Thursday 20 June 2019

A flighty earl and his women

Caroline, pictured with Charles, after their marriage in Althorp in 2001.
Caroline, pictured with Charles, after their marriage in Althorp in 2001.

Sarah Caden

WHEN Kitty Spencer arrived in London earlier this summer from her home in Cape Town, comparisons were immediately made with her late aunt, Diana.

Tall, blonde, blue-eyed and vibrantly pretty, 18-year-old Lady Kitty bore some physical resemblance to Diana, but it was her first real brush with the British media that struck a louder chord.

In June, in the VIP enclosure at Wimbledon, Kitty, the eldest daughter of Diana's younger brother, Charles, and also that month's Tatler magazine cover girl, did what a girl like her should and, surprisingly, what one shouldn't. She mixed easily with the assembled posh sorts and celebrity types that are her natural clique, but also found time to talk to a journalist on a personal matter. "She's an awful woman," Kitty was reported to have said of her former stepmother, with whom her father is involved in a difficult divorce. "I'm glad he's divorcing her."

You could put Kitty's lack of discretion down to youth or inexperience, but there is also something literally familiar about her outburst, something terribly Spencer. For what she discussed with the journalist was a matter both her father and stepmother, Caroline, sought to thrash out in private, away from public and media eyes, and yet Kitty couldn't resist taking a public stance on it, putting across her father's position as some sort of victim. In essence, she was continuing something of a family tradition, one of seeking a certain sort of sympathetic attention, and eschewing that attention when it inevitably turns against you. If Kitty's aunt were alive, she'd be able to explain to her exactly the nature of this dangerous dance, although her father could, one imagines, also tell her a thing or two.

In the 12 years since Diana's death and his famous funeral oration, Charles Spencer has been hero and villain, been up and down in public and media favour and has, in truth, never had a dull moment. He has endured two acrimonious and messy divorces -- emerging from neither as a thoroughly decent fellow -- and while apparently seeming to shun media attention, has regularly made statements over the years, regarding the royals, his sister and his nephews, that keep him in the headlines.

Even before his young daughter's indiscretion this summer, Charles Spencer's latest divorce had not passed entirely without notice and while he and his ex-wife had endeavoured to have their case heard in camera, his determination to keep Caroline from getting their home in London's Little Venice smacks of someone determined to make a point at any cost. For a man worth a reported £100m to dig his heels in so, when he knows it will attract the public attention, draws him, inevitably, into focus again. But, much like Diana, the ninth Earl Spencer seems to be a person driven by a sense of being both right and wronged and determined that everyone should understand him as such. Which, frustratingly, they rarely do.

In his famous Westminster Abbey oration, the fuss over Charles Spencer's comments directed at the royal family swamped other elements of his speech, among them the fact that Diana had "mothered me as a baby". If his "blood family" message to the princes annoyed the Windsors, then surely his own mother, Frances Shand Kydd -- in the congregation grieving her youngest daughter -- must have flinched at this and how it cast Spencer as motherless but for his sister's ministrations. But that was, of course, how Diana had been perceived, abandoned when her mother left the bullying eighth Earl Spencer for another man and set up for a life of disappointed need. Diana herself spoke about the coldness of her childhood, the longing for affection she carried into adulthood. Friends have commented that Charles Spencer's upbringing created not only a man prone to falling in and out of love, but one keen to be perceived as a little boy lost. Which hardly forgives the adultery, the tendency to nastiness and self-righteousness, but does go some way to explaining them.

In September 1997, Charles Spencer was, without doubt, an international hero. Tony Blair's "people's princess" speech may have put a name to the popularity of the dead Diana, but Spencer's oration in Westminster Abbey lent weight, meaning and focus to the outpouring of grief and recrimination. Spencer himself has commented since on the perceived anger of his delivery, recounting in an interview how one of his daughters put on a CD of Diana's funeral in the car one day -- an image that is rather bizarre in itself -- and heard for the first time how he had seemed.

By Spencer's account, he was, in fact, barely holding his sorrow in check, but while he may quibble over his delivery, there's no arguing with the accusatory and point-scoring nature of his words. Claiming the princes for the Spencers, promising to keep them from being raised only by the royals, he surely made a difficult situation for two young boys more difficult again. But he was making a point, and when Charles Spencer endured his first divorce, two years after Diana's funeral, again he seemed careless of the feelings of others in the name of taking a stand.

Charles Spencer, the youngest child, the first son, the heir to the title, much longed for, then inadequately cared for, has lived a life many would consider extremely privileged. He had a good education, studied at Oxford, has written a few books, but is primarily wealthy through inheritance. And he has loved many beautiful women, his first wife being the Tatler girl of the year, 1984, Victoria Lockwood, a former model and mother to Kitty, twins Katya and Eliza and to the Spencer heir, Louis. That marriage ended in bitter acrimony in 1999 -- with Spencer reported to have told his wife the marriage was over while he sat in the bath -- and was played out in South Africa, where they lived, he hoped, away from the gaze of the British media.

What came out in court, however, was impossible to ignore. According to Lockwood, Spencer had a dozen affairs while she had spent five months in rehab for an eating disorder and drug-addiction. A story circulated that gave shape to allegations that he had been cruel and nasty in his marriage, one that had Spencer joke at a birthday party that his father had advised him to marry a woman who would stick with him through thick and thin, continuing that "those who know Victoria know she's thick, and she's certainly thin". The divorce ran on and on without agreement on terms and money, until a settlement was reached just before Lockwood herself, her father and one of Spencer's mistresses were due to give testimony.

