Perhaps the most coveted honor in the United Kingdom last month would have been to be named a godparent to the newborn Prince William of Wales. So when Charles and Diana announced their choices, five came, as expected, from the upper ranks of nobility. But, surprisingly, one did not. He is Sir Laurens Van der Post, 75, a polished and well-regarded South African-born writer. Although London’s Daily Mail pronounced him “the perfect godfather,” the choice puzzled many Britons because of Van der Post’s advanced age and foreign origin. Yet Van der Post has been a royal intimate for half a century and was among the few invited to Kensington Palace after William’s birth. “He’s a marvelous little chap,” enthused Sir Laurens after visiting the baby. “He was fast asleep, and the thing that struck me was how manly he looked. It may seem ridiculous to say, but he’s a manly little baby.”
As godfather, Van der Post will stand by William at the baby’s christening on Aug. 4. Also expected for the Buckingham Palace ceremony will be the other godparents: King Constantine of Greece, Prince Philip’s cousin; Princess Alexandra, Queen Elizabeth’s cousin; Lord Romsey, the 34-year-old grandson of Lord Mountbatten; the Duchess of Westminster, a close friend of the Princess of Wales; and Lady Susan Hussey, one of Queen Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting.
Sir Laurens is among the closest to Charles. Says Van der Post’s second wife, Ingaret, 78, “Prince Charles really understands him. Laurens is a very wise man whose strength is equaled by his gentleness.”
A longtime friend of the Queen Mother’s family, the Bowes-Lyons, Van der Post has traveled with the Prince in Africa and has stayed with the Windsors at Balmoral and other royal residences. Before last summer’s royal wedding, Van der Post and Ingaret spent a quiet weekend with the young couple at Highgrove, Charles and Diana’s country estate in Gloucestershire. “It’s a genuinely equal friendship,” reports Ingaret. “The Princess and I talk as if we were at school together. We laugh at the same things. The great difference in our ages just doesn’t come into it.”
The 13th of 15 children of an Afrikaans barrister, Van der Post grew up on a 100,000-acre farm in Philippolis, South Africa. A talented student, he left school at 17 and decided against college. “It didn’t make any sense to me to spend two years studying Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice when I had already enjoyed it immensely in one night. I felt I could educate myself.”
His first job was as a $25-a-month newspaper trainee in Port Natal. But at 21, he emigrated to London. “My love of literature and my desire to be a writer drew me to England,” he says. “Most of the books which made deep impressions on me were English, and the whole spiritual framework of my life had a British shape to it.”
Yet his imagination has remained in Africa. Eleven of his 20 books are about that continent. Van der Post has also written about food, Russia and psychoanalyst Carl Jung, whom he met in 1950 through Ingaret, also an analyst. “I was just drawn to him. At our first meeting we talked for eight hours,” recalls Sir Laurens. “We both placed enormous importance on the intangibles, the invisibles of life.”
Captured by the Japanese in Java during World War II while organizing resistance groups, he spent three years as a prisoner. After the war he served as an aide to Lord Mountbatten, and in 1949 he married Ingaret. They had met on a voyage from England to Africa more than a decade earlier when both were married to other people.
These days the couple divide their time between a penthouse in Chelsea, a seaside cottage in Suffolk and a hotel in Gstaad, Switzerland, where they spend three months skiing each year. “I find the sea and the hills extremely productive for writing,” says Van der Post. In London, they socialize with their royal and literary friends and are busy with family—two children by his first marriage and six grandchildren.
Van der Post’s only regret is that being godfather will inhibit the privacy of his royal connections. Explains Sir Laurens, “Before, one was able to keep it quiet, something for its own sake. That was lovely. Once the world comes in on these relationships, it spoils them.”