Todd Eberle photographed the palace of St. Emmeram, and its inhabitants, in Southern Germany for his new book, The House of Thurn und Taxis
Gloria von Thurn und Taxis first visited the Palace of St. Emmeram in Regensburg, Germany, as the 19-year-old date of its owner, Johannes, 11th Prince of Thurn und Taxis, a descendant of the first postmaster of the Holy Roman Empire. Her own parents, both titled Europeans, fled to Africa just after the Second World War to escape the advancing Soviet armies, leaving everything behind. She met the 53-year-old Johannes in 1979, and the pair were soon married.
Princess Gloria "TNT" cut a striking figure—mixing formal eveningwear with new wave hairdos—and a wide swath through 1980s society, making friends with American artists Keith Haring and Jeff Koons, and throwing a series of extravagant parties.
Upon her husband's death, in 1990, she inherited the estate— and half a billion dollars' worth of debt. Now a devout Catholic, Gloria has turned the family's fortunes around and restored the palace to its former glory, all while raising three children.
RICHARDSON: Your princely family, quite unlike any other family in the world, is reflected in [the Palace at] Regensburg. The Thurn und Taxis legacy is so disparate, and it once touched most of Western Europe, but what's amazing is that, unlike other castles and palaces, Regensburg is very much alive. This is thanks, above all, to you, dear Gloria.
PRINCESS GLORIA: My aim is to help people understand the history.
Yes, history haunts the place.
Don't forget that it all started in the eighth century, when Benedictine monks first came here to build a tomb for the holy abbot. They also built our beautiful cloister and the basilica. Even the monks' cells survive in the depths of the palace. When King Maximilian I Joseph of Bavaria nationalized the postal service in 1806, he also secularized all church properties and kicked out the monks. We were given the former abbey of St. Emmeram and the land that went with it as compensation for the loss of the postal service.
Would you tell us about the romantic, beautiful princesses who haunt these spectacular rooms: Elisabeth, Empress of Austria, known as Sisi, and her sister Helene. They star in portrait after portrait, in room after room. How they stand out from all the other stately images!
This is a romantic story and also a sad one.
What a fascinating woman and what a modern heroine—one might even say feminist—Sisi was! A free spirit who managed to escape the bondage of royal life. She roamed Europe in search of romance. She loved hunting and had a wild affair with George "Bay" Middleton, a famously dashing rider to hounds in Ireland. Her romance scandalized Victorian prudes, but posterity sees her as a beloved icon. And how tragic her death was. She was stabbed by an anarchist. She was so tightly corseted that she was able to take several steps before collapsing.
Yes, but I don't think Sisi was the free spirit you have evoked. To my mind she was a lost soul, very capricious, always chasing one fantasy after another, none of which was fulfilled. I think she was running away from herself.
John, do you realize that Sisi's older sister, Helene, was the one who had originally been chosen to marry Emperor Franz Joseph?
But when he laid eyes on Sisi, he fell in love with her and changed his mind. Helene married Prince Maximilian von Thurn und Taxis instead. They were [my husband] Johannes's great-grandparents, and, as you see, Helene turned out to be a woman of great taste.
One understands why her staterooms at Regensburg triumph over the bad taste of their time. Tell us more about Helene.
Like I did, she had to run the Thurn und Taxis [affairs] until her underage son, Prince Albert I, could take over. It was the difficult time after the postal service was finally nationalized, when the family had to transition to being owners of land and forestry properties. Sisi's splendor as Empress of Austria may have motivated Helene to make Regensburg Palace as grand as her sister's palaces. This might explain why Helene, now that she had married a fabulously rich prince, could say to herself, "Well, I didn't get the emperor, but I am much freer and have ended up with just as much as Sisi." Yes, indeed, there was an element of sibling rivalry.
What happened after Helene passed away, in 1890? How did Prince Albert cope with World War I?
After the death of his mother, Albert and his wife Margarete [Archduchess of Austria] had to face a rather difficult and different life. World War I spread misery all over the country. Both the prince and the princess dedicated their lives to helping the poor as well as the wounded soldiers, whom they put up either in their own princely houses or on their properties. More and more wounded soldiers reached Regensburg, and there was no more space to house them. So Albert constructed a hospital for surgery and kept the soldiers there until full recovery. Margarete, who was a trained nurse, worked in the operating room every day for free. Apart from her vast charity work, she was also an acclaimed painter and sculptress. Her portrait busts and religious sculptures can be seen in her fascinating art-filled studio and scattered throughout the palace.
