A White Rose in the Land of Eagles
Whether Geraldine Marget Virginia Olga Maria Apponyi de Nagy-Appony knew what she was getting into when she agreed to the quickly offered marriage proposal of the eccentric King Zog I of Albania could be discussed ad infinitum. When they married she did not speak Albanian, nor did she know much about the country… or her twenty-years-older husband-to-be.
She was, however, from a family of the highest nobility in Hungary, tempered with an infusion of genetics from America. Her peripatetic childhood, which bounced from Hungary to Switzerland, back to Hungary, then France, Vienna, and Czechoslovakia certainly prepared her for the ultimate fate of the House of Zogu. But that was in the future as the radiant blond bride in her custom tiara, crowned with orange blossoms, stated her vows next to her new husband in a civil ceremony that was respectful of both Geraldine’s Roman Catholicism and Zog’s Islam.
The wedding was no small affair – Zog’s witness was the son-in-law of Benito Mussolini, and the couple drove to their honeymoon in a red Mercedes Benz gifted to them by Adolph Hitler. The radiant bride wore a much acclaimed tiara designed just for her as a jeweled expression of her nickname, “The White Rose of Hungary.”
As over-the-top as the actual wedding was, it wasn’t even the most extraordinary part of the Zogu marriage: Zog had decided in the mid-1930s that he needed a European aristocrat for a wife, and he needed one with a large fortune behind her. To this end he sent his sisters out to surreptitiously photograph the available nobles of Europe. When his favorite sister Senije presented the picture of Geraldine, Zog made an instant decision.
Geraldine ticked all the boxes but one – the beautiful young woman was working as a typist and in the gift shop of the Budapest National Museum because her family fortune had, at that point, been entirely lost.
As much as Zog needed money to continue living his extravagant lifestyle, he wanted Geraldine more. Arrangements were made and she was invited to Albania in December 1937. They were quickly engaged, and their wedding took place on 27 April 1938 in Tirana, Albania.
From the beginning Zog lavished jewels, designer clothing, and luxuries on Geraldine, who jumped into life as a queen-consort. She helped establish the Albanian Red Cross. She contributed to the building of hospitals, bringing Austrian doctors to Albania, and established the first maternity hospital in Albania. She also helped create and promote Radio Tirana. And, perhaps most importantly for a Queen of Albania in the 1930s – she very quickly became pregnant.
Geraldine was still pregnant when, on 25 March 1939, Benito Mussolini sent King Zog a sternly worded ultimatum to hand Albania over to Italy.
Zog refused. Although he had tried to create a working relationship with Italy, he had also tried to hold his ground against them more than once. Zog, already the target of several hundred blood feuds, most likely assumed that even if he accepted Italy’s ultimatum they would find a way to kill him and take complete control. He planned to lead guerrilla warfare units out of the mountains and cede the coastline and cities, knowing that Albania’s small forces could not defend them. Unfortunately, his plans were quickly relayed to the Italian government by the Italian military officers stationed in Albania for training purposes. There would be no resistance led by the king.
But even while all this was going on behind the scenes, Zog’s government refused to release any official information to the public. The news of the ultimatum still leaked, however, and crowds of people began demonstrating.
A brief moment of confusion reigned when the firing of cannons seemed to come out of nowhere, but they were announcing the birth of the new prince and heir to the throne, Leka.
The leaders of Albania began fleeing the country, and on 7 April Geraldine and the 2-day-old Leka were driven across treacherous mountain passes in an ambulance to the first stop of their exile in Greece. Shortly after arriving in Greece, Zog declared, “We prefer to die, from the littlest child to the oldest man, to show our independence is not for sale.“
As Zog had taken most of the Albanian treasury with him in his flight, his statement was less than impressive.
Geraldine would next find herself fleeing Greece ahead of the Nazis and heading to Istanbul, then France. Then from France the family and their retainers were evacuated by ship to Britain, an operation for which Ian Fleming claimed the organizing credit.
