This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996
Esme Mary Sorrett (Molly) Fink (1894-1967), who became the rani of Pudukota (Pudukkottai), was born on 15 September 1894 at Malvern, Melbourne, younger daughter of Wolfe Fink (d.1914), a barrister and Shakespearian scholar from Guernsey, Channel Islands, and his Tasmanian-born wife Elizabeth, née Watt. Molly, as she was always known, was a niece of Benjamin and Theodore Fink. Although baptized a Catholic, she attended (1904-09) Lauriston Girls' High School. A golden-haired society beauty, with blue eyes, an 'oval, ivory-skinned face' and 'pouting pomegranate lips', she had charm and character. On a visit to Sydney in April 1915 she met Marthanda Bhairava Tondiman (b.1875), rajah of the southern India principality of Pudukota, who followed her from the Australia Hotel to the Hydro Majestic at Medlow Bath in the Blue Mountains where their love affair blossomed. Following their marriage on 10 August that year at the office of the government statist, Melbourne, they encountered sustained hostility from the Australian press. The government of India—with the endorsement of King George V—refused to recognize the marriage or permit the rani to be designated 'Her Highness', and recommended that her entertainment by British officials in India (and Australia) be as private as possible.
After a honeymoon in the United States of America, Molly arrived in her husband's principality late in 1915. She was received enthusiastically by his subjects, but remained in Pudukota barely five months: the attitude of the British government to her marriage rendered her position untenable, and an attempt was made to poison her with oleander leaves when it was discovered that she was pregnant. The rajah's suspicions centred on the palace. He took Molly to Ootacamund. Denied permission to buy a house there, they left India on 16 April 1916; she was never to return.
In Sydney they rented St Mervyns, a waterfront mansion at Double Bay, and on 22 July Molly gave birth to a son, Marthanda Sydney. In self-imposed exile, the rajah became prominent in racing circles in Melbourne and Sydney; his gelding, King Mostyn, netted over £1000 in prize-money and Old Mungindi won the Grand National Steeplechase (July 1917). Molly's closest friends in Sydney were Ada Holman, the wife of the premier, and Ethel Kelly.
Determined to press their case for recognition, the Tondimans left Australia in August 1919. He gained an interview with Lord Willingdon, governor of Madras, who asked Lord Cromer to help one 'so intensely loyal and white in his ways'. The rajah joined Molly in London on 7 November. By the end of 1920 it was clear that the British government would not acknowledge their son as the heir to the principality. The rajah accepted a regency, in return for substantial financial 'compensation' and annual allowances for himself and Molly.
In September 1922 they bought the villa, La Favorite, at Cannes, France. There they cultivated the friendship of the famous, including Edward Molyneux, Elsa Maxwell, the novelist William Locke, and (Sir) Cecil Beaton who sketched and photographed Molly for Vogue. Celebrated for her sparkling jewels and 'glittering parties', she was described by Nancy Beaton as 'a very generous woman, madly extravagant'. The rajah died suddenly on 28 May 1928 and was cremated with Hindu rites in London, after Molly and her son were refused permission to fly his remains to India.
From the 1930s Molly lived mainly in London; she visited France frequently and stayed in the United States in 1929, 1937-38 and in 1940-44. During World War II, with her income frozen, she worked, illegally, at the fashionable New York clothing store, Bonwit Teller & Co. She also collected money for the United Service Organizations for National Defence; although she was accused of embezzlement, she was cleared by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. She was estranged from her son following his imprisonment in 1945 for stealing jewellery. In 1967 she donated her lavish wardrobe, which included classic gowns by Callot Soeurs, Paquin, Patou, Vionnet, Schiaparelli and Chanel, to the Museum of Costume, Bath, England. Survived by her son, Molly died of cancer on 20 November that year at Cannes. Her ashes were placed with the rajah's at Golders Green crematorium, London.
Edward Duyker and Coralie Younger, 'Fink, Esme Mary Sorrett (Molly) (1894–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fink-esme-mary-sorrett-molly-10182/text17991, accessed 13 December 2013.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996