Sally Bedell Smith, dogged biographer and author of Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life, out this week from Penguin Random House, has collected an exhaustive file of facts about the future king of England. Unlike his mother, Charles is not what you might call a beloved figure. And while Bedell Smith doesn’t spare Charles of his flaws, her portrait is also rich with sympathy, even affection.
Bullied as a youth by his overbearing father (“Philip was the original alpha male,” Smith says), Charles spent his whole life seeking approval. Cowed by a sense of duty and fearful of even minor mistakes, the well-intentioned, protocol-loving Charles married Diana because his father said he should. No matter that he may have been in love with Camilla Parker Bowles – she didn’t pass muster.
Smith tells of her subject’s “Rosebud” moment: “His childhood marked him in ways I fully didn’t understand,” she says. When he was eight years old, he visited the Mountbatten estate for a formal lunch and the attendees were all eating wild strawberries. Charles was methodically picking the stems off the berries. Lord Mountbatten told him, “No, no. You hold them by the stems to dip in the sugar.”
“And there this poor little boy was, trying to reattach the stems. He just wanted approval,” Smith says.
She is sitting in her warm, painting-filled apartment in the Kalorama neighborhood of Washington, D.C., a shilling’s throw from where the Obamas and Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner live. Whip-smart and gregarious, she has finally emerged from the four-year process of trying to make sense of the much-vilified, slightly odd, enigmatic heir to the British throne.
Yes, he will be the monarch. “Charles will be King and Camilla will be Queen. They will not skip over to William, who is being groomed to become King probably in his late 40s or early 50s,” says Smith.
Some delicious dish from the unauthorized biography was recently revealed in the London tabloids. Yes, Charles cried on his wedding night while “the extremely turbulent” Diana was reportedly battling bulimia. He grew increasingly jealous of the attention paid to his late, glamorous wife who, while in her shadow, he seemed to fade into the vintage Clarence House wallpaper.
“They’re all going to blame me,” Prince Charles said upon hearing news of Diana’s death. He was right.
What she learned is how much Charles has accomplished, and how little credit he has been given for his various passions.
“I gained a lot of admiration for him,” she says. “Sometimes you think, ‘This is so wonderful. You’ve saved Shakespeare for the schools!’ And then he’d be sort of spoiled and self-pitying and whining, and he’d shoot himself in the foot and be stubborn and closed-minded. Look, the English love eccentrics.”
But Charles was not without guile. “The queen is very straightforward,” Smith says. But Charles “can engage in subterfuge, creating a little conflict” – argy-bargy, as the British would say. Hearing news of Diana’s tragic death, the first thing he said was, “‘They’re all going to blame me.’ And he was right.”
Smith also delves into the life of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and Charles’s father, who she says bullied him as a child. Queen Elizabeth, who was “remote,” couldn’t really make up for her husband’s lack of affection for his son. “He is, basically, soft. And that’s what Philip picked up on.”
Prince Charles is now trying to be a grandfather, but he skipped George’s first birthday party at Kensington Palace to attend an event at a red squirrel sanctuary in Scotland. “I think he’s well-intentioned, but he has not been involved to the degree the Middletons have,” Smith points out.
Charles has much in common with Royals from another century, but he can also be immensely warm and charming. “The epiphany I got was how he could be very traditional and also very avant-garde. He has shoes made out of 18th-century reindeer leather. And also had this whole series of gurus. There was a yearning to have people understand him. “
On Charles’s later-in-life love Camilla, Smith says, “she’s got this vibey, sexy thing. As Joan Rivers said, ‘She’s rough around the edges. In a nice way.’ He can be rowdy and fun with her.” In the public eye, “I think she’s made a lot of progress … but she’s not necessarily beloved.”
She says there is much drama in the actual House of Windsor, recently brought to Netflix with the series The Crown. “You don’t have to watch that,” Smith says with a laugh. “The real stuff is better.”