One of the high points of last summer’s Venice Biennale was Tino Sehgal’s performance-art piece at the German Pavilion, where every 10 minutes actors dressed as security guards would suddenly start [#image: /photos/54cbf42c1ca1cf0a23ac4947]hopping around and singing, “This is so contemporary, contemporary, contemporary!” Most onlookers just stood there, unsure of how to react. One slightly frumpy-looking woman in a black cotton jacket and a brown pleated skirt, however, leapt right in, shouting out in glee, “Contemporary! Contemporary!” “Oh, mein Gott,” muttered a German tourist. “Das ist die Fürstin von Thurn und Taxis!”
A quarter-century after she married the man who was said to be Germany’s richest aristocrat, her distant cousin Prince Johannes von Thurn und Taxis, when she was 20 and he was 53, and became notorious for her wild parties and punk hairdos, Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, now a widow of 46, still knows how to turn heads. I first interviewed her for this magazine in 1985, at Schloss St. Emmeram, the Thurn und Taxises’ 500-room palace, in Regensburg, Bavaria, and gave her the nickname that stuck: “Princess TNT, the dynamite socialite.” She did her best to live up to it: barking like a dog on the David Letterman show; staying out all night with the rock star Prince; getting busted for possession of hashish—which she claimed had been planted—at the Munich airport.
But her antics were tame compared with the behavior of her husband, who in his bachelorhood was unapologetic about his free-swinging bisexuality. He also relished mocking pomposity. Among the victims of his insults and pranks were Britain’s Princess Margaret, Newport hostess Eileen Slocum, and Bolivian tin king Anténor Patiño.
At the time of his marriage, Prince Johannes, whose family went back to 12th-century Lombardy and made its fortune by securing the postal monopoly of the Holy Roman Empire, was said to be worth $3 billion. The largest landowner in Germany, His Serene Highness also owned a bank, breweries, metallurgical companies, 10 other palaces and castles, and extensive properties in Brazil, inherited from his mother, an infanta of the Portuguese royal family.
In 1986, I covered the 60th-birthday party Gloria gave Johannes at Regensburg. The over-the-top, million-dollar affair was largely boycotted by the German nobility, but Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall were there, along with a full array of 1980s icons including Malcolm Forbes, Ann and Gordon Getty, Sotheby’s chairman Alfred Taubman and his wife, Judy, the Brazilian plastic surgeon Ivo Pitanguy, and the Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, all in 18th-century getups and powdered wigs for the big costume ball. While many guests still giggle about the birthday cake decorated with 60 marzipan phalluses, for me the most unforgettable moment came when Gloria, dressed as Marie Antoinette, descended on a gilded cloud at the end of a scene from Don Giovanni—performed by the Munich Opera—and sang “Happy birthday, Johnny” in the style of Marlene Dietrich.
Four years later the party was over: Prince Johannes died in December 1990, following two unsuccessful heart transplants, and left debts totaling more than $500 million, mostly from unwise investments in North American commercial real estate. When I caught up with Gloria in the summer of 1992, at Schloss Garatshausen, the family’s 40-room retreat in southern Bavaria, she was trying to deal with the mess. Nonetheless, she was in high spirits, playing camp counselor to her three children, Princess Maria Theresia, then 11, Princess Elisabeth, 10, and Inheritor Prince Albert, 9, as well as to the three children of her sister, Maya, and brother-in-law, Mick Flick, the Mercedes-Benz heir.
Gloria had just announced that she was selling off a large portion of the family silver and jewelry. The auction, held by Sotheby’s in Geneva, brought in $13.7 million. A second auction staged by Sotheby’s at Schloss St. Emmeram in 1993 fetched another $19.3 million. Gloria spent the rest of the decade holed up in Regensburg, raising her children and turning their financial situation around. She sold the metallurgical companies and the bank, trimmed the palace staff, and gave up 24 of her 27 cars. She also studied economics and tax law with private tutors. “I didn’t see anybody socially, because I was so tired in the evening,” she told me when I interviewed her for this story. “But I got to know all the companies, and I got to know the problems, and I could make decisions.”
