November 30, 1992 12:00 PM

IN THE ONGOING SOAP OPERA THAT passes for the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales, even veteran royal watchers have had trouble at times separating substance from suds. This month, though, all the rumor, rancor and behind-the-scenes maneuvering surrounding the royal couple finally reached a denouement. Except for the sounding of taps and the reading of the scroll, the marriage is—for all practical purposes—over.

The last scrap of official pretense was swept away after two weeks of headline events: a disastrous joint trip abroad; a startling statement from Di reflecting her marital woes; and, finally, reports of a new love tape, this one starring Charles and his euphemistically described confidante, Camilla Parker Bowles, 45. By mid-month, British papers were reporting that Charles was thinking about pulling out of the whole sticky mess and handing over his place in line to the throne to his son William, 10. (Wills, meanwhile, showing a dearth of royal dignity himself, had just been knuckle-rapped at school for trying to flush a schoolmate’s head down the toilet.)

A Sunday Mirror editorial seemed to speak for the nation when it asked, “Just what is going on?” One thing going on was that the rumor mill had been running so far ahead of Palace candor on the marital issue that perpetuating the sham became more humiliating—and certainly more exhausting—than admitting the reality.

“None of us are blind to what has been going on,” conceded one aide to the Waleses in a moment of rare honesty. “We know there are big problems in their marriage. But the official line is that nothing is to be admitted. We are hoping that the couple can sec things through if they are given breathing space.”

It was just days after that startling observation that the Princess stunned the nation with her first-ever statement to the press. In 53 words, Diana announced that the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh had been “sympathetic and supportive.” She did not need to say about what.

Astutely, royal watchers noted that Charles was not among those described as supportive and seized the interpretation that the Palace was finally ‘fessing up to a problem. As admissions go, however, it was only slightly less tardy than the Pope’s recent acknowledgment that, OK, Galileo was right about the earth revolving around the sun.

British papers began hypothesizing furiously about the division of royal real estate among the embattled parties—Charles would get the country digs at Highgrove and a Buck House apartment; his wife and the boys would reside at Kensington Palace. Then the new love tape came to light. The Daily Mirror claimed it had heard a recording of a conversation in which Charles and Camilla, his longtime very close friend, were arranging a tryst. Allegedly taped two weeks before the infamous Dianagate tape that surfaced in late August—in which the Princess prattled on about her marital misery lo former car salesman James Gilbey—the Camillagate tape supposedly went further than that. Charles was said to have told Camilla that he adored her and that “your great achievement is to love me.”

The exact content may be forever hearsay, partly because, one media insider told the Daily Express, much of “the tape is so explicit that it is virtually unprintable.”

At this point, shattering the official silence surrounding this touchy confidante business, a top royal aide said something surprising to the Daily Mirror: “So the Prince has had an affair with this woman. It happens in France all the time.” By now, the chat was a very long way out of the bag.

The Princess was hardly more subtle. On Charles’s 44th birthday, Nov. 14th, he spent the day fox hunting in Derbyshire while Diana hastened lo France in what was seen as an expression of her profound desire to be anywhere but with him. Besides the predictable visit to an AIDS hospice and to a home for handicapped children—chores Diana could perform graciously in a blindfold and shackles—she also met for 40 minutes with French President Francois Mitterrand. Visibly happy to be soloing, “she looked more attractive and more seductive than ever,” said Jack Lang, France’s Minister of Culture. “She is intelligent, lively and fun.”

The visit stood in sharp contrast to the Waleses’ ill-fated trip to South Korea a week earlier, a distinctly unsentimental journey that turned into a public-relations pratfall of the first order. From the moment they arrived in Seoul, it was clear that the official visit was not going to be the hopefully named Togetherness Tour that Buckingham Palace spinmeisters had promised. Indeed the four-day trek ended up being just one more long shrug of two cold shoulders.

The clearly steamed Diana was reportedly furious over the Palace’s leak that she and Charles would be sharing a suite at the Hyatt Hotel in Seoul when, in fact, she and her clothes occupied a smaller suite of their own. “She has become increasingly annoyed with the way the Palace has tried to whitewash the state of her marriage,” one close friend was quoted as saying.

Yet whenever the Princess moved any distance at all from her husband’s orbit, she blossomed, notably around other men—especially if they were in uniform. At a British Army memorial north of Seoul, she became as chirpy as ever with British paratrooper Maj. John Martin.

