2013 is the centenary of Bruce Conde's birth, not that anyone is marking it. Conde passed away in Tangier in 1992, not altogether anonymously: The Independent provided a detailed obituary written by Alan Rush, and he was no doubt missed by his friends. Here, Conde friend and then Tangier expat Graeme Steel provides his memories of Conde, who the Miami News once described as "a new Lawrence of Arabia" during his exploits on the losing monarchist side of Yemen's civil war in the Sixties. Left: photo of Bruce Conde, courtesy Graeme Steel.
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Yes, I knew Bruce rather well (we called him Bruce, but he signed himself as H.S.H. Abdurrahman B.A. de Bourbon, Prince of Conde). Just before I left Tangier in 1989 I was helping him on his book on the Battle of the Three Kings by taking photographs of the battle sites and extant remains, which were mostly around the town of Ksar-el-Kebir and Larache. We travelled and stayed for days. I am sure the book was never published, but I saw the manuscript and it was well nearly completed. I kept in touch with him and saw him a few months before he died of cancer in Tangier in 1992.
When he came to Tangier he was stateless but had joined up with the Knights of Malta Ecumenical and membership of that organization entitled one to a "diplomatic" passport (of no legal standing I gathered) and amazingly he had used this passport to enter Ceuta and the authorities had fallen for it and stamped it on both sides of the border. He also had a stateless persons document from Lebanon (he had fled there after the debacle in Yemen) and he showed me this – a long concertina like document. I do recall that he was granted the honour of the Knights of Malta Ecumenical through his friendship with a man called Alexis Brimeyer, who lived in Spain and was senior in the organization.
In 1984 in Nador (I think) he married Beatrice Dolgorouky, who claimed to have been descended from the Russian / Ukrainian royal families. Bruce adopted Alexis, who was her son. Alexis spent all his time attempting to prove his connection to European royalty. All these extraordinary procedures were some sort of deal arranged to help him with his paperwork. Beatrice did not live with him and I think she returned to Spain. Interestingly enough, through Alexis, Bruce had managed to get some meagre Spanish pension, which may have been a main reason for marrying Beatrice as I think she had Spanish citizenship.
One thing I do know is that he felt stuck in Tangier and unable to cross over to Spain where he could get a full pension (maybe he thought the Spanish would smell a rat with the phony diplomatic passport). Apparently Bruce had renounced his American citizenship in the 50s when he came to Yemen, converted to Islam and become the Postmaster General, later joining the Royalist forces in the North Yemen Civil War, made rank of General (Bruce wore his Yemeni uniform with full battle honours at his wedding, and his bride was dressed rather regally).
Bruce became romantically entangled with a Tangier Moroccan man. He rented a house for this young man and invested his meager savings in setting up a photographic developing business for him. As often happens in these relations of great economic disparity he was rather taken advantage of and Bruce found himself eventually relegated to an outhouse on the roof, while the family lived in greater comfort below. Bruce had a wonderful collection of old Yemeni memorabilia including a fine silver framed portrait of himself as a general on a tank in the Yemen war. He also had albums of stamps which he had designed when he headed the country's philatelic office including printing masters. It was a valuable collection I am sure. When Bruce died the young man tried to sell Bruce's things, but in some sort of pique burnt all or some of his things…
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Graeme Steel's account appears to settle the question that has intrigued us since first hearing about Bruce Conde: did he leave any papers behind? One researcher wondered whether the Legation had been the repository of any of his writings, and our search turned up nothing. The internet turns up bits and pieces: a list of Bruce Conde's voluminous philatelic articles; an image of a postcard from postwar Japan, giving his US military return address; an account of his fitful presence in Lebanon.
In his obituary of Conde, Alan Rush wrote of "his astonishingly detailed knowledge of things Arabic, Islamic and royal but also of his knack of manipulating facts in order to wrap myths around his own persona."
Bruce Conde's royal pretensions may have come from whole cloth, but the nature of his real life – his World War II service, and later his fighting on behalf of the Yemeni king – provided more than enough color. Maybe some day we'll find some space on our walls for this American "Lawrence" in Arabia Felix.