Sally Bedell Smith has always been attracted to the well known and well heeled.
Her bestselling biographies all focus on powerful, and notable individuals and couples: William S. Paley, Pamela Harriman, Jack and Jacqueline Kennedy, and Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Drawn to the unhappy story of the glamorous Princess Diana, Smith turned her attention to English nobility and for more than a decade has been ferreting out the secrets of the British Royals.
She spent two years and a half writing about the ill-fated Princess of Wales. Then she devoted another four years to her bestselling Elizabeth The Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch. And even while she was researching the extremely popular sovereign, the prolific Smith began investigating the complex life of the queen’s son and heir to the throne, Prince Charles, a man Smith deems as confounding as he is compelling.
“He’s such a multifaceted personality, with an incredible range of interests and passions, charities and pursuits. That’s what attracted me,” she says. “He’s an original. Probably the most original member of the royal family.”
And so, no sooner had she finished with Elizabeth than she found herself re-embedding with the royal family for another four years, interviewing hundreds of sources ranging from grooms and dog trainers to peers of the realm. She also attended countless private receptions, charity dinners, and balls at various palaces and country estates, where she occasionally met the queen, Prince Philip, and the Prince of Wales.
Smith lives in Washington. D.C., but she has family in London, and when she’s researching, she often spends as much as five months a year there, diligently cultivating the connections necessary to penetrate the inner workings of the family known as “The Firm.”
Her persistence has paid off: Eight years ago Buckingham Palace granted her “sanctioned but not authorized” permission. What that means, she explained, is that “it’s not official, but they knew exactly what I was doing and they knew I was serious about it and it would not be a cut-and-paste or once over lightly. Through advocates, I broke the code,” and the gates of the palace swung open.
Her insider stays has made her somewhat oracular among friends and colleagues. “I’ve become this human Google,” she says in an interview conducted at her spacious, book-filled Washington, D.C. apartment. “Especially since Netflix’s The Crown came out. It’s been great for sales and everywhere I go, people ask, ‘What’s true and what’s not,’ because I know.”
To enhance her knowledge, Smith traveled to Malta and Sri Lanka as part of the prince’s entourage, and she also visited him and his wife, Camilla, at their primary residence, ”Highgrove.”
It was there, in Charles’s 25-acre organic garden, that she discovered his hidden sanctuary: a small stone building replicating a portion of the Greek Orthodox holy site of Mt. Athos. Over the years, the prince, who has a fascination with mysticism, has made several pilgrimages to the Greek monastery and created his own private Shangri-La to reflect and meditate away from public attention.
Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life, the first major biography in 20 years, is Smith’s exhaustively detailed but highly readable account of a sensitive, conflicted, opinionated man in search of a meaningful existence.
She dispels the myth of a churlish, anachronistic fuddy-duddy and explores his lonely youth, his miserable school years in which he was unmercifully bullied, his early romances, spirituality, entrepreneurship, intellectual curiosity, and his two marriages.
The first, to the fragile Princess Diana, was a tragic misalliance. In his union with Camilla, (nicknamed “the Rottweiler” by Diana), who had been his mistress and tabloid fodder for years, he has settled into a comfortable, compatible late-life marriage, according to the author.
“The most important thing is that the queen likes her,” says Smith of Camilla. “She’s a country woman like the queen. She loves dogs and horses like the queen, and she’s had a moderating influence on [Charles], who can be overwhelmed by his own enthusiasms and manic energy.”
Will Camilla eventually be crowned queen? Smith says yes: “My gut instinct is she will be and is entitled to be. It’s part of the tradition.”
The prince’s relationship with his sons, William and Harry, is equally comfortable. According to Smith, he has given them latitude to organize and lead their own lives. “They have marked out very distinctive roles for themselves. Their philanthropy is 180 degrees different from their father’s. Very simple, very focused.”
Her challenge when writing about Charles, now 68, lay in comprehending the myriad twists and turns of his sprawling life. “One of the many paradoxes: he’s naive and in other ways quite savvy,” Smith says. “He’s also a populist and a bit of a disrupter. After his father kind of ruled him with an iron fist, he decided to do things his own way and there wasn’t a lot anyone could do about it. I don’t think people know about the serious side of him.”
His rants about the horrors of modern architecture are legendary, but his interests in the environment, agriculture, literature, classical music, and the arts, or his talent as a watercolorist, are far less well known. One of his innumerable charitable projects, The Prince’s Trust, has helped more than one million young people in Great Britain. And through the Prince of Wales Foundation, he has funded projects ranging from the preservation of the Galapagos to restoration of the old city in Kabul, Afghanistan, to establishing a model town in Dorset.
Because all these projects require large sums, the philanthropic prince has become a master fundraiser, largely by granting entree to glittering palaces of British aristocracy to wealthy donors. In the late ’90s he came up with the idea of charging $20,000 a couple for an invitation to three elaborate black-tie dinners a year. Each evening features haute cuisine, fine wine, and the opportunity to mix and mingle with Charles and Camilla at a variety of historic venues. The money is divvied up among his many charities. (Lately the chance to hobnob with the royal couple has risen to $50,000 per couple.)
One memorable soiree at St. James Palace saw two bejeweled New York matrons come to blows over a souvenir: an exquisite hand-painted dinner menu.
At this point in her life—she is 68—Smith says she has no plans for another book. But lately she has changed her writing habits: She now stands at a makeshift desk in her guest room with her computer on top of a large pile of books, and she tries to take as many long walks as possible. “Just like Prince Charles,” she comments.
A high point of Smith’s many journeys trailing after the royals was her trip to Malta in 2015. On the island, she had a unexpected conversation with Prince Philip, known for his irreverence and malapropisms. “He was full of piss and vinegar,” she recalls, speculating that some of his outlandish comments may not be original but come directly from his wife. “A lot of people think he expresses what the queen may be thinking. That he’s her id and says things she can’t.”
It was at a reception in Malta that he stopped to chat and noticed a publishing house press pass around Smith’s neck. He asked if she wrote a book, and she nodded yes. “What have you written?”
“A biography about Her Majesty.” “You must be desperate,” he said. “What are you writing about now?” “His Royal Highness,” she replied. “Which one?” “That one over there,” answered Smith, pointing across the room to Prince Charles. “You must be really desperate,” Philip quipped.