CORINNA AND THE KING
Episode 1: La Casita – Juan Carlos I and the Hunting Party
He’s clearly known as one of the greatest seducers amongst royalty.
TV Presenter (00:13):
Juan Carlos is reported to have abruptly left the country.
Imagining that someone who says they love your children and that you are the love of their life, would frame you in a criminal investigation.
Money laundering, tax evasion, questionable gifts.
DAVID JIMENEZ (00:30):
Our bosses – everybody knew you could not touch the king.
ANA ROMERO (00:35):
It’s a Shakespearean story about power, money, and sex.
If you don’t obey these instructions, you could die in a tunnel like Princess Diana. The hatred somebody can express towards you can only be symmetrical to the love and passion.
The romance started as a fairy tale. She could be a princess – a perfect complexion, radiant smile, blonde hair and bright blue eyes, with grace and faultless manners. She isn’t feeling well, but she’s discreet and sits in the background. Never intrusive, always observing, always learning.
He has the eyes of all the room, because he is handsome and laughing and powerful, and everyone wants to be near him. But as it happens, on this chilly February night, guests all around them dining on venison and quail, he is only interested in one – the quiet blonde who has her hand at her throat.
She is Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn, a Danish-German entrepreneur, 39, a mother of two, already divorced once and finalizing a second. And he is the reigning king of Spain, Juan Carlos I, descendant of the Royal House of Bourbon – rulers of much of Europe for centuries. He’s a man’s man, lover of motorcycles, women, heavy Spanish cuisine, the king who saved democracy when a bunch of generals threatened to drag the country back to the dark days of dictatorship.
He was very, very warm and friendly. Very open, and seemed very sort of… unstiff as a person.
Corinna and the king’s journey begins here. Deep in the mountain range of Sierra Morena in South-Central Spain, away from the noise and the world.
As you’re arriving, you’re just driving through hectares and hectares of wilderness, because these estates are gigantic.
The Duke of Westminster’s property is the largest privately owned hunting estate in Europe. Thirty-two thousand acres bigger than the entire city of Barcelona. The estate has six large villas and room for 100 staff. It even has its own train station. It’s called La Garganta, meaning the throat.
The quarry this time of year – wild boar and stag.
So in Spain, these shoot events, they’re a little bit more kind of outdoors and rustic, ‘cause the weather is usually nice. So, everything that people would imagine watching Downton Abbey, sitting by the fire and being served teas isn’t really happening in that way.
Tonight at the hunting estate in February 2004, it’s midnight and the room is electric with chatter, But Corinna is exhausted and wants to recover for tomorrow’s hunts. So she picks her moment and glides up to where the king is seated.
I decided to ask for permission to leave.
Eyes follow her as she leans into the king and politely requests that he excuse her for the evening.
You’re not supposed to retire to bed until the head of state leaves, but you have to remember that I grew up in this kind of environment, and I never felt this need to be totally submissive to people.
Everyone watches her having dared leave early, muttering under their breath. Usually a woman would fall over themselves to impress the king.
I feel often very free to tell them in all honesty what I think. Nobody actually tells these important people when things are derailing.
I’m Mishel Prada, and this is Corinna and the King, A podcast brought to you by Project Brazen and PRX. It’s a story about love gone wrong, but not as you’ve ever seen it before.
When people call it an affair, and I’m being called a mistress, it’s not because it’s derogatory. It’s because it doesn’t accurately describe the depth and the width of this relationship. I never had felt as married as I had felt to the King of Spain. In my heart, he was my husband.
Kings, palaces, true love’s kiss. It may sound like a fantasy on the surface, but it didn’t happen once upon a time. In fact, the pages of this story are still being written. This is the true story of a love affair which brought the Spanish royal line to its knees. Of a king who believed he was untouchable, even as he organized an international campaign of harassment and surveillance. And the hidden money which shocked the nation.
It’s about the fragile myths modern royalties rely on to survive and what happens when the nation’s people stop believing them. Most of all though, this is a story about Corinna, not a princess of make-believe, but a real woman. A woman whose story has been spun and re-spun. She is finally ready to tell us what happened in her own words.
This is episode one – La Casita.
It’s 8:30 the next morning. Corinna decides to sit at the quiet end of the table, not too close to His Majesty. It’s a strategic move. She doesn’t want to make a scene. Maybe, last night she could feel his eyes on her, and the others’ eyes on them, but the king has other ideas. A message arrives.
