Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Tales of Princes and Princesses (and real estate too)

Charging Bull in Bowling Green park. 10:50 PM. Photo: JH.
February 24, 2009. Yesterday was a sunny and cold on in New York, and then by nightfall the thermometer dropped again into the teens.

Last Friday was the 85th birthday of Gloria Vanderbilt who is still living here in New York in her aerie on Beekman Place. Gloria is an industrious American princess. She has lots of friends and possibly some that she sees fairly often but she’s also one of those women who always has a lot of projects and plans, nowadays usually having to do with art.

“Figure in an Interior (GVC)” by the distinguished portraitist Aaron Shikler.
Anne Slater with the birthday girl two years ago (age 83).
For several decades in the century just passed she was one of the most famous women in the world – from the age of five or six when the great custody case was waged for her by her aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, against her mother Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, through her four marriages to four interesting and creative men including director Sidney Lumet, Leopold Stokowski with whom she had two sons (and two more with Wyatt Cooper including the now very famous Anderson, many of whose fans are so young they don’t know just how stellar was his ma). Barbara Goldsmith’s 1980 “Little Gloria Happy At Last” was one of the best historical profiles of the woman up to that time; a page-turner for a page-turner life.

According to her “It Seemed Important at the Time; A Romance Memoir,” published in 2004, as a young girl she thought of becoming a nun, until she found boys, (“God was one thing, boys were another”), and then that was that. Then when she went to Hollywood (at 17) to visit her mother (from whom she had long been estranged), she thought of becoming an actress, or rather a movie star, or rather, at first ... “What I wanted most to do when I landed in California was to date movie stars.”

That, she got. In spades. Even Howard Hughes came a-calling. He wanted to screen-test her (“Me – a movie star! Yes, why not! Maybe that would be the Great Thing”). From nun to movie star in one transcontinental flight. From HH she went on to the next star and the next and the next, to her first husband (there would be four), still in her teens (Pat di Cicco), and her second husband at 20 (conductor Leopold Stokowski, who was forty years older or thereabouts), to a Who’s Who of affairs, dalliances, husbands, admirers, fans and Truman Capote.

There’s a wryness to the memoir, a fragrant wit of a child of the fates; a lifetime of bright lights, big cities, high roads and low, very low. These last few years have been quiet and creative ones for her. Part of the good news about the new book is that she’ll be out and about, promoting her work, so we’ll see more of her.

Happy Birthday Gloria.
The wedding day of the Duke and Duchess of York, 1986.
More tales of the riches of princesses and princes (and real estate ones too) -- From across the sea comes a report that Sunninghill Park, the house that Queen Elizabeth II had built as a wedding gift to her son Andrew and his wife Sarah Ferguson back in the late 80s, is now derelict and run down after being sold for millions of pounds to a mystery owner.

The property had been vacated by the prince, the Duke of York, when he divorced his duchess, who remained in residence for some time while their children were growing up.

660 acres, situated not far from Windsor Great Park, the property was purchased by the Crown Estate in the mid-40s and was intended for use by the then Princess Elizabeth after her marriage to Prince Philip in 1947. However, it burned down before they could occupy it.

Sunninghill Park, now derelict and run down, after being sold for millions of pounds to a mystery owner.
In the 1960s it was considered as a possible home for Princess Margaret and her husband Lord Snowdon. Finally in 1988, the Queen purchased five acres of walled garden from the Crown Estate, and an architect was hired to design a house for the The Yorks.

Fifty rooms, twelve bedrooms, twelve baths, six reception rooms, offices, stables, screening room, a billiards room, swimming pool; big by modern standards and especially for a young couple. Although maybe not a prince. They moved in in 1990 and the British press dubbed it South York after the “Southfork” in “Dallas.”

In 2004, Prince Andrew, now single again, moved over to the Royal Lodge at Windsor which had previously been the home of his grandmother Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. This move required quite a bit of fixing up to get the Queen Mum’s aging residence into shape. Several millions had to be spent, dollars or pounds no matter, and this is where the story gets a little light and airy, to put it politely.

