The twentieth century was not particularly kind to Europe’s aristocratic dynasties, but Prinz Alfonso Ferdinand zu Hohenlohe-Langenburg, who has died aged 79, was not only a relic of empire but an empire builder. The profits from his Vokswagen concession in Mexico turned the sleepy Andalucian fishing village of Marbella into the hub of a vast tourist industry on Spain’s Costa del Sol.
Hohenlohe, the second son of Prince Maximilian and Piedita Yturbe, was proud that his paternal line could trace its genealogy the the Gaugrafen von der Tauber, 14 centuries ago. His mother’s title, Marquesa de Belvís, came from her Basque grandfather, who made a fortune in Mexico. Marrying into a more ancient nobility won her an invitation to the coronation of the last Russian Tsar and, for Alfonso, baptism in Madrid’s royal palace with King Alfonso XIII and Queen Victoria Eugenia for godparents.
The son did not inherit his mother’s shrewdness in matrimony and his numerous flings and misadventures kept gossip columnists in steady work. Nor did he inherit a vast family fortune, with the Great War, the Mexican revolution and the Spanish Civil War all taking their toll.
His childhood was spent in Spain (hence the usual form of his surname, ‘de’ Hohenlohe rather than von und zu) and in the ancestral palaces in Bohemia. Having mastered Spanish, French, German and English as a child, he travelled widely in Europe between the wars. Hohenlohe qualified in the USA as an agronomist, though it was only late in life that he put those skills to work as a wine grower.
In 1945, Hohenlohe began buying up cheap land around Marbella. Winning the lucrative concession for Volkswagen in Mexico in 1953, partnership in a Texas car dealership, and in the 1960s the Volvo franchise for Spain, funded further investments on the Andalucian coast. Cars were among his many passions: he was a keen rally driver and boasted that his father had owned the first Hispano-Suiza built. Tennis and painting were other enthusiasms.
Initially, by Hohenlohe’s account, he set out to cater for the elite end of the travel market, rather than transform the Costa del Sol into a byword for package tourism. The names he wanted in his guestbook were Rothschild, Metternich, Niarchos, Agnelli, al-Saud, Bismarck, the Aga Khan – and the emerging ‘jet set’ of Hollywood. With resorts like Biarritz and San Sebastián beginning to fade, Hohenlohe saw the potential for a wholly new luxury destination and his social status gave him a head start: close friends included his schoolmate, Rainier of Monaco, and the shipbuilder Aristotle Onassis. His circle in America included Howard Hughes, Bob Hope, Douglas Fairbanks, Gary Cooper, Liz Taylor and Frank Sinatra.
His flagship hotel complex, the Marbella Club, was joined by a string of restaurants, housing developments, hotels, sports clubs and other ventures. As head of the Costa del Sol Promoters’ Co-operative, he lobbied successfully for major infrastructural improvements in roads, airports and water supply. His conference and exhibition centre spurred the growth of Torremolinos as a mass market destination.
Over the past few decades, especially during the wretched reign of Marbella’s ex-mayor Jesús Gil, property development spiralled out of control on the Costa del Sol and Hohenlohe (who has a boulevard in Marbella named in his honour) must share part of the blame, however much he disparaged the speculative philistinism that came to prevail.
Hohenlohe took a close interest in every aspect of the hospitality industry, from the architecture to the menu, the layout of gardens or the room décor. He became involved as a consultant or a business partner in tourist developments from Florida to the Philippines, with interests in the Caribbean and the United Arab Emirates.
His public profile owed much to his turbulent private life. In Venice in 1955, after a whirlwind courtship, he married the teenage Princess Ira (Virginia Carolina Theresa Pancrazia Galdina zu) Fürstenberg, who bore him two sons, Christopher and Humbertus (an Olympic skier and singer), before abruptly running off with a Brazilian playboy. Hohenlohe pulled strings to have the marriage annulled by the Catholic church. Divorced in 1960, he had well-publicised affairs with Ava Gardner and Kim Novak before marrying the actress Jackie Lane in Las Vegas 1970. She bore him a daughter, Arriana, but the couple soon separated and were divorced in 1985.
Five years earlier, a romance with Swiss ex-model Heidi Balzer had produced another daughter, Desirée. In 1991, aged 67, he married for a third time. This proved a happy union but his Gibraltarian-British wife, Marilys Haynes, died suddenly in 2000.
After selling off most of his interests in Marbella town and his Volvo concession, Hohenlohe was diagnosed with prostate cancer three years ago and withdrew to some extent from the front line. He maintained a lively interest in the promotion of his award-winning Príncipe Alfonso wine label and other ventures, some of them controversial like a proposed new golf-centred village on the edge of the Doñana nature reserve.
The Spanish government decorated Hohenlohe with the Medal for Merit in Tourism a few days before his death on Saturday in his Marbella mansion.
Alfonso Ferdinand zu Hohenlohe-Langenburg, entrepreneur; born 28 May 1924; died 20 December 2003
(This was written for the Daily Telegraph - unsure whether it was published)