BELGIUM: The Provocative Princess

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The first Free Belgian to parachute into his German-occupied homeland after King Leopold III surrendered to the Nazis in 1940 slipped back to London with a confidential letter. Addressed to a Belgian minister-in-exile, it came from a friend of the royal family. "Could you please do something about the situation at Laeken [Palace]? The King is surrounded ... A beautiful German blonde masseuse comes in every morning, and the King sees far too much of Mademoiselle Baels."

Six months later, King Leopold, a lonely widower,* secretly married Marie Liliane Baels, the comely daughter of a Flemish shrimp merchant who had made good in politics. The marriage was morganatic; instead of becoming Queen, Liliane took the title of Princess de Réthy, and renounced all rights of succession. But the news, when the German radio leaked it, shocked Belgians and brought this reproach from a Brussels newspaper: "Sire! We thought you had your face turned towards us in our misery; instead, you had it hidden on the shoulder of a woman."

Shape of Venus. So began l'affaire de Réthy, the royal scandal that helped Leopold lose his throne. Last week, strong national feelings about the princess were jeopardizing the prestige of Leopold's son, 22-year-old King Baudouin I.

As sickly in mien as he is diffident in manner, Baudouin as a child never had much fun until the Princess de Réthy became his maman. She was young* and frolicsome, with what one admirer called "the complexion of a rose and the shape of Venus." Baudouin adored his vivacious stepmother and, according to the gossips, is still strongly influenced by her. She got blamed for Baudouin's rude refusal to attend the funeral of Britain's George VI.

Spot of Sun. Then came last month's storm (TIME, Feb. 9), which broke through Belgium's dikes and turned a catty rumor into a constitutional ruckus. While British and Dutch royalty went personally to the aid of their hard-hit subjects, ailing King Baudouin took off with his father and stepmother for a spot of winter sunshine on the French Riviera. The Brussels press exploded. Newspapers, ordinarily respectful of the monarchy, front-paged pictures of the royal sunbathers side by side with photos of their flooded countrymen. A quick return and a tour of the worst-hit areas hardly helped at all, for Baudouin caught cold and flew back to the Riviera. Returning to Brussels, he gave a parting interview to the Parisian France Soir and was quoted as saying: "It is Belgian unity itself that is being attacked through the attacks on the royal family."

The King Is Ill. To a seething Belgian Parliament, Premier Van Houtte presented a doctor's certificate. "The King," he pleaded, "is seriously ill." But the opposition's No. 1 target was not His Majesty, but the unpopular "Shrimp Queen." "Madame de Réthy, we are sure," snapped the Socialist Le Peuple, "was primarily responsible for this detestable incident. She is exercising a palace influence to which she has no right." Furthermore, said Le Peuple, her opennecked blouses and slacks are "provocative" and her behavior "indiscreet and boisterous. The government must regulate her status."

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