IN DAYS gone by, young and beautiful fairy princesses were almost as plentiful as Wampus baby stars. They lived secluded but not unromantic lives in jeweled castles, sewing on samplers and pausing occasionally in their work to gaze on handsome princes who fought dragons, genii and each other for their hands.
Things have changed in the princess business. There seem so few of them around these days. And far from watching dragon fights they find themselves engaged in such prosaic matters as presiding at bazaars, attending charity balls, opening exhibitions and inspecting hydro plants.
The world’s best-known princess is still Margaret of England, who has only to dance once with an eligible bachelor to make the front pages from Halifax to Karachi. But within the past year a new princess has become almost as familiar to the British public. She is Alexandra of Kent. Although she is only seventeen, she is already learning the difficult and occasionally tiresome role of a modern-day princess.
This month, for example, Alexandra will accompany her mother, the Duchess of Kent, to Canada to open (a) the Canadian National Exhibition and (b) the huge new Ontario Hydro plant at Niagara Falls, as well as to shake several hundred strange Canadian hands. The brief but strenuous Canadian visit will constitute, in effect, a finishing course in modern princess-ship.
For the past century various princes and princesses of the blood, from Edward VII (1860) to Elizabeth II (1951), have taken this course. Now Alexandra herself must experience the sustained goldfish-bowl existence that only a voyage to a strange but loyal country can provide. It will be her first important appearance as a working member of the royal team and it will forcibly remind her of the truth that, in spite of her remarkably democratic upbringing, she is not quite like other young girls — and never will be.
“Sometimes I find it difficult to remember you are a princess,” the mother of one of her friends said to Alexandra a few years ago.
“Sometimes I find it rather hard myself,” Alexandra replied.
For Alexandra’s background is a curious mélange of the grand and the commonplace. She has not got the secluded background of nursery, nanny, tutor and governess which is the heritage of most royal young ladies. As a child she attended an ordinary village school and at 12 experienced the rough-and-tumble of an English boarding school. On the other hand her mid-teens were spent in the household of Henri of Orleans, Comte de Paris, pretender to the throne of France, and under the tutelage of Mile Anita, headmistress of one of the most fashionable finishing schools in Paris.
As the first princess in the history of the British Royal Family to have a democratic education, her example is likely to affect the future of Prince Charles, heir to the throne, and Princess Anne. The Duke of Edinburgh, who had a democratic education himself, has often said he wants his children to have a similar experience. He can point to Alexandra as a strong argument in support of his views.
Indeed, Alexandra’s training, which was arrived at partly by accident and partly by design, might easily stand as a future blueprint in How To Raise A Royal Offspring. Every inch a princess, she does credit to the eight royal houses whose blood mingles in her veins. But she is as much at home in an inexpensive hotel, a second-class railway carriage, or a London bus top as she is in the white and gold throne room of Buckingham Palace or a giltembossed state landau in a coronation procession.
Her unusual background goes back to a tragic afternoon in August 1942, at Coppins, the Kents’ small Victorian house at Iver, Buckinghamshire. Her father, the Duke of Kent, an RAF officer, came home early to weed his prize carnations and her mother, the former Princess Marina of Greece, was dressed in slacks and sweater, helping him until he had to change back to uniform and return to London. With her youngest baby in her arms she stood in the doorway and waved good-by as he backed his car out of the garage.
He never came home again. That night he was killed in an air crash in Scotland, en route to Iceland. The tragedy hit the small family a terrible blow and it was three months before the Duchess was able to appear in public again.
The Kents had always wanted to protect their children from the cramping effect of the court. Now the Duchess was helped in this resolve by an uncomfortable lack of money. For there is no provision by parliament for the widow of a royal duke. Accustomed to an annual allowance equivalent to $75,000 a year, the family now found it would have to live on a small RAF pension, the income from some minor investments and the spasmodic generosity of royal relatives.
The Duchess gave up her London house and retired permanently to Coppins, which is the smallest of the royal residences and had been a wedding gift. Here she lived quietly, entertaining rarely and inexpensively and several times making ends meet by selling some of her husband’s treasured antiques at auction. To her children she transmitted a sense of frugality. Prince Edward, Alexandra’s elder brother, was returning from school in Switzerland when his friends asked him to join them in the dining car. He refused: “It’s too expensive for me.”
