One of the long running relationships of our family business was with the Nilens firm in Belgium. This family concern manufactured pile driving and other construction equipment. In January 1965 we were expecting a visit from their principal, Willy Nilens. What we got was a call from New York telling us that he, his colleague George van de Velde, their wives and Belgian Prince Alexandre de Rethy were arriving in Palm Beach in a few days. Needless to say, this was an “all hands on deck” kind of situation for us. In addition to a fishing trip and other activities, we organised a proper reception for the Prince–the half brother of then King Baudoin–at the Colony. (The Prince’s own family story is fascinating; a summary is at the end of the post.)
The reception at the Colony. Prince Alexandre is in the foreground, to the left of the “gap” in the table. clockwise from the Prince is my mother Mrs. Vernell Warrington, Mr. Willy Nilens, Mrs. Wiggs, Mr. Georges van de Velde, Mrs. Rolande Nilens, my father Mr. Henry Warrington, Mrs. Marguerite van de Velde, Mr. Earle Evans (my father’s sales manager,) Mrs. Lee Evans, and Mr. Ken Wiggs, whose construction company built our offices and plant in Florida. Standing in the back is “Van,” the Colony’s maitre d’ and a Belgian himself. (Photo by Mort Kaye Studios, Palm Beach)
The Prince also came to our home. Knowing what a pair of troublemakers my brother and I (11 and 9 at the time) could be, at the appointed time we were summoned from our rooms, introduced to His Highness, and sent immediately packing for the duration.
The suddenness of this royal visit invites comparison to the most important upcoming royal visit of all–the return of our King, Jesus Christ, to the earth. In the meanwhile, for me the concept of royalty in the subtropics has been something impossible to forget, a combination well documented in The Island Chronicles.
In 1935 Queen Astrid of Belgium died during a trip to Switzerland, leaving King Leopold III with three children. Her death devastated her husband. His mourning was complicated by the German invasion and occupation of Belgium in 1940; he remained while the government went to London to set up a government in exile. In the meanwhile Leopold met and fell in love with Lilian Baels, daughter of a prominent Flemish attorney, businessman and governor of West Flanders. They were married in the Catholic church 11 September 1941, but not in civil ceremony until 6 December 1941. Putting the religious ceremony first won Leopold the enmity of the secularists (the same people who banned Muslim headscarves and large crosses from French schools.)
Alexandre was born on 18 July 1942 while his parents were virtual prisoners of the Nazis in their own palace in Brussels. In 1944 the family was forcibly moved to Germany, where it lived until the end of the war.
Leopold’s return to reigning as King was complicated by the controversy that surrounded both his and Princess Lilian (and her family’s) relationship with the Germans during the war. In 1950 a referendum confirmed that the majority of Belgians wanted Leopold to continue as King, but the divisions were both deep and complicated by the linguistic division that always makes things messy in Belgium. Later the same year Leopold abdicated in favour of his son Baudoin.
In 1957 Alexandre underwent heart surgery. That experience caused his parents to become lifelong patrons of cardiac medicine. In 1991 he married Lea Wolman.
Update, 1 December 2009: Prince Alexandre passed away 29 November 2009 at the age of 67.