During this time she also became very involved with the Catholic Church. In 1991 she made her first visit to Lourdes, where she worked as a volunteer with the sick and dying who go there in hopes of a miraculous cure. On a trip to Florence six years later, she became enthralled with Monsignor Michael Schmitz, the vicar-general of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, a conservative Catholic organization dedicated to restoring the Latin Mass. She also cultivated a friendship with the Bavarian-born Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, one of the most powerful figures in the Vatican. In 2000 she moved to Rome, enrolled Prince Albert in a private school there, and with her good friend the Italian princess Alessandra Borghese began hosting liturgical concerts in churches, attended by Cardinal Ratzinger. She arranged to have the famous Regensburg boys’ choir, which had been directed by Ratzinger’s older brother, Georg, who is also a priest, sing for Pope John Paul II at Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence. In April 2005, when the cardinal was elected Pope Benedict XVI, Germans started referring to Princess TNT as the new Pope’s best friend. In September of this year, when Benedict officiates at an outdoor Mass for 500,000 in Regensburg, Gloria will be front and center with the city’s bishop.
As Dagmar von Taube, a leading journalist for Welt am Sonntag, in Berlin, says, “Here is this wild person who has become very serious about business and religion. But she still spices up every event she goes to. She’s still a pop star. And she says what she thinks—she has the courage for controversy.” Hugo Boss executive Philipp Wolff adds, “She has managed to go from the Queen of Decadence to the very well-respected manager of a German fortune.”
“I was a spoiled brat,” Gloria admits. “My only responsibility was to entertain Johannes and his guests and look after my children My biggest challenge was to get close to rock stars. But once I met them, the myth collapsed. With the Church, it was exactly the contrary. When I met Pope John Paul, he was even more than I thought he would be.”
Countess Marina Cicogna, a longtime friend, thinks that Gloria’s true character is finally emerging: “At a very young age, Gloria found herself married to an extremely overpowering figure. She molded herself for Johannes. She had to be as outrageous as he was, because that was what he liked. He wanted to have children—especially a boy—and she did her job. Another young woman would have been crushed, but she wasn’t. She’s a much more serious, bright, together person than she appeared to be when Johannes was alive.”
In Venice, Princess von Thurn und Taxis and Princess Borghese were the talk of the Biennale, dashing from pavilion to pavilion by day, with Alessandra’s Jack Russell terrier, Pucci, scampering after them, and from palazzo to palazzo by night, shouting at friends through a megaphone from their hired speedboat as it zoomed down the Grand Canal.
“This is so much fun” was Gloria’s constant refrain, whether bargaining for Thomas Ruff’s supersize digital image of the Empire State Building or angling for an invitation to go on the Octopus, Paul Allen’s elephantine yacht. When the invitation came through, it turned out to be a disappointment, because the Microsoft co-founder and amateur rock guitarist wouldn’t let Gloria sing with his band.
From Venice, I accompanied Gloria back to Schloss St. Emmeram, which sits in the middle of Regensburg and is about the same size as the palace at Versailles, with Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque, and Victorian wings. The changes Gloria has made since Johannes’s death were evident from the moment we drove through the front gate. The last time I had been there, the courtyard was filled with 5,000 Regensburgers in full Bavarian regalia hailing their prince on his 60th birthday while Johannes waved from a balcony. Now two red-and-yellow vinyl tents had been set up for a “comedy convention,” as Gloria explained, “that I’m doing as a favor to a local politician.”
Twenty years ago the Schloss was entirely private, with every room perfectly maintained, down to the crystal ashtrays on every side table, for the exclusive use of the princely family, who regularly gave seated dinners for 80, with a liveried footman behind each place in the white-and-gold Hall of Mirrors. Now the staterooms are open to the public, with daily tours at 10 euros per person; there are strings across the Hall of Mirrors’ red velvet chairs; and smoking is verboten.
Most of the family’s oldest china, silver, and objets d’art have been donated to Bavaria’s Office of Patrimony, in exchange for a reduction of a reported $80 million estate-tax bill; these treasures are now installed in a state-run museum just outside the palace gate. The carriage museum, which has one of the finest collections of antique coaches, sleighs, and sedan chairs in Europe, has always been open to the public, but now so are the medieval cloisters and family crypt. A large part of the palace’s west wing has been converted to offices for a law firm, an architectural-design studio, and a financial-research institute, and the main staterooms can be rented for corporate conferences. Some things have not changed: Gloria still personally covers the cost of feeding 400 poor local residents a hot midday meal in a dining hall adjoining the Schloss.
