From the New York Times bestselling author of Elizabeth the Queen comes the first major biography of Prince Charles in more than twenty years—perfect for fans of The Crown.
Sally Bedell Smith returns once again to the British royal family to give us a new look at Prince Charles, the oldest heir to the throne in more than three hundred years. This vivid, eye-opening biography—the product of four years of research and hundreds of interviews with palace officials, former girlfriends, spiritual gurus, and more, some speaking on the record for the first time—is the first authoritative treatment of Charles’s life that sheds light on the death of Diana, his marriage to Camilla, and his preparations to take the throne one day.
Prince Charles brings to life the real man, with all of his ambitions, insecurities, and convictions. It begins with his lonely childhood, in which he struggled to live up to his father’s expectations and sought companionship from the Queen Mother and his great-uncle Lord Mountbatten. It follows him through difficult years at school, his early love affairs, his intellectual quests, his entrepreneurial pursuits, and his intense search for spiritual meaning. It tells of the tragedy of his marriage to Diana; his eventual reunion with his true love, Camilla; and his relationships with William, Kate, Harry, and his grandchildren.
Ranging from his glamorous palaces to his country homes, from his globe-trotting travels to his local initiatives, Smith shows how Prince Charles possesses a fiercely independent spirit and yet has spent more than six decades waiting for his destined role, living a life dictated by protocols he often struggles to obey. With keen insight and the discovery of unexpected new details, Smith lays bare the contradictions of a man who is more complicated, tragic, and compelling than we knew, until now.
Advance praise for Prince Charles
“Comprehensive and admirably fair . . . Until his accession to the throne, Smith’s portrait will stand as the definitive study.”—Booklist, starred review
“Astute . . . a sympathetic psychological study . . . [Smith’s] portrait is enormously touching and supported by wide-ranging interviews and research. . . . A thorough, timely biography.”—Kirkus
“Prince Charles is an eighteenth-century gentleman with a twenty-first-century mission. His love of tradition combines with an outlook that can be bracingly avant garde. Sally Bedell Smith captures his contradictions and his convictions in this fascinating book that is not just about a man who would be king, but also about the duties that come with privilege.”—Walter Isaacson
“For all we know about Prince Charles, there is so much we didn’t know—until now. Sally Bedell Smith has given us a complete and compelling portrait of the man in the shadow of the throne. It’s all here, from the back stairs of the palaces to the front pages of the tabs. Read all about it!”—Tom Brokaw
Prince Charles is sad and sexy and maybe too nice to be king
"Prince Charles" by Sally Bedell Smith.
By THE WASHINGTON POST
By Roxanne Roberts, The Washington Post
April 6, 2017 at 4:14 pm
That’s what Sally Bedell Smith kept hearing from everyone as she worked on her new book about the British monarch-in-waiting. Charles Philip Arthur George has been heir to the British throne for 65 years: His mother became queen when he was 3 years old, and she is still going strong at 90. He has spent his entire life waiting for his one and only job.
Overshadowed in turn by his mother, his first wife, and now his two sons, he’s best known as the prince who married Diana and was a terrible husband. When she died in 1997, the narrative was all but set in stone: Charles was dull, stoic and not very sympathetic.
“The vision we all have of him is of this extremely buttoned-up stereotype – double-breasted suit encasing him – a stiff, an old fogey, the guy who ruined Diana’s life,” says Bedell Smith, who first met the prince 26 years ago. “I was so struck by how different he was: funny, informal, warm, with this incredibly sexy voice.”
"Prince Charles" by Sally Bedell Smith.Max Hirshfeld“Prince Charles” by Sally Bedell Smith.
Four years ago, the Washington-based author of biographies about Diana and the queen decided to tackle the man who would be king. Her 500-page book, “Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life,” is not an authorized biography, but the palace assisted with access to public appearances, interviews and research.
