Gloria Takes Manhattan: Gloria von Thurn und Taxis

Culture » Travel » Gloria Takes Manhattan: Gloria von Thurn und Taxis

Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis at the Princely Brewery at St. Emmeram.

Gloria Takes Manhattan: Gloria von Thurn und Taxis

It might be said that there are two types of people in this world: those who know the number of rooms in their homes and those who don’t. Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, whose main residence is the enormous Schloss St. Emmeram, in the German city of Regensburg, falls into the latter category. The ancestral palace—which adjoins a former Benedictine monastery dating from the eighth century and is said to be one of the largest private homes in Europe—has 150,000 square feet of parquet floors, an 18th-century rococo ballroom with 23-foot ceilings, and 400 clocks. The number of rooms is estimated at 500, though it’s hard to pin down an exact figure. “Nobody has ever really counted,” Gloria says with a shrug.

But at her new loft in New York’s Chelsea, where her neighbors include an outpost of the fast-food chain Chipotle and the gay bar Splash, the number of rooms is easier to ascertain. There are five: a large kitchen/dining/living area, three bedrooms and an office. The place seems even smaller, the Princess claims, because of the open layout. “It feels like a one-bedroom,” says Gloria, who’s sipping coffee in the apartment and wearing a pair of bright orange slacks, a purple cashmere sweater and a strand of pearls. “If there are other people here, you have no privacy.” When her sister, Maya Schoenburg, and her family stayed over recently, Gloria found it hard to get much done. “Family life in a loft is, I think, a disaster,” she says.

Not that she has any intention of giving up the place. A widow and the mother of three grown children, Gloria, 50, usually lives alone during her New York sojourns, and she says she prefers it that way. She likes running her own errands—you might find her shopping for groceries at Garden of Eden on 14th Street—and has considered buying a motorcycle, like the one she has in Regensburg, for zooming solo around the city.

“What I like about New York is I’m totally independent,” Gloria says. “Life at the castle is wonderful, and it’s wonderful to have staff, but I also like the way it is here. I am not an old lady yet. I like to be free.”

Freedom is a surprisingly new concept in the life of Princess Gloria, despite her well-known past as a madcap socialite. Married at age 20 to a distant cousin—the decadent, 53-year-old Prince Johannes, scion of the family that founded Europe’s postal system in the 15th century—Gloria spent much of the Eighties playing the frivolous, globe-trotting party girl, though many believe she was mostly living up to Johannes’s rather peculiar idea of how a wife should behave. It was during this time that Gloria earned the nickname Princess TNT, with her multicolored hair, wacky couture outfits and outrageous antics, such as her barking-dog imitation, which she once performed on Late Night With David Letterman. But after Johannes’s death in 1990, Gloria unexpectedly retreated to Regensburg and transformed herself into a disciplined hausfrau and estate manager, raising her three children and shoring up the family’s billion-dollar fortune through astute sales of land, silver and other holdings. Her next surprise: becoming a devout Catholic and living part-time in Rome, where she could be closer to her friend Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.

Today Princess Gloria is as religious as ever—she goes to Mass every day, even in Chelsea—but it’s clear that New York is having a liberating effect, as it has on so many old-world aristocrats before her. She speaks of an “extreme widening of the horizons” in Manhattan, where she spends a couple of months every year.

Her daughter Princess Elisabeth, a writer and editor based in London, says Gloria initially had some concerns about life in the downtown loft. “She was worried about feeling lonely, about waking up and having no one to make breakfast,” says Elisabeth, 28. “But buying this apartment is the best thing she could have done. In New York she becomes so much more adventurous and outgoing.” When Elisabeth visits, the two hit the art galleries and flea markets, bargaining hard for baubles and glassware. “Once we got some jewelry in Brooklyn for Christmas presents,” Elisabeth remembers, “and she said, ‘Oh, my God, this is so cheap, we are practically stealing. We should go to confession.’”

Gloria has no shortage of homes around the world—there’s an apartment in Rome, a beach compound in Kenya and a sprawling lake house in Bavaria—but she says none of those locales offer anything close to the stimulation of New York, where she finds herself choosing among a half dozen invitations and events each day. During one typical stay last fall, in the hours when she wasn’t going to Mass or seeing museum and gallery shows, she dressed up as a clown and partied at Allison Sarofim’s raucous Halloween bash, and cooked dinner at home for 12, including artist Terence Koh and director Lee Daniels.

