Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Tragedy & the Queen

The life of Italy's last queen, Marie-José, daughter of King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, was marked by many tragedies. She experienced two world wars, an unhappy marriage, political turmoil, and exile. From 1934-1944, she lost her father, King Albert, and her sisters-in-law, Queen Astrid of Belgium and Princess Mafalda of Savoy; in 1992, she lost her grandson, Rafael, and, in 1999, her son-in-law, Luis Reyna Corvalan. All died in an untimely and tragic manner.

Marie-José's first, and probably most traumatic, personal tragedy was the death of her father, King Albert I on February 17, 1934. The terrible news reached Marie-José the next morning. She and her husband, Prince Umberto, were enjoying a pleasant conversation over breakfast; the couple were exceptionally happy, as Marie-José, after four years of marriage, was finally expecting her first child. Suddenly, Umberto was called to the telephone. When he returned, grave and pale, he told Marie-José that her father had suffered a serious mountaineering accident. He did not, at first, dare to tell her that Albert had actually been killed. Faced, however, with her anxious, insistent questioning, Umberto finally let his wife know, with great tenderness, that all hope was lost (Regolo, p. 140). "Struck by the suddenness of the shock," Marie-José would later write, "I could not take in the extent of my misfortune. Immobility was intolerable to me, I kept walking up and down. Umberto remained at my side, trying to comfort me." Yet she was too shocked to attend to his words, or even to weep.

To many, it seemed incredible that King Albert, one of the most prudent and accomplished alpinists of his generation, a man who had conquered high peaks, should have been killed climbing the modest "Cliff of the Good God," at Marche-les-Dames. In her memoirs, Marie-José recalled her reaction: "A mountaineering accident in Belgium- how was this possible?" The inquest concluded that a rock grasped by the King had unexpectedly given way, hurling him into the void, and that he had shattered his skull against the rocks below.

Albert's death was a terrible human tragedy - the grisly destruction of a noble man. It was also a political tragedy. The Belgian royal house lost one of its most gifted and prestigious members. Only six years later, political figures would unleash a storm of calumny against Albert's son, the younger, less well-known, less experienced, and more vulnerable Leopold III, eventually forcing his abdication and permanently weakening the Belgian monarchy. Since the monarchy was one of the chief unifying strengths of the country, this seriously harmed Belgium.

While Marie-José surely appreciated the political aspects of Albert's death, she lost, above all, a father she had, from childhood, deeply loved and admired. Their relationship had been close; in addition to a tender family affection, they had shared a profound intellectual friendship rooted in common historical, political, and philosophical interests. For these reasons, the blow was especially cruel.

Another tragic aspect of the situation was the proliferation of malevolent (and surprisingly persistent) rumors concerning Albert's death. Suspicions of foul play rapidly arose, and these were turned against the dead King and his grieving family. The unfortunate lack of clarity in the judicial inquest gave rise to insinuations that the royal family had prevented a thorough investigation in order to suppress a damaging truth. What might this be? A host of theories sprang up. Some insidiously attacked Leopold, by contending, for instance, that Hitler had arranged Albert's assassination because he judged his son more pliable. Others subtly undermined, or openly assaulted, Albert's own reputation. For example, some claimed he had committed suicide in a fit of depression. Others suggested that the French secret service had murdered him, suspecting him of disloyalty to his French allies. Still others, without any proof, claimed he was a multiple adulterer, killed by a jealous rival.

Marie-José must have been deeply pained by the rumors, which repeatedly flared up through the decades. Leopold, for his part, was certainly annoyed, although he admitted, and regretted, the inadequacies of the inquest into his father's death (Verwilghen, p. 286). In her memoirs, Marie-José recalls the grief and indignation of her aunt, Princess Henriette, when scandalous stories were spread about Albert's (and Henriette's) older brother, Baudouin, following his own untimely death. "How could they launch... these tragic and painful lies?" Henriette had written. Marie-José must have been similarly outraged by the attacks upon her father's reputation.

In any case, they were certainly outrageous. No mere propagandist, but, rather, the heroic and saintly Abbot of Orval, an intimate of King Albert, praised him, in the highest terms, as a good head of the family, devoted to inculcating, in his children, integrity and abnegation, as a noble head of state, deeply concerned for justice, and, most importantly, as a great Christian, who strove, at all times, to maintain a clear conscience. To launch treacherous, cruel and vulgar attacks against such a man, especially after he had died so tragically, seems horrible.