It shows Charles as a royal son, a father, an activist and an eccentric. He owns shoes made from 18th-century reindeer skins. He is both very old-fashioned (he doesn’t use computers) and very modern (he is a lifelong proponent of conservation and sustainability). He is rich, but not above courting Americans to support his charities, including several wealthy patrons here in Washington, D.C.
At its heart, the book is the story of a sensitive, lonely kid and his quest to find purpose in his life. Temperamentally the opposite of his mother – she’s straightforward and unflappable – Charles has always been too emotional and too insecure for a life that demands a thick skin and personal sacrifice.
But what choice does he have? There is a sign in his dressing room at his country home, Highgrove: “Be patient and endure.”
In the 1970s, Charles was the most eligible bachelor in the world. The tabloids breathlessly reported every date and scrutinized every girlfriend as a future queen. President Richard M. Nixon tried matchmaking for his daughter, Tricia, and seated Charles next to her at every event during the prince’s 1970 visit to Washington. (Charles was unimpressed, describing her as “artificial and plastic.”)
Everyone knows the story of his world-famous, ill-fated first marriage to Lady Diana Spencer. Bedell Smith explains why he proposed to a 20-year-old whom he barely knew. He had followed the advice of his confidant and mentor, Earl Louis Mountbatten, and had enjoyed affairs with women who were not, by the standards of the day, fit to be a princess. But Charles planned to marry by his 30th birthday, and he felt anxious and pressured when that date passed with no bride. When Diana set her sights on him, he married her in 1981 although he was not in love with her.
He was, however, crazy about Camilla Parker Bowles, whom he had met in 1972. She was irreverent, sexy, unintimidated and an ideal complement to the serious heir to the throne. The two had a six-month affair, but Camilla was besotted with her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Andrew Parker Bowles. She married the unfaithful charmer while Charles was away on naval duties, which stunned the prince. But the two remained friends and resumed their relationship in earnest about five years into his very unhappy marriage.
That love triangle ended in a messy and humiliating divorce, which painted a public portrait of Diana as the victim of an unfeeling royal family and of Charles as an insensitive jerk. The palace was in the middle of a cautious public relations rollout to introduce Charles and Camilla as a couple when Diana was killed in 1997. It took another eight years before they finally felt that it was possible to marry without endangering his claim to the throne.
In the meantime, he busied himself with dozens of causes, which he takes very seriously. “He has really labored to be admired and accepted for the things he has done rather than what he was born to be,” Bedell Smith says.
As Prince of Wales, Charles inherited the Duchy of Cornwall, which generates upward of $25 million a year in income for him, which pays for his household and staff and supports William and Kate and Harry. Despite his wealth, he’s never had qualms about raising millions from American patrons for his charities. “Charles’s cunning in extracting money from eager benefactors was perilously intertwined with a weakness for the company and perks of the superrich,” Bedell Smith writes.
In 1997, Charles hired Robert Higdon, a Washingtonian who had worked for Ronald and Nancy Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, as executive director of the Prince of Wales Foundation. Higdon revamped it, expanded its charitable mission and persuaded couples to donate $20,000 each to hobnob with Charles at Highgrove and other royal palaces. The visits also became a vehicle for Camilla to launch an international charm offensive.
That effort was so successful that in 2008, Joe L. Allbritton sank $2.5 million into the development of Duchy USA, a line of products from the prince’s properties. After almost a year of planning, the project was abruptly canceled when the palace sold the worldwide rights to a British supermarket chain.
But all was forgiven – Allbritton and his wife, Barby, were invited to William and Kate’s wedding in 2011, and Allbritton loaned Charles his private jet for a quick trip to Washington.
The queen turns 91 this month and is still deeply involved with her royal duties. She has gin with Dubonnet at lunch and a martini before dinner. Charles, now 68, holds the record as the longest heir-in-waiting and could easily go another decade before becoming king. (His maternal grandmother lived to 101.)
