LIFE HERE IN Marin County is idyllic, maybe even a fairy tale for some. In fact, if one considers the raw material needed for such a story — a prince, a magical landscape, and a plot that inspires hope — we do actually have such a fable within our boundaries. Well, it’s really more of a Brady Bunch–style vignette with a royal twist, but it’s a story worth sharing.
The tale begins in the early 1970s in the wild environs of West Marin and stars prince Andrew Romanoff, a strapping widower, muscles chiseled by working in construction. Romanoff is the grandnephew of former emperor of Russia Tsar Nicholas II, who along with his entire family was famously killed in 1918, thus ending the 300-year reign of the Romanov bloodline. Playing opposite the prince is Inez Storer, with a bit of European aristocracy in her bloodline, a fair-haired single mom starting a career as an artist, living with her four kids in the 100-year-old Inverness Hotel. Born and raised in Southern California, Storer fell in love with the magical beauty of Inverness and made it her home. To the casual observer, they were single parents in the ’70s blending a dynamic family, but dig deeper and as Andrew keenly notes, they shared similar aspects of the turmoil their parents faced — emigrant histories surrounded by silence.
Growing up with 18 family members in a 23-room grace-and-favor home called Frogmore Cottage on the grounds of Windsor Castle, young Andrew Andreyevich Romanov enjoyed an enchanted life. Besides exploring the bountiful grounds, fishing with cousins and painting alongside his artistic father, he mixed and mingled with the British royal family, as chronicled poetically in his book The Boy Who Would Be Tsar.
Among the encounters was a dinner with Princess Margaret, who, dressed to the nines, seated with him at a formal table, leaned toward him and whispered, “You know why you’re here, don’t you?” He was surprised to learn he was among a parade of suitors in line for her hand in marriage. As fate would have it, it would take decades to meet up with his true princess.
Single, 17 and ready to explore the world, he enrolled in the British Royal Navy, faced truth-is-scarier-than-fiction experiences at sea and eventually followed a cousin to America, where the Romanov name was changed to Romanoff. He landed in the states in 1949 with $800.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., at the epicenter of fairy tales known as Hollywood, a young Inez Bachelin joined her father on the set of many of the movies he worked on as an art director. “My dad worked on over 100 films and was nominated for an Oscar for Journey to the Center of the Earth and War and Peace. Sort of ironic,” she points out, “since I ended up marrying a Russian.”
Storer spent her younger days in Catholic school with the daughters of American royalty (movie stars) like Loretta Young and John Ford, to name a few. “I think our parents probably felt it was stricter for us to be with nuns, [though] it only made us better anarchists,” she remembers fondly. As a young bride married to a former Marin County supervisor, she used $500 from the sale of one of her paintings as 10 percent down payment for a very small cottage on Balboa Avenue in Inverness. Eventually, when the couple divorced, she ended up with the red-shingled, 17-room, Hotel Inverness.
How They Met
The year was 1973. “I guess I could have been considered one of the first hippies out here,” says Storer. “The farm ladies just stared at me when I wore black tights.” Living in her red-shingled castle, Inez worked many jobs and rented out extra rooms as she studied for a degree in art education from San Francisco State. Romanoff found himself in Inverness after his wife, Kate Norris (named after her grandmother, the famous American author), died. A 50-year-old widower raising two young boys, he worked construction with his cousin Igor to make ends meet, and he rented a room in a building that now holds law offices, next to the Inverness post office.
“I don’t remember exactly how we met, but I’m sure I maneuvered it,” Storer says with a laugh. “I had seen Andrew around town and no one seemed to know who he was, except that he was Russian. When I asked my friend Igor, he said, ‘That’s Andrew, my cousin; why do you want to meet him?’ ” She tried to play it cool, but the cousin wasn’t having it. “He went right to Andrew and said, ‘There is a woman who wants to meet you; she has four kids and not much money.’” The information didn’t deter him.
Romanoff recalls, “I didn’t really think about the fact that she was a single mom with four kids; life just happened.” And sharing their busy lives as single parents seemed to make perfect sense at the time.
On their first date they went into the city to see Nicholas and Alexandria, a three-hour epic about the dramatic last days of the Romanov empire. “It was very emotional for him,” Storer recalls. “And I offered to leave at intermission, but it was important to him to see the whole thing.” Their courtship continued amidst the fog and bogs of West Marin as their lives became entwined.
If you have thoughts of pumpkin carriages and dressmaking woodland creatures, think again. Try Reno. With all their kids in attendance and a few friends, they headed to Nevada for an informal affair. “We got married at The Heart of Reno Chapel. We figured if it was good enough for Little Richard, it would work for us,” says Storer. Given the choice of fresh flowers or more affordable plastic ones, Storer chose plastic so they could use the saved money on slot machines. A luncheon hosted by friends after the ceremony at Harrah’s was also a speedy affair. “There was a sign that read Storer/Romanoff Wedding 1–2 p.m. / Sheep Dip Farmers of America 2–3 p.m.,” she recalls. “We didn’t have much time to stick around.”
Forty Years Later The children are now grown and out of the house, living in the Bay Area, Santa Cruz, Athens, Georgia, and Point Reyes Station, but have blessed the couple with three grandchildren. They have a couple of renters in the large home, but for the most part it is filled with their collections from a life well lived. They do Pilates sometimes, swim sometimes, and always enjoy getting a cup of coffee in Point Reyes Station and catching up with their neighbors.
How have they stayed together for more than four decades? “No tips, really,” Storer says. “It is probably all mixed up with the creative life we seem to lead. Plus it is, to my mind, like a tennis game — sometimes the ball goes out of the court but sometimes it stays in the court.”
The ball is still very much in play, according to the prince. He feels fortunate to have landed in Inverness and to have married Inez. Is it a fairy tale? Not exactly, but it comes pretty close.
A Life Creative
Storer and Romanoff both work on their art at home and in their nearby studios. Romanoff’s medium is, believe it or not, Shrinky Dinks, the children’s activity kit that consists of large flexible sheets that, heated in an oven, shrink while maintaining their color and shape. Shorer’s genre has been described as magical realism. As art critic Charles Shere noted, despite these different approaches, each artist conveys the “personal vicissitudes that accumulated throughout life.” You can see more of Storer’s work at inezstorer.com, or look for displays at Mill Valley’s Seager Gray Gallery and at Art Market in San Francisco in the spring. Romanoff’s work will appear at Gallery Route One in Point Reyes Station next year.