And then my host basically came up to me and said, the King of Spain has asked for you to come and sit next to him. He has some problem with his guns that he would like to discuss with you.
Corinna has been summoned, and what she chooses to do next is simple, harmless even, yet, it will have consequences that neither she, Juan Carlos, nor Europe could ever imagine. Their simple love affair, which will remain secret for another decade, will ultimately rock the house of Bourbon, forcing the king off the throne and into self-imposed exile. And hanging over the wreckage will be the modest, disputed sum of nearly €65 million. It all started as a small favor – fix his gun. There’s a problem with favors. There’s always a catch.
Of course, I obliged. I stood up. I changed seats. I sat next to the king.
Corinna is doing what she does best – advising one of the most powerful people in Europe about his guns. The most expensive money can buy.
He had an issue with his guns where the wood meets the metal. The stocks had sort of split. The wood had split. And that is when the fitting is too tight. And I think he was quite amused by the fact that I could explain this to him and tell him what had gone wrong and possibly how to fix it.
She is not at all intimidated. They’re speaking English and French, moving easily from one to the other. He’s smiling. He’s making a good impression. Immediately she sees how warm he is… how charismatic.
Jovial, joking, laughing. Sort of a very personable individual.
It’s the first real conversation the couple has, but it’s fleeting and self-conscious with at least thirty other people within earshot.
Corinna hadn’t always been the go-to expert for firearms. Born Corinna Larsen in Germany to a Danish father and a German mother, she was raised in the kind of household where a precocious child could sit at the grownup table absorbing the vocabulary of tycoons and diplomats by osmosis. Boarding school in England. University in Switzerland. She speaks French, German, Danish, a smattering of Italian, Russian, Arabic, and pretty good Spanish.
I started traveling from a very young age due to the fact that my father was running a major international airline, and I would accompany him to the office. I would be allowed to sit in the boardroom and listen to incredibly interesting discussions between people who had clearly a lot of gravitas. So I kind of learned progressively how meetings take place, how people negotiate.
Growing up, she skied as soon as she could walk, spent weekends perfecting her skating. She had never so much as picked up a gun, but all that changed in 1989 in the throes of young love with investment banker Philip Adkins. They married within a year and he whisked her off to a honeymoon in Botswana. See, Philip loves to hunt.
So it was a quite… sort of a harsh expedition-type trip. There was nothing sort of gentle about it. So it was quite an experience being in an environment I didn’t know, but I fell in love with Africa.
During one trek stalking lions, Corinna feels herself lagging. Philip, though, oof, he’s on the scent. No holding him back.
The only scary thing that happened is I got a bit dehydrated on one of these long walks when Philip was stalking an animal, and he basically just dumped me under a tree and said, “Wait there.”
A while later, the guide turns to Philip asking, “Where’s Corinna?” When Philip explained they’d left her behind, he was furious.
The professional hunter went absolutely crazy. He said, “Are you insane leaving her alone under a tree?”
The group is forced to trek back to find Corinna and an elderly guide propped up by a walking stick that Philip had left her with. Sheltering in the shade of an acacia tree, Corinna decided she would never be the damsel in distress again. She spends the rest of the holiday watching and learning.
It was at that point that I decided I loved the place so much, but I would never come back without a rifle so I could at least defend myself.
Returning to London, she decides to take lessons at the prestigious shooting range, Holland & Holland, set in 60 acres of open countryside northwest of London.
The romance with Philip burns out, and they divorce in 1995. Her passion for guns, though – that continues. Sexy, powerful, but ultimately functional. What began as a hobby bleeds into her professional life, too. Eventually, she finds herself working for Boss & Co., gunmakers to the aristocracy. It is here that she came to learn the intricacies of each weapon and the names of the most talented craftsmen tasked with building and repairing them. But for her, shooting isn’t about the kill.
I love it. It is quite mathematical and I have quite a mathematical mind. So calculating the bullet trajectory, the weight, the distance, at what point it drops… And it might sound very odd to you, but it’s almost like a meditation, because you have to be so focused. You literally cannot think of anything else.
Quietly competitive, Corinna learns that lesser men are intimidated by her competency. Maybe it even derails her marriages. She met her second husband in the Hamptons in New York, the dashing Casimir zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn of German royal lineage. When her marriage to Casimir failed, she kept the Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn name. She didn’t want to have a different surname from her baby boy. And it does sound regal, doesn’t it?
