Monday, April 12, 2021. On a sunny but cool last Saturday in New York, the temps climbed into the low 60s. Late in the afternoon a fog almost suddenly appeared and everything turned grey. And then the rain came, light but steady with Sunday morning, and cooler temps down into the low 50s. Otherwise it was a quiet weekend in New York.
I had dinner on Friday night with Debbie Bancroft who was in town just for an overnight from her house in Southampton. I saw her last October when Geoffrey Bradfield invited me to join him and Barbara de Portago to celebrate Debbie’s birthday here at Restaurant Daniel. Other than that I haven’t seen her since March of ’20. Debbie said that she missed New York but that it was quiet out there in the east and she’d got used to it. She was surprised to see that the city (on a Friday night) was very quiet.
The topic at hand was the passing of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. It began for me with little interest. I knew very little of his background because he’s never been a person of great interest to me. He was, generally, always just the husband of the Queen, and father of her children.
The stories I’d heard about him over the years were gossip — about his extra-monarchal social life around London; and/or that he was a difficult person in that he could be bored or intolerant or arrogant around people, such as members of the palace staff such as the footmen. In retrospect it sounds almost trivial because you’d almost expect that from a man who’d married the Queen; and basically that was his “job.” Except, in the Prince’s case, it was just idle gossip.
We all have our likes and dislikes about public people — people we actually don’t know or have never met. But we think we know them because their public personality is so prominent or we’ve seen them speak on TV. Yet with all that worldwide prominence, very often the public hasn’t a clue about what that person is really like if you knew him (or her). That pretty much summed up my intellectual relationship with the Prince, a man I never knew, or met.
I did see him him speak once here in New York, back in the mid-90s on behalf of the World Wildlife Fund which he was President of for 15 years. He must have been in his mid-70s then with very much a presence. I can’t remember where it was held, but it wasn’t a large group – maybe a hundred or so; and I see a wood paneled room in my reverie. I’m guessing it was at a private club. I wrote about it somewhere in these thousands of pages.
He stood on a low platform before us and behind a podium but clearly very at ease. He was, of course a familiar face immediately. And his classic handsomeness was irrelevant. He was very comfortable in his own skin, as they say. It’s the kind of “comfort” that draws the audience in; they feel comfortable.
However, after listening to his talk, the substance of which was about the caring for the wild life as well as the civilized — I was very impressed by his humanity. He spoke of the good and delivered it like a personal experience. He did relay a sense of the ultimate authority, a kind of caretaking that you naturally expect of leaders. He spoke with authority, yet like a friend.
What he had that I’d never read about was Great Charm. The real thing, a kind of polished niceness that makes the others feel good being in its presence. But what struck me and stayed with me was a most pleasant personality. He wore a natural modesty, almost like (but not nearly) one of the guys.
The obituaries of the man reach into his childhood and youth which occurred amidst great changes in the world and in his family’s life. He was born a member of the royals who inhabited the thrones of Europe and Russia — his own background was Danish and Greek — and were all related directly to the other royal families. It was no accident that he ended up with Princess Elizabeth who was going to become the Queen. They were a perfect (“cute”) couple to the public’s eye. Evidently they really liked each other too, but they were all related.
Reading about Philip’s childhood and parents I was reminded again of Prince Dimitri’s excellent history (“Once Upon A Diamond”) of the “jewelry” of the royal families of the last four centuries. Dimitri and Philip, no doubt, were related. Philip grew up amidst profound political changes in European life, and those “changes” have continued right up to the end of his life. No doubt his young experience provided additional wisdom to the handling of his wife’s monarchy.
However, Conrad Black wrote the best piece in The Sun on Friday about Prince Philip. Titled; “Philip: What an Astonishing Life Was His.” Black begins recalling when as a young boy growing up in Canada about seventy years ago when his mother took him and his brother to see the then Princess Elizabeth and “her almost new husband pass by on their way to look at E. P. Taylor’s racehorses at Windfields Farm, now the Toronto community of Don Mills.”
From there Mr. Black covers Prince Philip’s background/ancestors and their history, as well as Philip’s service in the Royal Navy during World War II (while two of his sisters’ German husbands were serving in the navy of the Third Reich).
And from there, as fate would have it for Conrad Black, many years later, then in the newspaper business in Canada, he met the Prince for business reasons. And over time, as matter of course in their common interests, he met him several more times so that they were familiar acquaintances. His memories and example of “what it was like/what he was like” are kind yet incisive. He liked Philip. You can see that you’d have liked him too. He was a GREAT husband to Her Majesty and served his role brilliantly and effectively, often with the wisdom granted to him by his past, the roots of Common Sense that his fate had taught him. It was a life well-lived, and good.