Once Upon a Time: Remembering Toria
Once upon a time, there was a countess who became a princess who became the Junior League of New Orleans Bloomin’ Deals Thrift Shop Manager. The story of Toria Whitten is one she good-humoredly calls a tale of “Riches to Rags.”
Countess Viktoria-Luise of Solms-Baruth, former Princess Friedrich Josias of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, was born on March 13, 1921 in a little village about fifty miles south of Berlin, Germany. In her memoirs*, she recounts her lineage. It is quite impressive — princes and princesses abound, and one of her godmothers was the last empress of Germany, Auguste-Viktoria.
She spent a happy childhood in Germany. Her parents and family endeavored to and succeeded in creating a nurturing environment and lifestyle for their children, who were growing up in a defeated country where national morale was low post-WWI. As time went on and the Nazi party came into power and began recruiting youth at an earlier and earlier age, Toria’s parents sought to shield her from the burgeoning fanaticism. With their love and guidance, she grew into adulthood having never been conscripted into any Nazi organization.
Though she grew up in a home with servants, Toria’s parents — her father in particular — insisted she learn housework. At one point, she oversaw cooking four- and five-course meals for her family and meals for the servants. In addition, she was required to learn how to do the laundry and clean their large house.
“I once asked my Father why I was made to do all these things when I was going to have servants to do them for me later on. He said, ‘If you are lucky enough to have servants, they will not be able to tell you what can or cannot be done. You will be able to show them how YOU want things to be done! Furthermore, you might not be able to have servants and then you can do everything yourself.’”
Toria was also an avid seamstress and, from a very early age, enjoyed making her own clothes. This, as well as learning housework, was something that would come in handy as her life unfolded.
Toria married her cousin, Prince Friedrich Josias of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, in January of 1942, and they had a son, Andreas. Following the second World War, it was apparent that the marriage was not meant to last, and they divorced in 1946. During this time, Toria was living with her parents in Steinwaendt, Austria. In Andreas’ memoirs**, he says, “Steinwaendt was our home and sanctuary of peace.” Toria’s own accounts of living there are happy ones, and it is here that this countess and former princess took the first step towards New Orleans.
At a party in Salzburg in February 1947, Toria’s brother Pety caught a ride with an American serviceman to a neighboring area. That serviceman’s name was Captain Dick Whitten of New Orleans. JLNO Sustainer Ann Preaus recalls that Dick was quite taken with Toria from the start and liked to tell about the day he met her. “A gorgeous, statuesque woman,” he said. Toria said in her memoirs, “I found him quite charming and very attractive when I met him!” Andreas said about their romance, “It was meteoric love at first sight.”
Ten months after they first met, in November of 1947, Toria and Dick were married. And in 1948, they welcomed a daughter, Vickie, into the world. Shortly after this, Dick received his orders to return to the United States. On Christmas Eve, just after midnight, the Whittens — Toria, Dick, Andreas and Vickie — arrived in New Orleans on the L&N Railroad. Dick’s mother was there to greet them and whisk them off to her home, 1528 Eighth Street. So began Toria’s new life in America.
In her memoirs, Toria said she “often thought about that conversation [about the housework] and have been ever so thankful to my parents for what they did for me in this respect…when I married Dick and came with him to the United States with two small children, I had to do all my own cooking and housework, which would have been a disaster without that training.”
Over the years, Dick’s military career moved their family around the country and Europe. Ultimately, Louisiana was home, though, and they settled in Covington in the late 1960s. By the 1970s, with her children grown and out of the house, Toria began looking for “something to do.” How lucky for the Junior League that this something was to become the Manager of Bloomin’ Deals Thrift Shop.
“She was charming, smart, patient and fantastic with customers,” said Sustainer Ella Montgomery Flower (JLNO President 1984-85) in an interview for Lagniappe, Spring 2013.
Andreas wrote in his memoirs, “Mother raised us to believe that every human being, in spite of different racial, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, was worthy of success and deserved our respect.” This was evident in the way Toria ran the Thrift Shop.
“She not only got to know the Thrift Shop’s regular customers, but also showed concern for their problems, and their love of her was evident. She was equally as compassionate in her treatment of the Provisionals who were in her charge,” wrote Gene Preaus in a commemorative article he wrote about Toria upon her passing in 2003.
Toria was a favorite with the Provisionals. Each year, she and Dick invited the Provisionals completing their thrift shop shifts for a celebratory dinner. Those dinners have been remembered fondly by several sustainers who were just starting their Junior League journey back then. “She had a lot of energy and the kind of personality that just took everybody in,” said Sustainer Patsy Hardin.
“She was proud of her heritage,” said Gene. “But she was not pretentious. Quite the contrary.”
Ann agrees, “She was an elegant person but funny and humble. She was so accepting of life without all the trimmings.”
Toria’s story, like all good fairy tales, had a happy ending. She and Dick were married just shy of 54 years when Dick passed away in 2001, and Toria followed him in 2003. They were happily married and devoted to one another. Their children and grandchildren are thriving in both Louisiana and Europe. Toria left a legacy in her wake — a do-anything, be-anything mentality that in and of itself is noble, with and without royal titles.
A special thanks to Sustainer Ann Preaus and her husband Gene for sharing the following works for this article:
*From Tyranny to Freedom… Memoirs of My Life by Countess Viktoria-Luise of Solms-Baruth (Mrs. Richard C.B. Whitten)
** I did it my way…The Memoirs of HH Prince Andreas of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha with Arturo E. Beeche