After Sunninghill was vacated by all the Yorks and the digs at Royal Lodge were ready for His Royal Highness, Sunninghill was put on the market for £12 million and it languished. This created a bit of a squeeze. Prince Andrew needed the money for the renovations at Royal Lodge and had to borrow a reported £7 million from his ma. Waiting for Sunninghill to sell. And waiting, and waiting.

Finally almost five years later, with barely a nibble until a young man named Kenes Rakishev came along from Kazakhstan. Age 29, described as a wealthy businessman, Mr. Rakishev is said to made a deal paying £15 million or £3 million more than the asking. The increase may have had something to do with the freehold on the property which was previously a leasehold owned by the Crown Estate.

Mr. R. later claimed that he did not buy the house for himself but had simply negotiated the deal for someone else.

Who? The deal was orchestrated with the help of Imangali Tasmagambetov, Rakishev’s father-in-law who is the mayor of Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. According to the Times of London, family members of one of these men as well as other Kazakhs who are linked to people involved in the purchase of Sunninghill Park were, at the same time as the purchase, being investigated by prosecutors in Lichtenstein over suspicions of money laundering via a company called the Walisa Foundation. Oh?

Just to refresh your sense of geography, Kazakhstan, once part of the Soviet Union (and the last of the Soviet Republics to declare its independence) is Eurasian, the ninth largest country in the world, a territory greater than Western Europe extending from China to the Caspian. It has vast mineral resources and lots of oil and natural gas.
Sunninghill in its prime after completion in 1990.
Prince Andrew is quite familiar with Kazakhstan, and has visited many times, both privately and publicly, often traveling as a roving ambassador for British trade. He also knows Mr. Rakishev and his father-in-law Mr. Tasmagambetov -- both of whom have denied that they are the new “owners” of Sunninghill Park.

Now it has emerged that here are two more Kazakhs, other than the aforementioned, who might just be the buyers. A 28-year-old Kazakh businesswoman named Goga Ashkenazi, who is a friend of Prince Andrew has told friends that she is the owner which she is said to be planning to tear it down to build a new house. Probably something a little bigger, maybe?

However, Ms. Ashkenazi has denied she is the buyer.

Then there’s said to be a billionaire Kazakh oil and gas tycoon, a former vice-president of KazMunaiGas (KMG), the state oil and gas company, and now chairman of KazEnergy named Timur Kulbayev. Also an acquaintance of the Prince Andrew. The water bills for Sunninghill now get sent to a woman who works for Mr. Kulbayev. Although she too, denies that he is the owner of Sunninghill.
Prince Andrew at Ascot with Goga Ashkenazi whom some believe might be the new owner of Sunninghill.
Mr. Kulibayev is married to the daughter of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the President of Kazakhstan. Are you still with me? However, again according to the Times of London, Mr. Kulibayev is also said to be having an affair with the aforementioned Goga who a little more than a year ago had a baby in London and named Mr. Kulibayev as the father. Some think that perhaps Sunninghill was bought for Goga and the little one.

At the same time, a debt collection agency working for the power company E.ON has been pursuing Mr. Rakishev, the first named buyer/negotiator for electricity bills of more than £4,000 for Sunninghill Park.

There is little doubt Princess Andrew knows who bought his house, a matter which he believes is nobody’s business but his own. There is little doubt he knows who actually bought his house, a matter which he believes is no one’s business but his. But the Duke of York’s public role, for which he last year received £436,000 to cover his expenses, (along with his only known personal income -- a £249,000 annuity from his mother), makes it essential that all his dealings are seen to be above board. So just who is now the owner of his former “castle” remains a mystery to all but the Prince and a few people in oil and mineral rich Kazakhstan. Why does this all sound so familiar, you have to wonder.

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Photographs by ©REX FEATURES
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