This was a love story, just one with lots of money involved. Now keep on turning the pages
When Juan Carlos was just a boy, his exiled parents sent him to an austere Swiss boarding school and left him in the care of a tutor. His tutor told him of the merit of eating what was put in front of him, an allegory for the life of duty expected of a king. He then discovered Juan Carlos working through, with great difficulty, a plate of dry, indigestible ravioli. He asked him why.
“I promised you I’d eat it,” our Juanito replied.
Juan Carlos’s sad and lonely childhood is where this story starts. The eat-everything lesson didn’t work. In fact, it had the opposite effect. The sense that he had been abandoned and had none of the security of love or wealth explains the philandering and avarice of his later years.
The ravioli scene, and other astonishing scenes of his youth, including the moment when he accidentally killed his brother Alfonso, the family favourite, are from Paul Preston’s book Juan Carlos: Steering Spain from Dictatorship to Democracy. It’s an extraordinary piece of biography, moving and rigorous, written by one of the world’s leading Hispanists.
Preston, who spoke to me over our reporting, also wrote a biography of Francisco Franco, fascist dictator of Spain from 1939 to 1975, Franco: A Biography. The book was first published in 1993 – my copy is a 1995 edition from the bookshelf of Juan Carlos’s last great love, Corinna zu-Sayn-Wittgenstein – and Preston has been revising it and adding to it since then.
“Franco remains a mystery to me,” Preston once said.
Some parts of Franco’s life are clear: the way he groomed Juan Carlos instead of his father, Don Juan, for the kingship of Spain. And how he spent a lot of his time at shooting parties at his estate in Galicia. It was Franco who gave Juan Carlos his first shotgun and gave him the model of a hunt at which deals were made and Spain carved up.
The country was about nine-times richer at Juan Carlos’s abdication in 2014 than it was when he became King of Spain in 1975. It was one of the first European Community, as it was known then, member states to have fulfilled the Maastricht Treaty rules for entry into the eurozone.
Some things remained the same. Spain still struggles with widespread, deep-rooted corruption. Here, again, Preston wrote probably the best English-language study in his 2020 book A People Betrayed: A History of Corruption, Political Incompetence and Social Division in Modern Spain 1874-2018.
The corruption ranges from low-level bribery to kickbacks on mega deals, to the embezzlement of public funds and nepotism, as in the 2018 case of Juan Carlos’s son-in-law, the former handball player and duke of Palma de Mallorca.
Juan Carlos, as king, was long protected from accusations of corruption for two reasons. First, the Spanish constitution states that “the person of the King is inviolable and cannot be held accountable”. Second, the Spanish press was traditionally deferential to him and the royal family.
And then, in 1992, while he was meant to be working in Madrid, Juan Carlos disappeared and turned up in Switzerland. He was “with a woman”, the press learnt. Ever since that escapade, Juan Carlos came in for more public scrutiny.
It was his role as a power broker that invited most scrutiny. Even his fans began to concede that Juan Carlos was likely earning money from opening doors, facilitating deals, and linking up businessmen. Something, beyond his €200,000 stipend, had to explain his extravagant lifestyle.
Patricia Clarke and I looked into the possible sources of his wealth in our piece on Wednesday. The Spanish press, no longer deferential to the royal family, has exposed, investigated, and criticised Juan Carlos’s broker business, particularly from 2012 onwards. María Peral at the Spanish-language El Español is an exceptional reporter on the case, breaking stories with rigour and frequency.
The first big English-language magazine piece on his broker role was by Jon Lee Anderson, a writer for the New Yorker, in April 1998: ‘The Reign in Spain: Has Juan Carlos de Borbón y Borbón made the monarchy essential to Spanish democracy?’ One veteran observer of the Zarzuela Palace in Madrid told Anderson that the practice of “putting people together for a fee” is common among European royalty.
The practice seems to have spread beyond Europe, in part thanks to Juan Carlos himself. “A person highly appreciated in the Gulf countries” is how Juan Carlos’s Swiss banker described him.
Reportedly, his commercial relationship with the sheikhs, kings, and sultans of the Gulf began in 1973. Juan Carlos, two years shy from being king, was acting as head of state for Franco when the OPEC oil crisis hit. Franco knew Juan Carlos was close to the House of Al-Saud, the Saudi Arabian royal family, and sent him to speak with the country’s king about securing oil for Spain. He managed – and, royal observers say, took a commission on – thousands of barrels that came into Spain.
Six years later, when Juan Carlos was king, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia gave him a 95-foot yacht called the Fortuna. Juan Carlos enjoyed an equally good relationship with King Fahd’s successor, King Abdullah. Juan Carlos called him, “my brother in Saudi”.
It was King Abdullah who, Juan Carlos’s Swiss lawyer and banker said, gave him the “pure gift” of $100m in August 2008. This gift is now at the centre of a corruption investigation in Spain and a money laundering investigation in Switzerland, where he had parked the money, and is what I investigated in my article on Tuesday.
The $100m gift is also what brings us to Corinna zu-Sayn-Wittgenstein, the protagonist in our podcast on Monday.
There is a lot of “further reading” to be done on Sayn-Wittgenstein. She is as complex a character as she is compelling. Her romantic relationship with Juan Carlos began in 2004. It ended quite badly, so that after he gave her, she says, an “unsolicited” gift of €65m, he asked for it back. She refused, saying it would make her a money launderer.
She now finds herself as a suspect in a case of aggravated money laundering in Switzerland where they had both banked. She strongly refutes the accusation that the origin of the “gift” is dirty and that she was Juan Carlos’s front. She claims it was simply a gift from one inviolable king to another and then to her, “out of love and gratitude”.
At its heart, this week’s File was a love story. One where a boy with a strong sense of insecurity grew into a great king and then met his beautiful downfall.