August 19, 1991 12:00 PM

WHEN PRINCE PHILIP VENTURES OUT with his wife, Queen Elizabeth, he always stands one step behind her. His chiseled Nordic head easily clears her hat—and he’s usually looking the other way. Though never truly in her shadow, the brash, intriguing Duke of Edinburgh has been underexposed the last decade or two—until now, the summer of his 70th birthday (June 10). Two biographies, the authorized Philip: A Portrait of the Duke of Edinburgh, by Tim Heald, and the critical Prince Philip: His Secret Life, by John Parker, sketch a complex personality who has helped forge the monarchy’s first-ever public image while remaining a crusty aristocrat of the old school. “The Prince still puzzles me,” says biographer Heald, citing his “real humility” and “apparent arrogance,” “real kindnesses” and “inexplicable snubs.”

Nevertheless, Philip’s charm has won over some unlikely admirers. Take American singer Harry Con-nick Jr., 23, who tickled the ivories at Philip’s July 26 birthday bash. Upon meeting the Prince, Connick himself was tickled, dubbing Philip “a cool, classy dude.”

Cool? Make that cold, opinionated and snobbish. Classy? Philip is so highly placed that his father, Prince Andrew of Greece, didn’t even have a last name. And a dude? He’s a pilot, Captain-General of the Royal Marines, an enthusiastic marksman and an unstoppable flirt. As the Queen’s spouse, he has no official role in the monarchy and is forbidden to peek at state papers. Though Philip said he felt as powerless as a “bloody amoeba” when his wife ascended the throne 39 years ago, he has carved out a public niche for himself, mostly as international president of the World Wide Fund for Nature. And he’s a royal workhorse, logging 554 public engagements last year. The Prince “hates a day off,” says Brian Hoey, an author of books on royalty. “His idea of hell would be a fortnight on the beach.

In the course of his duties, the outspoken Prince has uttered a number of colorful but highly inappropriate remarks (see box). The Queen, who, says a friend, “simply adores him,” has long been resigned to his misbehavior. “It’s a waste of time trying to change a man’s character,” she once philosophized privately. “You have to accept your husband as he is.”

Elizabeth was only 13 when she fell—hard—for the hunky 18-year-old naval cadet, then Prince Philip of Greece. (The British man-on-the-street still good-naturedly calls him Phil the Greek, though he has not a drop of Greek blood.) Born in Corfu, the great-grandson of Denmark’s King Christian IX, Philip is related to many of Europe’s blue bloods—including Elizabeth, his second cousin once removed, whom he married in 1947, when she was 21.

Elizabeth has had to live with three decades of innuendos about Prince Philip’s rumored womanizing, which first surfaced during a 1956 five-month, worldwide cruise the Prince undertook without his wife. At one point, says Hoey, “a couple of lady typists were flown out to join the boat in Singapore. It was said they didn’t do too much typing.”

Over the years reports have linked Philip—without a shred of hard evidence—to the late Merle Oberon, to the late Rebecca author Daphne du Maurier and to several British actresses. Whispers still persist that he is the father—and not just the godfather—of French nightclub singer Hélène Cordet’s two children. Max, 47, and Louise, 46. Cordet laughs off the paternity rumor as “ridiculous,” insisting that her offspring were fathered by French fighter pilot Marcel Boisot, to whom she was briefly married.

What is incontestable is that Philip seems to weave an irresistible web around every woman he meets. He still seeks out the company of attractive females—one reason, says a palace source, “why he gets on well with his daughters-in-law,” Diana and Sarah. Once, at a dinner party, Philip monopolized the host’s wife so completely that she finally begged for permission to call him something other than Sir. “Call me Sir Darling,” he replied.

For all that. Philip is known as the Queen’s “closest supporter, says Hoey, “and she’s told those close to her that he’s her best friend.” Part of his self-ascribed role is to break through her royal reserve. Just last year he stuck his tongue out at her as he drove a carriage past the royal box at a horse show. She was quite amused.

But most valuable is his role as super-house husband—a function the Queen gave him after the 1956 cruise to end the ensuing chill and rumors that their marriage was in trouble. As manager of the royal estates, gadget freak Philip, whose study, intimates say, “looks like the cockpit of the Concorde,” computerized the Sandringham and Balmoral royal residences while taking charge of the children’s upbringing.

“The whole family looks up to him—and they’re all frightened,” says a knowing source. Once a year, Philip gathers his four children for a therapeutic weekend at Balmoral to discuss their behavior, past and future. “For instance,” says Hoey, “he might let Charles or Edward know if they were behaving like wimps.”

His relations vary from child to child. Philip and Charles, 42, share a passion for polo and painting, as well as a self-deprecating sense of humor that “can put people at ease,” says Roland Flamini, author of the recent book Sovereign: Elizabeth II and the Windsor Dynasty. But the introspective Prince of Wales, says Hoey, “is always afraid of revealing his inner thoughts” to his more macho, stiff-lipped father.

With his second son, Andrew, 31, Philip shares a love of “dirty jokes, rough naval language and good-looking women,” says Hoey. But Philip was reportedly furious when his youngest child, Edward, 27, quit marine training in 1987; the old Prince reduced the young Prince to tears. He is apparently quite uncomfortable, too, with Edward’s choice of the theater as a profession.

Philip identifies most closely with daughter Anne, 41. “They are totally the same: forthright, abrasive, sarcastic, totally fearless. And they share a cruel sense of humor,” says one royal-watcher. In his study are two photos of Anne but none of his sons.

Whatever the mysteries of his nature, Philip is generally credited with helping to bring the monarchy into the 20th century. For a man with no official job to do, it has been no small feat. Charles and Anne are active in good works, and Edward is the first child of a British reigning monarch to have a commercial job. “Forty years ago,” says Heald, “[Philip] was practically the only member of the Firm [as George VI dubbed the royal family] who did or said anything interesting. Now they are all at it.”



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