Never underestimate the staying power of royalty

July 03, 2000|By Al Webb

LONDON -- In truth, the British royal family has never quite gotten over the lady from Baltimore, but at least it has learned, along with its subjects, to accept that everyone is a bit flawed -- even the realm's next two kings-to-be. One of them is a divorcee; the other a lousy cook.

Between those extremes, the royals of recent have exhibited an impressive display of human shenanigans, including a duchess whose pleasures included having her toes sucked, a princess whose own delights ran to a gin fortune heir and a rugby football player, and a princely cousin of the queen who was spotted having a pee in public.

But never underestimate the undying popular appeal of those born to the purple in this Scept'r'd Isle. Mo Mowlam, the troll-like socialist Cabinet Office minister in the current government, did just that when she suggested that Queen Elizabeth and her kin move out of Buckingham Palace and into digs more befitting the 21st century.

Ms. Mowlam sought to mine what she perceived as a rich vein of populist anti-monarchism. What she tapped into was a well of public ordure. Britons suggested she put a sock in it and lay off the royal family.

"Every family has its little ups and down," said King Henry II's wife, Queen Eleanor, in "The Lion in Winter," as she surveyed her own dysfunctional family of ruling Plantagenets. The fact remains that, according to one recent poll, nearly 80 percent of Britons eight centuries later still want to keep their kings, queens, princes and princesses, warts and all.

To be sure, much of the magic is gone, the mystery lifted and the royals exposed for what they are -- human, just like the rest of us, feuding into divorce courts, sufferers of everything from bulimia to boredom, stuck with wretched reruns on TV. About the only distinction remaining is that they are spared the horrors of London's public transport.

The royal mystique, still well and truly in place after nearly a millennium, began to lift on a June evening in 1931 when the lady from Baltimore went to a party and set out on a course that nearly made her queen of England but instead opened the way for the present Queen Elizabeth II to reach the throne.

It was at Lady Furness' little get-together in London that this Maryland socialite, Wallis Warfield Simpson, first clamped her baby blues on Edward, Prince of Wales -- he, who five years later, would become King Edward VIII.

The story is now part of history, how twice-divorced Wallis and lovesick Edward became an item, then a scandal, the reports that oozed from the cover-up as he became monarch: "The King is in love. The King and Mrs. Simpson will be married ... He is going to make an American woman his queen."

Well, he didn't. The nation wouldn't have an American divorcee for queen, Edward wouldn't have the throne without her, he abdicated to be with "the woman I love," and they sailed off to France, to be married and to live not all that happily ever after as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

She didn't become Queen Wallis. What she did, however unintentionally, was to open the curtain just a crack on the drama that is modern royalty, giving subjects and the rest of the world alike a look at the flesh and blood behind it all. Over the two-thirds of a century since, the curtain has been pulled wider, the royals powerless to prevent it.

It makes breathtaking theater, the ecstasy of the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, the agony of their mutual adulteries and divorce, and the tragedy of her death in a Paris car crash. And then there is the war of wills between Charles and his mother the queen over his choice of a divorcee, Camilla Parker Bowles, as his mistress.

Whether we were particularly enlightened by photos of the Duchess of York having her toes sucked by an American millionaire, and the divorce that inevitably ensued, is debatable. So is the snapshot of one of the queen's cousins, Prince Ernst August of Hanover, 23rd in line to the British throne, letting out a pint or so of beer in public at a trade fair.

Yet for all that, the popularity of Britain's royal family remains very tangible -- and the subjects like what they see. Prince Charles and Camilla pictured arm-and-arm at parties, with the queen's approval at last (but with the fury over a Queen Camilla perhaps yet to come).

Sarah, the wandering Duchess of York, has chucked out her toe-sucking boyfriend and is back living like man and wife with ex-husband Prince Andrew --and whispers are about that they will remarry. The queen's youngest son, Prince Edward, finally got wed, thus ending another whispering campaign, that he was gay.

Even the Queen Mother (loves lobster, hates cats), nearing her 100th birthday, seems less harsh in her condemnation of the now-dead Wallis for driving her own husband, King George VI, to his grave.

Still, a few -- about 19 percent in recent polls -- want a British republic. Forget it. America is a republic, Britain a monarchy. The one and only time it was a republic lasted less than 20 years in the 17th century, and the religious nutter who led it, Oliver Cromwell, ended up with his head stuck on a pole atop Westminster Hall.

Oh, and the lousy cook? That's Prince William, Charles' son who has just turned 18. At Eton, he has gained a reputation as truly awful at cookery, largely on the basis of a paella that his pal Ned said "looks and feels like worms."

Fortunately for us, William is going to run a kingdom, not a McDonald's.

Al Webb is an independent American journalist living in London.

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