Despite engagement, Parker Bowles still in Diana's shadow

Bride may win acceptance, but past is not forgotten

February 11, 2005|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - Camilla Parker Bowles has long been known mostly as the woman who was not Diana, as the "royal mistress" who has managed to remain somewhat of an unknown figure despite her long love affair with Prince Charles, heir to the throne.

The British public first began to become aware of her as a rumor in the 1970s, later as a probability during the Diana years and finally as a face following the princess' death.

In each of those quasi-introductions, the circumstances could not have been worse for Parker Bowles, re-introduced yesterday as Charles' next bride.

Whatever the degree of acceptance she may win, she is likely always to be identified as the walking humiliation to Diana, as the "other woman" who caused the collapse of a royal marriage that had at one time charmed the United Kingdom.

Parker Bowles grew up with a love for horses in rural Sussex County. Far from a naive country girl, though, she was a well-to-do debutante, educated at the Queens Gate School in posh South Kensington and then in Switzerland and France.

British newspapers have reported for years that her great-grandmother, a well-known society matron named Alice Keppel, was even better known as the mistress of King Edward VII, the great-great grandfather to Charles.

She is well aware of her family history, and it has been widely reported that she once said to Charles, in the 1970s and long before he met Diana, "My great-grandmother and your great-great-grandfather were lovers. So how about it?"

She was born July 17, 1947. She and Charles first met at a Windsor polo match in 1970 and quickly became friends. Biographers said the two soon became lovers, sharing a sense of humor and an affection for horses and the countryside.

Charles joined the Royal Navy a year after they met, though, and Parker Bowles married a cavalry officer named Andrew Parker Bowles in 1973.

They had two children: Tom, born in 1974, and Laura, who is five years younger. The couple divorced in 1995, well after widely reported rumors that she and Charles were an item. If there had been any doubt, in 1992, a secret tape-recording made three years earlier - in which Charles told her, "I love you" - was made public.

"Camilla saw how you could be a successful support to someone in an exposed public position," Christopher Wilson, who has written about Parker Bowles, told the British Broadcasting Corp.

Charles' biographer, Penny Junor, said that during their affair, Charles and Parker Bowles arranged to rendezvous at the country estates of friends.

"Both couples were surrounded by fantastically close-knit coteries of friends," she told the BBC. "People who would rather have had their heads chopped off than discuss with anyone who they'd had under their roof."

After Charles and Diana divorced, Parker Bowles was a more frequent site at the side of the prince.

When Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris in 1997, though, the woman Charles is now scheduled to marry April 8 kept a lower profile. She and Charles were not photographed together until 1999.

And Parker Bowles' first public speech did not come until 2002, when she advocated increased funding for the treatment of osteoporosis, a crippling bone disease which killed her mother and grandmother.

Charles' press advisers have worked diligently since for her acceptance by British society, a Herculean task given the affection for Diana and the details of the affair that have dribbled out since their divorce and her death.

Diana once referred to Parker Bowles as a Rottweiler and told an interviewer her suspicions of an affair were raised even two days before her marriage to Charles.

It was then, Diana had said, that she discovered Charles had presented Parker Bowles with a gold bracelet with the letters F and G intertwined, a reference to their pet names for each other, Fred and Gladys.

In 1993, Diana publicly said that the stress of her marriage had led her to struggle with the eating disorder bulimia and that she had once tried to kill herself.

Since Diana's death, though, public acceptance has grown gradually for the relationship between Charles and Parker Bowles. Before yesterday's announced engagement, a majority of Britons said they did not object to a marriage - so long as Parker Bowles would not become queen.

And her easing back into the cameras, where she has never appeared overly comfortable, has appeared to pay off.

Last night, as she stepped from the Ritz Hotel, the paparazzi flashbulbs made the street appear as if under a giant strobe light, so much so that television stations replaying the event warned epileptics who may be sensitive to flashing lights to turn away.

Britain's notoriously judgmental national newspapers, whose first editions appeared last night, gave the marriage plans, generally speaking, their approval.

The most generous was the Daily Mail, which ran a flattering full-page picture of Parker Bowles, with the headline, "Princess Camilla."

But some people, Charles and Parker Bowles will have to concede, will never be won over.

"Boring Old Gits To Wed," said the Daily Star.

And the Daily Express used its front page to remind everybody what it seems everybody recognizes, that Charles, even newly married, will never escape his former wife's legend.

Its front page said, simply: "What would Diana say?"

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