The Chrysanthemum Throne – Part III: Post-War Japan & a Royal Love Story [2004]

Written by Pandora’s Box [my old writing alter-ego]
Tuesday, 05 October 2004

As shown in Part I, one of the greatest beneficiaries of the postwar changes was the Imperial Household Agency (“IHA”). Despite a reduction in size, it was given almost complete control over the Imperial Family and a huge budget to support its power. However, there seems to be little to no evidence regarding the Agency itself, in such areas as its structure and membership, or its attitude towards the Emperor’s loss of divinity. This extremely secretive agency loves living in the shadows and reportedly responds to most direct questions regarding its wards, the Imperial Family, or about itself with a cold, final “no comment.”

Yet, one can glean a lot about the IHA by studying the political institutions and events around it because a few things can’t be hidden, even by the IHA. For one thing, the IHA is closely intertwined with the political powerhouse and ruling party of the past 50 years, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), a party which has been described as being neither Liberal nor Democratic. For another thing, the IHA’s political attitudes can be inferred by closely studying Japan’s political history since the end of WWII, since many of the groups with which the IHA is involved, whether political or bureaucratic, have an almost unbroken connection to the prewar, traditional conservatism.

The years after the end of the war would have led many a disinterested observer to think that Japan’s old political system and traditions had suffered a severe setback. They had not. In many ways, things continued on just as they had before. For much of the 1940s and part of the 50s, the Emperor was regarded with the same sort of reverence as he had been before the war. In the immediate postwar years, his tours of the country — made ostensibly to view damaged areas — were more like victory parades. In fact, the huge crowds almost trampled upon officials from the Imperial Household and the police in their desire to get close just to the Emperor’s car. The banned “rising sun” flag was flown from the rooftops and thousands upon thousands of people literally cheered the Emperor wherever he went. By the end of the 1950s, that incredible enthusiasm lingered mostly among the older generation, while the rest of Japan regarded the Emperor with increasing disdain and indifference.

Not so the Japanese government, a government that was increasingly composed of conservative groups with ties to prewar institutions. For example, in 1952, the Americans released 892 war criminals who had never made it to trial and many of them returned to power in the government. Some of them rose swiftly to the highest positions of power in the postwar government. Links to Japan’s prewar political system didn’t stop there. Almost the entire civil service – a group from which the IHA drew (and continues to draw) a portion of its members – was the same as before the war. In fact, there “was considerable continuity–in institutions, operating style, and personnel– between the civil service before and after the occupation, partly because MacArthur’s staff ruled indirectly and depended largely on the cooperation of civil servants.” Thus, the American policy planners either failed to see or else conveniently minimized the civil service’s role in Japan’s militarism, something which would benefit the conservatives in subsequent decades.

The government continued to treat the Emperor as it had before the war, and for much of the same reasons too. Throughout the 1950s, conservative groups tried repeatedly to amend the new Constitution to explicitly name the Emperor as head of state. “Their aim was not to revive the prewar or wartime “emperor system.” Neither was it to educate future generations in the old imperial-nation view of history rooted in mythology. Rather, conservatives sought to bolster the emperor’s authority so they could use it for their own purposes.” (Herbert P. Bix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, Harper Collins 2000, at pp. 654-655). Although they failed, their efforts were significant in showing the institutional stubbornness that marks Japan’s political system.

Attempts to change Japan’s Constitution were not the only ways in which the political elite rejected the new changes. Under the new Constitution, the Emperor was to have no role whatsoever in political matters; he certainly was not to be advised of the latest developments throughout the country and he was definitely not expected to give any advice to political officials. Yet, throughout the 1950s, numerous Cabinet ministers, along with the head of the Metropolitan police and the Governor of Tokyo, met secretly with the Emperor to give him political briefings on the state of the government and country.

Clearly, the almost unreformed imperial system made it hard for the old-school elite to shake traditional views, particularly when it came to the role of the Emperor. For the same reason, the government looked the other way while Emperor Hirohito made official visits to Yasukuni, the main Shinto shrine which had been set up as a memorial to the “heroic” war dead and was also the burial place for many individuals classified as “war criminals.” The government upheld the prewar conservative ideology in other ways too. For example, it ensured that all school textbooks had a whitewashed version of Japan’s actions in WWII, as well as the Emperor’s involvement. It tried, less successfully, to get schools to display the banned “Rising Sun” flag and to bring back the nationalistic pledge of allegiance. And it didn’t give up until it achieved its goals, even it if took until 1999.

Japan’s ultra-conservative approach to politics can be explained by the fact that only one party has run the country for the past 50 years: the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). A 2001 article in the Guardian described it as follows:

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is the most successful money- and vote-gathering political machine in the postwar world. As unyielding as any of the cold war communist regimes, it is neither economically liberal nor politically democratic, but has ruled for all but one of the past 46 years. Inside the party, a Byzantine factional system has ensured that power is exercised behind the scenes by a handful of “shadow shoguns”. Prime ministers have been mostly puppets, elderly time-servers who give a higher priority to loyalty, secrecy and consensus than to principle, debate and leadership.

The LDP is usually described as a conservative party; for most of the past 46 years, it has been almost the antithesis of a democratic organisation. Constituencies are gerrymandered, kickbacks from public works are channelled back to the party through yakuza gangsters and key policy decisions are made by party elders behind closed doors.,7369,546140,00.html

If the LDP seems a lot like the IHA in some ways, it’s because the two groups are very closely knit. The IHA deals almost daily with the government, a government which sets its budget, gives it orders regarding the Imperial Family, and makes the final decision about all imperial duties. In addition, the IHA is staffed by officials from various government agencies, as well as the civil service, both of which are drawn heavily from the LDP and, thus, infected by their ultraconservative values.

Take, for example, the latest tutor to Princess Aiko, Crown Prince Naruhito’s only child and the future of the Chrysanthemum Throne. Her fifth “chamberlain” or tutor has a background that is based purely in the government and in various public ministries. While the “tutor” to a toddler is unlikely to come from the highest government echelon, it’s equally unlikely that the hidebound, conservative IHA – and the ultra-nationalist LDP from which it takes its orders – would permit a progressive liberal to be in charge of someone as important as Princess Aiko.

The extent of the government’s incredible conservatism and of its archaic views regarding the Imperial Family is best demonstrated by the situation involving the Yasukuni Shine. Yasukuni is a Shinto monument to Japan’s war dead and is closely linked to emperor worship and militarism. As recently as 2001, a new exhibit at the Shrine continued to espouse the revisionist line regarding the war and the emperor’s role therein:

The slick, Shinto-oriented rewrite of history… denies that Emperor Hirohito renounced his divinity in 1946, as most westerners and Japanese believe. … It is at the vanguard of the revisionist movement. The 4bn yen (£22m) renovation and enlargement of the shrine’s museum, completed last month, goes to new lengths to roll back changes made during the allies’ postwar occupation. A walk around the exhibits is a moving experience. Many visitors sob as they look at the photographs and letters of kamikaze pilots. Their sacrifice – made in the name of a divine emperor – is lauded by the museum, which blames the United Statesfor prompting the war. It dismisses claims that the spiritual status of the emperor changed after defeat.,7369,778007,00.html

The IHA has been careful not to comment on the Shrine’s interpretation of the Emperor’s role but it doesn’t need to; several Japanese prime ministers have been happy to do so in its place, both implicitly and explicitly. Since 1945, numerous prime ministers and cabinet officials have visited the Shrine, in an official capacity, and paid their respects to the “heroic” war dead and the Emperor in whose name they acted. Making matters worse, several of them have done so in an official capacity, and just a day or so before August 15th, the date of Japan’s surrender in WWII. These attempts to honour the nationalistic past, and the imperial role, continue to the present day. As recently as 2000, the former prime minister, Yoshiro Mori, proposed renaming the Greenery Day national holiday–Hirohito’s April 29 birthday–as “Showa Day” in honor of the wartime emperor. The plan was dropped due to its controversial nature but Mori wasn’t dissuaded. At a speech to Shinto religious leaders and groups, he declared that Japan was “a divine nation” with the emperor at its center. After a firestorm of angry responses, Mori finally apologized for any misunderstanding that his comments may have caused but he never retracted the comments themselves.

The current Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, has gone even further. An ardent nationalist with a cult-like status, Koizumi is at the forefront of the revisionist movement: he has called some of the Class-A war criminals buried at the Yasukuni Shrine “martyrs;” he has paid actual homage at the shrine in his official capacity as a government official; he has refused to make any changes to the new school textbook giving the most inventive explanation for Japan’s actions during WWII; and he’s intent on amending the Constitution to permit a military. In fact, under his tenure, the Japanese parliament has begun a debate on revising the Church and State portions of the Constitution, a debate which has clear implications for the Shinto religion and, thus, for the Emperor with which it’s connected. It’s doubtful that Koizumi seeks to return the Emperor or the Imperial Family to their prewar status but it cannot be denied that any change in the separation between religion and state will indirectly impact the emperor’s role, especially under an ultra-conservative party intent on managing the monarchy for its own political purposes. See

One may ask how the LDP’s quasi-shogunate or the nationalism shown by various Prime Ministers has to do with the IHA. Quite simply, the IHA is tied at the hip to the LDP and, while Prime Ministers may come and go, the IHA always stays the same. It’s an organization not subject to the vicissitudes of elections or public scrutiny. Yet, it shares the same political traditions, systemic stubbornness towards changes, and conservative ideology. The fact that the IHA is made up of officials who come from the LDP and the LDP-filled Civil Service — two groups with an almost unbroken tie to the prewar political system and its accompanying political ideology — merely strengthens the Agency’s ultra conservative approach towards the Imperial Family.

It’s unlikely that the IHA seeks to return the Emperor to the position that he once held but it’s equally unlikely that it favours a democratic, populist approach to the monarchy. There is probably no greater abomination for the IHA, short of the monarchy’s complete absolution, than a populist, bicycling monarchy like that of the Dutch. On second thought, a populist, informal monarchy probably wouldn’t be as horrific as the possibility of having the previously divine monarchy treated like the British royal family. One can only imagine how the IHA views the situation experienced by the Windsors, where voracious paparazzi and media intrusions permit the public to salivate over such personal details as the monarch’s breakfast, the sex life of royal children, and royal lovers.

While the IHA may not believe in a return to a supposedly absolutist monarchy, it is still institutionally, politically and ideologically incapable of ignoring the Imperial Family’s traditional role. It’s an organization which sees its wards – the Imperial Family – as the living remnants of a history and tradition that Japan must keep alive. One of the ways of achieving this goal is to protect the monarchy’s mystique by isolating the royals from excessive public access, scrutiny or knowledge. Another more important method is to ensure that the unbroken line of descent going back to the goddess, Amaterasu, is maintained by having an heir. A male heir.

While there have been eight empresses on the Chrysanthemum Throne, they were essentially regents who did not pass power or rule to their own descendents. These empresses were either unwed or widowed and, upon their death, the throne reverted back to the next male in the line of succession. Thus, the principle of male succession remained intact. To the ultra royalists who make up the IHA, this principle must continue to remain unbroken. Breaking that rule would be breaking Japan’s imperial traditions, history and legacy. To a great number of ultra-conservatists, even worse than that heresy is the possibility, in their minds, that a reigning empress signals “the end of history.”

Ironically, the Japanese public shares none of these perspectives. In fact, the postwar generation is at the opposite political and ideological spectrum from both the IHA and the political elites. They have been for a long time. Things had changed dramatically from the late 1940s when waves of screaming hordes greeted Emperor Hirohito on his purported disaster tours. The younger generation viewed Emperor Hirohito as a war criminal and had little interest in his successor. In fact, in the early 1990s, the majority of the public couldn’t tell you the name of the Crown Prince (Naruhito) and they certainly didn’t care about the new Emperor (Akihito). Postwar events, cultural changes among the young and the IHA’s attempts to maintain the mystique of the Chrysanthemum Throne by keeping the Imperial Family aloof from the public had only made the people indifferent to the monarchy. Many were frankly hostile. The extreme conservativism of the political elite was, thus, at a total variance from the pacifist, non-monarchial, modern approach of the Japanese people themselves.

It’s within this context that the new Crown Prince fell in love with the epitome of a modern, successful, professional woman. His search for a suitable bride had taken more than seven long years, so long that — in a complete break from palace protocol — his younger brother had gotten married ahead of him. But the Crown Prince only wanted one woman and he was determined to wait for her. Ms. Owada Masako was the daughter of a senior diplomat who had traveled the world with her parents since she was a child. She went to kindergarten in Moscow, attended high school in Boston, graduated from Harvard both Phi Beta Kappa (National Honours Society for the top 10% of all students nationwide) and Magna Cum Laude, and then attended the prestigious Balliol College, Oxford. Fluent in numerous languages, she joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was a career diplomat with a promising future when she met the Crown Prince at a party. The Crown Prince fell in love there and then, and he refused to consider anyone else.

Masako, in contrast, was distinctly less enthused. She knew very well the stresses and difficulties caused by marrying into the Imperial Family. It was a well known, though little publicized, fact that Empress Michiko, Naruhito’s mother, had barely survived her induction into the Imperial Family. The Empress, the first commoner ever to marry into the Imperial Family, had had such a difficult adjustment that she’d had a nervous breakdown and even lost her voice for 7 months. It’s unclear if she couldn’t speak or if she simply didn’t want to but, either way, one thing was clear: marriage to the imperial heir was a Herculean task that could break even the strongest woman.

Masako’s qualms didn’t stop the Crown Prince. It’s unclear how long Masako held out and how long he waited for her but some say he refused to consider anyone else for as long as several years. Time after time, he rejected the suitable brides paraded before him until, eventually, his parents asked him what the problem was. He finally confessed his love for Masako. After much discussion, and the Crown Prince’s insistence that his feelings would not change, he obtained his parents’ permission to court her.

That was just the first step. The Crown Prince also had to convince the IHA officials that she was a suitable candidate, even though her grandfather was a mere businessman. Then, he had to convince Masako herself. The latter proved to be the most difficult task. Masako refused him three times but still he persisted. Finally, he said, “I promise to protect you with all my power as long as I live.” Those must have been the magic words because she agreed to marry him.

In hindsight, those words may seem prophetic but I think Masako knew exactly what she would be facing and what was necessary if she – and an Imperial marriage – were to survive. Masako was a child of the Establishment, with a father who was high up in the Diplomatic Corps. She grew up in a world and family which would have given her much insight into Japan’s political system. Her family was also sufficiently high up for her to have heard not only the truth about the Empress’ breakdown but also about the reality of life behind the palace walls. She would have known exactly what she faced as Naruhito’s bride, and she was strong enough to hold out for her suitor’s express promise to stand by her side against any bureaucratic bullying.

There are other ways of looking at this famous promise. One possibility is that Masako was influenced by such royal marriages as that between Sarah Ferguson and Prince Andrew, The Duke of York. One school of thought argues that the Yorks’ marriage failed because the royal spouse did not sufficiently intervene with the notorious “Grey Men” of Buckingham Palace to protect his wife. While Masako was no impulsive Fergie, perhaps she had learnt from that unsuccessful marriage and felt that she’d need her future spouse to actively protect her against the palace mandarins.

Another possibility is that Masako simply had no more excuses to hold out once the Crown Prince made that oath. Some people have alleged that she would have continued to refuse Prince Naruhito’s offer but her father was promised a significant promotion in his diplomatic postings if Masako accepted the Prince’s proposal and she was sold into the marriage for the family’s prestige. According to these cynics, the fact that Masako’s father received a more prestigious diplomatic assignment almost immediately upon his daughter’s engagement and marriage is proof positive that Masako was coerced or sold into marriage against her wishes. As a romantic, I prefer to think that the marriage was based on real love, even if there was some natural perturbation on Masako’s side. After all, what modern, independent, successful career woman would jump into the Imperial Family without even a second’s hesitation, especially if they already knew of the IHA and its incredible power?

Once the engagement was announced, there was a huge swell in popular interest in the Imperial Family. Or, to be specific, in the future Princess Masako. People who couldn’t name half the main members of the Imperial Family knew every detail of Masako’s upbringing. The country was delighted not so much because the recalcitrant Crown Prince had finally chosen a bride but because Masako seemed to negate the image of the fusty, boring, hidebound, conservative, aloof Japanese royals. In fact, Masako seemed the epitome of a modern woman; her marriage, the ultimate love story; and the Japan’s new, populist “Princess Diana”, a complete antithesis to the rest of the Imperial Family. In other words, Masako was popular for being the exact opposite of everything that the IHA stood for and was intent on protecting. Like the “grey men” in some other monarchies, the IHA were completely out of touch with what the Japanese people cared about, an issue which bode ill for the future Crown Princess.

The couple married on June 9, 1993. And Cinderella woke up from the dream almost right away. Almost as if on the stroke of midnight, all festivities ended right after the wedding. The cream of international society and royalty left. Masako’s elegant, designer, Hanae Mori wedding gown with its full white-brocade skirts, plunging neckline and matching petal-design jacket was put away. The royal jewels went back into the vaults. And Japan’s new Crown Princess discovered what her new life was really going to be like.

In this Japanese royalist version, the wicked stepmother was alive and well in the form of the IHA, and they weren’t going anywhere. To the contrary, they had certain expectations for Japan’s new fairy princess, expectations that had their roots in Japan’s imperial history and the ruling elite’s political ideology. Woe betide the woman who could not satisfy those demands….

We’ll explore that situation and the various issues involved in the succession crisis next week in Part IV.

The Chrysanthemum Throne – Part II: House of the Setting Sun [2004]

Written by Pandora’s Box [my old writing alter-ego]
Tuesday, 28 September 2004

When people first start learning about the IHA, one of their initial questions is usually, “How did it become so powerful?” The simplistic answer is: Japan’s defeat in WWII. When people start to ask about the Crown Princess Masako’s current plight, the simplistic answer is that Japan’s rules of succession require a male heir. It’s only when people start to ask about why the IHA is so opposed to gender-blind rules of succession that the answers become extremely complicated. I don’t pretend to know the definitive answer but I firmly believe the explanation lies in several, interconnected issues: the historical role of the emperor; the emperor’s status under Shintoism; Emperor Hirohito’s actions during the WWII; the political system set up by the victorious Allies; the nature of Japan’s current political system; and converging impact of all these factors upon the IHA’s ideology.

The vastness of each of these topics means that even an abbreviated explanation would be too long, not to mention quite confusing. For the sake of clarity, I’ll be adding a subsequent Part to this series on the Chrysanthemum Throne so that Part II can focus solely on the historical role of the Emperor, Japan’s political traditions, and the changes effected by Japan’s defeat in WWII. At times, it may seem as though the issue of the IHA and the succession crisis has been lost by the wayside. The ultimate purpose of this Part, however, is to show why the Japanese political system has turned servant into master, and why I think the IHA’s control over the Imperial Family and Princess Masako is a legacy of Japan’s history, tradition and culture.

The Historical Role of the Emperor up to WWII

The Japanese call their country Nippon, which translates to “Origin of the Sun” or “Land or the Rising Sun.” The Japanese flag, a simple red disk in the center, reflects this theme, one deeply rooted in mythology, religion and politics. So does the name sometimes given to the Imperial Family: House of the Rising Sun. The reason lies in Japanese mythology, which holds that the goddess of the sun and the ruler of the heaven — known as Amaterasu Omikami – was the actual ancestor of the current Imperial Family. The first known written documentation of that claim was made by Emperor Jimmu, Japan’s legendary first emperor, in the 7th century. Before then, Japan had lacked a writing system and stories were transmitted orally. It was only after the Chinese writing system was introduced around that there was documentary evidence to tell the tale of monarchy’s “divine” roots. Thus, the Japanese emperors claimed descent from the birth of time when, theoretically, Amaterasu created the world and all known living things.

The belief in a divine emperor is interwoven with the belief in Shinto, a polytheistic religion with roots stretching back to 500 B.C. The religion venerates almost all forms of nature, whether they are rocks, mountains, rivers, trees, water, or a person’s ancestors. In other words, it is based on animism or natural phenomena.  Almost all ancient religions – be they Incan, Aztec or Egyptian – considered the Sun to be the greatest of all natural phenomena and the Japanese were no exception. Thus, the Sun Goddess was the principle deity of Shinto and her living descendent on earth – the emperor – a man to be revered and obeyed like no other. It seems that, at this time and up to the early 20th century, the emperor was considered merely as the Goddess’ descendent and not as an actual living God in his own right.

While the semi-religious aura gave the emperor great symbolic authority, the medieval ages marked the loss of real power for both the emperor and his Shinto religion. Shinto was supplanted by Buddhism, an influence imported in from China, while the emperor was controlled by various aristocratic clans who used the emperor as a way of maintaining their power, usually by marrying into the imperial family. Over time, these powerful families were, in turn, replaced as the real – but unofficial – locus of power by various shoguns (or military governors).

In all cases, however, the emperor’s role was a largely ceremonial one where he possessed extreme prestige and symbolic political authority but nothing particularly concrete. (See, G. Cameron Hurst III, The Structure of the Heian Court: Some Thoughts on The Nature of ‘Familial Authority’ in Heian Japan, pp.55-59, in Medieval Japan: Essays in Institutional History, (eds. Hall and Mass, Stanford University Press, 1974).) As one historian explains it, “in political struggles, the supreme goal was to control or dominate the imperial position rather than usurp it as in so many other societies. It was, in a sense, a human chess game where the object was to capture the king – but the king could not be removed from the board.” (Id. at 59.) Somehow, I don’t think much has changed over the past thousand years but we will get to that later.

