The prince and the shy girl
With six marriages between them, the parents of Prince Harry's girlfriend Cressida Bonas could hardly be further from the reliable Middletons, but, the whiff of scandal has not quelled rumours the Burberry model will be next to join the royal family
When eccentric financier Christopher Shaw wed society beauty Lady Mary-Gaye Curzon in 1996, the wedding was a traditional, British opulent affair; an Austen-eque celebration held at Hinton Ampner, Shaw's sprawling estate in Hampshire. It wasn't his family seat – Shaw had attended Eton but was from fairly humble beginnings. Though his grandfather had been a viscount, Shaw's wealth was self-made. But with his marriage to Lady Curzon, he was cementing his position in the aristocracy.
There, to bear witness to this new era in their family life, were Lady Curzon's five children. The youngest, Cressida Bonas, was just seven.
Shaw was famed for his lavish parties. Having made his fortunes in mergers and acquisitions, he evolved into a self-styled "latter-day Gatsby", whose favourite means of burning up his substantial cash was to host British high society in extravagant style.
Lady Curzon was a classic beauty, but her new husband was no great looker. Thick in the waist and thinning on top, he won her, as he had done with the string of beautiful women before her, thanks to his charismatic personality and prodigious generosity.
He appealed to her high-life sensibilities; and once threw a legendary party in her honour at her favourite haunt, Claridges, for 300 guests, featuring stilt-walkers and a performing dwarf.
For her part, Lady Curzon had been a regular at Claridges since her entry into society as an It Girl in the Sixties. Indeed, she was such a regular there they named a cocktail after her. It was blue, just like her blood.
As a member of the aristocracy, she was no stranger to luxury living, but marriage to multi-millionaire Shaw was undoubtedly a game-changer for Lady Curzon and her daughters. The young Cressida was regularly cared for by nannies as her parents travelled the world, staying in rented stately homes.
Despite their picturesque lifestyle, inside the marriage all was not pretty. It seems that Lady Mary-Gaye Curzon never found the state of union easy, and her life with Shaw was no exception. On one occasion, addressing a room full of guests, Shaw announced acidly: "Mary-Gaye is a difficult wife, as many of you here know."
The joke, of course, was about her chequered romantic past. By the time she got to Christopher, Mary-Gaye already had three marriages behind her. Observers noted that she quickly grew tired of perpetually playing host to so many guests, and that Shaw's insistence on rigid formality at parties (attendees were required to wear jackets to dinner) bored her. In 2000, Shaw left her, running off with Eliza Dugdale, the daughter of a royal aide.
Shaw never remarried and, last month, he was found dead at his flat in Salisbury after apparently taking an overdose of prescription painkillers. Aged 76, he had been suffering from a chronic kidney condition. He had recently been told by doctors that his condition was terminal and had been given 18 months to live. Years of notorious profligacy had eroded his fortunes, leaving him with almost nothing.
Despite his estrangement from her mother, Cressida was said to be "devastated" at the news of her stepfather's death. According to a British tabloid, a friend of Shaw's stressed his importance to her during her childhood. "Christopher was Cressida's father figure in her formative years ... He may not have been her biological father, but he was a massive part of her life."
Undoubtedly, her adoring boyfriend, Prince Harry, will have been on hand to comfort her. Though the news will likely raise some eyebrows in royal circles about the sorts of headlines that Cressida's family are generating, and what this means for the growing association between Harry and his Burberry model blonde.
Harry and Cressida have been an item for the last 18 months, since being introduced by his cousin Princess Eugenie. And, as her profile grows, speculation is building that there might be another royal wedding on the cards. Cressida is rumoured to have been recently enjoying favour with the royal family – though she didn't attend Prince George's christening last autumn, despite feverish speculation that she and Prince Harry would "officially" unveil their relationship there.
Unlike the staunchly middle-class background of Kate Middleton, Cressida Bonas is in possession of what high society observers call "perfect breeding". Yes, Cressida's father, Jeffrey Bonas (just like Kate Middleton's mother), is working class. He was born into a family of butchers from Battersea, but they were firmly upwardly mobile butchers and Jeffrey was sent to Harrow, which vies with Eton for the position of the favourite public school of the elite. Bonas then went on to become an enormously successful entrepreneur. If Cressida's privilege is inherited on both sides, however, her pedigree comes directly from her mother.
