The party over, Bavarian princess holds a most unusual yard sale

THE BALTIMORE SUN

REGENSBURG, Germany -- Once upon a time, a young princess known as TNT lived a wild little fairy tale of a life in this medieval city down by the not-so-blue Danube.

She had a 500-room castle and a wealthy prince, who, even if old, bald and bisexual, still knew how to liven up a place with practical jokes on other, stuffier royals. He didn't mind if she dyed her hair blond or blue, or cut it in a mohawk. And when he wasn't up for fun, there were famous artists and musicians who would party for days on end. Or she could always go on a TV talk show and bark like a dog.

For riding, there was a stable of horses. For going faster, a stable of Harleys.

Then the hobgoblins of death, taxes and approaching middle age crashed into the life of Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, and for the first time in 10 years she had to wonder: Would she really live happily ever after?

The answer, after three years of effort, now appears to be yes, to the consternation of some people, including the late prince's aged and eccentric uncle.

Happiness for the princess can be found in several outer rooms of the Thurn und Taxis castle. Here, pushed together in one opulent display after another, are thousands of pieces of furniture, works of art and other baubles of the sort that accumulate during five centuries of aristocratic living.

More than 4,500 such items have been assembled, along with 75,000 bottles of wine from the Thurn und Taxis cellar, for a nine-day auction that will begin Tuesday, an event that a Sotheby's spokeswoman, Diana Phillips, calls "the house sale to end all house sales."

If all goes as expected, the proceeds will finish paying off a tax bill of nearly $40 million that came due when Prince Johannes von Thurn und Taxis died in 1990.

But in securing a comfortable future for herself and her three children -- principally for the youngest, 10-year-old Albert, heir to the family fortune and title -- Princess Gloria, 33, has given up the lifestyle that made her Princess TNT, the Princess of Punk, queen of European tabloids.

"She lived in a dream world," said Count Heinrich von Spreti, a longtime family friend and the head of Sotheby's Munich office. "She had a much older, dominating figure in her husband, who let her live and let her do as she pleased, and life was a long party. When he died, it was like shock therapy for her. She had to wake up to some things."

Hair is natural again

So, now, her hair is back to its natural brown, bobbed in a businesslike style. With her large eyes, wide mouth, conservative wardrobe and demure poses in recent photos, she's faintly reminiscent of a young Jackie Kennedy leading a White House tour. And lately, the woman who once seemed to be competing for the title of loudest and flashiest among the world's wealthy has been keeping a low profile.

"She spends all her free time with her children now," explains her lady-in-waiting, Regina Sprueth.

So it was that when she gave an interview to Stern, the German weekly feature magazine, it became last week's cover story, headlined "The New Gloria."

She talked of how her husband's death made her grow up. She told how she has weeded out shaky investments from the family's business portfolio -- dropping a bank, for instance, while holding onto timberland and real estate.

She met the prince when she was 19, a barmaid in Munich who could nonetheless claim the title of Countess von Schoenburg zu Lauchau und Waldenburg. Her dad had lost the family wealth to the Communists. The prince was 53 at the time. They married a year later.

They soon became the fast set's most famous host and hostess, throwing lavish parties that sometimes lasted days. But guests had to be prepared for the Thurn und Taxis brand of humor.

Red wine on a white dress

Prince Johannes enjoyed dropping herring down women's cleavages, or lacing the late-night banquet treats with laxative. Perhaps his favorite stunt was dribbling red wine onto the seat of Britain's Princess Margaret while she was up dancing. She was dressed in white.

When Gloria got beyond the castle walls, she really cut loose, dancing on tables at discos in a mohawk and chain-mail dress and partying with unaristocratic celebrities and avant-garde artists (although one of her singer friends was at least named Prince). She did her dog-bark imitation, among other places, on "Late Night With David Letterman."

