“In my time, the whole Miss Spain thing was a serious affair”

Baroness Thyssen talks art collecting, beauty contests and turning 70

Carmen Cervera, Baroness Thyssen, in the museum that bears the name of her husband.
Carmen Cervera, Baroness Thyssen, in the museum that bears the name of her husband.GORKA LEJARCEGI

It was a very hot day, her face was shiny, and she looked nervous as she sat down inside the Trustees room, lit up a tiny cigarette on a holder, and looked sideways at the journalist in what appeared to be the oblique gaze of the aristocracy as it looks down on the common people.

Sure, she became an aristocrat through marriage, but she still looks every bit a baroness. “Call me Tita,” she says.

The late Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza was her third husband. At first, Carmen Cervera was married to the actor Lex Barker, of Tarzan fame, and later to film producer Espartaco Santoni.

Her career has progressed from the Miss Spain crown in 1961 to the title of baroness and major sponsor of the arts. Tita Cervera owns one of the best private art collections in the world, much of which is on display at the Thyssen Museum in Madrid.

Question. You look like someone who is, like the French would say, au-dessus de la mêlée (above the madding crowd)…

Answer. Peut-être (maybe), ha ha.

Q. What does a baroness spend her time on?

A. The garden. For instance, on this trip to Madrid, when I have twice had five minutes to myself in 20 days, I trimmed the roses. And I feel happy. I live life. I also like to read, not that I have the time. I don’t have time for anything. And I really miss my mother. You think that when you lose someone, time will heal the wound. But it doesn’t.

Q. Can fathers and mothers be friends to their children?

A. Not when you’re young. When you’re older, yes. My mother had a hard time with me, like all mothers have with all children.

Q. Some more than others. Some go wilder.

A. My mother was always on tenterhooks because I did exactly as I pleased.

Even if I didn’t know any better I want to be 18 and have a good time again!”

Q. And are you still at it?

A. I’m still the same way; in that sense your mindset does not change.

Q. Like I was saying, au-dessus de la mêlée.

A. Your essence does not change. I now read the diaries I wrote at the age of 12, 14, 15 and I was already the way I am now.

Q. Carmen Cervera’s teenage diaries! What a publishing hit that would be! Maybe you should turn them into an annex to your husband’s memoirs.

A. I’ve been asked for them. But I think I will burn them soon before it occurs to someone to look for them. Although I keep them in a well-hidden spot. People keep asking me for my own memoirs, and I should take the time to write them, because it’s true I have had an interesting life.

Q. Pardon the rudeness, but do you believe in the curse of the round numbers? You’ve turned 70. Or maybe you’ve decided that getting older is a wonderful thing...

A. Yeah, right. I don’t like growing older any more than the next person. I look at myself and say ‘That’s someone else, that’s not me.’ I try to see everything through rose-tinted glasses. And I like for rooms to be a little dark, so I look nicer. The passing of the years is a pain to everyone. I would like to be 20 again.

Q. Sure, but with the knowledge of your 70 years, right?

A. No, even if I didn’t know any better. I want to be 18 and have a good time again!

Q. Well, for someone who’s 70 you’re pretty hot…

A. (The baroness laughs and blushes a bit). That compliment’s going to get me through the entire week! Wow, my morale is suddenly up.

It’s amusing, that’s all, but I attach no importance to the title”

Q. For someone who was not born with blue blood and had to work to get where she is today, is being a baroness something of a small revenge?

A. No… these are romantic, fairytale things. It’s amusing, that’s all, but I attach no importance to the title. I have friends who keep calling me Lady Baroness just because they like it.

Q. Long before you were hanging out with the blue-blooded crowd, you were Miss Spain. Some people say that these competitions are degrading to women. I rather believe, given the comments we make when we see these events, that they are degrading to men.

A. Ha ha. Well, I was the first Miss Spain ever. Back then it was not like today. You could not wear a bathing suit, you had to wear a tennis miniskirt. The jury included the Countess of Quintanilla, the Duchess of Alba, Dominguín the bullfighter… You needed to speak languages, you needed an education. And when I went to L.A. to represent Spain at the Miss Universe contest, the Spanish consul came to greet me at the airport. There were two misses per room at the hotel, and there was a policeman stationed at the door in case something happened to us. No, during my time the whole Miss Spain thing was a very serious affair. Even Franco congratulated me…

Q. Well, I guess despite that holier-than-thou look of his, he probably also liked a good pair of thighs...

A. There wasn’t a whole lot of thigh on display then. And I remember that Triunfo magazine was involved in that competition, and since they didn’t want to spend money sending someone to L.A., they asked me if I could write the article myself. And I did. I wrote about myself.

Q. EL PAÍS published a story with a headline that went something like this: ‘The sale for 25 million euros of the painting The Lock solves Baroness Thyssen’s liquidity problems.’

A. Yes.

Q. I have a Nigerian friend whose name is Walter who could have his liquidity problems solved if you gave him 10 euros at the door of Caprabo supermarket. Funny, isn’t it?

A. Maybe even one euro would resolve it.

Q. Some bankers have started to finance art and culture. It’s the least they could do after the mess they’ve made of things, isn’t it?

A. Yes, because culture provides wisdom, mental peace and openness.

Q. Right, but you can’t eat culture, and many people are starting to go hungry.

A. Culture does feed people, it creates lots of jobs.

Q. Don’t you think that at times like these there is a widespread notion — partly encouraged by the government — that culture is just a whim?

A. Culture, a whim? Maybe it’s a whim… but just to idiots!

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