CORINNA AND THE KING
Episode 2: Court of Miracles – Death, Democracy, and Bags of Cash
Previously on Corinna and the King…
My impression was obviously that he was absolutely revered by everyone. He discovered a whole new way of life. He kind of enjoyed the normality of everything.
March 29th, 1956. The Spanish princes are spending the Easter holiday at their parents’ home on the Portuguese Riviera. It’s a long, glamorous stretch of Atlantic coastline. Every hotel, every private manor, every restaurant is elegant, expensive, pastel-colored. It’s the place to be for the rich, the famous, the royal.
Juan Carlos – 18 years old, tall, moody, a little rebellious – is not yet the outgoing over-the-top king that everybody knows him to be. His little brother, Alfonso, is a sweet, boyish looking teenager, chipmunk cheeks and straight shiny hair so blonde it’s almost white. Alfonsito, they call him, is only 14, but there’s something about him, something special, a charisma that draws people to him.
Right now, he’s acing his game at a junior golf tournament. He’s in the zone, a soft smile on his face. He’s got the club in a secure, confident grip. He swings. The ball soars. He knows he’s done it. The crowd cheers.
He said that his younger brother was the really bright one, the good-looking one, the best golf player, the favorite child of his parents. Juan Carlos is deeply dyslexic, and he was made to write with the right hand, although he was left-handed. He was kind of forced to conform, and he felt that his younger brother was really the shining light in the family.
What happened next… only Juan Carlos knows for sure. There was never an autopsy, no official investigation. No one else was in the room. The story goes that Alfonso rushed back home after his game, excited because he just won first prize, and he can’t wait to share the news with his brother.
Well, there’s a sort of an area… there’s a gray zone in his story.
The official version of events, shared in a statement from the Spanish Embassy in Portugal, says Alfonso had been cleaning a revolver with his brother when the gun went off. The bullet hit the 14-year-old’s forehead, killing him.
But there’s another version, one told to longtime Spanish reporter Pilar Urbano, who’s had close access to the royal household, even writing a biography on the queen herself.
In this version, Juan Carlos is bent over his desk, studying, and Alfonso bursts into the room pretending to be holding a machine gun. Ratatatat! Juan Carlos is annoyed he’s been disturbed and opens the desk drawer. He takes out the revolver kept there. Alfonso thinks he’s playing and shouts, “Give it up, you’re a dead man.” He aims his imaginary gun. His big brother smiles and leans back in his chair and says, “You really are a dead man.” He points the gun, then pulls the trigger.
It was meant to be a game.
It’s only during the weekends at the Casita, far from the eyes and the ears of the palace, that Juan Carlo shares his own version of the tragedy with his new love, Corinna. He tells her things that nobody knows yet, things that have been unreported, until now. And he admits it. He says, “Yes, I pulled the trigger, and I killed him… But it was an accident.”
Clearly they played a stupid game and whatever game he was playing with his younger sibling, he did load the gun. I think that guilt remains in his soul, in his mind, in a very big way.
The death of Alfonsito tears the family apart. This is the story he tells Corinna – Juan Carlos’s mother, Maria de las Mercedes, turns to alcohol, getting so desperate, she starts drinking her own perfume. She’s in rehab every year. Juan Carlos is immediately sent away to military school, far from everyone. Maybe his father thinks if he’s gone, the pain might also go away. But the hardest part of Alfonso’s sudden death isn’t the obvious horror of the scene. It’s what Juan Carlos’s father, Don Juan, says to him immediately afterwards, his voice full of anger.
His father’s first reaction was to ask, “Promise me you didn’t do it on purpose.” I can only imagine what that must feel like, because it implies that the father thought he deliberately shot his brother.
And 50 years later in 2006, it’s still raw for Juan Carlos. Underneath that beaming smile and imposing confidence is the 18-year-old teenager frozen in time, the image of his brother on the floor always in the back of his mind.
They often describe him as melancholic, and I think there’s a deep sadness in him that is covered up by this bonhomie, by this jovial, laughing, sort of fun bon vivant. But yes, he has mood swings, and he is lonely.
I’m Mishel Prada, and this is Corinna and the King. This is episode two – Court of Miracles.