Sadly, Albert's death was followed, on August 29, 1935, by that of his daughter-in-law, Queen Astrid, in a car accident in Switzerland. On a mountain road in Küssnacht, Leopold lost control of the vehicle, which plunged down a ravine. Both Leopold and Astrid were hurled out of the car, and the Queen's skull was shattered, just as King Albert's had been. Astrid's death, like Albert's, weighed heavily on the history of the Belgian monarchy. Again, the royal house lost one of its most beloved members. During her life, Astrid's popularity had been a tremendous asset to her husband; after her death, propagandists would manipulate her image to discredit him.

Her sister-in-law's tragic death, occurring so soon after that of her father, was certainly a terrible blow to Marie-José. She later told the touching story of her visit to the Italian mystic, Padre Pio, shortly before World War II. Still grieving over the loss of her father and sister-in-law, Marie-José was comforted by her meeting with Padre Pio. They spoke at length about Albert and Astrid, and the priest, "as if he could see them," said: "They are close to God" (Regolo, pp. 172-173).

Astrid was not the only sister-in-law Marie-José would lose tragically. During the fascist period, Umberto's sister, the lovely and kind-hearted Princess Mafalda, had been married to Prince Philip of Hesse, who served as an intermediary between Mussolini and Hitler (although it is said that he also aided Jewish friends to escape to the Netherlands). Mafalda, for her part, incurred Hitler's enmity by attempting to defend the Jews. During World War II, after Italy joined the Allies, Hitler took revenge on the unfortunate Princess. Deported to the Buchenwald concentration camp and fatally wounded in an air-raid, she died in August, 1944. Her family were devastated, and Marie-José was deeply grieved; Mafalda had been her dearest friend in the House of Savoy."What a cruel destiny!" she later recalled, "Poor Mafalda!" (Regolo p. 145)

Marie-José's old age was marked by more family sorrows. On April 24, 1992, she lost her favorite grandson, Rafael, who fell to his death under mysterious circumstances. The son of her youngest daughter, Maria Beatrice, and her husband, the Argentinian diplomat, Luis Reyna Corvalan, Rafael was a talented, intellectual young man, studying at the University of Boston. Marie-José and Rafael had enjoyed an exceptionally close relationship; they shared deep philosophical interests. "He was a unique boy, extraordinarily sensitive", the Queen sadly remembered, "like my father, he had an innate sense of the religious and the transcendent. Why did everything have to end? He was so young" (Regolo p. 186). According to Maria Beatrice, "(my mother) suffered greatly over my son's death...Perhaps, only when her father... died, did she suffer in the same way. With both, she had a deep, visceral bond. And, by a tragic destiny, my grandfather, too...died falling from a great height" (Regolo, p. 185).

Marie-José, too, bore many crosses; and, by all accounts, with great dignity and fortitude. May she, and her tragically lost loved ones, rest in peace.


Marie-José, Queen, Consort of Umberto II, King of Italy. Albert et Elisabeth de Belgique, mes parents. 1971.

Mallieux, René. Le Roi Albert Alpiniste. 1956.

Regolo, Luciano. La regina incompresa: tutto il racconto della vita di Maria José di Savoia. 2002.

Sparre, Anna. Astrid mon amie. 2005.

Vanwelkenhuyzen, Jean. Les gâchis des années 30: 1933-1937. 2008.

Verwilghen, Michel. Le mythe d'Argenteuil: demeure d'un couple royal. 2006.

Weber, Patrick. Amours royales et princières: mariages, liaisons, passions, et trahisons de la cour de Belgique. 2006.


Lucy said...

A ripple effect of tragedies...goodness- one after the other. Thanks for all the detail you've put into this piece. I must say you are quite learned in this subject. I enjoyed it very much-despite all its sadness. Thanks Matterhorn.

May said...

Thank you- I didn't know what kind of reaction it would get, it was hard to get the right tone, to avoid it merely sounding like a dreary recital of doom and gloom. But there is something uplifting in MJ's courageous character that offsets that, I think.

May said...

Also, I tried writing this many times before, but it never seemed to work until now.