Last week Seville was plunged into mourning when one of the city’s most beloved and iconic figures, the Duquesa de Alba, passed away at the age of 88. Sad but not unexpected, her end was just as she wished, at home surrounded by friends and family, and the loss has left a massive rift in the city’s soul.
Cayetana, as she was known, was not your typical aristocrat – she was an individualist, free-spirited, someone who forged her own path. The most titled noble in the world, she didn’t have the airs and graces of most high-born – she liked mixing with normal Sevillian folk, and was known for her flamboyant personal style: colourful print dresses worn with ankle bracelets and flowers in her wild grey candy-floss hair (“soy un poco hippyosa”, she said). She was pictured wearing bikinis at the beach well into her 80s. Her preferred residence was the historic Palacio de la Dueñas in Seville rather than the much grander Liria Palace in Madrid where she was born and grew up, and lived during her first marriage. She loved Seville with a passion which endeared her forever to its natives, and always said she felt most at home in the city.
Happy to fight against convention, Cayetana learned to dance flamenco when it was considered highly inappropriate for a young noblewoman, befriending gypsies, hanging out with artists (Picasso wanted to paint her in the nude), and marrying an illegitimate ex-Jesuit priest after her first husband died, positively scandalous in 1970s Spain. When the Duquesa declared her intention to marry for a third time, to a civil servant 25 years her junior (the public view was “Good for you, Cayetana”), her children were dead set against the match, only relenting when she agreed to divide up her estate before the wedding, to ensure that Alfonso Diez, her third husband, didn’t get his mitts on their inheritance. She and Alfonso enjoyed three happy years of marriage, and they travelled together extensively, although her health was failing this year and she hadn’t been seen out much, even missing this year’s Semana Santa (Holy Week) and Feria.
The Duquesa and her family were rarely out of the press and TV gossip programmes, usually for her children’s divorces and dalliances. But the Spanish public are suckers for a tragic heroine – just look at the obsessive, 24-hour coverage of singer Isabel Pantoja as she starts her two-year prison sentence for money laundering. The Duquesa, while being phenomenally wealthy (estimates range from 600 million to 3.5 billion euros) and living to a ripe old age, did not have an easy life in personal terms. Her mother died when she was eight, her father when she was 27, and her first husband when she was 46 leaving her with six children. Having lost one husband to leukemia, her second succumbed to cancer. That’s more tragedy than most of us have to deal with in a lifetime.
As a massive aficionado of bullfighting, flamenco and Semana Santa, the Sevillanos were bound to take her to their heart. Her first ever boyfriend was a bullfighter, and they remained friends until he died. Her daughter Eugenia, her youngest and most adored child, married a handsome young matador, and even after they divorced, Cayetana remained on very good terms with her ex-son in law, often attending his corridas – indeed he and his girlfriend were guests at her wedding three years ago, where he was pictured dancing with the delighted bride. Their relationship soured during a custody battle over her granddaughter, also called Cayetana, and his absence at her funeral was noted.
Cayetana’s favoured hermandad (brotherhood) in Seville’s Semana Santa (Holy Week) was Los Gitanos, whose church’s restoration she paid for; she rarely missed their procession on La Madrugada (Holy Thursday night). Los Gitanos’ wreath adorned her hearse, and in accordance with her wishes, the Duquesa’s remains were placed in their temple on Friday evening, after the funeral service in the cathedral. This week, the church had to ask people to stop bringing flowers as they couldn’t cope with the avalanche of floral tributes.
Another aspect of Sevilla which she loved, was football – she was a big fan of Betis football club. And of course, she loved flamenco – I went to a performance in honour of Camilla Duchess of Cornwall which Cayetana attended. They had met previously at Buckingham Palace, and two Duchesses watching flamenco was a gossip mag dream. Afterwards the Duquesa greeted the audience in her usual friendly fashion.
