At 65, Monaco's Prince Rainier Feels His Oats; It's Not Albert's Turn to Reign or Shine yet

updated 06/13/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/13/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

On an overcast Mediterranean evening in Monte Carlo, the dark-blue royal Mercedes pulled up in front of the newly rebuilt $140-million Metro-pole Hotel complex. Prince Rainier, with Prince Albert and Princess Stephanie in tow, had arrived to fulfill the duties of the crown: to wit, the cutting of the opening ribbon. For his trouble, Rainier received a diamond-encrusted, solid gold key to the Metropole from the man behind the project, Lebanese real estate biggie Nabil Boustany. But Rainier hadn't come looking for handouts. Explains one local banker: "The Prince feels a friendly obligation to come to any
function that promotes Monaco.... It is part of his job." Moreover, it is a job the Prince seems to cherish.

Last Tuesday (May 31), the reigning patriarch of the clan Grimaldi quietly celebrated his 65th birthday. Outside Monaco's pink palace on a sparkling afternoon, hundreds of well-wishers sang along with the palace guard band as it struck up Happy Birthday, while the silver-haired Prince waved from a balcony. Unimpressed by the moment of the occasion, Rainier had spent the morning working in his study. "It is not in the family to make a big thing about birthdays," says palace press officer Nadia Lacoste. But it's okay to make a little thing: Prince Albert, 30, Princess Caroline, 31, her husband, Stefano Casiraghi, 27, and their tots, Andrea, 4, Charlotte, almost 2, and Pierre, 9 months, joined Rainier for lunch. Princess Stephanie, 23, who lives in L.A., wasn't on hand but checked in with a card and a call.

Until recently, some of Rainier's subjects had suspected that he would mark the day by stepping aside in favor of Albert. Now that seems out of the question. Though he was sunk in mourning for several years after the death of his wife, Princess Grace, in 1982, Rainier has since recovered his zest for life and for his job. He attends to affairs of state with energy and makes far more ceremonial appearances than do any of his children. "I would like to be remembered," he has said, "as the person who got rid of the bad image and bad legend of Monaco." During his 39-year reign, he has transformed his 482-acre principality from a playground mainly for gamblers and tax evaders into a center that also accommodates high finance and affluent tourism.

Rainier's act will be a hard one for Albert to follow. The diffident princeling's enthusiasm for ruling has always been underwhelming. "Although I am not here by choice," Albert once said, "I expect to enjoy the challenge of my future job."

Rainier will mark the 40th anniversary of his ascension next May 9. As the date draws closer, there will again be talk about abdication, though some people close to Rainier say he will not step down until Albert marries. In that area, too, the heir is noncommittal: "I will marry when I find the right person," says Albert, who has many dates but no steady girlfriend. (Regarding Rainier's own eligibility, Lacoste dismisses rumors of a romance with his old friend Princess Ira von Furstenberg. "I bet he'll never remarry," she says.)

When Rainier has spoken of retirement at all, he has referred wistfully to having more time for sailing, hunting and golf. In the meantime, life as the monarch of Monaco isn't all that bad. For now, says a friend, "He'll put his grandchildren on his knees, look down on the yacht-filled harbor and let the satisfied smile of a 65-year-old man cross his lips. He's not just on top of Monaco—he's on top of the world."

—By Bonnie Johnson, with Joel Stratte-McClure in Monte Carlo

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