February 08, 1999 12:00 PM

As rehearsal dinners go, it was strikingly laid-back. There, at a back table at Stars and Bars, a lively port-side Tex-Mex eatery in Monte Carlo, Her Serene Highness Princess Caroline of Monaco laughed and chatted with her intended, Prince Ernst of Hanover, and some pals, the night before her Saturday, Jan. 23, wedding. Mingling with commoner kids over Off-Road Challenge and Super Bike at the restaurant’s amply stocked video-game room nearby were the couple’s combined offspring—his (Ernst August Jr., 15, and Christian, 13) and hers (Andrea, 14, Charlotte, 12, and Pierre, 11). “They were one big happy family,” says Stars and Bars owner Kate Powers. “Like the Brady Bunch.” Right down to their Everyman repast. “Obviously they weren’t here to order sea bass and champagne,” observed a fellow diner (who, like other patrons that night, paid scant attention to the royal party). “Caroline likes her chips and guacamole, just like anyone else.”

That’s not to say Monaco’s most glamorous daughter—she of the couture wardrobe and jet-set chums—has suddenly become down-to-earth. It’s just that on the eve of the princess’s attaining real status, thanks to Ernst’s impeccable royal pedigree, flaunting it would be tasteless, if not beside the point. Their wedding, for example, was purposely low-key. At approximately 11:30 on the morning after the Stars and Bars guacamole feast, in a civil ceremony so shrouded in secrecy that, according to one royals expert, “Caroline didn’t even tell her father until [the previous] Tuesday that she was getting married,” the oldest daughter of Prince Rainier and the late Princess Grace wed Prince Ernst August of Hanover in the Salon des Glaces of the principality’s pink palace. Their I do’s were witnessed by the 75-year-old Rainier, the couple’s children, Caroline’s brother Prince Albert, 40, and a dozen of the bride and groom’s family and friends. (Princess Stephanie, 33, said to be at odds of late with her sister, was conspicuously absent.) And the vows catapulted Caroline, who turned 42 on her wedding day, into the regal big leagues: Though far less famous than his bride, Ernst, 44, is a direct descendant of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II and of King George III of Britain and had to obtain Queen Elizabeth’s permission before taking his new bride.

With her new title—Her Royal Highness Caroline Princess of Hanover, Duchess of Brunswick and Lüneburg—Caroline now outranks everyone in her immediate family except her dad. “There’s a big difference between a princely family and a royal family,” explains Harold Brooks-Baker, publishing director of Burke’s Peerage, adding that the Grimaldis, who are descended from Italian warriors and pirates, qualify only as the former. “It’s a step down for [Ernst], but they are both rich, so it is good for everyone.” (Ernst’s family fortune is said to be close to $130 million; Caroline is worth an estimated $1 billion.)

Not that anyone in this sun-washed tax haven by the sea sees the princess’s third trip to the altar as an exercise in social climbing. Clad in a gray-blue Chanel suit with a gold brooch, Caroline radiated bliss in her official wedding photo—the only glimpse outsiders got of the bride since she and her privacy-mad prince didn’t deign to wave to waiting well-wishers before piling into a dark-windowed minivan after a brief postceremony reception at the palace. “She seemed very happy,” confirms local florist Danielle Soriaso, whose lilies, roses and orchids graced a celebratory party for some 100 people held at the princess’s green-shuttered villa, Clos St.-Pierre, the evening of the wedding. “She was wonderful, like always.”

And possibly anticipating a wondrous event. Just days before the wedding, the Italian celebrity magazine Oggi claimed that Caroline, who has said she wanted another child, is three months pregnant with Ernst’s baby. (The Palace has so far refused to comment, but a pal of the groom’s says, “Ernst has told everyone he wants a girl.”)

Pregnant or not, Caroline—whose life was shattered in 1990 when her second husband, Italian businessman Stefano Casiraghi, died in a speedboat racing accident—has by all accounts found contentment with dashing divorcé Ernst. (He split with Chantal, 44, his wife of 16 years, after he began dating Caroline in 1996.) The couple share a love of art, children and parties—as well as some less wholesome pursuits. “Caroline and Ernst light their cigarettes in perfect synchronicity!” declared the magazine Point de Vue when the duo appeared together at Monaco’s Bal de la Rose in March 1998.

“She and Ernst complement each other,” says Caroline’s cousin Grace LeVine, proprietor of a Glen Mills, Pa., bed-and-breakfast and maid of honor at Caroline’s failed first marriage, to French boulevardier Philippe Junot. “Each has their own life, and they love and respect each other.” “What’s more,” says a source close to Ernst, her dad approves—in part, no doubt, because “Caroline and Ernst have had similar upbringings and both know what is expected of them as royals.”

They also share, however, a history of defying those expectations. The oldest of six children born to Prince Ernst August of Hanover and his wife, Princess Ortrud of Schleswig-Holstein-Glücksburg, Ernst was raised at Marienburg castle and at his family’s estate Gut Calenberg, outside Hanover in northern Germany. After studying at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, and the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester, England, Ernst took a job in film production in London but worked as hard honing his reputation as one of Europe’s randier young royals. (According to Tatler magazine, Ernst and a friend once sent out Christmas cards picturing themselves, clothed, beside a naked model.) He and Caroline, who had met as teens, reconnected during a St. Moritz ski trip in the ’70s. According to some, Princess Grace hoped the relationship would blossom. “She thought he would be the perfect match,” says author John Glatt in his new book The Royal Household of Monaco. “Caroline found him boring.”

