Ex-beauty queen who is lording it over Spaniards

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SHE WAS a beauty queen who ran off to Hollywood, became Tarzan's real-life Jane and was ostracised in her own country after a disastrous marriage and an illegitimate child. But now that the former Miss Spain is Baroness Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza de Kaszan, fifth wife of naturalised-Swiss steel magnate Baron Heinrich Thyssen, and one of Spain's seriously rich, the boot, or golden slipper, is very much on the other foot.

Despite that tongue-twisting title, everyone in Spain knows the baroness by her nickname and maiden name, 'Tita' Cervera. She is no longer snubbed, but no one, except perhaps the King and Queen, invites Tita to parties. As with a queen, you wait until she asks you.

Last week, the Dutch-born baron, after several years of arm- twisting by his wife, finally signed over his breathtaking art collection to Spain for dollars 350m ( pounds 230m). The money gives Spain the right to keep the collection, one of the world's greatest, for nine-and-a- half years. The collection went to Spain despite a plea from the Prince of Wales to house it in Britain.

After long and difficult negotiations with the Spanish government - pushed by the Baroness, who is 'a bulldozer when it comes to friendly persuasion', according to a friend - the Thyssens also gained Madrid's restored 18th- century Villahermosa Palace. But this joint foundation deal with the government led to friction between Spain's culture and economy ministries, the latter wondering how to 'sell' the deal to the public in the run-up to June's general elections, when everyone was being asked to tighten their belts.

On the very day last week when the 72-year-old baron picked up his cheque for dollars 350m (the government, badly in the red, had to take out a loan to finance it) Spain's workers were asked to take a 6 per cent cut in salary over the next three years. If the baroness had not already pushed the deal through, it might well have been scuppered by an angry nation. Already known as the Thyssen Museum, the Villahermosa palace, only 200 yards from the renowned Prado, has been displaying most of the collection's 715 paintings since last October. The baron described it as the third leg of a 'magic triangle' - including the Prado and the Queen Sofia Museum, where Picasso's 'Guernica' is on show - that gives Madrid a fair claim to the title of art museum capital of the world.

The collection includes paintings by Canaletto, Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens, Velazquez, El Greco, Goya, Van Gogh, Monet and Picasso. Sixty further works will go on show next month in the baroness's home town of Barcelona. The Madrid museum has been masterfully designed, the marble floors and stucco walls chosen by the baroness herself for the required mix of coolness in sweltering summers and warmth during the winters.

But the work of the baroness herself is not represented in the museum. Instead, she uses her own landscapes to decorate the bathroom in their La Moraleja mansion near Madrid. Her favourite Gauguin, however, suffers no such ignominy: it has pride of place above the marital bed.

The petunia-dotted garden at La Moraleja, which the baroness supervises, has best been described as a golf course. If the couple tire of strolling round it, they can always return to the Villa Favorita in Lugano, where the baron used to keep his paintings; or to one of many residences in London, Paris, Marbella or Bermuda, where the family foundation, Favorita Trustees Ltd, is based.

'Tita' says she was born on 23 April 1948, making her 45. But the Spanish press worked out that this would have made her 13 when she became Miss Spain, and discovered that she was born in 1943 and has quietly passed the big Five-O. She married American actor Lex Barker, best known for his screen Tarzan; was widowed; had a tumultuous marriage and divorce in Spain with a playboy actor called Espartaco Santoni; then gave birth to an illegitimate child, Borja, now 13, who lives with her and the baron.

(Photograph omitted)