The shoguns’ centuries-old domination over political power abruptly ended in 1868 when Emperor Meiji overthrew the faltering Tokugawa Shogunate and returned to power in what is now called the Meiji Restoration. One of the triggers leading to this unofficial revolution was renewed contact with the West, something which the Shogunate had managed to avoid for almost 200 years. This Western influence proved to be significant in many other ways as well. Emperor Meiji initiated instituted wide sweeping political, civil and social reforms whichtransformed Japan into a significant world power. The first of thesereforms was to abolish the feudal system which had given his ancestors such grief. Then, in 1890, he established a Western-style constitutional monarchy with a quasi-parliamentary body, the Imperial Diet.

Unfortunately, real democracy – just like a powerful Emperor — was just an illusion. The man who drafted most of the documents underlying the Meiji political system was Ito Hirobumi, one of the most powerful oligarchs and a passionate admirer of Bismarck, the expansionistic, authoritarian Prussian chancellor who unified the German state. According to one analysis, Bismarck’s model “was a government in which neither the parliament nor the king actually exercises real authority over the Imperial bureaucracy.” Ito was particularly receptive to the fact that “Bismarck’s Wilhelmine constitution restricted political rights to the benefit of the state, plus in its Article II it subordinated individuals’ freedom to their responsibilities to the emperor and, in addition, it upheld imperial absolutism.” (M.R. Mulford, “A Brief Study of the Two Constitutions of Japan”, hereinafter referred to as “Mulford”, available at

In accordance with that approach, Ito drafted a new Constitution which declared that the Emperor was simultaneously the sovereign, the source of the State’s legitimacy and supreme commander of the military. It also declared, however, that the Constitution was bestowed by the emperor on the people. The importance of this is not that it gave power to the emperor; rather, it was that the Emperor and, by association therefore, his advisors were essentially beyond the law. Id. Ito’s political artfulness did not stop there:

The government also had one further item at its disposal … [which] significantly curtailed the power of the emperor. All issuances from the emperor had to have the countersignature of the minister responsible for the area affected. Thus, even though the emperor seemed to have been given immense amounts of power, the administration of the government was in the hands of the cabinet, supreme command of the armed forces, the privy council and imperial household ministry. All of these organs were controlled by the oligarches and this small group of supremely powerful men came to be known as the Genro (not to be confused with the genro-in, which was the name given to the Senate established in the early stages of the restoration). The effect of this was to confirm the oligarchy in power. A quote from Ito at this time is most revealing. He stated, “…joint rule by the king and the people must, in Japan, be set aside.” The effect was that after the restoration had imbued the emperor with power once again, this action re-relegated him to figurehead status.


Ito continued to give lip service to liberal ideals when it came to the parliamentary system. He and his fellow oligarchs ensured that the Imperial Diet was a mockery of the representative system by permitting only the wealthiest 1% of the population eligible to vote in elections. In addition, the upper house, or House of Peers, was arranged so that members were comprised of the old aristocratic clans or supporters of the oligarchs, both of which who could be counted upon to block any liberal policies. Id. See also,

Thus, one of the ironies of the Meiji “Restoration” is that the emperor was never actually restored and traditional political elites were never actually removed. In fact, the latter were alive and flourishing in the shadows. They controlled the bureaucracy, compromised the main membership source of military leadership, were at the heart of the Emperor’s Privy Council, and filled various other government bodies as well. In this way, their official role in the upper house of the Diet was only the tip of the iceberg; their unofficial, shadow roles let them run the country in perfect accordance with Bismarck’s ideal of a government where only the imperial bureaucracy ruled. Since the Emperor did not actually dictate policies, even if they were political, the unofficial power of the conservative elite would prove to be significant in events as they later unfolded.

Equally significant to that future drama was the role of Shinto which reasserted its head during this time. Liberal though he may have been in some respects, Emperor Meiji’s “controlled revolution” did not extend to Shinto or the old religious ways. In fact, he made every effort to revive the ancient myths and Shinto beliefs. For example, the ancient department of Shinto rites was reestablished, giving Shinto much of its structure and identity as a religion. The Emperor, and the oligarchs advising him, went so far as to create “State Shinto,” a national religion that was a counterpart of the State itself and aggressively promoted by the State. The glorification of Shinto was — necessarily and philosophically – an inherent glorification of the emperor; the power of one fed off the power of the other in the most symbiotic relationship of all. For a man whose historical function had long been all symbol with little substance, the Shinto religion simultaneously provided a legitimization, a source of power independent from power-hungry groups, and a PR boost.

Unfortunately, the plan didn’t quite turn out as the Emperor had hoped. The largest problem in the Meiji system was the absence of any checks or balances on the military. A bastion of the old aristocratic clans, the military was responsible solely to the Emperor if, and only if, he should step in. The absence of any real systemic controls was bad enough but it was multiplied a thousand fold when combined with the military’s expansionist agenda and with State Shinto.

As a result, the ancient mythology became more than just a means used by the emperor to glorify his power and the state; it also became a powerful instrument in the hands of early 19th century militarists, who used it to glorify their policy of aggression. For centuries, Japan had reveled in its alleged racial purity, as compared to such Asian neighbors as Korea; it also had been fiercely xenophobic. The ruling elite took advantage of these feelings and hijacked State Shinto with its emphasis on Amaterasu and divine purity to fuel nationalistic aspirations against foreign “enemies.”

Although Emperor Meiji frowned on attempts to discourage foreigners when they brought financial investment or the expertise necessary to transform Japan into an international power, he had few objections when it involved expansion at the expense of Japan’s neighbors. What followed were military confrontations against China (1894-95) and Russia (1904-05), victories that shocked the West, as well as territorial gains in Korea and Manchuria.

It wasn’t enough for the conservative elites who bided their time until 1928, when the young Emperor Hirohito ascended the throne. Hirohito is sometimes called the Showa Emperor because of the name – Showa – which he chose for his reign. It is unclear if Hirohito was considered, like his ancestors before him, to be just a living descendant of Amaterasu or if he was elevated into an actual God in his own right by the Imperial Army and/or the political elite. The latter claim has been made but, if true, it would be a radical departure from ancient Shinto tenets which holds that the emperor was a divine, sacred being as a result of his descent, not necessarily an actual, living God.

The point may appear to be mere semantics but, if true, it just added to Hirohito’s importance and increased his usefulness to those around him. After all, if you want to mobilize a nation in support of your militaristic plans, what’s more useful than controlling an actual, living God who: symbolizes ethnic purity and nationalism; whose worship demands complete and total submission by his people; and veneration is only properly shown through geographic expansion? It doesn’t hurt that State Shinto conveniently prohibited all criticism of the Emperor or his policies. It’s even more convenient if that prohibition extends, indirectly, to the elites around him since, clearly, a God is infallible in his choice of advisors…. We all know how the story ends from there.

Or do we really? Was Hirohito (and the monarchy) really the puppet of militaristic zealots? Was the Emperor just a quiet, nerdish figurehead who stood helplessly on the sidelines as powerful cliques drove Japan to war in his name? Was this emperor really the same as all the figurehead emperors who preceded him and who were uninvolved in the running of the government? According to a new book, the answers to all these questions is ‘no.’ In 2000, historian Herbert Bix’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, broke away from almost 50 years worth of traditionally accepted historical interpretation to present a very different picture of this one emperor and the power he exercised. (Herbert P. Bix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, Harper Collins 2000.) Relying on newly released documents, exhaustive research, and contacts within Japan, Bix’s controversial book argues that Emperor Hirohito was hardly a submissive slave to the military and political oligarchy around him. To the contrary, Bix argues that he was deeply and actively involved in every phase of the war. Furthermore, after the war, Hirohito’s skillful but “gross misrepresentation” of his role was intentionally designed

to lead to the conclusion that he had always been a British-style constitutional monarch and a pacifist. Hirohito omitted mention of how he and his aides had helped the military to become an enormously powerful political force pushing for arms expansion. He ignored the many times he and his entourage had made use of the Meiji system… to stifle a more democratic, less militarized political process… He was silent too about how he had encouraged the belligerency of his people by serving as an active ideological focus of a new emperor-centered nationalism that had grown up around him.

Id., at p.4.

Notwithstanding the above, Bix doesn’t believe one should go to the other extreme and assume that Hirohito was a master conspirator. As he explained in an interview, “it is commonplace to think of emperors as helpless figureheads manipulated by people behind the scenes. But throughout Japan’s history, there have been times when power and authority have converged on the person of the emperor. The Meiji emperor was one such figure. Hirohito was another.”

The truth or falsity of Bix’s conclusions regarding Hirohito is beyond the purview of this discussion but one thing seems indisputable: Japan has a longstanding political tradition and history of sidelining the emperor, while others control power from behind the throne. Emperors Meiji and Hirohito may or may not have been exceptions to this rule but the point remains the same nonetheless: Japan’s political system and culture has made it the historic norm for unofficial or seemingly subordinate groups to control the monarchy, not the exception as it would be the West. In that sense, the IHA is merely the latest in a long line of political cadres that has controlled the Imperial House.

The Monarchy at the end of WWII

Japan’s defeat in WWII cemented, institutionalized and actually increased the monarchy’s traditional impotence. After Japan’s surrender to the Allies, there were some thoughts of completely eradicating the monarchy but MacArthur entered into a secret alliance with Hirohito where he and the throne were saved in exchange for the loss of all power, the Emperor’s explicit renunciation of his divinity, and more. According to Bix, MacArthur agreed to whitewash the Hirohito’s wartime role because he feared that Japan would disintegrate if the unifying symbol of the Emperor were put on trial as a war criminal. MacArthur also felt that he needed Hirohito to legitimize the Allies’ occupational reforms, ensure Japan’s peaceful rehabilitation and ward off Communism. (Bix, at 547, 567-68, 581-618.)

The new Constitution of 1947 departed dramatically from the Meiji Constitution of 1889. The very first Article makes it clear that the Emperor was no sacred God but rather a human who is merely “the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people, deriving his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power.” (See, translated version of the 1947 Constitution, available at Under the old Constitution, the emperor’s authority as sovereign was broad and undefined; under the new Constitution, his functions are spelled out in detail, are deliberately narrow and specific, and almost entirely ceremonial. The emperor is limited to such trivialities as opening parliament, bestowing decorations on deserving citizens, and receiving foreign ambassadors. (Article 7). Even then, he first has to get approval from the Cabinet. (Id.)

Just to make sure that there is no doubt whatsoever about the emperor’s new role, Article 4 explicitly states that the emperor has no “powers related to government.” The Constitution goes on thereafter to give every conceivable power to the Diet. And, in case anyone was suffering from reading comprehension and missed the point of the intervening 37 sections, Article 41 makes it clear one more time for good measure — the Diet is the “highest organ of state power” and is not accountable to the monarch but to the people who elected its members. The explicitness of these provisions and the drastic changes they effected were intentionally designed to preclude the possibility of military or bureaucratic cliques exercising broad and irresponsible powers in the emperor’s name. In other words, to ensure that the events leading up to WWII didn’t happen again.

These provisions make the emperor’s role very different from that of any other constitutional monarch, even those who also seem to be figureheads. Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, for example, has the power to make certain decisions; political officials must consult her before taking certain actions; and she has the right to advise or warn the Prime Minister.  While some of her powers are more theoretical than actual, the fact remains that she does have those rights and is not a purely ceremonial figure.

The emperor, in contrast, has absolutely no power, theoretical or otherwise. He is not entitled to any privileges, is not permitted to give any advice, and may not make any political declarations, not even symbolic ones. He is not even supposed to be consulted on politics and he certainly doesn’t have the right to give his symbolic assent to bills before they may become law. All he is politically permitted to do is receive foreign ambassadors, diplomats and heads of state, host ceremonial events and give awards.

Clearly, the vestiges of even symbolic power had been stripped away. The fact that these changes harshly punished Emperor Hirohito, as an individual, was just an added bonus. Although they were not as harsh as the justice which would have been meted out at a war crimes trial, they served as a form of retribution in their own way. The sanctions didn’t stop there. As shown in Part I of this article, the Emperor lost all private income and the IHA essentially became a watchdog over every vestige of his daily activity.

But old habits die hard. In this case, those “habits” would be institutional perspectives, ideologies and systemic cultures. For all the changes generated by the Constitution, Japan still bears a great political resemblance to how it was before the war: a country run by an entrenched elite and a powerful bureaucracy which share a traditional and conservative ideology, although no longer a militaristic one, while the emperor is a token figurehead.  We’ll explore that issue and how it relates to the IHA next week. See you then…


For Part I, please go here.

For Part III, please go here.

For Part IV, please go here.

The Chrysanthemum Throne – Part I: In The Shadows [2004]

Written by Pandora’s Box [my old writing alter-ego]
Tuesday, 21 September 2004

As a new contributor on Geraldine’s site, I thought my first column should follow Etoile’s new focus on world monarchies. In that spirit, I’ll be discussing the Japanese Imperial Family, the succession crisis facing the Chrysanthemum Throne, and the furor caused by Crown Prince Naruhito’s remarks earlier this year, remarks which some expert commentators think have triggered the biggest constitutional crisis in Japan since its defeat in World War II.

To those who are familiar only with Western monarchies, the situation currently facing the Japanese monarchy is incomprehensible unless one first understands the role and unbelievable power of a little-known government agency called the Imperial Household Agency (“IHA”) or Kunaichou. Accordingly, Part I will explain the IHA’s function and the scope of its power. Part II will examine the Emperor’s historical role before and after WWII, the impact of the Shinto religion and how those factors impact the IHA’s policies. Part III and Part IV will conclude by discussing Crown Princess Masako’s situation, analyzing the Crown Prince’s confrontation this past May with the IHA, and trying to decipher the rationales underlying the IHA’s actions.

The origins of the IHA go back over a thousand years when the Imperial Household Ministry, its precursor, was created by statute to look after the Imperial Family’s needs, household and image. In 1889, the Constitution of the Empire of Japan was promulgated, along with the Imperial Household law. According to the IHA’s website,

[t]he former established the constitutional monarchy while the latter dealt with the internal matters of the Imperial House. They were both supreme rules in their respective spheres and established was the principle that internal matters of the Imperial House were decided by the Imperial House itself without any procedures in the Diet. The Imperial Household Ministry, which was independent of the Cabinet, was to deal with the Imperial House’s internal matters and… assisted the Emperor in all matters concerning the Imperial House.

One should not be misled by the agency’s title into thinking that the Imperial Household Ministry was a glorified housekeeper. The organization was comprised mainly of aristocrats from powerful families and, to paraphrase an old idiom, those close to the center of power get a power all of their own. In old Japan, that center was the Emperor who had a uniquely powerful role, even if it was occasionally more symbolic than actual. As I’ll explain in greater detail next week, the Emperor was considered a living God who could trace his roots back in a direct, unbroken line to the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu Omikami. His status as a living, walking deity was even a fundamental part of the state religion, Shinto, of which he was the head. As guardian and protector of a living deity, the huge 6,000-plus Imperial Household Ministry thereby became incredibly powerful, both politically and nationally.

All that changed after World War II. The Imperial Household Ministry – now renamed the Imperial Household Agency – lost its national influence but, significantly for our tale, it was given official, concrete power over the Imperial Family itself. In 1949, the IHA was placed directly under the control of the Prime Minister who was now more powerful than the Emperor himself. Although the agency’s bloated bureaucratic structure was slimmed down from its pre-war size of 6,000 to a relatively small 1,500, those officials had become even more powerful than before when it came to the lives of the Imperial House.

As I will explain in further detail in Part II, under the American-imposed Constitution of 1946, the Emperor became a symbolic figurehead with a purely ceremonial role. In addition, the Imperial Family’s extensive estates and personal property were confiscated. The scope of the family’s loss was enormous. In 1945, the total assets of the Imperial House were made public; that sum, based on deliberately and “grossly understated figures provided by the Imperial Household Ministry,” was more than 16 billion yen. (Herbert P. Bix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, HarperCollins 2000, p. 552.) If the understated amount in 1945 terms was that much, one can only imagine how much it would be at today’s rates! Emperor Hirohito’s personal wealth had made him the nation’s biggest landowner and wealthiest individual but Chapter VII of the new 1946 Constitution gave it all to the Japanese parliament (or Diet) to control, along with all imperial palaces and assets. The nationalization was essentially punishment by the victorious Americans who strongly suspected Emperor Hirohito of being a driving force behind Japan’s militaristic ambitions and not the symbolic, uninvolved figurehead the Japanese government was claiming. Id.

In my opinion, the Imperial Family’s loss of financial independence is one of the greatest, concrete reasons for the IHA’s power. The Imperial Family has to rely on a budget which is controlled by the IHA. Any private wealth accrued by the Imperial Family is therefore recent in origin and the result of laborious efforts. It’s also extremely small in comparison to other royal families. For example, when the late Emperor Hirohito died in 1989, he left personal property that reportedly was worth only £11 million.

The budget allocated to the Imperial Family is a relatively small one. Every year, the IHA receives almost 18 billion yen (approx. $160 million) but the lion’s share of that money goes to the agency itself. In 2004, 10.83 billion yen was allotted to the IHA for its expenses and 6.30 billion yen went for palace upkeep, palace-related expenses and cost associated with official royal duties, such as ceremonies and state banquets. What’s left over was given to Imperial Family for their personal use.

In all fairness, recently released information shows that the Imperial Family is hardly living a Spartan existence. In The Imperial Family Purse, Yohei Mori, a former royal correspondent for the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper, discusses the Emperor’s incredibly extravagant lifestyle. According to a review in the British newspaper, the Telegraph, Mori claims:

[Emperor Akihito’s staff] includes four doctors on call 24 hours a day, five men who attend to his wardrobe and 11 who assist him in Shinto rites. In all, Japan’s royal family commands a legion of more than 1,000 people, including a 24-piece orchestra, 30 gardeners, 25 cooks and 78 plumbers, electricians and builders.

The main imperial palace, in Tokyo, home to Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, requires 160 servants to keep it running – partly because of rules like one that a maid who wipes a table cannot also wipe the floor [… .] Meanwhile the emperor and his family run up a monthly water bill of £50,000.

… [I]n addition to the emperor’s own doctors, his palace has a £2 million-a-year clinic with 42 staff and eight medical departments, but only 28 visitors a day. The room in which Crown Princess Masako gave birth to Princess Aiko two years ago was redecorated beforehand at a cost of £140,000.

A special 961-strong police force guards the imperial family and their residences at a cost of £48 million.

The emperor spent £140,000 building a new wine cellar, which stores 4,500 bottles of 11 types of white wine and seven types of red. When President Mbeki of South Africa visited Japan in 2001 he was served Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1982, which today costs more than £300 a bottle, and Dom Perignon 1992 champagne.

While these expenditures seem lavish, one should remember that the family itself gets only 1/28th of the overall sum given to the IHA. The magnificent surroundings therefore hide the fact that a family with a millennium-plus tradition of considering itself the living embodiment of a God is beholden to bureaucrats for money like some discarded pensioner.

Financial power isn’t the IHA’s only source of dominion over the Imperial Family; it also controls the family’s access to the outside. As noted earlier, access can be power; and no-one has access to the Imperial Family unless the IHA says so, not even family members. For example, Crown Princess Masako may not see the Emperor unless the IHA has previously approved her request. The restriction has nothing to do with the Emperor’s role as head of the Imperial House because Masako may not visit her own parents without requesting and obtaining permission from the IHA. The fact that such parental visits have been few and far between since she married Crown Prince Naruhito speaks volumes in my opinion about the IHA’s power, even if the situation is framed in terms of protocol requirements and administrative difficulties. Those technicalities and excuses can’t hide the princely couple’s complete helplessness in the face of the IHA’s agenda which, as I will explain in Part III, is to obtain a male heir to the throne at any and all costs.

Even more tightly controlled than small trips within Japan is overseas travel. For example, the Crown Prince and his wife have made only five trips together outside the country since they got married eleven years ago. Requests to make other trips have been denied under some excuse or another. Similarly, Prince Akishino, the Crown Prince’s younger brother, and his wife have been permitted only to make four official visits abroad since their wedding in 1990. One of those trips — to attend the wedding of Prince Constantijn of the Netherlands — allegedly required approval from Parliament, although the IHA seems more likely in my opinion.

The scope of the IHA’s power is so great that it seems to extend to even the smallest aspect of the royals’ daily activity. Some people have alleged that the Emperor may not take a walk in his gardens without obtaining the IHA’s consent. If that claim seems a bit extreme, another allegation is even more so: that the Imperial Family couldn’t make private, direct-dial telephone calls outside the palace. It’s uncertain if that restriction still exists today; it’s equally uncertain who or what imposed that rule. One Japanese expert, Raymond Lamont-Brown, seems to imply it was the Emperor when he states that Akihito “allowed direct-line telephones to be used at the Kyujo.” (hereinafter cited just as “Lamont-Brown.”) But another commentator still insists that “the imperial family reportedly does not even have access to a private phone.” Whatever the truth, and the IHA refuses to answer any questions on the matter, one can only wonder at a situation where a simple telephone call is the subject of debate and a symbol of great change.

The IHA’s restrictions on the Imperial Family aren’t limited solely to what they may do but, also, to what they may say. The agency strictly circumscribes all public utterances by members of the Imperial Family. Public statements by British royals “on such things as the environment, architecture and society- as well as off-the-cuff comments are looked upon with incredulity by the Japanese public, horror by the court, and blank disbelief by the Gaimusho [the Ministry of Foreign Affairs].” (See, Lamont-Brown.)

