The legend of the curse of the Grimaldis was first relayed to me under the stars in a hilltop Mediterranean restaurant by an inebriated Monegasque. The tale begins with the first Prince Rainier of Monaco, who was struck by the unattainable beauty of a young Flemish noblewoman.
Unhappily for him, she was a powerful witch who decided that she wasn’t going to be dishonored by a prince from the little-known principality of Monaco, which was then a rocky, one-ship harbor of no importance. The princeling, however, wouldn’t take no for an answer. He took the unwilling object of his affection for what he hoped would be a romantic walk along the picturesque cliffs of Monaco. When his attempts to woo her failed, he tried to force himself on her.
The woman fought off her attacker, but resolved to die rather than face repeated assaults on her chastity. Before throwing herself off the cliffs to her death, she uttered an infamous curse, telling Rainier: “Never will a Grimaldi find happiness in marriage.”
Fast forward a few hundred years, and it’s easy to see why some people believe the curse is very much still in place—despite the denials of the House of Grimaldi, which rules over Monaco to this day.
Many of the family’s marriages have indeed ended in divorce or tragedy. Prince Albert’s younger sister Stephanie has been married and divorced twice, with both marriages lasting little over a year. Albert’s older sister Caroline’s second husband, Stefano, died aged 30 in a speedboat crash. His mother Princess Grace (formerly known as Hollywood icon Grace Kelly) died in a car accident in 1982. It was a hugely traumatic moment for the principality.
This Christmas the family are staring down the barrel of yet another marital disaster, as the relationship of Prince Albert, 63, and Charlene Wittstock, 43, the glamorous South African Olympic swimmer whom he married in 2011, appears to be in the final stages of a humiliating public unraveling.
After spending most of the year away from her husband, an emaciated-looking Charlene returned to Monaco from her native South Africa a few weeks ago (the official line was that she stayed there for six months because she couldn’t fly on medical advice due to ear surgery). She has now checked into an undisclosed facility to recover from what her husband terms exhaustion. Rumors abound in society circles that she has flown to a clinic in Switzerland, but The Daily Beast was not able to confirm this.
Her children, 6-year-old twins Prince Jacques and Princess Gabriella, accompanied their father to the palace balcony for Monaco’s national day celebrations last week and held up signs saying, “We Miss You Mommy.”
Albert gave the fullest account of her health issues to date when he told People magazine: “I sat her down with her brothers and a sister-in-law. She had already made her decision, and we only wanted her to confirm it in front of us. She wanted this. She already knew the best thing to do was to go and have a rest and have a real medically framed treatment… Obviously there were consequences of her different surgeries and the procedures she underwent in the last few months. That certainly was a factor, but at this point I prefer not to comment further. I can say she was suffering incredible fatigue. She hadn’t slept well in a number of days and she wasn’t eating at all well. She has lost a lot of weight, which made her vulnerable to other potential ailments. A cold or the flu or God help us, COVID.”
The Daily Beast has been told by acquaintances of the family that Her Serene Highness Charlene has been deeply unhappy for many years. One source, who visited Albert and Charlene for lunch at the Palais Princier in Monaco several years ago, said that Charlene quietly sobbed her way through the entire meal. “Albert didn’t acknowledge his wife was crying at all,” the person, who described the meal as “extremely uncomfortable” said. “I couldn’t understand why she didn’t just get up and leave. I could only assume she wanted her unhappiness to be seen.”
Indeed, reports of Charlene’s unhappiness have circulated widely ever since her wedding to Albert in 2011, when her tearful appearance on the day and an awkward balcony kiss provided a visual demonstration of the maxim that money—the three-day wedding cost $70m—really cannot buy you happiness.
Charlene’s apparent emotional disturbance lent credence to allegations in French newspapers that she had tried multiple times to flee Monaco in the run-up to the wedding as rumors and paternity claims swirled around the groom.
The Journal du Dimanche reported that she first sought refuge in May 2011 at the South African embassy in Paris, where she was scheduled to have a wedding dress fitting. Her passport was reportedly taken from her and she was persuaded to return to Monaco.
Reports in the Journal du Dimanche claimed that she made another break later that month during the Formula One Grand Prix, and again, just one week before the wedding, she was reportedly intercepted en route to Nice airport for a flight back to South Africa. The palace denied the allegations, describing them as “completely crazy,” but the narrative stuck. The couple were particularly unfortunate that their uncomfortable nuptials took place just 10 weeks after the wedding of William and Kate, a clear love match, and thus intense scrutiny was trained on the affair which featured guests such as Naomi Campbell, Nicolas Sarkozy and Roger Moore.
Charlene herself told U.K. paper The Times: “Everything was just so overwhelming and there were all the mixed emotions because of the rumors, and obviously the tension built up and I burst into tears [immediately after the ceremony]. And then I burst into tears some more because I was thinking ‘Oh no, now the whole world has seen me cry.’”
The years that followed have been blighted by ongoing rumors of affairs on the part of His Serene Highness, a known playboy when he was younger, who had already admitted to having fathered two illegitimate children before their marriage. Although the French gossip magazines that pore in detail over the lives and loves of the Grimaldis are not sold in the principality’s news kiosks, few Monegasques are unaware that Albert is once again facing a paternity suit, this time over claims he fathered yet another illegitimate child in 2005, when he was dating Charlene. He has denounced the claims as a blackmail attempt.
Another factor has been the snobbery of the Monegasque elite, whose initial lack of enthusiasm for Charlene based on her middle-class background—her father was a sales manager and her mother a swimming teacher—has been compounded by what they perceive as her failure to rise to the challenge of her role. Albert’s sisters are also said to have been unsupportive, with Caroline often named as a particular spreader of discord.
Little had been seen of Charlene this year and she headed to South Africa on a trip for her conservation charity in March. When she didn’t return, the palace said she was having surgery on an ear condition, a legacy of her youth spent swimming.
However, when she missed the two tentpole events of the Monaco season, the Grand Prix and the Red Cross ball, some observers began to publicly call bullshit.
Madame Figaro, a respectable conservative women’s weekly, asked: “How long will the fight against rhinoceros poaching remain the Princess of Monaco’s top priority? How long will Albert II of Monaco go on bearing this affront, which is becoming ridiculous?”
The London Times reported on an article by Stephane Bern, a French government cultural adviser, in Paris Match headlined: “Are Albert and Charlene on the verge of splitting up?”
The piece claimed that Albert allowed Nicole Coste, the air hostess with whom he fathered a son, now 18, to attend the Red Cross ball in Charlene’s absence. His son also attended, the report said.
Charlene finally came home on Nov. 8, sharing a photo of her “happy day” as she hugged Albert and their young twins. But hopes that her return marked a new era for the Grimaldis were soon dashed.
Albert would later tell People that after “the first few hours… it became pretty evident that she was unwell.”
He added: “This has nothing to do with our relationship. I want to make that very clear. These are not problems within our relationship.”
The ghost of a certain Flemish witch might beg to differ.