“The life that he’s led and the troubles and torments that he has had have, in a way, made it possible for William and Harry to lead much more normal lives,” Bedell Smith says. One royal adviser told her, “These are two guys on a raft who escaped from the shipwreck of their family and made it to the other shore.”
Talk of skipping Charles and giving the crown to William has subsided, which gives the young prince more time to enjoy a traditional (by royal standards) family life. Harry, who is fifth in line to the throne, probably has the best of both worlds – an incredibly tight relationship with his brother and enough fame and money to do pretty much anything he wants.
And Camilla? Time heals, or at least forgives. The woman once dubbed “the Rottweiler” has achieved grudging public acceptance. She has the full support of the Queen (grateful that her oldest son is finally happy) and an easy camaraderie with William, Kate and Harry.
When the couple married in 2005, the palace tried to mollify Diana loyalists by saying that Camilla would be called “princess consort” when Charles becomes king. Now, it looks as if she may become queen after all. When asked about this during a 2010 interview with NBC, Charles stammered: “That’s, well … we’ll see, won’t we? That could be.”
But that, like everything else for Charles, is somewhere in the future.
BOOKS APRIL 10, 2017 ISSUE
Charles has become unpopular trying to carve out a role while waiting longer to reign than any previous Prince of Wales.
Illustration by Floc’h
WHERE PRINCE CHARLES WENT WRONG
The Prince of Wales makes himself most unpopular when he tries hardest to be a worthy heir to the throne.
By Zoë Heller
For at least a decade, senior aides at Buckingham Palace have been quietly finessing arrangements for the moment when the Queen dies and her son Prince Charles becomes sovereign. One of their chief concerns, apparently, is that republicans may try to use the interval between the death of the old monarch and the coronation of the new one to whip up anti-royal sentiment. In order to minimize the potential for such rabble-rousing, they propose to speed things up as much as decorum will allow: in contrast to the stately sixteen-month pause that elapsed between the death of King George VI, in February, 1952, and the anointing of the Queen, in June, 1953, King Charles III will be whisked to Westminster Abbey no later than three months after his mother’s demise.
The threat of a Jacobin-style insurgency in modern Britain would seem, on the face of it, rather remote. Despite successive royal scandals and crises, support for the monarchy has remained robust. In the wake of Princess Diana’s death in 1997, when the reputation of the Windsors was said to have reached its nadir, the Scottish writer Tom Nairn sensed that the crowds of mourners lining the Mall had “gathered to witness auguries of a coming time” when Britain would at last be freed from “the mouldering waxworks” ensconced in Buckingham Palace. But, almost twenty years later, roughly three-quarters of Britons believe that the country would be “worse off without” the Royal Family, and Queen Elizabeth II, who recently beat out Queen Victoria to become the longest-reigning monarch in British history, continues to command something approaching feudal deference. Last year, to honor her ninetieth birthday, legions of British townspeople and villagers turned out to paint walls and pick up litter, in a national effort known as “Clean for the Queen.”
There is some reason to doubt, however, whether such loyalty will persist once the Queen’s son, now sixty-eight years old, ascends the throne. His Royal Highness Prince Charles Philip Arthur George, Prince of Wales, K.G., K.T., G.C.B., O.M., A.K., Q.S.O., P.C., A.D.C., Earl of Chester, Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Rothesay, Earl of Carrick, Baron of Renfrew, Lord of the Isles, and Prince and Great Steward of Scotland, is a deeply unpopular man. Writers in both the conservative and the liberal press regularly refer to him as “a prat,” “a twit,” and “an idiot,” with no apparent fear of giving offense to their readership. In a 2016 poll, only a quarter of respondents said that they would like Charles to succeed the Queen, while more than half said they would prefer to see his son Prince William crowned instead. Even among those who profess to think him a decent chap, there is a widespread conviction that he does the monarchy more harm than good. “Our Prince of Wales is a fundamentally decent and serious man,” one conservative columnist recently wrote. “He possesses a strong sense of duty. Might not it be best expressed by renouncing the throne in advance?”
