For the longest time, people other than Camilla Parker Bowles spoke for Camilla Parker Bowles, and they said the most awful things.
Now, nearly 35 years after she first met and fell for the Prince of Wales, she is the Duchess of Cornwall, and she carries herself as such. Good riddance to Charles's frumpy mistress. In a dark teal suit and pearls yesterday, she was dignified, not at all other-womanly, and even that winged blond hair -- moppish under the worst circumstances -- looked lustrous.
The duchess was at the National Institutes of Health to make a rare public statement, the only one planned for her U.S. visit. With the prince beside her, she addressed a boardroom full of doctors, U.S. officials and advocates in the fight against osteoporosis, a disease that afflicted her mother and grandmother.
"Ladies and gentlemen," she said, "as president of the National Osteoporosis Society, I would just like to say how delighted my husband and I are to be at the NIH today."
Husband! Yes, indeed. Camilla has been waiting a long time to say that word, and perhaps it still thrills her; they've been married only seven months. But they seem easy together, two royal highnesses with few fairy-tale illusions, two adults of middle age who were lovers off and on for decades, even while married, even while being pummeled in the press. They have watched each other age. They have seen each other's worst photographs, along with the rest of the world. Britain is a country that bans the chasing of foxes by dogs, but has no similar restrictions on the hounding of its royals.
By now, one imagines, they have learned to shake off the indignities of public life.
When they arrived at NIH yesterday morning, Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona mistakenly guided the duchess over to a bank of floor-to-ceiling windows, perhaps thinking they were sliding doors. The two stopped just short of the glass. The photographers click-clicked away at the gaffe.
The duchess laughed. The prince laughed. They all went inside.
In the lobby of the clinical center, staff and patients cheered and clamored for the royals. The duchess stooped to reach their outstretched hands. Upstairs, she took a seat in a boardroom, her husband beside her in a chair outfitted with a back cushion. (Such are the accompaniments to mature love.) The room filled with U.S. officials and representatives of the National Osteoporosis Foundation, the U.S.-based sister organization to the U.K. charity the duchess has headed since 2001. As NIH Director Elias Zerhouni made introductory remarks, the duchess looked nervous. She sipped her water a few times. She nodded intently, holding her speech propped open in front of her. When she spoke, her voice carried gravitas.
"I first became involved with osteoporosis after both my mother and my grandmother died as a result of this devastating disease," she said. She offered statistics and financial figures, and urged people on both sides of the Atlantic to work together to "prevent future generations worldwide from suffering the pain and ignominy of osteoporosis."
When she finished, she looked at her husband expectantly, and he met her with a warm smile.
Carmona handed the duchess a 404-page tome: an autographed copy of his "Bone Health and Osteoporosis: A Report of the Surgeon General," released last year.
"I'll do my best to get through it," the duchess said, as those around her laughed. "I'll need my specs."
Camilla first met Charles in the early '70s. She was more than a year older. If you believe the lore, she reminded him that her great-grandmother had been his great-great grandfather's mistress.
"How about it?" she is supposed to have said.
They were it for a while, and then they weren't, and then she married someone else, and later so did he. We know all about that.
These days, the prince wears the same steep hair part he always has, but the hair is gray. He will be 57 later this month. He keeps his hands busy, tugging at his shirt cuffs, fiddling with a coin, sliding four of his fingers into the flapless pocket of his finely fitted gray jacket. The world has come around to him, or at least stopped criticizing him so roundly, just as it has for Camilla. In middle age, they seem to have found their equilibrium.
In the afternoon, Prince Charles scored a victory of sorts. He was awarded the National Building Museum's Vincent Scully Prize in recognition of his passion for traditional architecture, which critics once attacked as backward.
Twenty years ago, he opined, disapprovingly, of a proposed addition to London's National Gallery. (Princes used to have an off-with-their-heads power, but Charles made do with words.) "What is proposed," he said at the time, "is like a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend."
The hounds were released; the response was vicious. The prince's comments were called "reactionary," and designers he admired were dismissed as "brogue-footed lickspits," whatever that means. Yesterday's award was approbation for Charles's years of work in the face of what renowned architectural historian Vincent Scully called "implacable opposition."
"I cannot thank Professor Scully enough for having the courage to put my name forward for it," the prince said when he rose to speak. "After all, I seem to be a dangerous commodity in certain circles, and receiving such an award is a relatively novel experience for me," he said, to laughter from the audience of 1,200 invited guests. In his talk, Charles spoke against "uglification" and in favor of "tradition." Like vast numbers of his country folk, he also approves of gardens (his own, he said, has given him cause "to ponder what it means to be a part of nature rather than apart from it"). He also approves of sustainable development and of "courtesy, good manners."
The prince said he would give away the $25,000 that accompanies the prize to help repair communities damaged by Hurricane Katrina, and he and Camilla, who were "utterly horrified to see the terrible scenes of destruction," are to travel to the storm zone today to meet victims.
Later, the prince, who years ago called for greater understanding of Islam by the West, went to Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, and there he found another victory: a cheering crowd of 1,000. No one could mistake 2005 for 1985, when the nation made a fuss over a younger, more beautiful royal couple. But America does love celebrities, and royalty is the original thing.
When the royals left NIH, a woman named Catherine Little shrieked as the caravan drove away: "Bye-bye! Bye-bye! Oh, I'm so excited!"
Little turned around, beaming.
"I've never seen a royal in my life," she said. "Oh, wait a minute, I did see a queen. But I don't remember what country she was from."
As their day closed, the royal couple offered much more than a fleeting glance to a select group at a low-key evening reception in the residence of British Ambassador David Manning and his wife, Lady Catherine Manning. The 140 guests included people involved in organizing the couple's Washington events and contributors to the prince's charitable causes. Reporters were roped off from the royals, but they seemed well at ease among their fans. Not stiff, not altogether fusty, just doing the duty of cocktail-party chatter.
Cal Ripken came, with his wife, Kelly. "We like to live dangerously," he quipped cryptically when asked why he was there, then explained that he supported Charles's foundation and had met him previously in England.
"He's fabulous in gardening and architectural integrity," said auto magnate Mandy Ourisman, there with his wife Mary. Other business types made the list, including Noland Archibald, CEO of Black & Decker, a donor to one of the prince's recycling causes, and Fred Malek, who heads one of the groups vying to buy the Nationals, and his wife, Marlene.
The prince and princess consort peeled off separately to greet guests while waiters circulated with flutes of champagne and canapes of caviar, smoked salmon and quail eggs. Camilla wore an antique gold lace cocktail dress. There was plenty of mingling and small talk in the residence ballroom while a jazz band offered mellow standards such as "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."
There was no dancing on the schedule of Their Royal Highnesses, on Day 3 of their belated Newlywed American Tour.
Staff writer Richard Leiby contributed to this report.
Prince Charles draws a crowd during a stop at Georgetown University . . .
The Duchess of Cornwall is greeted by patients and staff members before her speech at the National Institutes of Health. Later, at a reception hosted by the British ambassador, Prince Charles chats with Fred and Marlene Malek.