The IHA’s power does not stop there. The agency also places suffocating constrictions on the press vis-à-vis the Imperial Family. In today’s media age, that can be a considerable cudgel to wield. For example, the IHA stage-manages all purported “press conferences” down to the smallest detail: a small, hand-selected group of pliant journalists are invited; the invitations are accompanied by seven pages of protocol requirements which address things as minor as the colour of the cameramen’s suits; the reporters must submit a list of questions weeks in advance for vetting and approval; then the IHA presumably gives approved answers to the royal in question to use as his “reply” during the conference; follow-up questions are unofficially prohibited under threat of future exclusion from royal events; and an informal rule frowns upon a female royal speaking half as long as her husband.

As one AP journalist noted, “It is easier to interview the head of the K.G.B. in Moscow or the N.S.A. in Washington than to get time with these people [… But if] we did a story interpreted as lèse-majesté it would hinder our colleagues in the future.” Id. The reporter was wrong; the ramifications for not playing along with the IHA’s oppressive rules can be much worse than that. The IHA allegedly was able to get a photographer fired for taking an “unauthorized” photo of the Crown Prince at his wedding. The photograph supposedly showed a more “human” moment between the newlyweds and was therefore unacceptable to the IHA.

The IHA’s power over the press is so great that it even stops the media from reporting on matters of great national importance, matters which are impossible to conceal in Western democracies or monarchies. For example, it was a well-known fact among the press corps and other observers that the late Emperor Hirohito was dying of cancer. The IHA did not want the public to know. Accordingly, news broadcasts at the time merely mentioned the Emperor’s blood pressure, heart rate and other minor details. It was only after he died in January 1989 that the public was told that he had pancreatic cancer.

One Japanese expert explains the pliancy of the Japanese media towards the Imperial Family as follows:

‘Royal bashing’ has not been a consistent Japanese press sport mainly because the Imperial Household Agency has not encouraged the public to be curious about the Imperial Family or expansive in press handouts. The Imperial Household Agency retain a tight reign on the compliant Japanese press corps, allowing only a small group of vetted correspondents access to the Kyujo. The function of the corps is to reproduce (without comment) the press releases of the Imperial Household Agency ‘newsroom’.

             (See, Lamont-Brown)

If I’ve portrayed the IHA as an archaic, oppressive tyrant from another time and age, it’s because I think it is precisely that, if not worse. As I will try to show in Part II, Part III, and Part IV,  I see the IHA not only as a misogynistic bully but also as the unofficial occupant of the Chrysanthemum throne. Even more significantly, I see it as the heir to and protector of the ancient Shinto religion, a state religion which was more of a cult and which clearly played a role in Japan’s pre-war military ambitions. In my opinion, the IHA is the last remaining government bastion of the arch-conservative beliefs which led to WWII, beliefs which the IHA will fight ferociously to protect against such modern iniquities as gender-blind succession and female Empresses. I would even go so far as to say that the IHA is the unofficial, political arm of powerful, conservative elements in Japanese society. But all that’s a story for another day and time. Until then, I bid you adieu.


Food fit for a King. (Literally!)

Written by Pandora’s Box  [my old writing alter-ego]
Tuesday, 19 October 2004

Have you ever come across a book so stunning that you held your breath as you turned the glossy pages, silent in awe at what you beheld and reverentially stroking its beautiful, shiny pages? I have. The most recent occasion was just a few weeks ago in fact. That was when I came across an almost pristine copy of an old French coffee table book of my mother’s on the great master chefs of Europe. Its lengthy title was almost as great as its incredible weight. (And when something makes a 16-pound cat feel light in comparison, you know you’ve entered into a whole new literary dimension!) My discovery was entitled “Les Grands Maîtres de la Cuisine Française: Du Moyen Age à Alexandre Dumas, Les Meilleures Recettes de Cinq Siècles de Tradition Gastromique” or, “The Great Masters of French Cooking: From the Middle Ages to Alexandre Dumas, The Best Recipes from Five Centuries of Gastronomic Tradition.” (Eds. Céline Vence & Robert J.Courtine, Bordas 1972)(henceforth referred to as “Les Grands Maîtres.”)

I had come across this book many years ago, when I was a child and had dreamt of becoming a world-renowned chef. When other children were playing with Barbies or their action figures, I was in the kitchen inventing recipes, grading restaurants under my own Zagat-like system, and desperately trying to figure out what Louisa May Alcott meant in “Little Women” when she referred to blancmangeLes Grands Maîtres didn’t explain blancmange to me but it did introduce me to a world of culinary legends, almost all of who had been royal chefs. The greatest of these was “the God,” Carême, a man whom I meet again in the magical world of Regency England, as portrayed by Georgette Heyer and, I’m embarrassed to admit, Barbara Cartland.

Coming across Les Grands Maîtres after all these years was like meeting an old friend. It made me forget all about my plans to write about the scandalous new Dutch princess, Mabel, who had gone from being “a mobster’s moll” to the Queen’s daughter-in-law. It took me back in time, to the world of Regency England, the Sun King’s incredible palace of Versailles, and Napoleon’s glittering Empire.

As I read the elaborate recipes for dishes once enjoyed by emperors, kings and princes, I realized that few people knew the close connection between royalty and cooking. Even fewer understand that cooking, as we know it today, would not exist if it hadn’t been for royalty.

The simple fact is that the founding fathers of gastronomy were all employed, at one time or another, by a royal prince, king or tsar. The reason boils down to money. Until the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, only royals were wealthy enough to afford gastronomical excess, culinary inventions and lavish dinners.

For those who hate cooking, let me say now that the history of the master chefs is not an explanation of how to make an omelet. It’s a glimpse into the golden age of kings, a lost world of luxury, political scheming, extravagance and hedonism. Take, for example, Marie-Antoine (“Antonin”) Carême, a chef whose life was a strange mixture of Oliver Twist and Harold Robbins. Carême was 10 years old when he was abandoned on the brutal streets of Paris by his alcoholic father. Eleven years later, he was so influential that he baked Napoleon’s wedding cake. A few years after that, he captivated allEurope at the Congress of Vienna. He dazzled “Prinny,” Britain’s future King George IV, in London; created masterpieces for the Romanovs in St. Petersburg; and conjured up soufflés with real gold particles for the Rothschilds in Paris. (Ian Kelly, The Life of Antonin Carême, the First Celebrity Chef (Walker & Co. 2004).) He was called “the Chef of Kings, and the King of Chefs,” although the French seemed to have referred to him simply as “le Dieu” or the God. (Les Grands Maîtres, at 54.)

However, Carême was not the first important royal chef; several other prominent cooks led the way for him. As a result, I thought I’d write a little about the history of cooking as it relates to royalty, with special emphasis upon my beloved Carême. If the discussion leaves you hungry, I’ve provided numerous recipes at the end for you to try out, ranging from a simple autumn soup by Carême, to Napoleon’s lucky chicken fricassee, to the vegetarian eggplant dish favoured by the late Diana, Princess of Wales. The recipes may not be the most fanciful and the dishes may not be a chef’s most famous ones but, hopefully, they should be relatively simple. More importantly, they will be feasible for the average cook in this day and age.

Space limitations prevent me from elaborating on the endless, fascinating and funky bits of royal culinary trivia I’ve discovered, and it certainly limits me from getting into the tastes and preferences of such modern royals as the Queen, Prince Philip and Diana. However, if any of you would be interested in hearing more about the subject, please don’t hesitate to write to me and let me know. Now, onto the history of cooking and royal chefs…

The Pioneers

The first significant royal chef was Taillevent who lived in the 1300s and was the personal chef to King Charles V of France. The King was such an ardent fan of Taillevent’s cooking that he commissioned him to write a cookbook. The result, Le Viandier, is said to be the first cookbook of any importance since Roman times. Taillevent’s recipes were very crude and simplistic, consisting of a few sentences and emphasizing a heavy use of spices to disguise the flavour of food. (See, translated copy of Le Viandier, at

In all fairness to Taillevent, the purpose of cooking in those days was to compensate for a lack of refrigeration, a problem that frequently led to rotting food. The King rewarded Taillevent’s efforts with both an estate and a title. Ironically, Charles V died as a result of eating some deadly mushrooms. Hopefully, it wasn’t Taillevent’s fault. Notwithstanding this unfortunate incident, Taillevent is considered by many to be a pioneer in the history of cooking. Today, the restaurant which bears his name is considered one of the best in the world, as evidenced by decades of the famous Michelin four-star rating.

La Varenne
In the 17th century, Francois Pierre de la Varenne came to prominence. Born in 1618, it is thought that he learned how to cook in the kitchens of Marie de Medici, wife of Henry IV of France. From there, he became a royal cook to Louis XIV, the august Sun King himself (1643-1715). Before La Varenne, court cuisine had over-emphasized the use of sugar and such sweet spices as cloves, mace, cardamom or nutmeg. These items were hard to get and, as such, symbols of wealth and prestige. To impress their employers, cooks were used them indiscriminately and not all that sparingly. The result was probably the equivalent of eating Christmas Pudding or pumpkin pie for every dish, during every meal, on every day. La Varenne changed all that.

In 1651, he published a book of his own: Le Cuisiner Francois or The French Cook. The book is regarded as a turning point in culinary history and is so influential that it was recently republished in 2001. The book is significant because La Varenne, unlike Taillevent, emphasized flavour over methods of preparation. His recipes were simple, concise and designed to bring out the natural flavour of the ingredients, not mask it under the sweet stench of sugary spices. In fact, thanks to La Varenne’s influence, pepper became the dominant seasoning, followed by fresh herbs.

More significantly, he is probably the man who first invented the famous béchamel or white sauce. Until that time, sauces followed the Roman method adopted by Taillevent: where thick pieces of stale bread were soaked in liquid and then strained through cloth. The result was a lumpy paste that was combined with heavy amounts of cinnamon, mace, cardamom, cloves, vinegar (or lime juice), wine and some water, and poured over roasted meats or boiled lamprey eels. Positively repulsive!

La Varenne must have thought so too because his recipe completely different. He used simple flour, slowly blended with boiled milk and butter to create a smooth, creamy white sauce; he seasoned it only with pepper; and he completely ignored Taillevent’s beloved mix of potent spices. He named his sauce “Béchamel” after the 17th century nobleman who was Louis XIV’s Chief Steward. The sauce was not only a huge hit atVersailles but it also became one of the cornerstones of modern cooking.

Béchamel was not La Varenne’s only invention. His appreciation for herbs led him to come up with the ingenious idea of a bouquet garni: a small posy of fragrant herbs tied up in a porous fabric for slow seasoning in stews and soups. La Varenne was also the first to introduce the use of fresh vegetables, such as mushrooms, for flavouring meats.In fact, he’s said to be the person behind the decadent pairing of foie gras and truffles.

La Varenne also tried to make changes outside the kitchen as well. He wanted to limit the scope of royal dinners, mostly in order to control his employer’s gargantuan appetite and protect his health. Consider the account, furnished by Louis XIV’s sister in law, the Duchess of Orleans, of one of the King’s meals:

I have often seen the King consume four plates of different soups, a whole pheasant, a partridge, a large plate of salad, two big slices of ham, a dish of mutton in garlic sauce, a plateful of pastries followed by fruit and hard-boiled eggs.

Unfortunately, La Varenne was not successful in his attempts. It wasn’t just the King’s gluttony that was at fault. Another reason was the political significance of enormous banquets. The endless one-upmanship in dishes and preparations, the huge cost of the dinners, and gluttonous extravagances of the royal court were all seen as a reflection of the political pyramid, with the king placed firmly at the top. (See, “The Dominance of the French Grande Cuisine,” in The Cambridge World History of Food, Vol. II (Cambridge University Press 2000) at pp. 1210-1216.) In other words, lavish theatrical feasts became a means of glorifying the monarch and making a political point.

The 17th century also gave us Vatel whose life was recently the focus of a film starring Gerard Depardieu and Uma Thurman. Vatel was born the son of a Flemish laborer but he became world famous as the head cook and household manager (“maitre d’hotel”) to the powerful Prince of Condé. There are numerous legends swirling around Vatel’s name but few hard facts. The greatest legend is that Vatel committed suicide because the fish he’d ordered didn’t arrive on time. It sounds very extreme, I know, but the way the story is told is as follows: the Prince had invited over 3000 guests to several days of festivities in honour of the Sun King, Louis XIV. The Prince’s fortunes rode on the outcome and the King’s enjoyment. As head of staff, Vatel was in charge of organizing the festivities and creating a menu that would please the King. The King’s love of good food was well known, so the perfectionistic Vatel was horrified when the fish did not arrive on time. Rather than serve the King substandard food, Vatel retreated to his quarters and stabbed himself with a knife. A few minutes later, the fish arrived. Whatever the truth of the story, it is Vatel’s name has gone down in history as one of the master chefs, even possibly the man behind the invention of crème chantilly or whipped cream.

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the art of cooking reached new heights under the influence of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. Although Brillat-Savarin was never a royal chef and, technically, doesn’t belong in this listing, his impact is too great to ignore. Quite simply, he was the Martha Stewart of his time, with a touch of Andy Rooney (the opinionated American commentator) and a dash of Samuel Pepys (the famed 17th century British diarist). Through his words, he changed people’s philosophy towards dining and helped turn it into an art.

Brillat-Savarin was born in 1775. He became a lawyer and then, eventually, the mayor of his town. Political problems following the French Revolution forced him to fleeFrance. After a few years traveling through Europe, he made his way to the United States where he supported himself by playing the violin. He eventually returned toFrance where he wrote one of the most celebrated treatises on food: “Le Physiologie du Gout.”

Published in English as The Physiology of Taste (1825), it was the first work to treat dining as a form of art, and gastronomy as “the intelligent knowledge of whatever concerns man’s nourishment.” (SeeLe Physiologie, as translated by Fayette Robinson, at Brillat-Savarin’s “physiology” or philosophy focused on the pleasures of dining — as opposed to mere cooking — as well as style and proper dining etiquette. But his book goes far beyond such narrow issues.

The majority of Le Physiologie is taken up by witty, often chatty, essays in which Brillat-Savarin describes his theories about everything connected to society. The wonderful anecdotes which he shares about everyone from Rossini to the corner baker makes the reader feel as though they’ve stepped foot into the 1800s or peeking into someone’s personal diary. At other times, one is amused by the Brillat-Savarin’s theories on such varied and eclectic matters as: the erotic properties of truffles (they acted as an aphrodisiac upon women); the importance of food in history (“The destiny of nations depends on the manner in which they are fed”); the character of nations (the Swiss were “eminently civilized but fools because they have no time for pleasure,” while the Americans were “charming barbarians”); and the importance of chocolate (“chocolate is health!”) as a panacea for everything from hangovers to lethargy. (Id.See also, Stephanie Curtis, “Mad about Chocolate,” at; and “Rogov’s Ramblings” at

Many of his reflections have become celebrated adages that remain with us today. For example, “The discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star;” “Those who eat too much or get drunk do not know how to eat or drink;” “The most indispensable quality of a cook is punctuality; it must also be the one of his guests;” and his most famous proverb, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” (See, Le Physiologie, as translated by Fayette Robinson, supra).

At first glance, these sayings may seem foolish and frivolous, but that is because we are looking at them through modern eyes. Back in the 1700s, concepts such as punctuality or moderation in food and drink were truly radical ideas. Sugar-coated in Brillat-Savarin’s witty style, they had an impact. They also helped legitimize efforts by such chefs as Carême to move away from the culinary habits of the ancien regimetowards a new more modern approach that emphasized refined food, table manners, and social interaction.


As I mentioned earlier, Carême is my favorite chef of all time and a man whose life is something out of a Dickensian novel. He was born in 1784 to an alcoholic, itinerant stonemason who fathered 25 children. (Les Grands Maîtres, at 54.)At the age of 10, Carême was turned out penniless onto the streets of Paris. As Carême later recounted it, his father’s final words to him were: “Go my child, and fare well in the world. Leave us to languish; poverty and misery are our lot and we will die as we have lived. But for those like you, with quick wits, there are great fortunes to be made.” Id. Adecade later, Carême had become the toast of Napoleonic and Regency Europe and a man whose early death was mourned by emperors, tsars and kings.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that Carême cooked for every important banquet table in 19th century Europe. Consider just a few of his employers: the legendary master statesman and general, Prince Talleyrand-Perigord, simply known on both sides of the Atlantic as Talleyrand; Britain’s Prince Regent or “Prinny”; Tsar Alexander I; and Baron de Rothschild, head of the famous banking dynasty. And those were just hisemployers. Almost all the royals, aristocrats, and nobles who attended the Congress of Vienna from 1814 to 1815 were served his dishes at one banquet or another.

Carême began his meteoric rise to fame as an apprentice to one of the great pâtissieurs or pastry chefs of the day, Bailly, who soon recognized the young boy’s talents. In Carême’s time, the pâtissieur was as prestigious as that of the cuisinier himself (head chef). Jean François Revel, Culture and Cuisine: A Journey through the History of Food (Da Capo 1984). The reason is that pastry cooks were responsible for the great decorative centerpieces (or “pièces montées”) that were the crowning glory of grand dinners.

Carême excelled at these artistic flights of fancy, which is probably why Bailly gave him the freedom to indulge in his quest for knowledge. After spending grueling hours in the kitchen, Carême would leave for the great libraries of Paris where the young boy taught himself how to read and write. He also began learning about architecture, a subject that he was passionate about, the arts and the famous royal chefs of the past. It’s clear that, even at a young age, Carême was already a workaholic, a genius and an ambitious perfectionist.

Carême soon caught the eye of the great Talleyrand. In 1804, Talleyrand gave him a test: to create a menu featuring multiple dishes for each day of the year, but never repeating a single dish and only using seasonal produce. Carême passed the test with ease and Talleyrand hired him on the spot.

This was no small honour. Talleyrand was a wily political chameleon who exercised power, no matter who was in power, no matter what the decade. Think about the brilliant ruthlessness which would permit a powerful politician to survive the following political polarities: the ancien regime (Louis XVI), the Revolution, Napoleon’s Consulate, Napoleon’s Empire, the Restoration (Louis XVIII), and the July Monarchy (Louis Philippe). And Talleyrand did not just “survive;” with the exception of a brief period of poverty in America, Talleyrand flourished in style and great luxury.

Talleyrand was the perfect patron for Carême. He was a gourmet who appreciated fine food, he was politically powerful, he had the financial means to support Carême’s culinary imagination, and he introduced Carême’s dishes to the most powerful men inEurope.

Equally important was Talleyrand’s well-known preference for conducting “diplomatic campaigns on damask dinnercloths.” (Pat Solley, “The Hardest Soup in the World,” at ) In other words, Talleyrand intentionally tried to soften up his opponents, dull their senses and get an advantage by sating them with an abundance of rich, decadent food. In the world of the early 1800s, however, royalty and politicians were blasé beyond belief. Enter Carême, a man whose extravagant culinary inventions tantalized even the most jaded appetite.

Thus, for every political crisis handled by Talleyrand, there was some glorious, new recipe by Carême. For example, the “XYZ Affair” that nearly brought the US to war with France was resolved over Carême’s Vol-au-Vents Puits D’Amour. The Concordat of 1801 ending hostilities with the Vatican; a ravishing Suedois. The Peace of Amiens; a delicate Souffle aux FraisesId. These were no small feats. Carême was not modifying someone else’s recipes but actually inventing things, like the soufflé, from thin air.

Carême’s brilliance soon led Talleyrand to promote him to head chef. The honours did not stop there. When Emperor Napoleon had a second, and religious, marriage to his beloved Joséphine, Carême was chosen to make the cake. He was only 21 years old.

In 1814, Carême reached an even larger audience for his talents when he accompanied Talleyrand to the Congress of Vienna. The Congress was a six-month long diplomatic affair that was briefly interrupted by Napoleon’s escape from Elba and the Battle of Waterloo. Royalty and statesmen from every European country gathered to decideFrance’s future. Talleyrand represented the French delegation and the newly imposed King Louis XVIII, brother to the guillotined Louis XVI. With the fate of France lying in hands of the victorious Allies, Talleyrand set out to protect France’s status and to return her to what he saw as her rightful place among the great powers.

According to one author, Ian Kelly, one of the tools at Talleyrand’s disposal was Carême. Kelly argues that Talleyrand wielded Carême’s gastronomy as a political tool to show France as a dazzling, mighty, and important power, not a vanquished beggar nation dependent on the mercy of the Allies. (Ian Kelly, Cooking for Kings: The life of Antonin Carême, the first celebrity Chef (Walker & Co. 2004).) As entranced as I am about Carême, Kelly’s argument seems to place a bit too much importance on the culinary genius’ influence. Quite simply, I find it hard to believe that the arrogant, egotistical Talleyrand would spend all that much time thinking about his master chef’s political impact, particularly when he was up to his neck in political intrigue and diplomatic negotiations.

Nonetheless, I think it’s undisputed that Carême dazzled Talleyrand’s guests in a way that could only have benefited the politician’s reputation. Carême’s time in Talleyrand’s service enabled him to know the eating foibles and preferences of a number of important statesmen, diplomats and royals. For example, the Tsar had stayed with Talleyrand on a prior trip to Paris and Carême had wooed the Russian foreign minister with a chestnut pudding created in his name, the Nesselrode Pudding, a subsequent favorite of Britain’s Prince Regent. Id. (For the recipe to the mouth-watering Nesselrode Pudding, see Kelly’s website at It’s not wholly implausible, therefore, that Carême combined his knowledge with his skills, in order to achieve greater good will for the French. After all, if the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, then think what Carême’s brilliant inventions could do!

One thing is certain: Carême’s name was on everyone’s lips. Cooking sometimes for days on end, he sometimes served several thousand guests at a time with elaborate dishes and masterpieces of confection. When the Congress of Vienna dispersed in 1815, the departing dignitaries went home and spread the legend of Carême. The person who was most eager to hear of Europe’s new culinary genius was Britain’s Prince Regent or “Prinny” as he was better known.