Lockwood -- who has since remarried and divorced and works as an addiction counsellor -- stayed on in Cape Town after the divorce and raised the four children there away from the public gaze. Charles, meanwhile, returned to England, and Althorp, the family stately home he swore never to live in as a child and never really warmed to until he met and married his second wife. Caroline Freud -- as she was then, as ex-wife of Matthew Freud -- was the woman who gave Charles Spencer the grounding and security he had looked for all his life.

Caroline -- known to her friends as Pidge -- was a mother of two boys and a former nursery teacher, much like Diana. She had known Spencer in university but they had lost touch and were both divorced when they became reacquainted, fell in love and married in 2001. This marriage began a positive phase in Spencer's life. He settled into Althorp and his new wife became very much a partner in rejuvenating it and making a success of it as a Diana memorial. In fact, it was in the couple of years after his second marriage that Charles popped up in the media again, to comment on how his treatment during his divorce had been payback from the press he had attacked at Diana's funeral, and to make a few pops off the royals.

He criticised Prince Charles for never visiting Diana's resting place -- this from a man with a poor record for ex-wife relations himself -- and later said that he believed his sporadic contact with William and Harry was because they "may not be encouraged to stay in touch with their mother's side of the family". Nothing about how he himself might have made that difficult by pitting the two sides of the boys' family against each other, just a perpetuation of the image of the Spencers as pawns in other people's games.

This second marriage began to break down, it has been reported since, in part because of Spencer's frequent trips away from home on business, but those close to him talk also of a tendency to boredom. He falls madly in love, it has been said in the past, but then once he has what he wants, Charles Spencer grows bored.

Interestingly, this was something often said of Diana, her tendency to pick people up, lavish them with love then drop them when they grew dull or useless or just disappointed her. Diana had observed this flaw in her brother, saying he tired of her occasionally, withdrew from her, was selfish in his protection of himself at all costs.

Many observed of Diana's funeral, in fact, that Charles Spencer's perceived anger at the Windsors was misdirected and was more accurately the guilt of one who had badly let down his sister when, after her separation from Prince Charles, she had sought refuge in a cottage on the Althorp estate and her brother had refused it. At the time, Charles said he could not afford the media attention that would focus on the family pile, though self-preservation might be a better read of it, some said.

In late 2006, Charles Spencer left his second wife, Caroline. The split came as a shock to her, it was said, and Caroline set about emailing friends and family asking them to choose sides, explaining that she could not countenance remaining in contact with anyone who tried to keep in with them both. Mother to two further Spencer children -- Edmund, then three, and Lara, only a few months old when the marriage broke down -- she had already endured an eventful year.

That spring, Spencer had been summoned to South Africa by his long-standing best friend, Darius Guppy, whose wife, Patricia, had told him of a pass the earl had made at her more than a decade earlier, while Guppy was in prison for gem insurance fraud. Spencer went to Cape Town to clear things up, but what might have been a smoothing over instead turned into a bloody fist fight, about which he has always declined to comment. Caroline, however, was reported to be deeply shaken by the incident, having been very close to the Guppys, and this drama is said to have contributed to the marriage's demise.

It was Charles, though, who called time on the union, taking up almost immediately with a young American TV reporter, Coleen Sullivan, who had come to Althorp some time earlier to interview him about Diana. Young and vivacious and nothing like Caroline's English rose, Coleen seemed to make the earl very happy for a time and he is alleged to have worked very hard in bringing his older children around to her. They, allegedly, very much liked their stepmother -- contrary to Kitty's recent pronouncement -- and initially resented the new, young girlfriend. In time, however, the ice thawed. And then Charles Spencer ended the relationship.

In July, it was the young Lady Kitty who -- some might say inappropriately -- accompanied her father to divorce proceedings in London's High Court. Caroline Spencer was granted a "quickie" divorce from Charles in 2007 on the grounds of his "unreasonable behaviour", but the decree nisi can not go through until certain agreements are made, regarding, in particular, the family home. The house is particularly nice, a canal-side property the earl bought from Pink Floyd star, David Gilmour, but Spencer is not a man with nowhere else to lay his head, while this is the home of his ex-wife, their two children and her two sons from her earlier marriage. It could be argued that it would not overly hurt Spencer to just give Caroline the house, but clearly, there is a principle at stake and even when they lost their bid to have the case heard privately, he did not give in. For whatever reason, perhaps just so he can prove he's not the bad guy, Spencer wants to fight this one. Even if it means he must do so in the public eye.

Meanwhile, Spencer has found love again. In April, he very publicly appeared with his latest partner, Lady Bianca Eliot, at the christening of Sasha Blow, the baby son of Portuguese artist Mara Castilho, and Detmar Blow, widower of fashion eccentric Isabella Blow, who died after drinking weedkiller in 2007. It was a christening tinged with sadness and Charles's new love is no stranger to loss herself, the former model having found her husband, Jago, dead in the bath -- of an epileptic fit, but with traces of cocaine and cannabis in his system -- while their three children played downstairs. By various accounts, Charles and Bianca are madly in love, and his appearance with her at the christening on the pages of Hello! speaks of a sense of entitlement to happiness, a desire to be seen to be content. Even, that is, as the mess of his last marriage drags on and does nothing to dispel his image as a cad.

But then, that's quite obviously not how Spencer sees himself. In many ways, he will always be remembered as the man for whom the world stood up and clapped that day in September 1997. He was, it was then perceived, the only man who had ever done right by Diana and while even that is debatable, this is the kind of man Spencer believes himself to be, despite any evidence to the contrary.

Like his sister, Spencer is the little child lost who just wants to be happy, though happiness continues to elude him. And yet, while the wives, lovers and the capricious affections of the public come and go, Charles Spencer might well be glad of the constancy of a loving daughter. Who is, it seems, very much a Spencer girl.

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