$1 million birthday party

By Bavaria's stuffy standards, the peak of her outrageousness came in 1986, when she spent more than $1 million on a rock-and-roll cruise up the Danube for the prince's 60th birthday party. She took to the stage on the ship to belt out the Rolling Stones hit "Satisfaction," no doubt to the approval of a guest, Mick Jagger. But the talk of the evening was the birthday cake, decorated with 60 marzipan penises for candles.

All was not well with the prince, however. The high living got to his heart, and he needed a transplant. This prompted the princess to wonder how solid his wealth was. Her investigations found that not all had been well with the prince's finances, either. He was deeply in debt, and when he died, inheritance taxes would pile on further burdens.

It had taken a long time to bring the family fortunes to this point. The pudgy ancestor Franz von Taxis, who in portraits looks sort of like a medieval version of the football telecaster John Madden, had established the basis of the family's wealth about 500 years ago. He founded the postal service of the Holy Roman Empire.

Princess Gloria wasn't about to watch all that slide down the drain in her lifetime. She persuaded the prince to dump his financial advisers and give the job to her.

"She learned and learned and learned," Ms. Sprueth said. "Even at night, when the children were in bed, she would be reading all the financial papers, and if there were problems or something she didn't understand, she'd ask somebody. . . . If she has a project in mind, whether it is a party or a business or whatever, she is always very focused."

A new role

By the time her husband died three years ago, during a second transplant operation, she was ready to charge ahead in her new role. She did so boldly enough to be named one of Germany's top personalities for 1990 by Manager magazine, a German business monthly.

She sold all but three of her 27 cars. She fired dozens of the liveried, bewigged footmen employed at the family's six castles, and if she thought there were a market these days for castles, she'd sell two of them. As it is, she'll probably have to rent out parts of them.

But when Sotheby's announced last year that she would soon begin hocking the family treasures, the howls of protest in Bavaria were louder than the ones over the birthday candles.

Bavarian officials were worried that some of the region's heritage would be sold right out of the country. But they were easily appeased when Princess Gloria gave them first crack at the items as long as they deducted the sale prices from the inheritance taxes she owed. Bavaria's take came to about $26 million, and the items will eventually be displayed in Regensburg.

The jewelry auction, held last November in Geneva, brought in nearly $14 million to the princess. This month's auction should bring in at least $15 million more.

The Pater protests

But there are still critics, particularly the 91-year-old Pater St. Emmeram, the long-bearded Benedictine monk who was the prince's uncle. The Pater lives alone at another Thurn und Taxis castle a few miles away in Regensburg, a former monastery with 100 rooms. It is a forlorn place, with peeling paint and crumbling plaster, situated among tall chestnut trees where magpies cackle throughout the day. Atop the building is a marble St. George, skewering a dragon with a golden pike. Somewhere indoors, refusing to come to the door these days for would-be interviewers, is the Pater.

Though he has protested the auctions and called the princess a "ruthless minx," friends say relations have thawed recently. He even dropped by once last week to browse through the auction goods, although he has also offered a solution in case the auction falls short of its goals: auction Gloria.

"You must understand, he is basically a 19th century person," Count von Spreti said. "He was brought up completely in awe of his parents, and for him to see a photograph of his father being sold is naturally very difficult."

Whatever the Pater thinks, the sale will go on. Items will include rare porcelains, ancient sculptures and magnificent furniture that piled up over the centuries in 25 family castles. There's a teapot valued at about $30,000, an old piano worth roughly $100,000 and a bronze 13th century water carrier valued for as much as $88,000.

Amid all this heritage on display, it can be jarring to come across items from the princess herself. Exhibited near the 13th century water carrier are two of her old Harleys, propped on their kickstands like a pair of Hells Angels roosting in the House of Lords.

In a larger room, set among the burnished tones of antique furniture, is a day-glo green chair designed by Princess Gloria herself. For a moment, it is almost as if the old Princess TNT were back, traipsing into the middle of the stuffiness, her mohawk blowing lightly in the breeze.

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