Royals Among Us

updated 10/19/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/19/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

From the concrete canyons of New York City to the suburbs of Cincinnati, the U.S. is flush with royals and nobles. Most are exiles—or their descendants—driven from their kingdoms and duchies by revolutions or coups. They are employed—most need to work—as bankers, photographers, politicians, even cops. They ride buses and buy their own groceries. Some live in posh penthouses, others in rented walk-ups. But, as the profiles on the following pages attest, no matter how well our regal neighbors have taken to their adopted country, their pride in their homelands is undiminished.

Prince Amoti Nyabongo
For now, this descendant of Ugandan royalty prefers to patrol the streets of Brooklyn as a New York City cop

"The only thing I inherited is a rich culture," says Prince Amoti K. Nyabongo Kyebambe Mukarusa, 41, of his royal roots. "I am proud of my heritage, but I don't really make a big deal out of it." No kidding. His best friend, Melvin Oliver, says he "pretty much had to pull it out of him" that until 1929, Nyabongo's paternal grandfather was the king of Toro, a Ugandan kingdom of 1 million citizens. Until recently, Nyabongo, who lives in a modest townhouse in the working-class Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, hadn't even told his girlfriend of eight months, Abbi Benjamin. "I like the idea of being accepted for who I am," he says.

The only child of the late Akiiki Hosea Nyabongo, a former North Carolina A&T State University professor, Amoti was reared by his Bermudan schoolteacher mother, Ada, after his father returned to Toro to help write its constitution. He never came back. "I can't fault him," says Nyabongo, a 1981 graduate in sociology from Alabama's Tuskegee University, who visited his father for the first time in 1972. "I got to see his work, meet the people—he made a difference in their lives." With 15 years on the police force behind him, Nyabongo someday plans to move to Toro, where the monarchy was restored in 1993. But there will be no chauffeur-driven limousines, he insists. "I have work to do."

King Kigeli V
Forced into exile, he dreams of a regal homecoming from his Virginia flat

The seven-room apartment in which King Kigeli V Ndahindurwa of Rwanda resides in leafy Falls Church, Va., is a far cry from the palace of his youth. But even this scaled-back luxury makes him defensive. "I did not come here to get rich," says Kigeli, 63, "but because my people are suffering."

The scion of a 500-year-old Rwandan dynasty, Kigeli was deposed by the Hutu majority in 1961. He lived in other parts of Africa for 30 years before coming to the U.S. in '92, so broke he applied for food stamps. Two years later he could only watch as 500,000 fellow Tutsis were slaughtered by Hutus. Now Kigeli, who lives on donations from friends, lobbies the U.S. to aid his ravaged land and to help him regain his throne. "A king is like a father to the nation," he says. "All the tribes are like his children."

Prince David Chavchavadze
A Georgian prince and former CIA operative, he has lost his kingdom but not forgotten it

Eugenie de Smitt, 59, recalls seeing her future husband at a church service in New York City when she was 5 years old. "Who's that?" she asked of the handsome 20-year-old. "That's the young Prince Chavchavadze," came the reply. No explanation needed: Among Russian émigrés, Chavchavadze's lineage has always been revered. His parents, Princess Nina Georgievna of Russia and Prince Paul Chavchavadze of the Georgian royal family, left Russia to stay with relatives abroad before the 1917 Revolution, in which Nina's father—a cousin of Czar Nicholas II—was killed along with as many as 18 other Romanoffs.

Born in 1924 in London, Chavchavadze was raised in New York City. At 18, he joined the U.S. Army, where his Russian language skills landed him in intelligence. (On assignment in Alaska, Soviet soldiers, recognizing the royal name, called him comrade prince.) After World War II he was recruited by the CIA, where he worked on Soviet affairs until retiring in 1996. "I had a personal investment," says the prince, 74, who lives with third wife Eugenie (they have five grown children from earlier marriages) in Washington, D.C. "We had lost our country."