Juan Carlos is wearing a fine tan suit and he’s showing off his pride and joy, his Harley Davidson motorcycle, to a British camera crew. For a moment, he’s revving, but the bike doesn’t start. It could be an embarrassing moment, but true to form, Juan Carlos is unfazed. He’s grinning, even when the British journalist, Selina Scott, has to help him.
SELINA SCOTT (07:05):
The chokes out. That. Give that a pull or a push. Pull it out… That’s it, have another go…
The documentary remains one of the most watched in Spanish history. The king insists on speaking English throughout. He wants everyone to know that Spain is now a major player in Europe. The old stereotype of the laid-back Spaniard is no more.
JUAN CARLOS I (07:35):
It shows that Spain is able to compete with other country, that Spain is modern, that all topics that Spain is saying, mañana mañana, it’s not anymore there. That we are really precise, and we know how to organize, and we know how to deal with a problem like an Olympic game or an expo in Sevilla.
But in front of Selina, another beautiful blonde, he is in his element, a permanent smile on his face. After a slight fumble with the gears, the king zooms off confidently as if nothing happened.
It’s 1992 and Spain is coming out as a major European power. The country has just hosted the Barcelona Olympics, the world’s biggest trade expo just took place in Andalusia, and Madrid has been named Europe’s city of culture.
The king seems… untouchable, but people talk. They gossip. And they say there are many Juan Carlos’s, so many versions. There’s the fireman of democracy – the hero. The man that got rid of the dictatorship. The vividor – the bon vivant. A Talented Mister Ripley – a deceiver who outsmarted everyone. So who is the real Juan Carlos? Does anyone know? Does Corinna know?
Eager to grow closer to her lover, Corinna has already mastered Juan Carlos’s favorite food, because she is a businesswoman, a strategist, and fantastic at cooking risotto.
Of course, he’s born in Rome. He loves good food, particularly Italian food. And I think Italian food is difficult to cook to perfection for non-Italians. I’ve done a couple of cooking courses. I love cooking Italian food. My risotto or pastas are sort of pretty much what Italians would consider the right way of cooking it.
One morning when he finds Corinna poaching eggs, he decides he wants to try his hand in the kitchen.
He wanted to participate in making breakfast and volunteered to make the toast and burnt the toast and was just laughing and saying, “I clearly don’t fit into the kitchen.”
Clearly not. He delights in the small things. It would come across as out of touch with reality if he wasn’t so in love with Corinna and her young son, who he dotes on so much, more than he ever did with his own children.
He said he was very busy at the time and probably not so tuned in to being a hands-on father, but that he really enjoyed tremendously playing this role, especially with Alexander, and he would literally change him, dress him, teach him a lot of things.
The word affair doesn’t quite fit into their vocabulary. That would be sordid, distasteful. No, what they have – well, what they believe they have – is so much more, so intimate and deep. It’s so much simpler.
I think he discovered a whole new way of life away from the palace and maybe away from other locations he’d used before with other girlfriends that were much more temporary. So he kind of enjoyed the normality of everything.
But it’s still not enough for Corinna. Risotto isn’t enough for Corinna. She wants to know the real Juan Carlos – not the statesman, not the entertainer, because she senses there’s something missing, that he’s not telling her everything. So one day, she looks at him across the breakfast table as her son Alexander plays beside them, and she asks him about his childhood, his parents, his brother. Juan Carlos swallows. Instead of speaking, he hands her a book.
And I have the copy here actually. I read the book with great interest.
Juan Carlos by British historian Paul Preston. Stretched across the cover is a large photo of him as a young prince dressed in military regalia. He’s standing side by side with Francisco Franco who ruled over Spain as a dictator for 36 years. He is the last piece of the puzzle of Juan Carlos’s history – the father figure that looms in the background.
He called himself Generalísimo Franco, meaning supreme commander. He had the support of Mussolini and Hitler, and he was their mirror. A tiny man with a high-pitched voice, ridiculous but brutal. During the Spanish Civil War that started in 1936, major cities fell to Franco’s forces one by one. The Basque town of Guernica was bombed to rubble – the horrifying inspiration for Picasso’s masterpiece of the same name.
