May 01, 1988 12:00 PM

“A crown,” King Frederick the Great of Prussia once wryly remarked, “is a hat that lets the rain in.” To this painful truth the current Prince of Wales can attest. Ten years ago Prince Charles was a lusty lad of nearly 30 and the British royal family’s brightest jewel. He was a dashing adventurer, a globe-trotting supersalesman for British industry, a committed champion of the common man and a talented jack of various arts: amateur potter, weekend painter, cellist with a passion for Bach. By those in the know, he was touted as the Casanova of Buckingham Palace, the most eligible bachelor on the planet, an adroit seducer of fashionable beauties. In short, H.R.H. the Prince of Wales was a Renaissance man with a throne in his future and the world at his feet, truly a royal superstar.

Today, as he nears his 40th birthday on Nov. 14, Charles is no longer a bachelor, but the compensations are obvious: a beautiful young wife and two endearing sons. Yet he is a man caught in the throes of a troubling mid-life crisis that has impacted upon his family, his public image and his sense of self-worth. He is said to be haunted by feelings that he has not accomplished anything truly meaningful, certainly nothing commensurate with his talents or his activist ambitions.

A charming, sincere man, he is regularly chivied by the British tabloids, which regard him as an earnest do-gooder who tends to go off the deep end, on the subject of social reform. Perhaps encouraged by such perceptions, some cartoonists take an extra measure of delight in contorting his odd but pleasant features into flyaway wombat ears, a neck that swallows his chin and a pair of crazy little eyes that sit side by side like nostrils—imagine a cross between Big Bird and Alfred E. Neuman. More vexing to the prince are those reporters who blithely dismiss him as a middle-age counterculture kook who talks to plants and is not to be taken seriously. His impetuous excesses at polo and skiing are widely viewed as adolescent bravado, though they may well be an outlet for the prince’s frustrations. The modern role of the Prince of Wales, after all, is a discouragingly abbreviated one, requiring him merely to generate “an heir and a spare” and wait meekly for the Queen to die. Since at age 62 that prim little matron enjoys her job, is enormously popular and boasts a constitution of vanadium steel, restless Charles may well have to wait another 20 years to ascend—a prospect that leaves him feeling, he has said, “like a bit of a twit.”

The realization that most of his adult life could be prologue may be at the root of Charles’s malaise. He has begun to see himself as a glittering prisoner of privilege, a trainee King whose existence is too often bounded by dreary ribbon cuttings, fixed smiles and soggy chicken cutlets. This last year has been especially difficult. Stories of marital friction—prompted by his extended absences from home and unprecedented separations from wife and family—have left press and public rummaging for clues as to the true nature of a relationship that once was perceived as idyllic. Though Charles and Diana seem to be coexisting peaceably now, the endless public speculation has nettled the prince. In December, Charles was sufficiently concerned about his overall public image that he invited the editors of four prestigious British news organizations to an off-the-record lunch at Kensington Palace. He complained that the press seemed intent on turning his private life into a soap opera and trivialized anything he said and did about contemporary problems. According to the inevitable leaks, it was an extremely intense Charles who told the newsmen that he felt he could have accomplished more in his life if he had been a free agent. “I wish I had been Bob Geldof,” he was quoted as saying of the Live Aid organizer. He also said, “I am determined not to be confined to cutting ribbons.”

It must have been consoling to him that in a British opinion poll taken in February, his countrymen agreed that the prince should speak out more often on social issues and need not restrict himself to a ceremonial role. Charles’s hands-on approach to such issues as urban renewal and unemployment put him at odds with the Thatcher government, whose policies stress self-reliance and put less emphasis on state help. In April, senior Tory Norman Tebbit scathingly suggested that the outspoken prince identified with the unemployed “because in a way he’s got no job.”

The sniping must have acutely distressed Charles, whose “entire being,” says one of his biographers, Penny Junor, “is subjugated to duty.” Part of that duty, as Charles sees it, is to make the monarchy a tribune of the people. A friend says that Charles wants to be “a needle in the conscience” of the nation, even if he violates a long-standing tradition that the monarchy must not become involved in political disputes.

To that end, he has taken up an impressive variety of causes: scholarships for the poor, aid to small businesses, defense of the environment, and fresh approaches to medicine, architecture and urban planning. On nearly every topic he has had something useful to say, but now and then, perhaps fearful that his remarks will be ignored, he has forcefully overstated his case. Last December, for instance, he left many British architects seething when he ripped the profession for being obsessed with design and indifferent to people’s needs. “Give this much to the Luftwaffe,” he told an architects’ meeting in London. “When it knocked down our buildings, it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble. We did that.”

The attention he gets today is a far cry from the kind he got in his bachelor days when the sowing of his royal wild oats kept the nation and the press entertained. Virile and quick-witted, Charles in those days courted an enviable succession of high-born British belles: among them Davina Sheffield, Camilla Fane, Jane Wellesley and Anna Wallace. With several he considered marriage, but something always seemed to go wrong. One girlfriend was reportedly caught naked in a men’s changing room at the beach. Another woman he had dated a few times had been the subject of a salacious spread in Penthouse. Charles backed off in both cases. Despite his lively sexual track record, it was unthinkable that the future King would take as his bride a woman with a publicly acknowledged past.

Lady Diana Spencer presented no such problems. She had everything: beauty, pedigree, purity. And she was wildly in love with her Prince Charming.

Was Charles in love with Diana? When a reporter had the temerity to pop that question soon after the prince’s engagement, Charles replied airily, “Whatever ‘in love’ means.” He soon found out. After their honeymoon he couldn’t keep his eyes or his hands off Diana. Later, tender emotions of another kind were kindled by William and Harry. Charles was present at both births and at first tried hard to build a strong relationship with his sons—something he never enjoyed with his own father. But of late he seems to be spending less and less time with his boys, for reasons nobody can quite pinpoint.

Marriage has changed Charles in ways great and small. Diana has improved his diet (more salads, less red meat), given him a home that is truly his own and has had some success in persuading him to take fewer risks. She has also eased him away from most of his old flames and has bumped a number of gay men from his entourage. (The employment of homosexuals, largely for practical reasons, is a sort of unacknowledged palace tradition; these men often have minimal family commitments and can adapt more easily to the grueling royal schedule.)

But essential problems remain, and Charles must wrestle with them as best he can. His current guru, the 81-year-old philosopher-adventurer Sir Laurens van der Post, suggested that he reflect on his dreams and study the metaphysical psychology of Carl Jung. For Charles the man, self-absorption may lead to emotional growth. To Charles the prince, it has brought a carpeting from his father (who told him, insiders report, to “pull his socks up”) and a flanneling in the public prints.

Far more crushing to the prince was the fatal accident last March near Klosters, when he led his ski party down an unsafe trail in defiance of avalanche warnings. The decision was characteristic: a hubristic challenge to the gods and the odds. The death of Maj. Hugh Lindsay, and Charles’s own narrow escape, stunned the British public, which questioned the prince’s reckless lack of judgment. Charles was devastated by Lindsay’s death. He accepted full blame, and insiders say he will offer financial aid to the widow and stand as godfather to the child she was carrying when her husband died. Not long after the funeral he took off without Diana and the boys for Scotland on a previously scheduled fishing trip. Had he gone to grieve alone? “No,” says a friend. “He’s just getting on with his life.” Diana also reported that Charles was “bearing up well,” but friends doubt it. “Charles is a deeply caring man,” says one. “He will always have this terrible accident on his conscience.” If ever a man needed wise counsel, or a supportive wife, Charles does now.

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