Obituary: Queen Alexandra of Yugoslavia
Tuesday 02 February 1993
ALEXANDRA was the widow of Peter II, the last King of Yugoslavia. But as Queen she only once entered 'Yugoslavia', at Claridge's Hotel in London on 17 July 1945 where she gave birth to Peter's heir, Crown Prince Alexander. In order that the baby could claim Yugoslav nationality, the Foreign Office allowed King George VI to declare her suite of rooms Yugoslav territory for that day only.
This was to prove one of the few happy events in a largely unhappy marriage. When she met the 19- year-old Peter in London in 1942 he had already been King of Yugoslavia for seven and a half years, following the assassination of his father King Alexander by a Macedonian terrorist in 1934. Until March 1941 his uncle Prince Paul acted as Regent, but when his government - under the threat of Nazi invasion - ended Yugoslav neutrality by signing the anti- Comintern pact, he was overthrown in a coup and Peter declared of age. On 6 April an enraged Hitler attacked Yugoslavia and Peter was flown to Greece, then to London.
Although he had the protection of his godfather George VI, Peter was ill-prepared for exile. By contrast Alexandra, whom he first met in March 1942 at a tea party given by the Allied Officers' Club in Grosvenor House, had been an exile almost all her life. She was the daughter of King Alexander of Greece, who died in 1920 from blood-poisoning after being bitten by his pet monkey. Five months later Alexandra was born, and when Greece was declared a republic in 1924 she and her mother, Princess Aspasia, were advised to leave the country.
Alexandra's childhood and adolescence followed the same rootless pattern of other exiled European royal families. She and her mother drifted from Italy to London, before settling in Paris in 1935 at the Hotel Crillon. Her second cousin Prince Philip, later Duke of Edinburgh, was another Greek exile, and they shared several holidays together at the homes of relatives. In 1936, when she and Philip were briefly in Athens for a memorial service (the monarchy having been restored), he fell ill after eating a lobster. 'Sandra, I feel sick,' he said to her in church, before neatly vomiting into his top hat, which he passed to his ADC.
Unlike Philip, who loved Gordonstoun, Alexandra hated the girl's boarding school she was sent to, Heathfield. Initially her mother refused to take her away, but she gave in after Alexandra simply stopped eating. The doctor feared for her life, and she was removed to Switzerland and then Paris, where she was placed in a finishing school.
Soon afterwards, Alexandra's unhappy adolescence was completed when she received a marriage proposal from King Zog of the Albanians. Zog had never met Alexandra but, according to the Albanian diplomat who was despatched to press his suit, he had fallen in love the first time he had seen her photograph. Alexandra's mother thought her daughter was too young, and was relieved when King George II of Greece refused permission for the match.
Alexandra encountered further parental resistance when she and King Peter decided to marry in wartime London - this time from Peter's mother, Queen Marie of Yugoslavia. It took the approval of King George VI and the prime minister, Winston Churchill, before the wedding took place in March 1944. Churchill may have had a bad conscience, because he had already decided to switch support in Yugoslavia from the royalist 'Home Army', led by General Mihailovich, to the Communist partisans led by Tito. In June 1944, under severe British pressure, Peter was compelled to disband his government in exile, and eventually abolish the position of Chief of Staff of the High Command, which he held jointly with Mihailovich. Following a rigged election in November 1945, the Communists took power and the first act of the Constituent Assembly was to abolish the monarchy.
Peter never recovered from what he saw as a betrayal, and the rest of his life was a relentless decline. The Communists had seized virtually all the immense fortune of the Yugoslav royal family, and Peter was reduced to selling Alexandra's jewels to make ends meet. He spent most of their remaining capital in the US on a shipping venture which never took off, and a scheme to start a plastics factory. By the late 1940s he was also seeing other women and Alexandra decided to return with her son to Europe.
There were several attempts at reconciliation, but in October 1953 Peter sued for divorce in Paris on the grounds of desertion. This prompted Alexandra, by now bankrupt, to make a half-serious suicide attempt by slashing her wrists. A doctor arrived in time and the divorce petition was rejected; but the marriage never recovered. Peter soon returned to the US, where he became an alcoholic and died prematurely in 1970. Alexandra settled as a private citizen in England. Her autobiography, For a King's Love, was published in 1960, and a biography of her cousin Prince Philip in 1959.
Their son, Alexander, has not taken the title of King, but aspires to play some role in Yugoslav politics. In October 1991 he visited Belgrade for a religious service, and returned again the following summer. He has said that he wishes to help reconcile the warring parties. Given his family's Serb identity, this appears a futile hope.
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