Like any good American with an inferiority complex, I’ve always been attracted to European royalty. Mix in some family dysfunction, a few juicy scandals, and a breathtakingly beautiful movie star, and I am so there. The Grimaldis of Monaco were the textbook definition of royal glamour, class, and mishegoss. But let’s face it, if Prince Rainier had not married Grace Kelly in 1956, most of us would never have heard of the place except for news articles about the Grand Prix or some black-and-white French movies in which Alain Delon loses his shirt at a Monte Carlo casino. Did you know that Monaco is less than half the size of New York’s Central Park? You could sprint from one side of the tiny principality to the other without even breaking a sweat. There are only 32,000 people living there. I’ve seen more than that in line at my local DMV.
When I heard that Prince Rainier died yesterday at the age of 81, I was surprised to learn that he was Europe’s longest-reigning monarch (he assumed the throne in 1949 compared to Queen Elizabeth II who started her reign in 1952). Of course when the news reports came in about Prince Rainier I couldn’t help but think about Princess Grace’s death on September 14, 1982. I can remember the exact moment when I heard about Princess Grace’s car crash. I was sitting at my desk at SVE in Chicago writing a filmstrip (remember those?) called “Lollipop Dragon’s Adventures in Ethnic Pride” (don’t ask—if filmstrips weren’t already obsolete I’d buy up all the negatives to that horrific series and burn them along with my scripts for “Slim Goodbody Explores Human Sexuality”).
I don’t mean to be making light of Rainier’s death or the grief his family and the Monagesques (how the heck did they get that name?) must be feeling. Indeed, it was his daughter Princess Caroline who gave me my first real preview of the agony of losing a parent. Caroline was so distraught, so blindingly grief-stricken at her mother’s burial that I found myself thinking of her when I was at my own mother’s funeral six years ago. I actually drew strength from the way Princess Caroline maneuvered her way through her pain, never afraid to show it on her face. So many other royals made it a point to hide their emotions and outward expressions of grief, including our own royal figure, Jackie Kennedy.
By the way, why in this day and age does the unmarried, childless Prince Albert automatically assume the throne instead of his older sister Caroline? Haven’t those male bloodline laws been changed yet? Or maybe there’s some rule in the Catholic principality that you can’t rule if you are divorced? Lord knows that would disqualify both Caroline and Princess Stephanie, who have a roulette wheel’s worth of divorces between them, not to mention scandals with their men that have long been grist for the tabloids involving circus performers, children born out of wedlock, urinating in public, and Belgian strippers. Oy.
Princess Grace’s place in our mythology has only become more fixed since her early death at age 52. Can you believe she only made 11 films during her career in Hollywood? My favorites are “Rear Window,” “Dial M for Murder” (you must see the original 3-D version!), and “To Catch a Thief.” It’s chilling to see her and Cary Grant speeding down the very roads on the Riviera where she would later lose her life.
Queen Elizabeth was the first monarch to send her condolences about Prince Rainier’s death. They were of the same generation, and while it may be difficult to believe now, Elizabeth and her sister Margaret once gave the Grimaldis a run for the money in the glamour department. When I was growing up I was riveted to any story coming out of Buckingham Palace. I woke up early to catch all the royal weddings, Princess Anne’s to Mark Philips (divorced), Prince Andrew’s to Sarah Ferguson (divorced), and, of course, Prince Charles’ to Diana (divorced). I read everything I could get my hands on about England’s Royal Families, from Queen Victoria all the way back to Henry VIII.