Corinna tears through the book, hopeful to get a glimpse inside the mind of her new lover. The first chapters tell us another familiar tale – a young prince born in political exile in Rome, living out much of his life away from his country, attending the best schools. Yet at the same time, the family is dealing with isolation, poverty, and loneliness. Professor Paul Preston says,
PAUL PRESTON (13:48):
He actually had a truly appalling childhood and adolescence, and this may very well… I mean I think it explains a lot. The privations of his childhood and adolescence might well account for some of the… avarice, shall we say, the urge to collect money in one way or another.
By the way, this whole story of the family’s poverty may have been a myth, a ploy for sympathy, but Corinna didn’t know that then.
One day, at the age of just 10, when Juan Carlos is told he will return to Spain for his schooling, but it’s not the glorious homecoming he expects. Instead, the prince is a bargaining chip handed over to the murderous dictator because his father wants to become king again and bring back the monarchy after World War II.
Clearly he spent a lot of time with Franco, and Franco took on a fatherly role. The way he was talking about his family and his childhood, he was really traumatized by this experience and felt a sense of being the family member who had to sort of suffer for everyone else and to somehow succeed.
Juan Carlos’s life is miserable in Spain. Franco controls every aspect of it. He sends him to a hunting estate converted into a boarding school to continue his education. He even specially selects who he studies with at school. Franco becomes a second father of the worst kind, obsessive, watchful with Juan Carlos as his pet project, already grooming him to take over one day.
And as a child, I think he developed an ability to camouflage his true feelings and to appear to be whatever they wanted him to be when he needed to be what they wanted him to be. So it’s almost created a chameleon-type personality.
He has to protect himself. Franco is ruthless. Nearly 800,000 Spaniards were killed during the civil war. And during la represión franquista, anyone considered an enemy was executed – protestants, loyalists, homosexuals, academics, writers, Jews, Romanis, the list goes on. There were thousands – hundreds of thousands – of enemies. This is the man who raised Juan Carlos.
I think it had a lasting and very damaging effect on him. He suffers a sense of abandonment, because by all means, Franco was a monster, one of the cruel dictators in recent history.
To write his biography of the king, Preston interviewed everyone, except Juan Carlos himself.
PAUL PRESTON (18:13):
I remember very clearly being approached by the then head of the royal household who said, “We hear you are writing a book about the boss, but you haven’t been to interview him.” And I said, “Well… that would be very nice, but what would the price be?” Of course there wouldn’t be a price. “Obviously we would want to vet the manuscript.” I said, “Yes, well thank you, but no thank you.”
After the biography is done, Professor Preston is summoned to Zarzuela Palace.
PAUL PRESTON (17:28):
Well, I assumed it was to have my head chopped off, cause that’s the kind of thing that used to happen in Britain, I thought.
But Juan Carlos greets him warmly. Turns out he loved the book.
PAUL PRESTON (17:39):
So much so that he acquired large numbers of copies, which he used to give to people. If people came to see him, that would be their party bag when they left.
And before the meeting ends, Juan Carlos says something completely unexpected.
PAUL PRESTON (17:58):
He said, “Well, I’ll always be very grateful to you because you gave me back my life.” I mean, I was literally bowled over by it. I said, “Well, what do you mean I gave you back your life?” He said, “Because everything that’s been written about me is written from the point of view of my privilege. I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth, that everything was laid on a plate. And what you show is the hard times and the struggle I had to get where I am today.”
How did the young boy, a pawn, really, end up where he is? Because that’s all he was meant to be, a pawn torn between two fathers, battling it out for power over Spain. Don Juan wanted to win back his seat on the throne. Franco wanted a monarchy of his own, someone to carry on his work. But then again, in politics, nothing is certain, and in the summer of 1969, Franco finally, officially, announces his successor – Juan Carlos I. The boy who had been shadowing the ruler for so long is now handed his prize. And his father, Don Juan? He is blindsided. He had fled the country. He’d given a dictator his son as hostage. He’d lost his beloved younger boy, but he’d never given up hope that someday he’d take back the throne.
I don’t think the father saw this coming. I think Juan Carlos in that respect is quite ruthless, and I think if you imagine that type of childhood, maybe the level of empathy that you learn within a proper family unit somehow weren’t there.
The ceremony, held before Spain’s parliament, is closely watched across the country.
