If screen writers looked for fresh subjects of interesting movies…Eastern European monarchies would definitely make it to the top of such a list.
The stories of the tragic end of the monarchies in this part of the world in the 1940s sometimes coupled with equally tragic personal destinies of the members of their royal families are a good source of knowledge, cultural understanding and wonder for us today.
Queen Geraldine of Albania is a moving example of how circumstances, history and people can draw the fate of a beautiful girl dragging her along life’s twists and turns and giving her a single chance to cope with whatever it is thrown on her path.
Countess Geraldine Apponyi de Nagy-Appony was born the daughter of an impoverished Hungarian count and an American heiress in Budapest, in what was, in 1915, the Austro-Hungarian empire. She spent a happy childhood at the family estate but by the time she was a teenager, her family was bankrupt, and she was forced to take on part-time jobs. The beautiful young countess used to sell postcards at Budapest museum in the afternoons while the mornings were dedicated to office hours at various companies where she did secretarial tasks.
Cinderella story? Maybe…with a twist. At age 17, her life dramatically changed…not by a lost shoe, but by a photograph that was taken at a ball to launch her into Hungarian society. Not very far away from Hungary, in Albania, President Amet Bej Zogu had proclaimed himself King Zog I and was keen on ensuring the continuity of his newly formed dynasty. A beautiful young wife would have been the perfect solution. And Zogu was aware that the popularity of his family would be well served by a fresh and innocent face that people could call “their Queen”.
He sent his sisters to Vienna and Budapest in search of a suitable wife, and they returned with a number of photos the King could choose from. Seeing Geraldine’s photo made all other presented photos useless. The King was immediately smitten and invited the Hungarian Countess to Tirana. But that was not a conventional love story. She was 22, he was 42 and looked much older. She didn’t speak Albanian and knew nothing about the country where she was to reign. He was more used to political debates and preoccupied with the future of his country in the context of Second World War rather than being interested in entertaining young ladies. But Geraldine praised him for having “maturity and authority” and accepted his marriage proposal.
The wedding took place in April 1938, in Tirana and photographs of those times show us a young smiling bride and serious groom, a contrast that will mark all their married life. Maybe it is worth mentioning that the main witness at their wedding was Count Ciano, Mussolini’s envoy and that the newlyweds received a supercharged red Mercedes a gift from Hitler.
Geraldine would spend only 354 days as queen in Albania, but her husband spoilt her with a luxury she would remember for the rest of her exiled life. She had the best of everything: houses, jewellery, gowns…nothing was too expensive for his beloved Queen.
In April 1939, exactly one year after their wedding, she became the mother of little Leka, who took the title of crown prince. But history lost its patience, and eleven days later Italy invaded Albania. The king, queen and their prince fled to Greece. Zog’s last words broadcast to the Albanians was to “fight to the last drop of blood to defend our independence”. He would never return to Albania ever again.
During the following years, Geraldine and Zog lived in Britain, at first at the Ritz hotel in London and then in a rented stately home. After the war ended in Europe, they moved to Egypt as a guest of King Farouk (where Geraldine spent the best years of her life, as she later declared) until the Egyptian monarch was himself deposed, in 1952. The Albanian royal family finally settled in Paris, where Zogu died in 1961.
Geraldine dedicated her life to her son who was proclaimed King of Albania in a hotel room in Paris, right after the death of his father. In 1997, he returned with his mother to Tirana, and a referendum was held on whether the monarchy should be restored in Albania. Only 30% of Albanians voted in favour of monarchy, so the country remained a republic.
In the last months of her long life, Queen Geraldine took residence in Tirana. She died there in 2002, surrounded by her family, which included Queen Susan, Leka’s Australian-born wife, and their son, Crown Prince Leka. A circle of royal life and duty was closed.