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It's just another birthday," declared the Prince of Wales last week, but nobody has paid the slightest attention to his shy disclaimer. With two weeks still to go before His Royal Highness hits the big four-O, England is preparing to honor the occasion in royal fashion. Already, bulging mail sacks of letters and telegrams of congratulation are arriving at the palace. A new biography of the prince, Alan Hamilton's The Real Charles, has just been published, and an old one, Anthony Holden's Prince Charles, has been brought up to date.

On the day before the royal anniversary, ITV will air a special tribute to His Royal Highness, and on the day itself, Nov. 14, flags will fly on all public buildings, cannon will fire a 62-gun salute from the Tower of London, and bells will ring out all over the United Kingdom in honor of the man who (if he doesn't break his neck on a ski slope or a polo field) will one day become King. On his birthday the Queen will throw an all-night bash at Buckingham Palace, and earlier in the day, in a grimy district of Birmingham, some 1,500 young men and women of the working class will crowd into a vast abandoned tram shed and dance to the beat of West Indian steel bands, partying with a prince who for more than a decade has battled to improve Britain's decaying inner cities.

Yet 40 is seldom the happiest of birthdays, even for a prince who surely has many a good reason to grin. Charles is the sole proprietor of estates totaling 131,744 acres (44 of them in the center of London)that bring him an annual income of $2.8 million—not to mention 300 puffins a year from the Scilly Isles. When he ascends the throne he will also inherit a royal fortune worth better than $5 billion. He is married to Princess Diana, one of the world's most beautiful and fashionable women. He has two charming sons, Prince William, 6, and Prince Harry, 4—the "heir and a spare" that secure the royal succession. And he has a record of achievement unmatched by any other Prince of Wales in British history.

Add to all that: ruddy good health, scorching charm, lively wit, ever-ready virility and a flair for the arts—he paints, pots and plays the cello with admirable skill. What more could a man want?

Plenty, it would seem. As he enters what should be his most creative years, insiders say that Charles is haunted by a sense that his personal life is meaningless and his princely role a glamorous sham. A Prince of Wales is expected to attend banquets, cut ribbons, show up at Ascot in a meticulously tailored morning coat—and keep his mouth shut. If he utters one mumbling word about politics, he's up to his coronet in crocodiles.

Yet time and again this monarch-in-waiting has charged into dangerous terrain. Charles has championed scholarships for the poor, raised financing for start-up businesses and launched a nationwide campaign to protect the environment. "I don't just want to be seen trundling around," he has said. "I want to be involved in something that makes a difference."

At times the prince's initiatives have irritated the supremely irritable mistress of No. 10 Downing Street. But last August the prince and the Prime Minister held a three-hour tête-à-tête, and on at least one major matter Charles helped to change the most stubborn mind in England. Three weeks later Mrs. Margaret Thatcher made a major speech about the environment.

Despite his achievements, Charles seems to agree ruefully with biographer Holden that his existence is essentially "a comfortable form of inherited imprisonment." It may be decades before he succeeds to the throne—and when he does, King Charles will be even more rigorously confined within constitutional limits. This realization has persuaded Charles that he'd much rather be "backup equipment" (as Nelson Rockefeller once dubbed the role of Vice-President) or just a private citizen. "I wish I had been Bob Geldof," he said wistfully after meeting the Live Aid organizer. Yet he knows he can never resign his destiny—another abdication might destroy the monarchy. So he grins and bears it when friends jokingly address him as "trainee King." And when asked how he sees himself he may answer with a wry smile, "Sometimes, I suppose, as a bit of a twit."

Problems in the prince's marriage have added to his malaise. His once burning passion for Diana has faded to a chilly cinder, and the tender father who changed William's nappies and pushed his pram has hardened into a quasi-delinquent parent. "When the going with the children gets tough," says one close observer, "the prince gets going." Over the last year, Charles has spent long periods away from Diana, and it is now tacitly understood in royal circles that he has sought out the company of other women.

Love, however, is not the end and all of living for Charles now. He is a man in search of his own soul, and the adventure has transformed a stuffed shirt into something of a flower child. As the world has learned, sometimes to its bafflement, he has advocated alternative medicine and blithely admitted that he talks to plants to make them grow. He has even found a guru, an engaging 81-year-old South African writer named Sir Laurens van der Post (The Dark Eye in Africa), who plunged Charles into the archetypal world of psychologist Carl Jung, where for several years the prince has been paddling like a metaphysical fly in symbol soup. When that news broke, the prince did not deign to explain himself. But often Charles transcribes the night's dreams on a bedside notepad and in the morning telephones van der Post to discuss his collective unconscious.

Always delighted to find silliness in high places, London's tabloids have nipped like jackals at Charles's heels. They've called him loony, a wimp and the clown prince. Cartoonists have squeegeed his lean features until all that's left is a nose like a fuselage, ears like wings and two tiny eyes squeezed together like passengers in a cockpit. Ignoring his considerable contributions, reporters put the prince down as a dreary do-gooder and relish such occasional outbursts as his accusation that modern architecture had done more to ruin London than the Luftwaffe's blitz in World War II.