Don Juan Carlos de Borbón y Borbón, que perteneció a la dinastía que reinó en España durante varios siglos, ha dado claras muestras de lealtad a los principios e instituciones del régimen…
Franco lists Juan Carlos’s credentials, his training in the army, the navy, the air force, his character, and his clear proof of loyalty.
Then, the Cortes speaker steps up.
ANTONIO ITURMENDI (20:24):
En nombre de Dios y sobre los Santos Evangelios, ¿juráis lealtad a Su Excelencia el Jefe del Estado y fidelidad a…
Does he swear fidelity to the principles of Franco’s rule? Juan Carlos answers…
JUAN CARLOS I (20:40):
…and repeats the oath. There’s huge applause. Then he steps onto the podium and starts his speech. It’s what you would expect, acceptance of sacrifice and an unwavering commitment to Spain and what it’s become in the past 30 years.
But then, Juan Carlos says something that suggests he’s not quite the like-minded successor Franco made him out to be.
JUAN CARLOS I (21:08):
Estoy muy cerca de la juventud…
I am close to the young.
JUAN CARLOS I (21:13):
admiro en ella y comparto, su deseo de buscar un mundo más auténtico y mejor…
And he voices sympathy with their rebelliousness and their best intentions, their desire for change and a more open future. It’s a small nod, just a couple of words. Franco seems unmoved, and the succession is approved by Parliament – 491 yays, 19 nays.
Six years later, on November 20th, 1975, Franco dies. In his final days, he’d been a walking bag of ailments, suffering from a weak heart, failing kidneys and Parkinson’s. Thirty-seven-year-old Juan Carlos is finally crowned king, the new chief of state. But Spain, the dictatorship, lives on.
PAUL PRESTON (22:08):
Juan Carlos was always referred to as Juan Carlos el Breve – Juan Carlos the brief – that he was not going to last very long.
That’s the fear. Yet Juan Carlos defies expectations. Bit by bit, he brings democratic reform to Spain, weeding out Franco sympathizers, replacing the Prime Minister. And Spaniards vote in their first free parliamentary elections in four decades. All the levers of power that Franco had held for 36 years begin to disintegrate. Signs of change are everywhere. Graffiti covers the walls. People sing in bars without the fear of getting stopped by the police. Theaters in Madrid are showing previously outlawed political films and movies full of taboo subjects. Catalan, Basque, and Galician languages, once banned by Franco, can be heard on the street. Women can freely enter the workplace.
LAURENCE DEBRAY (23:09):
It’s a miracle because up until now, regime transitions have been violent and difficult. And he was an astounding case, because it was quite amazing that a king who inherited his power in the midst of a dictatorship return it to a country.
Laurence Debray, a French historian, has written books and made documentaries about the king. They even chat on WhatsApp from time to time.
LAURENCE DEBRAY (23:44):
When you take into account that the longstanding royal figures were powerful kings, especially the Bourbons of Spain, one generally tends to hoard power.
She calls him a modern king, down to earth, yet straightforward, has people skill. He opens the door to a new cultural era where Spanish people can loosen up. But Spain is fragile, and the generations that have lived through war and massacres, hardship and deprivation – they don’t forget. Juan Carlos knows. He’s lived it. There’s no such thing as stability. The fear that he could be assassinated at any moment, the government overthrown.
And on February 23rd, 1981, the king’s defining moment arrives. Two hundred soldiers stormed the Spanish parliament armed with submachine guns. They’re following a group of Francoist generals who want to revive military rule. The Deputy Prime Minister, a lifelong military man, is furious, demanding they stand down. There’s a tussle with the assailants. Shots are fired into the air. ¡Quieto todo el mundo! “Nobody move!” They hold politicians at gunpoint for 18 hours.
LAURENCE DEBRAY (25:07):
At that time, the entire government and the entire parliament is held hostage by the military. And the whole country is afraid.
Juan Carlos has to make a decision, and fast. Stand up to the coup and risk being chased out of Spain or bend to the will of the generals. In a special telecast at 1:15 AM, dressed in his uniform as the captain general of the armed forces, he speaks directly to the people of Spain.
JUAN CARLOS I (21:13):
La Corona, símbolo de la permanencia y unidad de la patria, no puede tolerar…
“The crown,” he says, “a symbol of Spanish unity, will not tolerate the actions of people who seek to interrupt the democratic process by force.”