The princess herself is hardly suffering. In addition to her residence in Rome, in the last few years she has bought a pied-à-terre in Paris and land in Malindi, Kenya, where she has built a beach house on the Indian Ocean. And through all her troubles, she never stopped buying paintings, sculptures, and photographs by 80s and 90s art stars such as Anselm Kiefer, Donald Baechler, Takashi Murakami, Richard Prince, Andreas Gursky, and Paul McCarthy, which she thought nothing of juxtaposing with the palace’s gilded furniture and ancient tapestries. Her sharp eye and adventurous taste paid off last November, when she sold 111 works at the Phillips auction house in New York for $8.4 million. “I will go on collecting,” Gloria told me, “but young and up-and-coming artists, such as John Connelly, Paul Morrison, and Lisa Ruyter. I am also collecting medieval sacred art, which I have discovered I really love.”
Last year Kerry Taylor Auctions, in London, sold about 100 of Gloria’s old couture outfits. The proceeds went to the Relief Organisation of the Order of Malta, under whose auspices Gloria makes her annual visits to Lourdes. Point de Vue ran pictures of her there again last year, standing beside her “inséparable amie,” Alessandra Borghese, both princesses clad in the nunlike nurse’s uniform of the Dames of Malta. The head of the Knights of Malta in Germany was also staying at Schloss St. Emmeram the weekend I was there, and there was a bottle of Eau de Lourdes in my bathroom.
Princess Gloria, her mother, Beatrix, Countess von Schönburg-Glauchau, and I ate dinner in the new stainless-steel kitchen—not the big family dining room with assorted Wittelsbachs and Fürstenbergs staring down from the boiserie. A framed photograph of a smiling Cardinal Ratzinger visiting with Gloria and the children at the Schloss in 2004 stood on a countertop alongside a bowl of the little plastic fetuses that were being handed out by anti-abortion activists at the German-Catholic conference Gloria was sponsoring that weekend. We were joined for dinner by Abbot Richard von Menshengen, a young Austrian cleric, who said Mass in Latin later in the private chapel.
Gloria’s children were not at home. Princess Maria Theresia, now 25, is a documentary-film maker, whose first film, about German doctors who treat burn victims in Nepal, premieres this month in Paris. Princess Elisabeth, 24, works at André Schlechtriem Temporary, a German-owned gallery in New York. Prince Albert, 22, is a student at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland. He is surprisingly low-key, given his parents’ flamboyance. “Albert was next to us at the funeral of Prince Rainier,” says Prince Michael of Greece. “He’s charming, intelligent, well brought up—everything you would want your child to be.”
I interviewed Gloria in the family drawing room after Mass. She was very much the country hostess in a forest-green pullover, tan suede skirt, and single strand of pearls. On the coffee table were photographs of her and the children with Pope John Paul II and of her with Cardinal Van Thuan of Vietnam, who, she explained, had spent 13 years in a Communist prison. The table itself—a three-ton box of elephant bones under glass—was made in Kenya by Anna Trzebinski and reflects Gloria’s infatuation with Africa, which goes back to her childhood, when her father, Count Joachim von Schönburg-Glauchau, worked as a foreign correspondent, in Togo and Somalia. Both her father and her mother, a Hungarian aristocrat, had lost everything in the Communist takeover of Eastern Europe. Between the ages of 6 and 10, Gloria, along with her older sister, Maya, attended an Italian missionary school in Mogadishu; her younger brothers, Carl-Alban and Alexander, were born in Africa.
“Somalia used to be beautiful,” Gloria recalled. “But we came back to Germany in 1970 because the Somalians got too friendly with the Russians. Today you can’t go there. But three years ago, when I was dreaming about a place on the beach, a Bavarian friend told me about Kenya. So we went to Kenya, the whole family. The windsurfing was great, the beach is wonderful, and there is a little town—Malindi—where many of our Italian friends go. Africa was calling me, in a way.”
Gloria bought one of the few pieces of oceanfront property still available in Malindi. “I found an Italian builder there and an architect in Rome,” she said. “In August 2004 the house was done. I’d created my little paradise.”
She is so in love with her African retreat that she is planning to retire there—”as soon as I bring the palace into the black. And then I will turn it over to Albert. Alfred Taubman always used to say, ‘Your Schloss is not an asset, it’s a liability.’ And that made me think, We’re never going to be able to sell this property, but maybe we can turn it into something that supports itself. I’m almost there.”
It costs $5 to $10 million a year to maintain the Schloss, according to Gloria. In addition to the cash flow generated by tours, office rentals, and corporate events, a Christmas market that Gloria runs there brings in revenue. This summer she will hold her third annual music festival, which she took over from the city of Regensburg and turned into a moneymaking venture by personally promoting it. This year’s headliners run the gamut from Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón to the Swedish pop group Abba.
