Johan Friso, the bespectacled Dutch prince who avoided the limelight and gave up his position in line to the throne after getting entangled in a scandal with his bride-to-be, died Monday – 18 months after a skiing accident that left his brain gravely injured. He was 44.
The royal house said the prince, known as Friso, died of complications from the accident, without giving more details. It said he had never regained more than “minimal consciousness.”
Friso was struck by an avalanche while skiing off-trail in Lech, Austria, Feb. 17, 2012, and was buried until rescuers pulled him from the snow, unconscious, 20 minutes later. He was resuscitated at the scene and flown to a hospital, but remained in coma for months.
Until the dramatic incidents in Lech, Friso, the second of the former Queen Beatrix’s three sons, had sometimes been known as “Prince Brilliant.” He studied at UC Berkeley, the Technical University of Delft and Erasmus University at Rotterdam, graduating from the Dutch universities cum laude with degrees in engineering and economics. He later earned an MBA at France’s prestigious INSEAD school of business.
But the central event of his life as a royal came when he gave up his claim to the throne in order to marry Dutchwoman Mabel Wisse Smit, in a wedding not sanctioned by the government.
The pair had announced their relationship in 2002 and got engaged in 2003. Wisse Smit worked for George Soros’ Open Society Institute and was long seen by the queen as an ideal daughter-in-law. But during her vetting to join the royal house, the pair decided not to disclose the full extent of a friendship she had had while she was a college student.
The friend in question: drug baron Klaas Bruinsma, who later became one of the country’s most infamous crime lords and was slain in a gangland killing.
Wisse Smit denies ever having had any romantic involvement with Bruinsma, and says she hadn’t understood who he was at the time. But as details about their relationship emerged in the Dutch press, then-Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende said it was clear the pair had held back information, and he wouldn’t propose the law needed for Parliament to approve Wisse Smit’s entry to the royal house.
The couple acknowledged being “naive and incomplete” in what they told Balkenende.
Other spouses of Dutch royalty have endured controversy. Beatrix’s own marriage was initially unpopular because of her husband’s German nationality. Her son King Willem-Alexander’s Argentine wife Maxima – known Queen Maxima following Beatrix’s abdication and Willem-Alexander’s ascension to the throne earlier this year – had been criticized over her father’s ties to the Videla regime. Both went on to become among the best-liked members of the royal house, which is highly popular.
But Friso and Mabel decided to marry without seeking parliamentary approval, knowing the decision meant Friso would be cut from the royal house and line of succession. They were still considered members of the royal family, and bore the honorific titles of Prince and Princess of Oranje-Nassau.
After the affair – dubbed “Mablegate” in the Dutch press, because the “cover-up” did most of the damage – Friso seemed relieved at the certainty he would never be called upon to assume the throne.
“I’m not planning to return to the Netherlands any time soon,” he said in a televised statement. “I am planning to remain available for my mother or brother if it’s needed, for supporting roles.”
Friso had spent most of his life as second in line for the throne behind Willem-Alexander, but never appeared enthusiastic.
As a child he was filmed saying “you can hit Alex, but not so hard he gets killed, because then I’d have to be king.”
After graduating from college, he worked as a consultant for McKinsey & Co in Amsterdam. He went on to work for Goldman Sachs’ investment banking arm in London, eventually becoming vice president.
After his marriage, Friso served on various supervisory boards, worked for charitable organizations and helped found a low-cost airline. In 2011 he left a position as managing director at investment firm Wolfensohn & Company to became the chief financial officer of Urenco, the European uranium enrichment consortium.
Although Friso did not have an image as a risk-taker, the skiing accident – off piste despite avalanche warnings – did not stand totally alone. He was also once stopped while driving 200 kilometers per hour (120 mph).
One of Friso’s most sympathetic moments in the public eye came shortly after the death of his father, Prince Claus: it fell to Friso to escort his mother at the funeral ceremony. He supported her in a long, stately walk to her seat as she leaned heavily on his arm, deep in grief.
In a lighter vein, the prince was considered very handsome as a young man, but he was not known to have had any girlfriends. The Dutch gay community became convinced he was homosexual. Friso turned a blind eye in amusement as “Friso”-themed parties became a nightlife fixture.
But after mainstream publications began speculating as to whether he might come out of the closet, he had the Royal Information Service put out a one-line statement in 2001: “Johan Friso is not homosexual, but heterosexual.”
The move was mocked by some and others remained unconvinced, but Friso’s relationship with Wisse Smit was announced the following year.
Friso is survived by Princess Mabel, and two daughters, Luana and Zaria.
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