Even the most thoughtful Charles-watchers raise questions about his judgment. Such questions dominated the national news last March, when the prince and his guests on a day's outing in the mountains near Klosters, Switzerland, schussed down an off-piste ski slope. The royal party released an avalanche that buried two of its members and almost swept away the prince himself. Maj. Hugh Lindsay, one of Charles's closest friends, died beneath tons of snow. Another friend, Pattie Palmer-Tomkinson, required four months in a Swiss hospital to repair her mangled legs.

Appalled by the accident, many journalists accused the prince of deadly nonchalance. But Charles's admirable grace under pressure disarmed his detractors. Waiving diplomatic immunity, he made several trips back to Switzerland to assist investigators, who eventually cleared him of any personal responsibility. "Charles was the host of the party, not the leader," Palmer-Tomkinson explained. "We all knew what we were getting into." Nevertheless, says a friend, "Charles will always have this terrible accident on his conscience. He is a deeply caring man."

And a maddeningly contradictory one. Yes, he is in many ways a picture-book prince: affable, sincere, generous, devoted to his people. But he can also play the arrogant aristocrat: screaming at secretaries and insisting, according to one ex-girlfriend, that he be addressed as "sir"—even in bed. Easily bored ("Do wake me up if I doze off," he sometimes warns interviewers), Charles quickly loses interest even in pet projects. "He has tremendous initial enthusiasm," says a coworker, "but seems unable to see things through." He lacks the confidence to throw his full force behind his convictions. The force, in fact, is not with him. The swaggering jock of the polo wars, the unflappable face that will one day decorate a million coins—both are poses calculated to conceal an anxious, middle-aged adolescent.

Charles was a bashful boy. Raised by nannies, he saw his mother only three times a day: for a half hour morning and evening and just for a cuddle at lunch. Prince Philip, a bluff, tough bully with the tact of a top sergeant, had no patience with his son's sensitivity and soon began trying to knock it out of him. Longing to please, Charles tried hard to become the British bulldog his father demanded, but he could never quite hit the mark.

Philip sent Charles to Cheam and Gordonstoun, the same schools that had hardened his own character. Life at Gordonstoun, says biographer Hold-en, was a daily ordeal. The boys were forced to run a mile before, breakfast, scale rocky cliffs and sail the North Sea through winter gales. For Charles there was a special problem: Fearful of seeming obsequious, his schoolmates shunned him, and he was bitterly lonely. But he found an affirming friend in his great-uncle, Lord Mountbatten, the first of many father surrogates, and in time began to relish the rugged outdoor life.

At Mountbatten's insistence, Charles became the first Prince of Wales to complete a university education. ("I'm one of those stupid bums who never went," Philip grumped, "and I don't think it's done me any harm.") At Trinity College, Cambridge, the prince was deftly taken in tow by yet another mentor, Lucia Santa Cruz, the 23-year-old daughter of the Chilean ambassador, who had secret access to his digs so she could give His Royal Highness after-school lessons in Latin love. Graduating at 21 with a respectable "second" in history, Charles dutifully resumed the macho regimen his father had devised. He joined the Royal Air Force and whizzed through a jet-pilot course. Reckless but lucky, he survived a near-fatal moment when his feet got tangled in the rigging of a parachute. Then he switched to Britain's naval academy, finished top of his class in navigation and seamanship and served for nine months with distinction on a guided-missile destroyer.

All things considered, Charles's military record was slightly better than his father's. Was Philip satisfied? Not for a minute. He continued to label his son "wet" (British for wimp) and to invent sadistic ways of "toughening him up." Just after Mountbatten's assassination, for instance, knowing that Charles was stricken with grief, Philip harped on the horrible event at the dinner table until Charles burst into tears. "Perhaps now," Philip sniffed, "he won't cry at the funeral."

Military service behind him, Charles toured the world as an ambassador-at-large and began the delightful process of looking for a queen. Remembering Mountbatten's advice ("In a position such as yours, it is advisable to get as much experience as one can before settling down"), he vigorously exercised his royal prerogatives. Barbra Streisand and Farrah Fawcett both briefly caught his eye. But most of Charlie's Angels (as the press called the ladies he dated) were high-born British beauties who traveled in his own smart set: Davina Sheffield, Fiona Watson, Camilla Fane and Lady Jane Wellesley. However, the grand passion of the prince's youth—the one woman he desperately wanted to wed—was Anna Wallace, a sexy Scottish lass with a rip-roaring sense of humor. Alas, Anna also had a fiery temper—not for nothing was she known as Whiplash Wallace—and one night at a palace ball it blew their affair to flinders. The prince carelessly ignored his ladylove for several hours, and when at last he went looking for her she was gone—forever. Charles was devastated.

