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MONK PRINCESS


The tall, silky maiden of that photographic album so lovingly preserved by her mother was ethereally beautiful. I used to flip through the pages in wonderment: she was with high society here, posing in a bikini suit there; raising a toast here, being toasted by a set of glitterati there. She was a burgeoning actress in Hollywood then in the Marilyn Monroe mold but she had given it all up suddenly and inexplicably. As so often happens in life a call of a higher order had persuaded her to give up the life she revelled in.
Zina Rachevsky
Princess Harriet Straus Rachevsky was a widow in her sixties when she came to Nepal in search of her daughter pictured in those many poses in that photo album and also a grand-daughter she knew only from hearsay. She arrived in Kathmandu in the late sixties and found a place to rent in the estate of my father in Kiran Bhawan. Those were the days of the hippies, the precursors to the modern day backpackers who have famously made Nepal one of the top choice adventure holiday destinations in the world. She was an American Jewess by birth and a scion of the Straus banking family of Chicago before she secretly got married to a Russian titled nobility. She was of medium built, always seen around the house in slacks, matching blouse, a scarf tied around her neck and a large pair of glasses as fashionable then framing a face that was beginning to go craggy. She stood with both hands behind her lower back supporting her still upright frame, a common habit of hers, as she surveyed the many chores that needed to be completed that day, for that occasion.

Harriet Rachevsky in her youth
She was very excited that day. I was in my early teens and I too was anticipating eagerly the outcome. Princess Rachevsky's daughter was going to visit her mother; finally there was to be a re-union of mother and child after all those years. A taxi and some fellow monks presently brought her to our place. She was unrecognizable from her many photographs I had seen of her. The blond goddess of the photo album looked saintly wrapped in a maroon robe of a Tibetan Buddhist sect, her golden locks replaced by a bald pate, her sexy bikini looks transported to a serene visage of the truly blessed. Princess Zina Rashevsky had arrived to meet her mother.

Vladimir Rachevsky was the brother-in-law to the Grand Duke Boris Vladimirovich Romanov, his sister Zenaida Rachevskaya having been initially a mistress of but later married to Boris (pic). A direct descendant of Czar Alexander II of Russia and a first cousin once removed to Czar Nicholas II, Boris had fled the Bolshevik Revolution to the Caucasus in today's Georgia with his life and his mistress in tow. It appears that Princess Harriet Rachevsky's husband Vladimir was not a direct blood relation of the Romanovs but, as it happened so often then, titles were freely exchanged in foreign soil to impress and by the time Harriet met her husband everyone was convinced he was a titled prince.

Grand Duke Boris and his wife
Harriet had married her prince in secret in Paris in 1929 as this match would not be approved by her family. Her father S. W. Straus was a pre-eminent Jewish banker and financier in Chicago and this relationship with a titled Russian Orthodox Christian but possibly a penniless emigre would not be looked upon kindly. Harriet's two sisters, Louise and Madeline had both married their own kind in America. Harriet gave birth to Zina in 1930. The Straus family would lose their considerable fortune in the coming Great Depression.

From that first meeting of the mother and daughter Harriet decided to make Nepal her home to enable her to bring up her grand-daughter Rhea properly but at the same time remain near her own daughter. Zina had made the Kopan Monastery near Bodhnath her spiritual abode, one of the first Western convert to be ordained a Lama, the high priestess of Tibetan Buddhism. We can only conjecture what had made Zina give up a possibly lucrative Hollywood career to venture into India. Was it a love affair gone awry? Or did she just join the Hippie movement and flowed with the tide, a lost flower child? An account has it that she was always a wild and independent minded person. She appeared in Darjeeling in 1967 and she was instructed in Tibetan Buddhism by Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa, both incarnate Lamas.

Zina and Rhea
I remember Rhea as a shy seven or eight year old, an introvert possibly trying to cope with the new environment far from a Lamasery and a grandmother she had only heard of until then. She was in dirty and tattered Tibetan costume, unwashed and unkempt, when she first appeared in our place. Soon after she went to St. Mary's Girls High School nearby and the mischief and sparkle of childhood were seen slowly coming back. Princess Rachevsky was a doting grandmother. One often heard, "Rhea, Rhea....." reverberating around the house. Our handyman Ram Bahadur Majhi was already an accomplished chef under the supervision of the princess and many a time I looked forward to the yummy chocolate cookies coming out warm from the oven. Harriet was already in high gear as an American socialite in Kathmandu of the early seventies; dinner parties with the local high society, bridge sessions, Art Déco home furbishing. Sometime then I remember Harriet's sister Louise from New York visited her. We had a bridge session once with the sisters partnering each other and my father partnering me. Both my father and I were bemused to find that they quarreled like cats and dogs during the entire game, no doubt a throwback to an earlier sibling rivalry, each blaming the other for the unfolding debacle! Zina appeared on the scene once in a while.