So it was Prince Albert who founded the famous soup kitchen?
Yes, in 1923 he opened the kitchen that served a hot meal to the poor every day. Today we still provide around 300 hot meals per day to the disadvantaged.
Let's discuss what happened during World War II. Wasn't your father-in-law, Prince Karl August, arrested by the Nazis?
The Nazis forced Prince Gabriel, the only son of Prince Franz Joseph, into the army and immediately packed him off to Stalingrad—a death sentence. Johannes's father Prince Karl August [Franz Joseph's brother] was next in line, you see, and he was fearless in terms of his hatred of the Nazis. Eventually, one of his foresters betrayed him by calling the Gestapo and accusing him of speaking out against the Nazi government—and, worse, for listening to the BBC. So the poor man was arrested, and despite the intervention of [António de Oliveira] Salazar—
—Salazar, the Portuguese dictator?
Yes. You see, both Johannes's father and uncle had married daughters of the king of Portugal. This enabled the Thurn und Taxis family to invoke Salazar's help. Alas, Salazar was unable to prevent Karl August from being incarcerated in a Nazi jail. He was not freed until the end of the war.
When did he die?
In 1982. He was an extraordinary man, very averse to keeping up with modern times. In his later years his life revolved around his passion for his parrots. They all squawked and screeched. If you wanted to have a conversation with him in his drawing room, you had to scream, not only to drown out the birds but also to get through to the old prince, who was very deaf.
Speaking of family, John, let's talk about my husband Johannes. I know you must have many vivid memories of him.
Johannes was one of the most fascinating and intricate people I ever met. He lived life to the extreme in so many different ways. People are apt to remember him for only one aspect of his multifaceted character—his genius for devising elaborate practical jokes—but also he took after his father, who was known for his reactionary stance and his contempt for 20th-century vulgarity, ostentation, and lack of respect for the noble traditions of the past.
For all Johannes's eccentricities and extravagances, he was, at heart, a surreal mixture of the royalist privilege of the past and the crazy, modernist, somewhat Andy Warhol–ish Pop lifestyle of the present. These very different tendencies were united in him and formed his character.
In a curious way, Johannes reflects the layers of this vast house. He was on the one hand an ultraconservative Catholic but on the other hugely open to modern ideas and ways of life.
How did you meet Johannes?
In the summer of 1979, I was at a café in Munich with two friends; we were about to go to a concert by Supertramp. Before we left, Johannes walked in, came over, and joined us. After talking for a bit he said, "Let your friends go and I'll take you to dinner." We got on like a house on fire. We were soon inseparable.
After two or three weeks, he took me to Regensburg. I was a little bit frightened, because Johannes was much older than I was, but he was a fun guy. I knew nothing at all about his background, and God knows the palace turned out to be rather intimidating. However, when I met my future father-in-law, he approved of me.
In due course Johannes took me to Mexico, Brazil, and St. Moritz, where he proposed in February 1980. We got married in Regensburg.
Tell me about your own wonderful rooms in the palace. They are so original—such a contrast to the rest of the palace. They are contemporary but also lavishly decorated, almost as colorfully as some of the staterooms. Like those rooms, they are hung with portraits, but your portraits are by Warhol, Struth, and Basquiat among others, as well as with your way-out Catholic imagery, which is all the more striking in light of the magnificent Catholic artifacts elsewhere in the palace. On one of your crucifixes, the head of Christ is a hamburger.
It's called McJesus and is by the Chapman Brothers. It represents a modern way of interpreting sacred beliefs. Trademarks and corporate logos have become symbols of worship nowadays.
It's a significant piece. At first glance it's a shock, but I now see that it conveys a major and modern message.
Exactly. It represents the kind of juxtaposition I am trying to achieve in St. Emmeram.
Yes, but you have also enlivened some of the staterooms with contemporary masterpieces. Formality is exorcised.
Yes, I want my collection to animate the grandiose past. As you say, it lives, and I want it to go on living at Regensburg. That is why I invited Todd Eberle to take all these photographs. I gave him the keys to every part of the building, so that he could wander off and take these gorgeous pictures.
You couldn't have found anyone better. For me it was a great experience accompanying him as he worked and seeing so many of his discoveries through his exceedingly perceptive eye.
Your greatest achievement is to have saved the palace after Johannes's death. If not for you, who knows what might have been its fate? The treasures might have been sold, and the place might have become a municipal building.
