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The Late-Blooming Prince

By Tina Brown
Thursday, November 3, 2005

Most people don't have to wait till the age of 56 to come into their own, but you can't help feeling that the Prince of Wales has finally caught up with the zeitgeist. Or maybe it's the zeitgeist that's caught up with him.

Most of it is because of Camilla, of course. Science tells us that marriage is good for the physical and mental health of the male of the species, and Charles, after decades of well-populated loneliness, has lost the overcast look of a man who always expects it to rain. Maybe he'll never be as bouncy as Tigger, but he's no longer condemned to being forever Eeyore.

You could see the Camilla effect on him as soon as they hit New York on Tuesday morning. After viewing Ground Zero, their first stop was a few blocks away at the small, unfinished memorial garden dedicated to the memory of the 67 Brits killed on 9/11. The reception afterward was at nearby India House, the old Astor mansion, where Camilla presents as a woman of spontaneous warmth with very good legs in her age-appropriate cherry wool suit. She's smaller, prettier, more delicate than all those cruel horseface snaps would have you believe. There's an emotional depth to her that is very appealing, a way of fastening people she meets with amused, kindly eyes. Her easy responses come in a sexy basso that makes you want to pull up a chair and sit down.

One of the expats at India House complimented her dark pink outfit. She gave a confiding laugh: "It's probably the same color as my face."

What a relief.

It's one of the many ironies of Prince Charles's life that he did his midlife crisis backward. He acquired the dazzling trophy wife first -- and instead of making him seem like a big macho dude, it diminished him. Then he spent half a lifetime yearning for the comfort zone of a woman his own age. With Diana, even when it was going well, he always felt like a flop by comparison. Not a happy sensation (as he would say) for the pampered heir to the British throne. "Travolta asked Diana to dance," the prince wrote to an unnamed friend quoted in Jonathan Dimbleby's biography after the legendary night at the Reagan White House in 1985. "Sadly, there were no lovely actresses or singers. I had been rather hoping that Diana Ross would be there."

So much of what he was mocked for in the past turns out to have been cutting-edge: his obsession with global warming, his hokey fascination with alternative medicine, his interfaith initiatives. A dozen years ago he was already calling on the West to engage with Islam. "The degree of misunderstanding between the Islamic and Western worlds remains dangerously high," he told a yawning audience in 1993, "and because the need for the two to live and work together in our increasingly interdependent world has never been greater."

He's turned out to be a surprisingly good businessman in a way that's not just harmless but almost cool because it's socially responsible (which makes it even more unforgivable as far as the British tabs are concerned). The Paul Newmanish idea everyone laughed at of creating a Duchy Originals line of organic foods at Highgrove raked in 1 million pounds ($1.78 million) for his charities last year. Charles is not the only one who talks to plants these days, it seems. Four percent of British farmland, following his Highgrove lead, has gone organic.

None of this stops the hack pack in London from nailing him for alleged hypocrisy, of course. Counting up how many holes he burns in the ozone every time he gets on a chartered plane is a new national pastime.

"I only hope that when I'm dead and gone, they might appreciate it a little bit more," he told Steve Kroft of "60 Minutes" as they toured his model village in Poundbury (or PINEbury as he poshly pronounces it), which is designed around community and the ecological priorities of "livable" places.

The one cause of Charles's that will always be hopeless is his stubborn desire to be appreciated. After all, who is? His father, Prince Philip, has done endless good works and fundraising and doesn't expect people to appreciate him. This yields him the benefit of not having to appreciate people in return -- which is probably the right course.

Charles's problem is that his own generation may never recognize him as its own -- not because of what he does but how he seems. He can't help the fact that his body language is a vanishing tribal semiotic that modern Britain has almost lost the ability to decode, and modern America could never even begin to try.

Even aristocrats aren't like Charles anymore. The 40-year-old Earl of Albemarle, a six-foot hunk with a Battle of Agincourt beard, showed up at India House with the late press baron Robert Maxwell's daughter Ghislaine, talking all about "branding" a shirt company he's started. "What's so different about your shirts?" I asked. "They're expensive," he replied. Being flash, being a self-promoter, is a style option now for the aristocracy as long as it's done with a self-protective wink.

Charles, who was essentially raised by his grandmother the Queen Mother, has an earnest sensibility more attuned to Grandma's era. His lack of irony about his hobbyhorses opens him to ridicule, but it also makes him, dare one say it, a better person.

In Kroft's pre-interview research for "60 Minutes," he found that American women he spoke to unfailingly raised the response Prince Charles made to the question "Are you in love?" on the day of his engagement to the Princess of Wales: "Whatever love is" -- a killing caveat that would haunt his Google life forever.

But was that line really a window on a chilly soul -- or just that old reflexive upper-class instinct that quickly moves to negate any show of messy feeling, part of the whole vocabulary of British detumescence you learn at boarding school, along with the sense that "trying too hard" is the worst thing you can do? Self-deprecation is Charles's mode of expression, and it's never served him well over here.

While the New York Post trashed the unfortunate balcony-bosomed, midnight blue velvet number Camilla wore to Tuesday night's reception at the Museum of Modern Art, the newspaper's columnist Andrea Peyser yelled at Charles for never touching Camilla once. But that's because we're all used to a red-carpet culture of Demi Moore's hand on Ashton Kutcher's butt -- as opposed to the tender restraint that prefers its intimacy in private, or a public couple trained to interact with the guests rather than each other when they're "on" for the night.

While Charles jousted effortlessly with Yoko Ono's extraterrestrial headgear, Camilla expended energy on oxygen-eating Park Avenue matrons who body-checked any reticent worthies who tried to join the conversation.

"Now everyone can see how wonderful she is," the prince told me quietly as his wife plunged through the sea of sharp elbows of the museum's drafty atrium. One of Camilla's feats is that she understands Prince Charles's language and simultaneously translates its meaning, which is often the opposite of what he says. Perhaps that's the definition of love -- whatever that is.

2005Tina Brown

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