After majoring in philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, Caroline went on to marry Junot, a businessman of whom her mother presciently disapproved. Ernst ruffled his own family’s plumage by hooking up with Chantal Hochuli, a mere heiress to a Swiss pharmaceutical company. The years that followed held family tragedies for both the German prince and the Mediterranean princess. Divorced from the philandering Junot (now living in Spain, France and Britain and recently divorced from his second wife) in 1980 after just 28 months of marriage, Caroline was beginning to recover her equilibrium when Princess Grace died in a car crash in 1982. Ernst took over his father’s multimillion-dollar properties, settled into a $4.8 million London home with Chantal and started a family, only to lose a younger brother to suicide in 1988. Through it all, he and Caroline remained friends. Their families even occasionally took ski trips to St. Moritz together. “Chantal and Caroline were close, too,” says a Monaco insider. (“Now, of course,” she adds, “they don’t speak.”)

In 1995, though, the friendship began to deepen. After Casiraghi’s death, Caroline had moved to a renovated farmhouse in St.-Rémy-de-Provence, France, some two hours north of Monaco, to escape the memories. French actor Vincent Lindon, whom she met in 1990 at a literary luncheon, seemed the ideal helpmate during her recuperation—unawed by royalty, he called her Princess and “was a source of strength for her,” says a friend.

But by December 1995, Lindon was looking sulky at a Monte Carlo Ballet benefit. A few weeks later, Caroline and Ernst were spotted in Thailand together, and when the dermatological condition alopecia caused the princess’s hair to fall out that summer, it was Ernst who went to St.-Rémy to console her. Although accustomed to her husband’s “discreet affairs,” say Paris insiders, Chantal filed for divorce. (Said her friend, gossip columnist Taki, at the time: “A woman can take only so much humiliation.”) The divorce, which gives the couple joint custody of their boys and Chantal less than $10 million, became final in September 1997.

Since then, Ernst and Caroline have been virtually inseparable. They spent Christmas 1997 in Barbados with the Grimaldi clan. (“Rainier okays marriage!” declared the French press, prematurely.) They hobnobbed with bigwigs in Berlin (including Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, former governor of Ernst’s home state, Lower Saxony) at an AIDS benefit last November. And they relaxed last October on Portugal’s Algarve coast, where Caroline enjoyed rejuvenating seaweed soaks while Ernst lounged on the beach with an unauthorized biography of Mohamed Al Fayed. For their part, Ernst’s sons are said to get along well with Caroline. “They accept her,” says a friend. “They understand [their father] and want him to be happy.” Ernst long ago endeared himself to Caroline’s kids, cheering budding equestrian Charlotte at riding competitions, coaching Pierre on the slopes and buying Andrea a motorcycle for his 13th birthday in June 1997.

Theirs will not be what anyone would call a hard-scrabble life. Ernst, who dabbles in investments, makes his living managing his family’s immense holdings in Germany, Austria and Kenya. Caroline, Monaco’s de facto first lady since her mother’s death, serves as president of the Monte Carlo Ballet, the Monaco Garden Club, the Princess Grace Foundation and various other charities. But her official engagements—sometimes as few as two a month—will leave her ample time for travel or for entertaining friends like model-turned-actress Elle Macpherson and designer Karl Lagerfeld wherever the newlyweds make their home. (Most royal watchers believe it will be in one of the smart suburbs of Paris.)

Yet some Monegasques are wondering if Ernst, for all his superior breeding, has the stuff to cope with his new wife’s headline-making brand of royalty. At home in Schulenburg, Germany, site of his Calenberg estate, “Ernst goes about, and nobody makes a fuss,” reports Hartmut Schramm, a local restaurateur. “At the 60th-birthday party of the guy who manages his estate a while back, he helped draw the beer.” Says a friend: “With Caroline, I told him, ‘Now you’ve done it. Now you won’t have any more peace.’ ”

Indeed, photographers document Caroline’s every move, and her prince, known for his strong will and quick temper, has already run into trouble with at least one of them. In January of last year, as he and Caroline were returning to his Schulenburg estate from a Hanover charity gala, Ernst spotted cameraman Karsten Thürnau waiting with his equipment outside the gates. The prince accosted him with an umbrella, leaving Thürnau with a broken nose and deviated septum. “I thought I wasn’t long for this world,” the cameraman says. Although criminal charges against Ernst were ultimately dropped, a German court ordered him to pay Thürnau some $9,000 in damages and to ante up another $55,000 to the state and two charities.

But friends like American journalist Bob Colacello view that incident as an unfortunate aberration. “Now that the relationship is official, and they’re not sort of hiding, it’s going to make it much easier to deal with the press,” Colacello says. “I’ve known Ernst for 15 years, and he’s extremely intelligent, loyal, elegant and a lot of fun—a fair-haired Prince Charming.”

A certain dark-haired princess whose life has been short on happily-ever-afters is counting on it.

Kim Hubbard

Nina Biddle, Lanie Goodman, Deirdre Mooney and Cathy Nolan in Monaco, Simon Perry in London, Karen Nickel Anhalt in Berlin, Martha de la Cal in Lisbon and Eve Heyn in New York City