Sometime in the spring of 1922, the Marquis de Viana rented a beautiful manor house overlooking the sea at Le Grand Bec, not far from Deauville. Over the next few weeks the Manoir de Clairefontaine was buffed up, ready for a very special visitor.
A king in need of a change
Earlier that year King Alfonso XIII confided in his close friend José, or ‘Pepe’, Marquis de Viana that he was bored and in need of a change. King of Spain since his birth in 1886, Alfonso’s country was proving a troublesome responsibility. War with Morocco was expensive, deeply unpleasant and apparently his fault.
At home everyone was moaning at him and his wife was a constant thorn in his side. Alfonso had married Victoria Eugenia, granddaughter of Queen Victoria of England, and she bought haemophilia into his family along with a large dowry. Fully aware she was probably a carrier before they were engaged, he still could not forgive her for passing the disorder on to their sons.
Pepe was the most important member of Alphonso’s aristocratic clique. Loyal, discreet and great fun, he understood Alfonso better than anyone. They met as young men at a shooting school in Carabanchel.
From that time Alfonso showered titles and gifts upon his friend and Pepe hardly ever left his side. Now to soothe his beleaguered monarch during these difficult times, he concocted a cunning plan. They would holiday abroad for the summer, without their wives and with an incognito king.
City of sin; Deauville
Pepe called together a privileged gang that included his son-in-law the Duke of Peñaranda, the marqués de Villabrágima and Conde de la Maza. They were going to Deauville, an inspired choice. Deauville offered sun, sea, shows and showgirls. It was home to a casino with a bottomless bank, had good shooting, fishing and the king’s beloved polo. Some of the richest people in the world would be in town, and quite a few beautiful people who wanted to be rich.
Alfonso would be travelling incognito as the ‘Duque de Toledo’. What could possibly go wrong?
We’re all going on a summer holiday!
Delighted with Pepe’s plans, Alfonso informed the queen he would be holidaying abroad without her and refused to give details. She hated the favoured Pepe more than ever. She was not alone, once Spain discovered Alfonso had gone on holiday while his people suffered his entire monarchy was on shaky ground. But the sun was shining in Deauville.
The rented manoir was, and still is, one of the most beautiful homes in the area. A discrete few miles from Deauville, it was amusingly cosy compared to his Spanish castles, and secluded.
The Duque de Toledo has fun
Alfonso and the gang arrived one hot day summers day in 1922 and quickly threw themselves into a flurry of distractions. The Duque de Toledo was particularly keen to catch up with a new Spanish friend, the very lovely singer and actress Raquel Meller. He knew she would be pleased to see him and was confident his vast privilege would assure his privacy, in Deauville.
The Duke of Gramont gave the gang a private tour of the racetrack and invited the Duque de Toledo and his guests to take part in a polo match, the ‘Continental Championship’. It was an irresistible invitation, so Alfonso did not resist.
But they had been spotted.
It was hardly surprising; Alfonso was not a man to blend into the crowd; his profile was proud and unusual, and his life had been documented by the media since his birth. While the Spanish papers were discrete, Deauville was full of international journalists that summer. The latest telegraph equipment sped their news across the world. They were quick to share stories about the celebrity visitor.
The Associated Press put out a newswire that spared few details of Alfonso’s visit, on 19 August:
King Alfonso is cynosure of gay Deauville throng
The Duque plays polo
On 21 August 1922 blue skies shone, wealthy friends sparkled and thoroughbred horses gleamed up on Deauville’s polo field. With his team ‘El Gordo’ whose members included buddies the Marques de Villabragima and Conde de La Maza, the Duque de Toledo (as he was recorded on the team list that day) played a brilliant game. They won.
Alfonso was delighted, as we can see in this photo of him receiving the winner’s cup from the Duchess De Guiche. It really was a marvellous holiday, everyone was so friendly in Deauville, so respectful. A camera flashed and Alfonso’s familiar face was recorded for posterity.
After the match journalist Michel George-Michel wrote: “It was a great attraction seeing His Royal Highness playing polo. The stands were packed. All of London, Paris, Madrid, and their most famous players were there.”
It didn’t help that British Pathé was in town. After a few unseasonably chilly days they filmed ‘France – Sign of the Cold Snap – Deauville’s famous Beach deserted – but the Cafes are always a popular feature’. It included a scene of Alfonso and Pepe drinking in a café. The ‘Duque de Toledo’ disguise was no more and the British has a little joke at his expense:
The good life continued for Alfonso and the gang, they certainly weren’t going to rush home early. A cocktail was created in his honour and all the rage that summer:
The Alfphonso cocktail
1 sugar cube
3 dashes Angostura bitters
15 ml Gentian bitters
120 ml iced champagne
Place sugar in a coupette (wide glass). Dash bitters on the cube. Add Gentian bitters.
Slowly pour champagne into the glass.
Scandal and shame
By September there were a few signs the public was tiring of this party loving king. The Herald Democrat from 20 September reported:
Alfonso of Spain hears the plain truth
By the end of the year he was a laughing stock. In Paris a vaudeville show at the Théâtre Marigny include a smutty sketch with every scandalous bit of gossip from Alfonso’s summer ‘incognito’ in Deauville. The stage heaved with numerous women of all shapes and sizes, in various compromising positions. Paris thought it hilarious.
News of the show reached a shocked Spain. Alfonso, by now in more trouble than he had ever been before with his wife and his government, was desperate to have the show stopped. Shocked and ashamed, the Spanish Government attempted to intervene on his behalf. Their request made world-wide headlines – as we found out from a 1922 copy of the Pittsburgh Post.
The Chief of Paris Police visited the show and reported that as no laws had been broken he would not close it. Of course the theatre managers made the most of this opportunity and advertised the royal ‘interference’ widely. They then paid an actor to dress as Alfonso and enter the royal box nightly to the strains of ‘The Guard Mount’ from the opera Carmen. The show made them a small fortune.
For this and many other reasons Spain was heartily fed-up and resisted Alfonso’s attempts to subdue them with a dictatorship. By 1931 his unpopularity was complete and after some elections, he left Spain forever. At first he was a celebrity again and his escapades reported widely, but Europe was changing fast and soon had more important things to think about.
Forced to live in close proximity with his wife, both Alfonso and Victoria Eugenia were miserable. When Alfonso wrongly suspected her of being unfaithful, this faithless king asked her to choose between him and her friends. She chose instantly; ‘I do not want to see your ugly face again!’ and left for England.
Alfonso spent his final years living at the Grand Hotel in Rome. It was not a jolly time, he said “in the long run, the exiled kings are bored”. His death on 28 February 1941 barely made a line in the newspapers of the day.
But Alfonso, King of Spain, is still remembered very fondly, in Deauville.