Riviera Rumors

07.02.11

Monaco Royal Wedding Mystery

Prince Albert got his princess. But the wild stories kept flying. Runaway bride? Look-alikes? Welcome to the gossipy principality on the Riviera. By Dana Kennedy

The wild rumors were still flying, even among the cheering crowd outside Monaco’s fabled, cream-colored palace where Prince Albert married Charlene Wittstock in a civil ceremony Friday and where the couple will be wed in a religious service Saturday.

Had Wittstock really been, as headlines screamed this week, a “Runaway Bride” before being whisked back to Monaco in time for the splashy, $75 million two-day wedding?

“I wonder if they’ve got her drugged,” said one Monegasque watching the ceremony on the jumbo screens installed outside the palace, which is perched on what locals call “The Rock,” a headland jutting out to the Mediterranean in the ancient district of Monaco. Another claimed that palace officials had found a Charlene look-alike that they dragged out Wednesday to tour the principality with Albert, while his real fiancée was in the hospital under sedation.

The stories began circulating about three weeks ago in this notoriously gossipy, postage stamp-size principality and involved reports that Prince Albert had had a third child out of wedlock—or that a woman was pregnant with his baby.

But the tales gathered real steam Tuesday when France’s respected L’Express magazine reported that Wittstock had tried to flee Monaco after learning something troubling about Prince Albert—but was intercepted at the Nice airport and persuaded to return to the principality.

The article did not cite a third illegitimate child but helpfully reminded readers that Albert, 53, already has two known illegitimate children by two different women.  Jazmin Grace, 19, whose mother is American, studies at Fordham University; Alexandre Coste, 7, lives just outside Monaco with his mother, a former flight attendant from Togo in West Africa.

Fortunately for Monaco, it appeared to be the real Charlene Wittstock, a 33-year-old former Olympic swimmer from South Africa and the daughter of a photocopier salesman, who emerged with Albert onto the palace balcony Friday, dressed in a pale blue suit that she designed herself.  (She will be wearing Armani later Saturday during the religious ceremony in the palace courtyard.)

She was now officially “Princess Charlene of Monaco,” although there were those in the crowd Friday who complained her name was not elegant enough and should be changed to “Charlotte.”

But the Runaway Bride rumors, still totally un-sourced and lacking any hard evidence, have shown no signs of going away, despite heated denials from the palace.  Even France’s venerable Le Monde has weighed in on the story. It hasn’t helped matters that Albert and Charlene, who first met at a swimming event in Monaco in 2000 and began dating in 2005, exhibit alarmingly little chemistry in the few televised interviews they have done, leading some to whisper that the marriage is little more than a business deal to ensure an heir to the throne.

Depending on what you read or whom you talk to in Monaco, Charlene bolted for the airport after discovering the existence of a child fathered by Albert who was born about two years ago, two weeks ago—or whose birth is imminent.

Longtime observers of the Monaco royals invariably cite the so-called Curse on the House of Grimaldi.

London’s Daily Mail on Friday quoted a un-named “senior Monaco detective” saying that Wittstock was indeed intercepted at the Nice airport, holding a one-way ticket back to South Africa, and that her passport was confiscated as she was “persuaded” to return to the palace.

“It’s all completely, completely crazy,” Christiane Stahl, one of Albert’s top advisers at the palace told me when I first called her about the rumors. “The story is totally false and it just comes from jealousy.”

Albert’s lawyer, Thierry Lacoste, also angrily denounced the stories and threatened to sue L’Express, which has stood by its story and kept it up on its website.

Oddly, however, the palace has apparently not yet sought a legal injunction against L’Express, which would be typical in a country like France where libel laws are much stricter than in the U.S. Instead the palace has reportedly demanded that L’Express’ editors tell them the identity of their source for the story.

Even stranger was a statement made by Albert’s longtime confidant, Stephane Bern, who is France’s best-known commentator on the royals. Bern first slammed the rumors. But then he added, in an interview with Le Parisien newspaper Wednesday, this jaw-dropping tidbit. “A woman could very well be pretending that she is pregnant by the prince. We can’t carry out a DNA test to check this out just three days before the marriage.”

Longtime observers of the Monaco “princely” family members (they are not technically considered royals) invariably cite the so-called Curse on the House of Grimaldi whenever bad things befall them—like the car accident that killed Princess Grace in 1982 or the speedboating death that claimed the life of Stefano Casiraghi, the 30-year-old second husband of Princess Caroline in 1990.

The legend holds that back in the 13th century, Prince Rainier I kidnapped and raped a beautiful girl, who became a witch to get her revenge. The medieval sorceress then cursed the prince’s family for all eternity, saying, “Never will a Grimaldi find true happiness in marriage.”

But others say the curse is nonsense, even though Princess Caroline, now 54, is separated from her third husband, Prince Ernst, and Princess Stephanie, 45, has been divorced twice.

“Prince Albert frequently told me that he didn’t believe in the Grimaldi curse and that his family’s fate, including his mother’s death, was no better or worse than yours or mine,” says author Joel Stratte-McClure, who was People magazine’s correspondent on the French Riviera at the height of Monaco’s heyday in the 1980s and early 1990s and interviewed Albert many times.

“He waited decades to finally choose a wife and I’m sure he laughed at the runaway bride stories. His smile throughout the wedding day certainly wasn’t that of someone preoccupied by a witch’s curse or a potentially AWOL bride.”

Allison Coe, who reports on the Monaco royals for the local Best of Nice Blog, said she wondered if the rumors were planted by the palace itself—to drum up interest in what otherwise was viewed as a bit of a snoozefest, especially compared to Will and Kate’s romantic extravaganza in April.

“I can’t help but think this is a publicity stunt just to juice up what a lot of people see as this wooden marriage,” Coe said. “But I guess time will tell what the truth is.”

Perhaps Albert’s late father, the forceful ruler who transformed Monaco from a Riviera outpost into one of the world’s most glamorous locales in large part by marrying Grace Kelly, was more prescient than he realized.         

“Gossip was invented in Monaco,” Prince Rainier once said.