A ROYALIST, philatelist, Muslim and former US officer, Bruce Conde (alias Alfonso Yorba, Hajji Abdurrahman and General Bruce Alfonso de Bourbon, Prince of Conde) was a prominent figure in monarchist and Arabist circles.
When I first approached him in 1984 regarding the plight of a member of the Kuwaiti ruling family, Conde was living in Tangier in a remote corner of the casbah. Wearing a Moroccan jallabiyah and astrakhan cap, he plied me with mint tea and talked for hours in a study piled high with books, manuscripts and photographs; and I soon became conscious not only of his astonishingly detailed knowledge of things Arabic, Islamic and royal but also of his knack of manipulating facts in order to wrap myths around his own persona.
Though his origins are uncertain, it seems that he was first called Chalmers, having been orphaned and adopted in California, where he was born in 1913. Later, he left his foster-parents and called himself 'Yorba' and then 'Conde', the latter being the name of his grandmother's family, through whom he claimed descent from France's erstwhile kings.
After reading Spanish at the University of California (UCLA), he entered the US armed forces. His wartime service involved counter-intelligence work and yielded many adventures in Europe and Japan. But his heyday did not begin until 1958 when he moved to the northern Yemen.
His love of that land, then still a feudal kingdom, began in his boyhood when he wrote to its fearsome ruler, Imam Ahmad, asking for a pen-friend with whom to swap stamps. A reply came from the secretary of the Imam's son: 'His Majesty has commanded me to be your friend.' Thus began the association that ultimately secured his appointment as director of Yemeni propaganda and postal affairs.
In the latter capacity his philatelic skills aroused the jealousy of the Minister of Communications, who brought about his deportation amid charges of espionage. An adroit survivor, Conde moved to what is now the United Arab Emirates, where he established Sharjah's first post office and designed its stamps. On one of these he displayed a map of Sharjah with generously extended frontiers, a gesture that charmed the ruler but enraged his neighbours.
In 1962 Conde returned to the Yemen following a realignment of local forces. The recent death of Imam Ahmad had thrown the country into turmoil. The new ruler, Muhammad al-Badr, was opposed by rivals in his family, while the entire dynasty was threatened by republican opposition backed by President Nasser of Egypt. Conde proved his loyalty by fighting alongside the royalists in a protracted guerrilla war.
Though Conde rose to the rank of a Yemeni general, he remained an enthusiastic philatelist and, as a Muslim convert and former Roman Catholic, advertised his ecumenism by issuing stamps bearing Vatican paintings of biblical episode in which Christian beliefs are compatible with Islam. A later stamp shows Conde seeking Vatican support for the Imam during Pope Paul VI's pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1964.
After the Republicans' victory and the exile of the Imam in 1970, Conde settled in Spain, where he pursued his historical researches and acquired a former royal residence. In 1980 he moved to Morocco and four years later he adopted Alexis Dolgorouky, an alleged prince and author of a highly controversial book, Moi Petit-Arriere-Fils du Tsar. The Spanish press published lively accounts of these developments and of Conde's marriage to Alexis' mother, Princess (sic) Beatrice. Her father, declared Conde, was Volodar (king) of Ukraine and her grandmother Marie, daughter of Nicholas II of Russia.
Curiously, these claims attracted supporters even within some royal houses. Though research alone could yield a just verdict, it was clear when I last saw Conde that he was finding it hard to sustain his position. Ill, stateless and apparently unable to leave Morocco, he felt alone in the drab Tangerine suburb where he was now living with another adopted son and his family. Later I heard that he had fallen out with that 'son' and with Alexis too.
Albeit a kindly man, seeking love no less than admiration, Conde is accurately described in David Holden's Farewell to Arabia: 'He was an odd and slightly pathetic figure, somewhat out of his time and depth. Nervous, even in full flow, he seemed to belong nowhere and to be yearning romantically for the impossible.'