The Man Who Would Be King

Louis de Bourbon, heir to the throne of France, arrives in his ancestor's city next month for a friendly visit. But the politics of French royalty require finesse.

Jul 12, 2000 at 4:00 am
It's only a 15-minute speech at Cafe de France, but Jane Robert's been rewriting it in her head for a month now.

All she has to do is tell members of the Alliance Française and the Société Française about the imminent visit of a charming young prince, Louis de Bourbon, descendant of St. Louis' namesake and legitimist heir to the throne of France.

But she has to do it on July 14.

At a dinner celebrating Bastille Day.

The day Frenchmen stormed a medieval fortress on the east edge of Paris and loosed the tide of republican revolution against the Bourbon monarchy.

"That was his family," winces Robert. "This is very awkward."

She has only herself to blame: Bringing the prince to St. Louis was her brainstorm, back in May 1999. She read an interview with him in France-Amerique, the U.S. edition of Figaro, and realized that not only did he know all the right people in France and Spain (King Juan Carlos is a first cousin once removed), but he represented, in royal flesh, our city's cultural and historical roots. We could start the new millennium by inviting him to the annual Aug. 25 French Mass in honor of his ancestor King Louis IX, she thought.

Friends from the Alliance Française (of which Robert is president), the Société Française and the St. Louis-Lyons Sister Cities Committee hailed the idea as brilliant, then fell silent. Would he come?

Robert read them the France-Amerique interview, in which the 26-year-old prince said he was determined to represent the Bourbon family legacy and eager explore its cultural manifestations in other countries. Then she reminded them that he also happened to be an aspiring international banker eager to make social and commercial connections in the U.S. Besides, she noted, our city was named for Louis IX, with whom he shares an April 25 birthday....

Determined, she called her friend Jean-Louis Turlin, the publisher of France-Amerique, who connected her with the Bourbon publishing house. She invited its publisher and editor to lunch with her at La Mangeoire, in Paris' 14th arrondissement, that July. By the time the créme brûlée arrived, they'd agreed to convey her proposal to the prince. By October, he'd accepted.

Ecstatic, Robert flew into action, planning how St. Louis would entertain the prince. Everyone she asked to help -- from the University of Missouri-St. Louis to the mayor to Georgia Frontiere, owner of the Rams -- acceded instantly. The itinerary started out stiffly formal but quickly spun into something younger and more casual. "He's a jock," says Robert with a grin. "He plays ice hockey for a club in Spain, and rugby; he goes kayaking and canyoning and horseback riding and rafting." They arranged a box for the baseball Cardinals, drafted the Young Entrepreneurs Organization and the Young Friends of the Art Museum. No hotel, no limo; he could stay at one of the historic mansions on Lindell Boulevard, and people from St. Louis' French community could drive him.

The prince was delighted.

Louis de Bourbon, duc d'Anjou and head of the House of Bourbon, will arrive in St. Louis on Wednesday, Aug. 23. A young St. Louis couple, Russell and Ann Perry, were initially drafted to "take him down to Balaban's that evening and just kind of hang out," reports Russell Perry. "But then we thought he could fly down to Dallas in (Georgia Frontiere's) jet, see a preseason Rams game and fly back."

The next morning, Robert's husband and son will take the prince to Old Warson Country Club for a round of golf. Friday evening, Archbishop Justin Rigali, whose diplomatic responsibilities in Rome polished his French, will say the Mass of St. Louis at the Old Cathedral. Saturday morning, the prince will tour Ste. Genevieve and the French-heritage corridor. Saturday evening he'll attend a gala fundraiser at the University Club, with proceeds going to Alliance Française tuition and scholarships. (The $175 tickets are being snapped up by local dignitaries, monarchists and mothers of single daughters.)

On Sunday, if all goes well in the archives of France, the prince will present Rigali with a relic of Louis IX at the St. Louis Basilica. Then he'll be whisked off for the best photo op of all: a big prince (6-foot-4 or so) alongside a 9-year-old Little Prince, star of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's famous play. It's being staged by Characters and Company in Kirkwood, and Louis de Bourbon will answer questions from children in the audience.