Gloria bought the Chelsea property in 2006, using some of the $8 million she’d received from auctioning off part of her contemporary art collection at Phillips de Pury. “It’s always dangerous to have some cash,” says Gloria, whose direct gaze, go-get-’em manner and short, simple haircut lend her the air of a particularly well-born soccer coach. She bought an entire floor, converting two apartments into an open-plan, 4,200-square-foot space.

While furnishing the place, she vowed to import as little as possible from Europe. “Here in New York you can get everything that you want, at any time,” she says. “Then again, I don’t want to buy everything new and shiny. I like to buy stuff that has lived.”

That explains the mix of furniture and objects from the Forties through the Sixties, including many of her flea-market scores. “You cannot have enough vases,” Gloria says, gesturing around the room at various examples of colorful vintage glassware, “because if you’re popular and you have male friends, they will occasionally bring you flowers—some with long stems, others with short. And I’m not going to go out and buy new vases, because they’re all ugly.”

Although she got some advice from friends, including production designer Kevin Thompson, Gloria did the apartment herself. “I didn’t work with a decorator at all. And that’s why there are some mistakes,” she notes, pointing to a set of Martin Szekely chairs that she reupholstered in a muddy brown wool—an unfortunate choice, as it turned out. (The chairs will be redone.) She has had better luck with her Jean-Michel Othoniel chandelier, George Nelson lamps and a 14-seat Chester Jones dining table that she bought at Christie’s in London.

Since the early Eighties, Gloria has been a voracious art collector, and the opulent private quarters of her castle in Regensburg are loaded with big-ticket Hirsts, Koonses and Murakamis. In New York, where the backdrop is more contemporary, she favors American artists and artworks with local references. A video piece by Bill Viola is installed near the sitting area, while the dining room is dominated by a large Thomas Ruff photograph of the Empire State Building. Above Gloria’s bed are three crucifixes by Ed and Nancy Kienholz, mixed-media compositions with kitschy portraits of Jesus mounted on toy wagon handles. “I like contemporary art with Christian iconography,” says Gloria, pointing out Andy Warhol’s Christ $9.98, a rendering of an inexpensive Jesus night-light, which hangs beneath a gigantic mirrored skull by Christoph Steinmeyer.

Much has been made of Gloria’s so-called conversion to Catholicism. She remarks that she was baptized and raised in the church, but admits there was a crucial turning point when she struck up a friendship with a high-ranking German cardinal, Joseph Alois Ratzinger, who’d been born not far from Regensburg. Gloria had her first sighting of Ratzinger almost three decades ago, when he preached at St. Emmeram Church. He was a saint, she decided, and she vowed to get close to him. “But these people have other things to do than to meet with a young socialite,” she says. “Especially one with maybe not the best reputation.” After Johannes died, however, Gloria began inviting the cardinal to say Mass in Regensburg, and by 2000 she’d bought a place in Rome, where, with her friend Alessandra Borghese, she started hosting exclusive religious salons and liturgical concerts. Five years later Ratzinger became pope, and Gloria had a friend in a very high place.

Early on her children wondered where all this devotion was coming from. “It seemed maybe like one of her phases,” says Elisabeth. “We used to tease her that she’d gone from being a prince groupie to a pope groupie. But gradually she became much more serious and devoted.”

Today Gloria seems to have little trouble reconciling her friendship with the Holy Father and her penchant for jetset living and other secular thrills. “Few people reach that level where your life and the teaching of the church are really in balance,” she explains. “That’s the nature of Catholicism. But it’s a very happy religion, because you’re never left alone with your shortcomings. Everyone in the world sins, thinks badly, does bad stuff. But if you have the church, it is there to reconcile you. It’s a great misunderstanding to think that we have to be perfect.”

As modern and free-spirited as Gloria can sometimes appear, when it comes to certain aspects of church doctrine, her values seem to come right out of Regensburg’s medieval cloister. For one thing, she’s against allowing women to help celebrate Mass—even as altar servers, a practice that the vast majority of bishops condone. “Who wants women on the altar? I don’t think it’s necessary,” she declares. “It’s like the women are trying to get anywhere men are. To be honest, I think it’s tacky.” In searching for a New York parish, Gloria dismissed several—including St. Patrick’s Cathedral—as being too liberal. She finally settled on St. Vincent de Paul in Chelsea, which has a largely Caribbean congregation and offers Sunday services in French.