I had interviewed her previously, finding her to be a intelligent and cultured woman with a great sense of humour who, despite a voice slowed and slurred by illness, had a youthful spirit. She attended boarding school in England, which she didn’t enjoy very much, while her father was Spanish ambassador, and told me in her perfect English that she loved Claridges hotel in London, and shopping at Selfridges and Marks & Spencer. As an art aficionado, she visited Tate Britain and the National Gallery – her collection is Spain’s most important private one and includes works by Goya, Titian and Velazquez, to which Cayetana herself added Renoir, Chagall and Picasso. Charmed by our conversation, I became increasingly fascinated by her and stood outside her palace on the day of her wedding for hours in the heat with hordes of fans. After a long, hot wait we were rewarded when she came out of her palace, kicked off her shoes and danced flamenco in front of the assembled masses. They – we – were in thrall to this small, slight, octogenarian woman, with such a fierce personality and strong will.
But the Sevillanos’ love for her showed most of all immediately after she died last week. The largest state room of the Ayuntamiento, Salon Colon where civil weddings are held, was used as the “capilla ardiente”, where people come to pay their respects. The Duquesa was laid out in her coffin covered with the flags of Spain and the House of Alba. In less than 24 hours a staggering 80,000 people came to bid her farewell and sign the books of condolence. She was carried out of the Ayuntamiento, accompanied by her family and close friends, to a respectfully silent massed rank of press and public in Plaza Nueva. As the procession made its way down a packed Avenida de la Constitucion to the Cathedral, ripples of applause went through the crowd, with shouts of “Guapa!” and “La queremos mucho y a toda la familia!” (We love you very much and all the family.)
Inside the basilica, under the soaring arches of the world’s largest Gothic cathedral, there were banks of TV screens for the public to watch the funeral mass, and Carlos Amigo Vallejo, former Archbishop Cardinal of Seville, declared the Duquesa to be “noble por herencia y muy, muy noble por corazon” (noble by birth and very, very noble of heart) to the 3,000 friends, family and public in attendance, including Doña Elena, sister of King Felipe. Her widower Alfonso, standing next to his son-in-law, Carlos, now 19th Duke of Alba, couldn’t contain his tears. He was widely considered to have restored her joie de vivre, taking holidays with her to Thailand, Egypt and Paris, always by her side and always paying close attention to her every need. He looked utterly bereft.
The 19th Duke of Alba released a statement on behalf of the family this week, thanking the people of Seville for showing “such deep affection at such a painful time". He went on to say that he would “never forget the profound love which the Sevillanos have shown for my mother the Duchess of Alba both during her life and her death”.
While she was largely adored by people in Seville, the Duchess was not without her detractors. She was one of Spain’s most important terratenientes (landowners) – she had 34,000 hectares, and it is said you could cross Spain from south to north without leaving her lands. A certain proportion of this land was not cultivated, yet she received three million euros a year in EU subsidies, a situation considered grossly unfair by many in Andalucia where about 40% of the population lives below the poverty line.
The Duquesa was accused by the leader of SAT, the Andalucian trade union of jornaleros (day farm labourers, who don’t have work contracts and are paid by the day), of irregularities in her labour force and EU subsidies, and Social Security fraud. She responded by suing him for libel. When she was made an Hija Predilecta de Andalucia, the jornaleros took to the streets in protest, and a statue of her in Seville was vandalised twice shortly after being unveiled.
Another person who had little admiration for Cayetana was Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo, the mayor of communist village Marinaleda. He has advocated, and carried out, occupations of unused land in Andalucia, including hers, since the 1980s. Her youngest son Cayetano received major flack when he declared in TV interview that Andalucian youth “had no desire to progress”, unlike in northern or central Spain. Since youth unemployment was around 45% at the time, his comments were seen as especially obtuse. The Duchess was furious with Cayetano, managed to carry out some swift damage limitation by declaring that she was “more Andalucian than anyone”, thereby diluting the effect of his words.
In a recent interview, this eccentric, bohemian aristocrat said she wanted to be remembered most of all as a sevillana. It is beyond doubt that in this warm-blooded southern city, the 18th Duquesa de Alba, Maria de del Rosario Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart, will never be forgotten.