How this enthusiastic and diligent person, who has frequently stated his desire to be a good, responsible monarch, managed to incur such opprobrium is the central question that the American writer Sally Bedell Smith sets out to answer in a new biography, “Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life” (Random House). Hers is not an entirely disinterested investigation. As might be inferred from her two previous alliteratively subtitled works—“Diana in Search of Herself: Portrait of a Troubled Princess” and “Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch”—Smith is an avid monarchist. For anyone invested in the survival of the royals, Prince Charles presents a challenge, and Smith’s stance is very close to what one imagines a senior palace aide’s might be: Charles is far from ideal, but he is what we’ve got, and there can be no talk of mucking about with the law of succession and replacing him with his son. Once you start allowing the popular will to determine who wears the crown, people are liable to wonder why anyone is wearing a crown in the first place.
Smith’s mission is, therefore, to reconcile us to the inevitability of King Charles III and to convince us that his reign may not be as insufferable as is generally feared. Having had the honor of meeting the Prince “socially” on more than one occasion, she can attest that he is “far warmer” than the tabloids would have you think. She can also vouch for his “emotional intelligence,” “capacious mind,” “elephantine memory,” “preternatural aesthetic sense,” “talent as a consummate diplomat,” and “independent spirit.”
Early on, however, it becomes apparent that Smith’s public-relations instincts are at war with a fundamental dislike of her subject. The grade-inflating summaries she offers at the beginning and the end of the book are overpowered by the damning portrait that emerges in between. The man we encounter here is a ninny, a whinger, a tantrum-throwing dilettante, “hopelessly thin-skinned . . . naïve and resentful.” He is a preening snob, “keenly sensitive to violations of protocol,” intolerant of “opinions contrary to his own,” and horribly misled about the extent of his own talents. (An amateur watercolorist, he once offered Lucian Freud one of his paintings in exchange for one of Freud’s; the artist unaccountably demurred.) He is a “prolix, circular” thinker, “more of an intellectual striver than a genuine intellectual,” who extolls Indian slums for their sustainable way of life and preaches against the corrupting allure of “sophistication” while himself living in unfathomable luxe. (He reportedly travels with a white leather toilet seat, and Smith details his outrage on the rare occasions when he has to fly first class rather than in a private jet.) Although the book would like to be a nuanced adjudication of the Prince’s “paradoxes,” it ends up becoming a chronicle of peevishness and petulance.
Prince Charles was three years old when he became heir apparent. Asked years later when it was that he had first realized he would one day be king, he said that there had been no particular moment of revelation, just a slow, “ghastly, inexorable” dawning. Doubts about his fitness for his future role were raised from the start. As a timorous, sickly child, prone to sinus infections and tears, he was a source of puzzlement and some disappointment to his parents. His mother, whom he would later describe as “not indifferent so much as detached,” worried that he was a “slow developer.” His father, Prince Philip, thought him weedy, effete, and spoiled. Too physically uncoördinated to be any good at team sports, too scared of horses to enjoy riding lessons, and too sensitive not to despair when, at the age of eight, he was sent away to boarding school, he was happiest spending time with his grandmother the Queen Mother, who gave him hugs, took him to the ballet, and, as he later put it, “taught me how to look at things.” Neither physical demonstrativeness nor sensitivity to art was considered a desirable trait by the rest of his family. Charles told an earlier biographer, Jonathan Dimbleby, about a time when he ventured to express enthusiasm about the Leonardo da Vinci drawings in the Royal Library at Windsor; his parents and siblings gazed at him with an embarrassed bemusement that, he said, made him feel “squashed and guilty,” as if he had “in some indefinable way let his family down.” (Charles has continued to define himself against his family’s philistinism, boasting in his letters and journals of his intense, lachrymose responses to art, literature, and nature.)
