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Of princesses and presidents: brushes with the Royal and Famous

I think everyone at one time or another in their lives has crossed paths with a movie star, politician, someone notable or notorious. Just yesterday a cousin referred to a comment uttered by Carlos Santana overheard as she sat closeby in a restaurant. Andy Warhol is credited with saying that we all will experience 15 minutes of fame. I’m not sure if that includes close brushes, or being thrust directly into the news with the rich and famous. For us, it was a princess and a president.

Back when Bob Rae was Premier of this province, we were invited to dine on The Grand Britannia when Charles and the then very vibrant Diana visited Toronto. The year was October, 1991.

Receiving a phone call, we were queried, “Will you attend?”, before a formal invitation would be sent: a small dinner for a select few with the Royals seemed the stuff of society mags or daydreams. The glitterati would include Norman Jewison, Cido Gaston, Lincoln Alexander, John Tory, Howard and myself, a gaggle of ladies in waiting and others. The protocol included dress length, curtsies and information on how to behave when confronted by the Queen or her family. At first we giggled, believing we were being set up for a wild prank or ruse, someone thinking we were so gullible to actually believe we might be asked to break bread with the prince and princess. But in the end, it was, in fact, a real invitation.

On a stormy night by the harbor, our car magically disappearing into the hands of men in red, we were whisked beneath huge umbrellas onto the ship and then formally welcomed. I remember the ship feeling very British with Currier and Ives prints, slightly frayed carpets and a long stairway that lead upwards. The atmosphere was warm and welcoming: we might have been in the living room of an aged aunt’s who could care less about impressing. A smiling Captain at the doorway greeted us as if we were old friends, his comments easing the tension of the idea that we might soon might feel the press of a Royal handshake. Almost immediately, we imagined we were regulars at Court, accustomed to the low key fanfare, the quiet swish of servants preparing an evening for guests.

There was silent milling around, but no music in the background, just a sense of expectation or brightness on that dreary fall evening during thundering storm. Eventually a receiving line formed, our names announced as if we were debutants emerging in ball gowns to be introduced into society. A relaxed Prince Charles appeared charismatic and charming, even handsome: conclusions that I would never had drawn until I stood so near that one arm’s reach could have poked him in the royal ribs. More than appearances, his warmth of interaction, his ability to focus, listen and respond, no doubt polished and perfected throughout his public life, impressed me. He spoke with Howard about the architecture of Osgoode Hall and was knowledgeable and passionate on the subject. Although he must have been prepped on our bios; and his handlers would have connected pertinent aspects of our backgrounds to real interests of the Prince, his interest in architecture was not feigned, and for 3-5 minutes, a lively conversation occurred. Then, perfectly choreographed, our chat seamlessly concluded without a feeling of abruptness, slight or boredom ( on his part); the next in line commencing a new discussion, ushering in their own few minutes of fame.

I became Cinderella that night. I had had to rent a long velvet skirt because the protocol was such. Although I later noted that Dixie Jewison flaunted the rule by wearing a dress shorter than required. And when my husband’s secretary had murmured, “You’re not going with that curly hair are you?”, I decided to have my hair done up so I felt beautiful and charmed that evening. Perhaps a fairy godmother had touched her wand to my head and transformed me from an ordinary teacher- that I was back then- to one of the few chosen to dine with the most famous couple in the world at that time. I felt the magic dust adhere that entire evening: until our coats magically reappeared and we were standing in the rain on the ship’s deck, listening to the band discharge its salute.

That night I looked for souvenirs on the ship: a copy of the menu, soap, something tangible as a keepsake, but place settings and even the posted menu were whisked from our hands by smiling ship’s table attendants. The three course meal had been brought from England so as to avoid any tampering- as in the Borgias- as was the wine that was artfully and perfectly paired with the perfectly seasoned dishes. I sat just three places from the Prince and was fascinated by an evening in which the person on your right engaged you in conversation for one-half the meal; and then like a programmed dance, your seat partner turned to his companion on your left for the remainder of the meal. A seated ballet where the participants were all ready cognizant and well practiced in the steps. When the Prince and Princess finished their meals, ours were likewise removed. The ballet concluded.

Immediately after, men were ushered into one room for cigars and ladies into another. Swift, smooth, effortless: the dance coming to an end as it had done so many times before in so many locations, flawlessly executed, no rattled cutlery, not even a sneeze or suppressed cough to destroy the fairytale quality of the evening, no cue missed.

For me the diva of the night was Princess Diana. She was a quiet withdrawn diva, not one who cast herself into the spotlight by choice, but one created by her role. I say “diva” respectfully as there was a quality of quietness, or aloneness of her being pushed into the center of activity and knowing she must- if not perform, hold her presence on stage for a certain amount of time before she could retire.

Clearly star struck, I was surprised how majestically tall she was. That night she wore black and the most gorgeous huge pearl earrings, I had ever seen, hung from her ears. I reflected then –on the solitude that also hung on her, and that she really didn’t seem to want to be there. I felt that isolating loneliness that encircled her even as she was encircled by polite but overtly interested guests. With a certain weariness in her eyes, she was conveying ( at least in my mind) that she was putting up with another laid-on rubber chicken dinner (an expression! – as the food was delicious and flawless). She seemed withdrawn, fulfilling her expected role, but clearly not smiling nor enjoying the company as her husband appeared to be. I witnessed no relationship between them although one could not expect sexy or knowing looks, winks or some such behavior at this kind of event- even between spouses. Simply two unattached people in a room of strangers who were likewise strangers to one another.

Yet, there was a moment when Diana did come to life and it was with her adored boys.

She was doggedly enduring, waiting until Wills and Harry emerged with their nanny. When she saw them, she dropped to her knees, threw open her arms and they came running to her –delightedly throwing themselves into her adoring arms. She swept them up and the rest of the stuffy, suffocating crowd ceased to exist. She dropped her cold royal tinsel and was transformed into a loving mother, like any mother in the world who is crazy in love with her children. That was the magic moment in the evening for me.

And when she instructed them on how to shake hands in the receiving line, she was again transformed, just like you or me, a mom preparing her children for grownup life and the proper ways in greeting and meeting. She was a revelation.

Likewise, it was the same humanity I experienced when I saw President Clinton ( in the next blog), respond in a natural thoughtful way to my ten year son in Martha’s Vineyards: the extraordinary made ordinary.

There are always people who put on airs because they think their money or position singles them out for special attention or favors. I learned that as a kid at Forest Hill, my former school mates, the girls with pearls and golf club memberships, assuming that society has blessed them to be viewed as society’s elite and thus deserve better, more…

What mattered for me then and now is the inner person, that Little Prince mantra, that what is essential is invisible to the eye- that the one who drops pretense and acts as a human, displaying true care, love and just being a mensch is truly the person upon whom light shines.

For all of Diana’s flaws and faults and so-sad end to her unhappy life, she was someone who let all of the façade drop on the Royal Britannia as she gathered her boys to her in a way that proclaimed her essence. Perhaps what makes the rich and famous so special is that they are just like us in our best moments.

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One thought on “Of princesses and presidents: brushes with the Royal and Famous

  1. You were so lucky!! I’ve heard the story before, but you have retold it brilliantly here. What a magical evening! 🙂

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