One thing that leaps out from the Hearst archives is the frequency of front-page headlines devoted to scandals and foibles of European royalty. Before World War I, these titillating families were in power across the continent. Scarcely a week went by without a sex scandal in Saxony or Sweden or Slovakia. Even on slow news days when the adulterers went briefly dormant, a comtesse would give birth or a wastrel prince might wreck his carriage, and the parade of headlines would continue.
At first glance, one wonders what possible interest American readers had in the distant doings of the aristocracy in twilight. Then the genius of Hearst becomes clear: There were no Hollywood idols, no TV stars in those days. Royals were the world’s celebrities. Before there was a king of rock-and-roll, there was a king of Bavaria. Before Prince, there was a whole continent of princes. Mass media fed on celebrity from the beginning, and no one created or cultivated them for later consumption like Hearst.
We make our own celebrities now. The diminished relevance of royalty leaves just one household in the celebrity game. The Windsors of Great Britain command their own Netflix epic, “The Crown,” and they appear reliably each week next to the chewing gum on supermarket aisles. They alone retain the star power to compel Oprah — the queen of all media — to soak their unhappy members in her incomparably telegenic compassion bath.
And the Windsors pull it off only because of a vast star-making machinery known as the Firm, which serves not the family, but the sovereign. As Meghan made awkwardly clear in the interview, she entered her marriage to Prince Harry quite mistaken about the nature of royal star power. She thought the royals were celebrities like the ones in Hollywood, but “this is a completely different ballgame,” she said.
Recounting her first meeting with her beau’s grandmother, the former actress was surprised to learn that she would be expected to curtsy. Meghan had assumed that was just part of the show. “I thought genuinely: That’s what happens outside. That was part of the fanfare,” she confessed. “I didn’t think that’s what happens inside.”
“But it’s your grandmother!” she protested to Harry.
“It’s the queen!” he answered.
That’s the nub of all their woe. By definition, the monarchy features only one star, not a cast of them. And Meghan’s prince will never be the star. His destiny is a gradual descent further and further down the line of succession. Even his brother’s children, all of 7, 5 and 2 years old, outrank him, and someday their future children will, too. Harry understands. Why, the day he was born, a squirming infant, he pushed two uncles, an aunt and all their progeny down the ladder.
Where Meghan comes from, fame equals royalty. It’s just a show, “fanfare,” “what happens outside.” The Windsors are something different, famous solely in relation to the sovereign. She is the only real star giving off light, and the duchy of Sussex is but a dim planet — or less than that, a mere moon — reflecting the queen’s illumination.
“Wow!” said Oprah, who instantly grasped that Meghan’s disillusionment began with that curtsy and all that the curtsy implied.
The duchess took it personally when she was doomed to second-class citizenship, but it was nothing personal. That’s what class systems do. She chalked up her subordination to racism, without understanding that subordination is an end in itself. Harry’s mom, Princess Diana, was White as snow, yet just as miserable inside the monarchy as Meghan.
Contrary to the impression left by the duke and duchess, royalty need not be a trap. It’s possible in the post-Hearst world to escape into a more ordinary and purposeful life than the slow suffocation of palace and primogeniture. Harry’s uncle Edward, for example — the youngest child of the queen — lives a comparatively low-profile existence as Edward Windsor, a television producer only occasionally hailed as the Earl of Wessex. Across the English Channel in the Netherlands, the so-called “bicycle monarchy” cheerfully reigns, dubbed in honor of royals so modest they often pedal themselves from place to place.
As a vehicle to stardom, Harry and Meghan have gone about as far as his family will take them. The dirt has been dished, and the dish is now empty. It might be time to buy a couple of bikes.
Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.