By LISA FITTERMAN
Special to The Globe and Mail
Tuesday, November 7, 2017
Tiny, in ever-present high heels and with a deceptively warm manner that belied a will of steel, Princess Marina Sturdza was a mistress of reinvention - a woman who at various times excelled as a journalist in Canada, a senior manager at UNICEF, a fashion executive in New York and a humanitarian who worked fiercely to improve the living conditions for people in her homeland of Romania.
"Could have" and "should have" were not phrases in the princess's vocabulary, which encompassed at least six languages. Instead, Ms.
Sturdza, whose family of Romanian aristocrats had to start over after the Soviet occupation following the Second World War led to the formation of a Communist republic, learned early to work with whatever was at hand. Her long-time friend Leslie Hawke said there was something regal about her, no matter if she was speaking before a monied crowd at charitable event or to Roma women who had just finished training to work as street cleaners.
"What made her so interesting was her tantalizing combination of imperiousness and humility, earnestness and cunning, intellectual agility and just plain street smarts," said Ms. Hawke, who in 2001 cofounded, with Maria Gheorghiu, an NGO called Asociatia OvidiuRo, which focuses on access to early education for impoverished Romanian children. "She knew how to get things done. If I believed in reincarnation, I would assume she had spent many successful lifetimes in royal courts."
Ms. Gheorghiu said that Ms. Sturdza, who died in New York on Oct. 22 of cancer-related causes, had a "courageous and interesting way of expressing her opinions, sometimes with very educated, articulate arguments and sometimes just with a clear sense of being on the right side of history."
Marina Nicole Sturdza was born on April 25, 1944, in Brasov, a city of cobbled streets and baroque buildings that is surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains in the Transylvania region of Romania.
Her parents, Ion Sturdza and the former Ioana Soutzo, both came from royalty. They divorced when their daughter was an infant and the mother soon remarried one of the country's wealthiest industrialists, Dumitru Bragadiru.
Despite the little girl's title of "princess," her life was swept up in the turbulence of the period. In August, 1947, King Michael I of Romania, who had orchestrated a coup that overthrew a fascist government allied with the Nazis three years earlier, fled into exile as a new Communist-led government purged the country of aristocrats and anyone else who insisted on dissent.
Young Marina's mother and stepfather escaped under false identities to Switzerland, temporarily leaving the little girl with her maternal grandmother. She followed them later, accompanied by a commercial attaché at the Swiss embassy who passed her off as his sleepy toddler daughter. On the train trip, she was drugged to keep her quiet because the only language she knew at the time was Romanian.
Reunited, the family lived for a few years in Switzerland, France and Italy. Then, a Canadian agricultural program for refugees brought them to a pig farm in Alberta, where they were supposed to remain for a year. Mr. Bragadiru, unaccustomed to hard physical labour, worked on the farm, while his wife cooked and cleaned. The little girl was a student in a oneroom schoolhouse.
After eight months, health inspectors visited the farm and found the living conditions so lacking that they decided the family shouldn't stay there any longer. A move to Toronto followed. Somehow, despite her parents' lack of funds, young Marina ended up studying at Branksome Hall, a private girls' school in the city's upscale Rosedale neighbourhood that is the alma mater for many of Canada's female elite.
"Where the money came from, I have no idea," said Ms. Sturdza's stepdaughter, Lynn Harvey. "She always said she didn't know for sure but that somehow, the family was embraced by Toronto society."
In 1970, Ms. Sturdza married Ms. Harvey's father, Denis Harvey, a journalist whose career included stints as editor-in-chief of the Montreal Gazette and the Toronto Star, and a vice-president of CBC-TV. As a stepmother, she set an example for an impressionable, shy girl who would grow up to become a television producer herself.
"Basically, she showed me I could do anything I wanted - and she always looked wonderful doing it," Ms. Harvey said. "If she ever owned a pair of jeans, they would have been the most fabulous pair in the world and she would have worn them with high heels - of course."
During the couple's nearly 20year-long marriage, Ms. Sturdza carved out a career as a freelance fashion and business journalist, writing for magazines and for newspapers such as The Globe and Mail.
After they divorced, she landed in New York, working from 1989 to 1992 as a vice-president in Oscar de la Renta's fashion empire before coming to the realization that she wanted to work at something more fulfilling. In 1992, she applied for a job at the United Nations in Geneva and became a senior manager at UNICEF, with responsibilities that included the selection of artists and designs for its cards, corporate partnerships and licensing.
Also in 1992, Ms. Sturdza made her first trip back to the country she had been spirited out of as a drugged three-year-old. Her memories were hazy, formed mostly by stories told by others - a way of life that had been destroyed, a centuries-old culture lost. At first, she didn't want to go, but her aunt Mica Ertegun - the wife of Ahmet Ertegun, the co-founder and president of Atlantic Records - persuaded her.
"She was rebuilding the Brancusi Monument (to First World War soldiers) together with the World's Monument Fund," Ms. Sturdza recounted to a writer for Emerging Europe, a London-based think tank committed to boosting the social and economic development of Central and Eastern Europe. "She was the one who kept saying, 'You have to see the country; you have to go back.' " It had been three years since Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, had been summarily tried, convicted and executed for economic sabotage and genocide; three years that had been marked by violent protests and tentative steps toward a more open society.
Ms. Sturdza saw a country that was adrift, with its history stripped away, its economy struggling and many of its people in dire need, especially children. It made her determined to help change things - and what the princess wanted, the princess got. For the rest of her life, she tirelessly promoted foreign investment in Romania and worked to improve conditions for everyone from children to patients in palliative care. As a patron of charitable organizations, including Hope and Homes for Children, Hospices of Hope Casa Sperantei and Asociatia OvidiuRo, she made her mark.
In 2005, Ms. Sturdza received the European Union's Women of Achievement Humanitarian Award.
Two years later, receiving an honour at Asociatia OvidiuRo's annual fundraising gala, she spoke to a rapt audience about the generations that had been robbed of their past, and the need to instill notions of civility and responsibility, lessons that are not written down so much as spoken, passed down from parent to child.
"The loss of role models is a terrible one," she said. "All of us who live in free and democratic and just countries, and that certainly includes Romania, have a debt to society. We must extend all the intellectual freedoms, the opportunity to learn and blossom and contribute to our future to their individual best, to all our citizens.
"If ever you wondered whether a single individual can change the course of the world, I can assure you they can. I see individual miracles happen daily, and it should make us most optimistic about what each of us can contribute."
Ms. Hawke said her friend seemed almost always to be in the midst of one crisis or another - a magnet for floods, thieves and family dramas.
But somehow, she always managed to prevail. "I think that's why her death comes as such a shock to her many friends," she continued. "We expected her to pull through like she always had before."
In her last months, Ms. Sturdza, recognizing that her time left was limited, decided to stop dialysis and forcing herself to eat and drink. She spent her last days matter-of-factly saying goodbye to friends who came to her New York apartment from all over the world. Her most important legacy, Ms. Hawke said, is the example she set for younger Romanians, especially women - a cando attitude and an imperious independence of spirit that helped them realize they can do anything.
In addition to Ms. Harvey, Ms. Sturdza leaves two step-grandchildren. She was 73.
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Princess Marina Sturdza of Romania attends a gala in New York in 2009. Ms. Sturdza carved out a career as a freelance fashion and business journalist, writing for publications such as The Globe and Mail. She was a patron of charitable organizations including Hope and Homes for Children and Asociatia OvidiuRo.
NEILSON BARNARD/GETTY IMAGES