It was a chance meeting: 24-year-old volunteer ambulance driver Marcella Mendl, a Romanian Jewish refugee who left Vienna with her mother in 1938, and 67-year-old Ibrahim, Sultan of Johor, an international playboy and one of the richest men in the world.
On 28 October 1940, during an air raid, Marcella took shelter in the Grosvenor House Hotel on Park Lane in Mayfair. She had Red Cross flags to sell and Ibrahim, who lived at the Grosvenor, bought one. They started to chat and decided to continue over a cup of coffee when the raid was over. Later that day she introduced him to her mother; in the evening they all dined together. Eight days later they announced their intention to marry and the Daily Mirror featured them on the front page with the headline “Sultan, 67, to Wed Girl of 24”.
Marcella did not look unlike Ibrahim’s lost love Lydia Cecilia “Cissie” Hill, who had been killed only weeks earlier in an air raid on Canterbury. Cissie, 27, from Herne Bay, was a dancer in the cabaret at Grosvenor House and was rumoured to be secretly engaged to Ibrahim, but the relationship had put him under immense political pressure, from both the Malaysian and the British governments.
The marriage to Marcella (Ibrahim’s 6th) was, it seems, more acceptable and took place swiftly in November 1940. “I know he has had a very upsetting time of late and I am going to do all I can to make him happy now,” Marcella told the Mirror, who noted that she spoke 5 languages and had lately been driving ambulances in London.
Marcella Mendl was the daughter of Edgar Mendl, a dealer in airplanes and cars in Romania, and Valerie [last name unknown], a singer. She was also a cousin of British diplomat Sir Charles Mendl.
The 1939 Register lists her at 33 Hasker Street, near Brompton Road. She was probably attached to the King’s Road ambulance station.
Upon converting to Islam, Marcella took the name Fawzia binti ‘Abdu’llah and was known as Lady Marcella Ibrahim. Their daughter, Tunku Miriam, was born in 1950.
The Sultan, an Anglophile like his wife, died at the Grosvenor in 1959 having spent the last two years of his life living in a suite there.
Marcella died in 1982.