That's true. No doubt about it. When I took over, everything was on the brink of being lost, thanks to lousy management. Poor Johannes was unaware, but luckily I was able to get rid of the bad managers.
How courageous you were to climb down off your gilded cloud to salvage Johannes's rickety financial empire. You abandoned your electric guitar for a computer and took to studying business, corporate law, and estate management. Little by little everything has come back to life. On top of everything else, you had three children to bring up. How did you manage to put all those duties under one hat?
Yes, I am the mother of Albert and my two daughters, Elisabeth and Maria Theresia. The girls are hard at work on their careers. Maria Theresia is an artist and recently married a young British painter. Elisabeth works for Vogue in London, which she enjoys tremendously. Being a mother involves being an efficient hausfrau. If she's any good, she learns how to be a manager. That is what I've tried to do.
True, but dear Gloria, I have difficulty seeing you as a hausfrau.
Maybe, but I have always had to keep things going. This has been my destiny. I suppose I'm just lucky. Let's face it: I'm the fourth Thurn und Taxis widow who has had to do this. It's been a pleasure and an honor and a hell of a lot of hard work.
The marriage of Gloria, Countess von Schoenburg-Glauchau, and Prince Johannes von Thurn und Taxis in 1980 was an extravagant, joyful affair. They built a life together at the sprawling, sumptuous St. Emmeram Palace in Regensburg, Germany, one of the largest private residences in Europe, is the subject of a new cocktail table book, House of Thurn und Taxis (Rizzoli, $85), out this month.
With full-color photography from Todd Eberle and words from Princess Gloria herself, the book invites readers on a tour of the home, which, with its 500-plus rooms, would take more than three hours to explore in real life. Princess Gloria and Prince Johannes filled many of those rooms with an art collection, including Warhols, William Gail paintings, and dozens of pieces by Jeff Koons. The playroom is covered in art from Keith Haring, who drew on the floor with his Edding marker when he visited the palace.
The St. Emmeram Palace is special not only for its art collection, but also for its architectural preservation. Walking through the palace is like time traveling through several centuries: There’s a Romanesque-Gothic cloister, built between the 12th and 14th centuries; a neo-Renaissance marble staircase; a number of Rococo and neo-Rococo staterooms; and a Baroque library, frescoed in 1737. The resulting juxtaposition—contemporary art, on a backdrop of ornate and carefully preserved structural design—makes the palace a home like no other.
Fairy tales do come true: Todd Eberle can attest to that. “My biggest surprise in preparing this book about Princess Gloria [Countess von Schönburg-Glauchau] was that every fantasy I’ve ever had about fairy tales and princesses living in castles and wearing tiaras and attending balls with kings and queens came true,” says the New York photographer upon the publication last November of his newest book, House of Thurn und Taxis (Rizzoli). “I didn’t know such a thing existed. My original working title was Fairy Tales, but that was a bit too campy and disingenuous. What happened, what’s shown in these pages, it’s all real. It’s still taking place. My pictures tell a true, living story.” As the countess, aka “Princess TNT,” said during the making of the book, “Darling, you are a picture machine.”
Eberle’s very trajectory as one of the world’s most sought-after and visionary photographers of people and buildings reads much like a fairy tale. While talking with him atop the penthouse terrace office he shares with his partner, Richard Pandiscio; later in their apartment in the Jean Nouvel building in Chelsea; and while driving uptown in their Tesla, Eberle reveals himself to be both aware that his life might a kind of fairy tale, and also bewildered by his good fortune. However, unlike some members of royalty, including his latest subject, Princess Gloria, he didn’t marry into the role. His royal stature as a photographer of some of the biggest personalities of our time for some of the biggest publications is one that he earned wholly through his own manipulations of lens and shutter. No court intrigue required.
Once upon a time, there was a young boy who sat in his bedroom in a nondescript postwar house in the central Florida town of Howey-in-the-Hills, staring at the covers from People magazine he had cut out and pasted to his walls. There, spotlit by the strong Florida sun, were David Bowie, Liza Minnelli, Diana Ross, the Carpenters and others of the era, people who filled the young Eberle’s walls and his imagination. Every week, when Eberle and his mother went grocery shopping, she would buy him the latest issue of the celebrity weekly.
