Prince Albert and the Lionesses
Crisis looms in sun-kissed Monaco. With the Monegasques crying out for a Grace Kelly figurehead, Crown Prince Albert is still having difficulties with girls – like Elizabeth Nickson.
The warmth emanating from the phone was palpable. After all, Albert Alexandre Louis Pierre Grimaldi, the Marquis des Baux, Crown Prince of Monaco has been overshadowed, public relations-wise, by the torments and triumphs of their Serene Altesses Caroline and Stephanie. Nadia LaCoste, the acid-breathing dragon who has guarded the public honour of the royal family of Monaco since the coming of Princess Grace, speaks in affectionate capitals. “We will be in the middle of the Television Festival so you will be able to see the Prince Really At Work, Doing What He Does. You will be able to see him at all his Duties, Get to Know Him. Call the palace if there anything you need.”
Monaco is a fabled place, by turns romantic (home of the Ballet Russe and watering hole of the crowned heads of the nineteenth century) and seedy (gamblers, tax evaders and women of dubious morals). Even now the town evokes all the elements of easy glamour, full of beautiful, rich, young, bronzed Europeans having enormous amounts of fun, decorative royal family, sun, sea, glorious belle epoque architecture. Well, yes and no. Take my hotel. It costs a fortune (69 percent of the profit goes to the state, read royal family). My room, though it overlooks the sea, is separated from the waves by an elevated highway. I get up, eat breakfast, read, watch television and sleep to the relentless drone of speeding cars.
The first meeting with the Prince is to take place at the Convention Centre, a huge concrete block built out over the sea. The ocean exists only in theory in Monaco, you can see it, but it is more of a painting than a presence. What is real is the concrete and bricks, money on the hoof, the buildings jammed up all higgeldy-piggeldy against each other. The Monegasques proudly claim that Monaco is the Manhattan of the Med. Why they should want that seems never to have been asked.
We stand in the concrete bunker waiting. The Press are the courtiers of today, and we exhibit all the extreme deference mixed with rabid greed of medieval courtiers. Prince Albert sweeps in from a big black Mercedes, smiles, is drenched in camera flashes and swept off by curtsying organizers in another blaze of camera flashes.
The opening ceremony follows. The Prince gives a long speech, not a hint of his famous stammer in evidence. He listens politely and intently to the incredibly long speeches of the other organizers while the 50 or so spectators doze in their seats, their eyes glazed with boredom. He is swept off to see the booths. This scene is to be repeated in several variations over the next week. I repair to the cafe and listen to Nadia LaCoste tell me why I can’t photograph Albert at a night club or anywhere else the slightest bit controversial, amusing or interesting. This is a Prince receiving the big whitewash treatment. All interviews must be submitted beforehand for approval. I prevaricate.
We get back to night clubs. “Well, you see he hardly ever goes to them any more. He is so busy, so busy. And he is a serious man, he takes his job seriously, even his sports suffer. The night club sequence would not be true. Besides I thought you were doing the Working Prince.” I get shot a look both reproachful and Marie Antoinettish. She repeats herself. “He works very, very hard.” This refrain will be driven home repeatedly over the next few days. Albert, when not travelling 60,000 miles or so every year on state visits, Olympic business and pleasure, leads a life chock-a-block with duties.
“So what do you do all day?” I ask when I am finally allowed to exchange more than three words with him, two days later. I have cooled my heels in his town, watching piranhas with the frosted long blonde hair that all these women have, shop in Chanel, Hermes, Bulgari, eat lunch and dinner and walk around with mink jackets slung over their shoulders. I am bored and slightly repelled. What he has to say does not help.
I get up around eight. I do 45 minutes of exercise. I have breakfast with my father. Then I have meetings about the Red Cross or the Yacht Club or the Olympic Committee or public works or building projects. I have a lunch with someone, then I may have an appearance. I sit in on Cabinet meetings. I try to do 45 minutes of sport every day. Last year it was three hours because I had the Olympics.” He looks wistful. ‘Then in the evening I may have another appearance.’
