Francesca von Habsburg: The It-girl who became an empress

She was a wild, pop star-dating good-time girl. Then she married the Archduke of Austria and life changed forever. But Francesca von Habsburg still knows how to throw a party, as Sholto Byrnes finds on a vodka-fuelled artistic voyage up the Danube
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But then Francesca von Habsburg is not your run-of-the mill imperial archduchess, starchy of manner (and collar) and shielded from the common horde by a bodyguard of fussy courtiers. Now, at 47, she is a leading figure in the art world, present at all the major biennales and international art fairs. And she has just launched Kuba, her most ambitious art project yet, in which a barge containing an installation by the Turkish artist Kutlug Ataman, is travelling up the Danube from the Black Sea to Vienna, stopping at six cities along the way.

The area is deeply significant to her, both through her own family and that of her husband, the Archduke Karl, who is the heir to a bewildering number of (sadly no longer existent) thrones, including those of Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, Croatia, Slovenia, Dalmatia, Transylvania, Galicia and Illyria.

But she used to be known as someone quite different. The daughter of the late Baron Hans-Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, considered the greatest art collector of his age and the possessor of a fortune in the billions, Francesca was educated at Le Rosey in Switzerland and then at St Martin's College of Art in London. She left two years into the course after an argument with her tutor, and soon "Chessie", as her friends called her, developed a reputation as one of the wildest party girls in 1980s London, trying her hand at acting, singing and modelling, living with the New Romantic pop icon Steve Strange, and being photographed at a ball displaying a notably free-spirited attitude towards underwear. Although that time is long gone, for many her name is still a byword for hedonism, fabulous wealth and seriously hard living.

"I had to live in this part of the world," the new Francesca tells me, slowly scissoring her legs in the pool while elaborating on her passion for Eastern Europe, an area which she feels is neglected and ignored by the West. "That was why I left London, particularly after 1989 [the year the Berlin Wall fell]. I changed my life after 10 years of living in England." She certainly did.

Looking back at that time, Strange describes the then Francesca von Thyssen as "the true love of my life". This was true love, New Romantic-style, however. "She knew I was bisexual and it was never a problem - we had an open relationship," he explains. "There was just one time that I became jealous. I came home after we'd had a big fight and discovered her in a very short nightgown, and Michael Douglas in the bathroom wrapped in one of my towels."

Francesca sang backing vocals for Strange's group, Visage, and went to the first Sex Pistols gig. Eventually she left him, unable to cope any longer with his drug abuse, but the party was not yet over. She dated Dodi Fayed, played elephant polo in India, and delighted in wearing outrageous outfits to dance the night away at Annabel's or the Camden Palace.

Then in 1985 she met the Dalai Lama and travelled with him, an experience she describes as having "completely changed" her perception of herself. (The old flatterer told her that her good fortune in this life must have been due to great works in a previous life, but also suggested that she would do even better things in her current incarnation.) She went on to organise an exhibition of Tibetan art at Villa Favorita, on her father's estate in Lugano, and later, at the age of 30, became a curator at her father's collection.

Around this time she started visiting the former Yugoslavia, by now a war zone, to help protect the magnificent heritage and artworks which were frequent casualties of the conflict. "I saw battles with my own eyes," she says. "I could not believe that a war could break out in our part of the world. And this was long before it spread into Bosnia Herzegovina."

It was so close that on one trip Francesca drove all the way from Lugano on a single tank of petrol. "I didn't have to refill," she remembers. "I paid the toll at the autobahn, and then 200 metres later I was at the front line. It was mad." She shakes her head, her expressive eyes staring hard into me as she recalls that terrible time. "I was in Zagreb when the refugees from Vukovar arrived," she says. "Every human right had been broken in that town. Buses of women and children were arriving, completely shellshocked. I'll never forget their faces." (omega)

The tensions that lie just beneath the surface in Eastern Europe - "there's massive denial about it," says Francesca - are part of what the Kuba project is about. Indeed, the project cannot avoid them, not least because the central artist, Ataman, is a member of the nation whose invading fleet sailed up the Danube in the 17th century to lay siege to Vienna; and some of the lands adjacent to the river have still not forgotten or forgiven. Kuba was supposed to dock in Belgrade, for instance, but Francesca was wary of the atmosphere there and decided to cancel the show. "They really, really hate the Turks in Serbia," she says. "They still complain bitterly about the invasion 400 years ago."

