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Spain’s rebel noble, the Duchess of Alba, dies aged 88

A society figure who challenged convention, she married for the third time three years ago

The Duchess of Alba.
The Duchess of Alba. AFP

Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart y Silva, the Duchess of Alba, has died at the age of 88 in Seville.

The holder of 14 Grandezas de España titles, the highest rank in Spanish nobility, she was the head of the House of Alba and a well-known society figure. But, above all, she was a unique, incomparable individual who left no one indifferent.

Though born in Madrid’s Liria Palace, she always enjoyed stepping out on to the street and challenging convention. And she did so until the end of her days, marrying for the third time just three years ago.

“If I don’t poke my nose into anyone else’s life, they shouldn’t poke their nose into mine,” she argued ahead of marrying Alfonso Díez, with whom she celebrated her third wedding anniversary on October 5. Her children initially opposed the union but everything changed when the House of Alba estate was settled and the details of how all its assets, businesses, land and properties – worth anywhere between €600 million and €3 billion – were to be shared out was laid down in writing, along with the fact that the latest Duke of Alba would renounce almost everything.

If I don’t poke my nose into anyone else’s life, they shouldn’t poke their nose into mine”

Cayetana de Alba chose to divide her inheritance unequally between her six children – Carlos, Alfonso, Jacobo, Fernando, Cayetano and Eugenia – all born from her marriage to Luis Martínez de Irujo. The two eldest, Carlos and Alfonso, are left in charge of the House of Alba Foundation, obliged to preserve and maintain its historical legacy. Cayetano receives the Arbaizenea Palace in San Sebastián and the large Las Arroyuelas estate in Seville. Eugenia inherits the Ibiza mansión and another Seville estate, while Fernando and Alfonso takes Las Cañas mansion in Marbella and El Tejado estate, an old castle, in Salamanca. Most disappointed by the division of assets has undoubtedly been Jacobo, who receives a few country properties. The decision caused a rift between the pair that was only recently resolved. She also included her eldest grandchild, Carlos Fitz-James Stuart, to whom she left the Dueñas Palace in Seville.

Maintaining the House of Alba legacy was one of the duchess’s greatest concerns. Her big supporter in this task was her second husband, Jesús Aguirre, who restored part of the art collection in collaboration with Rafael Alonso of the Prado Museum, which since 1978 has taken on the task of looking after the House’s great works. In 2012, with the support of Madrid City Hall, the duchess put some of the treasures from her collection on public display in the exhibition El legado de la Casa de Alba. Mecenazgo al servicio del arte (The legacy of the House of Alba. Patronage at the service of art). The show included 150 masterpieces by the likes of Titian, Ribera, Rubens, Zurbarán, Renoir, Chagall, Fra Angélico and Goya, as well as a collection of letters penned by Christopher Colombus.

She once revealed that Picasso had wanted her as his model for a new version of Goya’s La maja desnuda

The rebuilding of the Liria Palace was another of the duchess’s missions after she inherited it upon her father’s death in 1953. It was in one of its rooms that on March 28, 1926, she was born, the first and only child of Jacobo Fitz-James Stuart y Falcó, 17th Duke of Alba and María del Rosario de Silva y Gurtubay, 10th Marchioness of San Vicente del Barco. The godparents at her christening were King Alfonso XIII and his wife Queen Victoria Eugenia. From a young age she was a woman of the world and spent many years living abroad. She was in Paris when the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 and later moved to London, where she often visited the future Queen Elizabeth II. She spoke English, French, German and Italian.

Her social life and interest in art meant she got to know many artists and other well-known figures, from Jackie Kennedy to Grace Kelly and Yves Saint Laurent. She once revealed that Picasso had wanted her as his model in order to create a new version of Goya’s famous La maja desnuda, but that the project never came to anything because of her husband Luis Martínez de Irujo’s objections. Another of her big passions was flamenco and she was noted for her dancing talent, boasting the great Antonio el bailarín as one of her teachers.

The duchess spent her last years in the Dueñas Palace in Sevilla where her third husband installed a cinema screen so she could indulge her love of movies, watching favorites such as Portrait in Black with Lana Turner and Anthony Quinn; Giant with Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean; and Gone with the Wind.

She departs without ever giving in, thinking she still had a lot of life left to live and time to go on being the rebel she always was.

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