Fractured Fairy Tale (1947)
Alexandre Dumas fils wrote, “The chains of marriage are so heavy that it takes two to bear them, and sometimes three.” Infidelity has long shadowed wedding vows and when the love triangle involves a future king, carnivorous tabloids descend into a feeding frenzy.
Traditionally, the only association of the name Camilla has been with Dumas fils’ novel, La Dame aux Camélias, in which the protagonist-courtesan donned a red camilla, a sign to illustrate she was on her cycle, a white one to signify she was open for business. The contemporary tie-in with the flower is the woman who caused a whirlwind in the House of Windsor. Camilla (Milla), sister to Mark and Annabel, was the eldest child of Major Bruce Shand, a wine merchant, mother Rosalind Cubitt, and granddaughter of the third baron of Ashcombe. The eighteenth-century family home was an Architectural Digest-worthy manor nestled in the English countryside surrounded by stately manners and ancient abbeys. The estate included a tennis court, swimming pool, and a Victorian-styled green house; Camilla remembers it as “perfect in every way.” French and Swiss finishing schools equipped Ms. Shand with the skills required of a British wealthy wife: care of husband, children, and dogs, and ability to maneuver the ski slopes of Gstaad. After graduation, Camilla knew how to fence and possessed a £500,000 inheritance, compliments of the Cubitts who had developed Belgravia, a pricey London zip code.
In the 1970s, the world’s most eligible bachelor was Charles Philip Arthur George, the Prince of Wales. President Richard M. Nixon played matchmaker in the hope of hooking the future king for his daughter, Tricia, and sat them beside each other at a White House dinner. The heir refused the bait declaring the First Daughter “artificial and plastic.” Charles met the one he felt was his destiny at a 1970 polo match in Windsor Great Park; an encounter that ended the possibility of Camilla’s membership in The Real Housewives of London. Her singular pick-up line, “My great-grandmother and your great-grandfather were lovers. So how about it?” The brazen remark referred to their randy relatives: Alice Keppel had been the mistress of King Edward VII. The bawdy rumor appealed to the prince, as did their commonalities of bloodspots- such as the foxhunt- architecture, and tweed. Cupid-pierced Charles described Camilla as a “breath of fresh air.”
The couple embarked on an affair and had the Prince of Wales popped the question the paparazzi would have lost the crown jewel of sensationalism. Instead, he allowed himself to be swayed by his mum; Queen Elizabeth was not amused her son was dating a girl who had been around the romantic block and put pressure on Charles to wed a virginal princess-bride. Elizabeth felt her son deserved the finest as he had been born in Buckingham Palace, had been baptized with water from the River Jordan by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and wore shoes fashioned from eighteenth century reindeer skins. A twentieth century Prince Hamlet, torn between heart and duty- in a move orchestrated by his uncle Lord Mountbatten to separate the lovers- he joined the Royal Navy for an eight-month stint in the West Indies.
Not willing to follow in “Granny” Alice’s footsteps of royal mistress, Camilla set her sights on Andrew Parker Bowles who she had met at her 1965 debutante ball. They had dated for a few years even though Andrew slept- around, on occasion with her friends. Torn between the two men she loved, she chose the one who offered commitment and wed Andrew in 1973, with whom she had Laura and Tom, (Prince Charles is his godfather). The price of prevarication was Charles lost the woman he adored; devastated, he wrote to his uncle, “I suppose the feeling of emptiness will pass eventually.” Priceless Ming vases shatter as easily as those of common clay.
Past age thirty, Charles, feeling obliged to have a wife and children, felt the shy, teenaged Lady Diana Spencer fit the bill. Diana’s opening gambit was far different from Camilla’s suggestive innuendo; “You looked so sad when you walked up the aisle at the funeral (that of his assassinated uncle). You’re lonely, you should be with someone to look after you.” Despite their twelve-year age difference, the fact that they had only met a handful of times, and his heart resided with Camilla, Charles proposed. Trouble in paradise began ever before the tying of the Windsor knot; Diana discovered a bracelet Charles had bought for Camilla engraved with the initials “GF,” (Gladys and Fred), the nicknames they had conferred upon one another based on the Goon Show. Post honeymoon, on an official dinner for President Sadat of Egypt aboard the royal yacht Britannia, Charles sported new gold cufflinks that bore two interlocking Cs.
