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The woman who darkened Di's life

IN MANY WAYS, SHE IS ANYTHING BUT THE stereotypical Other Woman. A 44-year-old wife and mother who is happiest "hunting for grouse in a howling wind, in the words of one friend, Camilla Parker Bowles has none of Princess Diana's coltish elegance. A jodhpurs-and-wellies sort whose hair usually looks as if she's spent the day on a damp racecourse, she has a figure that is no longer girlish, and her crows' feet reflect character more than camouflage. Indeed, there is the air about her of a woman too busy to trifle with facials, manicures or lace-trimmed teddies.

Yet unlikely as it may seem, Parker Bowles has been cast as a lead in the drama that has rocked the House of Windsor and could cost Prince Charles, 43, the throne. Described by friends as his longtime "confidante," she was a prominent character in Andrew Morton's sensational Diana: Her True Story, the biography (excerpted in PEOPLE, June 22) in which the Waleses' marriage was portrayed as a loveless misalliance between a volatile depressive and a selfish twit. In recent weeks, British tabloids have served up stories describing the Princess' jealousy of Camilla and dissected the rivalry between the two women. Diana, Morton reports, calls Charles's companion "the Rottweiler," while Camilla reportedly refers to the Princess as "that ridiculous creature."

Last week, as the public devoured tales of Charles's indifference toward her and the tabloids published stories about her putative suicide attempts, the Princess seemed lost and shaken. Increasingly estranged from Queen Elizabeth and under pressure from Buckingham Palace because of her reported refusal to endorse a statement disavowing cooperation with Morton, she was brought to tears during a June 11 visit to a Merseyside cancer hospice but was heartened by the chairman's words of support.

The sturdy Camilla, however, put on a braver face. On June 7, the very day that excerpts of Morton's book debuted in the London Sunday Times, she and her husband, army Brig. Andrew Parker Bowles, 52, turned out to watch a polo game at Windsor Great Park. In a move taken to symbolize the Queen's refusal to point the finger at Camilla, the couple were seated in the royal enclosure; Elizabeth herself made a point of asking Charles's friend to tea. Afterward, Mrs. Parker Bowles told reporters, "I'm certainly not going to bury myself away because of what the papers say. Absolutely not. Why should I?"

The relationship that has revealed the cracks in the Waleses' marriage began on a note of irony. When she met the Prince at a party in 1972, Camilla Shand, then a 25-year-old postdeb living in London, told him sassily, "My great-grandmother was the mistress of your great-great-grandfather. I feel we have something in common." The daughter of Maj. Bruce Shand, 75, and his wife, Rosalind. 70. Camilla does have interesting bloodlines: Great-grandmother Alice Keppel had, indeed, been the love of King Edward VII's life (see box, page 78). Camilla's mother is the (laughter of the third Lord Asheombe, whose ancestor Thomas Cubitt is credited with building much of London's fashionable Belgravia section during the early 19th century. With sister Annabel, 43, and brother Mark, 41 (an author and adventurer who once dated Bianca Jagger), Camilla was raised among the gentry.

In 1972 the lively blonde with a wicked sense of humor and a passion for riding had captivated the young Charles, who was then a naval officer on shore duty. According to Lady Colin Campbell—an aristocrat by marriage whose unsentimental biography, Diana in Private, was published this spring—the two were instantly attracted to each other. If Camilla lacked traditional allure and beauty, reports Campbell, she did have "confidence allied to the right ancestor, and this helped to kick off the romance with Charles."

Although the smitten Prince courted her for six months, he failed to propose before returning to sea in February 1973. "He dithered and hedged his bets until Camilla gave up on him," says Penny Junor, one of his biographers. Within weeks of his sailing, Camilla had accepted a marriage bid from Andrew Parker Bowles, a dashing young captain who had once courted Charles's sister, Anne.

But by all accounts, the July 1973 marriage only intensified Charles's ardor, and "it was only when she was irretrievably gone that the Prince realized what he had lost," says Junor. Their friendship resumed when Charles returned to London. In the next 10 years (during which Camilla became mother to Tom, 17, and Laura, 14), both she and her husband strengthened their ties to the royal family. In 1980 Camilla served as the Prince's escort on an official visit to Zimbabwe, while husband Andrew, posted there as a liaison officer, did advance work for the visit. At one point the dedicated Parker Bowles even climbed onto the back of a buffalo to test its mettle before Charles's scheduled ride. Thrown and badly gored, Parker Bowles was taken to the hospital—but not before canceling the Prince's jaunt.

As time passed, although Charles exercised his droit du seigneur with an array of women, his devotion to Camilla survived intact. By some accounts, both she and second-string confidante Dale "Kanga" Tryon (an Australian designer now married to Anthony, Lord Tryon) were asked for their views when he decided in 1981 to propose to Diana. And when he did ask for the latter's hand, it was in the garden of the Parker Bowleses' country house.

By Morton's account, at least, Camilla was the cause of a rift between the Waleses soon after they became engaged. While unwrapping wedding gifts, Diana allegedly came upon a package containing an engraved necklace meant for Mrs. Parker Bowles. Despite Di's distress, Charles reportedly informed her that "a certain amount of time would always be put aside for Camilla."

Humiliated by the ongoing relationship, the strong-willed Diana allegedly recruited her own circle of intimates—including merchant banker Philip Dunne and Life Guards officer Maj. James Hewitt. But she never relinquished her resentment; at a 1984 party for the Marquess of Worcester, she reportedly confronted Camilla, snapping, "Why don't you leave my husband alone?"