“I must tell you, I learned a lot from Princess Grace and Prince Rainier,” she explained. “I would never want to turn Regensburg into another Monte Carlo—in any case, we are not sovereign rulers, we are normal citizens—but we can all learn from the way they promoted their country. At the end of the day, my green and blue and yellow hair made me interesting and made this place interesting. If I have 150,000 visitors a year, it’s not only because they want to see the history of the Thurn und Taxises, but also where Gloria lives.”
In the late 1990s, Gloria began venturing out into society again. One of the friendships she renewed was with Alessandra Borghese, who had recently been divorced from Constantine Niarchos, the youngest son of the late Greek shipping tycoon. Gloria’s daughters were in English boarding schools, but Albert, even though he had been accepted at Eton, preferred to stay with his mother. “I said, ‘O.K., but we shouldn’t stay in Regensburg,'” Gloria recalled. “I felt it was time he went somewhere else, where he was not Albert Thurn und Taxis. And Alessandra said, ‘Why don’t you come to Rome?'”
Gloria bought a small palazzo close to the Palazzo Borghese, the ancestral home of Alessandra’s father’s noble Roman family, which has included the 17th-century Pope Paul V and St. Catherine of Siena. (Her mother’s family fortune came from Citterio salami and San Pellegrino mineral water.) In 2000 the two princesses co-authored Our Etiquette: The World of Good Manners from A to Z, which became a best-seller in Germany and Italy. Four years later, Alessandra published With New Eyes: The Story of My Conversion, a memoir about jettisoning her discotheque lifestyle and re-discovering her Catholic faith. Her new book, Thirst for God, has been on Italian best-seller lists for months.
Alessandra has said she owed her conversion to the late Leonardo Mondadori, the socially prominent publisher who had not long before brought out a book about his own conversion. Mondadori, a sympathizer with Opus Dei, introduced Borghese to the powerful Catholic lay organization and also made her Vatican correspondent for the newsweekly Panorama.
Meanwhile, when Gloria told her old friend Monsignor Schmitz, from the Institute of Christ the King, that she was moving to Rome, he was delighted. He encouraged her, she said, “to create a salon” to help restore the relationship between the Vatican hierarchy and the old Roman aristocracy—families such as the Borgheses, the Corsinis, and the Colonnas—whose titles went back to the Papal States and whose privileges had been curtailed by Pope Paul VI in the 1960s.
“I said, ‘That’s a difficult task, but I will see what I can do,'” Gloria recounted. “And I was really lucky, because la divina provvidenza saw to it that Alessandra became very interested in doing that. I couldn’t push her too much in the beginning, because I didn’t want her to feel that I was using her. But she started to get a kick out of me wanting to meet people in the Vatican and to go regularly to the Pope’s Masses.”
In 1999 the Princesses Borghese and Thurn und Taxis organized a Mass combined with a concert at the Santa Maria in Aracoeli Church. Cardinal Ratzinger delivered the homily, and his brother’s choir sang. The following year, they invited Giuseppe Sinopoli to conduct the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra at a requiem Mass in San Paolo Fuori le Mura, one of Rome’s four major basilicas. The German ambassador gave a dinner. “It was very Vatican-oriented, with old Roman families, not café society at all,” said Marina Cicogna. “There were several cardinals, as I recall, including Ratzinger.”
‘When I was 23 years old, Cardinal Ratzinger came to Regensburg on Saint Wolfgang’s Day—Wolfgang was the bishop who reformed the diocese in the 900s—and I heard him preach,” says Gloria. “I came home and told Johannes, ‘That’s the first time in my life that I heard somebody speak who was lit up by the Holy Spirit.’ Johannes said, ‘But he’s famous. I’ve known him for years.'”
The 56-year-old prelate had been a theological star in Germany since the late 1950s and was considered a liberal reformer. In 1969, however, in reaction to Marxist-inspired student riots at the University of Tübingen, he asked to be transferred to the much more conservative University of Regensburg. With 360 churches and chapels for 130,000 residents, Regensburg is “a little Rome,” in Gloria’s words. In March 1977, Ratzinger was named Archbishop of Munich, and three months later he was made a cardinal. In 1981, Pope John Paul II appointed him Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office formerly known as the Inquisition, and he moved to Rome. But he still owns the house he bought near Regensburg for him and his brother.
