When Prince Alexander Karadjordjevic was born on July 17, 1945, the area of Great Britain was temporarily reduced by the size of the famous London hotel Claridges’ suite 212. By the same area, 143 square meters, also temporarily, the area of Yugoslavia was increased. Credits for that went to the newly born prince: in order for the heir to the throne of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia to be born in his country, the then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill temporarily declared the hotel suite in which Alexander was born, the territory of Yugoslavia. So, in the apartment 212, Alexander Karadjordjevic was born.
– Since we were not able to return to Yugoslavia, we went to Switzerland, to St. Moritz. I was three and I remember how that summer of 1948, my father took me to the lake under the Corviglia Mountain and sat me in a boat. The vessel floated away from the shore and I vividly remember that I was throwing things out of the boat into the lake.
We talk in the Royal Palace, a big mansion of some four thousand square meters, hidden in a vast park-forest, which stretches over 330 acres, on the highest hill of the elite part of Belgrade, called Dedinje.
Crown Prince Alexander Karadjordjevic moved to the Royal Compound on July 17, 2001. Since then, it’s been his official residence. After 1945 this huge building was occupied by Josip Broz Tito, and later it served to accommodate the world leaders when they visited Belgrade (the last one staying there, just before the return of the Karadjordjevics to the White Palace, was Vladimir Putin).
The White Palace has an unusual history. It was designed as the residence for King Alexander’s sons − Peter, Tomislav and Andrej. But when King Alexander was assassinated in Marseilles in October 1934, the construction of the White Palace had only begun. When in 1937 it was completed, Prince Paul moved to it, intending to live there until Peter Karadjordjevic, the eldest son of the murdered king, hence his successor, becomes of age. At the time when, because of his father’s death, he became the king, he was only 11 years old, so Regency ruled in his name.
In March 1941, Prince Paul, who practically ran the country, signed the accession to the Tripartite Pact (Germany, Italy, and Japan). Huge anti-government demonstrations and the coup followed. King Peter II (the father of Alexander Karadjordjevic, the present resident of the White Palace) was hastily declared of age, although he was only 17 and a half years old, so on March 28, 1941, he was crowned and took over the power. But soon (April 6) Germany attacked Yugoslavia, the country was occupied in only 11 days, and King Peter II took off from Niksic airport and went to Greece, then to Egypt, and in June 1941 settled in England. There, in 1944, he married the two and half years older Princess Alexandra of Greece and Denmark, the daughter of the Greek King Alexander. They had only one child, a son, Alexander. The baptism was performed in London’s famed Westminster Abbey, the Church of Saint Peter, in which the majority of English kings were crowned. His godparents were English King George VI and his then 19-year-old daughter, now Queen Elizabeth II.
– My childhood was unusual. My parents were traveling from one country to another: England, Switzerland, France, Italy… I remember coming to Venice, where my grandmother, Queen Mary, had a house. My father then took a tour of the Diaspora, so we travelled to America by a large ocean-liner ship. I enjoyed a week on the ship, sailing across the Atlantic. In New York, for some time I attended a kindergarten”, says Prince Alexander.
What actually had happened to his family, Crown Prince Alexander began to realize, he says, only when he was 10 years old. At that point his father, who had struggled strong nostalgia and wanted to return to Yugoslavia “as of tomorrow” explained to him how Tito’s communist regime in Yugoslavia had abolished the monarchy, seized the royal family’s property and banned their return to the country.
– I really wanted to visit Yugoslavia. Not only Belgrade, which was the home of my father, I wanted to see Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro and Macedonia as well. I had lots of books on Yugoslavia, tourist guides and maps published by the Yugoslav government. When Tito died in May 1980 I was in Washington and I wrote an open letter to the New York Times. I said I knew there was no hope for me to return to the country soon, which was why I was very, very sad. My father died ten years before that in Denver; he was killed by nostalgia and alcohol. So even when Tito was gone in 1980, I did not hope the day when my family would be able to return to Yugoslavia was coming near, says Alexander II, while in the bleak January morning we talk in the Royal Palace. The maid silently brings us coffee, canapé sandwiches and cookies. There is absolute silence at the Palace. Sometime later, when the Crown Prince took us on the tour of the Palace’s basement, decorated in the style of Kremlin’s Teremny Hall, with walls and ceilings painted with the motifs from Scheherazade, tales of Firebird and scenes from Serbian epic folk poems, we see that there are even quieter places, like a small “room of whispers” in which King Alexander, the Crown Prince’s grandfather, had his most confidential conversations. He was exceedingly distrustful, so he requested a fountain to be incorporated into one of the walls of the small room, in order to create a veil of water murmuring sound and thus prevent anyone to hear what the King spoke. Right next to that room, there is a room with a billiard table, and a small room with a chess set, with the only two kings, black and white, who had no problems after the partisans entered Belgrade in 1945. There is also the first private cinema in the Balkans, where Tito, when he moved into the White Palace, used to watch his favourite westerns every evening.