“I was obsessed with People,” he says. “I noticed after a while that some pictures were better than others. I remember the first time I saw a photo credit for one of the cover photographs—Francesco Scavullo. I think it was his photo of Donna Summer. And I realized then that there was a talent to photography. Ever since I learned what the camera can do, I’ve always gone after everything I’ve ever wanted through my photography.”
For a man who has lived at the White House with the Clintons, photographing Hillary; commuted to Marfa, Texas, to capture the life, sculptures and home of Donald Judd; partied with and photographed the likes of Jeff Koons and Andy Warhol; and has now captured the domestic life of Princess Gloria, Eberle, it would seem, has attained everything he could want. His reign as one of the photographers of our era continues.
Gloria’s ascent to her actual royal throne is a well-documented one. When she was a mere lass of twenty, she met and married Prince Johannes Thurn und Taxis in 1980, he thirty-three years her sen ior. On one of their first dates, the prince took her to his 500-room Bavarian schloss (and still counting, since the princess herself admits to still finding new rooms). Although there was no empire or loyal subjects to reign over, she did inherit the responsibility of caring for what might be Europe’s largest private residence, its rooms filled with treasures new, old and ancient. Their marriage was a happy and real one, in that there was a mutual love.
As she attained the stature as one of the queens of 1980s fabulosity, the prince gave her an allowance that allowed her to begin amassing a collection of artwork—sculptures by Jeff Koons, then an unknown; graffiti-isms of Keith Haring; Jean-Michel Basquiat canvases; Cindy Sherman’s self-absorbed self-portraits—enough to virtually redefine the market for contemporary art and artists.
The prince died in 1990, and while he left her the keys to the kingdom, it was one in which burdensome taxes were owed and mismanagement was rampant. In the thrice-daily meals that Eberle took with Gloria during the weeks in which he was in residence photographing the schloss, she confided in him.
“When she fell into debt and the German tax authorities came knocking on her door and handed her a bill, she said, ‘Do you want me to leave the door open when I leave or should I just close it, because I can’t pay this,’” recounts Eberle.
What kept the princess at home and not sent into exile was that she struck a deal with the German authorities, allowing them to choose contents from the castle that had historical significance to the nation. Venetian chandeliers and rococo armories, sets of silver and china and entire herds of vintage carriages were carted away and placed in a state-run public museum, situated on the grounds of her schloss (estimates put the tax exchange at some $80 million). She also embarked on auctioning off significant works of art.
“What impresses me, too, is that she went to business school, earned degrees and figured it all out,” says Eberle. “She runs an empire now. She’s a real businessperson dealing with her various real estate holdings and the like. At the breakfast table, I’d see people bring her documents to sign in leather dossiers. She’s very formal in her business side.”
Eberle met his subject at a Rolling Stones concert in Munich in 2011, to which he had been invited by his friend Francesca von Habsburg. “We ended up hanging out with Mick and Gloria at an after-party,” says Eberle. “Then I ran into her at the Venice Biennale at a party Larry Gagosian held at some palazzo. I was invited to her schloss, and even though I arrived at midnight, she spent three hours consuming my monograph. She went through it in the most interested way I’ve ever seen anyone look at my work.”
Soon thereafter, Eberle would be making regular weeklong trips to the schloss, exploring and photographing the contents of its rooms. He admits that whenever he would open a door, he never knew what to expect—closets of red footmen’s uniforms, vaulted Romanesque abbey walks, Prince Albert’s boyhood bedroom walls tagged with four-letter graffiti epithets, family crypts, a library of scientific treatises. “I’m more obsessed with photographing a strict period of modernism, so, for me, this project was particularly exciting because the palace architecture was outside the vocabulary of my obsession, yet I could still bring my eye to it. When you turn each page of the book, it’s as much a surprise to the reader as it was like for me to turn the handle on a door and discover what lay behind it.”
When Eberle embarked on the project, Rizzoli had positioned the book as another of their lavish tomes on interiors, but by the time he was done shooting what he estimates to be some 10,000 digital photos, something else had emerged. “This book is so beyond interiors,” he insists. “It’s a contemporary art book, it’s a history of interior decoration, it’s German history, it’s European history, it’s royal history, it’s TNT’s history. There’s no reference for a book like this. I have plenty of books about old castles in Europe, but they show musty interiors. I put more into this book than I did my own monograph.”
Of his newish and, seemingly lasting, friendship with Gloria, Eberle says, “I’ve always been around and seek out interesting women. I have a thing for strong women and Gloria is certainly one of them.”