Alexandra herself ran about the house at will, bringing playmates home from the village school and wearing dresses made by the local dressmaker. But there were some concessions to her station in life. Until she was five all her dresses were white. Her toys were invariably expensive and beautiful—for the Duchess felt that by surrounding her daughter with good things she could teach her good taste.
Alexandra was a boisterous girl who enjoyed boisterous pastimes, blacking her face with her mother’s paints to play commandos with her brother, throwing candies in the air and catching them in her mouth, sprinkling her pet calf with her mother’s perfume just before a competition. At 12 she was packed off to Heathfield, a rigorous boarding school on the Eton level, with the firm admonition: “No privileges.”
Here the young princess made her own bed, cleaned her own room, kept a garden plot, and on occasion scrubbed the floor. Her classmates called her simply Alex, a name she disliked (she prefers Sandra) and dubbed her “the prankster of the fifth form” because she liked water-pistol fights.
She spent her holidays at home or at the homes of schoolmates. Once a year the family, her mother and two brothers, Edward and Michael, went to the seaside where they stayed at inexpensive hotels. The Princess signed her name simply Alexandra Kent. There’s a story that she once naively asked the hotel clerk to tell her how much postage she needed to mail a letter to her Uncle Bertie (the King) at Balmoral Castle.
Excepting her mother, Alexandra has traveled as a private citizen more than any other member of the Royal Family. She has been to the Riviera, visited her grandmother in Athens and her aunt in Bavaria. And she received her final training in Paris.
The Parisian interlude caused some raised eyebrows in England. “Most of us would prefer our princess to remain British,” sniffed one newspaper editorial. “France adores the British Royal Family but we don’t understand why the Count of Paris was chosen as Alexandra’s host,” said a British government official in France. He pointed out that royalists were gloating because the English princess’ visit was a boost to the Count’s prestige, providing him with the nationwide publicity he was seeking.
A New Parisian Look
The selection of the politically controversial Pretender as host for her daughter is an example of the Duchess of Kent’s independence and determination. She has often been criticized but rarely swayed by it. Before her wedding she was criticized for not buying her trousseau in England, thereby giving a much-needed boost to British dress designers. “After my marriage I shall buy my clothes in England,” she said decisively. “Right now Í am going to buy them in Paris from Captain Molyneux.” In this she was upheld by Queen Mary, who was impressed by the elegance and chic of the younger woman. The Duchess wears a head scarf with more dash than most women wear a fifty-dollar hat from the Place Vendóme.
Alexandra hasn’t yet acquired this talent but she is learning fast. When she arrived in Paris last October she was dressed in the self-effacing costume of the English schoolgirl—flat-heeled brown Oxfords, a loose-cut tweed suit with pleated skirt and a pudding-basin hat pulled down over her demure curls.
When she came back to London at Easter she looked distinctively Parisian. She wore a sleek head-hugging hat over her new feather cut, a tight black skirt, a smart black topcoat and a cashmere sweater with the latest in turtle necks. Since then her clothes have been faultless, revealing the combined effects of Paris and mother, with a minimum of the girlish bad judgment that characterized Princess Margaret’s wardrobe when she was the same age.
It was to perfect her conversational French that Alexandra lived with the Count of Paris and his family. (She had spoken the language since she was a child and took extra tuition during her summer vacations.) The Count, who was allowed to return to France three years ago provided he make no move to re-establish the monarchy, has eleven children. “I didn’t know one family could have so many!” Alexandra said to a friend after the first hectic week. She shared a white caretaker’s cottage behind the Count’s rather ugly Anglo-Norman villa in suburban Louveciennes with his five younger children, who range in age from seven to 15. None of them speaks English.
The Count’s family produced just the right mixture of democracy tend aristocracy to suit the decisive Duchess. He is a direct descendant of King Louis Philippe, King of France from 1830 to 1848 and his family tree bristles with Hapsburgs, Hanovers, Battenbergs, Orleans-Parmas, and assorted Braganzas. His wife, Countess Elizabeth, is a Portuguese princess whose father was the last emperor of Brazil. His children are well aware of their heritage. “The history of my name is the history of France,” says 19-year-old Henri, who still calls himself Dauphin. But they all plan to earn their own living. Henri is a scientist. His sister Isabelle, twenty, is a nurse. The others are students.
Alexandra soon adjusted to this stimulating atmosphere. On Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays she and Princess Hélène, the Count’s second daughter, attended Mile Anita’s finishing school. “What is a princess to me?” said Mile with a shrug when questioned about Alexandra. “I have five. They are here to learn and if they are not good—out they go!” The girls arrived promptly at 9 a.m. and got a good scolding if they were late. If they wore make-up, which Alexandra loves, Mile Anita told them to “wipe it off—it’s not ladylike.”
