By Louise Lague Terry Smith
October 10, 1990 12:00 PM

As if rowing a dinghy in the wake of bigger boats, Prince Edward has often seemed to be bobbing and bailing as his three older siblings surge ahead with their lives. Brits are ambivalent about Edward for quitting the Royal Marines; for staging a slapstick charity tournament with other young royals that raised $1.5 million and a lot of eyebrows; for eagerly joining Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production company as a lowly “teaboy,” and for plaintively denying press reports that he is gay. Put those together, and you’ve got what appears to be one leaky dinghy.

In fact, Edward’s boat is buoyant, and its course may ultimately prove to be one of the most interesting in the royal family. More underestimated than underdeveloped, Edward, 26, said the London Sunday Times, basically in admiration, has a “stubborn streak which has less to do with knowing what he wants than doggedly resisting what he does not want.”

A career in movies, for instance. Did someone say career? Edward is the first child of a reigning monarch to—gulp—take a commercial job. At Gordonstoun and Cambridge, he outdid his siblings academically, but theater was his greatest passion. Still, nobody could have guessed when he marched off to his first day of work as a gofer for Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Theatre Company—carrying a box of tea bags under his arm as a gag for photographers—that he was doing more than killing time. Two years later, after displaying an organizing flair and toughness in an often cutthroat business, he had become the $36,000-a-year manager of all overseas productions of Cats and Starlight Express.

Then, three months ago, unwilling to follow Lloyd Webber into the movie business, he joined his immediate boss and mentor, Bridget Hayward, to form a new theatrical production company. Fleet Street wished him well, recognizing that he had worked hard to learn his craft.

The respectful reception showed that Edward had finally begun to unload the “Wimp of Windsor” and “dilettante” labels that had been hung around his ears when in 1987 he left the Royal Marines, explaining that he realized he did not want a military career. By then, rumors of Edward’s alleged homosexuality were circulating, and it was assumed that Prince Philip, who is Captain-General of the Royal Marines, was furious. “Actually,” says a palace source, “the Duke felt it was quite brave of Edward to make die decision. Anne supported him, too, absolutely. But the Queen herself was so annoyed that for a long time she really didn’t want to see very much of him.” It was also assumed that Edward simply couldn’t cut it physically. But as even the Prince’s base commander, Col. Ian Moore, acknowledged, “He had all the physical ability to complete his training satisfactorily—indeed, well.”

Edward fell victim to that royal catch-22, wanting to be both regal and regular. He couldn’t adjust to the Marines’ unusually egalitarian style, in which officers are expected to be “matey” with the men under their command. He betrayed himself again in 1987 after his antic televised fund-raiser, The Royal Knockout (sort of a British Double Dare). Telling reporters “this was the best fun afternoon I’ve ever had,” he asked if they had liked it too. When the reporters, who had been herded into a tent in the cold outside the arena, stared back stonily, he stalked off, later rebuking them, “Someday you lot will have to learn some manners.”

Edward’s choice of career has only fueled rumors about his sexual orientation. Over the years, Edward has had women friends, but has never shown the family enthusiasm for skirt chasing. Last spring, columnist Nigel Dempster finally published a rumor about “a touching friendship between [actor] Michael Ball and Prince Edward.” Cornered at an opening night party, Edward angrily told a reporter, “I am not gay,” adding that the rumors were “preposterous.” Whatever the truth, some insiders suspect a marriage will be arranged for Edward within the next two years—”to stop the maliciousness of the gossip.”

Others believe Edward would just say no, refusing, as he has before, to go against his own instincts. His work with Lloyd Webber and with philanthropic causes has begun to persuade the British that he can be “extremely approachable, extremely hard-working and quite precise” when he does set his mind to something, as one charity official says. Loyal to his dreams as well as to the British ideal of monarchy, the Queen’s youngest child is, ran one editorial, “on the way to becoming the first really modern royal.”