Tuesday, September 22, 2009

King Zog in America (1951)

A Frosina infobit

King Zog in America (1951)

Ahmed Bey Zogu, born in 1895, battled innumerable Balkan adversaries to consolidate control of his country after the First World War, became President in 1925, and declared himself King Zog I in 1928. For his coronation, he ordered an outfit that included rose-colored breeches, gold spurs, and a gold crown weighing seven and five-eighths pounds.

Zog's preoccupation once he was on the throne was how to stay alive. In 1931, he barely escaped assasination at the hands of two gunmen as he was leaving a performance of "Pagliacci" at the Vienna Opera House. His mother kept watch over the royal kitchen to make sure his food was not being poisoned. A virtual recluse in his capital city, Tirana, which in any case had neither night clubs nor theatres, Zog did little except play poker and smoke as many as a hundred and fifty perfumed cigarettes a day. Understandably, perhaps, shaking Europe's royal family trees for a queen yielded Zog no fruit. But his four sisters, each of them a division commander in the Albanian army and none of them married themselves, helped in the search, and he eventually found a penniless half-American, half-Hungarian countess, Geraldine Apponyi, who had been selling postcards in the Budapest National Museum for forty-five dollars a month. Her photograph captured Zog's heart, and they were married in 1938.

A year later, Italy invaded Albania, routing its thirteen thousand troops and two airplanes within forty-eight hours. Having fled to England with his family and a hefty portion of his country's gold, Zog watched from afar as Mussolini's Fascists and then Enver Hoxha's Communists took over his kingdom. Zog was formally deposed in absentia in 1946. Having temporarily moved to Egypt, he became friends with King Farouk while he pondered the serious question of where an ex-monarch could live.

He found the answer, he thought, during a 1951 tour of the United States: Knollwood, a sixty-room granite mansion that had been built on Long Island's North Shore in 1907. Zog bought it for $102,800 (not for " a bucket of diamonds and rubies," as some stories claimed at the time). Italian Renaissance in style, Knollwood boasted tall Ionic columns and a winding main stairway of Caen marble. Massive stone steps led down to vast reaches of landscaping, with gardens and reflecting pools. English ivy covered parts of wide terraces and also hung from marble fountains and urns. "A man must have a place to lay his head," the Times commented, "and if Zog feels he must have sixty rooms to do it in, that is his business."

Zog, it was announced, intended to turn Knollwood into his kingdom in exile. In its grounds would live Albanian subjects, working the land as his tenants. North Shore society, delighted at the prospect of royalty in its back yard, was soon flocking to Knollwood. At its gates, visitors were greeted by a bearded member of the Royal Guard: he would kiss their hands and turn them away.

Alas, Zog wanted to settle into the mansion with his entire court, of a hundred and fifteen, but the immigration authorities would allow him to bring only twenty into the country. Attempts to bribe the State Department failed, and in 1952 he was forced to pay $2,914 in taxes to save his property, having been unable to convince Nassau County that as a monarch he had sovereign immunity from such trifles. In 1955, he sold Knollwood, which had meanwhile suffered eight thousand dollars' worth of damage from vandals. The vandals thereupon converged on the estate in earnest, ripping it apart in search of treasure that was rumored to be buried in its grounds. The mansion was later demolished, and Zog spent his last days in a nearly empty villa on the French Riviera, with Queen Geraldine doing the housework. He died in 1961.

Excerpted from Muttontown's King, The New Yorker, pp. 33 & 34, September 11, 1989


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