“After I heard him preach that day,” Gloria continues, “I knew that this guy was a saint. I said to Johannes, ‘We must get to know him better.'” In the ensuing years, she made sure to see the cardinal whenever he came to Germany, and after Johannes died, she asked him to celebrate Mass at the Schloss. “Albert was the altar boy,” she recalls. “I was so happy and proud.” From then on, Gloria invited Ratzinger to say Mass every year.
“Slowly, a friendship began,” says Gloria. “When I moved to Rome, I was already friendly with the cardinal’s secretary, Monsignor Josef Clemens. The children and I had made a trip to Israel with him that year at Eastertime.” Through Clemens, Gloria had dinner with Ratzinger from time to time. Fortunately, he was “very sympathetic” with Gloria’s friends from the Institute of Christ the King. “He understood that the Second Vatican Council had gone too far,” she explains, “and that now we had a happy-clappy situation with guitars and drums and people gathering around the altar and yelling. The cardinal felt that people who believed in the old traditions needed to have an existence in the Church, too.”
Ratzinger’s secretary also enabled Gloria to bring the Regensburg boys’ choir to perform at Castel Gandolfo. Two years ago, Clemens was made a bishop, but Ratzinger’s new personal secretary, the handsome young Don Georg Ganswein, knew Alessandra because of her Vatican reporting, so the princesses’ access to the cardinal continued. One night they were invited to a conference he was holding at the Palazzo Colonna and to dinner afterward with him and Ganswein at the Casa Santa Marta, in the Vatican. “It’s a restaurant where the nuns prepare the food,” Gloria tells me. “Alessandra and I were totally thrilled. Wow! We’ve never been to Santa Marta, and we’re going, just the four of us!”
The day before John Paul II died, Gloria and Alessandra were invited to the Benedictine monastery at Subiaco, where Cardinal Ratzinger was receiving a prize for his theological works. Gloria says, “I was sure John Paul II was going to die any minute, and I was totally sure that Cardinal Ratzinger would be Pope. But I didn’t want to pray for that, because that was up to the Holy Spirit. I thought, This is not a football game. This is serious stuff. So I prayed for a good decision.”
Gloria was among the 60,000 people saying the Rosary in St. Peter’s Square at the moment of the Pope’s death. Two weeks later, wearing a black mantilla, she was among the first laypeople to be received by the new pope, Benedict XVI.
“For her, this was the ultimate triumph, the ne plus ultra,” says a titled insider. “No one would have ever dreamt that this man who came from Regensburg, and who would have lunch at the palace every time he came back to see his brother, would become Pope. In a way, the Vatican is the last old-fashioned court, with an absolute ruler on top and a circle of courtiers around him. It’s fascinating for snobs like us to be part of this, and to watch someone like Gloria, who has been everywhere and done everything, crack it.”
Sitting in her drawing room in the Schloss, I asked Gloria if she was aware of the gossip about her relationship with Alessandra Borghese. “Yes, but I think it’s normal. I am alone, and I don’t have a man next to me. But I have a best girlfriend. So people figure, She needs to have a sex life, so she must have the sex life with her girlfriend. If you tell people that you live in chastity, they think you’re crazy. I don’t really care what people think, because I’m going to be Alessandra’s best friend anyway. I would be terribly lonely otherwise. We share in the beliefs and joy of the Church. We love the same sports—golf, skiing, and windsurfing. For me it’s the best situation.”
From Regensburg we flew to Switzerland for the opening of Art Unlimited, the avant-garde sideshow of the annual Basel Art Fair, where Prince Albert joined us at a buffet dinner hosted by the Union Bank of Switzerland. Tall and broad-shouldered like his father, Albert comes across as a hearty, unpretentious college kid who enjoys hanging out with his madcap mother.
As family friends have pointed out, Albert, not Gloria, inherited Johannes’s estate. His mother was merely acting as his trustee until he turned 18. According to Forbes magazine’s latest list of international billionaires, Albert is worth about $2 billion. He is considered one of the most eligible bachelors in Europe.
When I asked Gloria about the role of titled people in today’s society, she said, “In my opinion, they are part of the entertainment world. Aristocrats don’t like to hear that. But I think it’s good. The entertainment value of the family helps promote my palace. At the same time, we can use this vehicle to set a good example, to show that tradition, family, religion, work, responsibility, arts patronage—all these things—are good. I tell my kids, ‘People are always going to look at you, because you have a great name. You must try to turn that attention to something positive. If you lead a scandalous life, then it’s really going to be over. Because then we don’t have any role anymore.'”
Princess Gloria is—dare I say it?—holy at last.
Bob Colacello is a Vanity Fair special correspondent.