03.12.11 8:39 PM ET
The Hush-Hush Engagement of Charles Spencer
Piers Morgan isn't the only tall, dashing Brit who's been adapting to the New World lately. Charles Spencer, the ninth Earl Spencer and Princess Diana's brother, has been making himself comfortable in some of the poshest living rooms in Los Angeles. The still boyish-looking aristocrat, 46, has been spotted at Arianna Huffington's Brentwood salons. And it was at another L.A. cocktail party that he met Karen Gordon, the wealthy Canadian charity worker and Hollywood divorcée whom, it was abruptly announced, he plans to marry in a private ceremony at his family's Althorp estate on June 18.
The marriage will take place less than two months after another high-profile royal wedding. But unlike that milestone, which has had the press on overdrive, dissecting and re-dissecting every morsel relating to Prince William and Kate Middleton, the earl's whiplash-speed courtship of Gordon has been kept largely hush-hush. This undoubtedly has much to do with the British public's weariness of the caddish, lad-about-town ways of Charles, who's breezed through two marriages, leaving his last wife when their daughter was just 4 months old, and who, just last September, ditched another paramour— Bianca, Lady Eliot—after buying her a diamond and emerald engagement ring.
Despite such ennui with all things Charles—whose graceless slide has been all the more dramatic, given how touchingly he spoke at his sister's funeral—there is significant interest in his bride-to-be. How, the chattering classes ask, did a virtually unknown, divorced mother and professional do-gooder manage to bridle a man who is almost a parody of a modern-day Lothario? And not just into another marriage, but into a life in Los Angeles, thousands of miles from his six children, not to mention his beloved Althorp, the subject of Charles' 1998 book, Althorp: The Story of an English Home.
“The assumption is that this [marriage] will probably go pear-shaped as well. That’s the way things tend to roll with him,” said Victoria Arbiter, CBS News’ Royal expert.
One clue may be that Gordon appears to be far more independent and strong-willed than Charles' previous ladies, including his first wife, Victoria Lockwood, a former Vogue model who battled alcoholism and anorexia, and wife No. 2, Caroline Freud, who was, by her own admission, " a neurotic mess, a basket case"; and Lady Eliot, another former model whose first husband was found dead in a bathtub with cocaine and cannabis running through his veins.
Enter the 38-year-old Gordon, a tall, willowy former model—naturally—who used her $1.3 million divorce settlement from Mark Gordon, a prolific Hollywood producer whose credits include Saving Private Ryan and Grey's Anatomy, to set up a charity for orphans. Last year, she helped bring the Dalai Lama to Los Angeles. She's been a guest at one of President Obama's state dinners, named "hero of the month" by Glamour magazine[PDF], and romantically linked to George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist.
But despite the picture-perfect résumé, many in Hollywood have been thunderstruck at the news that Karen is about to become a countess. These people recall her earlier days in Los Angeles, not long after Mark Gordon met her at the Four Seasons in Toronto, where she was working as a hotel receptionist in the 1990s.
"She was like a farm girl, and he fell head over heels in love with her," said one source.
In fact, Karen, the daughter of a park ranger, is from Edmonton.
When reached by The Daily Beast, Karen Gordon politely declined an interview, saying, "We're not discussing our personal life with the press. But I can talk to you about Whole Child International until your ear drops off!" Mark Gordon declined to comment.
In 1998, a year after they married, Mark hit the jackpot with the Oscar-winning Saving Private Ryan. He and Karen lived with their two girls in a luxurious, five-bedroom, five-bathroom home in the Pacific Palisades—home to Steven Spielberg, Ben Affleck, and Larry David—and bought another multimillion-dollar home in Canada.
But according to a friend of Mark's, the marriage "went south pretty fast." The pair split in 2003.
After the divorce, which was described as "horrific" by several sources, Karen reinvented herself through her charity, Whole Child International, using an advance from her divorce settlement to get it up and running. On the side, she dated a number of wealthy bachelors, including Soros.
But her Hollywood second act has not been without snags. According to The Daily Mail, two years ago the accounting firm Gursey Schneider, which was hired to deal with Karen's divorce finances, won a court judgment against her for an unpaid bill of $136,000.
And for the past few years running, she's had tax issues. In 2008, she failed to pay a tax bill of $3,603. In 2009, her unpaid bill was almost $8,000. And last year, the state of California again came after her for $17,489 in unpaid taxes.
Such annoyances will surely disappear after marrying Charles, who's estimated to be worth nearly $200 million.
And for now, at least, the couple couldn't be cozier. Their first public appearance last October was at the Wolseley restaurant in London, "where they shared dinner and copious amounts of wine as she ran her hand up and down his back" reported the Mail. Just before Christmas, they were reportedly at Althorp, shooting pheasant. (Though a vegan, Gordon was a good sport and, apparently, a good shot.) With the recent announcement of their nuptials, a photo that looked more like a Ralph Lauren ad was released, featuring the lovebirds snuggling in a pair of matching pale blue button-down shirts.
But to some, the future countess will always be the beautiful, charming woman who attracted so many male gazes while working behind a hotel desk.
"All I remember is that she was very kind," said Liloo Alim, chef concierge at the Four Seasons in Toronto. "She gave me a pair of beautiful shoes that were too small for her, which I gladly took, and I wore them a lot. And then, of course, I met her baby when she had a baby. Then I kind of lost touch with her. But she was always very charming and pleasant and lovely."
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.