Icons / June 2017

Alfonso von Hohenlohe: Prince of Clubs

Prince Alfonso von Hohenlohe zu Langenburg, the founder of the Marbella Club, was one of the original playboys and was amongst the most Rakish individuals to have ever graced our fair planet.

The Italian actress Ira von Furstenberg posing with her husband, the Spanish Prince Alfonso of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, circa 1950. Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images.

"I was very much in with high society, what one would call the ‘jet set’, although I have never owned a jet — but I did have three aeroplanes for cargo. I also had an interest in aviation and had three pilot’s licences: Spanish, Austrian and Mexican.”

The other day I came across a sheaf of transcripts of interviews I conducted with the fabled founder of the Marbella Club, Prince Alfonso von Hohenlohe, in late 2001. The lines above were picked from these yellowing typed sheets almost at random. I could have chosen the anecdote about a 16-hour journey on a special train to Portsmouth with Churchill during the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, at which — naturally — he enjoyed special treatment as a favoured guest because the head of his family had married Prince Philip’s sister. Or the one about brushing up his tennis as a youngster with Fred Perry. “I had the luck… I was very young… to play with some of the best players in the world,” Alfonso said. Or the one about negotiating a favourable oil deal for Spain thanks to his friendship with the Saudi royal family.

After all, he had got to see some of the 20th century’s greatest dealmakers up close. There was the time he went on a boat trip with Aristotle Onassis and heard about a million-dollar deal (in the days when a million dollars was still a million dollars). Alfonso said: “Onassis knew that with one million cash, the German government, hungry to get the factory moving, would give him all the credit he needed to build a tanker or two or three.” To my knowledge, Alfonso never went into the boat business — unless you count the speedboat in which he was frequently photographed in the waters off Marbella — but he was in the car business, not unlike his uncle-in-law Gianni Agnelli, and he drove in the last Carrera Panamericana, the famously lethal 2,500-odd-kilometre road race that ran practically the length of Mexico.

“You will notice that there is no ashtray in that Ferrari,” Alfonso told Pablo. “It was getting in the way, so I ripped it out and threw it from the window.”

Indeed, my favourite Alfonso story involves a car and is told by his nephew Pablo, who came across a decrepit Ferrari in a field of Prince Alfonso’s wine estate near Ronda in Spain (I forgot to mention that he was also a winemaker). Originally intended for Agnelli but bought by Alfonso, the Ferrari had sat there undriven for years. When he cleaned it, Pablo came across a bra. “I have been wondering where that got to,” said Alfonso, for whom this piece of female underwear had the same effect as madeleines had on Proust. Half a century earlier he had taken an attractive young American girl for a spin in the country. Alfonso always kept a hunting rifle handy in the car — as one did — and spotting a young deer he raised the gun to his shoulder and dispatched the animal with a single squeeze of the trigger (he was, needless to say, a crack shot). In no time the carcass was roasting above an open fire, and as dusk fell one thing led to another. Before long he and the girl were entwined across the front seats of the Ferrari.

“You will notice that there is no ashtray in that Ferrari,” Alfonso told Pablo. “It was getting in the way, so I ripped it out and threw it from the window.”

“Who was the girl?” asked Pablo.

“Oh, I don’t think you will have heard of her, she was a young actress.” A young actress called Kim Novak.

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Nick Foulkes