Any passionate grandfather will tell you that his granddaughter is a little princess. Ulysses Grant was no different. The difference between Grant and the other grandfathers, however, was that his granddaughter to become a real princess.
The President was proud as a punch at the arrival of Julia Dent Grant on June 6, 1876. She immediately joined one of America’s most exclusive clubs as one of a dozen people born in the House. White.
Named after her grandmother, also named Julia Dent Grant, she grew up seeing the White House as a second home. Baptized in the East Room, she spent her childhood attending parties and events.
Of her famous grandfather (who died aged 8), she later recalled: “He held my plump, dimpled hand on the palm of his, and we learned to count the alveoli and fingers together… a thong. “
There were advantages to being a scholarship holder, one of which was celebrity status. Ulysses Grant was internationally known – not for serving two terms as President of the United States – but for being the general who won the Civil War. This VIP status allowed the young Julia to access the highest spheres of society.
Her father served as President Benjamin Harrison’s ambassador to Austria-Hungary, and Julia toured Europe as fashionable young Victorian women would. While visiting Cannes, France, she met and fell in love with a dashing Russian diplomat, Prince Mikhail Cantacuzene. He proposed just two days after meeting Julia. A planned wedding was called off, but later they reunited.
When they finally got married, in the social capital of Newport, RI in September 1899, Julia became Princess Cantacuzene, Countess Speranasky. In fact, the couple had two marriages; a Russian Orthodox ceremony came first, followed by an Episcopalian wedding the next day.
But marrying the Russian monarchy came at a high price. Julia had to move to Russia, where her focus shifted from American Republican politics to the royal intrigue of the Romanovs. The newlyweds settled in the imperial capital of St. Petersburg, but they also spent time in their vast estate in Ukraine. They had three children: son Mikhail, daughter Zinaida and another daughter called Barbara, nicknamed Bertha in honor of her great aunt. (One can only imagine the child explaining this usual name to his Russian playmates. “It’s an American thing. You wouldn’t understand.”)
At the start of World War I, the prince was an assistant to Tsar Nicholas II, then became a general in the field. He was wounded in 1915 while commanding a 15,000 cavalry attack, one of the last mass cavalry charges of the war.
Then the Russian Revolution of 1917 came, followed by Russia’s own civil war. Everything changed overnight. Julia and her family were forced to flee – first to Finland, then to the United States
They settled in Washington. The couple rallied support for a counterrevolution until the Communists assassinate Nicholas and his family. This killed their hopes for a Romanov restoration, although they remained active in the Russian expat community.
Julia and her prince eventually settled in Sarasota, Florida, where he worked in his aunt’s farming and banking operations.
She helped support the family with her writing. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Saturday Evening Post, The Woman’s Home Companion, and other leading publications. She also wrote three popular memoirs.
Yet the tension of so many ups and downs ultimately took their toll on the marriage. Julia and the prince divorced in 1934. He then remarried; she never did. A countess either, she regained her American citizenship, gave up her old imperial titles and renamed herself simply Mrs. Julia Grant Cantacuzéne.
Time has finally caught up with the ancient nobleman. She would go blind before she was 80 years old, though unbelievably her vision had partially returned in the last two weeks of her life. His final years were spent enjoying his six grandchildren, 22 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren before quietly slipping away in 1975 at the age of 99.
The life that began the day after Appomattox spanned the depths of the Cold War. She had seen governments rise and fall, ancient dynasties swept away, and a new world emerge from their rubble. And throughout it all, she behaved with dignity and style and wrote about her many remarkable experiences with loving skill.
You can’t help but believe that the old general would have been proud of his little princess.