By Barbara Barker
April 02, 1979 12:00 PM

Almost everything about her is measured in superlatives. She is the most titled woman in the world—six times a duchess, 10 a countess, 24 a marquesa. She is the grandest of grandees—a uniquely Spanish anachronism entitling her to sit and wear her hat in the presence of the king. It is said that her land holdings would stretch all the way across the Iberian peninsula if laid end to end. Her masterworks by Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens, Velazquez, El Greco and Goya comprise what may be the world’s most spectacular private collection. Her blood is the bluest: Mary, Queen of Scots, Christopher Columbus and Winston Churchill are all among her forebears. Her wealth is reckoned at “billions of dollars” by an aristocratic friend.

She is 53-year-old Marfa del Rosario Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart y Silva, the 18th Duchess of Alba—”Tana” to her friends. In recent years, after her first husband died, she made headlines with some of Spain’s most romantic matadors and flamenco dancers. Then in March 1978 she astounded her countrymen even more by marrying Jesus Aguirre, 44, once a Catholic priest and—Madre de Dios—a commoner suspected of leftist leanings. They recently celebrated their first wedding anniversary, still a favorite target of gossip but to all appearances quite devoted to each other.

“I am very sorry,” the duchess explained at the time of their marriage, “but whoever marries me has to carry the title.” The bridegroom will be the Duke of Alba, however, only while Tana is alive. When she dies, her eldest son, Carlos, now 30, a lawyer and the bachelor Duke of Huéscar, will become head of the 549-year-old House of Alba.

Tana and Jesus met in December 1977. He is Spain’s director-general of music, a vaguely defined post in the Ministry of Culture, whose mission, he says, is “to solidify Spain’s musical base, to orchestrate, as it were, the musical politics of this country.” One of his first orchestrations was to fire the conductor of the Spanish National Symphony, Don Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, appointed during Franco’s rule in 1959.

The duchess is president of the Friends of the Opera. As such, she recalls, “I went to the ministry to discuss upcoming projects. Jesus was very nice. He asked me to lunch and we began courting.” Four months later they were married in a quiet ceremony in the chapel of her principal home, the huge white marble Liria Palace in downtown Madrid. The wedding was attended by most of Spain’s aristocracy (but not Tana’s friends, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia; protocol forbids them to attend second marriages). It was a far cry from her first wedding in 1947 when Tana married nobleman Luís Martínez de Irujo. That $300,000 extravaganza in Seville was more lavish than the wedding of the future Queen of England to Prince Philip the same year. Luís, father of Tana’s six children, aged 10 to 30, died of cancer in 1972. While Tana and Luís spent a three-month honeymoon in the U.S. (including Niagara Falls), Mexico and Hawaii, Jesus and his duchess made do with a three-day trip to Biarritz.

Aguirre is the son of an upper-middle-class Basque family. “Everything I learned about sensitivity, literature, music I learned at home,” he says, “particularly from my mother.” At the University of Comillas he studied theology and philosophy, and did graduate work in Munich, where he first met expatriate anti-Franco Spanish radicals. Of his current politics, Aguirre says carefully, “I don’t belong to a party. I have friends in politics, and I have my own convictions.”

In 1962 Aguirre entered the priesthood, but left seven years later “because of contradictions between my religious faith and my brain. I could live with them, but how could I pass the conflict on to anyone else?” He wrote a book on religion and politics, Sermons on Spain, which was banned for 18 months before it was finally published in 1971. Another of his books was Marxists and Christians, the Problems of a Dialogue. Says the duchess, in apparent reference to the whispers in aristocratic circles that Aguirre is a social climber: “Some people won’t forgive me for having married an intelligent man. We are very happy together; we don’t need anyone else.” Jesús fondly describes his wife as “pro-fundamente Sevillana,” meaning she likes anything from southern Spain, especially horses, flamenco and bullfights. Tana has been known to fight bulls Portuguese-style, on horseback, but never in public.

Five of her children still live at Liria. (Her second son, Alfonso, Duke of Aliaga, 28, has moved to New York with his wife and child; he’s a banker.) She and her husband rise “very early” by Madrid standards—8 a.m.—and Aguirre puts in a full day at the Ministry of Culture, coming home for lunch at 2 o’clock. Tana does wide-ranging charitable work besides opera; she is a leading member of the Spanish Red Cross and president of the Blood Donors. She also paints large oils in her studio in the palace. (A Beatles’ poster, a signed Jean Cocteau sketch and a snapshot of the king adorn its walls.)

She denies the “legend of love” that the artist Goya had an affair with her great-great-grandaunt, the 13th Duchess of Alba, and painted her as the notorious Naked Maja. Tana once told a Madrid newspaper, however, that Picasso wanted to paint her similarly unclothed: “It never came about. My children were too young at the time.”

The duchess also insists that estimates of her wealth are inaccurate. “There are lots of people, not necessarily aristocrats, who have a thousand times more money,” she says. “I have a lot of art work, but I can’t eat it, can I?” At times she also seems uncomfortable with her social obligations. Though she is doyenne of events like the spring Feria in Seville, Spain’s most famous fiesta, Tana says she prefers lounging in blue jeans: “Parties bore me, I prefer to talk to Jesus and listen to music.” Hearing that, the new duke smiles and squeezes her hand.