Is he bored? ‘Very!’ he explodes. ‘I don’t hide it.’ Then his face lapses back into his habitual cautious placidity.
Albert is called Albert the Good. He is 31, blondish, balding and bears a remarkable resemblance to his late mother, the former Grace Kelly. He dresses in strictly tailored, anonymous International Businessman suits or equally anonymous Riviera sports rig. He drives either a new BMW 3251 or a Toyota jeep with ‘I LOVE BOB’ on the back window. He has a sweet face, which is apparently mirrored in his nature. Georges, the director of security for the palace, who has watched Albert grow up and is a man made of old grenade casings, tells me that he is ‘a petit amour, do you have this expression in English?’ Everyone smiles around Albert.
This may be because he behaves so well. I press. Why do it, if you’re bored? The diffidence hides a hint of steel. ‘Well, I guess it means a lot to those people, I kind of look at it that way.” No wonder they all love him. They know he’s bored, because he tells them, but he pays for his privilege with unswerving devotion to duty. When his sisters have been bored, they have shown it.
We trot dutifully through his training and education. I’m in a geographical warp. He comes across as an American college boy from a good middle-class suburb. He uses a combination of Harvard Business School buzzwords and jocktalk. He went to Amherst, a minor Ivy League school, where he studied political science. He joined the much maligned Eurotrash in New York for the requisite five-month stint at Morgan Stanley, then worked as briefly with Rogers and Wells (international law) and Well, Rich and Greene (advertising). He moved to Paris for a few months with Moet-Hennessy (International luxury business). He fitted in a seven-month officer’s training course to the French navy and finally moved back to Monaco to pick up the reins. He recites statistics about the number of industries the family is attracting to the principality. He talks about the Red Cross (the prime vehicle for social events) of which he is president. He talks about the Yacht Club of which he is president. (“It is more than a yacht club, it has a major social funation for us.’ He doesn’t say what that function might be, but I assume it has something to do with the family business of attracting business.)
Albert stammers, trying desperately to be entertaining and informative. His shyness and sympathy are infectious. We are both relieved when another dragon calls time.
Suddenly there’s another Albert. He bends low over my hand, kisses it and, stammer gone, softly inquires how I am enjoying Monaco. I blush. He expresses the hope that we will see each other again soon, and I stumble off down the back stairs, thoroughly bewildered and undeniably flattered.
Speculation is rife on Albert’s ability to handle his future job. Since Caroline’s public reformation from disco queen to mother and wife incarnate, people gossip about her chances of succeeding but although the constitution does not proscribe such a succession, historically the Monegasques like their rulers male. Albert’s amenability and dutiful behaviour have won him many devoted friends in Monaco, yet the rumours persist. A friend who grew up with him says, ‘He has not made his petit rebellion. He has not really matured, nothing has matured him except his mother’s death. He is a petit chou, a creamy boy. He is nice, normal, he doesn’t fit in with what is waiting for him in Monaco. He should be captain of a football team, he likes that.’
Certainly sports are Albert’s abiding passion. He seems to binge sports, playing by turns and in competition, tennis, running, rowing, cross country, football, handball, judo, swimming and tennis. He is an Olympic bobsleigher. He skis, sails, fences. He plays with his own soccer team in Monaco. In 1985 he finished thirty-eighth in the Paris-Dakar rally, trailing his personal phsician, spare parts, mechanics, secuirty guards and aides in separate trucks. His car carried a radio transmitter with a direct satellite link to the palace. In fact port is the only thing on which he waxes enthusiastic. While the Prince’s schedule is being discusses, a barely suppressed sigh or a resigned nod greets every arrangement, but when crossing into training time is mentioned, the languid air disappears, the lips compress and everyone looks cowed.
His aide and bodyguards accompany him to the stadium. A couple of them constitute his bobsleigh team. Albert runs, stretches and does varioius never-seen-before probably bobsleigh training moves. His bodyguards mimic his movements.
