Farewell, Mrs. Keppel

Russell Baker

March 24, 1992|By Russell Baker

I CAN'T decide which line to take toward England's scandalous royals. The newsman in me clamors for shrieks of "Shame!" and "Civilization is finished!" And why not? Exclamation marks sell newspapers.

The interior historian, however, counsels a tone of amused contempt:

"What? These dull youngsters would have us believe their paltry peccadillos deserve the name of scandal? Check out Henry VIII, kiddies, as well as Charles II, George IV and Edward VII, and get to know what scandal is."

The inner philosopher reminds me that both views are supportable. Compared with old Henry's barbaric treatment of spouse after spouse, young Andy's tiffs with Fergie seem blander than the Weather Channel. Yet they also speak of civilization's collapse.

When Edward VII was dying, his wife, Queen Alexandra, summoned his mistress, Mrs. Keppel, to his bedside. Here was civilization at its peak, managing all the materials of great scandal with exquisite skill, delicacy and taste.

The time was 1910. Royals knew how to do things right in those days. Nothing demonstrates this better than the fact that the woman summoned to comfort the dying King was not "Keppie," or "Mrs. K.," but "Mrs. Keppel."

"Mrs. Keppel" lent dignity not only to an occasion that called for dignity, but also to the kind of relationship that is, for better or for worse, very common among human beings and often enriching and sustaining.

"Keppie" or "Mrs. K." by contrast could only have cheapened the moment, turning it into a leer for the newspapers with their free-marketeering need to deplore scandal in exclamation marks.

Diminishing the duchess of York to "Fergie" speaks of how far we have descended from the elegance of 1910. Shortly before marrying "Fergie," Prince Andrew, now duke of York, had been reduced to "Randy Andy" by a press eager to pronounce him, with a bawdy wink, a slave to passion.

In a world this squalid it was inevitable that Princess Diana, named for the goddess of the moon, queen and huntress chaste and fair, would be busted down to "Princess Di." Often just "Di." Sounds like a line from an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.

In such a world it was inevitable that millionaire Texans would soon be popping up in headlines that whispered in screaming exclamation marks of delicious indiscretions among the royals. Texans! Texans, for Heaven's sake! Reader, are you aware of the unutterable contempt that floods the soul of the typical properly accented Englishman when he thinks of Texans?

It's not bad enough that the average Texan is richer than the entire British government; no, he also speaks in a loud, ridiculous, vulgar, braying Texas accent.

In Henry James' time, which was also Mrs. Keppel's time, American millionaires also crossed the Atlantic to be viewed with contempt because they were "in trade," but Texas and the possibility anyone might be "in cattle" were still undreamed of in regal circles.

How different now from then. Note that the residence of "Fergie" and "Andy" is now jokingly called "South York" in mocking allusion to "Dallas," the old soap opera about rich Texas vulgarians domiciled in a house called "South Fork."

Not being on a steady diet of royal news, I don't know what the Prince of Wales is now reduced to. Could it be "Chazz"? "Buck," perhaps? Of course, "Chuck" would be a tabloid editor's dream of Paradise, paving the way for headlines like "Di Chucks Chuck." Or, if it happened while the prince was playing polo: "Chuck's Chukka Chucking."

See how far we have fallen from that moment in 1910 when the queen said, "Let Mrs. Keppel be summoned"? If it is not apparent, try to imagine that Mrs. Keppel had been reduced to "Keppie." Now try to imagine the queen trying to say, "Let Keppie be ..."

Just isn't 1910, is it? If she had been "Keppie" her every move would have been policed by paparazzi, TV crews and microphone-bearing mobs shouting how-does-it-feel questions.

"How does it feel when the queen calls, Keppie?" "How does it feel when a lover dies?" "How does it feel being kissed by a king?" "By a dying king?" "By a king with a beard?"

I think I'll settle for the mournful view of the present business, because a royal scandal should have a touch of class, and this is no longer possible.

Farewell, Mrs. Keppel, wherever you are.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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