A British blue blood marries, in haste, a commoner of dubious suitability. They have marital problems. The blue blood has a fling with someone even more unsuitable. She blabs, and Fleet Street foams at the mouth. A plot outline for a bad TV movie? Not when the real-life headlines range from the titillating—DI'S BROTHER USED ME AS HIS SEX TOY—to the moralistic—CHARLIE THE CAD.

In this love triangle—starring Charles, Viscount Althorp, younger brother of Diana, Princess of Wales, and heir to one of the snazzier old English titles—the script is whizzing along on fast forward, and an entire nation is atwitter. When the 26-year-old Althorp, familiar to U.S. TV viewers as a correspondent for NBC's Today, married model Victoria Lockwood, 25, in September 1989 after knowing her less than four months, the tabloids carried intimations of trouble. She was too skinny, they scoffed—even anorexic, they hinted—and who knew what wild crowd she had romped with during her modeling days? But just a month ago, the front pages of those same newspapers were emblazoned with pictures of the Althorps and their newborn baby, Kitty, confounding the doubters who had questioned whether Victoria had the right stuff to be a future Countess Spencer.

But there existed an extramarital time bomb, and her name was Sally Ann Lasson. A satiric columnist for Tatler, the society magazine, the 30ish Lasson was previously best known for posing in the altogether for the 1987 book Naked London. On Feb. 3, in the News of the World, she breathlessly related (for a fee estimated at anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000) the story of her romance with the Viscount. But she was beaten into print by gossip columnist Nigel Dempster of the Daily Mail, who the day before had presented Althorp's side.

Neither Althorp nor Lasson had a pretty tale to tell. Althorp confessed to Dempster that he had had a one-night stand with Lasson in September 1986—back in his lively bachelor days, when the press dubbed him Champagne Charlie. Lasson, he said, "was extremely jealous when I married Victoria." By last spring, though, the Althorps had hit what the Viscount called "an extremely unpleasant patch," and he was looking for help. Rather than consulting, say, a marriage counselor, he decided to consult Sally Ann, perhaps on the theory that since her own eight-year marriage (to songwriter Dominic King) had broken up in 1987, she would be an expert on such matters. "It was a foolish move in retrospect," Althorp admitted to Dempster.

The counseling culminated in another tryst in Paris in March 1990, an experience that, Althorp said, "so sickened me that I could not stay a second night and returned to London."

Althorp further suggested that Lasson had later tried to hit him up for $10,000, which he refused to give her. And he said he had owned up to Victoria about his indiscretion. "I have caused my wife more grief than I would wish her to have in a lifetime with me," he said, "and I accept full responsibility for the folly of my actions."

Just what that responsibility would entail was unclear. The People, a Sunday tabloid, reported that after hearing Althorp's confession, Victoria first bitterly asked a friend, "Didn't you know [about the affair]? Everyone else seemed to"—then proclaimed that her marriage was "over." Later, though, she told the Sun that divorce rumors were "absolute rubbish. We are together and will continue to be so."

Lasson's version of events was less Viscount-friendly. "I was something to be picked up and put down," she told the News of the World. By her account, she and Althorp were much more than costars of two one-night stands more than four years apart. They were, she said, long-term lovers back in 1989, when Charles informed her that he was marrying Victoria. Then, six months after the high-society wedding, Lasson said, he was back on the telephone to her. "He said he was miserable and would I run away with him," she said.

That led to the famous night in Paris. Lasson said she had heard from Althorp a few weeks after that excursion that Victoria was pregnant and that Lasson and he were no longer an item. "I still care for him," Sally told the tabloid. "But he has behaved disgracefully."

So disgracefully that, in royal circles, Althorp's Parisian diversion threatens to overshadow the scandal that erupted in 1988, when the Duchess of York's father was caught leaving a massage parlor. Says one royal watcher: "Charles [Althorp] has proved himself to be as dense as Ron Ferguson." The Queen, the source continues, "is sad rather than angry. It's particularly hard for her because Charles Althorp is her godson. And even though he isn't a member of the royal family, I think she will feel a certain amount of reflected embarrassment."

—Michael Neill, Terry Smith and Jonathan Cooper in London

  • Contributors:
  • Terry Smith,
  • Jonathan Cooper.