Thursday, September 24, 2009

In Search Of... Anastasia (Imposter. But Crazy?)

Anna Anderson, who died in 1984 at the age of 87, was the most famous of several women who falsely claimed over the years to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, the youngest daughter of the last Tzar of Russia, Nicholas II. Her story was even immortalized in the Ingrid Bergman movie "Anastasia," which was remade again as an animated film in 1997.

The real Anastasia, though, was murdered as a young girl (along with with the Tzar and Tzarina and all of her brothers and sisters) in July 1918 in Ekatarinburg, Russia, by the Bolshevik secret police in the wake of the Russian Revolution. But persistent rumors of Anastasia's possible escape from captivity before she was killed allowed several imposters to come out of the woodwork in the middle of the 20th century claiming to be Anastasia (seeking both fame and her inheritance). This was largely put to an end once and for all in 1991 when a mass grave near Ekatarinburg containing the remains of most of the last Tzar's family was revealed to the public.

This subsequent revelation and the advent of DNA testing make the story of life-long imposter Anna Anderson all the more amazing. Anna Anderson was born in Germany in 1896 and was institutionalized in a mental hospital in 1920 after a suicide attempt. Shortly thereafter, she began claiming to be Anastasia, and continued to do so vehemently until her death over 60 years later, garnering a surprising number of influential supporters along the way, even among Romanov relatives. From 1922 to 1968 she bounced between the United States and Germany, living in various sanatariums, asylums, and homes of supporters until she inevitably wore out her welcome with her outrageously demanding behavior and moved on. In 1968 she married an aging Virginia eccentric Jack Manahan with whom she lived in relative squalor until her death in 1984. While her remains were cremated at the time of her death, DNA testing conducted years later on a lock of her hair proved conclusively that she had no genetic link to the Romanov family.

Was she just crazy? Or did she, over the years, simply come to believe her own "BS"? Or was she shrewdly putting everyone on in a coldly exploitive way for over 60 years? Who knows. But somehow it's hard to view any elderly person as a remorseless con artist. (Maybe that's what she preyed on.) Her story was profiled on the television show "In Search Of" in 1978 (part 2 of 3 is embedded below), years before the revelation of the mass grave in Ekatarinburg and before the advent of DNA testing. What do you think? Is the 81 year-old Anna Anderson interviewed in that segment of the show simply crazy? Or crazy like a fox?

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