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IT ISN’T everyone whose ancestor’s nude portrait may hang in the Museo del Prado in Madrid. But for the late 18th Duchess of Alba, this was probably a whimsical sidelight to a rich, aristocratic life.
The 18th Duchess of Alba’s complete name was Maria del Rosario Cayetana Alfonsa Victoria Eugenia Francisca Fitz-James Stuart y Silva. In addition to the Alba lineage, her list of titles fills several pages. She preferred being known as Cayetana de Alba; writer Fermin Urbiola knew her as a woman who was “born in high society yet knew how to walk among the people like nobody else.”
The Duchess died in her Palacio de las Dueñas on November 20, 2014 at the age of 88.
Among the Duchess’s passions were art (50,000 pieces), rare books and letters (18,000, including a 1st edition of Cervantes’s Don Quixote and correspondences of Christopher Columbus), and property. It has been observed that she could criss-cross Spain and always stay the night on her own property.
The Duchess loved bull fighting and flamenco dancing too. At her third wedding in 2011, at age 85, she showed her expertise in the latter art.
The Duchess’s ancestors include King James II of England (reigning 1685 – 1688) and his mistress Arabella Churchill (distant kin of Winston Churchill and of Diana, Princess of Wales).
There has been conjecture that Francisco Goya’s portraits, La Maja Desnuda, c. 1797 – 1800, and La Maja Vestida, 1803 (The Nude Maja and The Clothed Maja, respectively) were of her ancestor, the 13th Duchess of Alba, several of whose less controversial portraits were definitely Goya’s. The latter-day duchess was once asked to pose by Pablo Picasso, but she declined.
The Duchess’s father was ambassador to Britain, and she shared toys with the future Queen Elizabeth when they were children. The Duchess’s first wedding in 1947 was only a month before Elizabeth married Prince Philip, its ceremony rivaling the latter’s in lavishness. (The Guardian of Britain called it “the last great feudal wedding in Spain.”)
Her first husband was a Spanish grande, son of the Duke of Sotomayor. They had six children; he died in 1972.
The Duchess’s second husband was an ex-Jesuit priest, indeed, her personal confessor. They were married in 1978, not without controversy, at least in part because of his illegitimacy. Eight years younger than the duchess, it is said he got on well with her children.
The Duchess was widowed again in 2001. Her third and final marriage, to a civil servant running a public relations agency, aroused more than a little controversy. It was settled by his renouncing any claim to the Duchess’s immense wealth (perhaps $4.4 billion, up there with Bernie Ecclestone’s, but with fewer lawsuits).
Prior to the October 2011 wedding, the Duchess gave her children and grandchildren their inheritances in advance. Among other assets, each of the six children got a palace and thousands of acres of land.
Alfonso Diez Carabantes is 24 years the Duchess’s junior. No matter; this didn’t dissuade them from being photographed, hand in hand, at the beach in Formentera, Spain, her in a two-piece bathing suit of her signature bright colors.
Prior to their 2011 marriage, Diez said, “She’s unstoppable. It often seems that I’m the older of the two.”
A rich life, well lived. Rest as you choose, Cayetana de Alba. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2014