That was until 1973 when we got the sad news that Zina had passed away suddenly. We heard that she had frozen herself to death while she was meditating in the Himalayas. Checking a few blogs on her life written by her contemporaries, peritonitis is cited as the cause of her death. Whatever might have been the case, there was no longer any reason for Harriet to continue living in Nepal. She soon decided to pack her bags and leave with her grand-daughter. I often wonder what became of Rhea. The last I heard of Harriet was when my father, while serving as Nepalese ambassador in Britain, told me that she had written to him from America, that was back in 1976 or so.

Zina the monk in 1970
As a post-script I found a U.S. Social Security website that certifies Harriet Rachevsky's death in May 1993 in Los Angeles; she was nearly ninety years old! Another thing I learned searching for Zina was that she had a son too that we did not know about, one older than her daughter Rhea named Alex from her union with Conrad Rooks who directed the 1972 film Siddhartha based on the world famous novel by Hermann Hesse. Zina had trodden the path of the earlier Siddhartha, perhaps she was destined to be an incarnate Lama after all.

Comments

  1. Great entertainment value. But the story is a bit garbled for people like me with short attention spans.Captions would also help. Thanks for the write up.

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  2. As suggested by Akash Bhairab I have labelled the pictures, hope this helps. I have moved the story from one time line to another instead of writing a straight chronological narrative. Just experimenting!

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  3. Fascinating. I am curious about Rhea. Who was her father? (after all Zina was a monk) I presume her grandmother took her back to the US. Could she be the subject of a follow-up blog?

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  4. These are fascinating stories. I assume you've read my blog and website stories about my cousin Zina, since the photos come directly from them. I happy to help with your research, but please post a link. Harriet, by the way, was not a princess, nor was Zina. Vlademir was not royal. His sister married ex royalty, which gave neither Harriet nor Zina any royal blood. Zine used the royalty bit as a schtick, as fodder for her acting career. Possibly for her own personal gain, possibly because it was amusing. But none of the Straus gals were royal.

    Now that that's off my chest, I will go back and reread your post, and if you want to add to my Zina archive at my blog, I'd love it.

    cheers. Zina's cousin, Liza

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  5. Hi Liza, I found your blog while searching for Harriet. About the royalty part, well it just adds to the romance I guess. As Horatio has also commented, can we find Rhea? Do you know where she is? Bye for now.

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  6. I do know where Rhea is, as well as Alex. They are both very private, however, and I would not feel comfortable talking about them. Suffice it to say, they are both living in the US and are thriving.

    What interests me most about your post is the part about Louise. I know very little about her. Also, do you know what became of the photo album you mentioned?

    The romance of royalty is just that. A romance. It is not true, although people do insist on continuing to perpetuate it. Again, there was no royalty in the Rachevsky/ Straus line. Harriet was not a princess. She was a an American Jew of German descent. Vlademir was possibly also Jewish. No royal blood. No princes no princesses. Let's just keep this clear.

    thanks. Liza

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  7. Mama,

    Who are these sprouting up from the wood-works of Kiran Bhawan ?

    I seem to have missed a chapter from Kiran Bhawan !!!

    Amar

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  8. Mr. Rana: Your blogging is always interesting to me.I think, you are doing a very interesting and important work by doing this. Mostly, you touch the anecdotes which are not included in formal history. For exammple, the disappearance of Zina from the glamours world of hollywood was not highlighted much in then media. But you have done it linking the incidence with Nepal, your family. Well done. In this blog I also like your choice of words to express right feelings and happenins. This kind of things I learn from your blogs. By the way, I am trying to do something like you, but still I am in the line of improvement. If you kindly visit http://shagarsideation.blogspot.com/ and go through some of my blogs and leave your comments, suggestions or advice, I would be very glad. Finally, I thank you that you have informed me personally about this blog. Bye.

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  9. Hello Subodh: I was so happy to find you blog and read about Zina. I lived in Kathmandu from 1966 until 1971 and knew Zina. I have more stories -- I would visit Kopan when I needed to get away from my husband. I may even know you. I worked for the British Council 1967/68 and then I married my Japanese husband in 68. He had the first Japanese restaurant in Kathmandu in the Soaltee Hotel. I am about to write a memoir about those times and it really was an extraordinary time for Kathmandu. Although I came overland from London on one of the first buses, I never considered myself a hippie (I certainly knew some.) It was the most amazing time of my life, I have to say. When I return to Kathmandu occasionally I almost think I am in another country. Maybe I will come back to spend some time there with my writing. Please give me a way to contact you via e-mail. I live in B.C. Canada now.
    Kami Kanetsuka

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    1. Hi Kami, Would very much like to communicate with you about Zina. Please spare a few minutes to email me mary.finnigan@gmail.com

