Last Thursday night, on the eve of their civil wedding ceremony, Prince Albert II of Monaco and his then fiancee, Charlene Wittstock, had some photographs taken with The Eagles, who had played a concert in celebration of the impending nuptials.
The betrothed couple -- he, at 53, a bit like a balding Johnny Cash fan; she, at 33, a lot more rock chick -- posed with a signed guitar from the band, with the band members flanking them. In other circumstances, it would have seemed a bit corny -- these aging rockers and their fan, the groom, alongside Wittstock, who just looked a bit embarrassed.
In other circumstances, that might have been how it read, an awkwardness born out of a generation gap. Last Thursday, however, it seemed like everyone felt utterly awkward, their jollity forced, their sense of celebration utterly dampened. And, one couldn't help but think, even if Charlene Wittstock had never considered fleeing before, she certainly must have felt like it then.
That's how it seemed anyway, when the following day's nuptials had been well and truly tarnished by French newspaper L'Express's persistent story that Charlene had attempted to run home to her native South Africa the previous week.
The story began in L'Express, a generally respectable paper, edited by Christophe Barbier, a friend of Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, claiming that Charlene had, with only a week until the wedding, tried to flee Monaco. "Shaken, Charlene Wittstock had just learned, a few hours earlier, that the private life of the man she was about to marry, and who had publicly confessed in September 2005 to the existence of an illegitimate child with Nicole Coste, was not as exemplary as she imagined."
The suggestion was far from subtle that the South African former Olympic swimmer had discovered the existence -- or, worse, imminent existence -- of another child.
The story continued that Wittstock had been stopped by police at Nice Airport, with an unnamed detective providing the information that her passport was taken and she was then convinced to talk to Monaco palace officials, who encouraged her to return. All lies, according to Albert's people, who countered that Wittstock had not left the principality -- though her father in South Africa, who heard the reports on the radio, said later that Charlene had been in Paris shopping with her mother on the Monday.
"I heard about everything about the child -- white, black, who has been born, not yet born," said Albert's lawyer, Thierry Lacoste. "It has to stop." And while Lacoste is also the lawyer who denied that both Albert's existing children -- a 19-year-old girl in America, and a six-year-old boy in France -- were the prince's until DNA said otherwise, he has a point. Regardless of the truth of the situation, to sully the wedding only days before it was due to happen is pretty cheap. Even if Charlene attempted to escape, clearly she was also convinced to stay and deserved to be a beaming bride, full of hope on her big day. And she needed hope on her side, as the lives of the children of Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly have been privileged, but somewhat blighted, partly down to ill luck and partly down to a certain spoilt streak.
The marriage of Prince Albert was so long in coming and so heartily desired that it's a shame to have seen it sullied, even if it was his own alleged bad behaviour that did it. Albert's father, Prince Rainier, was so certain that his only son would never provide an heir within wedlock that he changed the constitution to allow the children of Princess Caroline's second marriage to take the title. Otherwise, Monaco would revert to France, and that would be the end of what Somerset Maugham called "a sunny place for shady people".
Neither dashing like his father in his youth, nor dazzling like his movie star mother, Prince Albert enjoyed a reputation as a playboy ladies' man from his early years and girlfriends allegedly included Naomi Campbell.
His elder sister Caroline has been married three times and younger sister Stephanie has been a pop star, a swimwear designer and married to one of her bodyguards and, later, a circus performer, but neither of them wore the weight of ascension on their pretty shoulders. For Albert, there was a time for wild oats that should have been followed by a time for responsibility, but the latter was late in coming.
He met Charlene Wittstock in Monaco in 2000, when she competed in a swimming contest. They bonded over sport, apparently -- he having represented Monaco in bobsleigh at the Olympics -- and went public with their romance in 2006, after Rainier's death. By that time, Albert was out in the open regarding his two out-of-wedlock children -- Jazmin, by American estate agent Tamara Rotola, and Alexandre, by Togolese former air hostess Nicole Coste, who was photographed in Monaco last week.
Unlike Kate Middleton, who has been painted as the commoner who snared a prince but in fact went to all the right schools, has all the right friends and, crucially, the right accent, Wittstock is properly ordinary. Her father is a photocopier salesman in Johannesburg and her mother was her swimming coach.
She is, needless to mention, statuesque, elegant and blonde, much like Albert's mother, and she has brought a steadiness to his life that Grace brought to Rainier's more than 50 years ago.
However, there have been mutterings throughout the courtship that he is less than well behaved and her lack of perfect French has been a stumbling block, though she converted to Roman Catholicism after they became engaged. Like Kate Middleton and like Grace Kelly before her, Charlene Wittstock could be the woman to open up and bring brightness into a slightly damaged dynasty, but the desire to wound that is evident in last week's reports would suggest that she has an uphill struggle ahead.
Even on the eve of the wedding, L'Express stuck by their story, citing three good sources of information on it. Meanwhile, Prince Albert's lawyer dismissed the story as lies but conceded that no legal action was planned against the paper.
No action was planned, in fact, other than the wedding, which went ahead on Friday without a hitch, but with an undeniable shadow over it. The bride wore a sky-blue suit, smiled and kissed her new husband, while his sisters looked on. The sun shone, but there was an undeniable cloud over it all. How happy can you try to look, after all, without it looking like you're trying too hard? Princess Charlene and Prince Albert can only prove the naysayers wrong by enjoying a contented marriage, but what a way to begin one.