- The Washington Times - Friday, February 23, 2007

Fact meets fiction

“Leonard isn’t discussing it,” Inside the Beltway was told yesterday by the secretary for Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr.

Not that we blame him, given an apparent horrible lapse of judgment on the part of the newspaper that led to a certain full-page photograph being published in the Washington Post Magazine on Feb. 11.

Our story begins with the celebrated life of Alexis N. Obolensky, who up until his death last year at age 86 was well known in both official and social circles that stretched from Washington, where for several decades he was chief of the State Department’s Russian translation section, to his ancestral home in Russia’s Kaluga Province.

Indeed, given his czarist Russian roots, Mr. Obolensky, who spoke several languages, was often greeted as “prince” in government circles, a persona he lived up to with his “graying walrus mustache, elaborate falconer’s outfit, and carved ivory cigarette holder” — or so The Post noted in his obituary last March.

“Sometimes he came [to Washington balls] gowned as a falconer, with a gold brocade tunic, red sash, and leather boots,” it noted. “Other times, he was in similar aristocratic mode, wielding a brass cane.”

In fact, that’s how Mr. Obolensky appeared in 2002, when The Washington Post snapped his photograph while he was seated in a brown wicker chair aboard the former presidential yacht Sequoia. But that’s where the reality ends and the fiction begins — and why Mr. Obolensky’s widow, Selene, is now demanding a personal apology from Mr. Downie, if not more.

For its Feb. 11 issue, coinciding with Valentine’s Day, The Post’s magazine handed its five “favorite” writers of fiction “one evocative photo apiece and asked them to imagine the love stories within.” One of the writers, Melissa Bank, was handed the picture of Mr. Obolensky aboard the Sequoia.

And when it came time for her fictional account, ironically titled “Little Russia,” to be published this month, it was accompanied by the picture of Mr. Obolensky.

Mr. Downie has insisted that the fictional author had no idea of Mr. Obolensky’s identity or background, albeit her story describes an impeccably dressed gentleman named “Mr. Omera” who lived in the United States and spoke “Russian.” Except the fictional character had a “dungeon,” where he kept “young, pretty Russian women — the Czarinas.”

“In the dungeon they did with Mr. Omera what he’d brought them over to do,” we read. The story ends when one of the Russian prisoners, “Marta,” hangs herself. (An odd Valentine’s love story, most would agree).

“It’s unflattering, to say the least,” Mrs. Obolensky tells Inside the Beltway, adding that apart from her and her husband’s many friends being offended, her grandson is now inquiring about his grandfather’s “dungeon.”

She read for us a letter Mr. Downie sent to her in recent days, in which he expresses his regret that her relatives and friends are upset by the “fictional” piece.

“I can assure you that Mrs. Bank did not know your late husband’s identity when shown his photograph,” the letter reads.

But Mrs. Obolensky isn’t buying it, saying there are far too many similarities between her husband’s life and the fictional Mr. Omera, short of the latter’s sexual excesses. Furthermore, she is stunned that The Post would hand somebody a photograph of a recently deceased U.S. government official as a basis for such fiction, and then publish it.

“Don’t they have lawyers over there?” she asks. “Needless to say, I’m not too chipper. Here I’m in the midst of planning a one-year anniversary [memorial] Mass for my late husband at the cathedral, and I’m having to deal with this.

“While Downie continues to tell me nothing — no personal apology, no responsibility or regret, only to say this story has nothing to do with my husband. Please, his picture is next to a story about a prostitute who hangs herself because a gangster does not want to sleep with her.”

John McCaslin, whose column is nationally syndicated, can be reached at 202/636-3284 or jmccaslin@washingtontimes.com.


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