Monday, May 13, 2019. Raining in New York on Sunday night, after a day of rains and winds to give you a chill if you went out without a warm jacket. That was after a warm and mild and even sunny Saturday. The weather forecast at the time of this writing is: more rain and more chilly winds for the next couple of days.
Last Thursday a week, Barbara de Portago hosted her annual Versailles Foundation Black Tie Benefit Dinner in the presence of: His Imperial & Royal Highness the Archduke of Austria, Royal Prince of Hungary, Istvan von Habsburg-Lothringen.
His Imperial and Royal Highness of Austro-Hungary was born in exile. The son of Archduke of Austria Felix and Archduchess Anna-Eugenia, nee Princess von Arenberg. He is the grandson of the beatified and last Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Charles I and Empress Zita.
Among his ancestors are Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of Spain, Louis XIV, Marie-Antoinette and Napoleon. Born in 1961, and raised in Mexico, where his “exiled” father Felix had a very successful consultancy business, Istvan studied Law and Engineering which served him well when he moved to the Duchy of Luxembourg in 1987.
He is currently the Director of a biogas engineering company. Married to the lovely Archduchess Paola, he is the proud father of three children.
Thursday night’s Archduke speaks Spanish, German, English, French, Luxembourgeois, Italian and Portuguese. Did you count them? Seven languages. That is so impressive to this mono-linguistic American that nothing else could be more impressive.
He is also, according to his hostess, a passionate hunter of roe and red deer, pheasant, duck and partridge, he has hunted in most all the Royal Hunts of Europe. He is also a member of several Knightly Orders. Among them he is the Grandmaster of the Roman Catholic Dynastic International Order of Saint Hubertus. The Order founded in 1445 is devoted to wildlife and habitat conservation by granting at personal expense, irrevocable restrictions in perpetuity, which protect such lands from commercial and other development.
I have attended this dinner many times over the years. It is unique on the annual calendar of galas and benefits simply because it honors an historical individual by birth, and a culture that has all but disappeared from today’s global reality. That’s the fun of it: it has nothing to do with Now except that the funds it raises goes to the conservation of Giverny. It is otherwise, all Past, and viewed by a descendant in today’s world.
This year the dinner was held at a private New York City club. The program our hostess organized is simple and interesting: she invites a (mainly) European of direct royal descent as the guest of honor who attends and volunteers to speak for ten or fifteen minutes about his or her family history and experience. She also imports young cadets from Valley Forge Academy to add a kind of faux-military formality to the proceedings. Cecil B. DeMille would have been impressed.
The year’s guest of honor, the Archduke is a contemporary European fellow. His genealogical titles, which most likely have added some lustre and opportunities to his own life, be they financial or social, because of them. His titles are to that of a family that is “royal” in name only. Its history, like the Bourbon, like all of his ancestors, is a memory. The Habsburg power was abolished a century ago (after centuries going back to the Holy Roman Empire).
His grandfather Charles I, was the “last” Emperor of Austro-Hungary. But only for ten months, and only because the heir apparent to Emperor Franz Joseph, was Franz Ferdinand who was murdered by an assassin in Sarajevo in 1914, kicking off World War I. That war ended not only the reign of the Habsburgs, but the immediate end of an empire, thereafter divided into a separate Austria, Hungary, Poland, Croatia, Czechoslovakia, Serbia and Ukraine. The royal family of Habsburg was exiled. Archduke Felix, the father of Thursday night’s guest of honor, emigrated to Mexico where he brought up his family and died at the age of 94.
No doubt the ancient titles of these families assisted their ways of life as exiles. Men and women who acquire “power” with the money they’ve acquired are often attracted to the social proximity of those members of “royalty” — be it ancient or around the corner. Three generations later, the Archduke Istvan appearing at the Thursday evening dinner in the formal wood paneled dining room, is a contemporary European whose extraordinary heritage still lives within him. That’s interesting in itself.
What I’ve found most interesting about the Versailles dinner guests of honor over the years is their native interest and modern concern for those countries over which their ancestors once ruled. Their sense of the “people” today, the citizens of their countries is clearly modern, democratic and often more principled and respectful of those citizens than their current elected leaders.
That is not to suggest that anyone return to the monarchies that have had their day in modern civilization. But their descendants who’ve been guests at this dinner have often demonstrated a nobler sense of their country’s citizens than its current politicians. The royal descendants retain a natural pride of one’s country.
Photographs by Jay Brady and Annie Watt