By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
If his glamorous niece weren't expected to marry Britain's Prince William, Gary Goldsmith might just be another cocaine-snorting, tattooed, embarrassing uncle.
But when an undercover video last week showed Goldsmith, 49, cutting lines of cocaine in "La Maison de Bang Bang" -- the villa he owns on the Spanish isle of Ibiza -- his oh-so-unregal lifestyle became headlines -- and a scandal steeped in the crass issue of class.
Goldsmith is the brother of the mother of Kate Middleton, who started dating William eight years ago when they met at St. Andrews University in Scotland. Ever since, there has been discussion about whether this "commoner," now a 27-year-old accessories-buyer-turned-photography-student, was good enough for the heir to the British throne.
Goldsmith is a property developer and has tattooed the words "Nouveau Riche" between his shoulder blades. Those born into "old money," commentators have noted wryly, decidedly do not use ink this way.
"The march of the middle-class Middletons" was one recent headline about the "kitschy" uncle, who jokes on the video that he will soon have his own room in Buckingham Palace.
Class in Britain is roughly equivalent to race in America -- despite enormous strides toward equality, social standing simmers never far below the surface. "Yes, I think class is the primary element in all this," said Robert Lacey, a prominent royal biographer. Britain has become more of a meritocracy, and nowadays a member of the royal family can "dip into the gene pool of the proletariat," he said, in contrast with the old days of arranged marriages with other foreign highborns. But marrying above and below one's station still brings "enormous fascination and envy. . . . Class is still a big issue.
"There you are in America wondering whether President Obama should get involved in this matter with a black professor and a police officer. . . . It's a minor matter consuming you in the way we are getting consumed by this subject."
Undercover reporters from the tabloid News of the World filmed bare-chested, pot-bellied Goldsmith, his underwear on parade above his low-slung jeans, all the while bragging about procuring drugs and hookers. Last week's front-page headline said he greeted William, when the future king of England visited three years ago, by saying "Oi, you [expletive]!"
Much attention has focused on Goldsmith's two divorces, familiarity with prostitutes, and the hard-core porn he is said to enjoy on his 52-inch TV.
As the Daily Mail explained, he even named his villa La Maison de Bang Bang, which, it said, was "crude French slang for House of Sex."
Speculation has mounted that a royal wedding announcement might arrive as early as this year's end, and, perhaps accordingly, Kate Middleton has increasingly stayed out of nightclubs and the limelight. With rare exceptions, she has won praise for being well-mannered, sharply dressed and dignified.
But her mother, Carole Middleton, a former flight attendant, has not fared so well in the tabloids, which never fail to describe her as hailing from a family of laborers and miners. Trim and turned out like her daughter, she founded Party Pieces, a lucrative mail-order business that sells decorations, cakes and other items for children's parties.
She and her husband, Michael Middleton, live together in a grand home in the Berkshires, but it has often been pointed out, they are new money, not "of the 'shires."
Rather than herald Carole Middleton as a self-made entrepreneur, society wags often deride her as a pushy social climber. Among the whispers: She cunningly sent her daughter to St. Andrews to put her in the path of the young prince, the snaggable son of the late Princess Diana.
The queen and Prince Charles have greeted Kate warmly, though in a much passed-along tale, Carole Middleton was talking to some royals and violated a taboo by using the word "toilet" instead of "lavatory." It was a gaffe heard around the kingdom, despite the fact that spokesmen for the royal family have denied any such exchange.
In perhaps the snidest remark, William's aristocratic friends reportedly would say "Doors to manual" when Kate arrived, a sneering reference to an instruction her mother may have heard from pilots in her former profession.
Of course, many of the bloggers and others who weighed in on the uncle scandal insist that Kate is a breath of fresh air, too good for the royals. The upper class has more than its share of cocaine users and inconvenient relatives, Middleton's online fans noted.
"Kate will never be good enough for them. She should run," was one typical judgment on the Sunday Daily Mail's comment page.
Yet others talk of Kate being an "unremarkable" girl from a "tacky" family, someone William should not "waste his time on."
When Kate and William briefly split in 2007, there was considerable discussion that her middle-class background was a source of conflict inside his family's palaces.
Last week, a British government report elevated the issue of social mobility to top news again. The study said that elite professions such as medicine and law are increasingly closed off to all but the most affluent families. The report noted that it wasn't just the poor but the "forgotten middle class" who can't compete with the informal recruitment networks and other advantages of the privileged.
Lynn Jamieson, professor of sociology at the University of Edinburgh, said classist remarks are still thrown about, as a way of "reasserting a hierarchy," of telling people "they don't deserve to be there."
She said nowadays it's often subtle, but "in Britain there is still a legacy of making fun of and humiliating people who are seen to be crossing boundaries they shouldn't."
William's mother, Diana, the daughter of the eighth Earl Spencer, came from a long aristocratic line -- and while she had her own share of bad tabloid moments, her peerage never drew sneers.
"There is a nostalgia, a wish to have another Diana," said Lacey, the best-selling royal biographer. He said some like to see Kate as "the frogette who turns into the princess" and some can't buy into the 21st-century fairy tale at all.