Yo! Cayetana!

Adiós to the Diva Duchess

A flamboyant, multi-titled, multiply married royal to remember, the Duchess of Alba died Thursday at the age of 88.

Splash News/Corbis

ROME, Italy — If ever there was a role model for divas and cougars, it was María del Rosario Cayetana Alfonsa Victoria Eugenia Francisca Fitz-James Stuart y Silva, or “Cayetana de Alba” for short. The 88-year-old Duchess of Alba, as she was also known, died Thursday of complications from pneumonia in her hometown of Seville, Spain. She was one of the wealthiest women in the world and certainly the most eccentric noble of her time.

Known for her fuzzy hair and a face stretched by plastic surgery, Cayetana took a number of notable and dubious honors to her grave, not least of all a Guinness Book of World Records nod as the most titled person on earth with 44 noble titles and 150 hereditary titles. According to her record book citation, she was “14 times a Spanish grandee, 5 times a duchess, once a countess-duchess, 18 times a marchioness, 18 times a countess and once a viscountess.” She was a distant relative of Queen Elizabeth and Winston Churchill and was said to have shared playpen toys with Princess Margaret, according to a number of obituaries in the British press. Her mother died of tuberculosis when she was just eight, and she spent her formative years in London where her father was a Spanish diplomat.

The Duchess of Alba was Spain’s largest private landowner, although in her autobiography Yo, Cayetana published in 2011, she complained of being cash-strapped—this even though she is thought to be worth €3.5 billion. According to the Daily Telegraph her possessions include Columbus's first map of the Americas, and the last will and testament of Fernando the Catholic. She reportedly also had a book collection worth more than €20 million, including a first edition of Don Quixote from 1605. She owned original artworks by Rembrandt, Velazquez and Titian.

Her perks as head of the 540-year-old House of Alba included not having to kneel before the pope and the right to ride on horseback into Seville cathedral, although it is not known if she has ever taken advantage of either. According to British press reports, the Queen should, in theory, bow to her based on genealogical calculations, although that has never been publicly put to the test, either. On the less formal side of things, she bragged that she once turned down an opportunity to pose nude for Pablo Picasso—a decision she regretted all her life.

The duchess was a beauty queen in her youth and a tabloid darling in her later years, often photographed in outlandish fashions with her signature short skirts and patterned lacy stockings. She hosted the international jet-set in Spain and even opened her home to Yves Saint-Laurent for a Dior fashion show in 1959.

She rocked a floral bikini at the age of 86 and she was the subject of a nude photo scandal for topless sunbathing paparazzi shots taken in her 50s.

The New York Times called her first marriage ceremony in October 1947 to Don Pedro Luis Martínez de Irujo y Artázcoz “the most expensive wedding of the world.” Indeed, many reports at the time noted that it overshadowed Princess Elizabeth’s wedding later that year. The couple had six children, one of whom was widely rumored to be the son of her flamenco instructor Antonio, according to El Pais, which alludes to the duchess’s allegedly insatiable libido and her penchant for bullfighters and dancers.

After her first husband’s death from leukemia in 1972, she married her Catholic confessor, a defrocked Jesuit priest named Jesús Aguirre y Ortiz de Zárat who was 11 years her junior. According to press reports the former priest sent three love poems he penned for the duchess to Julio Iglesias to turn into songs, but the singer found them too provocative. Amid accusations of infidelity, she told reporters in 1988 that she and the former priest were just fine. “We are happy, as happy as before,” she said, according to El País. “And, if you must know, we fuck every night.”

In 2011 she married 60-year-old civil servant Alfanso Diez, a aging boy toy that Spanish media branded a gigolo known to prey on elderly widows. She made him sign a prenuptial agreement before they wed, after publishing her will and dividing her assets among her disapproving children. As a wedding gift, the duchess installed a cinema screen in her Duenas Palace for her younger husband. On her wedding day, star-struck guests yelled Guapa as she hiked up her peach-colored gown and threw off her shoes to dance the flamenco. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Diez said he married the duchess for love, not money. "Together we have a wonderful time. She's always asking: What shall we do next? She's unstoppable," he told the magazine. "It often seems that I'm the older of the two."

A Catholic, the duchess told the Spanish press that she was also devout. “I am anti divorce, anti abortion, anti all those atrocities," she told EFE. "I am a Catholic and I practice it. That is why I am marrying for a third time instead of living in sin.”

That may be, but in 2009, the Duchess of Alba bought a massive marble tombstone at the San Fernando cemetery in Seville, according to her obituary in the Guardian newspaper where she had hoped to be buried by a bullfighter rumored to be her preferred paramour. She will lie in state in Seville and will be buried in a private ceremony attended by her husband and children.