When Prince Charles and the then-Lady Diana Spencer met the press for the very first time in 1981 to announce their engagement, the royal groom-to-be gave one of the most awkward answers in history to a simple question: Are they in love?
In uncomfortable TV footage that has been viewed millions of times since, Charles replies, “Whatever ‘in love’ means.”
The waffly reply has long been taken as a sign of Charles’s lack of passion for the woman who was to be his princess.
But his biographer Sally Bedell Smith, author of the new book Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbably Life, says the meaning is more subtle.
“It was a totally inappropriate thing for him to say, but understandable given the way his mind worked and the kind of things he had said in prior years,” says Bedell Smith.
She tells PEOPLE that during that time period, Charles – who is currently in Rome with his second wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall — often ruminated philosophically about the meaning of life and big subjects, and his answer should be taken in that light.
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“You should look at those words in the context of the series of interviews he gave in the 1970s about what he wanted in a wife and what being in love was all about,” she says. “He can over-think things and was thinking out loud. I don’t see it as a cynical, cruel statement. She giggled and you don’t get any sense of her raising her eyebrows.”
Bedell Smith adds that the moment took on a life of its own after their marriage started to collapse in the early 1990s: “It was only later when it came up — and it was misquoted to be, ‘Whatever love means.’ “