Wednesday 16 October 2019

Charles Spencer: Lord of the flings

Charles Spencer won the hearts of a nation when he bared his soul at Princess Diana's funeral. That reputation is now in tatters. Emily Hourican tracks his fall from grace, reflects on the women in his life, his lonely childhood, and assesses whether the tainted aristocrat will take advantage of his chance to set things right at Prince William's wedding

Emily Hourican

WHEN Charles, ninth Earl of Spencer and Viscount Althorp, stood to speak in Westminster Abbey at the funeral of his elder sister Diana, Princess of Wales, he laid public claim to the extraordinary emotional legacy of the woman who had captured a nation's heart.

Then just 33, Spencer was the white knight to Prince Charles' black; vibrant antithesis to the seemingly sterile House of Windsor whose stiff-upper-lip approach to national tragedy was as clearly dated as the Earl's visible indulgence of grief was authentic and modern. "I stand before you today, the representative of a family in grief, in a country in mourning, before a world in shock," he began in this moving, masterful oration. He immortalised his sister in that moment, by describing her in terms which the world was eager to recognise: "A very British girl who transcended nationality" and "a girl given the name of the ancient goddess of hunting was, in the end, the most hunted person of the modern age".

He also, in that speech, laid claim to Diana's descendents, William and Harry, pledging himself, as their "blood family", to continue her ways of raising them. "We fully respect the heritage into which they have both been born and will always respect and encourage them in their royal role. But we, like you, recognise the need for them to experience as many different aspects of life as possible ... " It was a gauntlet throw down across Diana's grave to her estranged husband's family; one that well caught the mood of the country in that moment, spontaneously applauded by the tens of thousands of people keeping vigil outside Westminster, as well as the millions watching around the world.

In that moment, if the people of Britain had been responsible for the princes' fate, the boys would have been immediately entrusted to their uncle's care, rather than returned to the austere affections of the royals. Back then, young Prince William looked very like his uncle -- both tall, blond, full of aristocratic dash -- and as the rumours surrounding Diana's death grew increasingly lurid, the Earl was seen as the strongest defence against the lonely fate awaiting the two young men among their father's people. He was everywhere in those days after Diana's death, even engineering her burial on the family estate, Althorp, instead of the local churchyard, where 19 generations of Spencers lie, and thus ensuring his place in the reflection of her glory forever.

Or so it seemed. Fourteen years on, and the picture is entirely different. The royal family have weathered the storm sparked by Diana's death, the princes have grown into easy-going, impressive young men -- without much obvious input from their uncle -- and William is now the image of his father. Meanwhile, the sheen has rubbed right off Charles Spencer. With a trail of broken marriages, relationships and families behind him, the personality traits that once made him seem warm and spontaneous in contrast with the chilly Windsors, now seem charmless and self-indulgent when compared with their rigorous sense of duty. Because as William prepares for his wedding to Kate Middleton, a relationship that is romantic as well as sensible, Charles Spencer is also getting ready to marry, but for the third time.

His looks have faded and a couple of unpleasant divorces have badly tarnished his image, but there is clearly no shortage of women ready to be swept off their feet by a man who is impetuous to the point of rashness in his romantic affairs.

The first divorce, from South African model Victoria Lockwood, mother of four of his children, to whom he proposed after just 10 days together, happened within weeks of Diana's death, in Cape Town, where the couple were living. He apparently told her he wanted out while leaning back, relaxing, in the bath, and she claims that he slept with a dozen women while she was in a rehab clinic, battling alcoholism and eating disorders. At a party at the time, when reminded by one guest of the duty to stick with his wife through thick and thin, Charles famously quipped that Victoria was "thin, and certainly thick". No wonder that "vicious", "callous" and "bully" were the words used about Charles during the divorce, or that the tabloids raced to dub him "Lord Lovecheat" and "Lord of the Flings".

The boy whose arrival into the world -- his parents' youngest child and only- surviving son -- was a cause for joy and celebration marked by a grand fireworks display, had grown into a man with an extreme sense of his own droit de seigneur; whose exploits, even by the lax standards of the upper classes, were becoming notorious. He was once badly beaten by a close friend, a man he knew since they were at Eton together, who'd been told that Charles had tried to seduce his wife, seemingly on a whim, while the friend was in prison for fraud.

Those who know him well say that in person he is somewhere between the extremes, neither hero nor pantomime villain; that although capricious and arrogant, he is also engaging and capable of decency. His charisma is as undoubted as is his emotional confusion, the legacy of a sad, lonely childhood when he and Diana were tossed about on the storm of their parents' second relationships, shuttling between marriages, with each other as the only constant in their lives. Charles was five when his parents divorced, and thereafter divided his time between them, enduring long, lonely train journeys, seemingly perpetually in transit from one house to another, neither of which was really home. It is a time in which he recalls huddling in tears, mothered more by the sister three years older than him than by his actual mother. In fact, his personality seems to closely resemble Diana's -- moving swiftly between warm affection and aloofness, though without her sense of humour and easy empathy -- and he is undeniably more thrilled with chase and conquest than consistency. His relationships follow a set pattern of furious courtship, studded with extravagant romantic gestures, followed by a fairly rapid cooling off and boredom. Fireworks, followed by indifference.