Prinny was the oldest son of George III and he came to power via a special parliamentary bill when his father was thought to have gone “mad.” Today, we know that the King suffered from porphyria, a medical condition that can lead to episodes of dementia. Prinny had never gotten along with his staid, Germanic parent who disapproved greatly of his extravagance and his scandalous hedonism. When the Regency Act was passed, Prinny took full advantage of the coffers now open to him and set forth to indulge every one of his gargantuan appetites for wine, women and food. His indulgences soon turned the slim, young prince into a florid, fat whale who needed to wear tight corsets in order to fit into his clothes. It was said that one could hear the creaking of Prinny’s corsets across the stretch of a room, but that didn’t stop the Prince’s mammoth appetite. In fact, I’d venture to say that Prinny would have put Louis XIV to shame when it came to gluttony and sheer quantities of food.

When he heard of Talleyrand’s brilliant chef and his unique dishes, he had to have him, no matter what the price. And what Prinny wanted, Prinny often got. In late 1815, he lured Carême away from Talleyrand’s household and got him to make the trip across the Channel. Carême took up residence at Prinny’s London home, Carlton House, and set out to show “les Anglais” what real cooking was all about.

It was in this context that I first heard of Carême and, to this day, his name is forever associated in my mind with the magical, enchanted world of Regency England: waltzes at Almack’s; Beau Brummell quizzing the ladies; Lord Byron and the scandalous Caro Lamb; gentlemen’s clubs like Whites (which still exists today and counts as its members both The Prince of Wales and Prince William); and Prinny’s Brighton Pavilion. To my youthful mind, Carême was imbued with all their magic but, the reality was, it was Carême who glittered. His genius was much more than just the figment of my youthful imagination or romantic perceptions. And a menu for Jan. 15, 1817 shows why.

Carême started with four soups, then four fish dishes, then four main dishes (ham, veal, etc.) and thirty-six side dishes. And this was just the FIRST COURSE!!!! The Herculean nature of Carême’s job becomes even more apparent when you consider that Prinny preferred an average of ten courses, at the very least, since anything less was considered shoddy and meager. In fact, I’ve read that some of Prinny’s banquets featured 100 courses. (Jay Rayner, “A History of… Haute Cuisine,” at If every course had an average of 50 elaborate dishes, that would make Carême responsible for as many as 5000 dishes for one night’s entertainment.

Carême’s brilliance didn’t stop there. He also designed massive, elaborate table decorations, including one of Prinny’s new Brighton Pavilion, out of marzipan, spun sugar, glue, wax, and pastry dough. Passionate about architecture, Carême’s breath-taking centerpieces – complete with classic temples, rotundas, bridges, palaces, forts and windmills – were accurate and precise, down to the smallest detail. (Rayner,supra. See also, Marie-Pierre Moine, Triumph of French Grande Cuisine, at

Carême only lasted two years in Prinny’s employment before resigning. Contrary to what you might think, Prinny’s elaborate dinners didn’t exhaust him. It was the weather! (Les Grands Maîtres, at 54.) Carême became deeply depressed by the notorious British climate and by the attitude of his fellow cooks, who resented the attention paid to the famous chef. Besieged by offers, Carême decided to work for the Tsar, in St. Petersburg and at his Winter Palace. Unfortunately, Russia wasn’t to his taste either, so he returned to his beloved Paris where he worked for the British Ambassador, the scandalous Princess Bagration and then, finally, the Rothschilds.

His new employer, Baroness Betty de Rothschild, was eager to be accepted by Parisian society and gave the fiery chef a complete blank cheque in the kitchen. The result was some of Carême’s most elaborate dishes, including a soufflé recipe that called for suspended particles of real gold within the liqueur and the famous Lady Morgan soup, sometimes called “the hardest soup in the world.” (See, Ian Kelly’s fascinating description of the Rothschild’s glittering extravaganza for Lady Morgan, excerpted in part at and his translation of Carême’s Rothschild soufflé at For the recipe of “Lady Morgan’s Soup,” see .).

It was within this timeframe that Carême probably invented the extravagant dish,Tournedos à la Rossini, in honour of the famous composer. The recipe is a feast for the senses, as it calls for the richest of ingredients, one atop another: filet mignon, topped with exorbitantly expensive black truffles and huge slabs of foie gras, all on top of buttery croutons in a rich Madeira wine sauce.

I say “probably” because it’s unclear who created the recipe. Personally, I believe it was Carême. Some people believe it was Rossini who was no stranger to culinary inventions. However, Rossini’s style of cooking was never this complex or extravagant; Carême’s was. Other people credit Escoffier – the famous chef who followed Carême in the annals of culinary fame — with the invention. I’m no culinary expert but, again, I think Carême is a much more likely candidate. For one thing, the dish is very much in the style of Carême’s other rich, decadent and utterly expensive creations. For another, the time frame fits; Escoffier had just come to Paris when Rossini died in 1868, whereas Carême had been a long-time friend of the composer. In fact, Carême was so close to Rossini that the latter turned down an invitation to tourAmerica just because Carême refused to accompany him. In contrast, Escoffier was never a personal friend of the composer. Lastly, it’s been said that Escoffier had few qualms about appropriating other chefs’ inventions when it benefited his reputation. See

Recipes aside, Carême set out to change the face of cooking in more permanent, substantive ways. One of his many books was a huge encyclopedia on the history of cooking. L’Art de la Cuisine Française au XIXieme Siècle was a sixteen volume series that covered everything from his recipes, to the origins of certain dishes, to table settings and food service. It immortalized his art, as well as the tradition of cooking throughout the centuries. It became an instant classic and is still read today by the master chefs in Europe. In fact, you can find a copy on the French Amazon website, albeit not in translation and only in an abridged form.

In his book, Carême organized recipes into master categories. To be exact, he classified all sauces into five main, or “mother,” sauces from which everything else derived. It sounds trivial but, in Carême’s opinion, once you knew how to make the sauce, the rest followed from there. The “mother” sauces are:

  1. béchamel (a white sauce made out of flour, butter and milk, also known as white roux);
  2. velouté (a light broth-based sauce made from poultry, veal or fish, but never beef);
  3. allemande (a velouté sauce thickened with the addition of egg yolks at the end);
  4. espagnole or brown sauce (usually derived from a beef stock); and
  5. a tomato-based sauce (a later addition to the list but still considered one of the main 5 sauce types).

Carême believed that these five sauces were the foundation to almost all European cooking. He was right. If you’ve ever made a gravy for Thanksgiving or for prime roast, then you’ve used one of the mother sauces. If you’ve cooked Cajun food, chances are that you’ve used a white roux or béchamel sauce; if you’ve made spaghetti sauce, then you might have used either the tomato sauce (e.g., bolognaise), the béchamel (Alfredo) or the velouté (clam sauce). In short, unless you barbeque, order in or microwave your food, then you’ve probably made one of the “mother” sauces.

Chances are, you’ve also been influenced by Carême’s rendition of them. Carême didn’t just organize sauces into categories; he also refined sauces from the past. For example, he took the béchamel sauce created by our old friend, La Varenne, and perfected it. He did the same with other historic sauces too. He went back centuries into the past, took the best of the master chefs’ creations, synthesized it with his modern knowledge, and then refined it. Thanks to Carême’s prodigious writing, these recipes are still used today by cooks all over the world.

Carême made another huge contribution to the history of food: he changed how it was served. Before Carême, service was à la française or in the French style, something akin to family style today where every dish (after the soup course) was put out simultaneously on the table. Although people could pick and choose what they wished to eat, the disadvantage was that most dishes became cold very quickly, especially as they’d already made the long journey from the kitchens, through cold drafty corridors, to the banquet halls. Carême, ever the perfectionist, couldn’t stand for his dishes to be ruined, even if the cause was a traditional way of eating. Influenced by his time at the Tsar’s court, he was a big advocate for service à la russe, where diners were served individual portions of dishes, one after another, and still relatively hot. Although old habits die hard, Carême had some help from another old friend of ours, Brillat-Savarin.His book had already led to a shift in attitudes towards dining, and its impact became even more widespread when the English version came out in 1825.

None of that was enough for the perfectionist genius. In his spare time, Carême also redesigned certain kitchen utensils, created cooking molds in new, ornate shapes, and allegedly invented the tall chef’s hat or toque. (“Tallyrand’s Culinary Fare,” at That last claim may be a slight exaggeration because no one really knows how the hat was invented. One legend credits King Henry VIII. The way the story goes, one of the royal cooks in King Henry’s employment started losing his hair. Unfortunately, he seems to have done so while preparing the King’s dinner; and we all know how much King Henry loved his food. So, when His Majesty found a hair in his soup, he was so furious that he had the cook beheaded. He ordered the next Chef to start wearing a hat and, for obvious reasons, the poor man was more than happy to comply.

Whoever invented the toque, one thing was clear: Carême was burning the candle at both ends, in a way that did not bode well for his health:

He rose before dawn, so he could choose only the freshest fruits and vegetables from the markets. He was on constant duty working until the late hours. Carême would hardly sleep at all, with sauces being started, for an important dinner, at 3 am. Carême also worked in exhausting situations. With a lot of coal and wood burning around them. In this furnace everyone moves with sped; not a sound is heard, only the chef has a right to speak, and at the sound of his voice, everyone obeys. Finally the last straw in the hot kitchen, for about half an hour, all the windows are closed so that the dishes would not cool down, as they are being served.

By 1829, Carême was seriously ill. According Kelly, his biographer, Carême was slowly being poisoned to death by low-level carbon monoxide, resulting from a lifetime of cooking over a charcoal in close, unventilated quarters.

Four years later, Carême was dead. He was just 48 years old. The culinary genius of the 19th century was buried in an unmarked grave and, due to an outbreak of cholera, no one attended his funeral. Yet, his death hardly went unnoticed. When Tsar Alexander I heard of it, he reportedly said mournfully to Talleyrand ‘What we did not know was that he taught us to eat’. (“Tallyrand’s Culinary Fare,” at


Carême’s death marked the end of master royal chefs. From this period onwards, master chefs did not work exclusively for royalty. Yes, they still cooked for princes, kings and emperors, but it was on their own terms, usually in an individual, independent capacity. Sometimes they cooked as part of a famous hotel and restaurant, like the renowned Escoffier. Sometimes, they merely catered for a particularly momentous occasion, like Escoffier’s legendary Three Emperors’ Dinner or the Cherries Jubilee which he made for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. And sometimes they just accidentally created famous recipes which royals enjoyed, such as the time a young Henri Charpentier inadvertently set fire to a dessert, resulting in the famous Crepes Suzette, a later favorite of Bertie, Prince of Wales and future King Edward VII. (See, Linda Stradley, “History of Crepes Suzette,” at At no time, however, did another world-renowned master chef work solely at the beck and call of royalty.

There are many reasons for the change. The trickle-down effect of the Industrial Revolution, new financial freedoms, globalization, the emergence of restaurants and hotels as powerful centers for the culinary arts, the impact of WWI and the end of many imperial monarchies – all these things and more ended the reign of the royal master chef. A new, more democratic, culinary world was emerging, one where nobility and access to the highest social stratosphere was no longer required to enjoy gastronomic heaven. Escoffier and his famous Ritz-Carlton establishments played a role in taking gastronomy out of the palaces, but it was undoubtedly WWI, the Depression and WWII that cemented the fate of the royal cook.

By the time Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne in 1952, things couldn’t have been more different than the extravagant days of Prinny and Carême. Even Her Majesty’s official website notes the differences:

Through the ages, the Royal Family has been well known for putting on spectacular banquets to mark significant events. Coronations, Jubilees and State Visits are three occasions which are traditionally honoured with a banquet.

In recent years such occasions, while maintaining their traditional splendour and ceremony, have been significantly reduced in size. Take, for example, a State Banquet hosted by The Queen at Windsor Castle in 2001. To honour the visiting King and Queen of Jordan, Her Majesty put on a banquet for just over 150 guests. To mark the Coronation of King George IV in 1821, however, a total of over 1,600 people attended a banquet in the honour of the new king! [Emphasis in the original.]

Each banquet provides an opportunity to display the Sovereign’s most impressive wares. The banquet table is meticulously prepared; the staff are spectacularly dressed in ceremonial uniforms; and the menu is of the highest standard. Again, though, the size of the menu has been gradually reduced from one Monarch to another. Whereas King George IV treated his guests to a range of 20 first courses, 22 main courses and 31 desserts, Queen Elizabeth II considers it more appropriate to offer one choice for each course.

Carême was the last of his kind. A genuine artist, his fiery, passionate nature carried over to his work and transformed it into a feast for the senses that captured the soul. He turned food into actual art, with huge tableaus of precise, architectural creations and food made out of gold. Literally! No other chef has ever come close to the scale, complexity and inventiveness of his creations. And no other chef so embodies the glittering brilliance of the golden age of kings as Carême.

To honour his legacy, I’ll leave you with a few recipes for you to try. They are simple dishes, not just by Carême’s standards but by a normal person’s standards. Lucky for us,

Carême had a particular passion for soup and I managed to find two simple ones, including one created in honour of Queen Marie-Antoinette. I’ve also thrown in various other recipes, such as the Stuffed Eggplant dish that was a favorite of Diana, Princess of Wales, Napoleon’s lucky chicken fricassee, and two desserts inspired by Brillat-Savarin.

Please write to me and let me know if you’d like to learn more about this subject, whether it’s historical royal trivia, recipes or the culinary preferences of such modern royals as the Queen, Prince Philip and Diana, Princess of Wales. I have a ton of royal recipes and trivia that I’d be happy to share if you’re so interested.

Until next week, happy cooking and bon appetit….

1- Carême’s “Autumn Soup

–   White part of 3 medium leeks, cut in julienne strips
–   Leaves of 2 celery hearts, cut in julienne strips
–    ½ head of romaine lettuce, cut in julienne strips
–    3 ¼ pints/2 quarts/2 liters well flavoured consommé
–    5 oz/1 cup/150 g fresh green peas
–    Pinch of sugar
–    Pinch of white pepper
–    Salt (optional)

1 ½ oz/ ½ cup/45 g flour
6 fl oz/ ¾ cup /175 ml cold consommé

6 slices bread, crusts discarded, diced
2 oz/ ¼ cup/ 60 g butter
3-4 tbsp oil

Cooking Directions:
Wash and drain the leek, celery, and lettuce strips. Bring the consommé to a boil.

Mix the flour with the 6 fl oz/ ¾ cup / 175 ml cold consommé and blend until smooth. Add to the boiling consommé, stirring constantly, and simmer until the consommé is thickened and smooth, 2-3 minutes. Add the leek, celery and lettuce strips with the peas, sugar and pepper and simmer, uncovered, until the vegetables are tender, 15-20 minutes. Taste the soup for seasoning, adding more salt and pepper if necessary.

For the croutons: heat the butter and oil and fry the diced bread, stirring, until browned on all sides. Drain the croutons thoroughly on paper towels and keep warm. If serving in a tureen, put in the croutons and pour over the soup; if serving in individual bowls, serve the croutons separately.

(Taken from “Tallyrand’s Culinary Fare” at See also, Ian Kelly’s book on Carême.)

2- Marie-Antoinette’s Vermicelli Soup
(Carême’s interpretation of Queen Marie-Antoinette’s last meal and a recipe that he invented in her honour. Pat Solley,, at

(Serves 6)

–    1 whole fowl (4-5 pounds)
NOTE: do not use any beef bones in the broth or to clarify the soup
–    3 quarts cold water
–    6 stalks celery, with leaves
–    1 small onion, chopped
–    1/2 cup scrubbed and chopped carrots
–    1 bay leaf
–    6 sprigs parsley
–    salt and pepper, to taste
–    3 egg whites and their crumpled shells
–    12 ounces fine soup noodles
–    2 cups peas (or asparagus, sliced on the diagonal) blanched to a fine green with a little sugar

Garnish: blanched chervil or Italian parsley

Cooking directions (according to Pat Solley):
“Fill a large pot with the cold water, add the fowl, celery, onion, carrots, bay leaf, and parsley, and bring to a simmer over low heat, skimming as necessary. Simmer, uncovered, for 3 hours. Strain through dampened cheesecloth, season to taste, and cool (you can cheat with ice cubes to cool the broth).

Clarify the cool broth by whisking the egg whites and stirring them and their shells into it, then heating over very low heat just to a simmer. The eggs whites will bring all the impurities to the top in a foamy crust–do not skim! Just let the crust form and continue to simmer for 10-15 minutes. Push the foam to one side and carefully ladle the crystal clear broth through dampened cheesecloth. Let this beautiful broth cool, uncovered.

When you are ready to finalize the soup for serving, bring the broth to a boil, stir in the pasta, then reduce heat and simmer for about 25 minutes. To serve, ladle the soup into consomme cups (preferably two-handled), sprinkle with the blanched peas or asparagus, and garnish with a chervil or parsley leaf.”

3- Napoleon’s lucky dish – “Chicken Marengo” or Chicken Fricassee:

(After a military campaign in the Italian province of Piedmont, Napoleon found himself starved but there was no food in sight because he’d left his commissary behind. His desperate chef, Dunand, scavenged together a few ingredients: a scrawny chicken, four tomatoes, three eggs, a few crayfish, and a little garlic. They even found a frying pan, which was fortunate because Dunand had left his cooking utensils with the rest of the commissary. “Dunand cut up the chicken with a sabre and fried it in oil, crushed garlic, and water made more palatable with a little cognac filched from Napoleon’s own canteen; together with some emergency-ration bread supplied by one of the soldiers, with eggs, fried in the same liquid on the side, and the crayfish, also fried, on top.” Napoleon loved it and ordered that the dish be served after every battle. “On the next occasion Dunand tried to improve the dish by substituting white wine for water, adding mushrooms, and leaving out the crayfish. Napoleon noted the disappearance and demanded that they be restored to the dish, but not for gastronomic reasons, however. Napoleon was highly superstitious and chicken with crayfish was associated in his mind with victory.” Today, the recipe calls for “chicken cut into pieces, browned in oil, and then cooked slowly (not as Dunand did it) with peeled tomatoes, crushed garlic, parsley, white wine and cognac, seasoned with crushed pepper and served with fried eggs on the side (with or without crayfish, also on the side) and sometimes croutons, doubling as Dunand’s army bread.” “Italian Inspiration,” at


–    1 Chicken, cut into pieces
–    ¼ cup Cognac or Sherry
–    1 tsp Salt
–    1 dash pepper
–    4 Tbsp. Olive oil
–    1 chopped onion
–    ½ Clove Minced Garlic
–    ½ cup Chopped Tomato
–    ½ cup Sliced White Truffles (optional)
–    2 Tbsp. Flour
–    6 eggs for garnishing (crayfish optional for garnishing)

Cooking Directions:
“Cut the chicken into pieces. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and flour and brown in oil. Set aside. Sauté onions and garlic in same pan. Add chicken and rest of ingredients, cover and simmer until tender (30-40 minutes). White wine can be used for cognac or sherry. Fry the eggs and place one on each dish as a garnish.”

4- Stuffed Eggplant – a favorite of Diana, Princess of Wales
(According to Darren McGrady, the late princess’ personal chef, “[t]his is one of those dishes that seems to improves with sitting and could be prepared ahead of time so worked perfectly for her. The flavours and textures create a healthy and enjoyable lunch dish when served on its own with salad leaves, but also an interesting vegetable for dinner when served alongside a steak from the grill.”

(Serves 4 people)


–    2 x 6-inch Aubergines – eggplants
–    2 oz finely chopped red onion
–    1 courgette – (zucchini)
–    3 oz sliced button mushrooms
–    1 large orange pepper
–    2 ribs of celery
–    1 large fresh tomato (finely chopped)
–    2 rashers (slices) cooked bacon
–    1 Tbs. parmesan cheese
–    3 oz mozzarella cheese (+ 2 oz for garnish)
–    2 Tbs olive oil (+ 2 Tbs for brushing)
–    1 Tbs chopped fresh basil (+3 sprigs for garnish

Cooking Directions:

1.    “Turn on the oven to 350F.
2.    Cut each of the Aubergines into two 2-inch cylinders.
3.    Lay them on their sides and cut a circle in the white flesh about ¼ inch from the skin all the way round and about one inch deep.
4.    “Score” the inside of the circle – make cross cuts into the flesh of the circle about ½ inch deep – this will make it easier to scoop out the flesh once it is cooked.
5.    Brush the Aubergine flesh top and bottom and bake on a tray in the oven for 15-20 minutes. Turn each one upside down halfway through cooking so that the bottoms don’t get too brown.
6.    When the flesh feels soft, remove from the oven and allow them to cool.
7.    Roughly chop the courgette, pepper and celery into about ¾-inch cubes.
8.    In a skillet on medium heat, add 2 tablespoons of olive oil then the chopped red onion, pepper, courgette, celery and mushrooms: season with salt and pepper and cook until the vegetables start to soften.
9.    Stir in the tomato: test the vegetables again for seasoning and allow the mixture to cool.
10.    Finely chop the bacon and dice the mozzarella into small cubes and add to the cooled vegetables along with the chopped basil.
11.    Gently remove the flesh from the insides of the Aubergines, taking care to leave about ¼-inch on the bottom – (creating a shell), then chop the flesh and add to the vegetables.
12.    Spoon the mix into the aubergine shells, dividing it between the four.
13.    Sprinkle the tops with the parmesan cheese and the stuffed Aubergines are now ready for the oven, or to be placed into the refrigerator ready for a Princess to reheat.
14.    To serve the stuffed aubergines, bake in a 350F oven straight from the refrigerator for about 15 minutes.
15.    I think they present well on a bed of mixed salad leaves tossed in olive oil and fresh lemon juice, and garnished with basil leaves, diced mozzarella and tomato.”