Exile was no excuse for Zog to give up his luxuries, and he rented an entire floor of The Ritz in London, although eventually the Albanian court-in-exile ended up away from the city at Parmoor House.
Geraldine was not happy in Britain, although she spoke English fluently. In fact, she was a talented polyglot; fluent in English, French, German, Hungarian, and Albanian. She also managed to learn some Arabic, which would come in handy at the end of the war when the family moved to Egypt as guests of King Farouk.
Recently declassified intelligence papers hold some clues as to why Geraldine might have been unhappy, but they paint an even more dissolute picture of the exiled king, who was already known for smoking up to 200 cigarettes per day and participating in poker parties that would last far into the night. But far more shocking than the king’s lavish spending and addiction to tobacco were insinuations of an affair with one of his sisters. If true, and the formerly-classified reports claim that Queen Geraldine knew of the situation, it would certainly make her tremendously unhappy. But it is also entirely possible that the king’s close relationships with his sisters was just that – a very close sibling relationship. Zog had been avoiding death by blood feud for more than twenty years, with multiple close calls, relationships where he could have absolute trust were rare, and it stands to reason that he would be so close to his siblings. It was well known that Zog would only eat food prepared by his mother or a sister, and implicit trust in his sisters would definitely fit within his constant siege mentality.
The Zogu family began a new chapter in Egypt in 1946, and Geraldine would later refer to it as the happiest time in her life, and she developed a close relationship with Princess Fawzia Fuad – who was known for her Albanian heritage in addition to her tempestuous former marriage to Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran. The Egyptian idyll did not last long, however. King Farouk was ousted in 1952, and the family once again returned to France.
Zog died in France in 1961, and his son Leka was declared the new king by the Albanian government-in-exile. But the ascension of Geraldine’s son to the Albanian throne-in-exile did nothing to calm the bouncing around that had always dominated the life of the woman who now preferred to be referred to as, “the Queen Mother of Albania.”
First the Zogus were expelled from France due to Leka’s penchant for carrying around a large number of personal weapons. They were comfortably ensconced in Spain, where Geraldine was close friends with the Queen of Bulgaria, but even the fascist dictator Franco couldn’t ignore Leka’s arms dealing, ever-growing collection of military grade weaponry, and the transformation of his Spanish villa into a fortress complete with guard towers.
In early 1979, Geraldine was again on the move, this time to Africa. A brief stop-over in Gabon resulted in Leka brandishing what was referred to as a “bazooka” at Gabonese military troops attempting to extradite him to Enver Hoxha’s Albania, but Leka and his mother arrived in Rhodesia just in time to witness the fall of the white nationalist government that had invited them. Another move was necessary, and in 1980 the family moved to South Africa at the invitation of the apartheid government.
From 1980 to 1997 the Zogus lived in South African exile, given the privileges of diplomatic status. Leka twice returned to Albania in an attempt to restore the monarchy (the second time resulting in a gun battle between Royalists and the Albanian police), but the people of Albania overwhelmingly did not want to return to the days of the Zogu Monarchy.
At the same time, the family’s privileges in South Africa were being revoked. In 1999 Leka was arrested for possessing an armory of weapons at his home, including landmines and over 14,000 rounds of ammunition. All diplomatic privileges were revoked, although charges were later dropped.
Geraldine, her son Leka, and her grandson would finally be allowed to return to Albania in 2002. Long-term life in Albania was never in Geraldine’s fate, however, because before a year passed she died of a heart attack while being treated for lung cancer.
Her legacy still endures in Albania, as on the anniversary of her death on 22 October 2020, her grandson Leka and his wife welcomed a daughter into the Zogu family. Not only born on the anniversary of her great-grandmother’s death, the baby, named Geraldine, was also born in Queen Geraldine maternity hospital.
To read more about the history of Albania, please click here.
- March 26, 2021