EDITOR’S NOTE: The author’s mother disputes Oxenberg’s account of her upbringing and family life. She said via email: “Christina is very clever, a good writer, and brilliant at marketing. She knows how to combine imagination with facts as this way she promotes her blogs and stories.”
My mother was born in a palace in Belgrade in 1936 as a princess of the land of Yugoslavia. She was the daughter of the then ruling Prince Regent Paul of Yugoslavia and Princess Olga of Greece and Denmark, a sister of Marina, Duchess of Kent. They were related to all the royal families of Europe. My mother has Prince Charles as a second cousin, and the queen of England’s late husband, Philip, was born a Greek prince and first cousin of my grandmother Olga. This is a huge and yet tight-knit family.
As I grew up in London, we were visited by many titled royal relatives, including my mother’s Kent cousins and Princess Alexandra. My mother has taken pains to be far from a traditional princess. Throughout my childhood, I remember her mocking anyone who she thought wore “sensible heels,” as she liked to say, or “tweeds,” as if this signified a type she would never deign to be. My mother’s personality is vivid and yet indecipherable, all at once. She was the rebel. She would break any of the rules. To start with, in 1961 she married an American whose name for legal reasons I cannot recall. They had two daughters, my sister Catherine and myself.
As was the case with most marriages about to fall apart, my parents allegedly did not see eye to eye, and that is putting it mildly. Once they divorced, my mother moved to London when I was two and Catherine was three. My mother eventually remarried a Brit who was born in Peru. He moved into our family house in Chelsea. His job required that we spend a year in Madrid. I attended a school there with classes only in Spanish and French, which was a challenge. And on weekends we all went to play with our cousins, the Spanish royal family, Juanito (the future king Juan Carlos), Sophie (later Queen Sofia), and their kids, with whom Catherine and I spent most of our time in the playroom accompanied by nannies. The Zarzuela Palace includes stables with giant prancing horses, which would be brought out to entertain us.
Holidays were often with my grandparents in their villa called Pratolino, near Florence. A truly magnificent gem with a park for a garden and with statues so tall and broad there were stairs inside to walk up and view the world from. Time spent with my grandparents was always pleasant. My grandfather played the piano, mostly Chopin. He would take us grandchildren on walks, always with his cane and in a suit and tie, and tell us funny and scary stories. And my grandmother, always finding ways to entertain us, would tell us to sit on the oversize sofa in the ballroom. She would tell us it was a ship, and she would read to us. We adored her. Meals were fantastically formal, with gloved servants and bells to summon them, and no one ever misbehaved. It would not have occurred to us or even appealed. We respected them and we loved them. They brought us joy and we only wanted to return the favor.
In later years we might convene for lunch or tea at my grandparents’ house in Paris. Equally, the grandparents frequently traveled over to London for visits. They stayed at Kensington Palace or Claridge’s; Juanito and Sophie, or Tino and Anne-Marie (the exiled king and queen of Greece), were often in our house for tea. That this unusual life, surrounded by kings and queens, some on thrones and some in exile, was like a chapter from Voltaire’s Candide was lost on me at the time. Now it makes me smile: another time, another era.
We lived with my mother and her English husband in Madrid for one year and then in New York City. When my mother suspected him of philandering, she did what she knew best. She kicked out my stepfather, still legally her husband, and moved in with actor Richard Burton, to whom she became engaged in October 1974. Yes, engaged while still married. I learned of this engagement over the radio. I have learned most of what my family gets up to via the media. Richard moved into our Chelsea home, and for holidays we flew in his private plane, sometimes to Rome but mostly to his house near Lake Geneva in Switzerland.
In the winter of 1974–75, my mother, Richard, and the Oxenberg tribe all took rooms at the same inn at Verbier and days were devoted to skiing. Richard, under contract with some movie studio, was not allowed to damage himself, and by chance I had hurt my foot, which left me on crutches and decidedly off the ski slopes.
I spent my days with Richard Burton playing hangman. My mother had given me instructions to stop him from drinking, and all I could come up with was a way to slow him from taking sips. He would reach for the stem of his wineglass and I would blurt out a letter so he would have to put down the glass to write it. But my efforts were in vain because Richard would pick up the wineglass and down the contents in a gulp. For lunch we would carefully pick our way over crushed and glittering snow to the gondola and join the sportif side of the group at the top of the mountain at some lovely chalet of a restaurant where you sit outdoors if the sun was shining. After lunch the athletes would ski down the mountain, and Richard and I would ride the gondola back to the lodge and the fireside, returning to our games of hangman, and his wine. He was always lovely with me, friendly and sweet. He told me he hated being an actor. He said it was an idiotic job. Richard had always hoped to be an English professor and would frequently launch into passages he’d memorized from all sorts of literature, way over my head. But I remember his delicious voice and enveloping delivery. We had fun with all those hours we filled.