After a few tense hours, the coup crumbles. Its leaders are arrested. All captives are released. Miraculously, no one is killed. The night of the famed coup attempt is known simply as 23F, the 23rd of February.
LAURENCE DEBRAY (26:17):
He truly becomes a hero when he, alone, defends Spanish democracy… I think from that moment on there is a grateful country.
PAUL PRESTON (26:29):
As he was seen as the guardian of democracy, the fireman of democracy, and particularly after the defeat of the military coup, there were demonstrations in the streets in which millions of people came out on the streets chanting in favor of democracy and chanting in favor of Juan Carlos.
At 43, Juan Carlos rescues Spain’s fledgling democracy from the precipice of disaster. Once a hero, always a hero, right? …Or perhaps it just gives him further to fall.
Spain is suddenly a country in technicolor, hedonistic and spirited. The Spanish eighties are something like the sixties in America, a time when everything seems possible. King Juan Carlos is a celebrity, at the peak of his popularity. There are endless glossy photos of him and his family in Hola magazine. The young prince Felipe, princesses Cristina and Elena, with blonde hair and cherub faces, Queen Sofia, poised and beautiful. The handsome king, the perfect family man. Skiing in Baqueira every Christmas, sailing the Mediterranean on his boat, Bribon, the rascal, hitting up the Majorca discotecas with his entourage, these images are burned, glowing, in the Spanish imagination. He would often ride around Madrid on his motorbike incognito, enjoying the privacy of his helmet. Spain’s very own James Dean.
LAURENCE DEBRAY (28:13):
Look, I’m going to tell you one thing. To me, the king was always a character from a novel. And at some point, I thought it was done. I thought he was going to stay in Zarzuela relaxing, sailing, going to lunch with his friends. Maybe a few lovers’ scandals here and there, but that’s it. Truly! I didn’t think there was any more to add.
King Juan Carlos is always keen to push an image that’s humble, just an ordinary man that happens to live in a palace. He’s never forgotten his roots. He likes telling one particular story.
JUAN CARLOS I (28:52):
I was driving to Madrid and then I saw somebody doing, wanting a lift. He had a can in the hand, and said, “I need some petrol for my car.” I said, “Well I take you to the pump station for the next petrol station. And I stopped then he said, he said, “Well, thank you very much.” He said, “Thank you.” He said, “By the way, who are you?” I said, “Well, doesn’t matter. I’m very happy to have helped you.” He said, “Well, go on, tell me.” And then I pulled off my helmet and he was horrified.
Later, Juan Carlos invites Selina Scott and the documentary crew to join him on his boat in Majorca. He’s taking part in a race. He’s an avid sailor. He’s already won a few times, and the reporter asked him if it’s embarrassing to win your own cup. He scoffs at her,
JUAN CARLOS I (29:39):
Well, because it’s competition and the best one win. If you’re not the best one, you don’t win. Doesn’t matter if you’re king or you’re not king.
He loves taking his children to local restaurants in Palma, where there’s almost no security and the regular customers think nothing of coming across to say hello. He immediately takes their hand, answers their question and gives them his time. But of course, the camera is still rolling.
PAUL PRESTON (30:07):
Now, one of the things that makes this a difficult topic to talk about is that because of the fragility of Spanish democracy, there was a kind of tacit agreement within the Spanish media, “Don’t go there, do not touch scandal. We got to maintain the stability of the royal family on which the survival of our democracy depends. So we have to be very, very careful.”
There is a life that exists out of sight of the film crews, the official photographs, Hola Magazine – a life of mistresses, the hunting of wild and endangered animals, and the money. So much money.
DAVID JIMENEZ (30:53):
Many of the things that we could not write about were not coming from any direct order from our bosses.
David Jimenez is a veteran journalist and the former editor-in-chief at El Mundo, one of Spain’s biggest newspapers. Back when he was just a cub reporter in the early nineties, he quickly learned that certain people and companies were just off limits.