But some things survived. Chavchavadze was visiting Moscow in 1990 when he came upon a regiment of monarchists wearing czarist uniforms. "The troops are ready to be inspected, Your Highness," said one. As he obliged, the prince's eyes filled with tears. "I never thought I would see this in real life," he says. "It had been impossible to imagine."

Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia
She mixes a life of glamor with charity to the homeland that exiled her family

Feisty Elizabeth Karageorgevic, 62, speed-walks in Central Park, prefers subways over cabs and shops for clothes at Daffy's discount store. Last year she developed her own perfume and flogs it on QVC. "Charles thought it was fabulous," she says. Cousin Prince Charles, that is. The daughter of Prince Paul of Yugoslavia and Princess Olga of Greece, Elizabeth was 4 when her family—unseated in a military coup—went into exile. She finally settled in the U.S. The mother of Dynasty actress Catherine, 37, and author Christina, 35—with businessman Howard Oxenberg, the first of three husbands—the princess now raises funds for war victims in her native land. "When it's time to find one's identity," she says, "one finds it."

Prince Michael Romanoff Ilyinsky
His Cincinnati photography studio now shuttered, he steeps himself in his family's fabled and tragic lore

Michael Romanoff Ilyinsky didn't mind that, during his first visit to Russia in 1989, people called him "the tall guy who claims he's a prince and all he does is cry." Beyond the fact that he really is a prince—grandson of Grand Duke Dmitri Romanoff Pavlovich, first cousin to Czar Nicholas II—it's a fair description. The 6'5" Ilyinsky has made seven trips to Russia in all and, yes, got teary-eyed at former family palaces. "There's a natural desire in me to seek the truth," says Ilyinsky, 38.

Taking on the role of family historian surprised no one more than Ilyinsky, the youngest of four children of Paul Romanoff Ilyinsky, now mayor of Palm Beach, Fla. After receiving an inheritance at 18, Michael turned to partying until a near-fatal 1982 car accident settled him down. A college dropout turned professional photographer, the twice-divorced Ilyinsky closed his studio earlier this year to spend more time with his daughter and to work on the 1920s bungalow in Milford, Ohio, he shares with girlfriend Lisa Schiesler, 25. "I wanted to simplify," says Ilyinsky, who was raised in a large home with servants in Indian Hill, Ohio. Still, says Ilyinsky, there was a plus side to his upbringing: "I know what to do with all those forks."

Prince Palden Namgyal
Raised among the monks and mountains of the Himalayas, he made the move to Manhattan with ease

"Some Americans think prince is his real name," giggles Kesang Namgyal, referring to her husband, Prince Palden Namgyal. That's fine with him. A J.P. Morgan investment banker and suburban New York soccer dad, Namgyal, 34, rarely lets slip that he grew up among Buddhist monks or that the Dalai Lama was a good friend of his parents, the late King Palden Namgyal of Sikkim and his American socialite queen, Hope Cooke. Just 9 in 1973, when he and his sister moved to New York with their mother after she left the king (that same year he was dethroned by the Indian Army and died in 1982), Namgyal once thought about returning to Sikkim. That would be harder now, says the father of two utterly "Americanized" daughters, ages 6 and 3. Nor is he sure he even wants to. "One of the great things about this country," he says, "is that you can do something based on your own merits."

Baron François de Bérenx
A nobleman weary of upper-crust socializing now entertains for his supper

Texans are often skeptical when François Duhau de Bérenx, 66, an art dealer who has lived in the Lone Star State since 1976, says he's a baron. But they applaud his part-time gis on piano four nights a week in a San Antonio restaurant.

Not that he wasn't a jet-setter in his day. Bérenx, whose ancestor David Duhau was ennobled by King Louis XIII in the 1600s, grew up in a French chateau. After "World War II and taxes wiped out the family wealth, Bérenx moved to the Far East. In 1970 he was working as an interior designer in Thailand and hobnobbing with rock stars and royalty when he met and married Danielle Forbes-Frézard. "It was amusing to mix with the beautiful people," he says. But he doesn't miss the high life. "I get society magazines from Paris," he says, "and they look like mummies now, eating and drinking too much. I'm happy here."

