She was a poet and teacher in Boston. He was a handsome, whimsical student who fell in love with her. But he was also a Crown Prince of the exiled Italian royal family; and when he died leaving his lover pregnant, the double fury of the House of Savoy and

A man was observed walking unsteadily across the roof of a students' building at Boston University at 5.40 pm on 24 April 1994. It was unseasonably warm. The figure stepped gingerly off the edge of the roof and fell past eight storeys of unlit windows before slamming into the pavement. It was not until the police arrived that the ident- ity of the suicide became known: 24-year-old Crown Prince Raffaello Reyna di Savoia, grandson of the last king of Italy, and a student at Boston University. In his pocket was an unused prescription for anti-psychotic drugs.

The university authorities moved quickly to quell the scandal; Raffaello had locked himself out of his flat, they said, and was trying to climb through the window. His history of mental dysfunction - he couldn't read or write and was unable to concentrate for long - was played down both by the university and the Savoy family.

In the "playboy royal" image beloved by Italian glossy magazines, there was no room for his visits to mental hospitals in Nice and Boston; pictures of the handsome, smiling and athletic prince revealed few clues to his deep-seated problems - his obsessional and manic behaviour, his physical tics, dyslexia, photo- phobia, hypoglaecemia, temporal lobe seizures, attention deficit disorder...

The family dispatched a lawyer friend to Boston with instructions to bring the body of Raffaello back to Mexico, where the elderly Queen Maria- Jos and her sister - Raffaello's mother, Princess Maria-Beatrice - live on the huge estate of Cuernavaca, in the mountains an hour south of Mexico City. But when he arrived, the lawyer discovered that there wasn't just a flat to pack up and the battered Savoy reputation to salvage. There was also the tricky question of Raffaello's fiance and former teacher, a 28-year-old American divorce and PhD student called Meg Tyler, who was, she said, pregnant by the dead man.

The quick-minded lawyer immediately foresaw problems for the Savoys - Raffaello had been the favourite nephew of Queen Maria-Jos. She had left him the estate of Cuernavaca in her will. Were the will to remain unchanged, Meg might claim it for her child on the death of the 90-year-old dowager.

Frantic calls went back and forth from Boston to Mexico. The family were concerned that they knew almost nothing about this American interloper, the daughter of a Kentucky architect, whose sister was an Olympic cyclist and holder of several world records. Was she a gold-digger? Did her family have influence? Raffaello had by all accounts suffered a "stormy" and intense relationship with his mother (the third daughter of King Umberto II). She was bitterly disappointed by his shortcomings, and treated him like a baby. She had extravagant ambitions for him - a marriage to the rich and noble Doria family, a glittering career in international relations. The heir to the throne, Emmanuele-Filiberto, Raffaello's cousin, had had no child-ren, and the hopes of the Savoys rested on Raffaello's frail shoulders. He must make a good marriage and restore the "oldest royal family in Europe" to its former pre-eminence.

But Raffaello was a childlike soul unsuited for such realpolitik. He preferred to make wood sculptures, listen to techno music, and talk about Oriental religion, the subject he was studying. Literally the only book the second-in-line to the Italian throne had ever read was about extra- terrestrial abductions. He remembered past lives as a monk and a goat. Yet, though the Savoys are punishingly inbred (Raffaello's great-grandfather was a midget, whose legs dangled over the throne when he held audiences with Mussolini), they are more noted for dullness and greed than for madness.

Raffaello was always uncomfortable with his rank. "He didn't tell me for five months who he was," says Meg. "I thought he was just a kid with a learning disability from Mexico. When he showed me photographs of the family wearing their little crowns, I thought: "This is just Mexican kitsch."

