The king, his lover – elephant in royal palace

Friday, August 21st, 2020 00:00 |
Juan Carlos with Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein in 2008. Photo/BBC

In early August, Spain’s former King Juan Carlos left the country following allegations of financial wrongdoing.

But the country’s affection for its monarch began to unravel as far back as 2012, following an ill-fated elephant hunt.

With the king on that safari was his former lover Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein.

She talks exclusively to the BBC about a multi-million euro gift from Juan Carlos, her claims of harassment by Spain’s secret service — and that elephant. 

Except Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein does not really want to talk about the elephant — the one King Juan Carlos shot dead on 11 April 2012.

The media reported the animal was 50 years old and weighed five tonnes, with tusks more than a metre long. 

The safari in Botswana was a present from the king to her son on his 10th birthday.

Juan Carlos had become close to zu Sayn-Wittgenstein’s children during his romantic relationship with her from 2004 to 2009 — a relationship which the Spanish public knew nothing about at the time. Since 1962 he has been married to Queen Sofia.

“I wasn’t keen on going on this trip,” zu Sayn-Wittgenstein says. “I felt that King Juan Carlos was trying to get me to come back to him, and I didn’t want to give a false impression. I almost had premonitions about this trip.”

With good reason, as it would turn out. Before dawn on 13 April 2012, the king fell in his luxury safari tent, fracturing his hip.

On his return to Madrid, the media fell on the safari story like a voracious lion on a fragile gazelle.

The revelation of the elephant hunt came very soon after a corruption investigation began into the king’s son-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarin — he is still in prison. 

This was a time of real hardship in Spain, with unemployment running at 23 per cent.

After undergoing an operation, King Juan Carlos made his first tentative public appearance in hospital using a walking stick. He was asked how he was.

Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia. Photo/BBC

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I made a mistake, and it won’t happen again.”

King Juan Carlos had been largely untouchable because of his place in Spain’s tortured, bloody history.

As head of state after Francisco Franco’s death in 1975, the king had overseen Spain’s transition from dictatorship to democracy and faced down a coup attempt in 1981. Now the damage to the popular monarch was immense. 

King Juan Carlos and zu Sayn Wittgenstein met at a shooting party in February 2004. 

She says the king was having trouble with his shotgun. “And I’m quite knowledgeable about all that, so I could explain what was wrong,” she says. “I think he was quite surprised.”

The relationship moved slowly. 

“We ended up speaking on the phone for a few months,” she says. “The first date was in early summer.

We always laughed a lot. We immediately clicked on many things, and we had many common interests — politics, history, fantastic food, wines…

“I was living in London at the time, having just started my own consultancy business.

And I was a single mother of two. So we would meet in Madrid in a small cottage on the larger estate, and we travelled together.

At one point, zu Sayn-Wittgenstein says she asked the king how all this would sit with his wife, Queen Sofia.

“He said they had an arrangement to represent the crown, but they led totally different, separate lives.

And the king had just come out of a nearly 20-year relationship with another lady who also had a very important place in his heart and in his life.”

In 2009, her father received a visit from Juan Carlos.

The romance would end that same year.

“My father was suffering from pancreatic cancer and had been given only a few months to live,” zu Sayn-Wittgenstein says.

“So I decided to spend time with him — we were very close. To my great shock, just after his funeral, the king told me he’d been carrying on a relationship with another woman for a period of three years.

Apart from Queen Sofia, zu Sayn-Wittgenstein says, she believed she was in an exclusive relationship with King Juan Carlos.

Although the relationship was over, the two remained friends — partly because the king was close to zu Sayn-Wittgenstein’s children. At the end of 2009, Juan Carlos asked to see her.

Tumour diagnosis

“He had some bad news to tell me. He’d been diagnosed with a tumour on his lung and he was convinced it was cancer.

He was terrified. He said his family didn’t know about it. And I didn’t want to abandon him. So I remained a very devoted, loyal, close friend during the time he was very unwell.”

When the king was due to have an operation in 2010, zu Sayn-Wittgenstein says he asked her to be in the hospital with him. 

“I slept on a couch next to his bed prior to the surgery because he was very nervous about it,” she says. “But the biopsy showed the tumour was benign.”

Then the king’s family arrived.

“I was unceremoniously asked to leave by some not-so-very-kind member of his staff,” she recalls.

“When Queen Sofia and some of the courtiers realised how serious the king was about me, quite a high level of hostility had developed.” 

Even so, zu Sayn-Wittgenstein says her friendship with Juan Carlos continued.

“He recovered very slowly from the surgery,” she says. “So I would go to Madrid from time to time to see how he was doing with his rehabilitation, how he was recovering.” 

