THE SLEEK BUCK LIMO MANEUVERS THROUGH THE GRIM streets of Newark, N.J., and pulls up at the redbrick François-Xavier Bagnoud children's center. Out of the car sweeps a woman with luxuriant auburn hair and tortoiseshell sunglasses who looks as if she would be more at home at the Ritz than at this AIDS clinic for kids. But when a painfully thin 9-year-old girl runs over to her, the woman's face lights up. She bends down to hug the child, then greets a pale boy on his way to an IV treatment. Obviously this is where she belongs.

The Countess Albina du Boisrouvray, cousin of Prince Rainier and godmother to Princess Caroline's 7-year-old daughter, Charlotte, may look more like a lady who lunches than a real-life fairy godmother. But this is a case where looks are deceiving. During the past four years, the countess has been an angel of mercy to thousands of HIV-infected children around the world. Using her enormous personal fortune, she has funded 10 pediatric AIDS centers in such far-flung places as Kenya, Thailand, Uganda, India, Washington, and Newark. Most of the centers provide a homelike environment for children with AIDS, while others focus on training medical personnel. Over the past two years she has set up programs for HIV-infected teen prostitutes in Thailand and Burma. "I wanted to concentrate on children because they are the ones who don't have a lobby and they can't deal for themselves," says du Boisrouvray in her lightly accented English. "They have to have people speak up for them."

The countess's devotion to HIV children is a passion born of the devastating loss of her only child, François-Xavier Bagnoud, a rescue pilot who was killed in 1986 at 24 while on a mission in Mali. "Albina and François had a very special relationship," says his best friend, banker Alon Kasha, 32. "It was as much best buddies as mother-son."

François's death prompted du Boisrouvray, who had formerly worked as a film producer and a journalist, to take stock of her life. "For two years I didn't move from the Valais," she says, referring to the time she spent mourning at her home in the Swiss Alps. Then, emerging from her grief, she began talking with François's fiancée, Silvana Paternostro, 32, his father (and Albina's first husband), Bruno Bagnoud, the director of a Swiss air-rescue operation, and Kasha. "What can we do," she asked, "that would reflect his life or his wishes?" Together they and four other friends and relatives created the Association François-Xavier Bagnoud. "It is not a memorial to François," she says, "but something deeply inspired by him. Having lost him made us all discard what is not essential."

And nothing to the countess was so nonessential as the trappings of her wealth. So in 1989 she did something astonishing. In order to fund her new foundation, she sold off the bulk of her family inheritance (much of it from the tin-mining fortune of her Bolivian maternal grandfather, Simon Patiño). This included a fabulous jewelry collection that brought in $31.2 million at a Sotheby's auction (a record then exceeded only by the 1987 auction of the Duchess of Windsor's collection) plus art by Renoir, Boudin and others, which netted $20 million more. Du Boisrouvray then liquidated her Paris film company and real estate holdings for another $50 million. "These things didn't have much meaning emotionally," she says in the stark while apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side that she shares with Paternostro. "I'm not into having."

No mere check writer, du Boisrouvray spends 90 percent of her time traveling from one center to another, often with her fiancé, Dr. Dominique Monchicourt, a physician at the Pasteur Hospital in Paris whom she met through their work for a French relief organization. "I don't believe in giving money and just walking away. It's not my thing," she says. "You also need some humane and personal relationship in all this."

"I'm always suspicious of wealthy people because they want attention but in the end don't deliver," says Dr. Jonathan Mann, François-Xavier Bagnoud Professor of Health and Human Rights at Harvard's School of Public Health, to which du Boisrouvray donated $20 million in 1992. "Albina delivers—and she really cares. She is possibly the only person like that whom I've ever met."

The countess's empathy for children has roots in her own lonely girlhood. The only child of party-loving parents—Count Guy du Boisrouvray, a businessman, and his wife, Luz Mila Patiño—du Boisrouvray was born in Paris at the beginning of World War II (she will not say exactly when) and spent the war years with
her mother in New York City. Afterward, she was sent to boarding schools in England and France. "I was shy and read a tremendous amount," she recalls. "I lived in a fantasy world of books, bookish heroes and fairy tales. That was mainly why I later did film."

After her mother's death when Albina was 19, she became ill with anemia and was sent to the Swiss Valais to recover. There she met Bagnoud, whom she wed that year. But after François's birth in 1961, she says, "I fell it was all a mistake. I didn't want to stay home and cook, I wanted a life of my own."

The couple split up, and the countess took her son to Paris, where she worked as an actress and journalist. In 1970 she started her own film company, producing 22 movies, including A Woman at Her Window with Romy Schneider. Along the way, Albina married film production manager Georges Casati, from whom she was divorced in 1982. Albina also tried, unsuccessfully, to dissuade her son from his fascination with flying. But he went off to the University of Michigan to study aerospace engineering in 1979. After graduation he worked with his father's air-rescue company but was volunteering as a pilot for the Paris-Dakar motor rally in West Africa when he was killed. "We were so close," recalls the countess. "Not only him and me, but our whole network of friends."

In the years since François's death, du Boisrouvray has drawn even closer to Kasha, her son's roommate in Ann Arbor. And she regards Paternostro, a Colombian-born journalist who was also a student at Michigan, as her daughter. She counts on both for emotional support when she becomes discouraged by the enormity of the AIDS crisis. At those times, she says, she also thinks of an often-told story. "In it, an old man walks on the beach where thousands of starfish are stranded," says the countess. "And he sees a girl throwing them back into the water, one by one. And he says to her, 'It's useless. You'll never be able to throw them all back. What does it matter?' But the girl holds up the one in her hand and says, 'It matters to this one.' That's what keeps me going."

MARJORIE ROSEN
PAM LAMBERT in New York City

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  • Pam Lambert.