The Other Woman

By staff January 1, 2006

There are so many people to feel sorry for these days I hardly know where to begin. Poor Harriet Miers breaks my heart. Imagine being judged too insignificant for the Supreme Court. And that FEMA guy who had to resign, Michael Brown. He's just like me at work: in way over his head and desperately trying to keep up. Even President Bush is not to be envied. The Enquirer tells us that he's "back on the booze" and experiencing a "White House meltdown."

But they all pale next to the awful fate of Camilla Parker Bowles. During her recent trip to the United States she was hounded for being old, ugly, horse-faced, frumpy, poorly dressed, inappropriately dressed-the list goes on and on. It got so bad that when people defended her, that made news. And while Harriet and Michael will eventually find peace in an embittered retirement, Camilla has a much harder task. She will always be the other woman in the world's most famous marriage.

Diana had her problems, but that's what made her Diana. She was the Marilyn Monroe of royalty-beautiful, charismatic, needy and doomed. She was the Princess you wanted to take under your wing and say, "There, there. Yes, the Queen is a horror show. Here, have some more tea." Even today she is very much a star. In last month's Vanity Fair there was an "undiscovered photo session" of her, taken several months before her death. The pictures are nice but not extraordinary. The text is gushing, as the photographer recalls her physical glow and her charming personality. Even her flaws are seen as symptoms of some romantic personality disorder. In the same issue is an article about Camilla. It's very favorable, says nice things about her, how sensible and down-to-earth she is, but still-they put Diana in the very same issue! Will the comparisons never end?

Ironically, Camilla was one of Diana's creators. Back in the days when Charles' unmarried state was becoming a problem-the throne needed an heir and a spare-the powers-that-be set about finding him a suitable bride from the ever-dwindling pack of English virgins. Camilla was one of those powers. As the Prince's old flame, she had developed a deep friendship with him, and he took her advice seriously.

The list was narrowed down to a 19-year-old named Diana Spencer, and she seemed perfect: well born, pretty, and best of all, docile. She could be molded into what was needed-a ribbon-cutting royal in Hardy Amies suits who would spend autumn weekends in Scotland, where the Royal Family takes its endless trout-fishing vacations. She was so docile, in fact, that Charles must have been delighted that now he could keep up all his friendships with the married women in his set who bolstered his ego.

The chief bolsterer was Camilla Shand. By most accounts she was the Prince's first serious girlfriend, back in the early 1970s. They met at a polo match and immediately hit it off. They had a lot in common: riding, country life, even sketching. She was a typical high-born Brit, but with a down-to-earth touch. She didn't come from a broken home. She had money but not a vast fortune. She had crooked teeth. She smoked two packs a day. She was, in fact, a rather ordinary young woman whose principal virtues seemed to be enthusiasm and high spirits.

They delighted in each other's company. At one party they danced so much that the Prince's date threw a fit. Soon there was talk of marriage. But Camilla had what was known in those days as "a reputation." The Prince was not her first boyfriend. So when he had to go off to the Caribbean for naval maneuvers, Camilla married her other suitor, the dashing Andrew Parker Bowles, in one of those "weddings of the year." It was said that when Charles heard the news he didn't come out of his cabin for three days. No, make that three hours. Anyway, he apparently had himself a good cry.

When Diana was finally selected by the ad hoc arranged-marriage committee, Camilla took her out to lunch at a restaurant named, impossibly, Ménage à Trois. Diana left feeling reassured ("We all understand each other perfectly," she reported to a friend), but it was a feeling that didn't last long. There was the famous gold bracelet she discovered, a gift from her husband to Camilla on the eve of her wedding. Gradually her paranoia and unhappiness brought out a whole catalogue of problems: bulimia, self-mutilation, listening to Duran Duran at top volume. I seem to remember she even threw herself down the stairs a few times. All-or mostly all-because of Camilla.

What was Camilla's hold on the Prince? Ironically, it appears to be sexual. Here he was, married to one of the most beautiful and desired women in the world, yet he couldn't get out from under the thrall of a plain older woman. We know all this because of the famous Camilla tapes, perhaps the most embarrassing conversation in British history.

Caught and recorded by a ham-radio operator in 1989, it presents us with Charles and Camilla having a sort of low-key version of phone sex. There is much talk about tampons and being inside each other's trousers. Possible trysting locations are discussed, and Camilla's husband is referred to, in the tradition of cheating women everywhere, as "it." Frankly, if I had been the Prince after the tapes were released, I would have gone home and stuck my head in the oven.

True, the humiliation was a tiny bit lessened when "they" came up with a phone sex tape by Princess Diana and her boyfriend, Squidgy. Masturbation is discussed in knowing detail, and the Princess uses the "f" word to describe her in-laws. But to answer the all-important question-which tape is "hotter"-I'd give the edge to Charles and Camilla. I find it quite commendable that such passion can extend into middle age, and besides, Camilla keeps telling him how great he is and how much she loves him. On her tape Diana mostly complains.

The men of the House of Windsor, I'm afraid to say, seem a weak-willed bunch, ruled by clever and ruthless women. Charles' uncle, the Duke of Windsor, gave up his throne for his mistress, Wallis Simpson, and it's no secret that his successor, George VI, was kept functioning by his wife, the steel-willed woman who ended up the much-beloved Queen Mother. Propping up her man must have been a difficult job for her. The King had a terrible stutter and often threw temper tantrums. He was also known to bang his head against the wall for minutes at a time.

Hopefully Charles isn't that bad. And now that he is once again married, the drama of his tragic relationship with Diana seems to be fading into history. It was quite a story while it lasted, and while you may think it was a bunch of shallow people bickering and being mean, keep in mind the prize they were fighting over was the throne of England and that three people ended up dead.

And what about the Prince? Judging by the pictures one sees of him since his wedding, he seems infinitely happier than ever before. He can barely stop grinning. I guess the tapes were right.

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