The Princess who ran away with the circus

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(Published in Royalty Magazine volume 18-04)

The turbulent emotional life of Princess Stephanie of Monaco has taken another colourful twist with the news that she is now in love with a married elephant tamer. The princess, whose penchant for bodyguards, barmen and below-stairs types has long exasperated the Grimaldi family, has been conducting an affair with Franco Knie, 46, of the famed Circus Knie in Switzerland.

The affair became public when Mr Knie, a sixth-generation circus performer, announced that he was leaving his wife, Claudine, 51. The princess is reportedly so infatuated with the tamer and ringmaster that she has spent two months touring Europe with the circus, living in his caravan with her three children, Louis, seven, Pauline, six, and Camille, three. Pauline loves the elephants so much that Mr Knie has included her in one of his numbers.

Mr Knie’s mother, Tina, 78, told a Swiss newspaper at her home in Rapperswil, near Zurich: “My son said he was living separately from his wife and that they will soon get divorced because he has been having a relationship with Princess Stephanie since last summer.”

The newspaper said he told his mother: “Yes. It is true. I am getting divorced. My wife Claudine and I have both decided to go our separate ways.” Through their official spokesman, the House of Monaco would say only: “It is a personal matter.”

Princess Stephanie, 36, met Mr Knie two years ago at the annual International Circus Festival in Monte Carlo where she presented him with the award for the Best Animal Tamer. The circus festival is a highlight of the Monaco calendar when Prince Rainier – a circus buff who as a child dreamed of becoming a circus director – acts as honorary ringmaster. Thousands turn out in the tiny Mediterranean principality bedecked in red-and-white scarves decorated with clowns’ heads.
Founded in 1974, the festival has been cancelled only twice – once in 1982 when a car crash claimed the life of Princess Grace, the former Hollywood actress and mother of Princess Stephanie, her sister Caroline, 44, and brother Albert, 42.

When the festival was held this year, the princess appeared in a loose white dress, fuelling media speculation in France that she was pregnant. However, Mr Knie’s mother told the Zurich-based Blick newspaper: “Franco has assured me that the princess is not pregnant.”

Mr Knie, who is acclaimed as Europe’s finest elephant tamer, is also a director of the circus. He performed as a juggler, acrobat and tightrope walker before he found his metier taming exotic animals. He can trace his roots back to Friedrich Knie, founder of the Circus Knie and son of the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria and her personal physician.

Friedrich Knie abandoned his medical studies at 19 to become a circus rider and tightrope walker. He went on to found the Artistes and Tightrope Walkers Society in 1803, which became the Knie Brothers’ Swiss National Circus in 1919.

Franco Knie, who is 6ft tall, with Italian blood from his mother’s di Giovanni family, has been married twice. By his first wife, Doris, he has a son, Franco Knie Jnr, who is also an elephant tamer, and a daughter, also Doris. He has a son Anthony, 12, with his second wife. His romance with the princess is unlikely to surprise many in the 500-acre principality, ruled by the Grimaldi family since 1297.

Princess Stephanie, who at 17 was in the car with her mother when it crashed, has been dogged by controversy ever since. She has been photographed topless, worked as a model, launched an unsuccessful career as a pop star as well as d d several ailing businesses, including her own swimwear line.

Bodyguard Daniel Ducreut fathered two of her children before they married. A third child, also born out of wedlock, followed a relationship with a second bodyguard, although she never named him as father on the birth certificate.

A worried Prince Rainier banished her to the Alpine resort of Auron, 80 miles from Monaco, in the hope she would led a quieter life. But last year she became linked to the gangland killing of Tunisian-born Eskander Laribi, 25, a suspected cocaine dealer, who was gunned down outside a Nice post office last year.

His girlfriend, Virginie Tereberrou, 24, arrived at the scene in a Chevrolet off-roader which belonged to Princess Stephanie. The princess claimed, through lawyers, that she was willing to be interviewed, although not in a police station. In the event, diplomatic immunity prevented her being questioned.

It was the final straw for her father. Redrafting his will, he decreed that the bulk of his estimated £18 billion fortune would go to Princess Caroline and Prince Albert. Her unmarried brother stands to inherit his 78-year-old father’s title, the 253-room Palace Princier de Monaco, the Chateau at Marchais, near Paris, with its extensive hunting grounds, a private jet, yacht, 180 vintage cars, a stamp collection which is regarded as the second most valuable in the world, artworks and a highly lucrative share of the Monte Carlo Casino.

Princess Caroline, a mother of four who is now d d married to Prince Ernst August of Hanover, stands to inherit La Vigie, the 40-room villa at Roquebrune Cap Martin and most of her mother’s jewellery.

Princess Stephanie will receive just one per cent, £17 million, in monthly instalments administered by a lawyer, along with a ski chalet and a New York apartment. Prince Rainier sealed his disapproval of his younger daughter’s behaviour by removing her children from the line of succession.

Stephanie’s quest for love has resulted in heartbreak in the past. Perhaps the most damaging of her liaisons was her marriage to her former bodyguard, Daniel Ducruet, 36, an ex-policeman from a fishmonger’s family. They embarked on an affair. But her father, appalled at his 36-year-old daughter’s choice, refused consent for them to marry. When she then produced two of his children out of wedlock, Prince Rainier finally relented.

But one year later the marriage was over following the publication of lurid photographs and a video of Ducruet cavorting intimately by a swimming pool with a sometime stripper and former Miss Bare Breasts of Belgium. Ducruet was banished from the Monegasque court. He was later awarded £20,000 damages in a French court which heard allegations that he had walked into a honey trap designed to disgrace him. The princess was d d awarded a “quickie” divorce in 1996.

She then embarked on a string of brief affairs including a romance with Fabien Barthez, the Manchester United goalkeeper, and the actor Jean-Claude Van Damme. But the lure of bodyguards proved too much, and she began a relationship with Raymond Gottlieb, 34, a bodyguard turned ski instructor. In July 1998 she gave birth to a third child, a daughter Camille Marie Kelly, named after her mother, but refused to name the baby’s father on the birth certificate. Her father ordered her to leave Monaco, and she went to Auron, the ski resort – where she fell for a barman Pierre Pinelli, and was even on occasion seen waiting on tables at his restaurant. But that romance was short-lived. Other boyfriends have included Jean-Yves Lefur, who served time for fraud, and the Brat Pack actor Rob Lowe.

(First published in Royalty Magazine Volume 17-01.)