Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Death of Princess Lilian

Today is the tenth anniversary of the death of Princess Lilian, the second wife of King Leopold III. As described by Michel Verwilghen in Le mythe d'Argenteuil (pp. 34-54), she  passed away at her beautiful, beloved home of Argenteuil, in the early afternoon of June 7, 2002. The date was a deeply significant one for Leopold and Lilian, marking exactly 58 years since the King's deportation to Hirschstein, and exactly one year since the Princess' publication of the King's account of the controversies of his reign.  Lilian died peacefully, and apparently painlessly, after a silent, stoical struggle with blood dysplasia, surrounded by her doctors and supported by her devoted housekeeper and caretaker, Madame Jeannine Degrève. Earlier, she had received religious consolation from a chaplain from the Cliniques Universitaires Saint Luc. For the past year, weakening health had forced her into a kind of retreat from the world. In contrast to her previously vibrant, active life, her many years as a glamorous hostess to the great, towards the end she would receive no visitors except her two children living in Europe, her doctors and nurses, and the closest members of the entourage of Argenteuil. 

On the day of her death, her son Alexandre was on his way to see her. The only one of Lilian's children to reside in Belgium, he had been visiting his mother every day.  Upon his arrival, he was sadly surprised to find that his mother had already passed away. Alexandre tried to contact his sister Esmeralda by telephone, to break the sad news to her gently, but was unable to reach her. As it happened, she was traveling with her family by train, under the Channel from London to Brussels, for her niece Princess Astrid's birthday dinner. Nevertheless, Esmeralda soon learned of her loss from someone else, who offered condolence. Meanwhile, Alexandre also attempted to inform his half-brother, Albert II, of Lilian's death. The Princess of Réthy had been the only mother the King had been old enough to remember. Alexandre wished to speak to Albert personally, but was unable to do so. On a state visit to Germany, the Belgian monarch was at a ceremony with the German president. Alexandre was obliged to leave a message for Albert at Laeken. Upon Esmeralda's arrival in Belgium, she traveled to Landsrode, Alexandre's home in Rhode-Saint-Génèse. Leaving her children in the care of a nanny, the devastated princess returned with her brother to Argenteuil to pay her last respects to her deceased mother. 

The same day, Alexandre and Esmeralda called their American sister Marie-Christine, known in the family as Daphné. Although Daphné had been bitterly estranged from Lilian, Alexandre and Esmeralda were kind-hearted and thoughtful enough to want to be the first to tell their sister that their mother had passed away. These considerate overtures were in vain. Daphné made it clear that her feelings had not been softened by Lilian's death. On the contrary, she informed Alexandre and Esmeralda that she would not be returning to Belgium for the funeral. Tragically, it is this same hateful, spiteful and unforgiving attitude that continues to dominate much of the public perception of Lilian, sixty years after the Royal Question and ten years after her death. Caricatures of the Princess of Réthy as a whore, gold-digger and wicked step-mother abound, and old canards persist that she worked at Laeken as the nanny of the royal children, fell pregnant in order to force their father into marriage, and robbed the palace of all of its furnishings while moving to Argenteuil.

Rather in the spirit of Marie-Christine, who publicly wished death on the woman who had given her life, by emphatically declaring, on Flemish television, while her mother was still alive, that she was waiting for her share of the inheritance, I have seen venomous comments gloating over Lilian's death. Others, however, remember the brave and dignified woman protecting her husband and children in wartime prison, the loyal consort supporting her king in the face of calumny and persecution, the tender humanitarian quietly performing works of charity in obscurity, the intellectual, religious woman seeking comfort in a beautiful, humble, rustic chapel, and pondering eternity.  They remember the great lover of nature, travel, friendship, conversations, art and beauty. Like Alexandre and Esmeralda, those who knew the real Lilian have reason to mourn her loss. Meanwhile, Belgians ought to consider their debt of gratitude to a woman who saved the lives of many of their children through her patronage of cardiology. Through her vigilance and courage in Nazi captivity, she may very well have also saved the lives of three of their kings.

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