Note: This article was originally published on 18/09/2007.
Introduction by Christopher Clover
I had the pleasure of meeting Rudolf Graf von Schönburg, known in Marbella simply as “Count Rudi,” and his gracious wife Princess Marie Louise of Prussia, in the first year of my arrival in Marbella in 1973 when I took charge of Panorama’s office here.
Over the years I have come to know Count Rudi and Princess Marie Louise well. I never cease to be impressed by the exemplary life they lead, and by how much this couple gives of themselves and so sincerely from their hearts, with so much humility, to the Marbella community, to their friends, to their family, to their work and their many responsibilities, and to the people having the good fortune to meet them.
The Marbella Club is fortunate to still have Count Rudi in his major leadership role with them: this is a man who has lived the Marbella Club story in full since its very beginnings in the Spring of 1954, and not only witnessed the very awakening of tourism in Marbella fourteen years before the inauguration of Puerto Banús, but especially has been at the very heart of the development of “quality tourism” in our beloved city since that time.
I have known few people of Count Rudi’s 75 years of age who can accomplish in one day what would be for another two day’s full schedule, with great German self-discipline and attention to detail, and with the vitality of a young man. Wherever he goes, his indomitable spirit of grace, hospitality and good will towards others accompanies him. His activities, carried out with the simple but select style of the Grand Seigneur that he is, include his many responsibilities with his beloved Marbella Club, his Presidency of the Brotherhood of Santa Marta, the Patron of Hotels and Gastronomic Establishments, his Presidency of the Board of the best international school in Marbella, the Juan Hoffman German School, his work in the Municipal Government as a principal advisor to the Mayoress and as Chairman of the Marbella Tourist Consortium, his constant support to his beloved wife in her indefatigable work with Concordia and other charitable organizations, and his equal devotion to his children, relatives and his many friends both here in Marbella and around the world.
In recognition of his contributions to the city of Marbella and to bilateral relations between Germany and Spain, in 2002 Count Rudi was awarded the Great Cross of Isabel la Católica and the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of Germany. An Avenue in Marbella has been named after him. He was awarded the Spanish Silver Medal of Merit for Tourism, as recognition for his valuable work as President of the Spanish and Portuguese Delegation of the prestigious French organization “Relais et Châteaux”; the Medal of the Ideal Citizen by the Rotary Club Marbella; the famous Arch of Marbella, and countless other awards during his 50 years presence in this city.
I am deeply grateful that Count Rudi enthusiastically agreed to write the following article and share a few of his many experiences with our readers. How he found the time to do so in his busy schedule confounds me. He writes just as he talks, with style, good humor and grace. The accompanying photos supplied are all from Count Rudi’s personal collection.
The Beginnings of Marbella Club
by Count Rudi von Schönburg
To the reader, this will probably sound more like a fairy tale than the authentic description of the beginnings of the Marbella Club, but it is the exact way that it all started.
A lovely small pinewood, on the edges of a large olive grove, giving shade to delicious vineyards, 3 miles to the west of the historic fortified town of Marbella, overlooking the straights of Gibraltar with the “Columns of Hercules” where the people from Classical Antiquity believed the world ended, made young Prince Hohenlohe fall in love with this “sleeping beauty” in 1944. The unique microclimate, the beautiful light, the delicious aroma of the air, the dark blue sea full of fish, virgin beaches and, last but not least, the friendly character and hospitality of the local people fascinated the Prince to such an extent that he decided to alter his travel plans and to start negotiations to purchase the finca Santa Margarita, the property on which he and his father had entered to have a swim and picnic lunch. On this beautiful finca the Marbella Club is situated today.
It immediately became their firm intention to save this “Garden of Eden” for posterity, and send word of their discovery all over the world. After building his own home in the lovely pinewood, he transformed the abandoned farmhouse into a meeting point for the new settlers and called it the Marbella Club.
With his style of “elegant simplicity” he soon added twenty simple but charming rooms to accommodate not only transit guests desperately seeking overnight accommodation, but also all those friends who he had convinced to visit Marbella with his enthusiastic reports of his “Paradise on Earth”.
But also the often-blamed primitive telecommunication service helped the new Club to become very popular! Since the hotel had one of the very few telephones in Marbella, neighbours from all around came to the Club to make their telephone calls and enjoyed all the other facilities while waiting for their connections. It should be explained that there were few telephones available, and there were only two lines on the whole coast between Algeciras and Málaga and one depended on the kindness and efficiency of the operator in town to connect you to one of those two lines as soon as one became free. Knowing this you will not be surprised when I tell you that it took between one and two hours to connect a call to Málaga, and between four and six hours to connect with Madrid or other European capital. This gave the customer plenty of time to swim, play tennis, have lunch or even play a rubber of bridge while waiting for the connection, which created a very jolly atmosphere at the Club – plus additional income!
The price of a double room, in those days, including full board, was 285 Ptas. per person per night, or about €1.70! It would be wrong to pretend that the hotel was only filled with celebrities, film stars, aristocrats and politicians. Had that been so, the hotel would have been ruined after a very short time! No, there were so many faithful transit guests, who discovered the Marbella Club by pure chance while searching desperately for overnight accommodation on theirway from Morocco back to France, or from Portugal to Granada… They were enchanted to find such a charming, clean “Motel” amidst beautiful gardens, with the result that some stayed on an extra night and returned next time for two or three weeks and obviously told their friends of their marvellous discovery – so the news travelled by word of mouth.
