Born: January 5, 1929, Lexington, Kentucky
Died: December 2, 2019, Irvington, New York
Robert Kinloch Massie III was a journalist, historian, and Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer who gained fame by writing popular, critically acclaimed books about the House of Romanov, Russia’s imperial family for two centuries. Nicholas and Alexandra became a movie, and Peter the Great was made into a network TV miniseries.
Massie spent his earliest years living in Woodford County in the Crittenden Cabin, birthplace of the early Kentucky statesman John. J. Crittenden. It was on the campus of the Massie school, a boys preparatory academy owned and operated from 1918 to 1929 by his father, Robert K. Massie Jr. Future Governor Albert B. “Happy” Chandler was the school’s basketball and football coach. Massie’s grandfather, Robert K. Massie, was dean of Christ Church Cathedral in Lexington, and his uncle, Dr. Francis Massie, was a founder of the Lexington Clinic.
When Massie was 15 months old, his father died of cancer. His mother, Molly Kimball Massie, a progressive activist who was instrumental in the founding of Lexington’s Planned Parenthood, remarried several years later to her husband’s best friend, James Todd, a department store executive. They lived on a small farm on Paris Pike near Lexington, where, in his attic bedroom, Massie charted the naval battles of World War II with push pins on a the slanted wall by his bed. When Massie was 10, the family moved to Nashville, Tennessee.
Massie earned degrees in American studies from Yale and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. Interested in the sea, Massie enlisted in the Navy after Oxford and was an officer on an aircraft carrier. Next, he worked as a journalist for The Saturday Evening Post, Colliers’, and Newsweek magazines. He later taught journalism at Princeton and Tulane universities. He was president of The Authors Guild (1987-1991) and worked assiduously for the rights of authors. He wrote pieces for numerous magazines, including Vanity Fair and The New Yorker.
His most famous book was Nicholas and Alexandra (1967), about the last Romanov rulers. They abdicated in 1917 amid the Russian Revolution and were murdered, along with their five children, by Bolshevik revolutionaries after 16 months in captivity. The book, which The New York Times called one of the most popular historical studies ever published, sold more than 4.5 million copies and was adapted into a 1971 film of the same name starring Laurence Olivier.
Massie won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography with Peter the Great: His Life and World (1980). The book was the basis for the 1986 NBC miniseries “Peter the Great”, which starred Olivier, Maximillian Schell, and Vanessa Redgrave and won three Emmy Awards. His book Catherine the Great (2011) won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction and the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography.
In his New York Times obituary of Massie, reporter Douglas Martin described his biographies as “gripping, tautly narrated and immensely popular. … Mr. Massie captivated audiences with detailed accounts that read to many like engrossing novels.”
Massie married Suzanne Rohrbach in 1954. A Swiss diplomat’s daughter, Rohrbach became a noted Russian scholar, author, and consultant to President Regan, providing him with the famous adage “Trust but verify”. They had three children: Robert, Susanna, and Elizabeth. He got interested in Russian history while researching hemophilia, a bleeding disease that affected their son, Bob. (Nicholas and Alexandra’s son, Alexei, may have been history’s most famous case of childhood hemophilia.) The Massies together wrote the book, Journey (1975) about their son’s illness and its effect on the family. Massie then turned his attention back to the sea, and wrote several books about World War I that depict the complicated, intertwined relationships of those in power and how it affected the development and role of the Navy.
The Massies divorced in 1990. Two years later, he married Deborah Karl, his literary agent. They had three children: Christopher, Sophia, and Nora.
Massie came back to Kentucky over the years as a lecturer and to visit family. At the time of his death, he was working on a biography of Napoléon and Josephine and an autobiography. His papers are archived at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
Nicholas and Alexandra: An Intimate Account of the Last of the Romanovs and the Fall of Imperial Russia (1967)
Journey (1975) with Suzanne Massie
Peter the Great: His Life and World (1980)
Last Courts of Europe: Royal Family Album, 1860–1914 (1981)
Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the coming of the Great War (1991)
There’s an Old Southern Saying: The Wit and Wisdom of Dan May (1993)
The Romanovs: The Final Chapter (1995)
Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (2004)
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman (2011)
1981 Pulitzer Prize for Biography for Peter the Great: His Life and World
2012 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction for Catherine the Great.
2012 PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography for Catherine the Great.
Massie discusses Nicholas and Alexandra with TV interviewer Charlie Rose in 1995: