The king and queen said, “Come to lunch-we’ll pay half.” And so began this Canadian writer's encounter with the promt yet somehow pathetic exiled court of Yugoslavia
MY LIFE AND HARD TIMES AS A ROYAL BABY SITTER
The king and queen said, “Come to lunch-we’ll pay half.” And so began this Canadian writer's encounter with the promt yet somehow pathetic exiled court of Yugoslavia
THE DAY THE QUEEN phoned in Paris to ask me for lunch — Dutch treat — was also the beginning of my career as royal baby sitter to the exiled court of Yugoslavia.
"This is the queen speaking," said Alexandra of Yugoslavia, and I managed a weak "Good morning, your majesty,” as if this happened to me every day.
"The king and I,” she continued, “arc going to Versailles and then to lunch at the Coq Hardi. We thought you and your photographer might like to join us . . . We'll pay half.”
Photographer Russell Westwood and I were part of a ghostwriting squad that Odhams Press, the British magazine publishers, had sent to Paris to assist the literary careers of the Yugoslav royal family. An impoverished King Peter had just tapped the publishing world as a source of income. His memoirs had appeared; a colleague was ghosting the queen's story; and my assignment was a biography of Crown Prince Alexander, then ten years old.
After a drive in the king's battered old Jaguar, Westwood and 1 lunched with the royal pair at the Coq Hardi. It was a delicious and expensive meal at one of the finest restaurants in the world, and when the bill came, in the French manner, fifteen percent had been added “for service.”
King Peter summoned the headwaiter and addressed him as only kings dare to speak to such exalted persons. “Don't you know that you arc not to add fifteen percent to my bills? You are supposed to take fifteen percent off."
The discount was granted immediately. Peter showed me the final calculation and we each paid our half of the cut-rate royal Dutch treat.
For a man who until he was sixteen had an income of eighteen hundred dollars a day, Peter Karageorgevitch, king of the Croats, Serbs and Slovenes, has managed to adjust to life on the exiled royalty circuit. He has been broke to the point where a luxury Paris hotel once seized all his luggage lor nonpayment of an astronomical bill. He lives with the tantalizing knowledge that his late father’s millions lie just beyond his reach in a Swiss bank. He has come slowly to the realization that he will never return to the throne he occupied for twelve exciting days before the Nazis drove him into exile twenty-three years ago.
Now forty-one, Peter lives in Europe but visits Canada every two or three years to rally his royalist supporters and promote the slender hope that his son. Crown Prince Alexander, may one day return to Yugoslavia as king.
On his most recent visit we were flying together from Windsor to Toronto and the king was talking almost gaily of his financial misadventures. He was far more relaxed than on our first meeting eight years earlier in Claridge's Hotel, in London, where relations had been on a “your majesty” basis. ("You must say ‘your majesty' the first time you meet the king each day,” our protocol instructor said. “After that, you say, 'sir.'”)
In London when I would call Peter for an appointment the word would come back. “Not today. I am meeting my generals," or, “I am having a cabinet meeting." In Paris things were less formal; we ate and drank together at the Ritz, the Crillon or the Plaza Athene — always the best and always Dutch. When the king and queen were away, or busy, I became baby sitter for the crown prince. And as royal companion or baby sitter, I traveled as tar afield as Venice and Geneva and gained insight into the life of an exiled king.
There was the day when I was escorting the crown prince from Paris back to school in Switzerland. Peter and Alexandra drove us to the Gare de Lyons where friends of departing passengers buy platform tickets for a penny each. Instead of purchasing these, the king and queen sailed majestically through the gate.
Wondering how they had got in without paying. I asked the queen what she had said to the ticket collector.
“That's easy,” she explained. “We always say, ‘Ambassade Grec.’ They think we're from the Greek embassy and we get into all sorts of places that way without paying.”
Young Alexander, a nice blue-eyed, towheaded boy, picked up the regal manner from his parents and when we reached Geneva, he balked at having to line up for Swiss customs and immigration like the rest of us mortals.
“What are we waiting for?” he asked me. “We never bother about Customs. We go straight through."
He changed his tune when we reached the front door of the school. There he excused himself and headed for the sitie entrance, explaining self-consciously, "1 have not the permission to enter the front door with you."
Alexander's school was the exclusive Le Rosey at Rolle and Gstaad where the fees were three thousand dollars a year and the alumni included the Duke of Kent and King Beaudoin of the Belgians. There, the crown prince of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was just another boy called Alexander.
His fees at Le Rosey were paid by another exile, his maternal grandmother. Princess Aspasia of Greece. A distinguished-looking woman with deeply set dark eyes, a firm nose and mouth, she was a commoner whose morganatic marriage to King Alexander of Greece ended tragically in 1920 when the king succumbed to the bite of a pet monkey. Their daughter, now the Yugoslav queen, was born in 1921.
queen, PRINCESS Aspasia has a nine-acre estate, Eden Garden, on Giudecca Island off Venice. When I landed there one Easter to convoy Alexander to his parents in Paris, she was not exactly eager to turn him over to me, but a note from Peter changed her mind. It said, “This trip will be paid for by Odhams and it is very important that it be done now, otherwise it will hold up payments."
Peter was not exactly strapped: in England there was a trust fund of between $225,000 and $300,000 in Alexander’s name and this entitled the king to the use of the interest. At a conservative estimate this should have yielded him an income of $10,000 a year. In France, Peter located a bank account left by his father, who in the thirties had deposited francs worth $ 1,000,000. By 1949 when Peter got a court order giving him the money, the francs had diminished in value to $62,000.
Living at Claridge's and the Crillon required a greater income than this. Princess Aspasia sometimes helped out with hotel money, and when I came on the scene Peter was putting Alexander to work through the generosity of Odhams. Then there was also the hope of some day finding the elusive fortune left by his father King Alexander in a Swiss bank.
In the bank was a fortune, but Alexander died before he could reveal the code that guarded it
In addition to being king, Alexander owned a great deal of Yugoslavian real estate, including farms, hotels, mines and a bank. He salted his profits away in banks outside his homeland, including those remarkable institutions, famous for their discretion, the banks of Switzerland.
Swiss banks issue their depositors with a cipher or code number and without this no one can gain access to the account. Unfortunately, King Alexander fell before an assassin’s bullet in Marseilles on October 9, 1934, and died before he could impart to anyone the code number to his Swiss deposits.
At the time, this scarcely concerned Peter who was eleven and who had just been enrolled in an English boarding school. He was whisked back to Belgrade where a regency, under his uncle Prince Paul, was formed to rule the country for him. The boy king only came to power in March 1941 when a revolt deposed the pro-Nazi Paul. King Peter was then seventeen and worth ten million dollars, but his reign lasted less than two weeks before Hitler invaded Yugoslavia, forcing Peter into exile.
Money was no problem during the war because Peter’s government-inexile had access to Yugoslavia’s seventy-five million dollars in gold reserves in the United States. This was lost in 1945 when Britain and the U. S. recognized Tito as ruler of Yugoslavia. Tito offered Peter a pension of thirty thousand dollars a year if he would abdicate, but Peter scorned the deal and became a king without a country.
King Alexander’s hidden hoard stashed away in a Swiss bank then be-
came the pot of gold at the end of Peter’s rainbow. Time after time Peter has descended on the bankers with every diplomatic wile at a king's command; sometimes a hunch that the code number has come to him will set him off for Geneva, but the inheritance remains maddeningly out of reach.
Another royal asset just beyond Peter’s grasp is a large Rembrandt painting of a Roman soldier that King Alexander purchased in 1930 to hang in his Belgrade palace. His son thinks that its present value is about nine hundred thousand dollars. It was Peter’s luck that one of the mourners who marched behind him at his father’s funeral in 1934 was the demon art collector Hermann Goering, who was acting as Hitler's representative. President Lebrun and Marshall Pétain represented France and Goering was infuriated when Pétain was seated with the royal mourners while he was placed at a lesser table. During the state ceremonies Goering's greedy eyes landed on the Rembrandt, and seven years later he had his revenge. Nazi Germany overran Yugoslavia and Goering's agents snatched the painting lor the Reichmarshall's collection.
“I've tracked it down," Peter told me during his last visit to Canada, “but the people who have the painting want me to buy it from them. I say it's legally mine but they've threatened to destroy it if 1 try to claim it through the courts or the police."
Peter likes to hint that he's planning some cloak-and-dagger operation to recover the Rembrandt. He says Interpol, the international police organization, helped him trace the painting. but he won't reveal the location beyond saying that it is no longer inside Germany.
The king's other great hope was inspired by a visit to Spain where he found Franco was favorably disposed to having as his successor the son of the pretender to the Spanish throne. “Perhaps 1 can make a deal with Tito." Peter once explained to me. "so that Alexander can succeed him."
Strangely enough, Tito took official note of Alexander's birth and had his own Communist representatives present for the occasion. The date was Tuesday. July 17. 1945. the time 9.20 p.m. and the place room 327 of Claridge's which the British Foreign Office had made Yugoslav territory for the day.
The Titoist delegation was in the bathroom to witness the royal birth; Peter himself administered the chloroform to Queen Alexandra and then showed the newborn child first to his royalists and then to Tito's men. Following an old Serbian tradition. Peter then borrowed a priest's hat from Father Firmilian Ocokljic and dribbled it down the hotel corridor like a football to bring luck to his son.
Alexander's godparents were Britain's King George VI and the then Princess Elizabeth. At the christening in the Royal Chapel, Westminster Abbey. Elizabeth dunked the baby in the font. The water was too hot and the young prince let out a mighty yell that startled the royal company as well as the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Patriarch of Yugoslavia, who were conducting the rites.
My first meeting with Alexander was at the winter-sports centre of Gstaad in Switzerland. Armed with a royal warrant from Peter, photographer Westwood and 1 persuaded his headmaster to parole the prince to our care. It was our first experience with a royal heir but Alexander seemed a fairly normal ten-year-old, so we took him to C'harley's, a snack bar favored by the younger set. It was a half hour before lunch but they all stocked up on hamburgers and the prince stuck us for a supply of chocolate bars that should have lasted all winter.
On skis, the kid was a whiz. His French was flawless, his English was stiff, and his school marks undistinguished but that was scarcely his fault — through some oversight no one had taught him to read and write until he was eight years old.
When we returned to London from that expedition. 1 mentioned Alexander's education to the then prime minister at the exiled court. Mr. Gabrilovic. "That's not the right school for him," I counseled Gabrilovic. “You should send him to Gordonstoun in Scotland. Thai's where Prince Philip went and if Alexander goes to Gordonstoun. perhaps you'll get the Duke of Edinburgh to take an interest in him. After all. King Peter and Prince Philip are both great-great-grandsons of Queen Victoria."’
"1 think you have something there.'’ replied the prime minister, with a knowing smile. "And after Gordonstoun. maybe Alexander will marry Princess Anne. 1 shall take this up at our next cabinet meeting."
Not long ago. 1 met King Peter again at four o'clock one morning at an almost deserted Detroit airport. "How is Prince Alexander?" I asked.
"Wonderful," said the king, with just the hint of a wink. "He's at Gordonstoun." Neither of us had to add that one of his schoolmates was the heir to the British throne, Prince Charles, whose sister Anne turned fourteen this year.
My only problem as a royal baby sitter came while traveling the Orient Express from Venice to Paris. Photographer Westwood and I had reserved two compartments each with two beds. The question was how to divide the available space between two coivrmoners and a prince. Our royalist instincts got the better of us and we gave Alexander a compartment to himself.
In Paris I found myself stuck with a ten-year-old whose tastes were somewhat different than mine. Peter was experiencing an economy mood and with his queen was looking for an apartment that would be cheaper than the Grillon. Almost every day the telephone would ring, commanding my services as baby sitter.
Alexander was not too demanding and we usually ended up at the movies. Once we entered a theatre on the Champs Elysccs to see a western but were only able to get the cheapest seats in the very last row. When the lights came on at intermission, Alexander surveyed our surroundings and observed, "These are pretty good seats, aren’t they?” I allowed that they weren’t too bad, and the young prince replied royally, "I know. We always get the best seats.”
At the end of the afternoon we would all join for a drink at some expensive bar. The only luxury establishment we avoided was the Georges V, which had committed the indignity of putting the arm on Peter’s baggage in retaliation for an overdue bill. It was not entirely his fault, the king explained; going through the itemized account he discovered he was being charged for laundry some relatives of his royal retainers had been bringing to the hotel to be done at royal expense.
At the Grillon, Peter was apparently avoiding this hazard and the bathroom was busily festooned with drying clothes and there was an ironing
board set up beside the wash tub.
The king also had a do-it-yourself passport department at the Grillon. The family still travels on royal Yugoslav passports and when one is filled up, the king has another made to order. They are accepted as diplomatic documents and customs officers accept the bearer’s immunity from search. It’s one of the last perquisites of exiled royalty.
The last time I crossed a frontier in royal style was between Detroit and Windsor, Ont. No questions were asked of Peter and a short while later we were seated together on a plane bound for Toronto.
"How arc you getting on with the Swiss banks?” I asked.
Peter’s face lighted up. “Do you know,” he replied, “I think I am on the right track at last. The Swiss are amending their laws because they have a lot of money deposited by people who later died in Nazi concentration camps. The new regulations will give their heirs access to these accounts. Now I have always maintained that my father was one of the first victims of Fascism . . .”
The dark eyes above the beak nose of the Karageorgevitchs began to dream. King Alexander’s millions were so close at hand that Peter seemed to be enjoying the vision of the new racing car or modest yacht that have been denied him since his exile twenty-three years ago.
! am sure I would have heard if anything had come of this, but as they say on the exiled royalty circuit, “If it were not for hope, the heart would break.” ★
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