This week, a true original died. Thursday, the Duchess of Alba gave in to pneumonia at the age of 88, in her 14th-century castle in Seville. Her full name was María del Rosario Cayetana Paloma Alfonsa Victoria Eugenia Fernanda Teresa Francisca de Paula Lourdes Antonia Josefa Fausta Rita Castor Dorotea Santa Esperanza Fitz-James Stuart, Silva, Falcó y Gurtubay. No wonder people just called her Cayetana, the Duchess of Alba.
But she wasn't just that. She was also the 15th Duchess of Aliaga, the 4th Duchess of Arjona, the 11th Duchess of Berwick, the 17th Duchess of Híjar, the 11th Duchess of Liria and Jérica, the 11th Duchess of Montoro, the 12th Countess-Duchess of Olivares, the 17th Marquise of the Carpio, the 10th Marquise of San Vicente del Barco, the 16th Marquise of La Algaba, the 16th Marquise of Almenara, the 18th Marquise of Barcarrota, the 10th Marquise of Castañeda, the 23rd Marquise of Coria, the 14th Marquise of Eliche, the 16th Marquise of Mirallo, the 20th Marquise of la Mota, the 20th Marquise of Moya, the 17th Marquise of Orani, the 12th Marquise of Osera, the 14th Marquise of San Leonardo, the 19th Marquise of Sarria, the 12th Marquise of Tarazona, the 15th Marquise of Valdunquillo, the 18th Marquise of Villanueva del Fresno, the 17th Marquise of Villanueva del Río, the 27th Countess of Aranda, the 22nd Countess of Lemos, the 20th Countess of Lerín, Constabless of Navarre, the 20th Countess of Miranda del Castañar, the 16th Countess of Monterrey, the 20th Countess of Osorno, the 18th Countess of Palma del Río, the 12th Countess of Salvatierra, the 22nd Countess of Siruela, the 19th Countess of Andrade, the 14th Countess of Ayala, the 16th Countess of Casarrubios del Monte, the 16th Countess of Fuentes de Valdepero, the 11th Countess of Fuentidueña, the 17th Countess of Galve, the 18th Countess of Gelves, the 16th Countess of Guimerá, the 21st Countess of Modica, the 24th Countess of Ribadeo, the 25th Countess of San Esteban de Gormaz, the 12th Countess of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the 20th Countess of Villalba, the 12th Viscountess of la Calzada, and the 29th Lady of Moguer.
All that makes her not only the grandest grandee in the world (with more titles recognized by an existing government than any other person on earth), but one of its great landowners: if you planned it out the right way, you could walk from Spain's eastern border to its western one without ever stepping off her property.
Her marriage to a (lesser) noble in the 40s was Spain's last great feudal wedding, and one of the century's most dazzling — her jewelry alone was worth 15 million in today's dollars. But, for such a pedigreed figure, she was unbound by the restrictive rules of her class and time. After her first husband died, she married her confessor, a defrocked Jesuit priest; more scandalous, he himself was an ilegítimo
, a bastard, having entered the priesthood in the first place by the old path of having been left on the church doorstep. The public was shocked; Cayetana, no respecter of persons, went right ahead. When he died, and she planned to marry a civil servant 25 years her junior, her family rebelled, no doubt concerned that he was in it to rob them. Her response was to simply sign over all their inheritances to them early, and marry the man. At the wedding, the 85-year-old countess/duchess/grandee kicked off her shoes and commenced to dance flamenco.
She loved dancing; she owned Christopher Columbus's first map of the Americas; she wore giant floppy hats, bright hippieish dresses, and fishnet stockings. By dint of various aristocratic fine-print, she was free to enter Seville Cathedral on horseback with impunity, didn't have to kneel before the Pope, and, whenever she ran into the Queen of England, the Queen had to curtsy to her
No doubt a flawed human being, she nonetheless got the answers right again and again. Under that resolutely frizzy crown of hair was a brain that understood that her power and privilege could buy her the freedoms that few women of her place and time could enjoy, but which we should all aspire to — not the puny freedoms of riches and leisure that we too often settle for, but the real freedoms of the human spirit: to see people for who they are and love them and associate with them regardless of what others think, to recognize love when it comes your way, to do a stomping dance when you feel like it (and to put in the work so that you're in shape to do it).
When you preserve the Glory of Spain by gathering it in such concentration and then squandering it so happily, there's a name for it: kenosis
Farewell, Cayetana, nobody's duchess, a spirit as free as ours were all created to be.
My favorite story? When she was 62, a lifetime of rebellion against society's rules found its peak: she curtsied to the Queen.