The Mysterious Beginnings of Orphan Train History’s Most Famous Con Man – Harry Gerguson, or Prince Michael Romanoff

By Kaily Carson

Harry Gerguson was born February 20, 1890 in Lithuania… Or was it New York? St. Petersburg? Was it 1890, or 1893? And was the last name really Gerguson, or was it Geguzin? Conflicting information abounds when it comes to the origins of Harry Gerguson. The generally accepted story goes like this…

Harry Geguzin was born to a Jewish merchant family in what is now Vilnius, Lithuania. His father died before his birth, leaving Harry’s mother with six children to care for. Harry immigrated to the United States at age 10, around 1900, with a family member. They landed in New York City, and Harry either ran away or was otherwise separated from his family member. Being a child, he was eventually picked up by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. They sent him to the New York Juvenile Asylum in 1903. Sometime between his arrival in 1900 and his admittance to the Juvenile Asylum in 1903, Harry had changed his last name from Geguzin to Gerguson, which was more familiar to American tongues. Young Harry was sent on an orphan train to Hillsboro, Illinois in 1904, where he remained for a few years. In 1907, he returned to New York because he was “incorrigible”. The Children’s Aid Society handled his next placement in 1908, when he was sent to Texas at age 18.

Between 1908-1922, Harry’s life becomes a tangled web of stories, and it is nearly impossible to sort the fact from the fiction. One story says he worked on a ship bound for England, and he decided to stay in the UK for a while. While there, he picked up his famous Oxbridge accent. Although he later claimed to have been studying at Oxford, Eton, Cambridge, and the British Royal Military College, it seems that he really spent his time in the UK trying on different personas. He used posh sounding names like Willoughby de Burke, and his many impersonations seem to have landed him in jail on more than one occasion. Scotland Yard supposedly classified him as “a rogue of uncertain origin.”

Following his British escapades, he may have spent time in Paris, and perhaps Germany. He claimed he spent 10 years in a German prison for killing a German aristocrat in a duel, and missed all the action of World War I. But he also claimed he drove a taxi for the French army during the defense of Paris, fought on the Western Front for Britain, and the Eastern Front as a Cossack, and defended the Winter Palace against Bolsheviks.

On November 19, 1922, Harry returned to the United States on a ship sailing from Cherbourg, France. He was detained at Ellis Island, because he was deemed “Liable to Become a Public Charge,” and was sent to the Island Hospital on November 29th. Why he was listed this way is unclear, but it may have something to do with the fact that he apparently told immigration officers that he had been in prison for murder for the last 10 years, or that he listed his United States address as a YMCA. Regardless, Harry wasn’t going to stick around long enough to be deported. On December 27th, 1922, his immigration record was updated: Escaped from Hospital.

Articles from the next few decades describe his escape as “Monte Cristo-like”, and said he spent the next few months in New York, St. Paul, and at Harvard. However, newspaper articles from 1923 reveal that he spent some of that time right here in Kansas. However, by the time his story was told in the September 8, 1923 Wichita Eagle, he had developed his own version of his life story and taken on his most well-known persona: Prince Michael Dimitri Alexandrovitch Obolensky Romanoff. The Wichita Eagle article about his life began, “My name is Michael Dimitri Obolensky Romanoff. My father was Alexander the Third, czar of all the Russias. My mother was Princess Olga Obolensky, not of royal blood, but a princess in her own right… I have guarded this secret of mine more carefully than I have guarded my life… I reveal it now, not to protect myself and not to justify myself, but for the sake of a few friends in Wichita… For their sakes, then, I will tell the true story of my life.”

Harry, or rather, Prince Mike as he was known from then on, described his tragic growing up years. His father, the czar, died suddenly in 1894, and his mother, who was unwelcome in Russian court, was left to care for her one-year-old baby, Michael. She took him away from Russia, and they lived in Baden-Baden, Deuville, London, and New York. In New York, their servant died, and a new woman, named Ferguson, took the place. Then, his mother too, passed away, leaving him in the hands of Mrs. Ferguson, and he was generally known as Harry Ferguson. Mrs. Ferguson eventually turned him over to a society for the care of orphans and he was sent west. He ran away, returning to New York, where he was discovered by emissaries of the royal family of Russia. He returned to his “homeland” for a few years before pursuing his education in England and joining WWI.

The article continued describing his various escapades across Europe and the United States, and he maintained that all the time, he kept his identity obscure, because it was painful to his family. He was accused over and over of misrepresenting his identity. His article ended, “My story will be denied by many, in high places and low. This does not concern me. I do not wish to be called a prince… I have told this story of my life because I believe it is my duty to a few friends in Wichita to do so. I have no other motive.”

In this account, we see snippets of the truth, and the beginnings of some of the legends mentioned previously. Even at the time, the tale seemed tall. The newspaper reporter from the Wichita Eagle, who interviewed Prince Mike, Charles B. Driscoll, even questioned some of the details. Driscoll said he looked up Prince Michael Romanov in the Almanac and found many discrepancies between Mike’s story and the facts known about the real Russian prince. To this, Mike responded that he was “not exactly that prince, but another one, closely related, and said he considered it a point of honor to keep his true identity secret.”

