He was a playboy king, she was the femme fatale who cast a spell upon him that ultimately cost him his throne. More than 60 years after they were exiled, their remains are being returned to the land they were forced to flee.
No, it's not the story of Britain's Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. It's the story of King Carol II of Romania and the voluptuous redhead who eventually became his third wife, Elena Lupescu.
Their story may not be familiar today, but back in the 1920s, the Romanian royal's liaison with a very common commoner was the talk of Europe.
"Carol and Lupescu were one of the big relationships of the interwar period, perhaps not as popular as Edward VIII and Wally Simpson, but one of the big romances of that day and age," says Paul Quinlan, a history professor at Providence College in Rhode Island and author of The Playboy King: Carol II of Romania.
Carol was chased off the throne in 1940 and the Romanian monarchy was abolished in December 1947, when his son, King Michael, was forced to abdicate. The return of Carol's remains in a way symbolizes the government's desire for a reconciliation with its past.
"I think they see this as a way of affirming that Romania's part of Europe," says Paul Michelson, a professor of history at Huntington College in Indiana and co-author of A History of Romania. "I think they [the government] are moving toward, in effect, normalizing relations with [Michael]."
The bodies of King Carol and Lupescu were being flown to Romania today from Portugal, where the couple lived in exile. They will reburied in a ceremony Friday at the monastery at Curtea de Arges, the final resting place of many other members of the Romanian royal family.
The plan to bring the remains home was initiated by Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, who became interested in the matter on a visit to Portugal in 2001. After consulting with former King Michael last November, Nastase's government began making the arrangements.
But the return doesn't mean Romanians are trying to rewrite history. Carol's reputation as a rotten ruler has not changed, and Lupescu, says Michelson, "was even more disliked than Elena Ceausescu" — the wife of brutal dictator Nicolae Ceausescu who was executed along with her husband on Christmas Day in 1989.
"You could say if bringing Carol back is a gesture toward Michael," says Michelson, "bringing Elena back is a reminder why Romania might be a republic."
Gave Up a Crown for Love …
Carol was the first Romanian king to be born on Romanian soil. His father's family were German princes who had been invited to take the throne in the mid-19th century. His mother was a British princess and a granddaughter of Queen Victoria.
With such a pedigree, Carol might have been expected to develop into a model monarch. But Carol, to the horror of the rest of the royal family, turned out to have a penchant for unsuitable women.
"The problem with Carol was that he gave up his throne for love — twice," says Quinlan. "He might be the only person in history to do it twice."
As a young man in World War I, Carol fell head over heels in love with a woman called Zizi Lambrino. She wasn't considered queen material, but that didn't stop Carol. He knew that he was jeopardizing his position as heir to the throne by contemplating marriage with a commoner, but he nevertheless deserted from the army and eloped with Zizi to Russia. Their marriage was declared invalid, and their son was considered illegitimate.
Carol may have been romantic, but fidelity wasn't necessarily his strongest suit. He was persuaded to leave Zizi and their baby, and was steered into a suitable marriage with a proper princess, Helen of Greece. Their son, the future King Michael, was born in 1921.
Not long thereafter, Carol met Elena Lupescu, the ex-wife of an army officer, "and from that time on he was under her spell," says Quinlan.
Carol was delighted with his new mistress, but the rest of the royal family didn't see it his way. "They were furious that Carol would run around with her," says Quinlan. "She was highly ambitious with a questionable background. … She was not considered to be a lady."
Her rather grasping nature aside, Lupescu was also disliked simply because she was Jewish. "There was a lot of anti-Semitism in Romania [at that time]," says Quinlan.
Despite the remonstrations of his family, Carol renounced his right to the throne and took off for Paris with Lupescu.
… But Changed His Mind
During the next five years, Carol's father, King Ferdinand, died and Carol's little son by Princess Helen became King Michael. Then, in 1930, Carol returned to Romania and announced that he was claiming the crown.
Carol promised that he would not bring Lupescu back to Bucharest, but it wasn't long before he reneged.
"She was part of the brains behind the throne, part of what was referred to as the camarilla," says Michelson. "This was a group of his cronies and flunkeys who basically robbed the country blind while Carol, of course, conducted a 10-year reign of trying to undermine the democratic system set up by his father after World War I."
Carol proceeded to make life so miserable for his wife that Princess Helen ended up leaving the country. Lupescu proceeded to enjoy the good life. "She lived like the mistress of a king should," says Quinlan.
Carol declared a dictatorship and overturned the constitution. "The new constitution was voted for in a public referendum by 99 percent of the electorate — 1 percent less than Saddam Hussein — and all political parties were suppressed, on the right and on the left," says Michelson.
Load Those Goodies on the Train
When World War II broke out, Carol's strategy was to try to play both sides to his own advantage. It didn't work.
"This kind of scheming zigzagging between the Nazis on the one hand, the Soviets on the other and the Western countries, France and Britain, on the third hand basically left all of them more or less disgusted with him," says Michelson.
Romania lost large pieces of territory to its neighbors, and that proved to be the last straw for the Romanian people. Carol abdicated in favor of his son.
"To save his own neck he agreed to abdicate and in return was allowed to load up a train with various goodies," says Michelson. These "goodies" were said to include several valuable paintings, including a collection of El Grecos, and many other works of art.
Carol and Lupescu eventually settled down in Portugal and were finally married in 1949 (he had been divorced from the long-suffering Princess Helen). Carol declared that his new wife should be known as "Princess Elena," which gave her a certain cachet in café society.
In 1953, Carol died of a massive heart attack. Lupescu lived on for nearly 25 years more, presumably enjoying the remains of the fortune they took out of Romania.
Snubbed in the Afterlife
Now, six decades after Carol fled on the treasure-laden train, his son, former King Michael, has regained some of the royal properties that were seized when the communists took power. Mircea, Carol's illegitimate son with Zizi Lambrino, and his son, "Prince Paul," have also put in claims for a share of the royal property.
As for Carol, his earthly property will now come down to a tomb in the chapel at the royal necropolis at Curtea de Arges. Lupescu, still snubbed by her royal in-laws, will be buried in a separate crypt some distance away.
Carol, despite his poor political and marital record, seems to have escaped the brunt of the opprobrium, which instead has settled on Lupescu. That's not strictly fair, says Michelson.
He believes Lupescu has gone down in history as a more infamous figure, in part, because people would rather believe their monarch is not culpable, but rather influenced by corrupt advisers.
"I think that part of that goes back to an Eastern European and Russian tradition that the king or the czar is a good guy but the people around them are bad," Michelson says. "I think secondly, there's the anti-Semitic element. She's Jewish."
Lupescu's reputation may also suffer because of "some level of distaste for women in politics," says Michelson. And she's not the only woman to get the brunt of the blame when a man is equally guilty, he says.
"Under Ceausescu, people hated Elena more than they did Nicolae, and attributed to her the masterminding of all sorts of evil which I think he was just as good at himself."