5- Emeril Lagasse’s simplified version of Tournedos à la Rossini –(It may be extremely simplified, but it’s still a very complicated recipe. Not to mention incredibly expensive. Nonetheless, I can’t help sharing it with you because it’s truly that delicious!)

(Serves 6)

–    6 slices of foie gras, 1/4-inch thick and 2 inches in diameter
–    24 slices of black truffles
–    1/2 cup Madeira wine
–    18 tourneed potatoes
–    6 tournedos or medallions of filet mignon (6-8 oz. each)
–    6 canapes (rounds of white bread Sauteed in butter)
–    10 tablespoons butter
–    1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
–    Salt and pepper to taste

Cooking Directions:
“Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Season the foie gras with salt and pepper. Place the Foie Gras in a shallow dish and cover with 1/4 cup of the Madeira. Soak the truffle slices in the remaining 1/4 cup of Madeira. Marinate the foie gras and truffles for 10 minutes. Remove the foie gras and truffle slices, reserve the Madeira.

In a saute pan, melt 8 tablespoons of butter. Add the potatoes to the melted butter and season with salt and pepper. Saute the potatoes for 3 to 4 minutes. Place the potatoes in the oven and roast the potatoes until golden brown and tender, about 20 minutes, shaking the pan every five minutes. Season the fillets with salt and pepper.

In a large saute pan, heat 2 tablespoons of butter. When the butter has melted, add the fillets and sear for 3 to 4 minutes on each side. Remove from the pan. Place the canapes in the saute pan and arrange the fillets on top. Place the pan in the oven and roast for 6 to 8 minutes for medium rare. In a hot saute pan, sear the foie gras for 1 to 2 minutes on each side. Remove the foie gras and drain on a paper-lined plate. Dissolve the arrowroot in 2 tablespoons of the reserved Madeira to form a slurry and set aside. Add the reserved Madeira, truffles and veal stock to the foie gras fat. Bring the liquid up to boil and whisk in the slurry. Boil the liquid for a couple of minutes and then reduce to a simmer. Cook the sauce for 3 to 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

To serve, remove the filets and potatoes from the oven. Place the fillets in the center of each plate. Arrange three potatoes around each fillet. Top each fillet with a piece of seared foie gras. Spoon the sauce over the top of the foie gras and garnish with parsley.”

6- Peach-Glazed Savarin — (A “savarin” is a rich sponge cake, baked in a ring-shaped mold, and infused with fruit juices and liqueurs. Some say the cake was invented by Brillat-Savarin, but my research leads me to believe it was merely named in his honour. A Baba au Rhum is similar in concept and was also attributed to Brillat-Savarin’s influence.)

–    2 cups all purpose flour
–    1 package active dry yeast
–    2/3 cup milk
–    6 tablespoons butter
–    2 tablespoons sugar
–    1/2 teaspoon salt
–    3 eggs
–    Savarin Syrup
–    Peach Glaze
–    1 1/2 cups sliced strawberries, halved grapes, *or* sectioned oranges
–    Creme Chantilly

Cooking Directions:
“Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In a large mixer bowl combine 1 1/2 cups of the flour and yeast. In a saucepan heat milk, butter, sugar and salt just till mixture is warm (115 to 120) and butter is almost melted; stir constantly. Add to flour mixture, add eggs. Beat with an electric mixer on low speed for ½ minute, scraping bowl. Beat for 3 minutes on high speed. Using a spoon, stir in remaining flour. Cover; let rest 10 minutes.

Spoon batter into a well-greased 6 cup savarin mold or ring. Cover, let rise in a warm place till nearly double (about 40 minutes). Bake in a 350F oven for 25 to 35 minutes.
Cool in pan 5 minutes; transfer to a wire rack over waxed paper. With a fork, prick top of ring at 1 inch intervals.

Prepare Savarin Syrup; gradually drizzle over warm ring till all the syrup is absorbed. Let stand 1/2 hour. Prepare Peach Glaze; spoon over all. To serve, fill center of ring with desired fruit. If desired, prepare Creme Chantilly to spoon onto slices.

Savarin Syrup: In a saucepan combine 1 1/2 cups peach nectar and 1/2 cup sugar. Bring to a boil; remove from heat. Stir in 1/2 cup rum.

Peach Glaze: In a saucepan heat and stir one 12 ounce jar peach jam over low heat till melted. Strain.

Creme Chantilly: In a mixer bowl combine 1 cup whipping cream, one tablespoon powdered sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla, beat till soft peaks form. ”

7- Orange Rum Savarin:

–    2 cups all-purpose flour
–    1 1/4 cups sugar, divided
–    1 package active dry yeast
–    1/2 teaspoon salt
–    1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
–    1/3 cup skim or low-fat milk
–    6 eggs
–    3/4 cup raisins or currants
–    1/2 cup chopped nuts
–    1/2 cup orange juice
–    1/2 teaspoon rum flavoring

Cooking Instructions:
In a large mixing bowl, stir together flour, 1/4 cup of the sugar, yeast and salt. Set aside. In small saucepan over medium heat, heat butter and milk until warm (120º to 130ºF). Add to dry ingredients. Add eggs, one at a time, beating at low speed until blended. At high speed, beat 3 minutes more. Stir in raisins and nuts. Cover and let rise in warm place until doubled in size, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Stir down. Spoon into greased 9-cup fluted tube pan. Cover and let rise in warm place until doubled, about 45 minutes. Bake in preheated oven until lightly browned, and cake tester inserted near center comes out clean, about 20 to 25 minutes. Cool in pan 10 minutes. Invert onto serving platter.

In small saucepan, stir together remaining 1 cup sugar and orange juice. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until mixture boils. Remove from heat. Stir in flavoring. With fork, pierce bread at 1-inch intervals. Slowly spoon orange syrup over bread until absorbed.”

* * *

If you’d enjoy reading more about this subject, or if you’re interested in the culinary preferences of today’s royals, write to me and let me know. I’d also like to hear from anyone adventurous enough to try out some of the recipes posted above.

The Prince & The “Mobster’s Moll” – 2004

Written by Pandora’s Box [my old writing alter-ego]
Tuesday, 02 November 2004
Once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away, there was a handsome young prince with locks of gold and a smile so bright. He met an attractive, ambitious woman, fell in love and proposed in the most romantic fashion. Dastardly villains did not approve of their marriage, but that didn’t deter the prince. He fought for and married his true love, even though it required him to give up his rights to the throne.

A fairytale? Not exactly. The story of King Edward VIII, later Duke of Windsor, who gave up his throne for an American divorcée? Non plus.This story involves Prince Johan-Friso, second son to Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands who heads the immensely popular, rich (or, with over a billion dollar in assets, more than just “rich”) House of Orange. Born in 1968, he was christened His Royal Highness, Johan Friso Bernhard Christiaan David, Prince of Orange, Prince of Orange-Nassau, Jonkheer van Amsberg. He was second in line to the Dutch throne, behind his older brother, Crown Prince Willem-Alexander, and eventually third in line when Willem-Alexander’s wife had a child. Then he met Mabel Wisse-Smit, and he lost it all.

I should tell you at the outset that I dislike Mabel with a passion. I generally try to be fair and understanding in my columns, but I can’t do it when it comes to Mabel. So there is no point in pretending to be objective, because I’m not. Besides, I couldn’t hide my antipathy if I tried.

No, I don’t know “Princess” Mabel personally, but, like any person who reads a lot about a situation, I have a personal opinion. And, in my personal opinion, she is a hard, ambitious, lying, calculating, social-climbing creature who brought down a prince.

Vicious invective? I have no doubt that some of you will think so. Yet, personal opinion aside, the facts show that Mabel Wisse-Smit is an ambitious career woman, who was linked to one of Europe’s most infamous druglords (along with other powerful, successful men), who lied to the government about her past and who led a prince to lose his birthright. Those facts are undisputed. I will leave it up to you to make up your mind about the rest of the tale.

The Early Years

Mabel Martine Los was born on August 11, 1968, to a solidly middle-class family in the town of Pijnacker. Pijnacker is not a cosmopolitan metropolis but a smallish town with a population of 38,000 located in the western part of the Netherlands. When Mabel was nine years old, her father died in a skating accident. A year later, in 1979, her mother remarried a successful businessman called Peter Wisse-Smit. A few years later, Mabel changed her last name from the more middle-class “Los” to the more socially upscale hyphenate “Wisse-Smit.”

Mabel spent her teenage years in Het Gooi in the central part of theNetherlands. She graduated from high school in 1986 and then attended theUniversity of Amsterdam. She studied economics and political science and, in 1993, graduated cum laude. During her university years, she had internships with several hugely important organizations: the Secretariat of the United Nations in New York; Shell Oil Company in Malaysia; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at The Hague; and the multinational ABN-AMRO Bank in Barcelona.

In 1994, only a year after graduating from university, Mabel founded the European Action Council for Peace in the Balkans, a non-governmental organization supposedly focused on achieving peace, democracy and stability at the Balkans. The Balkan wars had just broken out, so, at first blush, Mabel’s group would seem to have the most benevolent of intentions. Not so. In my opinion, the group’s theoretical neutrality was a sham because, as I think the subsequent facts will show, the Council defined “peace” solely as a victory by the Bosnians.

Part of that was due to Mabel’s new lover. A year before, in 1993, while working at the UN, Mabel had met the charismatic Bosnian Ambassador, Mohammed Sacirbey. Mabel began a long, passionate, heated affair with him which lasted for several years. She was about 25; he was almost 40. And married. (See e.g., Stephanie van den Berg,“Dutch Prince chooses fiancee over throne,” (Agence France-Presse, 10-Oct-2003), available at

Mabel and her Action Council became deeply involved with Sacirbey’s political agenda. One of the co-founders of her group was a lawyer, Phon van den Biesen, who represented Bosnia at The Hague. In fact, he gave his speech alongside Sacirbey charging Serbia with genocide.

Their agenda soon became more than mere speeches at the UN or The Hague. In 1995, Sacirbey was appointed Bosnia’s Foreign Minister and, as such, his main goal was to get arms for his country’s forces. The fact that there was an arms embargo by the West didn’t matter. Sacirbey lobbied numerous Muslim countries, seeking both guns and money.

Newspaper accounts show that he succeeded in obtaining weapons from the Islamic Republic of Iran and, allegedly, Osama Bin Laden. See, “Iran says Islamic army chiefs to meet on Bosnia,” (Reuters, July 1995) at“‘War Child’ involved with Arms Lobby,” at For information regarding the Kosovo Liberation Army, the Bosnian Muslims and Osama Bin Laden, see Yossef Bodansky, Offensive in the Balkans: the Potential for a Wider War as a Result of Foreign Intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina (1995), Some Call it Peace: Waiting for War in the Balkans(1996), and Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America (1999).

The newspapers weren’t the only one to charge the Bosnians (and, by implication therefore, Sacirbey) with using Iran to violate the arms embargo. The United States Senate Republican Policy Committee issued a report in 1997 entitled, “Clinton-Approved Iranian Arms Transfers Help Turn Bosnia into Militant Islamic Base” which detailed the seriousness of the weapons violations.

In July 1995, the massacre at Srebrenica occurred. Dutch peacekeepers were overrun by Serb forces, resulting in the death of thousands of Bosnians Muslims. The Dutch government launched a detailed investigation into the matter. According to one report, “[t]he Dutch inquiry into the Srebrenica massacre later confirmed that the two of them [Mabel and Sacirbey] had direct access to the Foreign Ministry, and influenced Dutch policy, in the run-up to the massacre.” (See, “War Child’ involved with Arms Lobby,” supra, at Although the Bosnians were the victims of the Srebrenica massacre, they were the instigators of equally reprehensible activities, both before and after.

Sacirbey didn’t have clean hands in this period, and allegedly neither did his lover and political partner. In fact, it’s been reported that Sacirbey allegedly used Mabel as a go-between with Egyptian arm dealers, as well as the infamous Adnan Khashoggi, a relative by marriage of Mohammed Al-Fayed, and one of the biggest gun dealers to the Bosnian Muslims. Sacirbey has since denied Mabel’s role in arms smuggling and claims that she was merely involved in a “strong lobby” for Bosnia’s right of self-defense. (See, Royal News for October 30, 2003,

The truth of the charges is up for debate. What’s undisputed, however, is the fact that Mabel was the subject of investigations involving those arms dealers and illicit weapons sales. (See e.g., Expatica article, dated 22 October 2003, previously available at,18,&item_id=35127, reproduced at Reports of the investigations continued until shortly before her marriage into the House of Orange but, since there, there has been absolute silence on the matter.

Mabel wasn’t the only one under investigation. Sacirbey was recently arrested for embezzling millions from the impoverished Bosnian state.He’s currently sitting in a New York jail awaiting extradition to Bosnia. However, his relationship with Mabel had ended far before then.

In fact, it ended soon after Sacirbey lost his position as Foreign Minister in 1997. After the Dayton Peace Accords ended the Balkan conflict in 1995, Sacirbey’s international significance had steadily diminished. The loss of his government job seemed to mark the complete end to his influence. And like a rat leaving a sinking ship, Mabel moved on. Onwards and upwards.

That same year, she began working for a man with truly global influence, power and prestige: the billionaire financier, George Soros. Mabel became the director of Soros’ Open Society Institute in Brussels. The Institute works on behalf of the Soros Foundations Network in Western Europe, to promote democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

All very charitable, noble concerns, for which Mabel has been repeatedly and endlessly praised as an altruistic young woman. Personally, I have no doubt that Mabel is genuinely concerned about some human rights issues. I also have no doubt that she’s a responsible, serious woman who would like to effect some good in the world. Taken by itself, her work seems nothing but laudable.

However, her activities – when taken in conjunction with other parts of her life – lead me to react with scepticism. Perhaps you will see why when the story is complete.

Shortly after dumping Sacirbey and starting work with Soros, Mabel was introduced to Prince Johan-Friso. They began dating and, before long, Mabel was included in a number of activities with the Dutch royal family.The latter seemed very fond of the Prince’s new girlfriend. Mabel was a close friend of Laurentien Brinkhorst, the girlfriend and future wife of Johan-Friso’s younger brother, Prince Constantjin. In fact, it was Laurentien who introduced the couple and who ensured her acceptance by the royal family. Mabel was included with the family on such momentous occasions as the death of Prince Claus, Johan-Friso’s father, as well as the wedding of the Crown Prince.

I may be a cynic but I think the Royal Family’s open-armed reception of Mabel wasn’t due solely to her serious credentials. Obviously, every parent is overjoyed to see their child happy but, in the case of Prince Johan-Friso, the relationship had added benefits.

For years, the Prince had struggled with rumours of being gay. It had become such a problem that he’d felt the need to make a public statement, protesting his heterosexual orientation. News of the Prince’s relationship with Mabel, a tall, leggy, attractive blonde, effectively squashed those rumours once and for all.

Personally, I don’t see Mabel’s appeal. She’s been compared to a blonde siren but, in all honesty, I think she looks rather like a rabbit. (To see a photo of “The Rabbity One” in some of her better moments, go to and

In 2003, the Prince proposed. A sweet, somewhat shy man with a good sense of humour, he arrived at her door in a white Mexican outfit, accompanied by flowers and champagne. She accepted.

A few months later, in June 2003, she was interviewed by the Prime Minister, Jan Peter Balkenende. By law, the Dutch Prime Minister must meet with and interview future members of the royal family. The interview is usually the culmination of the security screening process begun by the Dutch security forces. After the interview, the Prime Minister asks permission from Parliament for the marriage to proceed. If he does not submit his request to Parliament or if approval is not granted, then the royal loses his right of succession to the throne. That does not mean his or her marriage is forbidden by law. It merely means that he cannot maintain his right to the throne without first getting approval from parliament for his marriage.

In the case of Prince Johan-Friso and Mabel, the interview went swimmingly well. Then, a few months later, an investigative journalistic broke a story which shed a whole new light on the affair.


In October 2003, a famous Dutch investigative journalist called Peter R. de Vries reported that Mabel had been the lover of a mobster called Klaas Bruinsma. This was an extremely seriously allegation because Bruinsma was no smalltime crook. To the contrary, he was considered to be the “Godfather” of the Dutch drug trade and one of the most notorious men in all Northern Europe. Bruinsma was assassinated in brutal fashion in 1991 but by then he’d already left his stamp on the narco-trafficant business. It’s been said that every single druglord in the Netherlands today owes some debt of gratitude toward Bruinsma’s pioneering efforts, and many have some sort of actual connection to him.

Bruinsma was not just a mere druglord; he was also so ruthless as to conjure up mental images of Al Pacino’s “Scarface.” He allegedly hired hit men to assassinate his rivals but, like everything else in his flamboyant life, they weren’t supposedly to go quietly. Thus, one unfortunate opponentwas found upside down in a barrel of cement, having had his penis and his legs cut off while he was still alive. (Anthony Browne, “Is fairytale princess really just a gangster’s moll?,” (London Times, October 7, 2003) at,,3-844915,00.html.)

Bruinsma’s passion for the limelight is reminiscent of John Gotti, the infamous head of the Gambino crime family who obsessively courted the limelight without concern for the legal ramifications. Unlike Gotti, however, Bruinsma was much more socially active in legitimate society.He was a passionate about sailing and frequently organized sailing events with exclusive yacht clubs. The rich, the social and the wannabes attended his events in droves.

It was there that he met the young university student, Mabel Wisse Smit. De Vries’ investigation had led him to South America and Bruinsma’s former bodyguard, Charlie de Silva. According to De Silva, Mabel and “the Godfather” had had a heated affair, and he was a witness.

Mabel’s response to the allegations was to scoff and insist that she barely knew Bruinsma. She admitted that she’d met him in the yachting circles but denied any sexual relationship. According to her, she’d only known him briefly for a few months, and in the most cursory fashion. She insisted that, once she found out what he did, she broke off all contact.

De Silva’s response was essentially to roll his eyes He retorted that, not only did Mabel know Bruinsma well, but she’d known him so well as to spend nights on his yacht. He said that Bruinsma was so utterly and completely besotted by Mabel that she became the only woman allowed to do so. And her stays weren’t platonic tea parties either.

De Silva wasn’t alone in his charges. Bruinsma’s former bookkeeper, a man referred to for safety reasons as “Ed S.,” said he was “almost certain” that Mabel had an intimate relationship with Bruinsma and that she knew of his illegal activities. He admits that he never physically witnessed the two in a compromising position but insists that he has more than enough reason to believe the two were intimate.

His statements may seem suspiciously generic and uninformative but I believe much of that has to do with security reasons. Decades after his tenure as Bruinsma’s accountant, the man still can’t reveal his real name in public. He certainly isn’t going to risk giving detailed information on Bruinsma’s activities. One might think that a mere girlfriend would be an exception but the fact that “Ed S.” refuses to get into details makes one wonder what he knows. After all, the man was in charge of Bruinsma’s financial matters and he insists he has cause to think there was an intimate relationship. What sort of financial information would give rise to that impression?

Confronted by all this detail, Mabel was forced to admit that she had, in fact, continued her “acquaintanceship” with Bruinsma far later than she’d initially claimed. As subsequent reports showed, Mabel remained in contact with Bruinsma for 18 months after she’d purportedly ended their “friendship” in disgust. Not only that, but Mabel was forced to admit that she had, in fact, slept on Bruinsma’s boat on several occasions. Still, she insisted that she’d never been involved with him sexually.

A friend of hers came to the rescue and valiantly told the press that it was she, not Mabel, who’d had the affair with Bruinsma. Another one of the mobster’s cohorts also stepped forward to absolve Mabel of all charges and to attack De Silva as a man who loved the spotlight.

Perhaps. But if De Silva loved the spotlight, he would have come forth on his own accord to rain on Mabel’s parade. He didn’t. One may argue that he didn’t know of Mabel’s connection with the Prince, as he was living inSouth America at the time. That’s possible, but I don’t buy it. I personally saw online reports of the Prince’s engagement surface in newspapers of such distant countries as the People’s Republic of China and Russia. I have no doubt that the AP newswire would have carried and repeated such reports in South America metropolitan cities. Yet, De Silva still did not volunteer to come forward. If he was someone who cared purely and solely about media attention, he would not have waited to be contacted by an investigative reporter.

Whatever De Silva’s motivation, additional evidence began to corroborate his claim. Reports surfaced that Mabel had repeatedly stayed with Bruinsma in a number of different expensive hotels, including the four-star Amstel Hotel. In addition, women –who weren’t Mabel’s closest friends – began to step forward to confirm the affair. According to these uninvolved, unbiased witnesses, it was more than clear from their social interaction that Mabel was intimately involved with Bruinsma. So much for her best friend’s attempt to take the heat.

It got worse. Allegations soon arose that Mabel had found out the details of her personal security file before her meeting with the Prime Minister. According to political sources, Mabel had somehow obtained “insight” into the security dossier compiled on her by the AIVD, the Dutch equivalent of the FBI or MI5. The inside sources claimed that, when Mabel’s screening interview with the Prime Minister finally took place, she informed him only of those things which were in the file and already known to the government. Events, as they occurred, seem to substantiate the charges.

The fact that Mabel obtained her AIVD file was shocking in and of itself; to this day, it’s still unclear how she managed that feat. But that’s not really the point. The point is premeditation. Mabel seems to have carefully and deliberately found out just how much the government knew about her; and then intentionally hid the rest.

Just to clarify, Mabel’s “friendship” with one of Europe’s biggest drug lords wasn’t even known before the investigative reporter, De Vries, broke the story. The security forces had absolutely no idea about Bruinsma and they certainly didn’t include it in her file. She knew that, and she was more than happy to keep on lying about it.

And lie she did. Repeatedly. Again and again. First, Mabel insisted she’d barely known the chap. Then, she was forced to admit that she’d known him so well as to sleep on his boat. She claimed she had broken off all ties with him after a few months. Then, she was forced to backtrack and admit that she’d actually been in contact with him for a year and a half after she’d reportedly ended things.

In the overall scheme of things, 18 months may not seem like much. It took longer to build Hadrian’s Wall, to discover penicillin, to break the atom, to win WWII. In this case, however, 18 months were all Mabel and Bruinsma had. Bruinsma was assassinated at the end of that time in a flame of bullets. And, by some accounts, she knew him until the very end.

Mabel’s lies soon became known as “Mabelgate.” The Prime Minister was deeply embarrassed. After all, he’d personally interviewed Mabel as part of her security screening and had been shown up for a fool.

The Prime Minister decided that he was not going to submit the marriage for the requisite parliamentary approval. His decision meant that the Prince had to either give up Mabel or his place within the line of succession. If he gave up the latter, he’d also have to give up his place in the Royal House, which is composed of those individuals who are legally eligible to ascend to the throne. The Royal House is therefore different from the Royal Family which consists of the monarch’s personal, immediate family.

The Prime Minister’s position may seem hugely unfair but he didn’t trust Mabel. And I don’t blame him. She’d already lied to him once or, depending on your interpretation, more than once. He didn’t want to go before his Republican enemies supporting a woman who could be hiding even more and probably felt his political position would be on the line if he did.

The Prince and Mabel issued a written, and very public, apology to the Prime Minister. In a letter dated 9 October 2003, the Prince wrote:

During the conversations with you in the period before the announcement of our marriage we gave the impression that it had been a superficial relationship of about two and a half months in 1989, with afterwards an occasional meeting. The contacts should mainly have to be seen in the range of sea sailing and should have been ended by Mabel after she became aware of Mr. Bruinsma’s activities.

What we should have said in June was that it was more than a superficial relationship and that they have had regular contact with each other for three months in 1989. When Mabel became aware of his activities she decided not to continue her friendship with Mr. Bruinsma in the same way. However she has seen him with some regularity in the following one and a half year. It is also a fact that Mabel has stayed at Mr. Bruinsma’s several times. However the truth remains that there there never business contacts between Mr Bruinsma and Mabel, nor did they ever had a love affair. Besides it has only became fully clear to her after his death with which practises he really was occupied.

In June you have expressed the intention to introduce a bill of consent at the States General. This was according to our wish in view of my connection with the Royal House, our respect for the Queen and her family, and the supporting role which Mabel and I possibly could fulfil.
Your decision was partly based on the incomplete view we had recalled regarding Mabel’s contacts with Mr. Bruinsma. Because we have not been open in all ways in time, your confidence in us has been violated. We admit our mistake and accept the consequences. Therefore it is now our wish that the Government doesn’t introduce a bill of consent for our marriage at the States General. Herewith we also hope to avoid damage to the Queen, the Royal House, our families, friends and others.

(See Netty Royal for a translated version of the Prince’s letter, (hereinafter referred to simply as “Letter to Prime Minister”), at

The couple may have insisted that Mabel’s relationship was completely innocuous but the public clearly disagreed. A poll taken at the time showed that more than 70% of the population thought Mabel had not only lied but was still lying about the real nature of her relationship with Bruinsma.

Still, the Prince insisted on shouldering all the blame. He publicly stated that he’d been the one to advise Mabel to tell only “the important facts” to the government. As he later explained in a televised interview, he’d only thought to inform the government of things that could possibly involve “criminal or blackmailing facts.” See, Netty Royal’s translation of the interview, available at In his opinion, Mabel’s relationship with Bruinsma involved neither. By the same token, he felt Mabel’s nights on Bruinsma’s yacht were completely meaningless. He dismissed all queries with the reply, “I think there has been said enough about it… Where someone stays to me is a private thing.”Id.

In fact, according to the Prince, every part of Mabel’s relationship with Bruinsma was insignificant. In his eyes, Mabel had been a naïve young girl and the whole thing was fifteen or twenty years ago in the past. The only reason they hadn’t brought it up was to avoid “dragging up painful memories of which Mabel had hoped that they belonged to the past.” (See, Letter to the Prime Minister, supra.)

“Painful” memories? An odd choice of words to describe a supposedly passing acquaintance of the utmost insignificance. In fact, much of Johan-Friso’s explanation is odd or defies common sense.

Let’s start with the Prince’s main line of defense, namely that Mabel was just a young, naive girl who shouldn’t be blamed for the events going back almost 15 years ago. Let’s not forget his postscript that, “[b]esides it has only became fully clear to her after his death with which practises he [Bruinsma] really was occupied.” Id.

With all due respect to the Prince, a man who has much of my sympathies and whom I like, I must say that his generous defense is complete rubbish. Mabel’s alleged naiveté is not only utterly ludicrous but an insult to one’s intelligence. Bruinsma was not someone living in the shadows with a hidden reputation. He was the most notorious drug lord in Northern Europeand his reputation was well-known in his own country. Furthermore, he hardly lived outside the spotlight. He was a big part of the social scene, was involved in society races at the yacht club, and lived in an ostentatious, loud manner replete with several bodyguards. How someone could spend time in close proximity to him — let alone actually sleep over on his yacht — without noticing the bodyguards, hearing the rumours or finding out about his prison sentences, is beyond me.

From personal experience, I can tell you that Mabel’s ignorance is highly unlikely. When I was 20 years old, I was at a party where I met a “businessman” who took an inordinate fancy to me. He was, to put it extremely euphemistically, involved in some shady activities. For all his underworld power, he kept a deliberately low, secretive profile, so his reputation was hardly front-page news. Yet, within less than an hour of meeting him, I was told exactly who he was and what he did. If his sleazy behavior and loathsome appearance didn’t put me off him, his reputation certainly did. But the real point here is that word spread almost immediately regarding this mobster and who he really was. I find it almost impossible to believe that something similar wouldn’t happen in the case of Bruinsma who did have a deliberately high profile and who did lead an active, ostentatious social life. And if Mabel didn’t hear of it the first night, I find it utterly inconceivable that she wouldn’t have heard of it after a few weeks, if not 18 months.

A “Devil’s Advocate” may argue that knowledge about Bruinsma’s activities still doesn’t refute Mabel’s alleged foolishness and naïveté. In fact, they’d probably argue that it supports the claim of Mabel’s foolishness.

Perhaps, but I’m still unconvinced. We’re not talking about some silly prepubescent teenager; Mabel was 21 at the onset of the relationship, and 23 by its end. Nor are we talking about some fatuous, simpering blonde pop star like Britney Spears or Jessica Simpson. In the case of either one of those intellectual giants, I’d probably be the first to argue that the idiocy ruled the day. But even those two morons would probably think twice before hanging around Europe’s version of Scarface.

In fact, no matter how stupid or young the girl, I think they’d all have a moment’s trepidation before cozying up to a man who had one lucky rival’s penis and limbs chopped up while he was still alive. And one thing Mabel has never been called is stupid. No, here we’re discussing a brilliant intellectual who graduated cum laude from an excellent university and who has shown that she has a clear penchant for rich, powerful men.

The constant harping on the timeline also bothers me. Again and again, it’s been repeated that these events occurred fifteen years ago. My reply is, so what? A single, one time mistake in judgment would be something. In the case of Mabel, however, her entire career since Bruinsma has continued the same pattern, even if it meant sleeping with a married, corrupt politician like Sacirbey. Frankly, I think Mabel stopped being naïve and foolish long ago.

Speaking of Sacirbey, it should be noted that Mabel informed the Prime Minister about her relationship with him before “Mabelgate” broke. Her admission means little in my opinion because, again, she knew the contents of her security file beforehand. As it’s already been noted, the Dutch government’s investigation into the Sbrenenica massacre uncovered information about her relationship with Sacirbey and the couple’s connection to the Dutch Foreign Ministry. In other words, her relationship was probably too well documented to conceal.

In my opinion, Mabel’s relationship with the Netherlands’ “Godfather of Crime” could be easily dismissed if her subsequent actions didn’t make it symbolic of a bigger pattern. She went after a politician — married and with children– until he lost most of his power. She then went to work for one of the most powerful, influential billionaires on the planet. If it was really all about the children and the refugees, she could have stuck with her organization “War Child Netherlands” which was intended to help such groups. Or, she could have rolled up her sleeves and done some serious work in the trenches for those who really needed it. Instead, she followed the money and power by working for George Soros, in an office very far away from the blood and gore.

In Mabel’s defense, she could probably raise more funds or awareness working for a high-profile organization than working in the trenches à la Mother Theresa. Her efforts are probably commendable and there is nothing that says only hardship work is “real” work. I will admit with complete frankness that my bias against Mabel hampers my objectivity and that she must have done some good along the way. Well, at least in so far as the Bosnians, since her earlier work was seemingly indifferent to the plight of the other Balkan groups.

I can only say that my perceptions of Mabel’s power-hungry nature make me highly reluctant to raise her to the level of a saint, the way so many others seem eager to do. Quite frankly, my idea of a saintly, altruistic angel does not involve working with a Palm Pilot and telephone in a gorgeous office, provided by a billionaire, and far away from anything bloody, gruesome or disturbing. It certainly doesn’t involve sleeping with a married man with children, let alone the Dutch equivalent of Scarface. And yes, I absolutely and completely believe that Mabel had a sexual relationship with Bruinsma. Forget the bodyguard or the bookkeeper – people unassociated with either the gangster or Mabel have come forward to corroborate the claims. Whether it was on a yacht, at sporting events or at luxurious hotels, Mabel has been connected to the mobster in an intimate fashion, again and again.

I have no doubt that I’ll be excoriated for my harsh opinions and analysis. In fact, I’m actually preparing myself for a ton of hate mail from Dutch readers. The majority of those will probably be people who feel sorry for the Prince’s renunciation of his birthright. They might be surprised to learn that I share their feelings and that I have nothing but sympathy for the Prince.

That said, I think I’m not alone in my perception that Mabel follows power and money. In the interview shortly before her wedding, a Dutch commentator asked Mabel point blank about her interest “in powerful men.” Mabel gave a terse statement that she loved the Prince and his position was merely incidental. (Seesupra, for the Netty translation of the interview.)

“Incidental”? Hmm… I’d like to think so, but I doubt it. In my opinion, there was nothing “incidental” about the Prince’s position. And that’s a pity because I think he’s a good man who deserves true love. I admire his fierce protection of his bride and I wish him nothing but happiness. It’s incredibly unfortunate that he had to lose his birthright and I have no doubt that it’s hurt him. In fact, he admitted as much shortly before his marriage.

One has to wonder how his mother, the Queen, reacted to the story or the subsequent turn of events. The Prince has admitted that he hid the truth from her when Mabel first told him about Bruinsma. His reasoning was that he didn’t want her to tell the Prime Minister, as the law would require. Id.His admission undercuts his insistence that the relationship was much ado about nothing and something that wasn’t worth mentioning. Still, I don’t blame him. By all accounts, his mother was thrilled by his new relationship and, more to the point, the Queen doesn’t seem like the best person to upset.

Queen Beatrix, or “Trix” as she’s fondly called, is a remarkable woman. She is strong and passionate, with endless, beaming smiles and deep laughs, a love of bright colours, and a flamboyant style that includes a passion for eye-raising hats. Unlike more reserved monarchs, she’s often photographed laughing unabashedly and with complete abandon. Her wide, broad grins underneath flaming magenta flying saucer hats have created the image of a jovial, relaxed monarch. Yet, despite the huge smiles and hearty chuckles, there is a strength and steeliness which one would do well not to ignore. Her Majesty is famed for her attention to detail, perfectionism and tendency to be in iron control of every situation. She takes a fierce pride in her family’s name and position; and she does not appreciate anything which may negatively influence them.

I simply cannot see a woman as steely or as fiercely protective of her family’s reputation as Queen Beatrix standing approvingly while her son and Mabel lied to the PM about the scope of Mabel’s Bruinsma links. In fact, if she’d known the full extent of Mabel’s rumoured past, I doubt she’d have approved at all. A woman with ties to the Netherlands’ most vicious drug overlord, then a corrupt Baltic politician and, possibly, Middle Eastern arms dealers…. No, I can’t see Her Majesty accepting all that with equanimity.

Some people will note that the Queen approved and warmly accepted her eldest son’s choice, a woman who was equally controversial at the time. Crown Prince Willem-Alexander fell in love with and married Máxima Zorreguieta, an Argentinean whose father was a senior member of the brutal Videla military junta. Personally, I think that was another situation entirely. Máxima had never been personally involved in any disreputable, controversial situations. Her father had been, but she herself was blameless. Mabel was not.

Whatever the Queen’s feelings upon learning of “Mabelgate,” she stood by her son and offered him her full support. She ensured that he would be styled as a Prince, even if it couldn’t be of a Prince of the Netherlands(e.g., of Orange.) With her assistance, Johan-Friso would remain a prince of Orange-Nassau, a lesser title but still a princely one. Mabel would stay a commoner but, since the spouse of Dutch princes are accorded the courtesy of their husband’s title, Mabel would be formally addressed as H.R.H. Princess Mabel. Furthermore, any children they might have would be ennobled and given the titles of Count or Countess of Amsberg.

The couple’s wedding took place on April 24, 2004, in the town of Delft.The event was a subdued affair, in part because the groom’s grandmother, the former Queen Juliana, had died a few weeks before.

The bride wore a gown designed by Dutch couturiers, Viktor & Rolf, with her detailed input. The dress was made of white Duchesse satin and had a form-fitting bodice with a demure boat neckline. It was attractive, from the waist-up. Unfortunately, it was inundated with 248 handmade silk georgette bows, starting on the bodice and small in size before becoming larger and larger on the way down. By the time you got to the train, the bows were so enormous that just one of them alone could have served as a tablecloth or bed sheet. All right, so I might be exaggerating, but not by much. (For a photo of the hideous train, see )

It was not a cheap dress either. The dress reportedly cost €65,00 or €72,000, much more than the dresses of some other royal brides. For example, the wedding dress of Crown Princess Letizia of Spain cost approximately €15,000, while that of Crown Princess Matilde of Belgiuma mere €5,000.

The wedding itself was an unusual affair. I watched it with several friends, most of whom had no opinion about Mabel one way or another. Yet they were all uniformly taken aback at the difference between the bride and groom’s demeanor during the ceremony. Mabel went down the aisle looking from side to side with, as one person was surprised to note, a “triumphant” expression on her face.

In contrast, the Prince was exceedingly somber, if not grim. As one of my friends noted, he looked as though he were attending a funeral, not his own wedding. He barely glanced at his bride, who kept turning to him during the ceremony with a big grin on her face. The Prince was undoubtedly troubled by the knowledge that the minute he said, “I do,” he would give up his place in the Royal House.

It clearly was on the mind of other members of his family too. When it came time for his brother to sign the witness statement officialising the marriage, he paused for several long moments and simply looked at Johan-Friso. The implication was so obvious that a nervous titter went audibly through the wedding guests. Johan-Friso just looked pale and gave a weak smile. The paper was signed, the ceremony was soon concluded and Johan-Friso walked out with “Princess Mabel.”

As I’ve said earlier, I admire the Prince for his steadfast devotion to Mabel and I wish him nothing but happiness. If Mabel is his one true love, and if she genuinely reciprocates his feelings, then maybe he’s gained more than he’s lost. I hope so.

Whatever the case, there is finally some good news for the 36 year old Prince: he will soon be a father. It was announced last week that Mabel is pregnant and due to give birth in April 2005. That month also marks the date of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, so the House of Orange and the Dutch people will have a lot to celebrate. Proost and congratulations!

“Venus” – Part II – The Life and Times of Princess Fawzia [2005]

ED. NOTE: I don’t always write about perfume. In fact, once upon a time, I wrote mainly about history under the name “Pandora’s Box.” A few are already posted and hidden in the archives, but I’m in the process of transferring over a few more articles — namely, a two-part series about Princess Fawzia of Egypt which was published back in 2005 — so that everything in one place. I certainly don’t expect anyone to read them, especially as they’re quite academic, very long, for a totally different audience, and have some wonky formatting after the transfer from the old royalty website. So, if your main interest is perfume, feel free to skip them.
[25 January 2005]

Click here for Part I



Cecil Beaton, the legendary photographer, once called Princess Fawzia “Venus.” Coming from such a connoisseur of beauty, the comparison is high praise indeed.  But Princess Fawzia’s life shows that great beauty does not always ensure happiness, let alone inner peace, success or security. It can be compared to a wave which briefly peaks at a great height before crashing on the shore and leaving faint ripples. Last Thursday, the ripples seemed to die out altogether when Princess Fawzia reportedly “died” at the age of 84.

However, it appears that Princess Fawzia is, in fact, very much alive! It was King Farouk’s daughter, not his sister, who died and this fact has apparently been confirmed by the Egyptian Royal Family. Since Fawzia’s niece had the same name (or, by some accounts, a similar name) and the same title of “Princess,” the press must have accidentally assumed that it was the ex-Queen of Iran who had passed away.

The mystery and confusion surrounding her “death” is utterly representative of Fawzia’sPrss Fawzia 2 life itself. Most people know nothing about her other than the fact that she was a great beauty who was the Shah’s first wife. Those who did know her in real life weren’t much better off; few people seem to have known what she really thought or felt. Her face and personality were as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa. Yet, there were cracks in the mask, for her haunting eyes clearly reflected great sadness and pain. So did the extreme choices she made in her life, for Fawzia’s life seemed to veer from one confused, chaotic situation to another. Or perhaps she was merely stuck in the vortex of Middle Eastern politics.

Fawzia IranThe Princess has, predictably, remained silent about her life and the situations she faced. However, some things about her life are well known and the rest can be deduced by the events or actions of those around her. This is the rest of the tale.


The Persian king, Reza Shah, announced his son’s engagement to Princess Fawzia in 1938. Almost immediately thereafter, he demanded that the Iranian parliament declare Fawzia a Persian so that her children would be considered to be pure Iranians. See, H.I.H. Princess Ashraf Pahlavi, Faces in a Mirror: Memoirs from Exile, (Prentice Hall, 1980), at 34.

Fawzia’s feelings on her upcoming arranged marriage are not well known. The 18-year old Princess seemed to have grown to like the Crown Prince. According to his sister, Princess Ashraf, and his biographer, William Shawcross, the feeling was reciprocated. William Shawcross, The Shah’s Last Ride: The Fate of an Ally, (Simon & Schuster 1988).

pb1The wedding took place in 1939 and consisted of two different ceremonies. The first was in Cairo and was not attended by the Shah’s family. Following a honeymoon in Egypt, the newlyweds got married for a second time in Tehran at Reza Shah’s new Marble Palace. Id.

Princess Ashraf drove out to greet her new sister-in-law when she arrived in Iran after her honeymoon. According to Princess Ashraf, the couple looked “radiant” and “when they looked at each other, it was with eyes full of affection. Like [Princess Ashraf’s] own marriage, theirs was an arranged match… [but this] bride and groom actually liked each other.” Id. at 35. It helped that the young bride (whose nickname was “Wuzzy”) had an impish sense of fun and a passionate desire to live life, both of which greatly appealed to the young Crown Prince. Shawcross, supra, at 58.

Reza Shah had arranged the marriage with one main goal in mind: a male heir to continue on the succession. Two years after their marriage, in 1940, she finally gave birth to a child. To Reza Shah’s enormous frustration, it was not a boy. Fawzia and her husband named the girl Shahnaz and continued to try for a son. It was not to be.

Queen of Iran

FawziaFawzia became Queen in 1941 after the wartime political situation and Allied invasion forced Reza Shah to abdicate. The new Shah was only 22 and his consort, 20.  Although the press often call Fawzia (and the wives who followed her) “Empress,” the term is not technically accurate.  It was only the Shah’s third and last wife, Farah Diba, who was an “Empress.” At the latter’s coronation in 1967, the old title of Queen was abolished and replaced with Empress, an elevation which corresponded to the Shah’s own change in title.

But going back to Queen Fawzia, the new Shah had reached a measure of understanding with his wife. He wasn’t in love with her and there was no passionate romance, but there was much affection, informal ease, and respect. Although Fawzia liked him back, she preferred her new position even more. Back in Cairo, she had been one of many princesses, albeit King Farouk’s favorite; in Iran, however, she was the Queen.

pb2At the same time, Fawzia was deeply conflicted. For all that she enjoyed her new status, she resented the obligations and responsibilities that accompanied it, particularly the growing pressure to have a son. The issue of the succession had become even more pressing with her husband’s ascension to the Peacock Throne.

By some accounts, her brother, King Farouk, added to her problems. According to some, Farouk tried to take advantage of his position of brother-in-law to the new Shah to meddle in Persian politics. His particular goal was to get the Shah to join him against the British. Fawzia was reportedly placed in the middle of her brother and husband, and ended up resenting both.

I reject the theory because neither King Farouk’s personality nor the political situation of  King-Farouk-of-Egypt-006 the time make such political scheming plausible.  Farouk may have had some fleeting thought of being a political kingmaker or counselor to the new Shah, but he was too self-indulgent, undisciplined and extravagant to think seriously about anything other than his own pleasures. He certainly didn’t act on these purported political goals. In fact, the only thing he did act upon was his increasingly voracious appetite for sex, food and expensive luxuries. The situation had become so excessive that comparisons were being made to the libidinous, obese Henry VIII. Clearly, Farouk was a far cry from such cunning political strategists as Cardinal Richelieu, Bismarck or Metternich.