Gloria’s traditional side further emerges at Schloss St. Emmeram, where I paid a brief visit last summer for the opening of the popular Regensburg Palace Festival, a music and theater event that helps pay for upkeep on the castle. Each season thousands of people fill the bleachers in the castle courtyard to see acts ranging from the esteemed tenor Jonas Kaufmann to the Abba Mania touring show. Opening night last year featured an elaborate production of Aida, complete with a cast of 250 and four camels. At Gloria’s invitation most of Bavaria’s social, artistic and political elite turned up, along with dozens of photographers eager to capture a rare appearance of the Princess in public with her children. “It’s important to my mother that we come, so we all come,” said 26-year-old Prince Albert, who mimed a military salute as Gloria, posing for photographers in a dirndl, broke with protocol to ham it up with a camel.

The schloss itself, with its solemn arcades, gilded salons and marble stairways, is dazzling, despite many inevitable concessions to modernity (much of the castle is now run as a museum and rented out for events). “Of course, you can never make enough money to keep up a place like this,” says Gloria. “But you can help.” To pump up ticket sales for the festival, she usually performs in one show herself; this time she was playing the schoolteacher in Pippi Longstocking. She spends most mornings in Regensburg overseeing the castle’s finances and community programs, including a soup kitchen that provides 300 free meals daily.

Observed from afar Gloria might seem to harbor enough disparate personalities to make Sybil look one-dimensional, but her friends insist that each of her many faces is real. Literary agent David Kuhn, a frequent companion in New York, theorizes that Gloria is one of those rare people who are dynamic enough to lead several parallel lives yet savvy enough to keep them compartmentalized. Not all of her socialite pals, for example, realize that she’s a fiercely competitive windsurfer. “If you were interested in windsurfing, she would bond with you intensely over it,” says Kuhn. “If you weren’t, she’d probably never bring it up. You’d never know that this culture vulture also enjoys spending all day in the ocean.”

One passion that Gloria has relinquished is the fashion addiction that once kept her swathed in Thierry Mugler and Claude Montana. “If you want to have a certain look, you have to have the figure to go with it,” explains Gloria, who gained some weight after retiring from the Eighties social scene. “Also, you have to have the money to spend. It was different when my husband paid for all my clothes.” (Prince Albert gained control of the family’s $2 billion fortune when he turned 18.) “Now I’m a widow, and I have an income which lets me live comfortably, but I surely don’t have the budget of the heir of Thurn und Taxis.” Meanwhile, Albert—who’s currently studying for his Ph.D. in philosophy—has completed his gradual transition from awkward teenager to handsome prince–cum–race car driver, and is perennially mentioned as one of Europe’s most eligible bachelors. (His eldest sister, Maria Theresia, 29, is an artist; Elisabeth works at Finch’s Quarterly Review.)

Although you won’t find Gloria competing with her children for mentions in Hello! or trying to squeeze into Elisabeth’s Balenciaga, occasionally she still dresses up and parties like it’s 1985. At a rollicking black-tie soirée at Maxim’s in Paris a few weeks ago, a joint 50th-birthday bash for Gloria and art dealer Thaddaeus Ropac, she turned up in vintage pink Pierre Cardin and hopped onto the stage to belt out the soul classic “Hard to Handle.” That prompted Lee Radziwill to hit the dance floor with Mario Testino as Tatiana Santo Domingo and Lord Rothschild looked on.

These days, though, the Princess’s wardrobe tends toward no-­nonsense. When it comes to Gloria’s appearance, Elisabeth says that her mother probably has the same insecurities as any 50-year-old woman but that she’s accepting middle age with a pragmatic kind of grace. Of her peers who battle fate with too much surgery or too-tight jeans, Gloria says, “it’s really a shame. Because it means that they’re not happy in their skin. I love getting older. I think it has fabulous advantages, like being self-assured. What were we insecure about in our 20s and 30s? I thought that nobody took me seriously, that everybody must realize immediately that I’m a total fool. When I came into a room, it was like, Oh, my God, can I deal with this? Today, I don’t care.”

Perhaps because New York is a city teeming with brazen social strivers, it has always welcomed those rare beings who are rich enough, royal enough or just plain kooky enough to really be themselves, with no apparent compunction to please or to seduce. Princess Gloria, at 50, may be one of those lucky few. Currently single, she says she’s not in the market for a mate. Certainly not a husband, who might make the loft seem a bit crowded.

“I cannot imagine being married,” Gloria says. “I don’t need that because I have the children already. So I can still enjoy life and travel and do what I want. I have no strings attached to me.”

See More Who