In an effort to build the character of his soppy, aesthete son, Prince Philip sent him to his own alma mater, Gordonstoun, a famously spartan boarding school in Scotland founded on the promise of emancipating “the sons of the powerful” from “the prison of privilege.” Charles—the jug-eared, non-sportif future king—was a prime target for bullying, and when he wasn’t being beaten up he was more or less ostracized. (Boys made “slurping” noises at anyone who tried to be nice to him.) That he survived this misery was largely due to the various dispensations he was afforded as a V.I.P. pupil. He was allowed to spend weekends at the nearby home of family friends (where he could “cry his eyes out” away from the jeers of other boys) and, in his final year, was made head boy and given his own room in the apartment of his art master. He had taken up the cello by this point, and, although he was, by his own admission, “hopeless,” the art master arranged for him to give recitals at the weekend house parties of local Scottish aristocrats.
Throughout Charles’s youth, he was pushed through demanding institutions for which he was neither temperamentally nor intellectually suited, and where rules and standards had to be discreetly adjusted to accommodate him. When he went to Cambridge University, the master of Trinity College, Rab Butler, insisted that he would receive no “special treatment.” But the fact that he had been admitted to Trinity at all, with his decidedly below-average academic record, suggested otherwise, as did the colloquium of academics convened to structure a bespoke curriculum for him, and the unusually choice suite of rooms (specially decorated by the Queen’s tapissier) that he was granted as a first-year student. When he received an undistinguished grade in his final exams, Butler said that he would have done much better if he hadn’t had to carry out royal duties.
In the Royal Navy, which Charles entered at his father’s prompting, his superiors, faced with his “inability to add or generally to cope well with figures,” sought to “build in more flexibility and to tailor duties closer to his abilities.” They changed his job from navigator to communications officer, and his performance reports laid diplomatic emphasis on his “cheerful” nature and “charm.”
Even Charles’s love life was choreographed for him with the sort of elaborate care and tact usually reserved for pandas in captivity. Throughout his twenties, his public image was that of a dashing playboy. But this reputation appears to have been largely concocted by the press and his own aides, in an effort to make an awkward, emotionally immature young man more appealing and “accessible” to the British public. Charles’s great-uncle Lord Mountbatten blithely informed Time that the Prince was forever “popping in and out of bed with girls,” but to the extent that this was the case it was thanks mostly to the assiduous efforts of his mentors. Having told Charles that a man should “have as many affairs as he can,” Mountbatten offered up his stately home as a love shack.
Mountbatten also set to work finding a suitable woman for Charles to marry. At the time, virginity was still a non-negotiable requirement for the heir apparent’s bride. (“I think it is disturbing for women to have experiences if they have to remain on a pedestal after marriage,” Mountbatten wrote to Charles.) Thus, Camilla Shand, the “earthy” woman with whom Charles fell in love at the age of twenty-three, was regarded as an excellent “learning experience” for the Prince but decidedly not wife material. Charles seems to have accepted this judgment and the stricture on which it was based, more or less unquestioningly. Almost a decade later, his misgivings about marrying Lady Diana Spencer, a woman twelve years his junior, whom he did not love, or even know very well, caused him to weep with anguish on the eve of their wedding, but he went through with it anyway, believing that, as he wrote in a letter, it was “the right thing for this
When that marriage exploded, Diana’s superior instincts for wooing and handling the press insured that Charles emerged as the villain of the piece. But it seems safe to say that the union visited equal misery on both parties. One of the chief marital shocks for Charles was Diana’s lack of deference. He had assumed that the slightly vapid teenager he was settling for would at least be docile, but she turned out to be the biggest bully he had encountered since Gordonstoun. She taunted his pomposity, calling him “the Great White Hope” and “the Boy Wonder.” She told him that he would never become king and that he looked ridiculous in his medals. When he tried to end heated arguments by kneeling down to say his prayers before bed, she would keep shrieking and hit him over the head while he prayed.