I understood he was famous, but so were most people I was introduced to. It was not interesting to me that he was an actor, only that he was stupendously charming, and it helped that he understood and liked children. That a half-moon of paparazzi lived literally camped outside our front door at the Chelsea house became completely normal. That a balloon of cameramen, walking backwards, captured our every move was perfectly normal and not at all scary; if anything, we played pranks on them. But on occasion, if Richard was in a bad mood, he might punch one of them in the face and leave them stumbling into a gutter, camera shattered to smithereens. Even this violence did not bother me; if anything I found it funny. It was all merely par for the course.
Richard would eventually leave my mother, and she went on to squire many others around, as was reported on regularly by The Daily Mail, which is how I knew. I did not meet all these paramours, but rather only the serious boyfriends, and there were quite a few. I must say I liked them all. One of them bought me a record player, which was my greatest treasure of all time. Another bought me a set of suitcases I craved. Yet another bought me a gorgeous watch. It was all material things, and they worked just fine in place of what might be considered a healthier relationship. I liked these de facto dads: sometimes you have to take what is offered rather than pine for more.
While this revolving door of paternal figures might have been a glaringly bad thing in principle, I was extremely fortunate the men in question were a stellar bunch. From each I learned something and felt loved and cared for. When they moved on I wanted to stay in touch, and with some I did. But my mother did not like this and called me a traitor.
That winter holiday in Verbier was an idyllic time, even with its obvious stumbling blocks of too many parental figures and a lot of bickering. But these problems, if problems at all, were normal sized. After the holidays and back in London at home in Chelsea, I was likely thinking of getting ready to return to Hatherop Castle, my boarding school in Oxfordshire. But what I could not know was that my childhood days were about to come to a screeching halt and my life, as I knew it, went off the tracks.
For whatever reason, when I was 15 in the summer of 1978, my mother arranged for me to attend a different day school in the city of Oxford, a place called Beechlawn. The good people of Oxford were in the habit of renting single bedrooms in their own homes, and I was placed in one such setup. I rather loved it, as the wife of the household baked chocolate cakes and left them out in her kitchen so I could sneak in at night and carve the thinnest slices to steal.
I loved those first weeks at Oxford. The town itself, which I was welcome to roam around without restrictions, was achingly gorgeous. Students milled about, all young and fun, the September weather was clement, and I felt free and independent. I was always the shy type and not the least interested in boys, beyond private crushes. But I was very happy to make friends with the other girls at Beechlawn, and we would all meet up in the lounge room and chatter away. However, this idyll would be brought to an abrupt end.
Halfway through that first semester, I rode the train to London to go home for a weekend. For one thing, the weather was cooling and I wanted my winter coat. I walked from Paddington train station and made my way to my mother’s house on King’s Road. For the first time in my life, I had my own front door key, and only as of quite recently; for some reason, this was highly significant to me, as if it marked a major milestone in my development, as if I had earned it. I let myself in through the patio gate, walked to the glossy black front door with its brass knocker, and put my key in the door.
Once inside, everything was different. There were children playing on the floor, none of whom I recognized. But my mother had regularly moved strangers in throughout the 14 years we had lived there; my room was also regularly repainted, moved from floor to floor, with her friends living with us sometimes for years at a stretch. So I was not entirely put out by what I saw, but I was on alert. A lady, tall and slim with a blouse and a skirt that reached her knees, appeared at the top of the stairs, and our gazes locked as she began to descend. I did not know who she was. She was not smiling, and she kept coming, slowly, down the stairs until she was standing next to me and I noticed how tall she was. “Who are you?” she said sternly, and I replied asking where my mother was. “Are you Elizabeth’s daughter?” she pressed on.
“Where is she?” I repeated, feeling slightly edgy.
“Don’t you know?” the lady said, a nauseous feeling enveloping me. “Your mother moved to America three months ago.” Still, I said nothing. “We bought the house and your mother is gone.”
I was struggling to process this information and asked the lady if I could get my things, thinking of my winter coat.
“There are no things,” the lady said. “We live here now.”
I was stunned. I felt a sickness rising, and as I fiddled nervously with the front door key, still in my hand, I asked the lady how I should contact my mother. She told me she had no idea. There was no phone number, no contact information, only the fact that she had sold up and moved to America.
My mind was swirling, grasping for some crumb of comfort, something to reassure me that I would survive this. I asked the lady, “Do I have to give you this key?” The answer was yes, and I went into a third-person trance, watching my hand as it moved toward her and relinquished this small token of empowerment. I have never been inside that house again. I went out into the chilly early evening and walked over to the house of a friend. But it was closed and no one was there so I walked on, to Kensington, to another friend’s home, where I had to explain that I was without a place to stay that night.
I tracked my mother down, making phone calls from my friend’s house, and for three days in a row when I got through to her on the phone, she simply said, “Darling, I’m running out to a dinner party. Please promise to call me tomorrow,” and hung up on me. On the third day, I took a train back to Oxford and resumed my school life, with no winter coat.
Once the semester ended, I was flown to America for the winter holidays to stay with my father and stepmother, his fourth wife, in New York City. My mother was living there also with her new boyfriend, but he apparently did not like children, so I could only visit when he was not home. I did visit and I did ask why she failed to mention she had moved to another country. She replied, “Oh darling, I didn’t think it would interest you.” And that is all we have ever said about the matter.
