Duchess of Alba, the world's most titled aristocrat, dies

By Sonya Dowsett

By Sonya Dowsett

MADRID (Reuters) - Spain's 18th Duchess of Alba, who died on Thursday aged 88, was one of Europe's wealthiest and most titled aristocrats, the owner of fabulous palaces and priceless works of art.

She died after a short illness, surrounded by family in the 14th century Palacio de Duenas in Seville, famous for its lemon-tree-filled courtyards and her favorite of her many properties.

Maria del Rosario Cayetana Alfonsa Victoria Eugenia Francisca Fitz-James Stuart y Silva, known to friends as 'Cayetana', was named by Guinness World Records as the world's most titled person.

She was 14 times a Spanish grandee, five times a duchess, once a countess-duchess, 18 times a marchioness, 18 times a countess and once a viscountess, according to the entry.

With her cloud of white hair and face moulded by plastic surgery, she was rarely out of the Spanish gossip magazines, most recently on the arm of her third husband, 24 years her junior.

Head of one of Spain's oldest aristocratic families dating back to the 1400s, and the third woman to hold the title of Duchess of Alba in her own right, her wealth is estimated at between 600 million and 3.5 billion euros.

"I don't like to talk about money. Many people confuse having cash with having assets - we've never had a lot of cash," she wrote in her autobiography.

Many of the palaces, castles and works of art belonging to the House of Alba have restrictions placed on their sale because of their historic importance for Spain.

The 13th Duchess of Alba was a muse of artist Francisco Goya in the 18th century and is rumored to be the subject of 'La Maja Desnuda', his famous portrait of a reclining nude which hangs in Madrid's Prado gallery.

The duchess tells in her autobiography of how Spanish artist Pablo Picasso asked her to pose nude to recreate the painting, but her conservative first husband forbade it.

Born in 1926 in a neoclassical palace in Madrid, she spent much of her childhood in London when her father was ambassador to Britain and where she dined with Winston Churchill and played with Princess Margaret.

Her father, an Anglophile and royalist, sided with dictator Francisco Franco at the beginning of Spain's Civil War but relations grew frosty as it became clear Franco would not reinstate a king as head of Spain.

The twice-widowed duchess first married aged 21 in 1947 to fellow aristocrat Luis Martinez de Irujo in a wedding on a scale to rival that of Britain's Princess Elizabeth later that year.

Wearing a pearl and diamond crown, she rode to Seville Cathedral in a horse-drawn carriage with thousands of well-wishers lining the streets to cheer her. The couple had six children.

She became a fixture of the international jet-set, hosting Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy on their visits to Spain and turning her Madrid palace over to French designer Yves Saint Laurent to stage a Dior fashion show in 1959.

An aficionado of bull-fighting and flamenco, she often took place of honor at bull-fights in her beloved Seville, usually sporting a magnificent 'mantilla' - the traditional Spanish lace veil worn over a high comb.

The duchess, who favored an eccentric clothing style, sporting beaded anklets and fishnet tights well into her eighties, married former Catholic priest Jesus Aguirre Ortiz de Zarate six years after the death of her first husband.

Her second husband died in 2001. Her courtship with dashing civil servant Alfonso Diez gripped the nation, aroused disapproval from Queen Sofia and was openly opposed by her six children.

Before tying the knot with 61-year-old Diez in 2011, the duchess divided her fortune between her offspring to silence their protests.

Although ill health kept her out of the public eye in later months, her most memorable recent image was when she flung off her shoes to perform an impromptu flamenco dance before a forest of cameras and well-wishers at her third wedding.

"Together we have a wonderful time. She's always asking: What shall we do next? She's unstoppable," said husband Diez in an interview in Vanity Fair magazine shortly before their marriage. "It often seems that I'm the older of the two."

(Reporting by Sonya Dowsett; Editing by Fiona Ortiz and Sonya Hepinstall)