Daughter of the Spanish dictator who kept a firm grip on the family fortune, was imitated by the Stranglers and danced with Kennedy
January 1 2018, 12:01am, The Times
Carmen Franco, who was known as Carmencita, in 1965
Carmen Franco, who was known as Carmencita, in 1965
“To me, he’s just daddy,” Carmen Franco would say lightly if quizzed about the ruthless dictatorship of her father, General Francisco Franco.
She was the only child of the fascist leader who, with an iron grip, ruled Spain from 1939 until his death more than three decades later.
Little Carmen — or Carmencita as she was known, to distinguish her from her mother, Carmen — never forgot the day when she was aged ten and her father instructed her to dress in a white, frilly frock and chirrup a loving message for the children of Spain.
The Stranglers later used her words on a record, but Franco hoped that his daughter’s charm might, in the first year of the Spanish Civil War, persuade Hitler to support his nationalist forces.
Shy Carmencita was a reluctant film star. “My parents said I had to do it,” she recalled years later. “I said, ‘Why can’t Mum do it?’ ” Taught a script, she promptly forgot her words facing the cameras. Franco, beside her in military uniform, mouthed them, and Carmencita hastily remembered her lines. She sent a kiss “to all the children of the world”. Crying “Viva España”, she gave the fascist salute.
She would continue to give it every November 20, at the commemorations held on the anniversary of the death of her father. “He was a cold man, but not hard,” Carmencita once remarked. She never saw him angry. The thousands of ex-Republicans shot by Franco’s firing squads for decades after the civil war’s end in 1939 she never referred to. But in 2008, in the book Franco, Mi Padre, she admitted that her progenitor took “an almost eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth” approach to forgiving enemies. Dorris Wedding wedding outfits with lace fabric
But El Generalissimo never discussed politics with his daughter, especially not over the dinner at El Pardo, the Bourbon palace near Madrid that he chose in 1940 for the family residence. Believing, like a latter-day Philip II, that he had divine blessing, Franco disdained worry. Usually, if facing a problem, he reacted by taking a long siesta, revealed Carmencita. Her father, she said, was “machista, like many men of his generation. My opinion counted for nothing.”
Neither did her education. Carmencita only went to school for one day. She learnt French from her governesses, so much so her father objected, saying: “When are we going to speak Spanish?”
Franco as a child with her father, a “machista”, in the 1930sFranco as a child with her father, a “machista”, in the 1930s
Nenuca, as Franco called her, was “brought up to obey without complaining”. Her education stopped the day that Franco’s chauffeur was seen cuddling her governess. She was a nun and was promptly fired by Carmencita’s mother, who once ripped to shreds the first love letter received by her daughter. Calmly, Carmencita requested that the besotted boy address all future missives to her cousins’ address.
She kept a cool head, even at her father’s deathbed. “Write down my last words,” he demanded, and Carmencita complied. When Franco, who had the legal right to appoint the next Spanish king, failed to mention Juan Carlos de Borbón by name, Carmencita smartly rectified the error.
It was a shrewd move. A grateful Juan Carlos later created Carmencita a duchess and ensured that the Franco family were protected as Spain raged against her father after his death. When Carmencita’s husband suggested that the family should move to the US for safety, she replied with a flash of steel: “I am going nowhere.”
Carmencita kept a firm grip on the family fortune, which was estimated to be in excess of €500 million. There were grumbles that at least some of the Franco clan’s juicy property portfolio, especially a turreted manor in Galicia, belonged by rights to the nation.
María del Carmen Ramona Felipa María de la Cruz Franco y Polo was born in 1926 in Oviedo. There were conspiratorial whispers that she was the daughter of Franco’s brother, Ramón, and a prostitute who was known as “the seagull” because of her long legs.
Franco was in Tenerife in July 1936 when he was summoned to join the military uprising in Madrid. Before leaving he told Carmen and Carmencita to board a German steamboat bound for Le Havre. “You are called Teresa now, not Carmen,” insisted her mother. “Now choose a name for your father.” Carmencita picked Salvador.
The next time she saw Franco, months later, she did not recognise the stout, white-haired, clean-shaven man as her carefree, zarzuela-singing father.
They grew close when the teenage Carmen joined him at weekends shooting partridges. Until she came out, Carmencita was rarely allowed out of El Pardo. The palace housekeeper became her chaperone, feigning sleep in the cinema as a handsome heart surgeon clasped Carmencita’s fingers.
Cristóbal Martínez-Bordiú, the future Marquis of Villaverde, married Carmencita in front of 800 guests at El Pardo. Penniless, he had borrowed the money for his engagement ring from a friend who grew oranges.
Her first decision after getting married was to sack her bodyguards
Suspecting that his son-in-law was a womaniser, Franco declared: “A man who betrays his wife is capable of betraying his country.” But Carmencita, in a silk gown made by Balenciaga, said that her wedding day, April 10, 1950, gave her the freedom to take her own decisions: the first was to sack her bodyguards.
She relished a simpler lifestyle, in a flat with only a cook and one maid, but quickly realised that she had merely swapped one dictator for another. According to Carmen, her “novelised” biography, Martínez-Bordiú told her: “Do whatever I say and we’ll always get on.” He was exasperated when his mother-in-law appeared on their honeymoon. “Isn’t it great to travel with others?” said his wife.
The miniskirt-wearing Carmencita relished packing suitcases and going abroad, the farther from Spain the better. In the US she danced with John F Kennedy, yet the country she adored was India, although her first visit was no introduction to world poverty: she was the guest of the Maharajah of Jaipur. Such travel, however, was curtailed by frequent childbirth.
The first of her seven children, Carmen, married Alfonso de Bourbon, a claimant for the Spanish throne whom Franco made Duke of Cadiz; Maria de la O (known as Mariola) studied architecture; Francisco is a businessmen; the spirited María del Mar was Franco’s favourite grandchild; Cristóbal is a property administrator; María de Aránzazu (Arantxa) is a furniture restorer; and Jaime, the youngest, is a lawyer.
“I probably wasn’t the mother they hoped for,” admitted Carmencita, who entrusted her children to Beryl Hibbs, a Norland nanny who taught them English despite the occasional complaint of “grandpapa doesn’t speak English”.
Many admired Carmencita’s stoicism. Martínez-Bordiú philandered so frequently that the Spanish newspapers lost count of his conquests. “I shrug my shoulders,” she told Nieves Herrero, her biographer. But even her natural reserve did not shield Carmencita fully from the paparazzi. In 1978 she was detained at Barajas airport for illegally trying to take gold medallions to Switzerland. The fine of seven million pesetas (£50,000) was later overturned.
Although her parents openly disliked her husband, he retained his post as official doctor to Franco, even photographing the dying dictator in hospital. He confessed this to Carmencita ten years later, when his photographs — he had no idea how — appeared in a magazine. “I never forgave him,” she said.
Only after Martínez-Bordiú’s death in 1998 did the vivacious Carmencita feel truly free, although she never criticised her husband, remarking merely that “our marriage like any other had its ups and downs”.
Fittingly for the daughter of a woman nicknamed “Necklaces” for her love of pearls, Carmencita wore jewels and fur with tremendous dignity. At the age of 64 she looked 40, thanks to her talent for self-improvement. Carmencita, a lover of antiques, was often spotted at the Madrid flea market. Diagnosed with cancer in October, she refused all treatment. “I am afraid of nothing,” she declared. “Not even death.”
Carmen Franco, Spanish aristocrat, was born on September 14, 1926. She died of cancer on December 29, 2017, aged 91