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Marie José of Belgium (1906–2001)

Marie José of Belgium (1906–2001)

Queen of Italy for 34 days . Name variations: Marie Jose of Belgium; Maria-José or Marie-Jose; countess of Sarre. Born on August 3, 1906; died on January 27, 2001; daughter of Albert I (1875–1934), king of the Belgians (r. 1909–1934), and Elizabeth of Bavaria (1876–1965); attended boarding school in Florence; married Humbert II also known as Umberto II (1904–1983), king of Italy (r. 1946, for 34 days), on January 8, 1930; children: Maria Pia (b. 1934); Victor Emmanuel (b. 1937); Maria Gabriella (b. 1940); Beatrice (b. 1943).

The intelligent and spirited daughter of Albert I, king of Belgium, and Queen Elizabeth of Bavaria , Marie José married into the Italian House of Savoy in 1930, becoming the bride of Umberto II, the handsome and self-indulgent heir to the throne. Despite her husband's philandering and his alleged homosexuality, the princess gave birth to four children, the first two of whom were purportedly conceived after artificial insemination. An adoring mother, she also worked tirelessly during the war as inspector general of the Red Cross. While popular with her subjects, Marie José never won the respect and trust of her father-in-law, King Victor Emmanuel III (called "the little king" because of his short stature), who objected to her unconventional habits of smoking cheroots and traveling about incognito, and bristled at her reputation of being the only ruler in the House of Savoy.

By 1943, Marie José was estranged from both her husband and her father-in-law, and had set up a four-room "bachelor-girl" apartment in the royal residence, the Palazzo del Quirinale, in Rome. What no one knew at the time was that for three years, since 1940, Quirinale had been a center of the underground movement against Benito Mussolini (1883–1945), and that the princess was waging her own private war against the dictator whom she had dubbed "Provolone" (Big Cheese). In her apartment, Marie received emissaries from the political underground that was threading its way through Rome and even through Vatican City. Working closely with her friend and confidante Marchesa Giuliana Benzoni , also an avowed anti-Fascist, Marie José became an important factor in the overthrow of Mussolini. In her quest, the princess enlisted the trust and support some of Italy's most important political revolutionaries, including Ivanoe Bonomi, former premier of Italy, Alcide de Gasperi, a Christian Democrat who would later serve as his party's first premier, Professor Ferdinando Arena, physician to the House of Savoy, Dr. Carlo Antoni, Marie José's tutor in constitutional law, and Guido Gonella, diplomatic correspondent of the official Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano. Although she had no personal contact with the king, Marie José kept him informed of the escalating plots against Mussolini by feeding information to him through his trusted financial advisor Pietro, duke of Acquarone, who had a secret crush on her.

In 1942, the princess met secretly with Marshal Pietro Badoglio, who was part of the coup that forced the Fascist premier's resignation in 1943. Mussolini was imprisoned at that time, but was rescued within two months and set up a republican fascist government in German-occupied northern Italy. He was finally captured and killed by anti-fascist forces in 1945.

King Victor Emmanuel retired from public office in 1944, but exercised control of the crown through his son Prince Umberto. He abdicated to his son in 1946, but Umberto's reign ended after 34 days when the country voted to become a republic. With the end of the 1,000-year rule of the House of Savoy, Umberto retired to Portugal without Marie José, who went to live in Switzerland. She later wrote a book about the first duke of Savoy.


Collier, Richard. Duce!: A Biography of Benito Mussolini. NY: The Viking Press, 1971.

Judd, Denis. Eclipse of Kings: European Monarchies in the Twentieth Century. NY: Stein and Day, 1974.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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