The thorn in the rose of the royal marriage remained the shadowy third. Rather than accepting she had the tiara and the title, Diana would not share her husband. In Andrew Morton’s 2017 biography, Diana: Her True Story, the royal revealed that when the cat was away the mice played; Camilla spent nights at their Windsor estate in Highgrove when wifey was out of town. What made matters worse, in 1989, Diana’s private humiliation became public through the “Tampax Tapes.” An eleven-minute phone conversation between Camilla and Charles leaked, in which Charles confided he wished to be reincarnated as his lover’s tampon. After that tidbit, they discussed the venue for their next rendezvous. Tampongate, conducted in an intimate tone, proved the Prince of Wales knew what love meant. No doubt, the Queen resorted to a liberal supply of smelling salts. If Diana harbored any hope that the birth of William would mark the close of the adultery chapter, her illusions shattered when, despite the sound of running bathroom tap water, she overheard Charles on the phone with Camilla, “Whatever happens, I will always love you.” Diana knew he was not merely talking to his mirror’s reflection. Conjugal relations ended in 1986 after the Windsors returned from visiting King Juan Carlos of Spain; Charles, no longer bothering to keep his affair under wraps, took Camilla for a holiday in Turkey. Marital troubles took their toll and Diana suffered from bulimia, depression, and suicide attempts. She explained her rancor, “There were three people in the marriage, so it was quite crowded.” Diana dubbed her rival “the Rottweiler;” Camilla referred to Diana as “that ridiculous creature.” Public opinion was firmly in Camp Diana: Mr. Blackwell, keeper of the annual worst-dressed lists, awarded Mrs. Parker-Bowles the number eight spot of 2001 with the explanation that she “packs the stylistic punch of a Yorkshire pudding.”
When the prince admitted on a BBC interview that he had committed adultery, it proved the death knell of the Parker-Bowles marriage. The queen, tired of the soap opera of the war of the Windsors, agreed her son could also sever his battle-scarred union. The palace embarked on a public relations campaign to convince the public to go along with the Charles-Camilla relationship. The best laid plan of mice and princes went awry with the death of Diana in a Paris car accident, caused by her inebriated chauffeur. The outpouring of grief was equal to the rancor levied against the other woman who many felt had contributed to the loss of their princess. Irate shoppers pelted Camilla with bread rolls in her local grocery store, and she became a prisoner in her own home. Of her time in the public pillory, Camilla recalled, “It was horrid. It was a deeply unpleasant time and I wouldn’t want to put my worst enemy through it.” A sign in Highgrove embodied the prince’s stoicism, “Be patient and endure.” Time heals, or at least lessens grief, and Brits eventually gave a grudging acceptance to the woman who made a sad man a happy prince.
After thirty-four star-crossed years, decades that witnessed adultery, divorce, death, and risqué pillow talk, Camilla managed to pull off the coup Alice Keppel never managed: she wed her royal. The civil wedding at Guildhall, (in which Prince William served as best man), transformed Camilla Parker-Bowles into Her Royal Highness, the Duchess of Cornwall. The palace did not confer upon her the title of the Duchess of Wales as that had been Princess Diana’s designation. Not so clear-cut is what will Camilla’s title be when hubby assumes the throne. The Firm originally announced that instead of becoming Queen Camilla, she would be known as HRH The Princess Consort. However, in 2010, when asked the question, Charles responded, “That’s, well…We’ll see won’t we?” The juxtaposition of Charles’ first and second nuptials was jarring. For the second go at wedlock, the crowd outside Guildhall was 20,000, instead of 600,000, the bride was fifty-seven, not twenty, the lady of the hour wore a cream-colored suit and broad-brimmed hat, world’s away from Diana’s extravaganza of a dress with a train that seemed to go on forever. The greatest contrast, however, was the joy that radiated from the middle-aged newlyweds. Post ceremony, instead of a carriage, the couple rode off in a Rolls Royce borrowed from the queen for the short trip to Windsor Castle. There, 800 high-profile guests awaited; among them was Andrew Parker-Bowles, described as “the man who lay down his wife for his country.” The Archbishop of Canterbury delivered a formal blessing. Actor Timothy West read an excerpt from Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality” with an apt line regarding “first affections.” The groom’s feeling of emptiness had finally passed in a fractured fairy tale.