The Library of Nineteenth-Century Photography

Mabel Grey

Mabel Grey

On 6 October 1892, New Zealand’s Oamaru Mail carried a story under the headline ‘Mabel Grey: A Romance of the Half-World.’ Written by the Lyttelton Times correspondent, it claimed to give some account of the later life of the celebrated courtesan.

‘The fact that the romantic story of a famous heroine of the London demi monde is told, and very incorrectly told, in one of the society papers this week, tempts me to relate the real facts which came to my knowledge some little time ago, and can easily be corroborated. Twenty to twenty-five years ago the name of Mabel Grey was even more notorious than that of Lady Clancarty, or any of our much-photographed fin-de-siècle beauties. Born of poor Irish parents, she came over to London when quite a young girl. Her name was Annie King, and she commenced life in the shawl and mantle department of a big shop in Regent-street. Here Grey found her, and, struck by the child’s budding beauty, launched her on the part-world. In a few months the seventeen-year-old Mabel Grey was the talk of the town. Men raved about her wondrous golden hair, her angel face, her starry eyes, her dazzling complexion, her winning smile, and her delicious brogue. She gave costly entertainments, to which the entrée was as difficult as though she were a duchess, and at which the strictest etiquette was insisted on. Woe betide the luckless wight who ventured on a liberty with Mabel Grey! A noble duke presented himself unintroduced at one of her “at homes,” Miss Grey feared, as she had not had the pleasure of his Grace’s acquaintance, he must have mistaken the house. She ordered his Grace’s carriage. Not one or two, but twenty, men half ruined themselves satisfying the fair Mabel’s whims, and if she would have married she could have taken her pick from some of the greatest names in the peerage. But till Lord Rossmore dawned on her horizon Mabel’s heart seemed adamant. The Duke of Beaufort (then in his prime) took a fatherly interest in her and the jeunesse dorée laid tribute at her feet. That was all. Lord Rossmore proved Mabel’s one grande passion. He did not care for her much, but the temptation to pretend to was irresistible, and for a year or two she was happy. Then the man cut his connection and married. Mabel had brain fever, but recovered, and then her life became a whirlwind of excitement. All sorts of stories of her extravagances and her utter heartlessness were current at this time. Ultimately the woman, now in the full glory of her beauty, went to St Petersburg, and became bonne amie of the Grand Duke Vladimir. But the innate coarseness of the royal Slav soon disgusted her, and she soon closed her doors to him. From this point “The Dwarf” tells Mabel’s story correctly. The writer says: -

'It was then that Mabel accidentally met a M. Alaza, who was Secretary to an aunt of the present Emperor, and whose father had left him an enormous fortune. M. Abaza became passionately fond of Miss Grey and, though for a time their liaison did not go beyond a platonic friendship, he lavished munificent gifts on her, and put her establishment in St Petersburgh [sic] on a footing equalled in it gorgeous magnificence only by the palaces of Royalty. There did Mabel love to receive her English friends – mostly composed of members of the Embassy and sons of rich business men – who, after the drive on the Newsky [sic] in the afternoon, would drop in for a chat and a cup of tea; or in the evening saunter in after the ballet or the opera, and have a little dance got up for the occasion. Everything was conducted in the most respectable manner possible.

'What appeared to most of Mabel’s friends as strange – in view of her innocent relations with the Russian – was the absence at all these gatherings of her protector, M. Abaza. The secret was one day revealed to them. It was a large dinner party given by the fair Englishwoman in celebration of her birthday. At one head of the table sat the lovely hostess, while at the other stood an empty chair awaiting its occupant – evidently the master of the house. After everybody had been seated, a young attaché asked Mabel whether at last M. Abaza would be present at the festivities. She replied, in rather a sad tone, “No, although he promised to preside at my birthday dinner, he writes, with extreme delicacy, that now as before he would prefer not to disturb the charm of my being with my countrymen on my birthday. The dear fellow, I wish he had come, for I believe I am beginning to love him!”

'And she did: More perhaps than “Rossy,” for her affection for Abaza was based on the highest esteem a woman can feel towards a good man, and it was on the morrow, I believe, that Mabel closed her doors to all her old friends, and devoted the reminder of her short life to the Russian, whose sincere, disinterested love helped Mabel Grey to become one of the most charitable and honored women of the English colony in St Petersburg, and thus, by innumerable unostentatious, kindly deeds to the poor and afflicted, to redeem much of the unfortunate past.

'Poor Mabel! It was but a year after, that the enfant choisée of kings and princes breathed her last at the Hotel Royal in Berlin, after giving birth to a beautiful girl. M. Abaza, who was by her side to the last, for a number of years remained inconsolable: but the charming grace and loveliness of his child, as time went by, conquered at last; and the passionate devotion which was given to the mother was forcibly transferred to the daughter, who is now the adored pet of the future President of the Council of the Russian Empire.’

Photographed by Charles Reutlinger of Paris.


Code: 126768
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