as the eighth Marquis de Piedrablanca de Guana de Cuevas, but the wife of a Spanish grandee, who wished not to be identified, told me that the title was laughed at in Spain. Nonetheless, the Marquis and Marquesa de Cuevas remained a highly visible couple on the international and artistic scenes for the next thirty years.

When World War II broke out, they moved to the United States. Margaret, already a collector of real estate, began to add to her holdings. She bought a town house on East Sixty-eighth Street in New York, a mansion in Palm Beach, and a weekend place in Bernardsville, New Jersey. She also acquired a house in Riverdale, New York, which they never lived in but visited, and one in New Mexico to be used in the event the United States was invaded. In New York, Margaret always kept a rented limousine, and sometimes two, all day every day in front of her house in case she wanted to go out.

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