By
June 24, 1996 12:00 PM

CHICAGO. CITY OF THE BIG SHOULDERS. A toddlin’ town, reputedly. Home at one time or another to Al Capone, Refrigerator Perry and Dennis Rodman, to muscle and brawn and the grand gesture. So why should anyone be surprised that it’s also the home of Michael Wilkie?

A 55-year-old millionaire tool manufacturer, Wilkie has the British press atwitter because, on June 5, at a gala at the Field Museum of Natural History attended by Princess Diana, he hauled his 280-pound-plus frame over to Di and asked for a dance. Unruffled, the princess allowed him to shuffle her around to the strains of “In the Mood” until architect Grant McCullagh, 45, cut in and danced Di back to her table.

According to palace protocol, one doesn’t just ask a royal to cut a rug. Di’s prospective partners had been carefully vetted. They were required, for one thing, to be happily married, lest a fox-trot provide food for gossip. But Wilkie, newly divorced and considered one of Chicago’s most eligible bachelors, would have none of that. “She’s a beautiful lady, and everyone was going to the party to see her,” he said. “So why not ask her to dance?”

Not that he didn’t warn her: Wilkie sent four dozen long-stemmed roses to Di at her hotel with a note telling her of his intentions. Although it’s unlikely Di saw either the roses or the note, Wilkie, who had paid $500 for his ticket, decided to make his bid.

The next day, British tabloids ran headlines like “The Princess and the Porker.” Harold Brooks-Baker, publishing director of Burke’s Peerage, called Wilkie’s move the worst American faux pas since Vice President John Nance Garner slapped King George VI on the back in 1939 and asked, “How are you doing, King?” Still, says Brooks-Baker, the gaffe wasn’t a total surprise. “The attitude of most British people,” he says, “is that Americans are savages.”

For their part, Diana’s people are downplaying the tempest, and Wilkie is no longer talking about it. Chicago is of two minds. “He was absolutely out of order,” says socialite Renee Crown, cochair of the Royal Visit Organizing Committee. Society columnist Ann Gerber disagrees. “Screw it,” she says. “In Chicago, a single guy should be able to dance with a princess. He wasn’t trying to pinch her bottom.”

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