But obviously our greatest Ambassador was Prince Alfonso who, with tremendous enthusiasm during his continuous journeys around the world, told everybody of his beautiful hotel. It is therefore not surprising that suddenly illustrious members of the European Aristocracy like the Fürstenbergs, Bismarcks, Metternichs and Archdukes of Austria, Scandinavian royalty and exiled kings; as well as famous Hollywood stars like James Stewart, Merle Oberon, Ava Gardner, Kim Novak and beautiful Audrey Hepburn with her husband Mel Ferrer; bankers like the Rothschilds and Oppenheims; industrialists like Henry Ford, the Krupps and the Agnelli family, Onassis and Stavros Niarchos showed up in Marbella.
The people of Marbella could hardly believe their eyes when they recognized in their narrow streets such celebrities they had up to then only ever seen on the movie-screens or in popular magazines.
As I was cousin of the Prince and graduate of the Swiss Hotel Management School in Lausanne, Prince Alfonso, in 1956, convinced me to come to Marbella and introduce modern management techniques and a high-standard, personalized service into the Marbella Club. It was not an easy task to satisfy the expectations of all those important guests, used to travelling from one palace to another, in what was still an extremely simple but charming hotel. However, with professional experience, diplomacy and aristocratic style, we were able to turn that small “Country Inn” into one of Europe’s Top Hotels, forming a part of the Leading Hotels of the World and member of Relais et Châteaux. Thanks to knowing how to combine the special Club atmosphere with entertaining weekly parties and excellent service, the international globetrotters soon considered a stay in the Marbella Club to be a “must”.
Amusing, regular Tuesday informal dress dinners at the Beach Club, which we pompously called “gala dinners”, encouraging the guests to come elegantly dressed but without a tie, added a special flair to the normally casual atmosphere and gave us evenings to remember, like the night when the Duke and Duchess of Windsor attended one of those “galas” trying to follow our dress code, very much against the Duke’s normal habits to always wear a tie, even in summer.
The guests, informed of the attendance of such an illustrious guest, decided to abandon their elegant informal dress and all the men showed up with coats and ties! When the Duke entered the Beach Club, he was wearing a Hawaiian shirt with an open collar! The Duke blushed and disappeared without the other guests noticing it and returned soon afterwards impeccably dressed in a dinner jacket.
What a shock to all the other guests, who had meanwhile relaxed and taken off their ties, to be confronted with this further controversy! Only a man as great as the Duke of Windsor could resolve the situation by taking off his bow tie and throwing it into the pool!
Devoted to our work, the Prince and I formed a perfect team, using our different talents and world-wide contacts to create one of the most emblematic hotels in the world, and succeeded to encourage friends to invest in Marbella, creating luxury developments and residential areas with golf courses, marinas and polo fields. Right from the beginning, it was always our aim to keep the style of this “small oasis” free from high-rise buildings and overcrowding, and to maintain a garden city where traditional local charm and cosmopolitan style and elegance blended smoothly together.
My marriage in 1971 to Princess Marie Louise of Prussia, great-grand daughter of Germany’s last Emperor, brought about a great change, turning my life into happy family life and giving the Marbella Club the necessary touch of female taste, royal glamour and class.
The 15 previous years of bachelorship had given me time to dedicate every minute of my day to improve the success of the Club, but had also created a lack of feminine influence in the management. After the most beautiful marriage in the Black Forest in May 1971 and the marvellous honeymoon of six weeks, travelling from the North to the South of the American continent, we were welcomed by Prince Alfonso on our return to Marbella, with an unforgettable Beach Club party, followed by weeks and weeks of festivities which made the summer season of 1971 at the Marbella Club to be remembered as one of the most amusing and entertaining summers in its history.
We were so incredibly happy, but missed very much having children. Finally in May 1979 our long-awaited first child was born, our darling daughter Sophie. The joy over this long-expected birth filled the hearts of the Marbellíes and of the whole of Spain, to such a point that Her Majesty Queen Sofia offered herself spontaneously to be the Godmother of her newborn niece. Nobody in Marbella will ever forget the glorious entry of Queen Sofia with the baby girl in her arms, into Marbella’s main church, La Encarnación, to the overwhelming sound of the famous organ “Sol Mayor”, as well as the jubilant acclamation of the population. The birth, six years later, of our son, Friedrich Wilhelm, now studying at the famous hotel school in Lausanne, completed our happiness.
Our devotion since our first arrival to Marbella, to enhancing and improving the success of Marbella, preserving the beautiful traditions of the old town and supporting the people in need, made the Marbella people soon consider us one of them.
The arrival of Crown Prince Fahd and his brother Prince Salman from Saudi Arabia in the late seventies leant wonderful support to our philosophy: luxurious palaces hidden in large gardens granting comfort and privacy. Soon after, several potentates and wealthy businessmen from the Emirates, who cherished the company of the Saudi Royal Family, followed them. They brought the badly needed petrodollars into the post-Franco Spain and justified the hope that our fight to save the beautiful resort for posterity had not been fought in vain.
Sadly these spring feelings were soon suffocated by the uncaring municipal administration during 14 unfortunate years, from 1977 to 1991, to the point that Marbella plunged into the worst moment of its history. In addition to this catastrophic situation, Prince Alfonso’s Saudi partner died and left his shares in the hands of his heirs, who had no other interest than to sell the hotel for the best possible price in the quickest way.
All seemed lost… but again a lucky star appeared on the horizon in the person of David Shamoon, owner of one of the nicest beachfront homes in the Marbella Club’s residential zone “Santa Margarita”, who realized that all his investments and the glory of Marbella would vanish if nobody were to take the initiative to save the flagship, the Marbella Club.
He convinced a few friends to buy the Club’s shares with him and invested a lot of money in hotel to bring it back to its old glory, improving and modernizing all installations and the restaurant to super standards, without loosing its typical charm and personalized service. He convinced me to return to the Club to help him achieve this aim and partly recuperate the famous clientele.
I am proud to say we succeeded with this crucial move, and contributed to bringing the Marbella Club, and consequently helped bring the whole of Marbella, back to its old fame.