I know I know. You saw Monte Carlo in the headline, and you said to yourself, “If I see that old cliché from Somerset Maugham one more time, I’m going to throw up”. You know the one, every article recycles it: “Monaco is a sunny place for shady people.”
Guess what, that old saw is Kaput. Fini. Gone. It has been replaced by my new aphorism: “Monaco is a shady place for sunny people.”
Why a shady place? Because skyscrapers are shooting up on every block in the tiny principality, casting shadows upon the cobblestones of Casino Square. And because they are “in da shade” with the highest per capita income in the world ($187,000), and the highest prices for residential real estate.
And why the sunny people? Because the citizens are elated that former playboy Prince Albert II has grown up, driven the money-washers, arms-traffickers and other scoundrels out of town, married the fair maiden Charlene, and impregnated her with twins. The new princess has tamed the prince, charmed the populace, and is set to deliver an heir and a spare, just in time for Christmas. In sum, Charlene is The Woman Who Saved Monte Carlo. The Monegasques once again feel safe and secure. And, best of all, prosperous. Do you believe in fairy tales? So do we. Read on.
A decade after Albert became reigning monarch, upon the death of his father Prince Rainier III, he is, at 56, one of the wealthiest royals in the world, with assets worth over a billion dollars. His holdings include ownership in the Societe des Bains de Mer de Monaco, which operates the casino and other entertainment properties in the principality, as well as various hotels. He administers the 20 percent value-added tax levied on goods and services, the largest source of revenue filling the royal coffers.
As there is no income tax in Monaco, it is a sanctuary for wealthy foreigners. However, opportunists, those whom Maugham called “shady people”, are no longer welcome. These days they are routinely denied residence permits, as Mark Thatcher, son of you-know-who, found out the hard way.
It is a well-run state, with strict rules. Two years ago, New York investor/playboy Adam Hock became agitated in a Meatpacking District nightclub and sucker-punched Pierre Casirighi, a son of Princess Caroline, inflicting facial and jaw injuries. He pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct but was unrepentant. The next time Hock tried to slide into the harbor of Monte Carlo aboard a pal’s yacht, he was greeted by Monegasque security and escorted out of the country. Monaco is small, only 38,000 residents, but there is one cop for every 67 residents. With CCTV cameras everywhere and phone calls monitored by the state-run company, the police see, hear and know everything. Just ask Mister Hock.
Getting back to Princess Charlene, she came along just in time. There had been an unsteady ascension: things were a bit wobbly for Albert after he assumed the role of head of state. He was a ladies man, and possibly more, if chatter is to be believed: in the way that some aristocrats, like some actors, feel a need to have everyone love them, and they love everyone back.
Before he met Charlene, Albert had fathered two children, whom he embraced and supported after the DNA testing was done. They are Jazmin Grace Grimaldi, age 22, who just graduated from Fordham College, and Alexandre Coste, age 11, who lives with his mother on an estate near Monaco provided and secured by his father. But he didn’t have an heir, because both were born to women to whom he was not married. Under the constitution of Monaco, this does not allow for royal succession.
When Albert met Charlene Wittstock, a tall blonde who swam for South Africa in the Olympics, it was the answer to his courtiers’s dreams. Although she is said to be playful in private, in public she is reserved–not unlike Princess Grace–and dignified in demeanor. A source tells us that “the natural connection between Prince Albert and Charlene happened as they are both huge sports fans. And they love to dance—they are the last to leave the floor.”
They were married in 2011, in a joyous ceremony that became a national celebration, but not without tabloid controversy. French magazine l’Express reported that Charlene had a panic attack before the wedding and set out for South Africa, but was brought back to the palace by security officials. The story ping-ponged around the world. Albert sued and got it retracted, even by the London Times, but not everyone believed the retractions. Many brides think of bailing on the eve of their nuptials–you saw “The Graduate”. So what.
Things have gone smoother with the passage of time . I happened to have been a guest three years ago at a luncheon which was Charlene’s debut in New York as a royal wife. It was at Daniel, to benefit the Princess Grace Foundation. I got a chance to exchange words with the two of them; they were engaging and at ease. Albert and Charlene are self-aware, but not self-important (a subtle distinction sometimes lost on arrivistes and the nouveaux riches.) Both seemed sincere in their devotion to his mother’s legacy, just as Charlene is extremely dedicated to her own personal charity that teaches children how to swim.
Let’s face it, it’s not easy being Charlene and Albert–not easy being held up every day to comparisons with the impossibly glamorous, impeccably chic Grace and Rainier. Not easy knowing you’ll never reach the bar of their physical beauty, their unerring taste in clothing and grooming, their innate assuredness and poise. All of which has been burnished by legend and myth.
Charlene does the best she can to dress for the public, but she’s an athlete, for gosh sakes, a swimmer, not a woman who has spent her life gauging the cut of a trouser or the length of a hem. When she gets dressed, the outfits she puts together would never make a stylist swoon–sometimes they don’t seem to fit right–but she’s a down-to-earth person, and that’s what’s winning the hearts of the people of Monte. [We like to call it “Monte”, to emulate the self-styled insiders, like dear Mrs. Van Hopper in “Rebecca”.]
Which brings us to princesses Caroline and Stephanie, always picture perfect in haute couture. But then they had their mummy to guide them as children, and these days they huddle with the likes of Lagerfeld and Valentino. Raffinée taste on that level is contagious; it wafts through the air, like chicken pox. Maybe Charlene should spend more time hanging around with someone like the one-of-a-kind trompe l’oeil wizard Daphne Guinness. She’d pick up the nuances of style overnight.
Speaking of Caroline, there are those who say she condescends to Charlene. Au contraire, say my sources. I am told Caroline has been instrumental in welcoming her to the family, even giving private tutoring to Charlene in speaking French, a language she has not quite mastered. (Wouldn’t you love to be a mouche on the mur when Their Serene Highnesses are conjugating avoir?) And Stephanie also pitches in.
The rumors of inter-Grimaldi conflict make no sense to me for an obvious reason: the accomplishments of Charlene since her arrival four years ago have been good for business, the family business, a billion-dollar enterprise called Monaco Incorporated. It is a 700-year-old business and its success is essential to the offspring of Caroline and Stephanie and to future generations. The travails of Charlene, and of Albert, are their abiding concern. The family that pulls together, rules together.
Despite that, some writers are flinging mud. On September 14th of this year, in The Daily Beast, Tom Sykes penned an essay titled “Crown of Thorns: Princess Charlene’s Monaco Nightmare”. He gleefully reported that one “part-time resident of Monaco” called Charlene “common as muck” because her parents live in “a middle-class South African town (in Monaco, as in France, your provenance is everything.)”
Sykes quotes “one person with close knowledge of the principality” as saying of Princess Charlene,”She is isolated and sad. She has no friends. She will crack in the end. Caroline has done little to help Charlene settle in”.
To which ORB SAYS: Pish. The evidence shows otherwise. We asked someone who knows Princess Charlene about her and got a completely different picture.
Denise Rich, the philanthropist, songwriter and yachtswoman, told us by email, “Princess Charlene is a very warm and intelligent young woman who makes you feel very comfortable in her presence. When I told her about losing my daughter [Gabrielle, at 26, of leukemia] she was so empathetic. She has the ability to focus on you and make you feel like you are the only person in the room.”
Last week, the Grimaldi clan raised $16 million to renovate the royal palace by auctioning 1,000 objects of Napoleonic memorabilia, including weapons, portraits, letters, the emperor’s cologne bottles, and even his stockings. One of his black tricorn hats went for $2.4 million. The collection had been assembled in the 19th century by an ancestor of Albert’s. They raided the attic to update the nursery.
The European landscape is littered with the bones of royal dynasties who lost their thrones and sometimes their heads. The Grimaldis haven’t survived since 1297 by being fools. Underestimate them at one’s peril.