Times Past

Dan Krieger: Book tells of San Luis Obispo’s princess in exile

Benton Way is a short street running between Meinecke Avenue and Chorro Street in San Luis Obispo, filled with comfortable homes constructed during the 1920s and ‘30s.

The home of Dr. Dorsey and Tanya Kelley was a typical 1920s California Spanish-style, white stucco bungalow.

Inside, visitors were given a clue into Mrs. Kelley’s origins: An oil painting of murdered Czar Nicholas II hung over the fireplace.

Neighbors said of Tanya: “I heard she can’t talk about her past. It’s too horrible. You know the Bolsheviks tried to kill everyone with noble connections after the Communist revolution. As a matter of fact, a friend told me a screenwriter drove up from Hollywood a few years ago to interview her about her escape for a possible film, but she became hysterical and couldn’t finish talking to him.”

Tanya Kelley’s maiden name was revealed to at least some officials in the San Luis Obispo County clerk’s office when she gave birth to her son, Alexander.

Under the question, “Mother’s Name,” was a carefully written “Princess Tatiana Volkonsky Kelley.”

Tanya’s father, Prince Dmitri Volkonsky, served as a diplomat for Czar Nicholas II.

He made frequent journeys between St. Petersburg and Paris before dying in 1909.

Friedl E. Semans Bell moved to Benton Way as a young girl, when her father, Hubert Semans, was hired to create a humanities program at Cal Poly in 1939. The school was in the process of becoming a four-year college and needed to expand its curriculum.

Friedl’s mother, Friedl Fleischmann Semans, a recent immigrant from Hitler’s Germany, soon bonded with Tanya. Both women had seen their lives transformed by political events.

Friedl writes: “Mother, like Tanya, had first-hand experience with the consequences of war, especially the intense suffering of innocents and the destruction of everything, in her eyes, that was good and beautiful. Tanya’s view, which she maintained throughout her life, was that her martyred Czar Nicholas II was also a man of peace, at heart a ‘family man’ who was pushed into military solutions by ambitious advisers.”

Both women saw the world through the eyes of their European childhood, a world that had been lost by the outbreak of war in 1914.

Both confronted the “challenges of living in San Luis Obispo during the Depression and World War II. Both were monarchists accustomed to privileged lifestyles, married to Americans, and living in a small town with political, religious and social attitudes often puzzling to them ... as they negotiated, often with incredulity and humor” a life that their upbringing had not prepared them for.

Tanya Kelley died in 1988. Her son Alec, a Cal Poly graduate, died last year.

In 2005, Alec Kelley gave Friedl Bell a box of documents written in Russian and French dealing with his mother’s escape from the Bolshevik Revolution.

Friedl did detailed research on her own, tracing Tanya’s perilous journey from the Ukraine to the Central Coast. Friedl’s descriptions of San Luis Obispo during World War II and of Tanya’s encounters with the “great and mighty” of our county, including William Randolph Hearst, make this a great read for those interested in the history of our region.

Friedl’s account of Tanya Kelley’s life, “She Cried for Mother Russia: A Princess in San Luis Obispo,” is published by the Cal Poly Graphic Communication Institute.

It will be featured at the Central Coast Book and Author Festival.

Friedl Bell will be doing a book reading and signing Saturday at the San Luis Obispo County Historical Museum.

Sale proceeds will benefit the San Luis Obispo Historical Society and the graphic communication and English departments’ educational programs at Cal Poly.

Book reading, signing

Friedl Bell will be reading from her book “She Cried for Mother Russia: A Princess in San Luis Obispo,” and signing copies from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday at the San Luis Obispo County Historical Museum, 696 Monterey St.

Sale proceeds will benefit the San Luis Obispo Historical Society and Cal Poly’s Graphic Communication and English departments.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.