In 1909, Kern County was rocked with the news that a local girl might become an empress. Decades before actress Grace Kelly would become Princess of Monaco, another American actress lived the dream of becoming royalty. Eleanor Calhoun went from a poor pioneer to a successful actress and then to Princess of Serbia. A true tale of rags to riches!
Eleanor Calhoun was born in 1865 and was raised in Kern County. She lived at various times in Havilah, Tehachapi, and Bakersfield, though she spent most of her childhood in a part of Tehachapi that was then known as "Calhoun’s Valley." The Tehachapi Mountains were a sanctuary to the young Eleanor, providing her with boundless expanses to explore and play in. Throughout her childhood, Eleanor experienced extreme poverty. Her father, Ezekiel Calhoun struggled to provide food as well as clothing for his wife and six daughters. Despite holding a respectable job as Justice of the Peace, Ezekiel was plagued with severe debt that he was unable to pull himself out of.
Despite these struggles, Eleanor was a witty and charming girl. For entertainment, she put on performances. At age 12, she began writing her own plays and producing them with her five sisters. The Tehachapi valley formed the stage, and the mountains were the backdrop. With zeal, Eleanor brought neighbors out to watch her and her playmats put on her first performances. Of her childhood in Tehachapi, Eleanor wrote, “I love my mountains, but I longed for the great life that lay somewhere beyond [...] I used sometimes to climb the highest peak and mount the highest ledge of rock on it, and sit there for hours dreaming of the far, far world.”
In contrast to her father, Eleanor’s mother, Laura was a strong-willed and ambitious woman. Laura was a young mother, only 15 when she gave birth to Eleanor. When her daughters were young, Laura read them stories from literature and history, which Eleanor used as inspiration for her plays. She held firm to the belief that her daughters would succeed in life where she had been unable to. Eventually, she grew tired of her husband’s repeated failures and brought the girls to San Jose, where they stayed with an aunt.
San Jose gave Eleanor the opportunity to expand her education and to show off her talents as a playwright and actress. She acted in local performances and won over the social elites with her charisma and intelligence. Her talent brought her into the circles of such people as William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate, though at the time, Hearst was still young and had not yet built his empire.
Hearst was enamored with Eleanor, and began courting the actress and the two became engaged. Hearst’s mother, though friends with Eleanor, was scandalized at the idea her son would marry an actress (in those days seen as little better than a prostitute) and insisted that at the very least William should finish his education before marriage. To appease his mother, Hearst agreed.
In October of 1890, Eleanor debuted as a professional actress, portraying Juliet at the Opera House in San Francisco. She toured America, performing Shakespearean plays and received praise from critics and audiences alike. She went on to London, performing as a leading lady in Haymarket Theater, and then to Paris where she became a staple performer and acted opposite the famed actor Benoît-Constant Coquelin.
The engagement to Hearst never resulted in a marriage. Eleanor instead focused on her own success, and began working with Eugene de Czernucki-Lazarovich, Prince Hrebalianovich of Serbia, the last of the Doushan Dynasty to advocate for independence in for the Balkan region, and to bring attention to the plight of the people. During this time, the two fell in love.
In 1903, at the height of her career, Eleanor married Prince Lazarovich and left the stage. Eleanor became a princess in name, but never lived in a ascended to power. Unable to live in Serbia due to the tumultuous political climate, they stayed in London. Eleanor threw her energy into supporting her husband’s work and fighting for Balkan independence. Though cast in a dramatic light by the press, Eleanor mainly aided her husband in writing political articles. In addition to these, she wrote a memoir, “Pleasures and Palaces,” and a play, “The Way, Christ and Evolution.”
Rumors swirled both in Europe and in America that Prince Lazarovich would become monarch of Serbia, and that Eleanor would become the first American-born empress. These rumors were largely blown out of proportion and focused heavily on legends of the “Sword of Lazar,” and ancient oaths of fealty. Lazarovich and Eleanor garnered support among some Serbians, who wore braided circles on their caps to signify their allegiance.
The Prince was never able to make a true bid for the throne or to revive his homeland as he dreamed. Several assassination attempts were made against him, necessitating special guards for both him and Eleanor. Despite this, the two continued to write extensively and to advocate change in the Balkan region. Prince Lazarovich died in July of 1941 at age 76.
Later in her life, the Princess returned to the United States. In New York she lectured on political and cultural issues. Particularly concerned with unemployment and the plight of the working class, and worked to advocate for benefits to the unemployed. She was president of the Woman’s Chamber of Commerce in New York, and a member of Pi Gamma Mu.
Eleanor died in New York on January 9, 1957 at 92 years old. Though Eleanor never became an empress, her life is inspiring. Through her own charisma and talent, she took the world by storm, despite her humble beginnings as a poor judge’s daughter.
Caspari, Nina. “Eleanor Calhoun.” Kern County Library.
Lazarovich-Hrebalianovich, Eleanor Calhoun. Pleasures and Palaces. 1915.
Lazarovich-Hrebalianovich, Eleanor Calhoun. “Letter to Bakersfield Californian.” April 30, 1912.
Stellmann, Louis J. “The Princess Hrebelianovich May be the First American-Born Empress.”
“A True Fairy Tale of Old Tehachapi.” Tehachapi News. November 6, 1974.
“Kern County Girl May Become Empress.” Morning Echo. February 13, 1909.
“Princess Lazarovich-Hrebelianovich, Actress Who Aided Serbian Cause, Dies.” The New York Times. January 12,1957.