Though Maria-Beatrice was aware of Raffaello's relationship with Meg (and heartily disapproved of it, complaining how much he had spent on flowers when the Diners Club bills came through), Raffaello had not sufficiently overcome his terror of his mother to tell her of Meg's pregnancy. "The only time he ever lied to me", says Meg, "was when he said he told his mother I was pregnant." Shortly before his suicide, his mother had blamed Raffaello for his father's heart attack, instructing maids at Cuernavaca not to take his calls, and sending him a humiliating fax to Boston University (in English, a language they generally did not use when talking to each other, but which everyone at the university could understand), scolding him for being a fool and a spendthrift.

Meg was immediately put in her place. In the first of many calculated snubs, the lawyer was instructed to give away Raffaello's possessions - to anyone but Meg. "I'd go into someone's house and see something of mine from Raff's flat hanging on their wall," Meg recalls. At the same time, Meg was instructed to return Raffaello's pot plants from her flat, and her love letters to him were bundled off to Mexico where they were read by the family. "You write so beautifully," Raffaello's sister, Asaea, told Meg sweetly on the telephone.

Meg was, at best, coldly tolerated. While not exactly barred from the funeral at Cuernavaca, she was not invited either. Meg borrowed money and flew down to Mexico. From the minute she stepped off the plane, she was kept apart from Raffaello's friends, and was not invited to stay at the family home. During the service, she noticed that (unlike her) favoured journalists were allowed to stand with the family; and one of them, Roberto Tumbarello, the middle-aged royal correspondent of Oggi, Italy's Hello!- style gossip magazine, was taking a special interest in her from across the pews.

At the reception, distressed and goaded beyond endurance, she began telling anyone who would listen that she was pregnant with Raffaello's child. Meg recalls: "You could see the news sweeping round the room - everyone was looking over." The Pretender King of Italy, Vittorio Emmanuele, and his son Emmanuele-Filiberto, talked to her with apparent tenderness, promising to help her "if in need". But when she tried to visit Raffaello's bedroom, Maria-Beatrice sent Asaea to tell Meg to leave the house immediately. Meg found herself standing in the road outside the palace, where a queue of bored chauffeurs refused to take her anywhere until instructed to do so by the Savoys.

Later she was informed that, were she to have an abortion, Savoy family funds would be made available to her. "To lose your brother, to lose your son - it's horrible," Meg observes. "But they were punishing me for being alive. They were all such pricks. I'm enormously grateful I'm white trash from Kentucky."

Back in Boston, she found more trouble brewing. She was hauled before her superiors at the liberal arts department of Boston University and questioned as to whether her relationship with Raffaello had been "inappropriate". Meg explained that she had terminated their teacher-pupil relationship as soon as their romance blossomed. The waspish academics advised her tartly: "Well, don't do it again."

Meg's health declined badly. She was admitted to hospital. The university neglected to tell her of a memorial service for Raffaello, and told students who were solicitous of her welfare that they had no idea where she was. When she emerged from hospital, she was told by the university she could not return to her teach- ing post. It emerged that Maria-Beatrice had threatened the university with three separate lawsuits, including sexual harassment of her son, libel and "wrongful death". There was talk of withdrawing the stipend Meg needed to finish her doctorate. She signed on for welfare ($338 a month), but was told she would have to wait a month for the money. She had nowhere to live. Things were looking bleak. "I had to beg food from friends and some days I didn't eat a thing." Maria-Beatrice must have allowed herself a moment of satisfaction: no one gets a free ride with the Savoys.

Who are they? "They were a fairly hopeless lot as kings," says Dennis Mack Smith, Fellow of All Souls, Oxford, and an authority on the Italian monarchy. "There is absolutely noth- ing distinguished about them." Originally the French rulers of Piedmont- Sardinia, the Savoy family were propelled to the throne of Italy by Garibaldi, the Italian patriot, in 1861.

Raffaello's grandfather, Umberto II, reigned for only 30 days, and was kicked out by a referendum in 1946. Umberto's father, Vittorio Emmanuele III, was held responsible for allowing Mussolini into power, and for signing the racial purity laws and the "unnecessary" declaration of war on France and Britain. It is safe to say the Italians will never forgive the Savoys.