Furthermore, his purported political objective was simply unrealistic given the political situation of the time. After the Allied invasion in 1941 and their victory in WWII, Britain had replaced Germany as the dominant influence in Iran. The Tehran Conference of 1943 had resulted in special agreements of assistance to Iran, as well as reciprocal, unofficial deals for the British regarding oil rights. In these early years, the new Shah lacked the power of his father – both domestically and internationally – so he was unlikely to agree to Farouk’s plans. In fact, it would have been political suicide. The British had had no qualms in forcing his father to abdicate, and they would have done the same to him if he’d tried to oppose them.

Prss FawziaEven without Farouk’s interference, there were more than enough things working against Fawzia’s marriage. Fawzia was under enormous pressure to produce a male heir, and it exacerbated her ongoing difficulty in adjusting to her new life. In fact, Fawzia never really adjusted at all. She missed her old home and its glittering, sophisticated environment. She was used to a life of intense luxury and pampering, especially from the doting Farouk. And she viewed Iran with contemptuous dislike.

She was also a significant outsider in the very unique environment of the royal court. The court was a very clique-ish place, dominated by insiders and with a poisonous  air of backstabbing and intrigue. One expert describes it at its very zenith of extravagance as follows:

Though the aristocracy had been abolished by his father, Reza, the shah had reintroduced a court largely without titles. And those who joined it did very well by themselves. “The [shah’s] court,” a CIA report in the 1970s observed, was “a center of licentiousness and depravity, of corruption and influence peddling.” His half sister alone amassed a $500 million fortune. All of the royal family drew benefits from the more than $1 billion in assets of the Pahlavi Foundation. The shah’s personal physician became one of the largest landholders in Iran. The shah’s special butler ended up with a monopoly on the export of Iranian caviar as well as a real estate fortune. ‘There was an atmosphere of overwhelming nouveau-riche, meretricious chi-chi and sycophancy,’ a European visitor to the court remembered. ‘There was an overheated, overstuffed atmosphere in those super-deluxe mini palaces in the imperial compound which left one gasping for air.’

David Harris, The Crisis: The President, the Prophet, and the Shah-1979 and the Coming of Militant Islam, (Little Brown, 2004), as excerpted at

pb3Again, it must be pointed out that Harris is describing the royal court years after Fawzia’s time, but it could be argued that the situation was not all that different in Fawzia’s time. The ostentatious extravagance and nouveau riche excesses didn’t exist to the same degree but it was hardly a peasant’s life. True, it was nothing like the sophisticated Egyptian royal court but pictures from the 1940s show magnificently bejeweled women in huge palaces richly decorated with gold, marble and antiques.

The key similarity, however, was the court’s atmosphere, which was as difficult and politically tricky in the 1940s as it was in the 1970s. The reasons stem from the political circumstances of the time, as well as the poisonous intrigues of Fawzia’s new in-laws. We’ll get to Fawzia’s new in-laws shortly but the political pitfalls can be explained by the situation created by WWII. The first part of the 1940s was marked by the war, Allied invasion and occupation, and the demand that Reza Shah abdicate; the second half was dominated by the young Shah’s attempts to fill his father’s shoes and prove himself.

It wasn’t easy. The 22-year old monarch lacked the power, authority, influence and intimidation factor of his father. To counter the power of the traditional aristocracy and ancien regime, he began to create a new elite around himself, one which he could trust and whose fealty was ensured by money and power. Fawzia was very much an outsider to this group and her obvious unease didn’t help. For their part, the new elite knew her marriage was arranged and that she was only a tolerated wife, not an adored favorite. In fact, most felt that her marriage wouldn’t last. As for theancien regime, they paid her little heed. She was merely a young bride of no significance, and a foreigner to boot.

In-Laws from Hell?

If the royal court was considered “poisonous” during the 1970s, it was only slightly less so during the early years of the Shah’s reign. In those days, the Queen Mother, Tadj ol-Molouk, was still a force to be reckoned with. She was a tiny, very feminine woman with a personality like a bulldozer. She was domineering, cold, bitter and demanding, and was often called a “tyrant.” In fact, she was the one person who wasn’t intimidated by her terrifying, brusque, forceful giant of a husband, Reza Shah. See, Afshin Afshari, “The Shah and the People: Part One: The Life,”The Iranian, (January 2, 2005) at Tadj ol-Molouk did not hesitate to confront him if she had an issue with something, and she spoke her mind in a way that was extremely unusual for Middle Eastern women, let alone women of the time, and certainly for someone dealing with Reza Shah!  Even more unusual was the fact that her otherwise ferocious, intimidating husband “literally hid” when he saw her coming. See, Princess Ashraf, supra, at 10.

If the Queen Mother had few qualms about facing down her husband, she had absolutely none in confronting her son or meddling in his affairs. Her repressive, controlling personality led to many blazing rows with the new Shah. See, Asadollah Alam, The Shah and I: The Confidential Diary ofIran’s Royal Court, 1969-1977, (trans. and ed. by Alinaghi Alikhani),(St. Martins Press, 1992). The young Shah was trying to assert himself in his own right and he deeply resented his mother’s attempts to control him. But he couldn’t ignore her either; as the Queen Mother (and wife to the now legendary Reza Shah), Tadj ol-Molouk had a lot of influence in the court.

Unfortunately for Fawzia, the Queen Mother had even more issues with her than she did with her son. In fact, she seems to have had complete contempt and loathing for her son’s teenage bride, and she did her best to push Fawzia to the sidelines or cut her down to size. Part of the problem was that Tadj ol-Molouk refused to have another Queen at the court which she’d dominated for so long. Another (even greater) problem was that Fawzia was unwilling to submit to her dictates or prostrate herself in abject submission. Fawzia was too aware of her own position as a princess from an old, established dynasty; too reserved; and too unenthusiastic about Iran. It antagonized the royal court, and none more so than the Queen Mother who retaliated by doing everything within her power to bring Fawzia to her knees.

The Queen Mother may have been a “tyrant” but many say that Princess Ashraf was an even bigger problem. In fact, it’s been said that she helped destroy Fawzia’s marriage by making her life unbearable. Princess Ashraf was an intense, strong-willed, incredibly intelligent, dominant person, much like her mother. Many people thought she would have made a better king than her brother, although that would have been blasphemy to Ashraf. The Princess worshipped her twin and their bond was closer even that normally shared by twins.

One reason was her childhood. By her own admission, Princess Ashraf’s formative years had been lonely, devoid of any parental attention, and a sense that she didn’t matter to anyone but her brother. Princess Ashraf, supra, at 10ff. The bond between the twins grew even stronger when they were sent off to the prestigious Le Rosey boarding school in Switzerland.  In subsequent years, one of her numerous lovers would write that her brother

‘was the light of her life, the apple of her eye, the blood that flowed in her veins. She loved him with a passion that was both possessive and unsharing. [The shah] was one half of the symbiotic whole of which the Princess was the other.’ This was a truth Ashraf did not deny. ‘Always,’ she admitted, ‘the center of my existence was, and is, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.’

See, David Harris, The Crisis, supra.

It’s not surprising therefore that Ashraf – already possessive of the Shah’s attention and affections – was reportedly hostile to any woman who entered his life. And by many, many accounts, she made the lives of her rivals deeply miserable. The renowned journalist, William Shawcross, who wrote the Shah’s biography, confirms that assessment. He bluntly states that Fawzia’s “jealous sister-in-law and scheming mother-in-law [the Queen Mother] made her life intolerable.” Shawcross, The Shah’s Last Ridesupra, at 60.

I have no doubt that some of you are thinking, “Everyone has problems with their in-laws. So what? It doesn’t automatically lead to divorce.” It’s a valid point and one which is probably true for the majority of people. However, Fawzia and the Shah were not most people; and their circumstances were extremely unique. Even if we ignore the fact that theirs was a marriage of convenience, we can’t ignore the special position and character of Princess Ashraf who was probably the most powerful woman at court, if not in the nation.

Princess Ashraf

Princess Ashraf

Princess Ashraf was no ordinary woman. At a time when Iranian women were expected to be submissive, quiet breeding machines, she was negotiating political agreements with Stalin! It was the mid 1940s, and Princess Ashraf was only a very young woman, but her tough negotiating style forced Stalin to turn a 10 minute meeting into one lasting over two and a half hours. If that wasn’t incredible enough, she garnered his deep, unqualified and lasting respect. The brutal dictator later said that, if the Shah “had ten like [her], he would have no worries at all.” Princess Ashraf, supra, at 82-88.

Stalin might have admired her ruthlessness and steely character, but others were not so complimentary.

In Iran she was called “the Black Panther.” According to a 1976 CIA report, Princess Ashraf had “a near legendary reputation for financial corruption and for successfully pursuing young men.” The CIA also described her business practices as “often verging on if not completely illegal.” After the Revolution, the Iranian government would eventually sue her for $3 billion she allegedly stole from the country’s public coffers.

David Harris, The Crisis, supra.

Princess Ashraf’s power was absolutely enormous. She was so influential that the British or the Americans frequently turned to her when something important needed to be done. In some ways, Princess Ashraf was the real power behind the throne. As one observer explains, “In Iran it was widely thought -by people of all classes and political persuasions- that Ashraf was her brother’s backbone and that without her, he would be lost.” Id.

The best example of Princess Ashraf’s power, significance, and character is an incident in 1953 involving the American government. The United States had realized that Ashraf was the most influential person in the country next to the Shah, so when a political crisis threatened to topple the Shah they turned to her.  They sent in a CIA agent (who was President Roosevelt’s grandson) to convince her to buck up her brother before he lost his throne. In his award-winning book, All the Shah’s Men, Stephen Kinzer, a well-respected journalist with the New York Times, describes the situation and what it took to persuade Princess Ashraf:

Roosevelt’s first gambit was to send emissaries who might have special influence over the Shah. First he arranged for the Shah’s twin sister, Princess Ashraf, who was as sharp and combative as the Shah was dull, to visit her brother and try to stiffen his backbone. Ashraf ‘s tongue-lashings of her brother were legendary, including one in the presence of foreign diplomats when she demanded that he prove he was a man or else be revealed to all as a mouse. She detested Mossadegh [the Prime Minister] because he was an enemy of royal power. Her attacks on his government became so bitter that the Shah had felt it best to send her out of the country. From her golden exile in Europe, she watched events in her homeland with undiminished passion.

Ashraf was enjoying life in French casinos and nightclubs when one of Roosevelt’s best Iranian agents, Asadollah Rashidian, paid her a call. He found her reluctant, so the next day a delegation of American and British agents came to pose the invitation in stronger terms. The leader of the delegation, a senior British operative named Norman Darbyshire, had the foresight to bring a mink coat and a packet of cash.

Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, (William, John & Sons, 2003) at 7.

This, then was the woman who resented Fawzia for taking her brother away. She was hardly an insignificant enemy and, certainly, no mere in-law. To paraphrase a friend of mine, “it’s one thing to have an in-law glaring at you over the Sunday roast, it’s another thing entirely when they have the power of several nations behind them.”

To be fair, Princess Ashraf vehemently denies any allegation of malicious interference with Fawzia, as well as the claims that she was “The Black Panther” behind the throne. In her memoirs, she states there was no rivalry with Fawzia. Princess Ashraf, Faces in the Mirror, supra, at 35. In fact, she claims the Princess was her “first really close woman friend” and that she “had an instant rapport” with her. Id.

Princess Ashraf also attempts to praise Fawzia but, ironically, her comments tell us quite a bit about the two women’s real relationship. According to Princess Ashraf’s memoirs, Fawzia, “like [the Shah’s] two later wives, … was fairly reserved, even a little cool at times, but kindhearted and generous.” Id. Princess Ashraf’s statement strikes me as a subtle back-handed insult because she qualifies her alleged admiration by commenting on Fawzia’s coolness and reserve. In essence, she’s calling Fawzia an aloof, cold fish – hardly the most enthusiastic endorsement. Still, Princess Ashraf insists that she did her best vis-à-vis Fawzia. She disputes the claims of backstabbing and hostility by claiming: “I knew she [Fawzia] would miss her family and the life she had enjoyed in Egypt, so I tried my best to make her feel comfortable.” Id.

Perhaps. More than a few commentators and historians have described Princess Ashraf’s memoirs as “self-serving” distortions of reality. But even if her feelings towards Fawzia were as she’s described them, the sentiment wasn’t reciprocated. According to some sources, Fawzia did not share that “instant rapport,” a fact which goes a long way to explain her “coolness.” In reality, Fawzia was more shy than cold, and she certainly wasn’t arrogant or haughty. If she kept her distance from Princess Ashraf, it was simply because she didn’t trust her sister-in-law. Ashraf gave her good reason for that distrust which, over time, grew into intense loathing.

Divorce and the Consequences

Even if the stories about Princess Ashraf and Queen Mother are untrue, the fact remains that Fawzia was deeply unhappy. For that, Fawzia herself must take some responsibility. It seems that Fawzia was plagued by abrupt shifts in her mood, all of which were tinged by a deep, underlying sadness. Maybe it was the youthfulness of the new Queen or maybe it was some sort of psychological issue.

Personally, I feel it was a little of both. Her incredible youth was clearly a big part of why she felt so hemmed in by her new role and why she couldn’t adjust to the abrupt changes in her life. After all, what teenager wouldn’t miss their previously carefree life in a glittering, fun, sophisticated city, especially when their new life was empty of love or real friendship? At the same time, Fawzia’s whole life – when considered from a macro-perspective – seems to consist of strange, extreme shifts. As you will see later, she went from Queen to recluse; from flittering sophisticate to suburban housewife; from fun, playful and radiant to sorrowful, reserved and withdrawn. Some of that has to do with the circumstances of her life, and the politics of which she was a victim. But other parts are not explained by external circumstances, leaving me to wonder if Fawzia had some emotional scars or demons she could not escape.

Whatever the cause, Fawzia had had enough of Iran. She began to take more and more trips back to Cairo. Strangely enough, once she was there, she missed Iran or, more precisely, her status in Iran and all the privileges accompanying it. She epitomized the old saying about the grass being greener on the other side. Sometimes, the grass seemed greenest in Europe where she was free from both royal and Muslim restrictions.

Her trips became longer and longer in duration. In 1947, she extended her trip to Cairo from weeks to months. Each time the Shah asked her to return, she found another excuse not to do so. According to Princess Ashraf, it was the beginning of the end:

Finally – and this must have been with Farouk’s encouragement in order to pave the way to end his own marriage – she asked my brother for a divorce. (Contrary to popular rumor, it was not the Shah who had initiated the divorce because Fawzia had failed to produce a male heir.)

Princess Ashraf, supra, at 74.

The Shah resisted, but when he realized that Fawzia was adamant about staying in Cairo, he agreed to her request. The divorce became final in 1948, and it shocked the Middle East. To the best of my knowledge, it was the first time a modern Middle Eastern monarch had divorced. Fawzia was stripped of her title as Queen of Iran, although she retained her Egyptian title as a princess of the blood.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that their daughter, Princess Shahnaz, paid the deepest price for Fawzia’s decision. Part of the deal, either explicitly or implicitly, was that her daughter, Princess Shahnaz, would stay with her father in Iran. After all, she was considered to be a full Iranian, thanks to the parliamentary provision which Reza Shah had demanded. Shahnaz was only six years old when her mother left and the Shah, still a relatively young man, was busy trying to find a new wife to obtain his desperately needed heir. It wasn’t surprising that he had no time for a small child, particularly once he fell in love with and married Soraya, the love of his life (at least up to that point in his life).


Princess Shahnaz

According to the Shah’s Court Minister and closest confidante, Asadollah Alam, Princess Shahnaz grew up virtually neglected by her father, at least emotionally since she certainly lacked for nothing financially. See, Alam, The Shah and I: The Confidential Diary of Iran’s Royal Court, 1969-1977,supra. In all the ways that really matter, Shahnaz was brushed aside or considered invisible, a situation that didn’t improve when the Shah eventually had his family with Empress Farah. In fact, Alam repeatedly had to remind the Shah that Shahnaz was as much his flesh and blood as the rest. See e.g, Alam, at 74.

As for her mother, Shahnaz rarely saw her after one or two meetings in Switzerland. Fawzia obviously would not be welcome back in Iran, so she had limited access to her daughter, if any. Eventually, all serious contact between the two ceased. Perhaps it was a deliberate decision by one of parties, a question of Fawzia’s finances, or even a matter of politics but, whatever the reason, Shahnaz grew up feeling almost nothing for her mother, at least nothing positive.

Unfortunately, she wasn’t all that close to her father either. She loved him but she deeply resented his inattention and dismissiveness. In later years, she became a rebel, rather like the Princess Stephanie of her time. Id. at 42, 73-75, 81-83, 94, 105. The Shah was always exasperated and at the end of his wits as to how to handle her. He responded initially by marrying her off in a politically expedient union, only for her to get divorced a few years later. She subsequently became a hippie, had a serious and heavy drug problem, and was involved with a man whom the Shah deemed totally inappropriate. Her lifestyle spun out of control and became so outrageous that the Shah repeatedly came close to disowning her. Id. Each time, he only reluctantly agreed not to do so after pleas by his friend, the Court Minister Alam, who had a soft spot for the unhappy princess.

Shahnaz had barely escaped disinheritance but that didn’t stop her from confronting her father or taunting him about her lifestyle. She also deliberately continued to see the “hippie” whose “loose, immoral ways” drove the Shah to a state of uncontrollable fury. Shahnaz not only ignored her father but flaunted her lover. One night, after a fight with the man, she took an unknown dose of sleeping pills. The panicked Court Minister – who waited out the long hours until she “began to improve” – strongly implies that she had tried to commit suicide. Id. at 93.

The Shah soon had enough of Shahnaz’s emotional dramas, rebellion and “hippified ways.” He essentially gave her three choices: change her lifestyle; leave the country immediately, get married quietly in Switzerland, stay there out of sight and don’t return to Iran unless given permission; or be disowned. She chose the second option. Id. at 94. The Shah refused to even attend his daughter’s wedding.

Did Princess Shahnaz turn out as she did because Fawzia abandoned her? Possibly. One might argue that Fawzia chose divorce and Egypt, over Shahnaz and Iran.  While people are responsible for their own choices – and Princess Shahnaz bears some blame for her subsequent decisions as an adult – she was only 6 years old when her mother left. Fawzia must have known that the Shah wouldn’t be deeply involved in Shahnaz’s care, particularly given his need to remarry and obtain an heir. Her decision to leave anyway can therefore be seen as one of the most damning things against her.

On the other hand, one could argue that Fawzia had few – if any – real choices available to her. There is no evidence that the marriage would have worked even if Fawzia had stuck it out. According to Empress Farah, everyone expected the marriage to fail, sooner rather than later and, given the Shah’s obsession with a son, she is probably correct. Furthermore, there is almost no way that the Shah would have permitted his first born to leave the country and live far away. Egypt could not have asserted any rights to the child on Fawzia’s behalf because the parliamentary provision had made her fully Iranian, not half Egyptian-half Iranian. Finally, it’s highly unlikely that Fawzia would have been welcomed back in Iran to see her daughter once the divorce went through. Thus, if divorce was inevitable (for reasons unrelated to Fawzia’s unhappiness) and if she could never take her child with her, then what choice did she have but to leave Shahnaz behind?

The Return to Egypt

Fawzia returned to Egypt and her former life but she wasn’t happy. Although she’d been the one to ask for a divorce, when it was given to her, she was once again conflicted. She kept up appearances but, on the inside, she reportedly swung between acceptance, resentfulness and despondency. Apparently, she hadn’t thought far ahead to realize that her “freedom” would make her nothing more than a mere princess. The Egyptian Royal Family was huge, numbering approximately 370 members, including ten princes, twenty-seven princesses, and forty-eight members of the nobility.  Fawzia was now just another royal princess. But there was something even more alarming than the loss of her position as first lady of the land: she was now under her brother’s thumb. For all that she loved her brother, her “freedom” was now, once again, subject to any politically-motivated marital alliance which he might arrange for her.

Fawzia preempted the possibility of another arranged marriage by quickly marrying Colonel Ismail Husain Shirin Bey, the onetime Minister of War. Perhaps it was the fear of being bartered again, or perhaps it was real love. I’d like to believe it was the latter. Their marriage took place on March 28, 1949 and was very different from her huge State wedding ten years earlier.

Fawzia’s married life was also strikingly different. The woman who had yearned for the European culture and lifestyle, who had missed the glittering, cosmopolitan sophistication of the Egyptian court, and who had never been happy anywhere was surprisingly content to live an ordinary life. Rather than reside in one of the royal palaces, the ex-Queen opted for tranquil existence in Maadi, a suburban enclave of Cairo. There was “no fanfare, no security detail and no motorcades! Simply a stunningly beautiful lady relocating in an unpretentious townhouse, dedicating her free time to a variety of humane charities.” Samir Raafat, “How to massacre a town landmark,” (March 23, 2000) The Cairo Times, at

A year after her marriage, Fawzia gave birth to a girl, Nadia, but any joy or peace which she might have felt was short-lived. Farouk’s extravagant lifestyle, corrupt government, and dissolute behavior caught up with him. In 1952, two years after her new marriage, he was toppled from the throne by the Free Officers Movement. The group consisted of military officers led, in part, by Nasser, the future President whose pan-Arabic, nationalistic actions vis-à-vis the Suez Canal contributed to Cold War tensions and toppled Britain’s Prime Minister, Anthony Eden.