Charles had always disliked the playboy image that had been thrust upon him, feeling that it did a disservice to his thoughtfulness and spirituality, and part of what he hoped to acquire by getting married was gravitas: “The media will simply not take me seriously until I do get married and apparently become responsible.” The strange artificiality of his youthful “achievements,” and the nagging self-doubt it engendered, seems to have left him peculiarly vulnerable to the blandishments of advisers willing to reassure him that he was actually a brilliant and insightful person, who owed it to the world to share his ideas.
The canniest of these flatterers, and the one who had the most lasting impact, was Laurens van der Post, a South African-born author, documentary filmmaker, and amateur ethnographer. He dazzled Charles with his visionary talk—of rescuing humanity from “the superstition of the intellect” and of restoring the ancients’ spiritual oneness with the natural world—and then convinced Charles that he was the man to lead the crusade. “The battle for our renewal can be most naturally led by what is still one of the few great living symbols accessible to us—the symbol of the crown,” he wrote to the Prince. It’s no wonder that Charles was seduced. The life of duty opening up before him was a dreary one of cutting ribbons at the ceremonial openings of municipal swimming pools and feigning delight at the performances of foreign folk dancers. Here was an infinitely more alluring model of princely purpose and prerogative.
Under the influence of van der Post and his circle, Charles began exploring vegetarianism, sacred geometry, horticulture, educational philosophy, architecture, Sufism. He received Jungian analysis of his dreams from van der Post’s wife, Ingaret. He visited faith healers who helped him uncork “a lot of bottled feelings.” Staying with farmers in Devon and crofters in the Hebrides, he played at being a horny-handed son of toil. He travelled to the Kalahari Desert and saw a “vision of earthly eternity” in a herd of zebras. On his return from each of these spiritual and intellectual adventures, he sought to share the fruits of his inquiries with his people.
Over the years, Charles has set up some twenty charities reflecting the range of his Bouvard-and-Pécuchet-like investigations. He has written several books, including “Harmony,” a treatise arguing that “the Westernized world has become far too firmly framed by a mechanistic approach to science.” He has sent thousands of letters to government ministers—known as the “black spider memos,” for the urgent scrawl of his handwriting—on matters ranging from school meals and alternative medicine to the brand of helicopters used by British soldiers in Iraq and the plight of the Patagonian toothfish. He has given countless speeches: to British businessmen, on their poor business practices; to educators, on the folly of omitting Shakespeare from the national curriculum; to architects, on the horridness of tall modern buildings; and so on.
The stances he takes do not follow predictable political lines but seem perfectly calibrated to annoy everyone. Conservatives tend to be upset by his enthusiasm for Islam and his environmentalism; liberals object to his vehement defense of foxhunting and his protectiveness of Britain’s ancient social hierarchies. What unites his disparate positions is a general hostility to secularism, science, and the industrialized world.
“I have come to realize,” he told an audience in 2002, “that my entire life has been so far motivated by a desire to heal—to heal the dismembered landscape and the poisoned soul; the cruelly shattered townscape, where harmony has been replaced by cacophony; to heal the divisions between intuitive and rational thought, between mind and body, and soul, so that the temple of our humanity can once again be lit by a sacred flame.”
The British tend to have a limited tolerance for sacred flames. They are also ill-disposed to do-gooders poking about in their poisoned souls. (“The most hateful of all names in an English ear is Nosey Parker,” George Orwell once observed.) What’s more, Charles’s sententious interpretation of noblesse oblige leaves him open to the charge of overstepping the constitutional boundaries of his position. A constitutional monarchy requires that the sovereign—and, by extension, the prospective sovereign—be above politics. Their symbolic power and their ability to work with elected governments in a disinterested manner depend on their maintaining an impeccable neutrality on all matters of public policy. The Queen’s enduring inscrutability is often cited as one of the great achievements of her reign, and she has fulfilled her duties to everyone’s satisfaction, with no mystical knowledge beyond dog breeding and horse handicapping. Charles’s refusal to shut up about his views and his brazen efforts to influence popular and ministerial opinion have provoked much ridicule, as well as more serious rebukes. Both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair had occasion to complain—to him and to the palace—about his interference in the legislative process. “I run this country, not you, sir,” Thatcher is alleged to have told him. But Charles has shown no signs of repentance. Indeed, he has repeatedly indicated that he intends to continue his “activism” after he ascends the throne. “You call it meddling,” he told an interviewer nine years ago. “I would call it mobilizing, actually.”
