Noblesse oblige and then some Royalty: When the Communist dictator was thrown out, Romania struggled in its new existence. Into the chaos stepped Princess Margarita who rolled up her sleeves and went to work to make her homeland a better place.

June 03, 1998|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Princess Margarita of Romania is on the phone, giving a bit of insight into how royalty works away from the pop and flash of the paparazzi cameras in Monaco, Cannes, Nice and all those other Euro-playgrounds along the Mediterranean.

"There's a certain credibility attached to the people," says the princess. "There's also an image of being serious and responsible and a certain amount of authority. Obviously, you have to live up to that. You can't behave stupidly."

These days Princess Margarita, 49, doesn't have time to talk about the latest party. She wants to talk about raising money for the orphanages, health clinics and senior citizen centers her foundation runs in Romania. Someone else will have to provide the details of the jet set.

"I just think it's empty. I think it's boring," she says of that life. "I went to a night club once when I was 18 and I loathed the experience. It was in Monaco, actually."

Still, some people aren't willing to give up their princess stereotypes.

"You have to overcome prejudice," she says. "People think you're going to be tinsel town, or empty-headed."

Instead, they get someone who volunteered in the refugee camps of the Sudan and Ethiopia, graduated in political science and international law from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, then went on to fight hunger with the United Nations.

"You get a great deal of satisfaction, helping people," says Princess Margarita, who traces her lineage back through Queen Victoria.

On Wednesday evening, she'll pass through Baltimore for an invitation-only reception and fund-raiser for her organzation, the Princess Margarita of Romania Foundation. The event is sponsored by the local chapter of the Polish Nobility Association Foundation, which is primarily concerned with the study of heraldry.

"They just kept writing to us," says Princess Margarita, who will start the day in Washington with a meeting at the World Bank. "They're nice people and I realized they were serious, that they wanted to introduce us to people who were serious."

Such dinners are part of life on the nonprofit circuit. You never know who you're going to meet, or who is going to respond to a plea for help. "Some people give a dollar, some people give $1,000, and some people give $10,000," she says.

Last year, the foundation spent $500,000. The foundation grew out of her visit to her homeland after the fall of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Revolution swept through central and eastern Europe with dizzying speed that fall and winter of 1989-1990. Romania, on the Black Sea and bordering Turkey and Hungary, was one of the last communist strongholds to fall.

The people captured Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, strung them up and killed them. The deaths brought an exhilarating sense of victory. But when the celebrations ended, people realized freedom brought unexpected responsibilities.

On their own

"People didn't quite know what [freedom] meant. So there was a sense of shock, at least that's how I perceived it," she says. "The state was supposed to take care of everything."

Ceausescu had been one of Eastern Europe's most repressive communist dictators. Yet, because he was not a close friend of the Soviet Union, the United States and other Western countries kept a steady friendship with him. His gifts from America included models of NASA mooncraft and a 10-gallon hat.

His country produced the charismatic gymnastic coach, Bela Karolyi; the perfect gymnast, Nadia Comaneci; and the piano virtuoso, Radu Lupu. They were bright lights during a dark time in Romania, where Ceausescu ruled with an iron fist and squads of secret police.

Typewriters had to be registered with the police, who also kept samples of the machine's type on file. Ceausescu razed neighborhoods and replaced the houses with architectural monstrosities. One, the People's Palace, is as large as the Pentagon.

On her first visit, Princess Margarita saw "the poverty, the despair, the grayness, the results of authoritarian Communism." It came as a shock. She had grown up in four countries -- Britain, Italy, Denmark and Switzerland -- and heard old stories from her father, King Michael. He had not seen Romania since the Communists forced him out in 1947.

Those stories didn't match the ravaged land she found. News reports and video taken after Ceausescu's fall showed traumatized children sleeping two and three to a bed in orphanages. Mad souls wandered through asylums where no one was in charge. Into this world came Princess Margarita, a member of the royal family, heir to the throne.

Reactions were mixed. An entire generation had no memory of the monarchy. Some only had stories handed down by grandparents. Some were curious. Some were afraid.

"They'd heard the propaganda that we were going to eat people like Dracula," the princess says.

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