The atmosphere is steamy. After 30 minutes of watching Albert and his bodyguards chug half-dressed around the track, I wander up to say good-bye. ‘Was I too bored? he inquires. Everyone gathers around, poses and smirks. ‘Not really,’ I say, trying to join in the game. ‘Hmmm.’ Everyone pretends not to look at my legs. ‘Well,’ I say, sidling towards the door. He stops me. ‘Do you like sports?’ he inquires. Silence hangs over the stadium. The double meaning is obvious. ‘Well, yes, I guess so.’ Which sports? Ummm, swimming, riding….I run out. ‘How about dancing?’ ‘Yes, lovely,’ I say and bolt.
Prince Albert is an expert in the 30-second public pick up – which I have just experienced.A quick flick through the gossip columns reveals Albert photographed with a dizzying array of beauties. He is said to arrive with one girl, dance with a few others and leave with yet another. The obligatory photographs have been taken with local beauties, Brooke Shields, various princesses, models and beauty queens, Lady Helen Windsor and other minor royalty. In all these photographs, he is smiling. He was linked with Donna Rice. A Munich-based good time girl, Bea Fiedler, talks of suing him for paternity after what she alleges was a one-night stand. In Monaco, the occasionally floated charge that Albert is gay is greeted by a chorus of chortles, snorts and general hilarity. He likes girls, lots of them.
Yet not a whiff of scandal is attached to this polite priapism. Perhaps it has to do more with endless availability than green. A long succession of well-bred girls is trotted in front of Albert. It is a coveted role. Royalty, fun sisters-in-law, a bit of charity work, couture clothes and nice weather. Albert himself says he is beginning to think this inability to have a steady girlfriend is a problem. A friend says the succession is hanging on his marriage and his father must ask him twice a month if he’s met The One.
Finding a princess to fill the shoes of his mother will be no mean feat. The image of the sublime Princess Grace is everywhere in Monaco. Photographs of her take precedence in every shop, hotel and restaurant. She looks out, doe eyed, serene, perfect, a living dove. The latest biography which claims she slept with every actor not nailed down during her time in Hollywood was banned from the principality. Albert’s eyes mist up at the mention of her death. He quickly moves the conversation off his reaction to her death to Stephanie’s, which is, he claims, the most extreme and just winding down. Albert is said to have been her favourite child, the one most like her.
Over the next few days Albert has not a moment to himself, surrounded always by a hundred people. He is invariably deferential and interested and does exactly what he is asked to do.
When I meet him on Sunday for his tennis game he is exhausted. I have avoided the inevitable invitation to go dancing at Jimmy’z mostly because it was for 1:30 a.m. I negotiated instead for lunch and more talk.
The girl of last night is bustled in, settles herself on the fence and watches the game until, completely ignored, she flounces off. Albert plays badly. He has worked by my calculation, from nine to midnight every night but one all week. He struggles through the interview, trying to explain what he does. ‘The thing is that a lot of events would be minor events in other countries, but the fact they’re happening here and it’s a small place, we need to show our support. It’s difficult not to appear. It’s very tiring.
The royal family of Monaco is the basis of the economy of Monaco. ‘They are worth millions to the people here,’ says one Swiss impresario. The gambling and hotel businesses are thriving, sales of large expensive apartments are booming. There are 2,000 small and medium-sized manufacturing companies in the 0.7 square miles principality. Thirty-three banks provide a safe haven for money. The 27,000 inhabitants are protected by a 370-man police forces with 85 plainclothes men and 12-man intervention force. Video camera are mounted at strategic points in the town. You can wear jewels on the street.
I say good-bye to Albert on the steps of the Monaco Country Club. The Mediterranean twinkles beneath us and Karl Lagerfeld’s newly restored palace gleams from the nearby cliff. Behind us a few Italian girls, chaperoned by their parents, do their Latin homework, eye us and hope for an invitation to dance. ‘You know,” he says, ‘maybe my worst quality is my lack of confidence. I like to make people feel good. I’m probably excessively sensitive.’ I am overcome by a wave of sympathy or pity or both and extract myself before I suggest we go dancing. I drive out of Monaco as if the lapdogs of torpor are pursuing me.
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