11 SEPTEMBER 1993, Page 40

High life

Drama on the high seas


If this isn't the best royal scandal of the summer, I'm the financial adviser to Princess Margaret. And it took place right here, on the island of Spetse, very near the spot where once upon a time the greatest Greek writer since Aristophanes was sand- bagged by a septuagenarian Circe. But let's start at the beginning.

Robert de Balkany is a successful prop- erty developer in France, and known among the jet set for the lavish parties he used to throw in his chateau west of Paris, for his private polo field where he staged tournaments which he ran with Teutonic- style efficiency, for the summer cruises on his yacht for minor royals and — of course — for his dizzying ride to the top during a time when social mountaineering was hard- er than going up Everest without an oxygen tank.

I first met Robert in the late Fifties, a short time after he had become de Balka- ny. His real name was Robert Zellinger, and he was the son of Aladar Zellinger, a Hungaro-Rumanian Jewish businessman who settled in France after the war. Young Bobby Zellinger went to Yale, but by the time I met him he had changed his name, although his father had not.

Robert first married an attractive and well-born girl by the name of Genevieve Francois-Ponce, daughter of the French ambassador to Hitler's Berlin, as distin- guished a diplomat as there could be. Two of her brothers were buddies of mine and she came to dinner chez moi only last week. To say the family was overjoyed at Genevieve's wedding would be stretching it, but the couple had two daughters and entertained lavishly. I saw a lot of them, especially Robert, as I had begun to play polo with him.

Balka's hero was Stavros Niarchos, and he fashioned himself after the Greek tycoon. He did not quite succeed, however. His boat was smaller, his houses were run without the great art of Stavros's and his staff was not even close to that of the Gold- en Greek.

Then he met Maria-Gabriella, daughter of the last king of Italy, and left Genevieve for her. I thought it crazy at the time, because Ella, as King Umberto's second daugher was known, was a giraffe-like crea- ture, unlike Genevieve. The wedding took place in the south of France and the best present — a Rolls-Royce — came from Niarchos. Soon, however, things turned sour, and after a daughter was born they divorced.

Two years ago, upon reaching 60, Balka quit polo, but continued to cruise. His guests were always German and Austrian princelings, some of them so inbred that kind Greek islanders would offer them goat chins. Last month, however, things seemed to be getting better. On board were Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, Olivi- er Fouret and his wife, and a French princess.

Then disaster struck. During a cosy din- ner on board off Spetse, Princess Michael asked casually what Robert's name was before he became de Balkany.

Balka went ballistic. 'And what was your name? Troubridge, I believe,' he thun- dered. 'And what about your old man, the Nazi prison guard?' he continued. `How dare you!' was Marie-Christine's response. As you can guess, the atmosphere became electric. Balka decided he ought to apologise, but tempers flared again and he ended up by telling her to get off the boat forthwith.

After breakfast, Prince Michael — who had not understood too well what was going on — and the Austrian got off the boat and checked into a hotel in the Spetse port. A kind Anglo-Greek, Peter Paine, ran into them and tried to get them billeted in a Greek house which, alas, was full. Finally a helicopter arrived and they were whisked off to some unknown Greek's boat and more salubrious cruising. When the Balka- ny party went ashore to visit a Greek house, they were all the soul of discretion, but one little bird heard and saw it all and rang the Speccie.

Oh well, there are lots more princesses around, and lots of yachts. But there's an obvious lesson here for Marie-Christine: never ask a self-made noble what his name was before his blood turned blue. And the same goes, of course, for Balkany.