Geraldine Apponyi on her wedding day to King Zog of Albania in April 1938.
Geraldine was Queen of Albania for just a year before her husband King Zog was deposed in 1939. In many ways she was a footnote to the history of the shake-up of Europe, briefly Queen of the final bastion of the Ottoman Empire. During the last couple of weeks, aided by the snow I was able to read a bit more than I usually do and I got through two fascinating books. In both of them there were short references to Geraldine. I was intrigued.
I’ll start with The Accursed Mountains by Robert Carver. I really enjoyed this book and found it quite unputdownable. Published in 1998, it recounts a journey through Albania made by Carver in 1996, at the end of the brief hiatus between the collapse of communism and the civil war of 1997. There are brief, but interesting, references to Geraldine. Hitler sent a duplicate of his own car, a scarlet super-charged open Mercedes Benz, as a wedding present. A year later when they went into exile following the Italian invasion, they made in Carver’s words ‘a royal refugee’s progress through eastern Europe’ in this car with its white leather seats. At one point they were dive-bombed by German planes but Zog refused to leave the car believing that the pilots would not dare to fire on the Führer’s car. What Geraldine and her new born son, Crown Prince Leka, did while this was happening isn’t mentioned.
Eventually the King and his family arrived in London. They had escaped from Tirana with the Bulgari and Cartier jewels that had been Zog’s wedding present to Geraldine. He had also given her a miniaturised gold plated pistol. They also took strong boxes containing gold napoleon coins. Initially the royal family stayed at the Ritz but their money ran out and after the war they moved to Egypt before making their way eventually to South Africa, leaving a trail of bad debts.
To my surprise Geraldine made a another brief appearance in A Constant Heart, the War Diaries of Maud Russell 1938-1945. I bought this at Maud Russell’s home at Mottisfont, now a National Trust Property, where I went a few weeks ago to see an exhibition of Heath Robinson paintings. Though nothing to do with Queen Geraldine, this exhibition is well worth a visit.
A Constant Heart is a fascinating read. Maud was in contact with many writers, (she was almost certainly Ian Fleming’s lover), artists (and certainly Boris Anrep’s lover), musicians and politicians. Many influential people stayed at Mottisfont before, during and after WW2.
The Geraldine connection to the Russell family is through Maud’s sister Kitty who was married to a Hungarian, Count Anton Apponyi, who was related to Geraldine. After the royal entourage left the Ritz, the family Zog lived in Buckinghamshire until the end of the war. Maud Russell’s diary tells us that in January 1943 Geraldine and Maud were the chief Godmothers to Kitty Apponyi’s grandson, Anthony Stephen Michael. Maud informs us, ‘It wore the christening robe we had all been christened in and which comes from Mama’s family.’ This wartime christening took place in a ‘little house in Hampton Court Road’. I wasn’t at all sure what Maud, and certainly Geraldine, would have classed as a ‘little house’!
The only other reference to Geraldine is the help given to her by Maud’s sister. Kitty Apponyi worked for the Red Cross, helping people displaced by the war and it would seem from the reference in Maud’s book that the fugitive family of Zog were among those she helped.
This is all a bit sketchy, two books with brief, almost passing, reference to the first and only Queen of Albania. Geraldine died in 2002, in a military hospital in Tirana; she had been allowed back into the country a few months before she died. But I suppose that as a writer it is these odd coincidences, the serendipity, that cajoles and inspires me.