Historically, the question of how the Prince of Wales should occupy himself while waiting for his parent to die has rarely found a satisfactory answer. Many heirs to the throne have incurred opprobrium on the ground of moral turpitude. A hundred and fifty years ago, in “The English Constitution,” Walter Bagehot noted the temptation for bored princes to become fops and fornicators, and concluded that “the only fit material for a constitutional king is a prince who begins early to reign.”
But Charles, who has been waiting to become king longer than any previous Prince of Wales, does not boast a distinguished record of degeneracy. His greatest known sin is to have resumed his relationship with Camilla while still married to Diana. It’s true that some of the revelations regarding this infidelity were not strictly consonant with the dignity of a future king. In an alleged transcript of a phone conversation between the adulterous couple, the public learned that the Prince yearned to be his ladylove’s tampon. But while it is certainly a dark day for England when the Italian press is emboldened to speak of the heir apparent as “Il Tampaccino,” few have gone so far as to suggest that Charles is too debauched to become king.
Oddly, and perhaps rather tragically, the severest damage to his reputation has come not from his modest history of vice but from his strenuous aspirations to virtue. “All I want to do is to help other people,” he has written. The fact that so many are ungrateful does not deter him: he accepts that, like any of the great men in history who have dared to go against the grain, he must endure derision. “It is probably inevitable that if you challenge the bastions of conventional thinking you will find yourself accused of naivety,” he observed in the introduction to “Harmony.” He is honor-bound to ignore the scorn, and to march on. In 2015, when the Guardian won a ten-year battle to release two batches of the meddlesome “black spider memos,” under Britain’s Freedom of Information Act, he was unabashed. A spokesman defended the Prince’s right “to communicate his experiences or, indeed, his concerns or suggestions to ministers” in any government, and, by then, the law had been obligingly changed to make much royal correspondence exempt from future release. Not long after, there appeared a two-volume, 1,012-page compendium of Charles’s articles and speeches from 1968 to 2012. The books, which retailed at more than four hundred dollars a set, were illustrated with his own watercolors and bound in forest-green buckram on which his heraldic badge—three feathers, a crown, and the motto “Ich dien,” meaning “I serve”—was emblazoned in gold. ♦
Zoë Heller contributes to The New York Review of Books. She has published three novels, including “Notes on a Scandal.”
Prince Charles Won't Step Aside for William to Be King
His biographer, Sally Bedell Smith, spent four years exhaustively researching the Prince of Wales.
by STEPHANIE MANSFIELD
APR 10, 2017
Sally Bedell Smith, dogged biographer and author of Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life, out this week from Penguin Random House, has collected an exhaustive file of facts about the future king of England. Unlike his mother, Charles is not what you might call a beloved figure. And while Bedell Smith doesn't spare the touchy-feely, parapsychology loving, Dumbo-eared Charles, her portrait is also rich with sympathy, even affection.
Bullied as a youth by his overbearing father (“Philip was the original alpha male,” Smith says), Charles spent his whole life seeking approval. Cowed by a sense of duty and fearful of even minor mistakes, the well-intentioned, protocol-loving Charles married Diana because his father said he should. No matter that he may have been in love with Camilla Parker Bowles—she didn't pass muster.
