Indeed Princess Maria Elimovna (not Emilievna) Meshcherskaya (1844-1868 ), daughter of Prince Elim Petrovich Meschersky (1808-1844), Chamberlain of the Imperial Court and a poet, was Alexander III’s first love. Her life was quite short and tragic.
According to people who knew her well (such as Count Serge D. Sheremetiev and Countess Kleinmichel), she was one of the prettiest young women of St. Petersburg : she looked somewhat Oriental and had brown hair and beautiful large velvet black eyes which captured the hearts of St. Petersburg men. Orphaned at a young age, the wife of Nicholas I (Empress Aleksandra Feodorovna) took her under her protection but she was brought up by her aunt Princess Elizaveta Baryatinskaya.
One source says the she met young Grand Duke Alexander at a costume ball and that she looked stunning in an Egyptian costume with a sphinx head : for Alexander, it was love at first sight. However they first met they certainly had many occasions to meet at Court, as the Princess was appointed to the highly sought after post of Maid of Honour to the Empress (Maria Alexandrovna). Soon they were in love with each other. Then Alexander wasn’t Heir to the Throne and he might have thought he could be allowed to marry her. But, in 1865 tragedy struck : his older brother Tsesarevich Nicholas died and he suddenly became Heir. His dream of marrying Maria vanished : he knew that now he couldn’t possibly be allowed to marry someone not of royal blood.
Nicholas had been engaged to young Princess Dagmar of Denmark. For political reasons, Alexander II still wanted an Alliance between the two Ruling Houses of Denmark and Russia to take place so, only a few months after Nicholas had been buried, Alexander’s parents were talking about a trip to Denmark. The new Tsesarevich understood what it meant. Some say that Princess Dagmar had been prompted to choose another son of Alexander II as her fiancé and that, unfortunately for Alexander, she had chosen him. Whatever really happened, from the start he felt torn between his duty to his father and country and his love for Maria Meshcherskaya. He also felt he wasn’t prepared to become Emperor and thought of renouncing his position as Heir, which would leave him free to marry Maria. But he understood where his duty layed and he tried to avoid seeing her. On June 25, 1865, he wrote it was difficult as they used to see each other twice a day, but that he was thinking more and more about Dagmar and felt the need to have a wife (meaning Dagmar). But soon his resolve wavered and, through summer and autumn 1865, his love for Maria deepened. On March 23, 1866 though he seemed resolved to the inevitable : he writes : « I will say goodbye to M.E., whom I loved as I have loved no one before. »
But two months later he, once more, had a change of heart. As a trip to Denmark was imminent (to ask for Dagmar’s hand), he wrote « I grew to love her (M.E.) even more fervently, strongly, passionately. Now I am only trying to get out of this difficult situation, and if possible, to marry sweet M.E. I want to refuse to marry Dagmar, whom I cannot love and don’t want. » On May 18 Alexander II confronted his son with stories about him and Maria Mescherskaya in the Danish press. The Tsesarevich answered that he couldn’t go to Denmark and didn’t want to get married to Dagmar. The Emperor gave him 24 hours to reconsider. The next day Alexander II again asked his son about the Danish wedding : he replied that he didn’t not feel he could love Dagmar and added that he had decided to renounce his position as Heir because he didn’t feel he could do a proper job. Alexander II got quite angry, talked about their duty and then ordered him to go to Denmark, adding he would send Princess Mescherskaya away. Alexander obeyed his father, went to Copenhagen and proposed to Princess Dagmar. Oddly enough, when she made her conversion to the Orthodox faith Dagmar chose Maria as her new name. Maybe she did it so Alexander would indeed marry a Princess Maria…who knows?!
As for the other Maria, poor Princess Mescherskaya, Alexander II did ask her to leave Court at once. Along with her aunt, she went abroad. In Paris she met a Russian diplomat, Paul Demidov (often spelled Demidoff), Prince of San Donato and soon married him. According to Serge Sheremetiev it was against her will, but he certainly was one of the most eligible bachelor of his time, having inherited one of the largest fortune in Russia! The couple lived abroad. Sadly enough, Maria died in 1868, after having given birth to a son she would not live to see grow up and that she had named Elim, as the father that hadn’t lived long enough to see her grow up.
Oddly enough, fate would later bring Maria’s son close to Alexander III : in 1893, Elim Pavlovich Demidov, Prince San Donato, married Countess Sofia Illarionovna Vorontsova-Dashkova. She was the daughter of one of Alexander III’s closest friend, his Minister of the Imperial Court.
Friends of his mother said Elim had a stricking resemblance to her. As he died in 1894, I do not know if Alexander III ever met his minister-friend’s new son-in-law : but if he did, he must have thought about his first love and her tragic destiny…
Later Elim was to become Russia’s last Minister (Ambassador) to Greece.
I found these photos of Prince Paul and his second wife, but not yet one of Maria : http://www.jssgallery.org/Essay/Italy/Demidoff/Demidoff_2nd.htm