Michael Romanoff’s Star Studded Days

A few days after the Wichita Eagle article was published in September, 1923, Prince Mike left Kansas suddenly, stating, “My desire to come to America and live quietly and simply has not been fulfilled… I felt sure I could come to big, wide America and be swallowed up and forgotten. But just the opposite has been true. I have been constantly in the papers, and under the surveillance of the police… I have made a few warm friends in Wichita. These I shall never forget.”

Prince Mike seems to have spent the next few years traveling between New York and Hollywood. The Saturday Evening Post described him, “[living] off the generosity of people who were flattered to extend credit to a man claiming to be a cousin of Czar Nicholas.” And it seems that people loved the legend and lore that surrounded this charismatic man. By the 1930s, his cover was blown when a Russian aristocrat met him at a Hollywood dinner party and confronted him, telling Prince Mike that he knew the real Michael Romanov in Russia. But by that time, he was well established in social circles and Prince Mike continued his charade, despite most everyone knowing he was an imposter.

He made fast friends in Hollywood, and by 1939, he had enough friends willing to pitch in to help him open a restaurant. Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, and other Hollywood elite gave him about $8,000, which he combined with his own savings to open Romanoffs at 326 North Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills in 1941. Romanoff’s became a hot spot and was frequented by stars such as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Joan Crawford, Jane Mansfield, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Judy Garland, Katharine Hepburn, Clark Gable, and more. Humphrey Bogart was a regular. He always sat at table #1, and ordered the same lunch every day: 2 scotch and sodas, an omelet, French toast, milk, and coffee and brandy to finish it off.

Actor David Niven devotes a whole chapter to Prince Mike in his memoir, “Bring on the Empty Horses,” in which he describes the invitations Mike would send to his friends, “I am commanded by His Imperial Highness Prince Michael Alexandrovich Dimitry Obolensky Romanoff to request your presence at a soiree he is giving in his own honour. Couvert fifty dollars. Bring your own wine and kindly fee the waiters. Signed, Harry Gerguson, Comptroller to the Imperial household.” Niven also relates tales of Prince Mike asking about certain British elite he claimed to know from his days at Eton or Oxford, often supplying just enough detail to make the story believable and scoffing when asked for additional proof, which he could only sometimes provide. Stories like these show Mike was willing to play with his own mythical beginnings and poke fun at his own charade.

Prince Mike was known for his three-piece suit, and thin mustache. He always smoked Russian cigarettes and carried a gold tipped walking stick. He often lunched with his two English bulldogs, Socrates and Confucius, rather than his illustrious patrons.

The restaurant had a few signature dishes, prepared by a French chef. Noodles Romanoff was a noodle dish with beef and a creamy sauce, later featured in Betty Crocker cookbooks. Of course, they also served Waldorf Salad, tomatoes stuffed with crab, filet mignon, frog legs, and eggs benedict. For dessert, there was Romanoffs Chocolate Soufflé or Strawberries Romanoff (strawberries soaked in sugar, Grand Marnier, and orange juice, and topped with whipped cream). And of course, we can’t forget the Mike Romanoff cocktail (vodka, Cointreau, apricot liqueur, and lime juice, bitters optional), which may or may not have been invented by Prince Mike himself.

Another restaurant patron was none other than J. Edgar Hoover. The LA Times reported that once, jewel thief Swifty Morgan tried to sell Hoover a stolen diamond bracelet. Hoover offered $500, and Morgan replied, “Why, John, there’s a $5,000 reward out for this!” Prince Mike must have endeared himself to Hoover in some way though, because in 1958, Hoover assisted with his plea for citizenship, which required an act of Congress because there was no record of his birth anywhere. President Eisenhower signed the bill that allowed for his citizenship.

Romanoffs restaurant moved to a new $400,000 building at 140 South Rodeo Drive in 1951. The new site had a ballroom, multiple dining rooms, a cocktail lounge, and a penthouse. Romanoffs’ success continued until 1957, when Hollywood stars started dining there with less and less frequency. The restaurant finally closed on New Year’s Eve in 1962. Prince Mike said, “There is no longer room here for an elegant restaurant of this kind.”

Aside from his restaurant business, Prince Mike also had cameos in more than a dozen films, and as Mike Dash writes on his blog, “By the time he appeared as a guest on the panel show ‘What’s My Line’ [in 1957], Mike was so well known that, almost uniquely, the panelists had to be blindfolded, and, to prevent the immediate identification of his distinctively fruity British accent, he himself was permitted to communicate only with a whistle.”

Prince Mike enjoyed the rest of his days traveling the world and attending parties with Hollywood’s most glamorous stars. He also spent the years with his wife, Gloria Lister, whom he married in 1948 when he was 58 and she was 24. She was his business manager. They never had any children, and so there are no heirs to the royal crown today. Prince Mike, or Harry Gerguson, died in 1971 at either 78 or 81 years old of a heart attack, leaving behind the tangled legacy of an orphan train rider turned con man turned Hollywood businessman.

This article was printed in the Concordia Blade-Empire in two parts, appearing Friday, July 28th and Friday, August 4th, 2023.