In 1744, a fire ravaged the Moscow residence of the Empress Elizabeth of Russia, daughter of Peter the Great. The future Empress Catherine the Great, who was betrothed to Elizabeth’s nephew and heir, recorded in her Memoirs, “In that fire, the Empress lost everything in her immense wardrobe that had been brought to Moscow. She did me the honour of telling me that she had lost four thousand outfits and that of all them, she regretting losing only the one made of the cloth I had given her, which I received from my mother (The Memoirs of Catherine the Great, p. 123).” Empress Elizabeth never wore a dress more than once. When she died less than two decades after the palace fire, she left fifteen thousand gowns and two trunks filled with silk stockings (W. Bruce Lincoln, The Romanovs: Autocrats of All the Russias, p. 194).
Even in the eighteenth century, Empress Elizabeth’s conspicuous consumption was already going out of fashion in many royal courts. Queen Marie Antoinette of France, whose name became a byword for extravagance, adopted simpler fashions in the 1780s and refused to purchase the famous Diamond Necklace because of its immense cost. Despite this change in perspective in numerous royal households, Jayne Amelia Larson’s entertaining memoir Driving the Saudis: A Chauffeur’s Tale of the World’s Richest Princesses (plus their servants, nannies, and one royal hairdresser)
demonstrates that there is still at least one royal court where Empress Elizabeth would feel right at home. In Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s last absolute monarchies, conspicuous consumption remains a favourite pass time of royalty flush with oil wealth.
Jayne Amelia Larson is an actress and independent film producer who weathered a financially difficult period in her career by becoming a limousine driver in Beverly Hills. Larson imagined that her job will give her an opportunity to network with other members of the entertainment industry but instead encounters long hours, low pay and celebrities at their worst moments. When the opportunity to chauffeur a group of Saudi princesses on a lavish Beverly Hills shopping spree arises, Larson jumps at the chance to meet royalty and potentially receive large gratuities from members of one of the world’s wealthiest ruling houses.
Larson’s conclusion that the princesses have enormous material wealth but little social freedom or autonomy will be familiar to readers of Jean P. Sasson’s famous ghostwritten memoir, Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia but her temporary role as a member of the Saudi royal household for five weeks in the United States provides her with a unique insight into the social hierarchy of the House of Al-Saud, where a tea service belonging to the princesses receives its own hotel suite but the servants sleep seven to a room.
The first half of the book is filled with entertaining anecdotes about Larson’s foray into limousine driving and her initial culture shock upon encountering the spendthrift princesses. She chauffeurs her clients to luxury boutiques and witnesses them selecting thousands of dollars of designers bags, shoes and lingerie without a glance at the prices. The royal hairdresser demands frequent trips to the casino outside Los Angeles and his employer, “Princess Zaahira,”, eagerly listens to stories of his adventures as either her own sense of propriety or her husband’s dictates prevent her from entering gambling establishments.
The tone changes in the second half of the book as Larson becomes increasingly close to both the princesses and their overworked servants. As the only female chauffeur employed for the trip, she is given charge of a thirteen year old princess who appears to be an outsider within her family, more interesting in dreams of studying abroad than shopping. Larson also gets to known the princesses’ maids who live in virtual indentured servitude with their passports held by their employers. The mistreatment of the servants appears to be an open secret wherever the Saudi royal family vacations and Larson draws attention to the complicity of American hoteliers who guard the household passports in their safes in exchange from the vast economic benefit of a visit from the House of Al-Saud.
Driving the Saudis is an entertaining and insightful snapshot of one of the world’s wealthiest and most autocratic royal families on vacation. Larson reveals both the conspicuous consumption of the princesses and the sad plight of their maids through the unique perspective of a temporary royal chauffeur.