Which brings us back to 2012 — Botswana, a dead elephant, and the king’s fractured hip. 

“It’s never been reported that I actually organised his repatriation, because there was no plan in place,” zu Sayn-Wittgenstein says. 

Quickly, the safari story became a media sensation — and zu Sayn-Wittgenstein believes this was all pre-planned.

“I think this trip would’ve been leaked regardless of the accident,” she says.

“Scandals involving the king’s son-in-law and daughter started to emerge at the end of 2011, and I think that set in motion various factions inside the establishment and the royal family.

There were forces at work inside the palace that were working on moving Juan Carlos on, trying to speed up an abdication,” she says.

The royal party arrived back in Madrid from Botswana late at night. King Juan Carlos went straight to hospital. 

“From the moment I came back from that trip I was under full-blown surveillance,” says zu Sayn-Wittgenstein. 

“This was the beginning of a campaign to paint me as this Wallis Simpson, Lady Macbeth, evil character who’d led this wonderful man astray on this trip during a big economic crisis.”

It was after this African trip that zu Sayn-Wittgenstein claims she began to receive unwelcome attention from Spain’s intelligence service, the Centro Internacional de Inteligencia (CNI). First, she claims her flat in Monaco was targeted.

So what were they looking for?

“Documents — and in a very thorough way… They stayed for weeks and weeks.” 

She says she does not know what kind of papers they were searching for. 

In Spain, King Juan Carlos was not able to shake off the curse of the elephant. In 2014 he abdicated in favour of his son Felipe.

As emeritus king, he was still busy with official engagements, trade trips and international travel — especially to the Middle East. 

And it is those very close contacts Juan Carlos has in the Middle East that have become the subject of intense scrutiny — especially from prosecutors.

Judicial inquiries began after the recordings of a rogue Spanish police officer became public.

He taped all his conversations with the rich and powerful — including with zu Sayn-Wittgenstein. 

In 2018 that audio was published in the Spanish media. In one of the recordings, a female voice asks rhetorically in Spanish about the emeritus king: “How does he get money?

He takes a plane, goes to Arab countries… And he returns with the cash in suitcases — sometimes with five million.

He has a machine to count it — I’ve seen it with my own eyes.” 

Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein has never officially confirmed it was her on the recording.

But the revelations from those tapes were sensational, and they became the catalyst for the opening of investigations in Switzerland and, more recently, in Spain. 

At the heart of the proceedings is a $100 million payment from the late king of Saudi Arabia that was placed in a Swiss bank account linked to a Panama-based offshore foundation in 2008.

The beneficiary was King Juan Carlos.  The Swiss prosecutor is investigating three people with ties to the former king.

And he is looking into whether this money was connected to the awarding of a massive contract to a Spanish consortium to build a high-speed rail link in Saudi Arabia three years later. In other words, was it a kickback? 

Worst moments

In Spain, the Supreme Court has opened an investigation into emeritus King Juan Carlos himself — but it can only examine alleged wrong-doing after he abdicated in 2014, when he lost his immunity from prosecution. 

Then in early August 2020, weeks after he was linked to the inquiry, the ex-king made the shock announcement that he had left Spain; after two weeks of speculation about his whereabouts, the Spanish royal palace said he was living in the United Arab Emirates.

So where does Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein fit in? She is one of the individuals being investigated by the Swiss prosecutor.

And that is because in 2012, after the Botswana debacle, the then-King Juan Carlos transferred what was left of that $100 million from Saudi Arabia — around €65 million — to her. 

“I was very surprised because it’s obviously an enormously generous gift,” she says.

“I will say, though, that conversations about him managing his will during his lifetime had taken place in 2011. He started to talk about his death and what he wanted to leave in his will.”  

In a testimony to the Swiss prosecutor, zu Sayn-Wittgenstein said she believed the king had given her the money out of love. 

“I think it was recognition of how much I meant to him, how much [her son] meant to him,” she says. “It was a gratitude for looking after him during his absolutely worst moments.”

She insists the king was not trying to hide or launder this money by bequeathing it to her — even though in 2014, he asked for the money back.

In Spain, Juan Carlos’ multi-million euro gift to zu Sayn-Wittgenstein has generated intense interest — and outrage.

The news broke as Spain confronted one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in Europe. 

Ivette Torrent, a young lawyer from Barcelona, began an online petition calling for the cash to be transferred to the Spanish public health care system.

In spite of the judicial hot water she finds herself in, zu Sayn-Wittgenstein says she does not have misgivings about her early relationship with the emeritus king.

“I do not regret at all my romantic relationship with Juan Carlos,” she says. “I have very sincere feelings for him. And I am extremely saddened by the turn it has taken.” - BBC

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