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  10. Dear Kami, thanks for your comment. It is interesting indeed how many people from cyerspace have commented on my blog on Zina. There is a body of people who appreciate Zina's contribution to the Kopan monastery and taking Buddhism to a Western audience. I was still at school during the period you refer to as I graduated from St. Xavier's Godavari School in 1970. My email address is ranasubodh55@yahoo.com.sg
    God Bless! Subodh

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  11. Subodh,
    Conrad Rooks is Rhea's father. He tried to regain custody after Zina died in 1973, but thanks to the US Embassy here Harriet gained custody.Zina died of hepititus in Solokhumbu , Chiwang). I think Barbara was probably the last visitor she had. they maintained their relationship from Zina's first days. I don't know but I wondered if Prince Basundhara hadn't helped Harriet get the Kopan land for Zina.I think harriet knew Zina was here and didn't exactly come to Nepal looking for her-not according to Lama Yeshe's recollections. max Maxwell would know because she took over full responsibility for building Kopan after Zina died and met Harriet frequently.
    Max Maxwell took over the building of the monastery in 1973 and before they died I had done long long interviews with Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa about Zina. Zina had come to India with Conrad when he was researching for the film. According to the Lamas their relationship had always been fraught with difficulties(Zina's version of course)and she ran off with Rhea , ending up in Darjeeling.It was visa problems in India that brought her here and she dragged the Lamas along with her. Since they were Tibetan refugees I suppose Nepal was just as favourable as Darj.
    Bill Bailey claimed they were married after she left Rooks, but according to the Lamas Rooks never agreed to a divorce.That could be verified I suppose.
    When Zina died Bill tried to get custody of Rhea, but the American Embassy ( then in Kantipath)investigated and said he was not her natural father Rooks was and that the custody suit was between Harriet and Rooks. (Bill went into the emabassy and smashed the President's portrait) Harriet got custody because ( if I recollect properly) the family court ruled that Rooks had shown no interest in the upbringing of his daughter nor had he supported her upkeep while she and Zina were "vagabonding in the Himalayas."Greta

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  12. Hello All...Well This is Rhea I am well and living in LA with my almost 8 year old son. I was very close to General Kiran and his family. Those were magical times in Kathmandu. I do not respond to many of these actually NEVER, however many inconsistencies are written in the responses. I am fine with what is written in the post, I'm honored that my mother effected and or inspired you. I wish i had gotten to know her more. now only as a young adult do i Cherish who she was, what she stood for and ultimately the sacrifices she made for peace. my grandmother did raise me and raise me well. Conrad Rooks is my brothers father and an amazing man as well. he was not my father. Please feel my mothers journey and Joy! The common thread is that she touched us all and continues too. peace and happiness to you all.

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  13. Thanks Rhea for the setting the record straight with your comment in my blog.

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  14. Photos of the Lamas, Zina and Kopan:

    http://www.lamayeshe.com/gallery/main.php

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  15. I was about to give up on a Google search ( reached page22) to update my archive on Zina Rachevsky when I found this blog. As noted in the comments here, there are many inconsistencies in accounts of Zina's life and death. I was privileged to have access for a while to her scrap books, notebooks and retreat diaries, so apart from her daughter Rhea and son Alexander, I probably have the most accurate record of her life in existence. I encountered many obstacles and some painful misunderstandings during the time I was researching Zina's life...to the extent that I ababdoned the project for a long time. Now I am considering a return to it, in the hope of finally getting the book finished. My interest in Zina is rooted in my brief but rewarding friendship with her between 1970 and her death in 1973.

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    1. I come up as Pema because it is my screen name via Google. My real name is Mary Finnigan. Anyone who has memories of Zina they would like to share with me please email me at mary.finnigan@gmail.com

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  16. This was an extremely interesting biographical sketch with a title that instantly grabbed my attention. Although I knew not the lady that you write about, it seems she lived a rich and eventful life. The comments written by some of the people that knew her or the family, also helped to flesh out other aspects of her life.

    Thanks Subodh, Keep 'em coming.

    Kiran Thapa

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Kiran,
      Zina became a cult figure as she was the prime mover in the building of Kopan Monastery.
      The West first learnt about Buddhism from pioneers like Zina.
      Cheers, Subodh

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  17. Dear mr. Rana: Thank you for your wonderful blogs. I am confused by the fact that now even Zina's mother, Harriet, claimed to be a Russian princess? the Archduke had married Zina's aunt Zenaide Rachevski, not Zina's mother Harriet. Harriet and Zina were never Russian princesses.

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    1. Harriet's husband Vladimir was the brother-in-law of the Grand Duke Boris. Harriet's sister-in-law Zenaida was married to the Grand Duke. Harriet probably took the title of Princess as Vladimir must have been known as a prince having accompanied the Grand Duke in exile.

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