The Prince Is a Pauper
William Lobkowicz left Boston for the Czech Republic with dreams of reclaiming his family’s stolen royal fortune. Turns out, that’s been the easy part.
Lucie Šimeˇcková still gets giddy when she talks about first meeting William. It was 2005, and her cheeks were flushed as he interviewed her for a job. “I couldn’t plan that I could meet someone so important—prince, and Lobkowicz!” she tells me in her thick Czech accent. It was a natural, starstruck response, given that the name Lobkowicz is as familiar in Prague as Kennedy is in Boston.
Czech history, in fact, is replete with examples of Lobkowicz influence: The family helped start a 30-year war when, in 1618, they offered refuge to Catholic imperial ministers who’d been thrown out a castle window by Protestant rebels. They altered the course of musical history when Joseph František Maximilian, the Seventh Prince Lobkowicz, gave Beethoven something akin to a MacArthur genius grant, allowing the wunderkind to write as he wished. (In return, Beethoven dedicated his famous Fifth Symphony to the prince.) They also brought this city the Infant Jesus of Prague, a holy statue from Spain that to this day draws thousands of pilgrims.
William’s lifestyle is of a more modest caliber. He lives with his wife, Sandra, and their three children in an apartment in a neighborhood of Prague that resembles Jamaica Plain. The home is decorated with simple modernity, save for its abundance of ancient artwork—part of his collection of treasures and castles that were stolen from the Lobkowiczes in the aftermath of World War II.
The locations of his ancestors’ living quarters were known across the land, but the doorbell to his place is labeled only “William L.” That’s where he is at 7:30 a.m. on this Tuesday, pacing the apartment and sipping tomato juice, like the opening sequence to a sitcom called Married with Castles. His 13-year-old son, Will, is lying on his stomach, held rapt by a CNN International report on the plummeting stock market—a business interest he’s apparently inherited from his father. But the prince has no time to watch. It’s his day to drive the carpool, so he’s busy corralling daughters Sophia and Ileana, ages six and nine.
Like his father, William was raised in the suburbs outside Boston, making his children the first Lobkowiczes in three generations to grow up in the Czech Republic. As such, they represent the final, proper return of the family to its homeland. They are natives, part of the natural fabric of the culture. And William, who is 46, knows it will likely be left to them to complete the work to which he’s dedicated the past two decades of his life: reestablishing his family’s regal legacy. He has already spent millions to get back the plundered properties, and millions more restoring them to a flicker of their former shine. But the task is simply too big for him to finish.
The Lobkowiczes came into wealth and influence starting in the 1500s, when they joined the inner circle of the Holy Roman Empire’s ruling Hapsburg family. They married into royalty, served as military generals, and, in exchange for their loyalty, were bestowed with palaces and land. By the elaborate rules of European nobility, all Lobkowiczes were made princes and princesses. But as great as the family became over the next four centuries, their power was no match for the advancing Nazis in 1939. The Lobkowiczes fled the country for London; though they weren’t Jewish, William’s grandfather had been put on the Nazi blacklist for execution. After the war they were able to return to their homeland, but soon left again—this time for good—after Communists took control of the Czech government in 1948.
The family settled 25 miles outside Boston, in North Easton, which had become a haven for European immigrants escaping the war. They arrived with nothing, relying on neighbors for charity. William’s father, Martin, just a boy at the time, managed to acclimate quickly—too quickly, perhaps, for the tastes of some of his relatives. An aunt often wrote from Europe, addressing the envelopes to Prince Martin Lobkowicz. After pleading with her to drop the formalities, he finally employed a more dramatic measure: “Please don’t write ‘prince’ anymore on the envelope,” he wrote to her. “Prince is a name of a popular brand of spaghetti here in Boston, and it’s quite embarrassing to me.”
Martin grew up, became a stockbroker, and married a girl from Kentucky. When William came along, he received a thoroughly American upbringing, and developed a headfirst ambition. He played squash, first at Milton Academy and then at Harvard. He was a five-handicap golfer at age 12. He decided in his teens to become an opera singer, and chased the dream long into his twenties—singing with Harvard’s Memorial Church choir and even trying out for a spot at Tanglewood. “I like people to tell me I can’t do something,” he says. “I love it.”
Though William sometimes heard stories about the old country, he didn’t travel there until he was 14. It was 1976, and the family visited as tourists, admiring the jigsaw puzzle of dark, stony churches and taffy-colored mansions. They went to the countryside and studied the grandness of the 100-room Nelahozeves, one of dozens of castles the family had once owned. But they made sure to keep to themselves. “We didn’t want to do anything that was going to get anybody all excited—Oh, the Lobkowiczes are here,” William says.
Upon returning to Massachusetts, William quickly resumed his American life, but the trip remained an inspiration. He researched his family’s past, and in college majored in European history. The degree wouldn’t pay the bills, a reality that eventually led to his pursuing work in real estate. He often subjected his friends to lessons on the greatness of the Lobkowiczes. “He just had an affinity for the culture and his family and what all that meant,” says David Slye, a Boston golfing buddy who William once brought to meet the visiting Czech ambassador. “It was embedded in his being.”
Then, in 1989, William got his chance to pursue his passion more actively. Watching TV one day, he saw the news from Prague that Communism was finally falling. He was 28, with little keeping him in Boston. He began packing his bags.