July 22, 1991 12:00 PM

THE EUPHORIA WAS OVER WHELMING, THE IMAGES UNFORGETTABLE. PERFECT! proclaimed London’s Daily-Mail in the banner headline over its front-page photo of the kissing newlyweds. THE VERY PICTURE OF FAIRY-TALE SWEETHEARTS, echoed the Sun. It was July 29, 1981, the wedding of His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer, seemingly destined to become King and Queen of England. Tens of millions of Americans set their alarms for before dawn to watch the live telecast, which had a worldwide audience of 750 million. It was all spectacle and wonderment and celebration, not a day to doubt. Thus few pondered the point made by the officiating Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Robert Runcie, about a wedding day being not “the place of arrival, but the place where the adventure really begins.”

The world went on rejoicing when, three months later, it was announced that Diana was pregnant. Prince William arrived in June 1982, and Prince Harry followed in September 1984. The ostensibly happy couple, and the nation, now had “the heir and a spare” to ensure the monarchy’s direct line of succession.

Nobody, least of all an adoring British public, wanted to believe this marriage could go wrong. But it has. If only as a sop to the masses, some royalty watchers anticipated a demonstration of togetherness on Di’s 30th birthday on July 1. It was not to be. According to some reports, Charles offered to throw her a party, but Di declined, celebrating instead with friends in London while he remained at their country house, Highgrove.

Today, faced with such evidence, it is hard for even the most blinkered royalist to claim that Charles and Diana’s marital adventure is other than a pretense, sustained only because of the messy constitutional problems that would arise from a formal separation or divorce. For in succeeding his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, Charles would become not only monarch but also head of the Church of England—in which divorce is still frowned upon.

Along with the doubts about his marriage comes another, related, question: Will Charles, now 42, ever accede to the throne? Concerned by the public embarrassment of the Waleses’ marital discord and what they view as Charles’s increasingly glaring shortcomings, some in royal circles have begun to wonder if, indeed, he is fit to succeed. The mostly trivial gaffes that make Britain’s tabloids huff and puff about other members of the royal family pale in significance in comparison with Charles’s record of ineptness and parental malfeasance. Yet if he doesn’t succeed, Di will never become Queen, a role everyone reckons she would fill magnificently.

The impasse is rooted in the reality behind the Marriage of the Century. Despite the gauzily romantic imagery associated with the royal couple, their union is in essence a fake. Charles settled on Di not out of love but because she had a pedigree and no “past.” “Family members, who knew how the marriage was contracted, have always felt that much too much romance was read into it by wishful thinkers,” says one royal confidant, who, like the others interviewed for this story, would speak only if not identified. “Charles’s choice of a wife was shaped by a sense of duty, and judged on that basis, he couldn’t have picked a better Princess of Wales.” But by allowing considerations of duty to prevail, he wound up saddled with a marriage that has undermined his very position as heir apparent. Had he opted for someone who’d have been a less glorious Princess of Wales but a better marital match, the chances are he wouldn’t be in quite the predicament he’s in today.

In this February issue of McCall’s, American writer Anne Edwards “quoted” Charles in an imaginary Saint Valentine’s Day letter to Di: “You have to understand that, since I anticipated an arranged and perhaps loveless marriage, I went the way of so many of my predecessors. I had [available] married mistresses for whom I could feel great passion but without worry about further entanglement;” Though the Palace poured scorn on author Edwards’s mischief, family confidants confirm that Charles never intended to—and never did—give up his bachelor ways and made this clear to Diana at the very outset of their marriage. In particular, these sources go on, Charles told Di she would have to accept that “certain time is set aside for Camilla”—that is, the continuation of his friendship with Camilla Parker Bowles, a former girlfriend whose husband, Andrew, is a Household Cavalry brigadier. Andrew is, conveniently, persona grata in royal circles.

Such liaisons, by no means uncommon in Britain’s upper classes, usually feature the husband cavorting in London while the wife is ensconced at the family’s country seat. In this case it is Diana who stays at Kensington Palace, the Waleses’ London base, during the week, while Charles and Camilla see each other at their nearby properties in the idyllic, rural West of England. Some insiders believe that proximity to Camilla was a factor in Charles’s acquisition of Highgrove in 1980, the year before he married Di. The undulating terrain, where estates sit behind gates and high stone walls, is ideal for discreet comings and goings—and, crucially, well out of lens range of snooping journalists.

There is nothing new about protected royal liaisons, some of which went well beyond friendship. Haifa century earlier, the British public was the last to know about King Edward VIII’s relationship with American divorcée Wallis Simpson. Before the 1936 abdication, a cabal of British press lords and editors suppressed the story that the rest of the world was being told. Likewise, when the amount of time Charles and Di spent apart began leaking out in the mid-’80s, even the racier of Britain’s tabloids remained deferential and circumspect. It was the same tacit barrier that in the past has shielded misbehaving American Presidents while in office.

For Charles, that barrier finally fell in May of this year with the disclosure that he and Camilla, 43, had spent three days of overlapping time in Italy. Camilla’s fuming denial of impropriety did nothing to dispel conjecture. Irretrievably, the perception of “another woman” had reached the public domain. Headlined the Sun: CHARLES AND DI’S RIFT OVER CAMILLA. It’s as if those in the know in Washington had gone public about John Kennedy’s dalliances while he was President.

Increasingly, Camilla was seen as a usurper of some of Di’s domestic roles. Last year, during Charles’s four-month convalescence after breaking his right arm in a polo fall, Camilla was often in evidence at Highgrove when he received visitors. In Di’s absence, Camilla reportedly acted as Charles’s hostess and was spotted sunbathing in a bikini.

For Charles, the comparisons between Camilla, a longtime friend his own age, and his younger, demure wife may be invidious. According to a royal biographer, Ann Morrow, Camilla is “everything Charles loves: worldly, fun, sporty, blond…and of course, very sexy. She has traveled the world, has strong opinions and likes nothing better than tramping the grouse moors in the howling wind. It’s a pretty heady mixture: an attractive, well-bred woman who looks stunning in a ball gown but can call a hound to heel.”

Described in this way—Camilla, appealing to Charles’s tweedier instincts—she is but one symbol of the Waleses’ discontent. When their friends take sides, Charles and Di’s incompatibilities are further illuminated. Some of Charles’s cronies speak disparagingly of Diana as “brainless” and “empty-headed,” while her friends consider Charles and his mix of cerebral and sporting types “crashing bores.” Yet it is the unreported details, perhaps, that shed the harshest light on the marriage. At a Buckingham Palace ball last December, Charles and Di arrived together—and left separately. They often don’t even share operatic evenings. Opera, one of Charles’s loves, is an acquired taste for Diana, who often attends performances privately. They rarely attend as a couple.

To most Americans, the wonder may be that the marriage has survived at all. After all, the comparable stress and strain for most ordinary couples of being cooped up in an average house or apartment can be unbearable. But with so many properties at their disposal, the Waleses are often not under the same roof. And when they are, they need hardly see each other. They have separate bedrooms and suites, separate official and social diaries, separate retinues of attendants. “The elegant elasticity of their arrangements is what keeps them and their marriage from exploding,” suggests an observer.

Against this backdrop, no one should accept pitying depictions of Di as a victimized spouse on the shelf. As one friend asserts, “This is a busy woman with a full life. Besides her boys, she gets a great deal of buzz and satisfaction from her wide range of official activities. She also has lots of friends to meet for lunch or to share evenings out with, and no shortage of conveniently available family.” The initial humiliation over accommodating Camilla, these insiders figure, abetted Di’s maturing as Princess of Wales. “It gave her steel,” says one. Di’s sexual makeup also could be part of her “salvation,” according to another confidant, in that she may not be strongly drawn to others beyond social flirtations. In all, “there is an overall contentment with her life as it is,” a close friend affirms. Author Morrow goes so far as to find Di’s contentment responsible for the moratorium (at least temporary) on more children. “A lot has happened since she had William and Harry,” Morrow notes. “Now she gets so many kicks out of being a world figure, she doesn’t want to have it all interrupted by another difficult pregnancy.”

Di’s male friends range from such hunky army officers as Maj. James Hewitt and Maj. David Waterhouse to Jacob Rothschild, the 55-year-old banker and philanthropist (worth $240 million) who has leased and restored Spencer House, her family’s onetime London residence. Di, reports the Daily Mail, “is obviously intrigued by this charismatic millionaire. Unlike her husband, this man is more than a dreamer. His authority comes not entirely from birth but from achievement.”

Such reminders of how the Prince and his marriage are widely perceived—in the public eye, Di can do no wrong, while he goes on being boxed around the ears—are said to infuriate him. Some of the Prince’s friends have retaliated by circulating stories that Di consciously manipulates domestic situations to enhance her image at the expense of her husband’s. Partly to compensate, perhaps, Charles seems ever more to assert his precedence when they appear together, stalking out on his own as if Di were trailing along merely as a member of his entourage.

Such public ill-humor, even in matters so seemingly picayune, has helped undermine Charles’s credibility as a future King. “Whatever way you cut it, and even giving him the benefit of certain doubts, Charles doesn’t seem to add up as having the right shoulders on which the mantle of a monarch should be falling,” one analyst asserts. Even confirmed royalists are dismayed by Charles’s conduct in the year since his polo accident. The departure, after less than a year, of his private secretary, Sir Christopher Airy, embarrassingly exposed the disarray in his official inner sanctum. Besides his self-indulgent withdrawal from public life for four months, Charles’s ongoing detachment from his family has provoked widespread criticism. Even though he is an avid skier, he didn’t accompany his sons on their first skiing holiday. Most extraordinary of all was the spectacle Charles made of himself on June 3, when he left the hospital to attend an opera just as Prince William was about to be operated on for a fractured skull, suffered when he was accidentally struck with a golf club at his school, Ludgrove. Within innermost family circles, the talk is that Charles is currently emotionally fragile. Insiders speak of his bizarre behavior at private gatherings: abruptly leaving the dinner table, brusquely changing the conversation, an aversion to the mere mention of his wife.

The possibility that Charles even would remove himself from the succession—an abdication of sorts—was floated in May by Sir Peregrine Worsthorne in a column in London’s conservative Daily Telegraph. Worsthorne’s trial-balloon thesis, that this would free Charles to carry on as a social critic, could also be interpreted as the embryo of a face-saving way out for Charles. Just as “The Woman I Love…” enabled Edward VIII to vacate a position for which he was unsuited, Charles’s stepping aside could be put forward as a noble sacrifice to allow him to complete his lifelong mission as an activist in a way that would not be possible if he were King.

Charles’s opting out would have the further benefit of taking the heat off the Waleses’ marriage, with the specter of a formal separation or divorce no longer looming as a constitutional problem. Sequence is considered critical. “The chances of a formal separation or divorce before Charles stepped aside range from the infinitesimal to the nonexistent,” says one palace insider. If Charles did step aside, there still might not be a formal separation or divorce. “Both he and Diana would probably retain their strong sense of duty and be able to carry on privately pretty much as they want,” another palace insider says. For either, any thought of bolting into exile would almost certainly be quashed by awareness of the demeaning post-abdication tribulations of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

Charles’s succession could, in any case, be overtaken by other developments. He might, for example, die before his mother, now 65 and in good health. Some observers see Charles’s narrow escape from an avalanche in 1988 and last year’s polo accident as omens of an early death. Di is said by a family friend to be “apprehensive but philosophical” about warnings that, for instance, Charles could be targeted by IRA assassins. The Prince himself, some experts suspect, may be haunted by fear. Di has confided to friends her belief that Charles has “a death wish.”

In behind-the-scenes endeavors to safeguard the monarchy from the fallout of a shaky marriage, the key role belongs to Sir Robert Fellowes, 49, who, as the Queen’s private secretary, is the most powerful courtier in the royal household. Married to one of Di’s older sisters, Lady Jane Spencer, Fellowes is well-placed for whatever damage control is required. His priorities as private secretary would include giving Charles an honorable exit, if it comes to that. Important, too, Fellowes could well be at the Queen’s side until Prince William comes of age at 18.

In the meantime, any substantive disruptions in the lives of William and Harry are unlikely. They are already accustomed to their parents’ frosty relationship. There certainly would be no question of removing the heirs either from Di, who for most practical purposes now has custody, or—to safeguard the succession—from the bosom of the royal family.

There are other scenarios. An irony cited by family confidants is that while British tabloids were portraying the marriage as increasingly rocky, the Waleses’ “separate lives” arrangement was actually becoming more stabilized. An even more optimistic projection sees Charles moving on from his mid-life crisis and taking on bigger chunks of the Queen’s official duties, especially after she turns 70. The rosier outlook also has the Waleses somehow being drawn closer together, perhaps having another child or two, and eventually evolving—as did Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip after the shaky patches early in their marriage—as a couple at least in harmony, if not in love.

Alas, there is as yet little sign of it. “Something has got to give if the battering of the Waleses’ image goes on and on,” reckons one royalty watcher. But what? And when? More than likely, the ending won’t be of the fairy-tale variety.

REPORTED BY THE LONDON BUREAU OF PEOPLE

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