Prince Ermias Sahle-Selassie
From his home in D.C., Haile-Selassie's grandson hopes to help transform Ethiopia

You know a boy's upbringing has been really regal when he credits boarding school with teaching him how regular folks live. Raised until age 11 at Ethiopia's Imperial Palace, where he had his own zoo, Prince Ermias—son of Emperor Haile-Selassie's son Sahle-Selassie—calls England's Haileybury College the "great normalizer" in his life.

Now 38, Ermias has not lived in his homeland since 1974, when Marxists unseated and executed his grandfather. The displaced prince shares a two-bedroom apartment in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Gelila, 33, and twins Christian and Rufael, 6. But he has held firmly to his roots. As president of the Ethiopian Crown Council, he works to improve human rights in his country, now a republic, and to reinstate the monarchy. "We're going back," he says. "Someday my sons will do something positive for Ethiopia."

Andrew Prince Sidamon-Eristoff
A Manhattan councilman, he finds his noble heritage carries no weight in the voting booth

He doesn't hobnob with nobility. "I'm not part of any club set or anything," he says. He never uses his full name—Andrew Prince Sidamon-Eristoff. "It's just a historical footnote," he says. And though his 1-year-old daughter would surely get points for being a capital-P princess one day, he didn't pass on the title. "She has a normal middle name," Eristoff says, laughing.

Still, the 35-year-old Manhattanite hasn't entirely forsaken his legacy. Like his grandfather Russian Army officer Prince Simon Sidamon-Eristoff ("He was really just 'noble'—Catherine the Great made all Georgian nobles princes," Eristoff explains) and his father, Constantine, head of transportation under former New York City Mayor John Lindsay, he was born to lead. A Republican New York City Council member since 1993, Eristoff, who lives on Manhattan's princely Upper East Side, describes his job as "cool. I enjoy being able to articulate a legal idea and see it go through."

And if that doesn't make for snappy cocktail-party chatter (he and his wife, Catherine, a securities trader, are too busy to go out much anyway, except for their Saturday-morning grocery-shopping ritual), there's always grandfather Eristoff to fall back on. "He was a colorful part of Georgian history," Eristoff admits. "Ancestry gives you a sense of context. It's appropriate to take some pride in it."

Princess Leila Pahlavi
Though still homesick, the Shah of Iran's daughter enjoys the anonymity of exile

She has not set foot on Iranian soil since the Islamic Revolution that deposed her father in January 1979. Yet Leila Pahlavi, 28, visits in her dreams. "There's one that's scary as hell," she says. "I'm in the palace, and I'm not supposed to be there—if someone catches me, I could have my head cut off." In truth, Leila and her family fled Teheran unharmed by the bloodshed that accompanied the Ayatollah Khomeini's takeover, but many of those close to them were killed. Small wonder, then, that the Shah's youngest child, who lives in Greenwich, Conn., doesn't care that no one calls her princess. "When you've been through what we have," she says, "formality isn't what counts."

A 1992 graduate of Brown University, Pahlavi focuses these days on family and friends. Her father died in 1980, but she often visits her mother, Farah, in Paris, and her three siblings. Wealthy enough not to have to work, she lives far less grandly than she did in Iran, where the palace housed a football stadium and a movie theater. "I want to see Iran again, but I love America," says the unmarried Pahlavi. "I can go anywhere and not worry that people will recognize me and say, 'Did you see that? Did you see how she ate her french fries?' "

Once her identity is known, people ask about her father, whose rule brought repression as well as prosperity. "I don't want to get political," says Pahlavi. Yet there is no doubt about her allegiances. Standing beside the bust of the Shah that dominates her living room, she says, "I am very proud to be an Iranian."

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