It’s not uncommon for a marriage to end in tears. But it’s unnerving when a union begins with them. Back in 2011, at the three-day wedding celebrations of Prince Albert of Monaco to his new bride, Charlene Wittstock, the Euro hacks drooled over the dress (Armani Privé, if you’re asking, with 40,000 Swarovski crystals), the guests (Naomi Campbell, Roger Moore, and Nicolas Sarkozy tucked into the seafood buffet), and the party itself (at which the Eagles played in a tribute to the baby-mouthed tastes of the ultra-rich).
But they seemed more animated still by the damp eyes of the fresh princess, whose tears, it’s probably now fair to say, weren’t those of overwhelming joy and beaming love—but of impending terror and doom.
“There were mixed emotions,” Charlene later explained of her lachrymose display, “because of the rumors. And obviously the tension built up, and I burst into tears.” “Mixed emotions” is an understatement. The rumors in question surrounded the prince’s apparent third love child, who would join the two already bestowed upon him by an American waitress and a French-Togolese flight attendant a few years earlier.
Just days before the wedding, in fact, Charlene had apparently tried to flee to her native South Africa, before being escorted back by senior palace officials while en route to the Nice Côte d’Azur airport. Add to that the onrushing nausea of the imminent wedding night (during which, it was later reported, the couple slept in separate bedrooms, 10 miles apart), and the emotions get very “mixed” very quickly. But if they were foreboding back then, the tears look downright prophetic a decade hence—as Monaco’s royal union limps unhappily from intrigue to indiscretion and back again. (By way, as we’ll see, of some excruciating photo ops.)
The rumors began in earnest in January of this year, when Princess Charlene dropped out of an official visit to see President Macron at the Élysée Palace seemingly at the last minute. By May, she’d flown home to South Africa—without Albert or her two children—where she planned to stay for just “10 to 12 days,” according to an interview with a local radio station. But soon a mysterious sinus infection forbade her from returning home, and the princess reportedly retired to a wildlife reserve in KwaZulu-Natal (where Paris Match delighted in describing her as “a wounded animal”). She has not set foot in the principality since—not even for the twin tentpoles of the social season: the fetid, noisy, overripe Monaco Grand Prix and the pompy, splashy Red Cross Ball.
The couple reportedly slept in separate bedrooms, 10 miles apart.
Naturally, Prince Albert has been keen to quash whispers of a split, and he briefly flew out to South Africa with their children at the end of August to play happy families for the gathered press. (Things weren’t helped a jot by the fact that Nicole Coste—the former air hostess and mother of Albert’s second love child—was spotted living it up at the Red Cross bash a few weeks earlier, in July.) But the strained cheek-to-cheek portraits—and the gaunt exhaustion painted across Charlene’s face—have all the natural warmth of a disgraced, pie-fingered politician embracing his long-suffering wife. Stockholm syndrome on safari.
Finally, at the start of September, Princess Charlene was reportedly rushed to the hospital after collapsing in South Africa, allegedly due to complications from her aforementioned infection. Prince Albert, meanwhile, resumed his royal duties, heading to Ireland a few days later on an official trip with the pair’s children.
With yawning inevitability, court chitter-chatter has now turned to the infamous Grimaldi curse, which is said to deny any member of the Monegasque royal line a happy marriage. It was conjured up, according to folklore, by a Flemish maiden in the 13th century, furious at the philandering Grimaldi that had captured her after the battle of Zierikzee.
In the past century alone, its trail of attributed destruction has included reports of several brutal divorces, an exploding speedboat, an affair with a personal bodyguard, an affair with the palace head of security, an affair with an elephant trainer, an affair with an acrobat—and the fateful cliff-edge car crash that killed Prince Albert’s mother, Grace Kelly. (A cruel joke on a country whose Potemkin glamour relies, almost entirely, on fast cars and imported movie stars.)
Against this litany, perhaps, an errant sinus infection seems a small mercy. But there’s something particularly dispiriting about the slow-motion decline of Prince Albert’s own marriage, which seemed ill-matched from the word go. Albert, a sort of bachelor-prince Eeyore ever since his college days at Amherst, had previously courted the likes of Brooke Shields, Kylie Minogue, Lisa-Marie Presley, and Claudia Schiffer—but by the age of 50 was desperately in need of a wife to provide him an heir.
Charlene, then an Olympic swimmer, seemed to fit the bill happily enough, and at least shared the prince’s love of sports and conservation. But unlike her late mother-in-law, the bombshell Hollywood arriviste, it seemed as though Charlene did not make any real effort to fit in with Monaco’s cozy, cloying court. She appeared to show no desire to speak French and lived primarily in an apartment above a chocolate shop in town, away from the oppressive royal residence on the hill.
Paris Match delighted in describing her as “a wounded animal.”
“The Palace had to make apologies for a suddenly-ill princess so many times that Monégasques now find these hard to believe,” wrote Paris Match of Charlene. And anecdotes abound of her unpopularity with Princesses Caroline and Stéphanie—Albert’s imperious sisters. A. A. Gill once memorably described Monaco as “a waiting room for purgatory.” For Charlene, it seems to have been a sun lounger in hell.
Less than a year before her marriage, speaking to society bible Tatler, the princess declared that she knew Prince Albert was “The One” almost immediately after meeting him. “I have been quoted as saying I felt weak at the knees,” she said. “But the moment I met Albert, I felt a profound sense of destiny.” In a gilded cage like Monaco, however, there’s long been a fine line between destiny and a curse.
Joseph Bullmore is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL