Back in 2009, I interviewed the Duquesa de Alba, who passed away last week in her palace here in Seville at the ripe old age of 88. The Duquesa was an aristocrat – the most titled noble in the world, in fact – but she wasn’t a stiff, stuffy type. Known as Cayetana, she dressed like a hippy with print dresses, flowers in her hair and beads around her ankles, loved flamenco, and was a keen amateur painter. She rarely missed seeing her favoured hermandad, Los Gitanos, in Semana Santa (Holy Week). She was married three times (and was widowed twice) and had six children. Hers was a full life, lived with enormous gusto almost to the very end (read my full biography of her).
Often this barefoot Duchess claimed to be “a normal person” – clearly she wasn’t, as someone with a fortune estimated at 3.5 billion euros, but she certainly had fewer pretensions than many in her position. She preferred her Seville palace, Las Dueñas, to other grander properties, and she said that she felt most at home in this city – and the Sevillanos loved her for that. My piece for the El Pais in English blog talks about the intense mutual affection between Cayetana and the people of Seville.
The interview was to coincide with an exhibition of paintings from her vast private art collection, held at the Museo de Bellas Artes here in Seville, with works by Titian, Goya, Chagall and Renoir. I was granted time with the Duquesa on the strict condition that I didn’t ask her about, or indeed mention, her family – the divorces and dalliances of her children were a constant source of fodder to the prensa rosa, and a constant source of preoccupation to herself. I promised that I would respect these parameters, and I did.
We had a long and entertaining conversation, about her taste in art, childhood memories and her experience of living in London, as well as subsequent visits. She was full of humour and insight, with an excellent memory, her speech slowed and slurred by illness, but her mind sharp. Her English was fluent, with an upper-class accent.
After I submitted my article, the newspaper which had commissioned it, an English-language publication based in Andalucia, couldn’t resist bringing in the gossip-mag angle – partly for context to explain who she was to those who didn’t know, but partly for a gratuitous tabloidy take, mentioning exactly what I’d been asked to avoid. My interview ended up being published with an added scandal-loving edge which I found mortifying. Luckily, when I sent her a copy, she loved it (phew!), sending me a beautiful thank you card – which I still have, obviously.
By then even more intrigued by this irrepressible octogenarian, I stood outside the Duquesa’s palace on the day of her third wedding in 2011 for hours in the heat, along with hordes of other Cayetana-philes, and was rewarded with a glimpse of the sprightly 85-year-old famously kicking off her shoes and dancing for the delighted crowds. I was also lucky enough to be invited to a flamenco performance held in honour of the Duchess of Cornwall when she visited Seville earlier the same year with Prince Charles – the Duquesa de Alba had met Camilla on a previous occasion in London, and the two Duchesses sat together in the front row. Afterwards she came over to greet some of those present, including myself.
Her death last Thursday was sad, if not unexpected, and the next day I went to pay my last respects at the capilla ardiente where she was lying in state attended by her family (the Salon Colon of the Ayuntamiento was used, the largest room available – an estimated 80,000 people passed through in less than 24 hours). At midday on Friday her funeral was held in the Cathedral, and standing with the local press pack, I had a ringside seat at this sombre and moving occasion.
As someone who isn’t accustomed to the protocolo surrounding the death of a public figure, it was intriguing to see the spectacle, from the capilla ardiente and condolence books in the Ayuntamiento, to the funeral itself in the magnificent 15th-century basilica, conducted by the former Archbishop Cardinal of Seville.
Over the first hours and days after she died, Twitter was filled with evenly-divided views, along the following lines. Either: 88-year-old extremely rich woman dies – big deal, when a penniless 80-something is being evicted from her home today; or: What an amazing woman, a force of life, she will be dearly missed in Seville.
The Duquesa was loved by a large number of Sevillanos because she adored their city so passionately, being an aficionado of flamenco, bull-fighting, Semana Santa and Feria. She also supported a number of charity causes, and helped individuals to pay for essential medical treatments which they couldn’t afford.
However there were plenty with no time for this phenomenally wealthy woman who led a life of privilege most can only dream about. As a terrateniente, she owned vast tracts of land, and her estates were subsidized by the European Union to the tune of three million euros per year. Parts of these fincas were not used for agriculture, as is the case with much land here in Andalucia, which many people see as grossly unfair when a considerable number of Andalucians don’t have enough to eat.
Whatever your view of her, she was a figure with an extremely high profile here in Spain. For this reason, I would like to show the full interview as it was originally submitted to the newspaper, as while not containing any major revelations, I think it offers a small insight into a fascinating, free-spirited, and controversial woman.
´´When I was a child, my father took me to the Prado every Sunday. I especially loved paintings by Velazquez and Goya,´´ Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart, the most titled woman in Spain, otherwise known as the 18th Duquesa de Alba, tells me. ´´I have always loved art. When I was four years old Zuloaga painted me, but I fidgeted so much he said he´d never paint another child,´´ she recalls – and he didn´t. The resulting portrait, of the young Cayetana on her favourite pony, Tommy, also features her toys Mickey Mouse and Felix the Cat, represented with spooky, staring eyes.
The Duquesa, now in her eighties, is still a keen art aficionado – not surprising since she´s the owner of one of Spain´s most important private collections, with over 600 works. So which are her favourite painters? ´´I love Impressionism,´´ she says. ´´Gaugin, Latour, but also Spanish painters like Velazquez.´´ When I ask her which are her preferred paintings in the current show, Coleccion Casa de Alba – 40 works (´´they couldn´t fit any more in,´´ she says, sadly) from her palaces in Madrid and Seville – she replies, ´´La Duquesa de Alba en blanco´´, the emblematic Goya of her antecedent, the 13th Duquesa (the artist´s patron and, allegedly, lover), in front of which she has been photographed many times, and a less controversial Renoir.
´´I am delighted the exhibition has had such a good response – it´s full every day,´´ she tells me happily. In earlier days, the Duquesa was a keen collector, and her favourite hunting ground was London. ´´I love the galleries, I used to go to the Marlborough Gallery (a leading contemporary art gallery in Mayfair) to buy paintings. I liked Picasso, but not Bacon or Hockney.´´
´´I lived in England when I was a child, while my father was Ambassador in London,´´ she recalls, switching to perfect English, with a refined, aristocratic accent and no trace whatsoever of Spanish. ´´We lived in Belgrave Square. I went to a convent school. I didn´t like it very much – the teachers were sarcastic, and I was away from my country. It was rather difficult,´´ she recalls with typical upper-class understatement.
But she retained an affection for the English capital. ´´I love London. I stay at Claridges when I´m there – it´s divine. I go to Marks & Spencers and Selfridges, which are wonderful.´´ (When I tell her Marks & Spencers is going to open in Marbella soon, she laughs and says, excitedly ´´Oh good!´´)
´´I go to the National Gallery and Tate Britain, and to Covent Garden for the opera – I love Verdi, and Italian operas in general. But I haven´t been for a while – my last trip to London was 10 years ago.´´ When I ask her about her views on current art, she replies that she likes contemporary Russian painters, but hasn´t heard of Damien Hirst´s pickled sharks. She likes Picasso – who wanted to paint her naked when she was 22, but her husband wouldn´t allow it (´´it would have been very shocking in that era,´´ she explains).
You get the feeling that she herself would have been up for it on her own terms, as a passionate, romantic young woman, whose first love affair was with a bullfighter at the age of 17 (see box). The Duquesa is one of the richest women in Spain, with an estimated wealth of 600 million euros (when I ask if this is correct, she replies firmly, ´´I have absolutely no idea´´) and has an eye-popping 50-odd titles, including 11th Duchess of Berwick, 11th Baroness of Bosworth, 12th Countess-Duchess of Olivares and 18th Countess of Palma del Rio.
Born Maria del Rosario Cayetana Alfonsa Victoria Eugenia Francisca Fitz-James Stuart y de Silva, she is descended from the English royal family through an illegitimate son of King James II of England (also James VII of Scotland). King James bestowed on Jacobo Fitz-James Stuart (his surname means ´´son of James Stuart´´) the title of 1st Duke of Berwick; a painting by Ingres of Jacobo features in the exhibition. It was another of her antecedents who started the astonishing family art collection – Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, 3rd Duque de Alba, known as the Iron Duke, whose portrait by Titian is in the exhibition.
When visiting Naples in the 16th century, he became interested in Italian art, and his patronage was continued by the 4th Duque. In the 18th century, the 13th Duquesa, Maria del Pilar Teresa Cayetana de Silva, was an enthusiastic sponsor of talented young artists. She also gave away inherited works by Velazquez and Raphael. When Maria Teresa died without an heir, the title passed to her nephew Carlos Miguel, 7th Duque de Berwick, who travelled around Italy collecting Italian and Dutch paintings.
The current Duquesa has added many 19th and 20th works to the collection, notably by Renoir, Picasso and Miro. Cayetana has three main residences, where her artworks normally reside: the Palacio de Liria in Madrid, the Palacio de Dueñas in Seville and the Palacio de Monterrey in Salamanca. She also owns other houses in Marbella and Ibiza, as well as fincas all over Spain. It is said that she can cross Spain from one end to the other without leaving her own estates, and that she has more titles than the Queen of England, who would have to bow to her, being of lower rank.
Although she was born in Madrid, the Duquesa prefers the Andalucian capital. ´´I feel more at home in Seville,´´ she says. She has received various honorary medals from the city, and is delighted that a statue of herself will soon be erected in the Jardines de Cristina, wearing what she described as ´´a very Spanish dress – not exactly flamenco.´
This despite marked opposition from her nemesis, Antonio Rodrigo Torrijos, IU leader and deputy mayor of Seville. Clearly she can´t stand Torrijos, as when I ask her about the Torre Pelli, a highly controversial 178-metre skyscraper being built in La Cartuja with the politician´s full support, she blames it on, ´´that terrible Communist´´, adding that ´´it´s not the mayor´s fault.´´ She also is less than positive about recent changes in her adoptive city. ´´It used to be a lovely town,´´ she tells me. ´´Now they´re spoiling it by putting in new things like cycle lanes. It´s terrible.´´ But, she is quick to add, and repeats several times in our conversation, ´´Í am not a political person.´´
She speaks slowly, a result of recent illnesses, but has no problem making herself clear, and is expressive and animated, with a playful sense of humour – she is fun to talk to and seems to enjoy discussing her art collection, and her earlier life. In fact, she is so lively that you get the impression of a much younger woman trapped in a rather aging body.
As a young woman, Cayetana says, ´´I used to paint a bit, and I loved sports like riding – I used to jump in shows. I also loved tennis and skiing´´. She still goes to the beach in the summer, with the rest of the Spanish population, where she allows paparazzi to take pictures of her in her colourful beachwear, being the free-spirited bohemian that she is (apart from the cycle lanes).
She has a notoriously complicated relationship with the press, which has an ongoing obsession with the private lives of her and her family – four of her six children are divorced, and she has a much younger companion who is not universally approved of – and this is reflected in her parting words to me, which are, said a little plaintively, ´´treat me well.´´
f you want to read more about La Duquesa, I blogged extensively on Andalucia.com. Click here.