"What if they can't come up with any?" asked a nervous committeewoman. "Tell them to ask if he wears a cape," Robert suggested brightly, explaining that he comes from the Capetian family, descendants of the ninth-century French king who styled himself Hugh Capet (Hugh the Caped). "The mayor of Kirkwood should be there, in a tie," she continued. "We should all dress up. And the prince should always be the last to enter -- or, better yet, he could go backstage and talk to the cast first and then come out. That's how they did it in Britain with the queen of Belgium."

When the curtain falls, Mario Sylvander, an Alliance board member who teaches French at John Burroughs School, will help the prince escape for what Midwesterners inaccurately call mountain biking. "It's really all-terrain biking," explains Sylvander, "and in French it's called VTT, velo-tout-terrain. Jane didn't know what that was, so she first transmitted it as four-wheeling -- hop in your Ford Explorer and go bouncing around -- and then as motocross!" When the real sport became clear, the prince accepted with alacrity. Now Sylvander's just hoping his guest remembers to pack shorts and tennies: "I'm not sure of his level of technical ability on a mountain bike, so I'm thinking about a trail about 30 minutes outside St. Louis that starts out very easy, with big wide track, then crosses a couple creeks and narrows. If he likes it, we could do it twice."

Sylvander has already met the prince, at a dinner at Paris' Le Mercure last April. "He seemed not shy but demure," says Sylvander. "Obviously he's used to being the focus of attention, so he's not going to make any outlandish comments. His assistants were wonderfully jovial, though -- what we'd call in French bons vivants. And the prince speaks both French and English with a light Spanish accent, which is charming."

Louis de Bourbon grew up in Madrid, attending that city's prestigious French schools and finishing with a master's degree in finance from the Centre Universitaire d'Etudes Financieres. (He also attended Culver Military Academy in Indiana, where he learned to love American sports.) He now bears "administrative responsibilities" at the Banco Banif Banqueros Personales S.A. and will have a chance to talk business with local executives at a Monday-morning breakfast.

Louis de Bourbon should be a natural at global negotiation: French, Spanish, English, Italian, German, Austrian, Hungarian and Polish blood all run deep-blue in his veins, and his family tree grows up through many kings' reigns.

He also happens to be the great-grandson of Generalissimo Francisco Franco.

In 1931, Spain's king, Alfonso XIII, went into exile to spare his people a civil war they endured anyway. Franco took power, and in 1947 he declared Spain a kingdom without a king. One of Alfonso's four sons stood to inherit the throne -- but two had died young with hemophilia, and a third, Don Jaime, was deaf and mute. That left Don Juan, who was far too liberal for Franco's taste. So Franco leapfrogged the father and eventually crowned his son, Juan Carlos.

Meanwhile, Don Jaime, the deaf and mute son, had married, and one of his sons, Alfonso Carlos, fell in love with Franco's granddaughter. They married and had children, the eldest being Louis de Bourbon. Then, in 1991, Alfonso was decapitated in a skiing accident in Colorado, leaving 15-year-old Louis to inherit the title of duc d'Anjou along with his father's sportsmanship, savoir-faire and royal claim.

Of course, were the royalists to prevail, France could also find its king in the Orleans line -- except that "the far right, a tiny but wealthy and influential group who still have vague ideas of overthrowing the republic, just haven't been comfortable with the Orleans people." At least that's the assessment of Anton Pregaldin, a history buff who's past president of both the St. Louis-Lyons Sister Cities Committee and the Société Française -- and when you read about Henri d'Orleans, a fabulously wealthy, liberal and libertine aristocrat who joined the Foreign Legion, dominated the gossip columns and sold off the royal legacy in bits and pieces, one can see his point. Henri died last summer, and in the bungalow he shared with his mistress, his children found nothing but a pair of bedroom slippers and six hankies monogrammed with the royal crest.

Shunning the infamous count, monarchists fastened several years ago on the "legitimist" heir, Louis de Bourbon. "He's tall, young, good-looking, clean-cut and wholesome, with no mistresses that we know of," explains Pregaldin. "He goes to church. He lives with his grandmother. He is a playboy -- but what he plays is hockey and basketball."