In the afternoons Alexandra usually went with her classmates to museums and art galleries. These conducted tours—and she faces thousands in her future life—bored her and she often slipped away with another rebellious student, her cousin Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia, to go window-shopping.
On nonschool days Alexandra took instruction in literature, philosophy and ethics from the Count, who is putting two of his sons and a daughter through a post-graduate course of study. Every morning the entire family gathered for a strenuous period of gymnastics - again led by the indefatigable Count. In addition there were household dramatics, musicales and even a family newspaper called We Eleven.
One morning a week the Princess studied music appreciation and interpretation given by a former student of the great French composer Maurice Ravel. Alexandra is fond of music and her tastes run from Beethoven to Fats Waller whom she imitates on the piano. Like most girls her age, she is jazzcrazy and used to spend hours in Paris listening to recordings by Sidney Bechet, the long-hair jazz artist —recordings which she couldn’t afford to buy.
Unlike other British debutantes Alexandra made no formal debut. She simply began appearing at the balls, house parties and coming-out dances that crowd the social calendar of an English summer. She is engrossed at finding her social feet and everything and everyone is either “smashing” or “fascinating,” including the boys she dismissed as “soppy” only a year or so ago. But holding hands in the moonlight is out for Princess Alexandra. Wherever she goes she is chaperoned either by her mother or her newly appointed lady-in-waiting, 25-year-old Lady Moyra Hamilton, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Abercorn.
This entry into society is facilitated by the Duchess’ new elegantly reconstructed apartment in Kensington Palace. This change in the family circumstances of the Kents is the result of two events: first, an amendment last year to the Civil List giving the Queen a special allowance for members of the family in difficult circumstances, and second, Queen Mary’s will which is believed to have contained a special and handsome bequest for the Duchess, thus fulfilling a promise she once made that Alexandra would never suffer from lack of money.
In her new home, so different from the shabby cluttered office in St. James’s Palace where she formerly conducted official business, the Duchess will find it easier to participate in court life and entertain her small but glittering circle of artistic friends: Cecil Beaton, Greta Garbo, Douglas Fairj banks. Sir Malcolm Sargent, Noel Coward, Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. These people interest Princess Margaret more than they do Alexandra, perhaps because Alexandra has been used to them all her life.
She is far more fascinated by a more prosaic profession. When she returned from Paris she announced she wanted to be a nurse. This was the result of listening wide-eyed to Princess Isabelle’s accounts of district nursing among the poor of Paris—scrubbing and shopping for poor mothers and helping to deliver babies.
But it is doubtful if this laudable ambition is within the reach of a royal princess even in 1954. Her mother, when she was the exiled Princess Marina, once wanted to be an artist and open a studio in Paris, but this was denied her. Her father, an accomplished amateur, had for years been making a shaky living for his family selling his paintings under the pseudonym of Nicholas le Prince. But in his eyes there was only one career open to his daughter—noble marriage. Undoubtedly the same future awaits Alexandra. The nearest she can expect to ; get to nursing will be when she opens a new hospital wing, or parades down a white corridor on a tour of inspection.
These tours are already beginning and they form the final phase in the training of a modern princess. In the light of her background it is not surprising that Alexandra approaches the various functions at which she is called on to preside without any trace of self-consciousness. On her first solo public engagement last June she reviewed a rally of the Junior Red Cross in St. James’s Palace. One small urchin preferred a forthright cockney greeting to the bow and the “ma’am” he had so carefully rehearsed. “Woteher!” he said, when Alexandra came by his display. Alexandra grinned. “Woteher!” she replied.
On a hot day in May when she was visiting the Chelsea flower show an official trotting at her heels asked what she would like to do next. She looked wistfully at a deep lily pond, “Jump in there and have a swim,” she said.
Such affairs are swiftly becoming the order of the day for Alexandra. Her initiation into the life of a princess came last year when she accompanied her mother on a tour of the Lancashire cotton mills. In two days she traveled more than two hundred miles, visited five mills, a college art exhibition, a research centre and three town halls packed with civic dignitaries. She attended eighty official presentations, shook 450 hands and ended up quite white with exhaustion. But from her spinning head to her aching feet, she remained every inch a true princess—a modern princess, that is.