BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
On May 16, the Royal Oak Society will welcome writer Sally Bedell Smith to the Newberry Library to speak on her latest work, Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life, which simultaneously hit the bestseller lists of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post in its first week of publication.
Author of seven beautifully researched tell-alls, including bestsellers on Princess Diana, the Kennedys, Queen Elizabeth, William Paley, and Pamela Harriman, Sally paused to talk with Classic Chicago as she crisscrossed the country on a recent book tour.
A resident of Washington, DC, Sally’s 21-day book tour has taken her back and forth between coasts, to Canada, Charleston, and Atlanta, and to the Library of Congress, where she spoke recently.
“I am a great fan of the Royal Oak and spoke to their audiences when Elizabeth the Queen came out in 2012. At that time, Prince Charles was, in my mind, a blurred image at the back of a photograph of the royal family.”
In bringing Prince Charles to the center of the photograph, what do you see motivates him most?
I spent the last four years finding out what he is truly like. Although this isn’t an official biography, I spent a good deal of time at Clarence House and traveling with his entourage to Sri Lanka and Malta. I talked with hundreds of palace officials and former girlfriends, as well as spiritual gurus.
He has held my interest throughout the years. He is compelling, unusual, and definitely doesn’t fit into one box. He was not the playboy that the press portrayed him to be before his marriage—that was a ploy by his aides to make him seem less awkward.
He is someone who is known by his passions, whether it is watercolors, gardening, or spiritualism.
Sally was particularly fascinated by his life as a spiritual seeker—the phase she chooses to best describe him. The son of a distant mother and a domineering father, brutally bullied as a child at schools chosen by his father, he found his resilience in a deep appreciation of nature as a religion.
How did he express this spiritualism?
He was devoted to the mystic poet Katherine Raine and persuaded the Queen to give her a medal. They had extensive correspondence about the purity of nature, and how one can reach the soul of the world. They shared numerous dos and don’ts, such as communicating with plants and not drinking cola.
He has quite an idealistic streak while his mother is very pragmatic. But also there is that other more imperious side. He does travel with a white leather toilet seat and is infuriated when he must fly first class on a commercial airplane rather than on a private one.
What have you admired most about him?
He knows his limits. Much is written now about Prince Harry’s inner turmoil about the death of his mother, and it is very good that he has come forward about his own therapy. However, his father was in therapy for 14 years and tried several options, including psychotherapy. All of this has been lost in the shuffle with the news about Harry.
As the oldest heir to the throne in British history, speculation reigns about whether the Queen will retire to make way for her son. In fact, it is the number one question asked of Sally.
“People ask me all time why she doesn’t say that she will step aside. I think both the Queen and Prince Charles recognize that she was anointed at her coronation and took a sacred oath. It is adherence to the line of succession.
“He will definitely not turn over the throne to Prince William. William is being groomed to become King in his late 40s or early 50s.”
The second most frequent question for you must be about his relationship with Diana.
Charles wept on the night before his marriage to Diana, a marriage partially arranged by his father, Prince Philip. Charles wasn’t necessarily in love with her and noted in a letter that he would go through with the nuptials because it was best for Country and for his family.
What is the key to writing about famous people who intrigue the public?
Of course you are always trying to tell a good story, but what you want to do is open people’s minds about the person and the impact they make on the world. What I want to do, primarily, is to deeply understand the person I am writing about.
You have written about several fascinating world figures, but I wonder: which one you would choose as your first choice to engage in conversation?
I would eliminate Bill Paley because I did, in fact, have three luncheon conversations with him when I was writing the biography—all revealing in different ways even as he didn’t give me an ‘authorized’ interview.
Mainly because he is such an original character, and because I am so interested in many of his passions: art, architecture, historic restoration, literature, King George III, even the music of the underrated Hubert Parry—I could easily sit down for an hour or so at dinner with Prince Charles. If he would answer personal questions, even better!
My second choice would be Jackie because I would like to experience her wit and her wide-ranging intelligence first hand. She treasured a sculpture of Madame de Pompadour as a sphinx, and she once said to Adlai Stevenson, with whom she had an affectionate friendship: “A sphinx is rather what I feel like when I go out with you.” She was indeed sphinx-like, and oh the questions I would love to ask to penetrate her secrets.
Do you have your next subject in mind?
I have been so focused on my book tour that I haven’t chosen my next subject. I will be going to England for a week this summer and then get down to business.
At the end of August, I will be meeting with my editors in New York to plan our strategy. I am not sure that I will write again about the royal family, but I haven’t done Camilla, Kate, or Harry yet, so you never know.
A contributing editor at Vanity Fair, Sally wrote for Time, TV Guide, and the New York Times as a lead cultural reporter specializing in television before writing her first book, In All His Glory: The Life and Times of William Paley and the Birth of Modern Broadcasting, published in 2002.
Vanity Fair excerpted a chapter entitled “The Lonely Heir” from her current book in its April issue. It describes his early days as a sensitive child, a victim of boarding school bullies who endlessly teased him about his protruding ears and royal status.
What led you to writing as a career?
My first job was the classic entry one for young women in the 1970s after college graduation. My mentor encouraged me to take on writing assignments and championed talents I never really thought I had. She recommended that I attend graduate school at Columbia, which I did.
What tips do you have for emerging authors?
To be a fiction writer, you have to have such an imagination, but there is plenty of drama in the facts of non-fiction. Read a really good book, let the words sink in, and see how the author does conversation. E.B. White said in Elements of Style that writing should be a clear, unbroken stream.
Writing about the royal family required deep digging—you can’t cut corners. I had to have lots of persistence and patience.
The Royal Oak evening begins with a reception and book signing in Ruggles Hall at the Newberry Library at 6 pm on May 16 with Sally’s illustrated lecture at 6:30. Registration is required.
Visit royal-oak.org for more information.