Anna Anderson was one of the most famous women in Europe during the 1920s, and it’s easy to see why.
Just a few years after the brutal executions of Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Empress Alexandra and their five children, a spate of so-called Romanov impostors began to pop up all over the continent.
They claimed to be survivors of the July 1918 firing squad and made excuses which included bullets bouncing off diamond buttons and jewellery.
The rumours even sparked the 1997 animated film Anastasia, starring Meg Ryan and John Cusack — although the movie featured a far more romantic ending than what really happened to one young woman who claimed to be a survivor of the Romanov killings.
Anderson, a Polish factory worker, convinced scores of the world’s wealthiest and best-connected people she was the Tsar’s escaped youngest daughter Anastasia.
Anna’s version of events was plausible partly because the early Soviet government in Russia refused to admit it was responsible for the deaths of the tsar’s entire family.
With Tsar Nicholas’s 13-year-old son and heir Alexei among those shot, allegedly on Lenin’s personal request, the truth would have been politically embarrassing.
So Anna, real name Franziska Schanzkowska, was able to tell friends and distant relatives of the Romanovs she was the youngest daughter.
Her somewhat haggard looks and worn expression were explained by her trauma and difficult escape, but in reality were the scars of years of factory work as a teen.
The woman who later called herself Anna Anderson first became famous in the early 1920s after a failed suicide attempt in Berlin, at which point she was taken to the Dalldorf asylum.
The 23-year-old was pulled out the Landwehr Canal after jumping in by a police officer and registered at the facility as “Miss Unknown” because she had no papers and her accent was hard to trace.
After two years of treatment, fellow patient Clare Peuthert started telling people the woman was the tsar’s second eldest daughter Tatiana.
Peuthert persuaded Russian emigres to visit the woman to see for themselves, including former employees of the tsar and his wife.
They didn’t believe the girl was Tatiana, but when in May 1922 she first claimed she was actually Anastasia, it began to catch on.
She adopted the name Anna Tschaikovsky and was visited by dozens of members of Europe’s royal families.
Though few were compelled to think she was really Anastasia, many well-connected Russian emigres and old friends of the tsar wanted to believe Anastasia had survived Nicholas II’s cruel fate.
The mysterious woman became a symbol of what Europe had been before the Russian Revolution. To the country’s wealthiest, that was worth believing in, even if the facts were dubious.
Others had the more cynical motivation of wanting to be close to a Romanov in the event she was the real thing.
The Romanovs were the richest family in history, with assets estimated to be worth $300 billion in today’s money.
A decades-long wild goose chase for the Romanovs’ missing riches continued throughout the interwar years, with distant relatives of the tsar searching high and low for any sign of the family’s secretly hidden fortune smuggled out of Soviet Russia.
That immense wealth also meant believers of Anna’s story could claim doubters were just trying to protect their share of the inheritance, if it was ever found.
Anna’s identity became a tool of convenience for the self-interested on all sides. As time went on, the truth mattered less and less.
One person who did more than anyone to support Tschaikovsky’s story was Tatiana Melnik, the daughter of the Romanov family physician Eugene Botkin.
Botkin was killed alongside the family in July 1918, but Melnik could remember Anastasia as a child and said Anna Tschaikovsky resembled her looks and manner.
Tatiana decided Anna’s “defect is obviously in her memory and eyesight” and agreed to coach her on the details of her family life.
It’s not clear whether Melnik was part of Anna’s ploy or whether she truly believed the young woman was Anastasia.
Either way, her coaching made Tschaikovsky an expert on the Romanovs.
Meanwhile, there was one family who knew exactly what was happening.
Sympathetic Prince Valdemar of Denmark gave money to support Anna’s lifestyle, but his family weren’t persuaded by her and she was soon cut off.
Tschaikovsky then lived with the tsar’s distant relative in Bavaria, where Tsarina Alexandra’s brother hired a private detective to investigate.
Ace PI Martin Knopf correctly concluded Anna was really Franziska Schanzkowska, a young woman whose fiance was killed in the front line of WWI and who had almost been killed in a munitions factory accident which left her injured and unstable.
After spending time in two asylums during the war, Schanzkowska was last spotted in Berlin in early 1920. This was just before her suicide attempt in the canal, at which point the ruse began.
Knopf brought in Schanzkowska’s brother Felix to confirm his suspicion. Felix said the resemblance was striking, but refused to confirm nor deny whether it was his really his sister.
Many years later, the Schanzkowska family admitted Felix had lied to protect his vulnerable sister’s newfound livelihood. He knew all along it was really her.
This protection by Franziska’s family became crucial during WWII when she was living in Germany.
If the Anastasia impersonator was known to be Polish, she would have been shipped off to a concentration camp, or possibly murdered alongside many mentally ill Holocaust victims.
The cover-up by Felix and the rest of the Schanzkowska’s saved the young woman’s life.
Now going by the name Anna Anderson, Franziska spent much of the rest of her life in America, funded partly by iconic Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff.
She finally moved to the US permanently in 1968, aged 72, with the support of Tatiana Melnik’s younger brother Gleb after once again suffering a mental breakdown in Germany.
Anderson even married history professor Jack Manahan, 20 years younger than her, in 1968 to extend her visa.
After Gleb died in 1970, Manahan and Anderson lived out their twilight years in suburban Virginia as a couple of whacky eccentrics.
They were known to own dozens of pets and live in chaotic circumstances, but had amassed enough money to be comfortable.
In the late 70s, by this point in her early 80s, Anderson was constantly unwell and depended on the devotion of her husband. When she was taken to hospital, he even broke her out so they had a few days driving around together and eating at gas stations.
In 1984, she had a stroke and died of pneumonia aged 87. Manahan died 6 years later.
Though lawsuits had sought to prove Anderson wasn’t Anastasia for most of her life, none ever succeeded.
But when the Soviets finally admitted the whereabouts of the Romanovs’ bodies in the late 1980s, their DNA was compared to a sample taken from Anderson during gut surgery. No matches were found.
Anna’s was found to match a distant relative of the Schanzkowska’s, proving once and for all she was Franziska all along.