Alexander II was educated at prestigious schools Marie-José and Le Rosey in Switzerland. But, he says, his father did not want him to become spoiled, to always have someone else to shine his shoes and makes his bed, so during one their stays in America he told his friends he wanted to toughen his son. “Then send him to Culver Military Academy”, said his American friends to the last Yugoslav king, and so he sent his son Alexander for a year to the military school.
– When for Christmas I got back to Paris, where my parents were living at that time, my father met me at the airport. My hair was cut short, like of the American soldiers, I was wearing a T-shirt and chewing gum. My father, in wonder, asked me: “Is that you?”
He continued his education in Scotland, in the locally famous Gordonstoun School, where he met his acquaintance, Prince Charles.
– Gordonstoun is in the middle of nowhere. It is a secluded place whipped by the cold winds from the North Sea. I truly hated that place.
His friendship with Prince Charles deepened in Gordonstoun. Charles, whose mother Elizabeth (Alexander’s godmother) in the meantime was crowned in June 1953 and became the Queen of England, had been meeting the young Karadjordjevic before, but it was their education that deepened their friendship.
– We meet every year. The last time we were together was a little over a month ago, last December, at a beautiful reception at Buckingham Palace. At least once a month, we exchange letters. Our friendship is very close. Prince Charles is a very nice man from whom I learned a lot. He has a foundation that helps people find jobs, he likes architecture and art. His wife Camilla is a sweet person and has established a great relationship with my wife, says the Crown Prince.
After Millfield, Alexander Karadjordjevic entered the Royal Military Academy of Great Britain, and then in 1966, as a member of the Royal Lancers, he served in the Middle East, Italy and what was then West Germany.
– The good side of my service in Germany was that I skied for the British military team, so we went to Switzerland, France, and Italy. As a soldier I served in Libya and Cyprus. I learned a lot.
When I met him at the beginning of 1996 in London, his military career was long time behind him. He left the army in 1972 and began to do business. At a prestigious address in Park Lane, overlooking the Hyde Park, between the posh Dorchester Hotel and the huge Hilton, whose 28 floors dominate this part of London, he had a spacious office. He told me: “As far as my job, I am on the boards of several companies. That is how I made my living and provided education for my children and in that respect I’m not different from anybody else: I know what the electricity, gas, and particularly phone bills are”.
Eighteen years later, when we the talk again this January, now in the Royal Palace in Dedinje, he explains all the jobs he was involved:
– I’ve been doing advertising. My companies had their headquarters in London, Rio de Janeiro and New York. Later on, I turned to the insurance, then banking and transport.
In those years he met many successful businessmen around the world, actors, artists, celebrities, and important politicians. The cameras recorded him with one of the richest men on the planet, Bill Gates; he visited President Ronald Reagan on his property Rancho del Cielo in Santa Barbara, California, met with the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, socialized with Nelson Mandela…
– If you ask me about the important people I know, I was particularly impressed by Queen Elizabeth; one has a lot to learn from her. Then the Spanish King Carlos, who is now going through a difficult period of his life. Or the Japanese Emperor Akihito. Among the many politicians that I’ve met over the years, particularly impressive were Nelson Mandela or the long-standing President of Iceland Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson. Of course, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, I congratulated Reagan, whom I had met, because it marked the end of the “empire of evil” as he called the Soviet Union. But my special sympathies go to Mahatma Gandhi, the great politician and an even greater man.
Although he was never far from politics, because his family had for generations lived with the politics, he got involved in it actively only during the nineties. When his father, King Peter II died in Colorado in 1970, he did not begin to use the title of the king, although that was his birth right. He thought that it would make no particular sense while he was in exile. He dreamed of returning to Yugoslavia, believing it would be most appropriate for the country to be a constitutional monarchy. Although it was quite a utopia, he thought he could, like the Spanish King Juan Carlos, play a positive role in the country’s transition, for it was clear that, like other socialist countries after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it will have to go that way. Therefore, he hasn’t waived his right to the title of the king and the throne. But nothing could stop the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Least of all, the establishment of a constitutional monarchy.
When in 1992 he came to Belgrade for the first time, at the invitation of the Serbian opposition, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, as Milosevic’s creation was then called, in territorial terms was no longer what it used to be when his father, then still a minor, King Peter, left the country. In this, Milosevic’s Yugoslavia, only Serbia and Montenegro remained. He arrived at the Surcin airport while the ban on his return to the country, which was declared by the communist government in 1947, was still in force. Although he could have been arrested and sent back where he came from by the first plane, had the law been applied, that did not happen. He says how he even did not show his passport to the police officers. He only said he was returning to his homeland and there was no need to show his documents. And they let him go.
