In 1979 I flew to Victoria, British Columbia, to cover the visit of His Royal Highness Prince Charles, who had just turned thirty.The Prince of Wales and heir to the British throne was still single–he would not marry Diana for another three years–and his minders at Buckingham Palace were promoting him as something of a swinging bachelor, what we used to call a ladies man, in order to put a little glamor into what was increasingly perceived as a staid and dull monarchy.
To that end, just before he arrived in Canada, a beautiful young woman in a bikini, Jane Priest, had popped out of the surf on North Cottesloe Beach in Western Australia and planted a kiss on Charles’s cheek that was photographed and seen around the world. Overnight Charles had been transformed into the Kissing Prince.
When I arrived in Victoria, the few members of the British press covering the visit were talking of nothing else but that kiss. By that time, the London tabloids had begun to cover the Royals as a kind of ongoing comedy show, starring a family of clowns. Reporters did not write about anything the family did, unless the family did something stupid–or young girls began kissing the future King of England.
It soon became apparent that the Australian beach kiss had been faked. Knowing Charles would go surfing that morning, photographers paid a model to intercept him and plant the kiss.
(Years later, Jane Priest claimed it was the Prince’s staff that had arranged the photograph as part of the campaign to make him sexier. She had even met Charles the night before so that he could approve her.)
As luck would have it, no sooner had Charles landed in Victoria, than a twenty-two-year old British nanny named Kate leapt forward and kissed the Prince on the cheek. As further luck would have it, Mike Lloyd, who recently had been named Britain’s Royal Photographer of the Year, was right there to capture the moment.
Two days later, as the press contingent was being transported in a van to Pearson College, sixteen miles out of Victoria, the airport kiss had become an international story, featured in the New York Times and on the BBC. It had also become front page news in every Canadian newspaper, and Kate was transformed momentarily into a much-interviewed local celebrity (“What was it like to kiss a Prince?” “Oh, it was terrific!”).
What no one realized except myself and a wire service reporter who, like me, happened to be present, was that Kate already knew Lloyd from back home. ”You set it up,” the wire service reporter accused Lloyd.
“Now why would I do a thing like that?” replied Lloyd, the picture of innocence.
His only regret, he said, was that Kate had planted the kiss on the wrong side of the Prince’s cheek.
By now, though, the British reporters present were growing tired of kiss stories. They needed something else, and I inadvertently gave it to them.
As we drove in the van, I laughingly brought up the fact that Margaret Trudeau, who had recently separated from her husband, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, had just published a tell-all autobiography titled Beyond Reason. One of the book’s revelations was that after dancing together (she said she caught him looking down the front of her dress), the Prince and the prime minister’s wife were supposed to meet. Only it never happened. Not much of a story but then I remarked, offhandedly,”Wouldn’t it be funny if Margaret and Charles met up now?”
Dead silence in the van. One of the Brits turned to me. “What do you mean?”
“Margaret’s on a cross-Canada book tour, Charles is in Canada,” I said. “It’s possible they could meet up.”
The light bulb literally went on over reporters’ heads. As soon as we reached Pearson College, they swarmed the Prince’s press secretary, a likable Australian named John Dauth.
What would happen, they wanted to know, if Margaret Trudeau tried to meet Prince Charles while he was in Canada.Taken aback, Dauth said he didn’t think that was likely.
But if she did show up, the reporters persisted, what would happen? Slightly flustered, Dauth said something like, “Well, we wouldn’t let that happen.”
That was enough. The next day headlines blared, “MARGARET TRUDEAU BANNED FROM ROYAL TOUR.” Everyone picked up the story. What had been a joke at the back of a van was now on front pages around the world.
The Toronto Star reporter who had been sitting beside me when I made the joking comment and knew there was nothing to it, got a phone call from her editor demanding to know how she could have missed the biggest story of the royal visit.
Nobody was talking about anything else. My musing aloud had been transformed into a weird kind of truth–never mind that it turned out Margaret Trudeau wasn’t even in the country at the time, and the proposed book tour never materialized.
The business of the British press back then was to take nothing–the drowsy, silly unimportance of Prince Charles’s Canadian visit, for instance–and make something out of it: the Kissing Prince, the estranged prime minister’s wife.
None of it was true, except it was, sort of–the Prince had been kissed, and if Margaret Trudeau in ten million years had tried to meet Charles, his handlers probably would not have allowed it; thus she was banned.
Now too much can be made of this, but still it’s not hard to draw a line from that early re-fashioning of the truth, in which I had accidentally played a part, to the paparazzi-fueled madness that many years later culminated in Princess Diana’s death and a crisis that shook the monarchy.
After all, what was that whole thing but the press once again taking nothing–Charles’s former wife staying at a Paris hotel–and making something out of it, this time with deadly consequences.
The death of Princess Di followed by the recent phone hacking scandal that has riven the British press (you can also draw a line from early rewriting on the truth by the tabloids to the much more sophisticated business of hacking into celebrity phones), reporters have largely pulled back from playing the Royal Family either as buffoons or bad actors in an ongoing soap opera–although the paparazzi now give Kate’s sister, Pippa Middleton, the sort of bad time they used to give Princess Di.
Charles has long since stopped being anyone’s idea of a Kissing Prince. We are about the same age, but he reminds me of someone’s potty old English granddad chasing butterflies around with a garden rake. The monarchy, though, thanks to Queen Elizabeth’s steadfastness at the helm, remains in surprisingly good order.
I walk humbly in this Jubilee year knowing British Royalty is safe, despite my part in nearly bringing it down, and that in the end, I saved Prince Charles from Margaret Trudeau.
I made a whole lot out of absolutely nothing.