In addition to “The Waltons,” I’d say that the 1970s Masterpiece Theatre production of “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” played a big part in getting me through my parents’ divorce. Whenever things got particularly bad at home, I’d just close my door and watch Henry’s latest wife meet her doom, somehow comforted by seeing relationships that were far worse than my parents’. I was especially fascinated by Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, magnificently portrayed by actress Dorothy Tutin. Vilified by history and the BBC, I always thought that Anne Boleyn got a bum rap. She was clearly not guilty of the charges trumped up by Henry VIII and Cromwell just so Henry would be free to marry the wimpy Jane Seymour. I became enraged when the 16th century London crowds referred to the Queen as "the Great Whore," and I realize now that my defense of Anne was also in response to the judgment I felt my mother was receiving for her extramarital exploits. Am I the only 12-year-old boy in history who viewed Anne Boleyn as a maternal figure? Dorothy Tutin's fiery performance as Anne stayed with me. I can still remember the words she spoke at her own beheading:
Good Christian people, I am come hither to die according to the law and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I come here only to die and thus to yield myself humbly to the will of the King, my lord. And if, in my life, I did ever offend the King's Grace, surely with my death I do now atone. I come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that whereof I am accused, as I know full well that aught I say in my defense doth not appertain to you…Thus, I take my leave of the world and you and I heartily desire you all pray for me.
I wrote an impassioned letter to Anne Boleyn and when I received a response back from Dorothy Tutin I treated the onion skin letter as if it were true royal correspondence. To this day, I read every book that comes out about Henry’s second wife, I think I have about 14 of them!
Henry VIII’s life was intricately connected to the Pope’s, and indeed, it was the Pope’s refusal to annul his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn that ultimately caused Henry to be excommunicated and then break all ties between the Church of England and Rome. How ironic, then, that Pope John Paul II's death last week has caused a delay in the marriage of Prince Charles, the future King of England, so that he can attend the funeral in Rome along with Prime Minister Tony Blair. “Until very recently,” wrote columnist Martin Kettle in the Guardian yesterday, “ the mere idea that a prime minister or the head of the Anglican church might have any kind of dialogue with Rome—never mind rearrange the next Protestant King’s wedding to suit the cardinals in Rome—would have been regarded as close to treason.”
For that matter, why all the hubbub about Charles marrying a divorced woman? Hello? Wasn’t the church he will one day be the head of founded to facilitate a divorce? Maybe it’s just because the divorcee in question is Camilla Parker Bowles, a woman who is not exactly the Queen of Hearts among her people as Diana was. And I think it's appalling that Queen Elizabeth won't be attending her own son's wedding on Saturday because she feels it would "conflict with her role as Supreme Governor of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith." Oh, hell—I say Mazel Tov to Charles and Camilla, they are obviously far more suited to each other than Charles and Diana ever were. And one day maybe the British people will forgive Camilla for not being as pretty as Diana—isn’t that her biggest sin?
Kendall and I just got back from a Centennial Tribute at the Motion Picture Academy for another glorious queen: Greta Garbo. It was hosted by Swedish actress Lena Olin and included clips from 17 of Garbo’s films. I forgot what an astonishing actress she really was—the old line that “she can say anything with her eyes” was definitely true in her case. Two actresses who worked with Garbo in the 1930s spoke and then authors Gore Vidal and Gavin Lambert shared wonderful stories about their friendships with her in her later years. Contrary to popular belief, they said she was a lot of fun, but something of a drama queen and a flirt. They said that they learned never to ask her about her films because if you did, she would never talk about it. However, if you didn't ask her, she would always talk about it! Vidal said that far from being a recluse and turning her back on Hollywood, she saw every film and read every fan magazine—"she could tell you who Fabian was dating that week!" I always thought that Garbo consciously retired from films after 1941’s “Two-Faced Woman” in which she got reamed by the critics for taking a role they felt was beneath her, but that apparently was not the case. She decided to take a short break when the war started but always planned to go back to films. Alas, while there were several false starts, it never happened. In 1949 she got as far as shooting two different screen tests for a film, and they showed this rare footage tonight. In her mid-40s Garbo was as gorgeous as ever and it was a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been. During pre-production Howard Hughes took over the studio and declared he had no interest in making a Greta Garbo movie. She was so humiliated to be treated that way she said she would never put herself through that again.
I guess movie stars have always been our version of royalty, but frankly, we haven’t seen the likes of Grace Kelly or Garbo in decades. Time to look at Grace Kelly's work again, and I can't wait to catch up on Garbo’s films at the upcoming screenings the Academy is sponsoring.
The Queen Is Dead! Long Live the Queen!