Spain’s eccentric Duchess of Alba, one of the nation’s richest women who has more titles than any other aristocrat on earth, died on Thursday at the age of 88, a spokesman for her family said.
Maria del Rosario Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart passed away at her Duenas Palace in the southern city of Seville on Thursday morning, a family spokesman told AFP.
She had been moved to her home on Tuesday night after being hospitalised with pneumonia.
Known for her frizzy hair and colourful dress sense, the duchess owned swathes of real estate, palaces, great houses and treasures including paintings by Great Masters from Goya to Velazquez.
Her principle title was Duchess of Alba de Tormes but she had more than 40 others due to a complex series of marriages by her ancestors, which made her the noble with the most officially recognised titles in the world, according to Guinness World Records.
She was born at the Liria Palace in Madrid on March 28, 1926.
A common legend about the duchess holds that the King of Spain or Britain’s Queen Elizabeth would have to curtsy to her because of all her titles.
But when Queen Elizabeth visited Madrid in 1988 the duchess — who was known for not mincing her words — dismissed the claim as a “fiction” and bowed before the British monarch.
Cayetana, as she is affectionately known in Spain, then chatted with Queen Elizabeth about their childhood in London. The duchess’s father was Spain’s ambassador to Britain and she would visit Elizabeth, who was then a princess, at Buckingham Palace, according to Spanish newspaper El Pais.
– Dancing flamenco barefoot –
The “queen” of the gossip press in Spain, having her private life analysed in detail by the media did not bother her.
“If they forget you, you are nobody,” the twice-widowed aristocrat told Spanish magazine Yo Dona in September 2011, a month before she married for the third time with Alfonso Diez, a civil servant 25 years her junior.
The duchess had to work hard to overcome the opposition to that marriage by her children, whose own divorces and affairs have for years filled the pages of Spain’s gossip magazines.
Diez renounced any claim to the duchess’s wealth and just before the wedding she divided up much of her estate among her five sons and one daughter in her will. She kept control over the assets — reputedly worth between 600 million and 3.5 billion euros ($750 million and $4.4 billion) — until her death.
“Nobody pressured me. I am not someone who lets herself be influenced,” she told Spanish celebrity magazine Hola at her luxury home on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza.
After her last wedding, the aristocrat kicked off her shoes and danced flamenco on a red carpet at the entrance of her 15th-century Duenas Palace in Seville, before throwing her bouquet into a crowd of well-wishers.
Her first marriage in October 1947 to Don Pedro Luis Martines de Irujo, son of the Duke of Sotomayor, was described by the New York Times as “Spain’s most elaborate social event since the end of the monarchy”.
Six years after the duke’s death in 1972, the duchess scandalised Spanish high society by marrying a former Jesuit priest, Jesus Aguirre, who was 11 years younger than her and had been her confessor.
Her speech slowed after an operation in 2010 for water on the brain but that did not stop her from going to Thailand last year with her third husband despite the concerns of her children for her health.
Her vast wealth — it is said she could walk from the northernmost point of Spain all the way to the south coast without ever stepping out of her own lands — made her a target of claims that she enriched herself in part with European Union agricultural subsidies.
The Spanish branch of development charity Oxfam estimates the duchess and her children received 1.8 million euros in subsidies in 2003, according to the latest available figures.
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