While Charles and Di were alternately blowing cool and cold, the man in the London hot seat was Sir Robert Fellowes, 50, who as private secretary to the Queen is responsible for damage control.

Fellowes has been on the Queen’s staff since 1977, the year before he married Diana’s older sister Jane. Having a foot in each camp no doubt makes his delicate task sometimes harder, sometimes easier, but certain!), by the public’s standards. much too slow.

Diana clearly needed Fellowes’s approval, if not a nudge, in crafting her tactfully worded public statement about the Queen’s sympathy and support, released Nov. 6, hours after her return from Korea. Though her thinly veiled comments hit the papers with the force of a bombshell, they provided but tacit acknowledgment of negotiations about a possible formal separation that have been going on since June, when Andrew Morton’s tell-all book, Diana: Her True Story, hit the stands. The statement was meant to defuse a report in the updated paperback version of the book that Prince Philip had sent Diana an angry letter about her disloyalty to the Queen in allowing her friends to gab to Morton. In fact, says one well-placed source, the tone of Philip’s letter was generally more congenial than reported.

When the News of the World printed a rumor that Charles had talked to his mother about possibly stepping out of the line of succession, many loyal Britons were shocked. In fact, that is but one of several possibilities being discussed by the Windsors.

As recently as June, the Waleses had three options. One was a genuine reconciliation—a prospect that would now seem tantamount to a miracle. The second would be a peaceable though loveless arrangement whereby the Waleses would continue to live separately, as they do now, with Diana promising to pout less on public outings with Charles. (The Korean trip would seem to signal the futility of that plan.)

The final possibility is a formal, though not legal, separation that would preserve the marriage while openly making known their separate living accommodations and even providing for joint appearances on occasions of state. On Di’s long laundry list of pet peeves is the fact that Charles’s private secretary, Commander Richard Aylard, has been turning down invitations at Charles’s request before Diana even hears about them. She will also no doubt lobby for her own press secretary.

In addition to having quarters of her own at Kensington Palace, Diana will also need her own country house, perhaps near her family in Northamptonshire. That would forestall future visits to hated High-grove, where Charles tends the locked, walled garden she is not allowed to enter. Highgrove is also near the home of the Parker Bowleses’ country place in Pickwick, Wiltshire. For his part, Charles would want a scheduling plan under which he would no longer find his speeches upstaged in the press by Diana’s attention-getting sorties elsewhere.

Clearly, Diana was wisely guided by her brother-in-law Robert Fellowes to recognize publicly the Queen’s support and to spend the weekend after the Korean trip accompanying the Queen and Prince Philip on a round of public duties.

Since then, Diana has continued to cleave to her in-laws while doing nothing to hide her coolness toward Charles. She has reportedly told friends she has no intention of spending the traditional extended Christmas with the royal family at Sandringham, the Queen’s country estate in Norfolk. “I simply can’t face the farce of a happy family Christmas,” she reportedly said, indicating she and her children would spend the holiday with her brother, Charles, Earl Spencer.

Despite all the hoopla, high-level royal separations are not without precedent. The Queen and Prince Philip themselves occupy separate bedrooms and settled into a businesslike marital arrangement years ago. In the 12th century, King Henry II and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, spent much of their married life living in separate countries. More recently, around the turn of the century, King Edward VII led a philandering life while his wife, Alexandra, devoted herself to her children and good works. (In fact, Camilla Parker Bowles’s great-grandmother was the favorite mistress of that Edward, a tidbit Parker Bowles reportedly used as a pickup line the first time she met the Prince.)

Though a formal separation is not necessarily imminent, main of the Queen’s subjects seem resigned to the idea and simply wish the Waleses would get on with it. “If they end up divorcing, so be it,” snarled one editorial. “Respect for the royal family has held firm in Britain for generations. Charles and Diana must not be allowed to destroy it.”

Prince Charles may feel the same way. Displaying the calm of a man who senses his personal storm has passed, he decided to chime in recently with a little acknowledgment of his own. Addressing the annual board of governors meeting of the Royal Shakespeare Company earlier this month, he made a fat-and-happy remark dismissive enough to make Diana reach for a hatchet. Tongue in cheek, he chronicled his theatergoing year. Said the Prince: “I have already been to see The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Taming of the Shrew and All’s Well That Ends Well.”

It brought down the house.



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