The family left for Switzerland and Mexico, becoming a shiftless, monied, jet-set family prone to scandals: an alcoholic binger, bisexual infidelities, and several shootings, including the killing of a teenage German boy. Though they plead poverty, history shows otherwise. The Savoys historically mani-pulated state monopolies, inc-luding tobacco. When Vittorio Emmanuele I became king, he awarded himself "the largest salary of any royal house in Europe, including Queen Victoria", according to Mack Smith - who was not allowed access to family papers, he suspects, precisely because they revealed "some murky details about financial scandals".

Vittorio Emmanuele III maintained a large bank balance at Hambros in London; Mussolini used to tease him about his "nest egg". The post-War Italian government launched a court case to recover it for the state, but British courts ruled against them: it was deemed the exclusive property of the Savoys. "It was a very large sum of money even by today's standards,'' says Smith. "It must have run into millions and a lot more was probably salted away."

In Boston, a battle, not of money but of published words, was about to begin. As soon as the journalist Roberto Tumbarello heard about Meg's baby at the funeral, he faxed her, assuring her that he knew she was "no floozie, no loose thing" and that she had a "a decent love story to tell". When she responded some months later, Tumbarello called back with a mixture of obsequiousness and anger. "Why did you not call me?" he complained. "I am here to help you. I am going to make you a lot of money." And, caught up in the operatic mood, he announced he would become the "gold-father" (sic) of what he insisted would be "Raffaello's son".

Now seven months pregnant and on welfare, Meg weakly agreed to be flown to Nice, where Tumbarello met her off the plane. Although she was exhausted from the transatlantic journey, he insisted on an immediate photo-shoot. The interview lasted two days. "He never wrote anything down and I didn't recognise much of what I said," Meg recalls. She was put up in an expensive hotel and "cried every night" on her own.

Meg was shamelessly manipulated; Tumbarello suggested a swim, photographs were taken of her bulging in a swimsuit, but as soon as she approached the pool she was told "we have to move on". He promised that "Il Principe" Vittorio Emmanuele would appear "and embrace you as a daughter". It was a fantasy. When Meg expressed a wish to visit a friend in nearby Marseilles, Tumbarello refused to let her out of his sight, "in case another magazine" approached her. When Tumbarello produced a contract from his jacket it was for a paltry $3,000. "But I needed the money to eat and it seemed like a lot at the time," she explains.

Oggi has now printed six reports on Meg's plight, and achieved considerable extra sales. The magazine has been slow in paying her, while at the same time protesting to the world in melodramatic terms about her poverty. When her ex-husband approached Tumbarello for further payments, Tumbarello expressed outrage. He felt, he said, that he was a "father to Meg". The Madonna-and-child image he was fostering for her was imperilled by such vulgar demands.

In the meantime, perhaps impelled by the thought of the enormous sum the Savoys stood to lose, Maria-Beatrice launched a now infamous attack on Meg's character in the pages of Noi, another Italian magazine. Responding to the implications of the first few Oggi features on the baby - Uriel, a daughter, born in November - she announced that the baby was not Raffaello's, that Meg had tried to kill it, that Meg was a trollop, that Uriel was a "dog's name", and that the Savoys would have nothing to do with a "divorce".

Tumbarello put Meg into the hands of a little-known Boston lawyer named Mario Bozza, who is now pursuing her case through the courts. "I've no idea what he's doing," says Meg. "I didn't hire him." When a paternity suit was served on the Savoys, the official document appeared in the pages of Oggi. "I'd never seen it, and it gave my home address," said Meg incredulously. Bozza is currently "creating an estate for Raffaello" which will force the Savoys' hand; they may have to appoint an administrator who can then be challenged. He is also establishing Raffaello's paternity.