He's not the only pretender, though, and he's not the most popular. An inquiry to the European Royal History Journal produced a blistering e-mail calling Louis de Bourbon "a fantasy duc d'Anjou," his claim "a nasty sore point" among royalists and French legitimism an ultrarightist "fringe movement." It seems an earlier duc d'Anjou, King Felipe V of Spain, traded away the right to succeed in France in return for the crown of Spain in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. "For the Royal Houses of Europe and a vast majority of Frenchmen," continued the editor, "the only Heir to the Royal House of France is HRH Prince Henri d'Orleans, Comte de Paris," eldest heir of the colorful father who bore the same name.

They're all related anyway; both Henri d'Orleans and Louis de Bourbon descend from Louis XIII, after whom the lineage forked. King Charles X, the last Bourbon king, was deposed in 1830 and replaced by the Orleans King Louis-Philippe, who was himself deposed in 1848, when Napoleon's nephew declared himself emperor. Thus four pretenders nonchalantly vie for the nonexistent throne: Henri, Louis, a Bonapartist pretender and yet another Bourbon pretender.

Why a second Bourbon? "There is a little problem in this boy's ancestry," confides Pregaldin, crooking his finger toward a paparazzi shot of Louis in a military cockpit. "There is this question about the legitimacy of the children of Queen Isabella II in the mid-19th century. If Queen Isabella's son, King Alfonso XII, was not in fact the son of her husband King Francisco de Bourbon ... then the Bourbon Parma family would be next."

"Obviously our organizations have no opinion about whether France should have a monarchy," he adds hastily.

As the prince's visit draws close, the history blurs, and anxieties center on how to address him -- and what to feed him -- and whether to take him to Ted Drewes, or Crown Candy Kitchen, or maybe barhopping, St. Louis-style. "It came up; we discussed it for months," admits Robert, "and we finally decided against it -- although if he wants to, it's not out of the question. He doesn't drink much wine," she adds, "and he doesn't eat a lot of red meat. He's quiet, an excellent listener, doesn't come in and take over the room. People are going to an enormous amount of trouble to create good food for him, even though he's told me the food is not important to him." Still, nobody's braving French haute cuisine, or Spanish either. "We're trying to keep an American theme," explains Robert. "But no Velveeta, and no Jell-o."

As for names, the proper address for the prince is "Monseigneur" -- literally, "my lord" -- which Robert fears St. Louisans will corrupt to "Monsignor," turning the prince into a priest. Sylvander, who started out practicing "Monsieur le Duc" because it seemed more reasonable than "Monsieur le Prince," does know the proper pronunciation but "just can't see, out on the trail, yelling, "My lord, watch out for that curve up ahead!"

If he doesn't, the French will hear about it: Famous journalist Stephane Bern is flying over, as is a cameraman for the TF1 TV station in Paris. Word of the prince's visit has been rippling through monarchist circles since early spring. "We've had calls and letters from people all over the country," says Robert, dazed by the royalist enthusiasm in our populist democracy. Some cherish monarchy's stability, traditions, romance and pageantry; others see it as the ultimate campaign-finance reform.

Meanwhile, a French count has called, offering to join the prince in St. Louis. "The prince is a one-man show; we can't suddenly plunk a count in there," murmurs Robert. "It's very delicate." Fortunately, she's a deft diplomat; she even consulted with the Orleans branch ahead of time. They graciously agreed that a visit from Louis de Bourbon seemed appropriate for St. Louis and asked only that it not be politicized -- a goal she heartily shares. The Alliance Française, after all, was started to promote the French language and culture after France's humiliation in the Franco-Prussian war, and the St. Louis Alliance, like all the others, receives a small subsidy from France's Ministry of Foreign Affairs -- which is part of the current republican government.

On the other hand, "the mission of the Alliance is to build appreciation of French culture," notes Robert, "and by hosting a prince we have accomplished this in a way we have never, ever accomplished in our 94-year history. It may come from a different political branch, but it's accomplished the mission."

Would the prince ascend to the throne if one were offered? "He will not talk about it," predicts Robert, "but in no way is he a pretender to any throne. We don't even say 'heir to the throne'; we always bill him as the descendant of St. Louis, here for a historic and cultural visit. It's his family he's trying to keep in the forefront, his Bourbon roots and heritage."

Those roots do, however, twine around quite a few crowns, and in that 1999 France-Amerique interview, Louis de Bourbon did claim a "position incontestable," saying that the fundamental laws of ancient France place his claim above partisan quarrels and competitions.

"I don't pretend to anything," he said in French. "I am."