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Episode 3: Fake it Till You Make It
I. Faking It
“This was psychological warfare at its most entertaining, and Henry was a master general with an intuitive understanding of the battlefield.”
Word on the street goes, “Fake it till you make it.”
For some, ‘faking it’ did not turn out well (have you seen the news recently?)
But ever so rarely, someone fakes it, makes it, and then, most impressively of all, owns it. Their trickery becomes a lifestyle to them and entertainment for the rest of us. We become so amused and fascinated that we start to see their lies as artistically profound inventions and almost forget they are phonies and charlatans.
Michael Romanoff was such a someone.
No one was sure when or where he was born: was it 1890 or 1892, in Lithuania, Ohio, Illinois, or Brooklyn? No one knew his exact birth name either: Henry Gerguson? Or Gaygusson? Or Ferguson? All we knew was that, as a young boy, Henry lived with foster families in New York and Texas.
New York. Texas. That sums up the totality of Henry’s connections with Russian royalty.
Facts notwithstanding, for much of his life, Henry claimed that he was, Nash writes, “His Imperial Highness Prince Michael Alexandrovitch Dimitry Obelensky Romanoff, Prince of all the Russians and the only surviving son of Czar Nicholas II.”
Now that’s audacity!
Henry’s antics begat him many a serious believer. Nash writes that his claim was “believed by hundreds, perhaps thousands of naive suckers who fell victim to the ‘Prince’s’ schemes.” One such group of suckers was a series of American museums and galleries, which Henry duped into selling artworks that had once been the possessions of his ‘ancestors’ in the Russian Imperial Family.
This princely pretense was not Henry’s only cover. He fabricated (and got away with) multiple other identities from the late 1910s until the 1940s.
He posed as a European film director and talked Hollywood studios into paying him significant advances to make movies (before disappearing with the money).
He claimed to be an exiled Russian history scholar and persuaded Harvard to hire him for a teaching job.
He pretended to be Rockwell Kent, a famous illustrator (who was alive and well at the time), and was introduced to authors and publishers as such. In fact, in a delicious turn of fate, his performance was so persuasive that Kent later acknowledged that his books became more popular in Southern California (where Henry was operating) as a result!
From rich and influential high society families, to museum boards that oversaw Russian art, to career professionals in academia, film, and publishing – everyone tried to hobnob with the prince / scholar / director / illustrator, showering him with money, favors, and personal affection.
This was psychological warfare at its most entertaining, and Henry was a master general with an intuitive understanding of the battlefield.
Alongside his sheer chutzpah, his genius lay in his choice of opponent: the high-status stratum of society…
II. Making It
“If you want to rule the world, save the world, buy the world or fuck the world, the best thing to pursue is status.”
— Will Storr; The Status Game
Returning readers/listeners will be familiar with what Jim calls our “humanOS”: our preinstalled human operating system. As he wrote the other day:
“And, like a computer operating system that is badly programmed, our humanOS keeps leading us to suboptimal choices and results.
We come out of the womb with the software fully installed. It’s always puzzled me that so many just accept the default settings.”
In his book The Status Game, Infinite Loops guest Will Storr identifies the desire for status as one such default setting.
According to Will, status-seeking is the fundamental driver of much human activity: “If you want to rule the world, save the world, buy the world or fuck the world, the best thing to pursue is status.”
Will argues that one way that we pursue status is by playing “virtue games.” These reward status to those who are particularly moral, dutiful or otherwise virtuous (hence ‘virtue signalling’).
Another is via “success games.” These reward status for achievements that demonstrate skill and talent.
How does this relate to our friend Henry?
For a start, it adds a psychological dimension to Henry’s decision to impersonate the wealthy, famous, and royal. One would assume that adopting the trappings of (and being treated as) a member of the high society would confer great psychological satisfaction alongside its more tangible financial benefits. After all, wouldn’t a man as talented as Henry have been able to identify a less risky way of making money?
More interestingly, status games help us understand the state of mind of the suckers who fell for Henry’s ruses.
Why did they fall for his claim to be the Imperial Highness? Well, what can be more virtuous than being the exiled yet proud, noble and defiant ancestor of a tragically forsaken bloodline?
Why did they believe he was a master illustrator/director/scholar? Because a man defined by such glorious success *surely* possesses intrinsic qualities that deem him above suspicion.
An extract from Nash’s telling of the story is revealing. Romanoff is confronted by an angry bar manager for a historic tab he failed to pay. The manager waves the bill in his face:
“Romanoff politely took the bill, examining it carefully. Then, with gloved hands, he tore it to pieces and flung it haughtily on the bar, ordering a magnum of champagne from the bartender.
‘Are you insane?’ Screamed the manager. ‘What about the bill?’
Romanoff gave the manager a sideways glance of annoyance and lied in his stentorian voice: ‘You are obviously unaware, sir, that all bills in France are invalid after a period of five years. The bill was dated 1922 and this is 1928. You see how it is?’
Nonplussed, the manager shrugged and accepted Romanoffs statement, thinking him to be a legal expert on French law.”
For the unfortunate manager, the appearance of authority was enough to confirm its existence.
In his episode, Will identifies “success games” as primarily a positive form of status-seeking:
“The success games are the ones that have changed the world. It's the people who are playing games of finding the vaccine, solving the industrial problem, these are the games that have increased wealth, that have solved the problem of child death in labor, the list goes on and on and on and on and on. Success games that have saved lives and made the quality of life infinitely more comfortable for billions of people around the world.”
He later states, "especially with success games, you can't fake competence much, but you can certainly fake virtue.”
Henry’s story suggests an altogether more unsettling truth. As shown by the stunning ease at which Henry could dupe high society into thinking he was successful, we are just as likely to be suckered by fraudulent success as by fraudulent virtue.
So deferential are we to those who appear to have succeeded in the success game that we confuse confidence with competence, leading to catastrophic results.
Perhaps, as far as success is concerned, faking it is half the battle.
III. Owning It
There’s a final twist in the tale.
After WWII, Humphrey Bogart, of The Maltese Falcon fame, convinced Henry to wash his hands clean of frauds and scams and do some legitimate business. Henry then raised money, perhaps from the same stratum of society he swindled years ago, and opened a restaurant in Hollywood.
Predictably, the restaurant was called Romanoff’s.
By then, most people knew that Henry was an imposter. But this only made his business *more* famous! The restaurant was a Hollywood hit, and Henry, who continued claiming Prince Romanoff's mantle, became a wealthy local celebrity.
Faked it. Made it. Owned it.