Smith tells of her subject’s "Rosebud" moment: "His childhood marked him in ways I fully didn’t understand," she says. When he was eight years old, he visited the Mountbatten estate for a formal lunch and the attendees were all eating wild strawberries. Charles was methodically picking them stems off the berries. Lord Mountbatten told him, "No, no. You hold them by the stems to dip in the sugar."
“And there this poor little boy was, trying to reattach the stems. He just wanted approval,” Smith says.
She is sitting in her warm, painting-filled apartment in the Kalorama neighborhood of Washington, D.C., a shilling’s throw from where the Obamas and Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner live. Whip-smart and gregarious, she has finally emerged from the four-year process of trying to make sense of the much-vilified, slightly odd, enigmatic heir to the British throne.
Yes, he will be the monarch. “Charles will be King and Camilla will be Queen. They will not skip over to William, who is being groomed to become King probably in his late 40s or early 50s,” says Smith.
Some delicious dish from the unauthorized biography was recently revealed in the London tabloids. Yes, Charles cried on his wedding night while “the extremely turbulent” Diana was battling bulimia. He grew increasingly jealous of the attention paid to his late, glamorous wife who, while in her shadow, he seemed to fade into the vintage Clarence House wallpaper.
"They’re all going to blame me," Prince Charles said upon hearing news of Diana's death. He was right.
What she learned is how much Charles has accomplished, and how little credit he has been given for his various passions.
“I gained a lot of admiration for him," she says. "Sometimes you think, 'This is so wonderful. You’ve saved Shakespeare for the schools!' And then he’d be sort of spoiled and self-pitying and whining, and he’d shoot himself in the foot and be stubborn and closed-minded. Look, the English love eccentrics.“
But Charles was not without guile. “The queen is very straightforward," Smith says. But Charles "can engage in subterfuge, creating a little conflict”—argy-bargy, as the British would say. Hearing news of Diana’s tragic death, the first thing he said was, “’They’re all going to blame me.‘ And he was right.”
Smith also delves into the life of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and Charles's father, who she says bullied him as a child. Queen Elizabeth, who was "remote," couldn’t really make up for her husband’s lack of affection for his son. “He is, basically, soft. And that‘s what Philip picked up on.”
Prince Charles is now trying to be a grandfather, but he skipped George’s first birthday party at Kensington Palace to attend an event at a red squirrel sanctuary in Scotland. “I think he’s well-intentioned, but he has not been involved to the degree the Middletons have,” Smith points out.
Charles has much in common with Royals from another century, but he can also be immensely warm and charming. “The epiphany I got was how he could be very traditional and also very avant-garde. He has shoes made out of 18th-century reindeer leather. And also had this whole series of gurus. There was a yearning to have people understand him. “
On Charles's later-in-life love Camilla, Smith says, "she's got this vibey, sexy thing. As Joan Rivers said, ‘She's rough around the edges. In a nice way.’ He can be rowdy and fun with her.” In the public eye, “I think she’s made a lot of progress … but she‘s not necessarily beloved.”
She says there is much drama in the actual House of Windsor, recently brought to Netflix with the series The Crown. “You don’t have to watch that,” Smith says with a laugh. “The real stuff is better.”
Stephanie Mansfield is the author of The Richest Girl in The World: The Extravagant Life and Fast Times of Doris Duke.
Born Sally Bedell Rowbotham
May 27, 1948 (age 68)
Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania
Other names Sally Bedell, Sally Smith
Education B.A. Wheaton College
M.S. Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism
Employer Vanity Fair (contributing editor)
Agent Amanda Urban
Notable work Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch (January 2012)
Board member of Deerfield Academy
The Buckley School
Columbia Journalism Review
Spouse(s) Stephen G. Smith
Children Kirk Bedell
Elisabeth Bedell Clive
David Branson Smith
Awards 1982 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine reporting
1986 fellow at Freedom Forum Media Studies Center
2012 Washington Irving Medal recipient for Literary Excellence
2012 Goodreads Choice Award for Elizabeth the Queen.