In Glarus in the middle of the 20th century, you could get your hair cut by a real princess.
In Glarus in the middle of the 20th century, you could get your hair cut by a real princess. Illustration by Marco Heer.

In the hairdressing salon of the Turkish princess

The last representative of the Ottoman Empire was Rachid Osman. He spent his twilight years in a small village in Glarus. His wife Rosa Osman-Keller earned a living as a village hairdresser to support herself and her once fabulously wealthy husband.

Michael van Orsouw

Michael van Orsouw

Michael van Orsouw has a PhD in history and is a performance poet and author. He regularly publishes historical books.

Anyone who had their hair cut in Filzbach and Obstalden in Glarus in the 1950s or 1960s was being coiffed not by a normal hairdresser, but by a Turkish princess. It sounds crazy, but it’s true. The hairdresser in the little villages on the Kerenzerberg Pass was Rosa Osman-Keller. We need to go back a bit further for her remarkable story. Rosa Keller was born in 1908 in Dielsdorf, Zurich, the daughter of a police officer. That same year, a 20-year-old Turkish prince and his entourage stayed for several days at the swish hotel Baur au Lac in Zurich. It seems almost impossible that the paths of these two people would one day cross, and yet that’s exactly what happened.
The hotel Baur au Lac on a postcard dating from 1910.
The hotel Baur au Lac on a postcard dating from 1910. Swiss National Museum
The Turkish prince was Rachid Osman, son of the powerful Prince Faiq, who ruled over vast lands in Albania and Greece. This Faiq was also a minister in the Turkish sultanate and reported directly to the Sultan, to whom he was related. Faiq’s son, Prince Rachid, had nothing to do with Switzerland or the Kerenzerberg initially; he was studying political sciences at the Sorbonne in Paris. During World War I, the Sultan brought in the ambitious Rachid, now 26 years old, for political missions. The young political scientist worked first as a legal advisor in the Turkish foreign ministry – even though he wasn’t a lawyer. Then he acted as a plenipotentiary minister in the Ottoman part of Greece, following in his father’s footsteps.
Rachid Osman (third from right) with members of the Turkish imperial family.
Rachid Osman (third from right) with members of the Turkish imperial family. Private Archive Rosa Osman-Keller

On an equal footing with Europe’s powerful figures

Prince Rachid also acted as an attaché of the Ottoman Empire, and mixed with the top-level politicians of Central Europe. He had dealings with German General Paul von Hindenburg, and with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. But then came the Turkish Revolution in October 1923, in which Kemal Atatürk seized power. The Sultan lost his position and was forced into exile; for Rachid Osman too, a whole new chapter in life began. In 1924, he moved into exile in Nice with his wife and daughter; another daughter was later born in the Riviera city. The family sought help with the household and in 1927 they hired a young Swiss woman: Rosa Keller. This is where the lives of the Turkish Prince and the 19-year-old from Dielsdorf come together. When she arrived, Rosa knew she would be working as a nanny, but she had no idea who the host family was. It was only once she got to the stylish villa on Avenue Georges Clemenceau in Nice that she realised she was to work for the family of a Turkish prince!
Rosa with Rachid Osman in Nice: behind them are Rachid’s two daughters.
Rosa with Rachid Osman in Nice: behind them are Rachid’s two daughters. Private Archive Rosa Osman-Keller
When Rachid’s wife fell ill, she begged Rosa Keller to take on the role of mother on her death. The Princess died, and Rosa married Rachid Osman in 1939. Rosa Keller from Dielsdorf had become Turkish Princess Rosa Osman. It was a ‘marriage of convenience’, she said later. Nonetheless, the transformation was like a story out of the Arabian Nights! As the wife of the Ottoman Prince, Rosa rubbed shoulders with magistrates and crowned heads of state in Nice; she was friends with such luminaries as the Swedish King Gustav VI Adolf, and also the last Turkish caliph, Abdul Medjid II, the daredevil Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani and the Maharajah of Hyderabad. In a major lawsuit over the Sultan’s assets, Rachid was awarded a 100 million-franc share of his immense fortune, including oil fields, lands and mines. But as an ousted Ottoman official in exile, he didn’t receive a penny. Rachid and Rosa lived in poverty from then on – compared to Rachid’s previous life in palaces with dozens of household staff, it was a long way to fall. Rosa arranged for them to move into a cheaper apartment, and helped make ends meet by painting and selling enamel brooches.

A life straight out of a movie

In 1951 the family moved to Switzerland. Rosa had seen a newspaper advertising a hairdressing salon in Filzbach am Kerenzerberg for rent. She took a crash course in hairdressing. She had the confidence to do it; after all, she had once taken a couple of courses at the Kunstgewerbeschule (Zurich School of Applied Arts) and had a good artistic eye. From then on, the hairdressing salon provided a modest livelihood for the family, who lived in a simple two-room apartment. At the same time, Rachid’s lawyers tried to get the multi-million-dollar inheritance. They were unsuccessful. On one occasion only, they managed to get the family a payment of CHF 24,000 as compensation for the expropriation of forests and a bitumen mine. At least it covered the legal fees.
Prince Rachid Osman in Obstalden, posing with his grandson Pierre and a cigarette.
Prince Rachid Osman in Obstalden, posing with his grandson Pierre and a cigarette. Photo: Pierre E. Giraudy
Rosa Osman-Keller in 1979: she lived modestly in Obstalden.
Rosa Osman-Keller in 1979: she lived modestly in Obstalden. Felix Aeberli, Staatsarchiv Aargau/RBA
In 1962, Rachid Osman died in Filzbach and was given a burial plot in Obstalden, where he still rests today. After her husband’s death Rosa had little further contact with the imperial family, apart from her stepdaughters, Meliké und Emiré, who visited her from time to time. So Rosa continued to coiffure her clientele in Filzbach until her gout got so bad that she had to give up her salon. She spent her final years in a nursing home in Mollis, where she died in 1994 at the age of 84. She told Schweizer Illlustrierten magazine in 1979: ‘Sometimes I feel as if I’m sitting in a cinema. And the life that’s playing out on the screen is someone else’s, but not mine.’ But it was real. And that makes it better than any film.
The Princess in Obstalden: Rosa Osman-Keller in her two-room apartment in 1979.
The Princess in Obstalden: Rosa Osman-Keller in her two-room apartment in 1979. Felix Aeberli, Staatsarchiv Aargau/RBA
Prince or diplomat, registration with the police was mandatory. The authorities were not amused.
Prince or diplomat, registration with the police was mandatory. The authorities were not amused. Swiss Federal Archives

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