For the Christmas holiday, which would include my 16th birthday, I went with my father and his wife to their Florida house. However, in a matter of days my father was unhappy with me. This was his way behind closed doors; there was always something that caught his ire. In this case I was punished for something absurd like reading books that were an assignment from school instead of watching him play tennis, and he locked me in my bedroom and told me I was not allowed to use the phone.
After a few days of this craziness, I called Jeanne, a friend of my mother’s who had lived with us in the King’s Road house and was now living up the road from my father’s Florida house. She told me to put my things together, and she came and took me home with her. I left a note explaining everything before I went, but that evening my father showed up at Jeanne’s house in a fit of rage. I ran up the stairs and hid on the landing, clutching the banister, listening as Jeanne answered the door below. For the first time in my life I started trembling. It is a condition that is still with me to this day: when I am frightened, I shake, visibly. My nervous system must have been taking a beating. My father did not enter Jeanne’s house; he just stood at the open doorway and screamed at Jeanne, “She’s yours now! I don’t want her. You can pay her school bills. She’s your responsibility!” And then he drove away in his Cadillac.
After a week or so, Jeanne did not exactly know what to do with me. Eventually it was decided I should return to England. Wasn’t I attending school somewhere? She bought my plane ticket, and I was stung with humiliation as she told me this was a fearful expense. I felt like a burden and was determined to repay this amount. Back in England I got myself to Oxford, where the school secretary told me the bills had not been paid and I was in effect not a student there anymore. I am sure they took note of the look of panic on my face. What was I supposed to do? The headmistress and the secretary had never dealt with such an issue, and while I had nowhere to live, they said I could attend classes.
One student, named Kate, rented a room from a farmer at the top of Headington Hill. She secreted me into a garden shed with molding furniture, no heat, no electricity, and no hot water. I spent my nights sleeping curled up in a rotting armchair, all the way through the English winter. It was cold, and I cried myself to sleep at night. My teachers all fed me when I went to their houses for classes, and I took odd jobs, as I had not one penny to my name. I also sold my few possessions, including the record player bought for me by one of my mother’s boyfriends, and all my records. I sent that money to Jeanne to repay her for the plane ticket as I felt responsible. I was lucky and my schoolmates shared their sandwiches with me. Everyone pitched in. I wrote long, plaintive tear-smattered letters to my parents, but none were replied to. I begged but I got nowhere.
Thankfully, during the Easter break my grandmother Princess Olga inquired as to where the heck I was and flew me to Paris to stay with her. From a cold shed to the 16th arrondissement with a butler, a maid, a chef, and my divine maternal grandmother. She got the truth out of me about how I had been living, and she wrote my father a letter. For this he would punish me. She also took me to a doctor, where I was diagnosed with depression and given a squadron of medications to take. Every day I spent with my grandmother was a delight. We took the bus and went shopping. We played cards in her small informal sitting room where the television was and where we took afternoon tea. She showed me her photo albums of her Russian Romanov royal relatives back in the day before the Russian Revolution and they were marvelous. Everyone dressed up formally and in rooms of gold or on lawns of emerald. She played with her cousins, including one of her favorites, the young Tsarevich Alexei. This was a perfect moment before the deluge of blood that would be spilled. My grandmother left out those parts of the story. She never complained or whined about the many disruptions she had experienced in her own childhood. Times of exile and penury balanced with the need to find a suitable husband and make a life for herself. She did, however, tell me about a state visit she had made to Germany with my grandfather, at Winston Churchill’s urging, to meet with Adolf Hitler. She had many tidbits to impart and I was fascinated. For example, she asked Hitler one evening at dinner why he had never married, and his reply was he did not have time as he was on a “mission from God.”
The summer semester school bill was paid because my grandmother embarrassed my father into doing it, but again no housing had been arranged, and at this point the school secretary, a mother herself, could not take it any longer and moved me into her own home. She was an angel. She taught me how to make a quiche and then sold slices from her office desk to anyone who ventured in to see her, and at the end of each day she had coins for me so I was no longer penniless.
However, when the summer holidays came around, I was flown to America, and my mother and father ranted at me for about an hour, telling me I was a waste of money scholastically and they would no longer pay for my schooling. “Don’t even think of college!” they laughed at me. I never spoke a word in response, nor did they pose a single question. I was to be sent to live with an older half brother in Colorado. I was warned not to cause any trouble as it was the “end of the line” for me, or so they put it. That is how they spoke. No one asked how or where I had lived for the past six months. I was 16 and my heart was completely broken.
It took me a long time to repair the worst of the damage inflicted by my childhood, to build a life where I felt largely happy and had hope for the future. When in Colorado, I took a job in a fast-food restaurant and finagled my way into the local high school so I could at least finish my education. I got lucky and made some friends and they helped me to decompress. I was far from light and breezy, but they came to my aid and I learned from them. I lived with that half brother for a year before moving to New York City, aged 17, and getting an apartment, two jobs, and a cat. Here, my life as an independent grownup began in earnest.
Adapted by the author from her ebook Trash: Encounters with Ghislaine Maxwell, available on Amazon Kindle.