Some of the curators, artists, writers and academics who take part in the various events surrounding Kuba while it is in Budapest are also entertainingly dark about the region's prospects in the future. At an afternoon symposium at the Academy of Sciences, Professor Sorin Antohi from the Central European University warns of the area's "irrelevance". "A river of banality is flowing down the Danube," he says dramatically. "This area is doomed to be a museum." The symposium's moderator, the writer Konstantin Akinsha, is equally doomy when I speak to him later. "It's a museum for tourists," he agrees, adding, rather bizarrely: "Montenegro has become an independent resort. Club Med has a good chance to become the next government of the world."

This is the world in which Francesca now moves, and it would be very simple to paint hers as a life of two halves: the youthful partying, and the philanthropy of the adult years. Simple, but wrong. For one thing, those close to her have a habit of making the news for less worthy reasons. There was the massive and long-running feud which engulfed the family after her father Heinrich's fifth wife, a former Miss Spain named Tita Cervera, persuaded her husband to leave his collection to be resettled in Madrid. The court case ran for so long that the first judge quit early, declaring: "the amount of money which must have been wasted in this case is positively obscene". (It was eventually settled four years ago, producing a bonanza for the British lawyers who worked for either side.)

Although Francesca is, perhaps understandably, very concerned that her socialising should not overshadow her work, that does not stop her agreeing to appear in publications such as France's Point de Vue, a royalty-obsessed glossy whose fawning coverage makes Hello! look like the Economist. The truth is that the partying and the philanthropy continue to go hand in hand. She takes her work very seriously; and she adopts just as serious an attitude towards having fun.

The installation in Rousse, for instance, was a bar in the shape of Bulgaria by Nedko Solakov, at which the only alcohol served was vodka. Francesca was asked how much vodka should be provided. Well, she said, as there were 250 guests there should be 250 bottles; you really do need, she opined, a bottle per person if a party is to go with a swing. The main guest was the former prime minister and ex-king of Bulgaria, Simeon Saxe-Coburg. ("He's an old family friend, I've known him for 25 years," says Francesca casually.) The daughter of the late maestro Herbert von Karajan performed with her rock band; and the current prime minister showed up just before midnight.

Before our interview begins, I have to help tidy up after a peculiarly elaborate practical joke Francesca had played on her friend Todd Eberle, whose suite at the Gellert connects with hers. The previous night, after a late dinner at the Karpatia restaurant in Pest, Todd and most of the party went out to sample the city's nightlife. Francesca, meanwhile, returned to the hotel and removed everything from Todd's room - his bed was pushed out on to the balcony, the sofa next door to Francesca's room - so when Todd opened his door all that was left was a couple of lamps and a towel on the floor. Dedicated art patron she may be, but I'm not sure one can imagine a Charles Saatchi or a Peggy Guggenheim indulging in such antics.

Later in Budapest, friends of Francesca's arrive for the charity auction in aid of victims of the Danube flooding and the evening's entertainment. There's Bianca Jagger; Roy Orbison's widow, Barbara; the Royal Academy Secretary, Norman Rosenthal; the Missonis; and Europe's most dashing auctioneer, Simon de Pury, of Philips, de Pury & Company.

The day still promises several more rounds of dinner and partying, starting with Francesca's Turkish bath birthday party, about which I have to promise to write nothing. What I can report is that several Budapest hotels found themselves short of sheets the following day, as some guests had unaccountably neglected to pack their togas, and had to improvise for the occasion. Back in normal clothing, the festivities continue long into the night, first at dinner and (omega) then at a nightclub on an island in the Danube. The birthday girl, I hear later, stayed up until 7am.

She's a lot of fun, Francesca von Habsburg, I reflect when I return to London the next day - that is, when I am capable of reflection again. (Friends of Francesca warn that after spending three days with her, I will need careful looking after.) Her Kuba project is massive in both scope and hope, and some will want to throw stones at it merely because of her surname.

"There's always two sides to every coin," she says. "Having a name that rings a lot of bells, like this one does, is something that opens doors. Particularly in Hungary, because both my father-in-law [the Archduke Otto] and my father did tremendous amounts for this country during the crucial period before and after the end of Communist rule. But if you don't show any interest, they'll be polite, but distant."

She admits that the trip up the Danube is an experiment. "I feel confident enough to come up with ideas that no one's tried before, and see if they work," she told me in the pool. "This river project is a bit of that. This is a great part of the world, but it's looking for new answers." At the very least, a number of artists have received substantial patronage in countries where this is a rarity. And for those who still wish to see Francesca through the lens of her past as a wealthy party girl, she has a simple answer: "I'd much rather be out here on a barge."