Once a Spy, Spain's U.S.-Born Countess of Romanones Now Has Lecture Audiences Shouting Olé!
06/27/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT
The ornate Manhattan apartment conveys more than a touch of Spain with its overstuffed red brocade sofas, deep dark polished woods and giant rose-pattern wallpaper. The tall (5'7"), dark-eyed woman strides into the room, tosses a few orders in properly lisped Castilian to her servant, then drops onto the sofa. "This time I've brought my own servants from Spain," declares the Countess of Romanones (pronounced Roman-own-ess), crossing a pair of flashy, showgirl legs. "You walk on eggs with the ones in the States."
Not that the Countess is exactly new to Yankee ways. Born just plain Aline Griffiths in Pearl River, N.Y., she spent part of World War II as an OSS spy in Europe before snagging a full-fledged grandee and becoming a queen of Spanish society. Now Griffiths, member of the Best Dressed Hall of Fame, knower of all the right people and party-thrower extraordinaire, is back home—this time as a hot ticket on the lecture circuit.
Zipping between towns like Wilmington, Del. and Reading, Pa., the Countess delivers—to Junior League or town hall groups—what she calls "my little song and dance." Her spiel interlaces hard-line conservative rhetoric with cozy girl talk, hammering away at such serious topics as the threat to Spain's democracy from Marxist-Leninist terrorists, the turmoil in Latin America, the ubiquity of Soviet spying in the U.S., and America's need for a better image abroad.
Why, at 61, would she tackle a career that keeps her on the road four or five months a year? "I've had a whirl of a life, but I've finished that course," shrugs the Countess, who admits she's attended all the "Venice balls and partridge shoots" she could stomach. And now that her three sons (aged 32, 31 and 30) are grown, she explains, "It's time for me to do something serious."
Her political activism was sparked by the death in 1976 of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, whom the Countess at first opposed but later came to admire. "I know it's not chic to be pro-Franco, but I don't give a damn," she says. Aline (as she is called by friends) grew concerned when Communist groups started to gain visibility in Spain in the '70s. Feeling that Americans should know of "the Spanish people's wish to be democratic," she set out to find an audience.
Whatever her political message, audiences get what they pay for (the Countess' fee is $1,800 to $2,500). As lecture bureau head Roger Keedick puts it, people want to see "what a real-life countess looks like." (Memorable questions from the audience: "How do you catch a count?" and "Do you use Oil of Olay?")
Aline's fairy-tale life started out "middle middle" class in Pearl River, where her father sold real estate. Graduating from the College of Mount St. Vincent during World War II, she longed for an adventurous career.
Through a friend she met in New York, Aline soon joined the Office of Strategic Services, America's wartime intelligence network. Ostensibly working for the American Oil Mission in Madrid from 1944 to 1947, her real activity was doing code work for the OSS. As part of a "women's chain" she helped form, she also gathered information on suspected German and Japanese agents. According to a former OSS colleague, "Her personality lent itself to espionage. She was a mixer; she could meet people, gain their confidence."
As a good "mixer," it was only natural that she came to the attention of Luis Figuera y Perez de Guzmán el Bueno, then the Count of Quintanilla (he took the Romanones title upon his father's death in 1967), a green-eyed nobleman and race horse breeder with sheep ranches scattered throughout Spain. Though she once told audiences they met when he saved her from being gored by a bull she had volunteered to fight, that actually happened on a later date; in fact, they had met earlier at a party. (He was not aware of her spy status until they were engaged.)
After a year Aline was "fascinated, in love—but terrified he wouldn't marry me." He did, of course, in 1947, and she immediately began remodeling Pascualete, the family's crumbling 13th-century estate some 170 miles southwest of Madrid. During reconstruction the Countess found a body—which turned out to be a 15th-century ancestor—entombed in a wall. "He was dressed so fine," she says, "I hated to disturb him." Solution: She re-plastered him into the walls of the guest room. None of which seemed to faze glamorous weekend guests like Ava Gardner and Audrey Hepburn.
In 1977 the Madrid-based Count and Countess bought their New York apartment, where Manhattan society soon learned to expect the unexpected from her. During a recent party she gave for 50 friends at tony La Cigale, the Countess was so eager to greet everyone personally that at one point she ducked under a crowded table to pop up alongside Baron Guy de Rothschild; then, minutes later, she swept up her gown to sprint over a banquette top and through the potted palms to say goodbye to Betsy Bloomingdale. Such high spirits are sometimes viewed askance by New York's grande dames. "She is so striking, I think she's too much for 'em," speculates peppery columnist Eugenia Sheppard. "And she's very sure of her opinions; it might be bothersome to some people."
Eager to make her talks more compelling, the Countess often hops off to trouble spots like El Salvador to get on-the-spot data. But for the moment she is remaining close to home, where Luis, 64, is recovering from open-heart surgery. Having once campaigned in Spain for right-of-center opposition leader Manuel Fraga Iribarne, she admits she one day may aspire to political office herself in Spain. "After all," she jokes, "I've become more Spanish than the Spanish."