She did not ask to be called princess.
"I am Irene de Bordon," she said when asked how she'd introduce herself.
How intimidating it would be to always introduce yourself, Her Royal Highness Princess Irene de Borbon de Parma. Her friends probably call her Irene. Her four children undoubtedly call her Mother.
If you want to know the truth, she never really wanted to be a princess, but how can we control what we are born to be? It's not that she thought it was silly so much as it was confining.
"A barrier," she said. "A handicap."
She leaned her face into the morning sun that shone on Frederick, Md., yesterday and said, "The title creates this distance."
She waved her hands in delicate flutters, her three bracelets catching the light and twinkling, glittering gold.
"People think you're different," she said.
She opened her palms as if she were taking off an overcoat.
"Of course you're not different."
Of course she is different. She is a princess and she can run from the distance but never hide from the barrier.
And now she is at Hood College, a small liberal arts college for women, with her husband of 16 years, His Royal Highness Prince Carlos Hugo de Borbon de Parma, who no longer pretends to the Spanish throne because, as she said yesterday. "The king is doing beautifully and to seek the throne would be such a waste of time; it's not our time." And this morning she will address the graduating class. And she will talk to them about women's rights. And one of the points she will made is, "We won't be victims of society if we participate actively and with responsibility in the great challenge of building a new society where we, men and women, will be equal and be free to choose our own lives." Which is to say that it is a long run from the day she was born second in the line of succession to the throne of Holland almost 41 years ago. Which is to say she has come a long way.
She has written a book about women's rights, "Women And Society." It is sold all over Spain, in bookstores and newspaper stands. She says it is not aimed at the intellectual elite, but at the common woman, written in clear language, a little book, inexpensive. She says it is selling well.
"In the prologue of my book," she said, "I write that in certain ways I have been privileged, but still, through my experiences, I feel I have a right to write this book. All women suffer. All women have the same problems. All women have to fight."
She was the second-string princess. Her mother, Queen Juliana, had one daughter before and another after. Beatrix was the first-string princess, the one who is now queen after Juliana's abdication last month. "One says that the number twos and number threes are very different than the number ones," Irene de Borbon said. "Life makes you different. It is something we never talked about because we knew it to be. Her life is that. My life is this. I don't think it would be fun to be the number one -- not for me. I'd never have been able to speak and have my own opinions."
Irene was thought of as a rebel, even in so progressive a country as Holland. She was the one who converted from Protestantism to Catholicism to marry Carlos. She was the one who willingly gave up all claim to the Dutch throne. For a while she was in heavy disfavor with her own people, but that was time ago, and time has its way of smoothing things.
What Irene remembers most about her youth, and her training as a princess, is the isolation she felt. "We were fortunate in our family," she said, "because Mother had come from a very isolated situation, and she felt. "We were fortunate in our family," she said, "because Mother had come from a very isolated situation, and she didn't want the children to grow up like that. We went to public schools. I knew I could always bring my friends home. I went to university and lived there, set up a household with a girlfriend, like many in Holland do, and did my own marketing and my own cooking too. In Holland it was not uncommon for any of us to be seen in public. It is a very democraticco untry.
"But I always knew I was being protected. Whatever I went there would be protection. A police inspector perhaps. In the house. In the car. It wasn't truly normal. We would appear at official things, perhaps opening, an important exhibition or launching a ship, and there was always protection around us. When I married, all that changed. I had no protection, no staff. It was as if my life started then and it made me happy. I'm glad I did it. Now my children, they live a normal life. It is not like it was for me, not living in a palace behind big gates. My children grow up in an apartment and go to public schools. They help around the house, making the beds, cooking the meals. Only at school do they sometimes feel like princes or princesses, only when the other kids say something -- like 'I saw your mother on television.' Or, 'I saw your picture in the paper.'"
Irene de Borbon smiled softly.
"I always wanted to break through the isolation," she said. "I tried not to be handicapped by the title."
She has elegant hands, with long, thin fingers. She has the kind of fingers that seem created to press the buzzer to summon the butler. She does not take out her own garbage, nor does she compare the thickness of pork chops before dropping one in her shopping cart. But the way she speaks she would be more at home in an editorial conference at Self than she would be designing a fashion layout for Vogue. The princess trip has gotten old.
You cannot blame an American for wondering. We have no royalty here, nothing more than a Duke Snider or an Earl Monroe or a Count Basie, nothing of permanence, nothing you can trace for 500 years. Americans want to know the silly things.
If you were born a commoner, what would you be?
If you were first in line in succession, would you have not married your husband?
If you had a pea under your mattress, would you not be able to sleep? Irene de Borbon was amused by the questions.
"Are you writing for a woman's magazine?" she asked.
She has been in the public eye all her life, and she has taken to wearing sunglasses on her private life. There are things she may know, but won't talk about.
"I think I could have done more things if I were not a princess," she said. "But you can't play theater. This is what is."
And nothing more forthcoming than that. You do not crack a shell 500 years in the making in 50 minutes. Not by being cute. Not by being coy. Not by being irreverent. Not at all.
The princess retains control.
"We have talked a lot, yes?" she said.
And when she stood up to go there was not a single wrinkle in her skirt and not a mark on her privacy.