Diana caught him on the rebound. As a schoolgirl she had kept his picture pinned above her cot and once confessed to a friend, "I would love to be Princess of Wales." Hope got a boost when he began to date her sister, and when in turn he asked her out she was in seventh heaven. Charles was in despair. With Anna gone, he wondered if he would ever find a woman he loved enough to marry. One day he asked Queen Mother Elizabeth what he should do. Well aware that Diana adored him—and that older, more worldly paramours often had romantic histories that made them unacceptable to the palace—she made a historic suggestion.

And so the wheels of courtship began to turn. Diana was in love, Charles was in business—the business of sustaining the dynasty—and he was brutally truthful about his motives. When asked if he was in love, Charles made a face and replied churlishly: "Whatever 'in love' means." For almost a year he watched Diana as a director watches an actress reading for a part, and he was impressed. She had everything he needed in a wife and a queen: looks, moves, background, temperament. She was spirited, energetic, affectionate—and a virgin. So he gave her the job. It was almost as coldly calculated as that.

But something happened on the honeymoon. The man who came home from that two-week Mediterranean cruise had been shot through the heart by Cupid's arrow. He radiated a joy that persisted for several years. Charles was right by Diana's side when William arrived, and for a time he doted like a nanny. "He knows so much about babies," Diana teased. "I think he should have the next one." But by the time the next baby showed up, the splendor had faded. Charles was present when Harry was born, but immediately after the delivery rushed off to play polo.

What has gone wrong? Some say Diana is now more interested in playing the superstar than she is in being a wife. Others think Charles is miffed because the press devotes pages to her wardrobe and inches to his ideas. One thing is horribly clear: The Waleses have almost nothing in common except their children—and their inability to communicate. And they seem to have stopped trying. In the last 10 months, Charles has gone on safari in Africa, fished for salmon in Iceland, hiked in the Hebrides, painted in Italy and rusticated in Balmoral—all without his family.

Even at home Charles is rarely around. He passes the day at his office/ apartment in Buckingham Palace and often sleeps there too. And on weekends in the country he usually runs off to play polo. "Diana takes the boys to watch the games," says a friend, "because she knows that otherwise they won't get to see their dad." Charles even took off for Italy on the very day Harry was rushed to the hospital for a hernia operation, leaving Diana to manage. With her usual devotion, she spent the night by her son's bed and was there to feed him breakfast.

Yet Charles doesn't think for a minute that he is treating his family badly. Most couples in the royal family conduct separate lives. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip live apart for months at a time—as do Princess Anne and her husband—communicating only by telephone. Charles and Diana are learning to do the same. As for the children, Britain's aristocratic parents think they have discharged their duty if they hire capable nursemaids and send their offspring to good schools. Customarily, says Holden, royal children are only "wheeled in from time to time by a fleet of nannies for a pat on the head over a glass of sherry."

Diana, insiders say, loathes such arrangements but has gradually become resigned to them—partly because, according to a friend, she finds Charles "stuffy, boring and old before his time" and much prefers the company of livelier friends. Charles in turn is bored with what he calls the Hooray Henrys of Diana's circle and seeks out more serious people—among them a number of older married women. He is deeply attached, for example, to Bona Frescobaldi, 47, a wealthy and cultured Italian marchesa, and to Dale ("Kanga") Tryon, 40, the wife of his close friend, banker Anthony, Lord Tryon. Kanga, he once said plaintively, is "the only woman who has ever understood me."

Such remarks have provoked torrid speculations—all misleading. "Both the Frescobaldi and Tryon stories are red herrings," says a well-placed observer. If Charles has strayed, say insiders, it's not in those directions. In royal circles, they note, there are many beautiful women who would be available to the prince and who would know how to be discreet. Is Diana aware of such possibilities? "Almost certainly," says a source close to the royal couple, and the situation has caused "strain." Nevertheless, the source adds, "there continues to be a lot of caring and mutual respect." Has divorce been contemplated? Absolutely not. "Anybody who imagines that it was," writes biographer Hamilton, "fails to understand the mores and lifestyle of the English aristocracy."

Diana herself is considered unlikely to start an affair. "Her position as Princess of Wales means more to her than anything in the world," says a friend. "There is no way she would risk this for a silly fling."

So what lies ahead for these star-crossed prisoners of privilege? Some friends of the royal couple maintain optimistically that the marriage has "bottomed out" and that "things can only get better." They may be right. Diana appears to be looking ahead with a measure of hope. "I'd love a daughter," she chirped some months ago. "You can dress them in such pretty clothes." And Charles, though he mutters sourly that "two noisy boys are enough," is known to want two more children. "Now that Fergie has had her baby," says a friend of the family, "Di may soon become pregnant again." That might resolve matters for Diana—if not for Charles. At 40, some men pull themselves together. Others lose their way. It's a dangerous age.

—Reported by Terry Smith, Roland Flamini and Rosemary Thorpe-Tracey in London

  • Contributors:
  • Terry Smith,
  • Roland Flamini,
  • Rosemary Thorpe-Tracey.