DAVID JIMENEZ (31:23):
Everybody knew you could not touch the king. Everybody knew you could not touch Banco Santander or big corporations because in Spain, big corporations invest a lot of money in advertisement, and in exchange for that, you are supposed to keep silent, and outside those big companies, I think it was the royal family that had the protection of the media. I think in part was respect for what the king had done when democracy was in peril in his Spain, because he was so much linked also to big corporations that he could use that influence to damage your company. To me, that was shocking.
The blissful ignorance isn’t just about maintaining the king’s image, or the democracy that balances over it. There are also vested interests. Personal fortunes are at stake. Big business, money, monarchy, all connected with one man at the center of it.
DAVID JIMENEZ (32:35):
Of course, some people are pretending that they were surprised that the king behaved in such a corrupt way for decades. But in the newsrooms, we chat about this all the time. We knew this was happening, so it was a very open secret. We just didn’t write anything about it in the paper.
There is a phrase in Spain – vivir del cuento, “living off a fairytale.” But it’s more like living off an illusion. Exploiting your reputation without working or lifting a finger. Juan Carlos did the thing that saved the country. He saved democracy, some say, so he’s off the hook forever. He can vivir del cuento. The more time they spend together, the more Corinna sees his false modesty go out the window.
There were things that to me were so unusual that are referred to as the “Court of Miracles.” He would call someone up who had a great shuttle of Bordeaux wines and say, “I really love these wines and could you send me some?” And the next thing you’d know, 20 cases of this priceless wine would arrive. His wish was everyone’s command, and people were literally falling over backwards just to please him.
Compared to say their distant cousin, the late Queen Elizabeth II, with her holdings worth hundreds of millions and priceless real estate, the Spanish royal family are a modest bunch, on paper. The government’s annual budget allocates about $9 million a year for the house of His Majesty the King, meaning the royals’ lives are fully funded by the Spanish taxpayers. But Juan Carlos, the real Juan Carlos, is accustomed to dizzying levels of wealth. He’s developed a need for it.
I would see him coming back from trips, and he’d be happy as a five year old, and there’d be bags full of cash. And you go, “Oh my God, what’s that?” And it’s like, “Oh, this is from my friend so and so, and this is from my friend so and so.” So it seemed to me like a very habitual situation.
A good therapist would’ve seen it a mile off. A childhood of trauma, destitution, and a bad father figure has consequences for a person’s character. Where the wealth goes is another question. Once the king has his hands on it, he has a talent for making it disappear, because it isn’t always turning up in any of Juan Carlos’s own bank accounts. Wherever it is, the Spanish tax authorities certainly aren’t seeing it.
If I asked any question, he’d say, “You’re so dramatic. You don’t understand how Spain works.” And no, clearly I didn’t.
In our next episode of Corinna and the King…
And suddenly Queen Sofia burst into the room, with a face like thunder.
PILAR EYRE (35:45):
She’s always been, and this is a bad word, but Doña Sofia has always been the national cuckqueen.
Sometimes, he would complain to me going, “Oh, God, these people are relentless. They’re asking me for so many favors.”
Corinna and the King is a production of Project Brazen in partnership with PRX.
It’s hosted by me, Mishel Prada. Bradley Hope and Tom Wright are executive producers. Sandy Smallens is the executive producer for Audiation. Núria Net and Alex García Amat are executive producers for La Coctelera Music. Mark Lotto and Jimena Marcos are the story editors for the series. Alex García Amat is the sound design supervisor and composer. Mariángel Gonzales is senior producer. Farah Halime Hope is lead scriptwriter. Megan Dean and Soobin Kim are scriptwriters and associate producers. Ana González is a reporter for the project. Ireland Meacham is producer and Selena Seay-Reynolds is production coordinator. Francesca Gilardi Quadrio Curzio is associate producer. Lucy Woods is associate producer and head of research. Daniel Durán is editor for the English and Spanish versions, as well as sound designer. Matt Noble is editor for the English version. Matt Bentley-Viney is recordist. Joan Alonso is assistant editor. Ryan Ho is the creative director for the project. Andrija Klaric is video editor and designer. Laura Gómez is the host of the Spanish version. Translations by Paloma García Cruz. The voice actors are Eva Magaña, Ana Clements, Francine Belanger, Alex Marrero, Luis Alberto Casado, Antonio Soto Patiño and José María del Río. Additional music arranged and performed by José de Lucía with vocals by Adriana López “La Pimienta.”
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