Heir to the Curzon banking fortune, and daughter of the 6th Earl of Howe, Lady Mary-Gaye (known simply as MG to her friends) was a notorious socialite in the Sixties famed for her willowy beauty and her love of parties. Her arrival into the public eye began when, aged just 20, she was photographed by a famed photographer for a 1967 coffee table book titled Birds of Britain alongside Julie Christie, Jane Birkin, Marianne Faithfull and Charlotte Rampling. She appeared to be topless in the shot, and was smeared in engine oil, as a reference to her heritage and the exploits of her playboy grandfather, Francis Curzon, a famous racing car driver who won Le Mans in 1931.
Beside the portrait, Lady Mary's beguiling persona was described thus: "She has been a debutante. She has been a model. She has been a sales girl over Christmas in Harrods. Also, she has escorted tourists around the sights of London. None of these activities was motivated by gain, since she comes from an extremely rich family ... She owns a fluffy white Pekinese named Consuelo, and lives, reasonably enough, just off Curzon Street."
When she wasn't in Harrods or hanging out on the Kings Road, she could be found lounging on the Med (she once partied on a yacht that was appropriately named Hedonist and owned by one of her aristocrat friends) or at Penn House, the 16th-Century estate that remains the family seat in Buckinghamshire. In short, she had the sort of life that the stars of Made In Chelsea like to pretend they have for the purposes of good television.
Along with this privilege came a bohemian nature. As a society girl, her colourful and often catastrophic love life was regular fodder for the gossip columns.
Cressida's parents have six marriages between them, and four of those are on her mother's side. Her apparent resistance to the shackles of matrimony didn't seem to dim her persistent hope that she could get it right. Her first marriage, to the grandson of a viscount, was celebrated with a lavish party at the family estate. The photographer was Cecil Beaton. The marriage lasted five years, but produced one daughter – Cressida's eldest sibling, Pandora, now 40, and an accessories designer for Vivienne Westwood.
Lady Mary's second marriage exceeded the first in length – she lasted nine years with the impressively titled John Anstruther-Gough-Calthorpe and the couple had three children together, Georgiana, a sculptor, Isabella, an actress who recently married Richard Branson's son Sam, and Jacobi, who works in PR.
It wasn't until she met Cressida's father, however, that the real scandal brewed. Shortly after the dissolution of her second marriage, she began a passionate affair with Jeffrey Bonas, himself still married at the time. His wife, quite reasonably, sued for divorce. The resulting case in the family courts in 1986 caused a sensation, not least because of the eye-watering settlement Bonas was ordered to pay – to the tune of £1.2m.
Bonas married his mistress Lady Mary, and the couple had a baby girl, named after the Shakespeare character Cressida. Under increasing financial pressure, he claimed he was unable to pay his ex-wife, and took out a bank loan of £350,000 to cover his obligations to her. By 2003, he and Lady Mary-Gaye were divorced, his debt had increased to £578,000 and Bonas was back in court, where this time a judge excoriated his character and dismissed his testimony in court as unreliable.
"I have preferred the evidence of persons other than Mr Bonas," the judge said. "He was, for a short span, a man of exceptional wealth and, perhaps to protect that position, cloaked his affairs with offshore Isle of Man trusts and Isle of Man and Swiss bank accounts.
"Anyone who goes to such lengths to achieve opacity but then later finds himself in debt can hardly complain when others conclude that it might be that he has more resources than he is claiming to have ... I cannot regard Mr Bonas as a reliable or candid witness."
Compared to the steady, reliable Middletons, Cressida's family background seems full of scandal. But according to a source close to Prince Harry, the whiff of sulphur surrounding his girlfriend's parents has done little to deter his affections, or the seriousness of his romantic intentions towards her. "Harry seems to love her family," the source told the Daily Telegraph. "They really have taken him under their wing."
Indeed, if there is any circumspection about the future of the union, it seems to rest on Cressida's side. Despite seeming born for life inside the royal court, she reportedly has reservations about the responsibility that a public role as Harry's wife would entail. A former dance student, she is said to fiercely guard her independence, and has recently accepted a job in theatre marketing.
"She's not a tough cookie at all," her brother recently told the Evening Standard. "She's a very sensitive, sweet girl." Of the sudden media scrutiny she's under, he added. "It's challenging, you can't deny it. It's not something that is easy for anyone dating a royal, or marrying into the family or anyone in the royal family themselves."
Perhaps the enormous demands of duty and decorum that a role as part of the royal family would thrust upon her seems daunting to a girl of 24, a recent graduate who, like her mother before her, is most comfortable hanging out in Chelsea and Mayfair with the rest of her blue-blooded Burberry pals. Or perhaps, just like her mother, in some way she feels that she's just not really that cut out for marriage – even to a prince.
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