Although undeniably a bad husband, Charles Spencer is clearly a romantic. In fact, he is as in love with romance and the possibility of it as his sister, on whom the obsession sat more easily; where Diana seemed able to transmute her early experiences of abandonment into brave attempts to bring happiness to others (albeit often strangers, people well outside her immediate circle), Charles has spent his life perpetuating the sorry childhood cycle.

While his first divorce was in train, Charles dated Calvin Klein model Josie Borain, then, in 2001, he married Caroline Hutton, a toothy but elegant blonde, a contemporary of his at Oxford, who had been through her own painful divorce from PR whizz Matthew Freud. That relationship looked like a close and supportive match, in which the couple together tackled the job of bringing the family estate Althorp -- inherited by Charles when he became ninth Earl at the age of 28 -- into the modern age. They initiated a small but serious literary festival instead of the yearly horse trials of his father's time, and redecorated the house, getting rid of the endless shocking-pink favoured by Raine Cartland, Barbara Cartland's daughter and Charles' step-mother (he and Diana dubbed her "Acid" Raine, which neatly sums up the relationship, or lack of).

However, the image of domestic contentment was an illusion, and just four months after Caroline gave birth to their second child, six years into their marriage, Charles was off again, starting an affair with Coleen Sullivan, an American journalist who came to interview him for a documentary on Princess Diana.

Coleen, glamorous brunette daughter of a humble police sergeant, broke up with her fiance and gave up her career, only for the relationship to run its course within 18 months. That second divorce, from Caroline, was just as miserable as the first, as she tried to hang on to the family home in London, bought from Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour in 2001 as a base for the couple and their children. Between them they had six by previous marriages, eight in total, but Charles was determined that Caroline should not be allowed to continue in the family home. He forced her to move out along with the children, and contested what seemed, in comparison with his estimated fortune of £100m, rather small sums of money.

The Earl then dated Jane Yarrow, ex-wife of a City financier, for a time. Three weeks after that ended -- apparently at her instigation for a change -- he started seeing Bianca, Lady Eliot, beautiful, vulnerable mother of three and widow of bohemian aristo Lord Jago Eliot, the Earl of St German's heir. The couple had married at Glastonbury in 2001, and Jago died in his bath of an epileptic fit just four years later, with traces of cannabis and cocaine in his system. Spencer and Lady Eliot met at the Groucho club in 2008, and, demonstrating the Earl's now trademark impulsiveness, apparently fell in love at first sight. They got engaged fast -- he gave her a £25,000 ring -- and she moved, along with her three children, all under seven, to live with him. But six months later the wedding was off. One story is that Lady Eliot decided he was a control freak; whatever the truth of it, in the sign language of social etiquette it seems clear that she considered herself the hard-done-by party, because she kept the ring.

And now the Earl has fallen in love again, and again, apparently, at first sight, with a Canadian brunette. Karen Gordon is a 38-year-old "social entrepreneur" and philanthropist who runs the charity Whole Child International; a former model and mother of two, she is divorced from Hollywood producer Mark Gordon, whose credits include Saving Private Ryan and Grey's Anatomy. The Earl, smitten as ever, is apparently planning a move to the States where her charity is based, and this time -- unusually -- he has announced the engagement and the wedding date (June 18, just two months after William and Kate's) simultaneously, suggesting that he may indeed be about to take the plunge for the third time. Gordon is an unusual Hollywood ex-wife: hard-working, serious and hands-on, claiming to be unimpressed by superficial glamour, whether it comes with star-studded film credits or a stately home. Already, friends and ex-girlfriends (one of whom has said of Spencer: "I doubt if Charles will ever fall completely in love with any girl. The only person he really loves is himself") are hoping he may have met his match. However, history is against them on this; the ninth Earl has too much form.

Even as the keeper of Diana's flame, the Earl's reputation has dwindled. Allegations of vulgar penny-pinching over the £12 charge to visitors to her Althorp memorial, billed as Diana: A Celebration, are one thing, but the revelation, now common knowledge, that the Earl refused sanctuary to the sister who, in his own words on the day of her funeral, "mothered me as a baby", when she needed it, have been harder to stomach. Diana, after her separation from Charles in 1993, asked Spencer for use of the Garden House at Althorp as a bolt-hole. He turned her down, afraid that he and his family would be troubled by the media circus he later accused of hounding her to death. When she wrote to plead with him, her letter was returned, unopened.

Now, 14 years after her death, he has another chance to try and set the past to rights, and possibly reclaim some of his own reputation to boot. Earl Spencer has been asked to speak publicly about her again, this time by Prince William, who seems to be trying to heal the rift between the two sides of his family by delegating key roles at his wedding to the Earl and his children. It's an opportunity that Spencer, with his impressive sense of occasion, is likely to make the best of. But he'd be rash to count on a standing ovation this time.

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