Royals Flushed

Why Kitty Kelley's book on Britain's royal family has a lot of people upset.

Published September 17, 1997 8:58AM (EDT)

Wednesday's publication date approached for Kitty Kelley's book "The Royals," which might without exaggeration be described as "long-awaited," there was a sudden burst of Schadenfreude. Ha, ha, Kitty and Warner Books have been caught with their knickers down, scoffed David Streitfeld, who covers the publishing industry for the Washington Post. He meant that the awful death of Princess Diana had come too late to alter or update the book, of which 1 million copies had already been printed, packed and shrink-wrapped.

Nor could the book be rushed into the stores quickly enough to meet the avid demand for royal reading material, other commentators remarked. Book distributors operate on the kaiser's railway timetables, and can't be hurried along on their glacial pace. So sucks to Kelley and her outdated book stuck in a traffic jam.

Then People magazine canceled its proposed serialization of the book, saying that it wanted to give more space to its "own" writers on the subject. Since they were still paying Kelley the full whack of $25,000, as per contract, this must count as one of the more expensive attempts on record for a magazine to buy space in its own pages. Cold feet on People's editorial floor -- so many sources tell me -- became even more chilly after the queen's post-crash speech to the British nation. There is little to rival the spectacle of a gossip magazine when it suddenly turns deferential and fears to give offense or -- don't even think about it -- intrude on privacy.

The laugh is more likely on the skeptics. "The Royals" is being transported to fine American bookstores as I write, and the public fervor for all things royal since the death of Diana and the Windsors' bone-headed responses to it shows little sign of abating. It is only a pity that the queen's own subjects won't be able to read it in the comfort of their own homes. Eyeing Britain's swinging libel laws, Time Warner's lawyers mandated that no copies of "The Royals" will be shipped to British bookstores, and that no British journalist will be granted interviews with the author. Everyone is walking on eggshells, including the normally avaricious British newspapers, which have been reduced to "deriding" the book without actually telling its readers what's in it. Even Kelley, perhaps on the advice of her attorneys, has replaced the National Anthem on her answering machine with a more suitably sober message.

I, however, already have a copy. It is on my desk, looking up at me, in its blue-and-gold cover, with all the allure of contraband. On your behalf, ladies and gentleman, I have perused it and can bring you the first unexpurgated look.

First off, contrary to alarums in certain quarters, few hearts will stop beating as a result of Kelley's 502-page efforts. "The Royals," for the most part, is a compendium of all the critical material already out there on the House of Windsor. If nothing else, it means you can purge your shelves of a lot of junk books that have been published, without any apparent trouble from the majesty of the law, in the past few years.

How reliable is it? Kelley names her sources when she can, conceals their identity where she feels necessary, passes on some rumors and scotches some others. Writing from an American perspective, Kelley is chiefly amused at the absurd British national desire for a fairy-tale monarchy that is, at the same time, made up of people "just like us, really." For example, she wryly notes:

"At the wedding, the Archbishop of Canterbury declared the ceremony for Princess Elizabeth was 'exactly the same as it would be for any cottager who might be married this afternoon in some small country church' ... The differences: the twelve wedding cakes at the royal reception, including one nine feet high that Philip cut with his sword, 2,666 wedding presents, including a Thoroughbred horse, a mink coat, a 54-four carat pink diamond said to be one of its kind in the world, and a plantation and a hunting lodge in Kenya."

Kelley provides a hilarious account of Princess Margaret's difficulties with political correctness, especially when it necessitates being polite to Irish, Jewish or dusky persons. And an early, non-gossipy chapter is particularly enlightening on the Windsors' attempt to live down -- actually to conceal -- their German connection and some of its more embarrassing ramifications. How lucky they were that Hitler bombed Buckingham Palace, enabling them to rehabilitate their image as well as their home from the damage.

Equally lucky for the realm, according to Kelley, was that medical means were found to remedy the hydraulic difficulties of Queen Elizabeth's father, George VI (whether he was impotent or merely erectorally challenged is not stated);
that the ghastly, Nazi-sympathizing Edward VIII chose to abdicate; that
Prince Philip survived the queen's outsized appetites while his own outside interests, of both sexes, remained suitably discreet; and very
lucky that a certain John Barratt, who was Lord Mountbatten's private secretary for 20 years who excoriated the queen, died in 1993, before the royal myth started to seriously shatter.

On the other hand, the reigning Windsors have been highly unlucky marrying off their own children, especially when they tried to marry them off to anybody who could conceivably be called "a breath of fresh air." Fergie, the Duchess of York, may have drawn many a deep breath, but fresh air doesn't seem to be what she took into her tiny lungs. Everybody says she will sue Kitty Kelley, or anyone else making such an insinuation in print -- she even says so herself -- but I don't personally believe it.

What fresh, distressing revelations of the late Princess of Wales? Readers can relax; there is very little new. Some of the predictions of disaster, made by her mother for example, now read rather eerily. And the meeting between the princess and Leah Rabin may give some readers a frisson, with the widow of the Israeli prime minister telling her, "I feel a great kinship to you because you and I are the most tragic figures in the world. Except that you have a future, and I have only a past." As for raw meat, there are hints in the book that the actual subject of the missing 10 minutes of the famous "Squidgy" tapes of amorous phone calls between Princess Diana and James Gilbey were onanistic in nature.

Asking not long ago whether the British should retain the monarchy, the New York Times replied in an unusually unequivocal editorial, "The American answer is simple. Of course they should keep it -- for our amusement." But in the U.K., Kitty Kelley's book has been anticipated with snarls and groans, as if a new flood of calumny was about to burst over the tattered dynasty. It is, in fact, written more in the spirit of that Times editorial. And, at a time when the British tell the pollsters they want changes that are simply not on offer -- like an informal populist monarchy presided over by Prince William -- we might as well read a single narrative that shows us how the British got to where they got, from where, and how this makes them look to others.

Even if, before reading "The Royals," you thought that it was a good idea to pick your head of state from the gene pool of just one family, you would close the book realizing that to fish from this particular pool was a deeply serious mistake.

By Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, the Nation and Salon News.

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