With the disunited Serbian opposition, who did not know how to bring down Milosevic, for he was at his peak in the midst of the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, he did find a lot in common at that time. Yet he did not give up on helping the opposition, so he organized a gathering of anti-Milosevic coalition in Budapest in 1999. He used many of his foreign connections, lobbied and prepared two more gatherings at which the actions to remove Slobodan Milosevic’s regime were being negotiated. Both were held in 2000: one in Banja Luka, the other one in Athens. Finally, on October 5 of that year, Milosevic fell.
Nine months later, Prince Alexander Karadjordjevic and his wife, Princess Katherine Clairy Batis, who after getting married converted to Orthodoxy and changed her name to Katherine, moved into the White Palace. For both of them, it was their second marriage. Prince Alexander’s first marriage was with the Brazilian Princess Maria da Gloria of Orléans-Braganza. They got married in 1972 and had three children: Peter, born in 1980 in Chicago, and the twins Philip and Alexander, born in 1982 in Fairfax, Virginia. But the following year, the Brazilian princess and Yugoslav prince divorced.
Princess Katherine (born in Athens in November 1943), before her marriage to Alexander Karadjordjevic, got married in 1962 to Jack W. Andrews. Two children were born in this marriage, David and Alison. The marriage was dissolved in December 1984. Katherine and Alexander met in Washington the same year she got her divorce, and got married in London on September 21, 1985. Their best man was the Greek King Constantine, and the bridesman was Prince Tomislav.
I met Princess Katherine last summer, when, together with Crown Prince Alexander, she was in the Oplenac Mausoleum, where in June 2013 the remains of the Royal family’s members were transferred and re-interred. She was very interested what the Croatian media would write about the event. She loves music, literature, theatre, cooking and cross-country skiing. She is dedicated to humanitarian work.
For his three sons, Prince Alexander says that their main task is to earn their own living, because “it is no good when one gets everything on a silver platter”. The eldest son, Peter, works as a graphic designer, Philip is in banking, and Alexander in online business. Peter and Philip are in the UK, and Alexander is in Spain.
The Royal Palace is truly a pleasant place, and beside peace, it also provides enjoyment in the valuable works of art that adorn the rooms of the mansion to the visitors and, of course, to its residents. The canvases by Jacopo Palma il Vecchio, Nicolas Poussin, Andrea di Aloigi, and Vlaho Bukovac hang on the Palace walls. The original of Mestrovic’s sculpture “History of Croats” is located in the garden pavilion, and its replica is located in front of the Zagreb Faculty of Law.
– When we were visited by Mate Mestrovic, the son of the famous Croatian sculptor − says Alexander Karadjordjevic − he said he remembers when his father worked on that sculpture.
That there are no better novel writers than life, testifies the meeting between Crown Prince Karadjordjevic and recently deceased Tito’s wife Jovanka Broz. Like in a Hollywood movie, the wife of the former communist president and the son of the last king of Yugoslavia met after more than fifty years, in the Royal Palace, where at one time, after the war and the revolution, Tito used to live. Although Tito’s regime, by the decree of the National Assembly of Yugoslavia, signed on March 8, 1947 by Dr Ivan Ribar, confiscated the property and revoked citizenship of the ten members of the royal family of Karadjordjevic, among them Alexander, who then was not yet two years old, Prince Karadjordjevic and his wife Katherine spent some time with Tito’s widow. They were neighbours. They visited her in her Villa “Bor”, where she lived from Broz’s death until her own death.
– This villa was completely neglected. It’s amazing how the government had been treating her all these years. She did not deserve it. She was a dear person, lonely and abandoned by everyone − Prince Karadjordjevic describes this incredible event, like some dramatic film scene.
Prince Karadjordjevic (68) is a pleasant conversationalist, warm and witty. While standing under one of Poussin’s canvases, he complains how it longs for restoration. A few years ago the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art asked a Poussin’s painting owned by the White Palace, to be lent for an exhibition they were preparing.
– I told them they will not see much in this painting because time had rather dilapidated it. They took it, restored it and exhibited it. Beside that one, only one other painting, by Palma Vecchio, was restored, at the expense of the Italian government.
At the door of the Royal Palace he complains that little is invested in the maintenance of the vast mansion, which Prince Karadjordjevic considers a part of the common history of the peoples who once lived in the same country. He says he sold a house in London and invested all the money in the reconstruction of the Palace, but it was not enough.
– The roof is leaking, so when winters are stronger, we have to remove all artwork in two rooms, to avoid damages by the cold. The roof was renewed at one point, but the new one turned out to be worse than the old one, which was removed. And then a few years ago, began the reconstruction of the pool in which one million litres of water fits. I told them that the roof is more important than the pool, which should be at the bottom of the priorities list. But they reconstructed it nevertheless. And when it was filled with water – it leaked.
By Drago Hedl
Photos by Daniel Soldo