The Free Officers Movement cleverly planned the monarchy’s overthrow in stages because they didn’t wish to alarm the British and trigger any political interference. First, they first deposed Farouk in favour of his infant son. Then, they put the former King on his yacht and sent him to Italy. The minute he set foot on the yacht, he lost all of Egypt. (In fact, the yacht itself remained his only until he disembarked and then that too was taken away!) In the meantime, Farouk’s tiny son (Fuad II) remained King, at least in name. A short while later, after Britain had gotten used to Farouk’s overthrow, even the nominal vestiges of a monarchy was tossed aside, and Egypt became a republic.

Fawzia’s Life after 1952

The King’s favorite sister was not immune from the revolutionary changes. Fawzia was stripped of her title of “Princess” and one of her two modest homes nationalized under the flimsiest of legal excuses. In the space of eleven years, Fawzia went from being: an adored princess of Egypt with endless money at her disposal and a carefree, glamorous life; to being the Queen of Iran; to a princess of Egypt who lived a suburban life with her husband and children; to a commoner who struggled for money in a tiny house. All her other assets were stripped from her. For example, her legendary Van Cleef & Arpels diamond set was taken by the new government which locked them up in a museum along with the rest of the Egyptian crown jewels.

Fawzia and her husband suffered deeply after the revolution. They had little income and a growing family. In 1955, Fawzia gave birth to a son whom they called Muhammed Shirin. See, Christopher Buyers, “Egypt: The Mohammed Ali Dynasty Genealogy,” at If it had not been for the Iranian Royal Family, their plight might have been even more desperate. The Pahlavis not only helped her financially but also arranged for her to make a few visits to see her daughter, Princess Shahnaz, in Switzerland. See, Princess Ashraf, Faces in the Mirror, supra, at 74.

Fawzia’s situation might have improved in 1958 when the young King of Iraq, Faisal, proposed to Princess Shahnaz. Her daughter refused his proposal, yet another unprecedented event in Middle Eastern royal history. It was probably just as well. On July 14, 1958, the 23-year-old Iraqi King was assassinated – along with all of the members of his family and the Prime Minister – during a military coup.

Fawzia’s reaction to her own family’s overthrow is unknown, but King Farouk’s is not. He is well-known for the wry quip, “The whole world is in revolt. Soon there will be only five Kings left–the King of England, the King of Spades, The King of Clubs, the King of Hearts, and the King of Diamonds.” Depression may have tinged his pessimistic observation, but it didn’t stop him from continuing in his extravagant lifestyle. His daily meal (at the bare minimum, in the worst of times): involved 10 courses. “His workout: two or three dancers from the chorus.” Lance Morrow, “A Pox on Moderation,” Time Magazine, (July 19, 1999).

King Farouk died in 1965, at the age of 45. Ironically (or perhaps, not so ironically), he keeled over after a particularly gluttonous meal which consisted of, among other things: numerous tablespoons of caviar, dozens of oysters, slabs of roast lamb, beans, lobster thermidor, a cubic meter or so of English trifle, a pound of chocolate, cake, fruit, a magnum of champagne and coffee. Id. See also, “The Royal Yacht, El Emir Farouk,” at; and StadiemsupraToo Rich: The High Life and Tragic Death of King Farouk. It should therefore come as no surprise that Farouk died as “one of the fattest kings in history.” Denys Johnson-Davies, supra, at He weighed over 300 lbs. and, due to his tiny height, resembled an immense, saturnine party balloon with huge curving moustaches. (Those incredible moustaches were, in fact, the inspiration for David Suchet’s portrayal of Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s famed Belgian detective.)

As for Fawzia, very little is known about her life or circumstances over the past few decades. Her daughter, Nadia, gave her two grandchildren (one of whom was a girl called Fawzia in her honour), and three great-grandchildren. In later years, the Princess apparently became a recluse but it’s unclear when this began. It might well have been in 1994 when her second husband died. Their marriage had lasted for 45 years, a fact which adds to my hopeful wish that she’d married for love.

While Fawzia’s fate is (quite typically) a mystery, that of her first husband and the Pahlavis is well-known due to the Iranian revolution and ensuing hostage crisis. The Shah was overthrown in 1979 and died in exile in Egypt in 1980. His mother and sisters all outlived him, though the Queen Mother died only a year later. Princess Ashraf is still alive, as is the Shah’s daughter by Princess Fawzia. Princess Shahnaz lives in Switzerland with her second husband and children.  She became extremely religious and, at one point, supposedly went so far as to follow the dictates of some minor ayatollah.

Venus Rises

How one interprets Princess Fawzia’s life ultimately depends on one’s personal perspective. Her choice to leave Iran, ask for a divorce and give up her child is a testament either to the degree of her unhappiness and lack of choices, or to her selfishness.

In my opinion, the Fawzia who became Queen of Iran was a deeply confused child, who was insecure, somewhat flighty, frivolous and immature. Like many teenagers, she didn’t know what she wanted, only that she couldn’t take a life of obligation and duty in a foreign country. In that way, she was completely unsuited to be Queen but then, what teenager would be? Perhaps if she’d remained Crown Princess for a longer period of time, things might have been different and she’d have eventually grown into the role of Queen. Or perhaps she’d have managed to adapt if Iran had been more like home or if she hadn’t been sabotaged by her mother-in-law and sister-in-law.

It’s impossible to speculate on what might have been, but one thing is certain: the Fawzia who stayed in Egypt after 1952 – in spite of the loss of her status, title, money and security – was a very different woman from the teenager who married the Persian Crown Prince. Gone was the mercurial, tempestuous socialite who didn’t know what she wanted, swung from mood to mood, loved childish games, or danced the night away. In her place was a serious mother of two who rejected the opportunity to join her brother in his jet set, luxurious European exile; who lived a quiet life in a small suburb with few resources or luxuries; who tried to help others through the Red Crescent Society (the Muslim equivalent of the Red Cross); and who remained by the side of her husband through 45 years of marriage. The child was no more and in her place was a true lady who accepted what fate, politics and circumstances had dealt her with equanimity and grace. She shunned the spotlight, made no waves, and asked for nothing. It was as though she’d never been the daughter, sister and wife of three different kings.

Botticelli would have been proud. “Venus” had truly risen from the storm and the shell of her life…

– Pandora’s Box

“Venus” and the Kings in her life: Part I [2005]

ED. NOTE: I don’t always write about perfume. In fact, once upon a time, I wrote mainly about history under the name “Pandora’s Box.” A few are already posted and hidden in the archives, but I’m in the process of transferring over a few more articles — namely, a two-part series about Princess Fawzia of Egypt which was published back in 2005 — so that everything in one place. I certainly don’t expect anyone to read them, especially as they’re quite academic, very long, for a totally different audience, and have some wonky formatting after the transfer from the old royalty website. So, if your main interest is perfume, feel free to skip them.
Tuesday, 25 January 2005


The pantheon of beautiful, 20th century women includes the likes of Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor and many others. Hollywood’s goddesses are well known, unlike one member of that illustrious group who has rightly been called one of the most beautiful women in the world. Her name was Fawzia, and she was both a princess and a Queen.

Princess Fawzia was the eldest daughter of King Fuad of Egypt, the first King of Egypt in the modern era. Her life was shaped not only by Egypt’s political situation but, also, by her brother who succeeded his father to the throne as King Farouk. Sometimes she was a political pawn of the men around her, at other times she was a victim of circumstances, but she was always subject to the politics of the region. For that reason, it’s important to understand both her family and her country’s situation.Fawzia Iran

It’s a complicated story so this will be the first of two parts. This week we will focus on Egypt’s royal family and the circumstances which led her to become Queen of one of the most powerful countries in the region. Next week, we’ll look at her personal life and her fate.

The Egyptian royal family was originally of Albanian (or more specifically, Macedonian) descent. The founder of the dynasty was Mohammed Ali, a Macedonian tobacco merchant who assumed power in Egypt in 1805 under the protective wing of the occupying French, led by Napoleon.SeeWilliam Stadiem, Too Rich: The High Life and Tragic Death of King Farouk, (Carroll & Graf, 1991). See also,

Mohammed Ali’s descendents didn’t have the French to worry about but, rather, the powerful Ottoman Empire. Fawzia’s grandfather, Ismail the Magnificent, refused to accept the Sultanate’s chokehold on his country but he was too clever to fight the more powerful Turks, at least not overtly. Instead, Ismail used a more circuitous, secretive method: money. He cleverly bribed almost all the influential figures at the Ottoman court and, thanks to their intervention with the Sultan, received several significant political concessions. He was also given the title of “Khedive” which Webster’s Dictionary defines as “a title used by the ruler of Egypt from 1867 until 1914 governing as a viceroy of the Sultan of Turkey.”

Khedive Ismail’s accomplishments were not limited to the political. He was passionate about modernization and is attributed with building modern Egypt, from its infrastructure to the industrial base to the famed Suez Canal. Three of his sons and one of his grandsons reigned after him, until the 147-yr old dynasty – and the monarchy itself – was overthrown in 1952.

Fawzia’s father, Fuad (or, alternatively, Fouad), was Ismail’s twelfth and youngest son. Both his life and the future of Egypt were changed forever by the outbreak of WWI and the subsequent destruction of Ottoman Empire. Like many countries in the region, Egypt was now under British influence. The country initially became a British protectorate and then, for a brief time, a Sultanate. Unfortunately, that didn’t mean that Egypt was independent, at least not in reality. By now, “it was well understood that the country’s nominal ruler could only be a puppet of the overbearing colonialist power.” See, Fayza Hassan, “Sent Away,” Al-Ahram Weekly Online, (7- 13 February 2002, Issue No. 572) at

During this period, Fuad was a penniless prince in search of a role. The British transformed him into the Sultan of Egypt and then, its first King. Id. The British chose Fuad because he seemed the most suitable for the job but a more cynical interpretation is that he fit the criteria for governing one of Britain’s unofficial colonies. In heart, spirit, upbringing, values and perception, Fuad was more European than Arab. In fact, he had grown up abroad, spoke no Arabic whatsoever and completely despised the Arabs, including his own people. Id. It wasn’t uncommon for him to refer to Arabs as “ces crétins,” and other less polite epithets. Id. These things made him ideal to the British who felt pliant, submissive and Europeanized rulers were less likely to rock the existing political situation. They gave Fuad the position of Sultan and then, in 1923, the title of King.

Fuad’s consort was an Egyptian commoner called Nazli. She had been educated in Paris, spoke French as fluently as Fouad, and was a Francophile to the tip of her elegant fingers. She was initially reluctant to marry the Sultan and future King, but agreed to meet him after some persuasion from her father, the Minister of Agriculture. She found him irresistible. They were married in an intimate ceremony on May 24, 1919 and nine months later, she gave birth to a son, Farouk. Farouk was followed by four daughters, all of whose names began with the Sultan’s lucky letter “F.” One of these was Princess Fawzia who was born on November 5, 1921, two years before her father’s elevation to king.

Fawzia’s life was inextricably entwined with that of her brother, Prince Farouk. In many ways, understanding Farouk is the key to understanding Fawzia. His personality was the key not only to his own fate, but also to that of Fawzia and his country. His decisions changed her life but they also led to the end of the monarchy. For that reason, it’s worth digressing a bit to explore his character and the politics of the region.

Farouk, Egypt’s Last King

King FaroukPrince Farouk ascended the Egyptian throne in 1936. The new King was only sixteen and controlled in political matters by a triumvirate of councilors who essentially acted as his regents. Farouk wouldn’t come into complete independence for another few years, when he was 18. In the meantime, he decided to enjoy his new position and the great wealth which came with it. Extravagant, self-indulgent and impulsive, the teenage King led a very glamorous, lavish lifestyle. He would jet off to Europe for parties or wild shopping trips where he would order numerous Rolls-Royces in one go, to add to the hundreds of cars he already owned. He bought an enormous yacht in the blink of an eye, and ordered huge pieces of jewelry from Van Cleef & Arpels. He owned thousands of acres of land, dozens of palaces, and priceless antiques. He was famed as one of the world’s largest collectors of paperweights, stamps and other objets d’arts.

It never seemed to be enough for him. “As he got older, the king began pilfering objects and artifacts while on state visits abroad, including a ceremonial sword from the Shah of Iran and a priceless pocket watch from Winston Churchill. Common people were also often the victims of the kleptomaniacal monarch, and by mingling with commoners Farouk soon became a highly-skilled pickpocket. His well-known panache for thievery soon earned him the nickname ‘The Thief of Cairo.’ This excess would be one of the leading sparks that triggered the 1952 military coup.”

The story involving the Shah’s sword is quite shocking. The tale reportedly unfolds as follows: the Shah’s father, Reza Shah Pahlavi, had died in Johannesburg in 1944. His body was flown toEgypt en route to Iran. During the stop over in Egypt, King Farouk asked to be left alone with the coffin for few moments. When the coffin arrived in Tehran, it was discovered that jewel-embedded sword belonging to Reza Shah was missing. It had been in the coffin in Johannesburg, and the coffin had never been left unattended with the exception of that brief interval with King Farouk. It seemed obvious to all what had happened.

Slippery fingers notwithstanding, King Farouk initially showed great promise, at leastKing-Farouk-of-Egypt-006 when he ascended the throne. In those days, he had everything in his favour: youth, good looks, a slim athletic form, charm, wit and fluency in Arabic. In fact, he was the first modern Egyptian King to speak his countrymen’s language. Many of those who met him at the time also pronounced him intelligent, including France’s hero and President, Charles de Gaulle, who called him “prudent, well informed and quick-witted.” Denys Johnson-Davies, “An affection for monarchy” (reviewing Philip Mansel’s Sultans in Splendour: Monarchs of the Middle East 1869-1945, (Parkway Publishing, 2000), Al-Ahram Weekly, (14 – 20 June 2001), One historian succinctly analyzes the King as follows: “Torn between East and West, the mosque and the nightclub, he was a monarch in search of an identity.” Id. (quoting Philip Mansel).

The King also had political ambitions. While most people know General (and President) Nasser was a passionate proponent of Pan-Arabism, it could be argued that the real pioneer of Arab nationalism in Egyptwas none other than King Farouk. He dreamed of a restored Arab Caliphate – with himself as the first incumbent. He sought to unify Arabs and even held a conference of Arab nations in the 1940s to start that process.

Unfortunately, the King’s controlling interest was his own hedonistic pleasure. He was easily distracted from regional politics and domestic governance. In fact, one might argue that Farouk’s political aspirations existed only in his head, a sort of delusional wish to be bigger than he actually was or was capable of being. The simple fact is that he was a man with a short attention span for anything other than food, expensive toys, or corporeal, fleshy pleasures. Soon, Farouk gained notoriety as a dissolute, corrupt and – according to some – unusually degenerate wastrel.

It didn’t help that one of the first things he’d done as King was to sign a treaty granting Britain continued domination over the country and, in particular, rights to the Suez Canal. It definitely did not help that, at the time, Egypt was in the throes of a fiercely nationalistic, anti-colonial movement. Unfortunately for Farouk, his reign occurred during a turbulent time in Egyptian and Middle East history which was marked by the creation of the Arab League, the first Arab-Israeli conflict, and heated nationalist opposition to the British. William Stadiem, Too Rich: The High Life and Tragic Death of King Farouk, (Carroll & Graf, 1991).

Still, the ultimate blame lies on King Farouk himself. If he’d exerted himself, he might have been the nationalistic political leader that Egypt desperately needed and wanted. But Farouk was a materialistic womanizer and corpulent spendthrift who was too weak to act on his intellectual goals, and too undisciplined to control his gargantuan appetites.

Two Different Monarchies, Two Different Courts

King Farouk’s political dreams – as well as his perception of himself as political powerbroker – received a considerable boost from another monarch’s dynastic aspirations. Reza Shah had ascended the Persian throne after a British-backed coup toppled the long-standing Qajar monarchy. Concerned about succession and the future of his new dynasty, he sought a suitable bride for his oldest son, the Crown Prince Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. The ideal candidate would have a royal lineage and pedigree which would enhance the position of the upstart Pahlavi monarchy, as well as political connections which would help Iran’s power in the region. See, H.I.H. Princess Ashraf Pahlavi, Faces in a Mirror: Memoirs from Exile, (Prentice Hall, 1980).

Prss FawziaHis eye fell on Fawzia, a princess of the blood and the favorite sister of a King. But not just any king; it was Egypt’s King. Thanks to the efforts of Fawzia’s father, the Egyptian Royal Family was no longer bankrupt but wealthy beyond belief. Furthermore, Egypt itself was one of the most powerful nations in the region, matched only by Iran or, as it was known then, Persia. Historically, relations between the countries were competitive and politically charged:

Egypt and Iran [had] been competing centres of civilization and military power from ancient times. Both were conquered by Arab/Muslim armies from the Arabian peninsula in the mid-7th century and subsequently incorporated into the universal Islamic empire. In the medieval and early modern period they represented rival centres of Islamic learning and cultural tradition, as well as competing poles of regional dynastic power.

As long as Egypt and Iran were governed by monarchies, their relations in the 20th century could be described as relatively cordial. For a long period they shared a common interest of struggle to throw off the yoke of colonial interference and domination from Great Britain.

Dr. William Millward, “Egypt and Iran: Regional Rivals at Diplomatic Odds,” Canadian Security Intelligence Service Publication (Commentary No. 22, May 1992).

Prss Fawzia 2Then there was Fawzia herself. The Princess has been described, at various times, as “shockingly beautiful,” “exquisitely stunning,” or “heartbreakingly beautiful.” She was universally called one of the most beautiful women in the world. And, indeed, she was. She was almost the spitting image of the famed Hollywood goddess, Hedy Lamarr, but with more delicate features. The renowned society photographer, Sir Cecil Beaton, raved about her as follows:

If ever Botticelli were reincarnated and wished to paint an Asian Venus or primavera [Spring], here is his subject. He would delight in the Queen’s features contained in a perfect heart-shaped face: strangely pale but piercing blue eyes; crimson coloured lips curling like wrought iron volutes; and the way the dark chestnut hair grows beautifully from the forehead.

William Shawcross, The Shah’s Last Ride: The Fate of an Ally, (Simon & Schuster 1988), at 58.

Her slim, elegant figure was shown off to advantage by the latest in sophisticatedFawzia French fashion, and her cosmopolitan attitude was mixed with a keen sense of fun and a passion for living. Yet, paradoxically, she could also be extremely reserved. Those attributes, when combined with her air of regal aloofness, made her an irresistible challenge to men.

Reza Shah looked no further and the negotiations began. King Farouk was overjoyed by the prospect of having the Crown Prince (and future Shah) as his brother-in-law. The marriage promised him the opportunity to expand his influence and role in Middle Eastern affairs, and he wasted no time pushing his 17-year old sister into the Prince’s arms.

Unfortunately for Fawzia and her future happiness, the two capitals and royal courts could not have been more different. Fawzia’s future sister-in-law, Princess Ashraf Pahlavi, knew both cities (and courts) very well, and her eyewitness accounts illustrate the enormous gulf separating the two. Quite simply, one court glittered with the height of European sophistication, while the other was a comfortable, somewhat middle class atmosphere, in a provincial backwater. Princess Ashraf, supra, at 16-17, 56-57.

The Egyptian Royal Family lived in Abdin Palace which was Eastern in style on the outside, but thoroughly European on the inside. Savonnerie carpets, oversized Persian rugs, antique tapestries and remarkable examples of inlaid ivory worked framed a magnificent array of European antiques and objets d’arts. Id. In contrast, the Pahlavis – under Reza Shah (if not under his son) – “lived comfortably but simply, probably no better than a prosperous European family of the haute bourgeoisie.” Id. at 56.

The respective courts paralleled their monarch’s lifestyle. In Cairo, “the Egyptian court evoked the glitter and splendor of the oriental fairy tales, with perhaps a soupçon of Versailles. Poets, artists, musicians, intellectuals and aristocrats mingled at lavish balls and soirees, and witty repartee – in English, Turkish, Italian, Arabic, and French – was raised almost to an art form.” Id. at 56-57. Princess Ashraf, who was hardly an unsophisticated peasant girl herself, was amazed. Even the women were dressed and made up like their European counterparts. Cairo’s royal court was truly Paris in the Middle East.

Just as the Egyptian court glittered, so too did Cairo which, by Middle Eastern standards, was a very advanced metropolis. As Princess Ashraf explains, in those days, Cairo was

like an enchanted city, beautiful, mysterious and exquisitely alive. Against the other capitals of the Middle East, which were just trying to rouse themselves from the darkness of the past, Cairo was like a sparkling jewel: a cosmopolitan city rich with ancient tradition, yet bursting with the intellectual and creative impulses of the twentieth century.

Id. at 56.

In contrast, Tehran was “not a very inspiring sight.” Id. at 17. In those days, the capital was provincial and rough, both in terms of architectural layout and cultural attractions. As Princess Ashraf explains, entertainment was limited to the traditional oriental bazaars, “which looked exactly as they must have centuries ago; a few shops which stocked imported goods; a few segregated cinemas, where women sat in one section, the men in another, watching old American movies…; and the Muslim theater, which was devoted to dramatizing the life and death of the martyrs of [Persian] religion.” Id. at 17-18. This was the sum total of Tehran’s cultural life, as well as its tourist attractions.

The city itself was even worse. Many of the houses were hovels made of mud or brick. The streets, which were unpaved and unappealing even in daylight, were taken over by bands of wandering bandits and cutthroats after dark. People did not dare take leisurely strolls through the streets. They were more likely to be found in the teahouses or opium dens. Id.

This then was the world which Princess Fawzia was entering. It was a far cry from her life in Cairo and its Europeanized royal court. In Part II, we’ll examine Fawzia’s life in Iran, the circumstances which led to the first royal divorce in the history of Middle Eastern monarchies, and what happened to her when the Egyptian monarchy was overthrown.