After a stint with Boss & Co., she set up her own company – Apollonia Associates, a consultancy advising officials, diplomats, business people, and eventually, the king. She was financially successful and built up a small staff.
It’s a name that you can pronounce in pretty much any language. I also always liked the letter A because you’re always sort of high up on a list when you go to economic forums.
Anyway, she keeps her contracts in the gun world like any good entrepreneur, and it’s moments like this one, sitting across from Juan Carlos, which makes her glad she has.
What happened next, my shooting post was next to His Majesty’s shooting posts and it was a really horrible day in terms of the weather. It was just horizontal rain of the kind that just keeps kind of hitting your face, and it was freezing cold. At the time, I didn’t know, but the king was considered one of the best shots in Spain, and I guess on that day, he really didn’t have great luck on the hunt. But I didn’t miss anything, so he was cheering me for shooting successfully where he sort of failed. It just greatly amused him. So he was literally sort of high-fiving me and laughing and saying, “Well done, brilliant shot.”
The trip ends with numbers exchanged, talk of gun repairs. No sparks flying yet. But back in London, it isn’t long before the Spanish ambassador to the UK gets in contact.
It said, “His Majesty has commanded me to get in touch with you regarding restocking his tree of guns, and we understand you’ve kindly offered to assist with that.”
And facilitate, she does – with fees waived, naturally.
We would do this for anyone who is sort of high profile enough or could be a potential client. Being helpful in situations like this is always a good thing. It’s always my nature to be helpful when I can be.
Not long after, the king starts calling Corinna’s offices. The conversation starts with more official inquiries, questions about guns, but they would wind around to the lighter stuff, his day, her day, any plans for the evening?
If he calls when she’s out, he leaves a different name – Mr. Sumer. That’s S-U-M-E-R.
Su Majestad el Rey, S-U, like Su, M, Majestad, el Rey, E-R.
His Majesty, the King.
Obviously, it was meant to be some sort of discreet code name, but because he’s got such a booming, distinctive voice, it was kind of clear to my assistants when they were picking up the phone that it was the King of Spain.
Soon, he starts messaging her from his personal phone.
It was kind of surreal because it hadn’t really crossed my mind. But he was very funny and sort of very persistent, but in a humorous way. He’s clearly known as one of the greatest seducers amongst royalty, so he’s clearly very, very good at flirting with women. He’s very, very adept at reading someone’s personality and what they’re interested in, and I think that’s sort of a gift that he has, is really zooming in on people and instinctively understanding how he has to approach them.
Of course, Corinna is not immune to the allure of royalty, but she’s not one to fawn. Weeks pass, and the phone calls continue. They speak for hours, getting acquainted like old friends or maybe something more. Eventually, they agree to meet.
Corinna stays at the Ritz in Madrid. A car picks her up from the hotel, whisking her out to the countryside north of Madrid, eventually slipping onto a private road leading into El Pardo, the vast sweeping estate home to Zarzuela Palace, official residence of King Juan Carlos and his wife Queen Sofia.
But also nestled on the grounds, hidden almost, is what Corinna would come to call their Casita, a little hunting lodge. It’s a far cry from the Ritz.
And I was sort of surprised because it was really dilapidated. And he explained it was Franco’s old hunting lodge and that his keeper had lived in there and had clearly not been touched since the ’60s or early ’70s.
She calls him Your Majesty, but lunch is intimate, a meeting on the cusp of a date… the two of them and just a handful of staff catering to their every need. The king doesn’t shy away from the elephant in the room. They haven’t yet finished their starters. When Juan Carlos spills the truth of his marriage to Queen Sofia. It’s a marriage of image only. They’d long stopped spending any real time together when they weren’t in the public spotlight. Yeah, we’ll get back to the Casita in a moment.
It was the summer of 1954. The dust was still settling in Europe after World War II, and Frederica of Hanover, the queen’s consort of Greece, wanted to mend some of the fractures between the royal households caused by the conflict. So she invited a selection of Europe’s finest young royals to take a holiday tour of the Greek islands. Think spring break – but with much more money and everyone’s… kind of… related.