According to some observers, Diana, 30, helped fuel Charles's devotion to his old flame. "Before the marriage, she presented herself as being a soft, sweet, easygoing, country-loving girl who wanted to please her husband," says Lady Colin Campbell. "Afterward, she turned out to be a temperamental woman given to histrionics. She hates the country and started to complain bitterly about Charles's hunting, shooting and fishing." By contrast, "Camilla is able to relax Prince Charles," a friend has said. "He feels cozy in her company, which he obviously doesn't with Diana."

Part of that coziness, no doubt, stems from Charles and Camilla's shared interests. Described as a hell-for-leather horsewoman, Camilla is passionate about polo. And as a frequent guest at Birkhall, the Queen Mother's secluded house near Balmoral, she is often seen taking long walks through the heather with Charles and fishing with him in the River Dee.

"Her earthiness, her fuller figure and her maturity would all appeal to a man wearied by... [Diana's London set]," the Daily Express noted in the sort of overnight marital analysis that is now sweeping Britain. "Psychologists might say that for a man who had precious little mothering during his formative years, Camilla would—in other circumstances—be [Charles's] ideal partner."

These days, the Prince and his confidante spend much of their time in the country—he at Highgrove, in Gloucestershire, and she at the Parker Bowleses' 18th-century manor, Middlewick House, in neighboring Wiltshire. (By some accounts, the Prince bought his estate because it was near Camilla's.) When they aren't riding together, they each take water-color lessons from portrait painter Neil Forster, who lives nearby. "[When] Charles throws dinner parties for close friends, Camilla steps right into Di's shoes—she always comes alone, never with her husband," according to former royal bodyguard Andrew Jackson. "She organizes the menu and sits alongside Charles. [And] she's the only person allowed into his walled garden."

Like Diana, Andrew Parker Bowles prefers London to the country. He and his wife have a pied-à-terre in fashionable South Kensington, and his working hours are spent in the army offices in Aldershot, Hampshire, about 30 miles southwest of London. As director of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, "Barker," as he has been dubbed by colleagues, is responsible for the welfare of the army's 500 horses and 2,000 dogs. "He's enormously popular—exceptionally gregarious and very able," says a Household Cavalry colleague. Although son Tom (who is Charles's godson) boards at Eton and daughter Laura at Benenden School, the brigadier reportedly is seldom lonely. As the Evening Standard put it, "His circle of friends is wide and includes some of London's most attractive women."

The Parker Bowleses may lead separate lives, but they have a marriage that is "extremely successful" in the words of a friend. According to one fellow officer, even the tabloids haven't shaken Andrew—whose relationship with Charles remains cordial. "I think they're probably a little surprised by the way the reports have concentrated on her," the cavalryman has said, "but she's tough and resilient."

Though the civility of it all may seem incredible to most commoners, movers in royal circles see nothing unusual. The role of confidante "is considered to be an honor," says one aristocrat. As for Andrew, observes the same source, "as the Prince of Wales's confidante's husband, some of the golden light encircles him as well."

In fact, there seems to be no doubt that Parker Bowles is in favor with the Crown: In 1987 he was awarded the ceremonial title of Silver Stick in Waiting to the Queen. A quaint post dating from Tudor times, it is assigned to an officer charged with protecting the sovereign from danger.

For the moment, it is Charles, the heir apparent, whose future seems most precarious. With his wiles emotional instability, their "separate-lives" marriage and his relationship with Camilla now under public discussion, many are questioning the Waleses" suitability for the throne.

As some palace insiders see it, the most practical solution to the problem of succession at this point may be a "step-aside"" arrangement that would allow Prince William, 10, to succeed the Queen. Even if Charles were to resist the notion, Elizabeth (whose overriding concern is the survival of the monarchy) may well agree.

Marital trauma or no, few insiders expect to see the Waleses in divorce court. Although the constitution does not forbid Charles to reign if he should divorce, he would not be allowed to remarry within the Church of England—a difficult position for a monarch who is its secular head. In addition, Diana is a fiercely protective mother who has always put her sons' welfare before her own happiness, and a divorce would prove traumatic for them.

"What I predict is a formal, public, official separation," says Anthony Holden, who has written four books about the Windsors. As Holden describes the scenario. Diana, as the mother of the future King, would be treated "with more dignity and courtesy" than the estranged Fergie, "who can be confined to living beside a golf course where golf balls come winging into her back garden." Says Holden: "[Diana] will be given a handsome grace-and-favor place to live in, she will keep all her titles, including Her Royal Highness, and she will have at least equal rights to custody of the children. She will also continue her charily work, which she is genuinely involved in.

With Prince Harry, 7, bound in September for Ludgrove—the boarding school where Wills is a pupil—palace watchers predict that any change in the Waleses' arrangement would not take place until well after he was settled. Although Diana's calendar had been curiously blank—just as the Duchess of York's was before she separated from Prince Andrew this spring—the palace rushed into the breach on June 17, announcing two joint appearances with Charles and a trip with him to Korea in November. For the moment, then, the signals seem conveniently confused.

As the crisis wore on, Charles and Diana did little lo discourage the notion that they were hopelessly at odds. At the annual Trooping the Colour festivities on June 13—their first joint appearance since the scandal broke—they stood side by side on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. Although it was the very same perch on which they had kissed while the world watched after their 1981 wedding, they exchanged not a word this time. When the ceremony was over, Diana returned to Kensington Palace. Charles drove to a polo match—alone. His good friend Camilla was not among the spectators, but one suspects that, in spirit, she was with the Prince.

MICHELLE GREEN
TERRY SMITH, MARGARET WRIGHT and ROSEMARY THORPE-TRACEY in London

  • Contributors:
  • Terry Smith,
  • Margaret Wright,
  • Rosemary Thorpe-Tracey.