While I was in Meg's house, there were late-night phone calls from Bozza begging her to co-operate with an Italian TV crew that was coming to Boston to interview her. Apparently the television company wants to launch a public appeal in Italy, asking for donations for Meg. But is this a genuine effort to help her, or yet another cynical move to stir up the Savoys for the edification of the Italian media?

Both Bozza and Tumbarello were concerned that, if Meg received any fees from Oggi, she would have to come off the welfare register. At first she was baffled by their logic - but the intention seems clear. It's a better story to have her remain on welfare. Uriel is "the Princess on Welfare," Meg told me. "I've just become the conduit, the belly that held the royal child."

Behind it all, there remains the troubled figure of Raffaello, slowly fading into the background as the lawyers and the press get more involved and the feud between Maria-Beatrice and Meg escalates into a courtroom battle. Meg's stories about her time with Raffaello are poignant. In her words, he becomes an almost magical, otherworldly being, a barefoot prince from the Aeniad, rather than a scion of Borgia- style sleazoids. She recalls a simple image of her dead lover, far from these squabbles, in some mythical place: "All Raffaello wanted was to be a goat king, living in a hermit's cave on the seashore of a Caribbean island - and I'd live with the children inland, where he could visit us. He'd have sat on the beach all day and stared at the waves and been so happy."

She tells me how he would "love me to read to him"; how he "kept a clock in the shower, because he loved water so much and stayed in there so long"; how he was a gentle and original soul who loved Buddhism; how he would take rolls and rolls of film of Meg taking one step down a stone staircase; how he would toil for "two hours to write five sentences"; how they would both run through New York "filling the streets with glee".

But there was also the "psychosis", which Meg euphemistically calls "dj- vus", when he would hallucinate and develop paranoid delusions. Before his death, he developed a fixation with gambling, and borrowed considerable sums from Meg. On one occasion, he'd tried to drag her in front of speeding cars. Once, in bed, he'd tried to strangle her "to see what it felt like", insists Meg, apparently undisturbed by the incident. But why wasn't Raffaello getting proper care? How, with all the resources at the disposal of the university and his rich family, did he slip through the net?

Meg points out that "the one night I wasn't with him for months and months, he goes and commits suicide." He and she were hoping to help Raffaello's fractured psyche "holistically"; but the neuroleptic drugs had made him very ill. The week after his death, he was scheduled to have an appointment with a doctor who specialised in Raffaello's multiple disorders.

Ten months after Raffaello's death, Meg is now living with her baby daughter Uriel in the quiet Boston suburb of Cambridge. Friends have rallied round; even her tutor, the gravel-voiced English poet and academic Geoffrey Hill, gave her money to help out with the childcare costs. People have given her American baby clothes with "Princess" written across them. She has been troubled by vivid dreams of Raffaello. If Uriel stares delightedly at some featureless corner of the room, Meg will sometimes say, half to herself, "maybe he's here".

Her bookshelves are full of poetry and her conversation revolves around its comforting parameters. Many of her books are inscribed: one from Selima Hill reads "with happy memories of a pupil who will go far, FAR!" She clearly revels in the world of campus poetry circles. But as she admits, a life spent studying for successive degrees has not prepared her for her current predicament.

Meanwhile, the Savoys must decide how to respond. Will they, as has been suggested, try to get custody of the child? Will the last Queen of Italy change her will so the baby cannot inherit? Will Bozza succeed in establishing an "estate" and will Meg co-operate with his plans? Or will Meg struggle through the last 18 months of her PhD and find her independence - "go back to Ohio or somewhere, and teach at a little college and bring up Uriel away from all of them"? She may decide to press a case for libel against Maria-Beatrice through the Italian courts. Should she sell the story to fund her degree, or try to settle with the Savoys? There's a strong sense that she is caught up in forces beyond her control. The rapacious machinery of the press sweeps her along. The cold revenge of rejected sovereigns presses down on her. Strangers breathe on her windows.

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