Starry Starry Night
And when no hope was left in sight
on that starry starry night
you took your life as lovers often do.
-Don McLean 1971
Paris – Christmas Eve 1932. At a hotel in the elegant rue de Rivoli, an attractive dark-haired woman in her thirties checked into a room. Dressed in worn, but once- expensive clothes, and speaking with a marked Russian accent, she signed the register as ‘Mary Hall’.
Three days later, hotel staff heard a single gun-shot ring out from her room. On a bed strewn with white roses, ‘Mary Hall’ was found dying with a self-inflicted bullet wound in the head.
The identity of the woman tantalized the newspaper-reading public. Who was she? What could have driven her to such a tragic end? Rapidly, her name began to be mis-spelt in many of the papers. Rather than ‘Mary’ she was now the more-romantic Marie Hall.
Ten days passed. A ‘mysterious Russian’ appeared at the morgue. Refusing to give his name, he identified the woman as Nina Williams, the divorced wife of a New York stockbroker, Douglas Williams, until recently Reuters General Manager in New York.
Nina Isakovitch, the rich and beautiful daughter of a Russian Banker, was born in Odessa in 1896. In the final months of the First World War, and following the fall of the Imperial Russian Government, she and her mother were in Moscow. And it was there that she fell in love with a young Englishman, Captain Douglas Williams, one of the members of the Murmansk Expedition sent by the Allies to defeat the Bolsheviks. The expedition was a failure. But at least Douglas was able to bring Nina and her mother out of Russia with him on board a warship. A wedding at London’s Westminster Cathedral followed.
Born in London in 1892, Douglas Williams came from a great Reuters dynasty. His father, George Douglas Williams, had joined Reuters in 1860, becoming Chief Editor in 1878. George served as Chief Editor for twenty- four years!
Douglas’s older brother, Valentine, had also worked for the Baron, in both London and Berlin. In 1923 – as Special Reuters correspondent – he was responsible for one of Reuters most famous scoops with the first news of the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun. Later, he went on to pen the original screen play for the 1941 Warner Brothers film ‘A Dispatch from Reuters’.
Douglas joined Reuters at the age of 18 in 1910. Following army service during the First World War, he returned to the company. He was immediately placed in charge of the Reuters team reporting the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. In June he beat all opposition with a flash announcing the signing of peace in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. In November 1921, accompanied by Nina, he set sail for Washington DC where he was to cover the important Disarmament Conference.
Blessed with film-star good looks, Douglas and Nina were a charismatic couple. People were later to remark on Douglas’s remarkable similarity to Dick Powell, leading man in Hollywood’s 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. They were soon caught up in the social whirl of the ‘Washington season’ and inundated by invitations to fashionable homes in Kalorama and Du Pont Circle. They moved to New York where Douglas was appointed Reuters US General Manager. A daughter, Kitty, was born.
It should all have been wonderful. But somehow it wasn’t. The couple separated; then divorced. Nina booked a sea passage for London where her brother, Serge, a well-known interior-decorator, had set up home.
Within a year, Douglas was also back in London, filling his father’s old position as Chief Editor at the firm’s headquarters in Old Jewry. But the New York of the Roaring Twenties had been too exciting. Even his prestigious new title couldn’t hold him. So he returned to New York as Reuters General Manager. In 1934,during the Depression and when America was no longer ‘roaring’, he left Reuters to become New York correspondent for London’s Daily Telegraph and then (rather surprisingly for those years) a stockbroker.
By contrast, for Nina, life in London as a divorcee with a small daughter was hard. Unused to working for her living, she tried a number of jobs. Illness frequently interfered with her work. For a time she worked with her brother in the decoration department of a large London furnishing store. Later she designed hats for a fashionable shop in Mayfair. For a time she lived at a hotel in South Kensington. She rented a single room in a street near Marble Arch. Finally, she found a tiny flat – with shared bathroom – in shabby Earl’s Court. Things became still harder after the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Although she appears to have allowed Douglas and her brother to help towards Kitty’s education, she refused maintenance for herself. Was this due to stubborn pride? She was described as ‘independent to an absurd degree’.
And so we return to that last Christmas of 1932. From the few facts which emerged, Nina had fallen in love with a fellow Russian who also had fallen on hard times. She may well have known him in those far-off happy days in Moscow and St Petersburg. For a year he scraped a living in Paris as a cab-driver. Did she travel there to be with him? Apparently he told her that, due to his desperate poverty, it was impossible for them to marry. Was this the whole explanation? He must have been the ‘mysterious Russian’ who eventually arrived at the hotel. For Nina Isakovitch, the beautiful young woman who once had the world at her feet, that world had finally collapsed into dust.
In 1941 Douglas, returned to a London – once more a city at war. He became Chief of the American division of the [British] Ministry of Information. In 1948 he re-married; his second wife was Anna Fulton of Chicago. He died, age 82, on 21st June 1975.
His Whose Who entry makes no mention of a first wife.