Sixteen-year-old Juan Carlos was among them, a dashing young man with blond hair, a big personality and the sort of sad eyes teenage girls just can’t resist. Corinna couldn’t resist them decades later either. Ambling on a Greek warship, one afternoon he came across Sofia, daughter of Queen Frederica and King Paul of Greece. He and Sofia were technically third cousins. When you rule much of Europe, it’s best to keep it in the family. Sofia spoke no Spanish, and he could barely get by in English. But via halting banter, Sofia managed to communicate that she was learning judo. “Judo?” Juan Carlos laughed, “What good is that?” “I’ll show you,” she told him before throwing him onto the deck. The body-slam-to-betrothal pipeline firmly established, the couple married in 1962 with Franco’s approval.
Then he and Sofia lived sort of quite in fear of what Franco was going to do next. So I think it was quite a challenging life until he took control. And in order to take control, he had to elbow a lot of people out of the way.
The time of Franco – Francisco Franco – looms large in the story of Juan Carlos. A ruthless dictator who looked upon the young prince as a kind of foster son he could shape in his own image. But Juan Carlos did something no one expected. He turned his back on tyranny. He was a modern king, too young for all of that.
Juan Carlos and Sofia had three beautiful children, but behind the scenes, the marriage crumbled. They lived increasingly separate lives, brought together only by public events and official photographs, each carefully choreographed to maintain the fairytale of the loving king and queen for the adoring Spanish public. Sofia was admired. She was classy, elegant, but icy. Take it from Pilar Eyre, one of the best known writers on the royal beat in Spain. She wrote a book about Sofia.
PILAR EYRE (22:12):
Queen Sofia is a great mystery because we really don’t know what she thinks. This is something to her favor, and that also plays against her, because when she’s been asked, “Do you have friends in Spain?” she’s answered, “Friends? What are friends?” “People you tell things to, people you trust.” And she says, “No, I don’t have any.”
Sofia devoted herself to her youngest son, Felipe, the heir to the throne. She doted on a series of dogs, including Beethoven, a St. Bernard, and Paquita, a rescue from a shelter. But she was often away from her husband. Meanwhile, Juan Carlos focused on his objects of devotion – women, money, and hunting.
It’s this devotion that leads us back here to the Casita where the king and Corinna sit face to face, knees almost touching. It’s obvious that Corinna is different – self possessed, powerful even – and the king with his talent for reading people, knows just how to draw her closer. Corinna is a problem solver by nature. She loves to help. So the king tells her about a problem he has.
He seemed very concerned about the forthcoming wedding and particularly the honeymoon of his son and the incredible media frenzy that that would sort of unleash. So the king asked me, saying, “You have such great experience in organizing these very high-profile events, and you seem extremely discreet. Is there any chance you could assist me with that?” Of course, that was very flattering.
It’s a request she can’t refuse. Back in London, she sets Apollonia Associates into full gear, arranging an itinerary for Juan Carlo’s son, Prince Felipe, and his new wife, Letizia, managing to throw off paparazzi while giving the royal newlyweds the honeymoon they’ve dreamed of.
Before meeting Felipe, Letizia had been a news anchor and a divorcee. Their match, a prince and a commoner, defied tradition. And Spain couldn’t get enough of it. The media attention was fierce, but Apollonia Associates was used to managing problems like these, using Corinna’s unrivaled network to pull strings and seal deals.
Officially, the couple are on a modest three-week tour through Spain, staying at a rural inn in Cuenca, taking in a few cultural sites, paying their respects at the Cathedral-Basilica in Zaragoza, eating at humble, traditional restaurants. Everywhere they go, they are greeted by cheering crowds, by their people. Yeah, that was their public honeymoon. Then there was their real honeymoon.
A few weeks later, Felipe and his new wife are secretly jetting between Jordan, Cambodia, Thailand, Samoa, California, Mexico, and eventually Fiji. Private, luxurious. Disingenuous – yeah, a bit disingenuous, even shady. But who is Corinna to get in the way of love’s young dream?
It involved chartering a plane, then agreeing an itinerary, getting them from A to B to C to D, undetected. And the way you generally do that is you file a flight plan, and then you change the flight plan once a plane has taken off. That means nobody in the tower who knows the identity of the passengers can then tip anyone off. In my office, there were only two of us who were in the know of this program. And it’s a 24/7 job. Obviously, the king was checking in with me on a daily basis to know what was going on.
