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Yet that is not quite the end of the story. Elizabeth was by now living mainly in Paris. The Bibescos’ house at 45 Quai Bourbon on the Ile St Louis was one of the most extraordinary residences of their time or any other, decorated with huge canvases by Vuillard (now in the Musée d’Orsay), giving the impression of a luscious garden. It was a favourite haunt of an old friend, Marcel Proust, who was a close friend of Antoine’s. Elizabeth also came to know the great novelist in his last years, and he praised her looks and, more importantly, her intelligence as “probably unsurpassed . . . by any of her contemporaries”. She left a memorable vignette of their encounter at a ball: “Here was Marcel Proust crossing the floor towards me, dressed in his fur coat, and dragging a small gilded chair after him. With a bow and a flourish and a sort of humility which I very much resented, he asked permission to sit with me while I rested and fanned myself between dances.” She wrote one of the first obituaries of Proust for the New Statesman in November 1922 when his work was not yet familiar to more than a handful of English-speaking readers. “Gently, deliberately, he drew me into that magic circle of his personality with the ultimate sureness of a look that needs no touch to seal it.”

Proust’s friendship seems to have consoled Elizabeth for the loss of Murry, giving her the confidence to become a successful writer. Over the next two decades she published ten books: novels, stories, plays and poetry. Her life between the wars was peripatetic as her husband’s diplomatic duties took him from London and Paris to the United States and Spain. Unfortunately, she found herself trapped when Romania entered the war on the Axis side in 1941, and her English family and friends lost touch with her. As the Russians advanced into Romania in March 1945, a Red Cross letter reached London, informing Margot Asquith that Elizabeth was safe in her husband’s palace at Mogosoaia near Bucharest and planning to return to England. Before she could leave, however, and no doubt weakened by lack of food and medicines, she contracted pneumonia and, aged just 48, she died in April, a month before the war ended. The shock was too much for Margot, who followed her daughter a few months later. Prince Antoine outlived his wife by six years, dying in exile in Paris; their daughter Princess Priscilla lived on in Paris at the house on Quai Bourbon until her death in 2004.

Elizabeth Bibesco’s epitaph, from a poem of her own, reads: “My soul has gained the freedom of the night.” All she ever wanted was freedom, and she found it among the men and women of letters, not the politicians with whom she grew up. Her 1924 portrait by Augustus John, the second he painted of her, shows her wearing the mantilla given to her father by the Queen of Portugal, and mentioned by Lady Cynthia as a favourite garment. She is holding one of her own books, looking at us quizzically, as if unsure whether she is a society lady or a writer. Back to the John Middleton Murry inscription: “There was no parting, all those days were lies.” She had turned her back upon a Westminster world that held no appeal for her, and instead embraced the intellectual, the literary life. The Princess, too, had become a poet. 
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