No expense is spared. And as the invoices start flowing in, Corinna asks the king which government office she should forward them to for payments. His answer is curious. Bill half of the expenses to the palace and the other half to a company called Navilot in Barcelona. Corinna doesn’t think all that much of it at the time. It’s the early 2000s. You couldn’t just Google things like you can now. If she had any reason to dig deeper, she would’ve seen that the company belongs to businessman Josep Cusí, one of the king’s closest friends and business partners. Navilot spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on Filipe’s honeymoon. A wedding gift? Maybe. An old favor? Possibly or something much, much worse. We shall see.
He asked for the favor and he’s very, very smooth at doing that. It didn’t trigger any suspicion on my part. You meet a head of state who is highly revered. I mean, there were only really two totally revered heads of state, Queen Elizabeth and King Juan Carlos. So you’re literally dealing with sort of global heroes, and somebody tells you, “Could you please tell the company to issue two invoices?” doesn’t raise any alarm bells. Why would it?
Within weeks of their first meeting at the casita, Juan Carlos tells Corinna he wants to have a romantic relationship. Corinna’s interested, but she isn’t some fling, so she gives him an ultimatum.
The one thing I did tell him is that it’s already a big concession accepting someone has a wife. And I don’t have a moral issue with that because they’re two consenting adults who basically agreed to be married for a purpose, and both got whatever they were looking for out of it. The other thing is becoming part of a sort of harem-like structure. That is not something I was remotely interested in.
Her refusal to fall at his feet seems to drive him wilder. Some men just love the hunt. So Juan Carlos, famed Casanova, starts a magical courtship process. One only a king could pull off.
He was calling me probably 10 times a day every day, sending flowers, sending letters. He sent me hundreds of letters.
The letters, dozens of them, hundreds over the next few years, each one written on official stationary, hand-delivered by special service. Sometimes pilots on Iberia Airlines would carry them in special folders to be dispatched on arrival.
He expressed his emotions very profoundly, so they were clearly sort of not stereotyped letters. They were actually very sincere, all handwritten, how much he missed me. Clearly seemed to me that he was kind of missing a person he could actually talk to about everything.
By September 2004, they are both head over heels… seven months since their first meeting at the old hunting lodge in the mountains. They meet secretly at hunts across Europe or take discreet trips to Venice. But the place where they can really be themselves is still that Casita just a 20-minute drive away from Zarzuela Palace.
He discovered a whole new way of life. He kind of enjoyed the normality of everything. And I’m very down to earth, so I’m someone who will get into the kitchen, make a breakfast, set a table, organize the room, tidy up, and I think he had not seen that before.
He seems to enjoy it, playing at normal life. Corinna’s son plays in a paddling pool while Juan Carlos pretends to be a regular guy at a barbecue grill. Photos show him standing in fluorescent green shorts that Corinna bought him, flipping burgers, cap turned backwards. When years later, these photos are leaked in the Spanish press, people go crazy. They had never seen their king in Tommy Bahamas shorts. Even more shocking, he was with her son, playing with a toddler like a child of his own.
What he expressed repeatedly was that he loved the informality and the warmth of having a weekend like this. Outside of protocol, outside of complexities he felt in his marriage and just being himself and doing things he maybe hadn’t done before. Like I don’t think he’s ever barbecued before by himself.
Over time, Corinna starts replacing chipped mugs, then adding a vase with fresh cut flowers and coffee table books. A friend of Juan Carlos donates a sofa. The kitchen is given a fresh lick of paint. Later, Juan Carlos allegedly redirects state funds to refurbish the house. Slowly, it becomes a secret home for a secret family just miles from Queen Sofia’s door. Staff start noticing, talking… Well, gossiping. The problem for a person like Corinna who prefers to work in the background quietly advising the decision makers of the world, is that her life was no longer her own. And Juan Carlos is more complicated than he seems.
I guess his whole team was there to cover things up. He was picking up phones to just about anyone in the country or in the world, and just telling them what to do or asking them for stuff. And there was also an endless procession of gifts. It was literally almost a fairytale situation.
He holds secrets. And like any toxic relationship, the red flags were always there. After all, there’s no such thing as fairy tales.
In our next episode of Corinna and the King…
His father’s first reaction was to ask, “Promise me you didn’t do it on purpose.”
PAUL PRESTON (32:37):
He actually had a truly appalling childhood and adolescence. Now, I think it explains a lot.
DAVID JIMENEZ (32:56):
We knew this was happening, so it was a very open secret. We just didn’t write anything about it in the paper.
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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