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Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles Entertain at the Clarence House
The Prince of Wales has taken up residence in Clarence House, where his grandmother, the beloved Queen Mother, lived from 1953 until her death last year. Camilla Parker Bowles has her own apartment in Clarence House, a newly decorated suite with a fine view, the same rooms the Queen Mother once occupied. To those miffed ones who take umbrage at her choice of this particular apartment (they have been described as senior courtiers), who feel the rooms should remain sacrosanct, the message is: Find something better to do with your time. What is supposed to be done with the suite? Lock the door and throw away the key? Prince William and Prince Harry also will live there when they are in London. Do the courtiers have a problem with that?
Clarence House, innately beautiful, filled as it is with much of the Queen Mother’s private collection of magnificent furniture, tapestries, carpets and paintings, is even lovelier now that it has been refurbished, leaving intact unique personal and historical objects that tell the story of this great lady’s full life. The designer, Robert Kime, worked closely with Prince Charles on the project, which included the light-filled Money Room, the Library and the Formal Dining Room. Clarence House may be palatial, but it is not a palace. Despite its soaring rooms and gracious spaces, it is basically a home, a luxurious home with family portraits on the wall, flowering plants everywhere and plump pillows on the sofas.
The house, steeped in history, was built between 1825 and 1828 by the great architect, John Nash, for William, Duke of Clarence, hence its name. When William became King William IV, he and his Queen Adelaide continued to live there — Buckingham Palace was not yet finished — and a connecting gallery was built between Clarence House and their adjoining quarters in magnificent St. James’s Palace.
When William died in 1837, it became his sister Princess Augusta’s home, and then that of the Duchess of Kent, who was Queen Victoria’s mother. Later, two of Victoria’s sons, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, and Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, lived there until Arthur died in 1942. During World War II, Clarence House became the headquarters of the Red Cross, and when the war was over and the bomb damage repaired, the young Princess Elizabeth and her husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, lived there until 1952 when she became Queen Elizabeth II. Princess Margaret also lived there from 1952 until she married.
It was in the Garden Room at Clarence House that Prince Charles, with Camilla at his side, wearing her grandmother’s diamond necklace, welcomed his guests, supporters of the Prince of Wales Foundation, based in Washington, D.C. Instead of a formal receiving line as in years past, they received only three or four guests at a time, making it a much more personal experience and giving Charles and Camilla a chance to display their charm and friendliness, which both have in abundance. From there, the guests were escorted through a passageway, the same one built to make things easier for William IV and Adelaide, to adjacent St. James’s Palace, where, in the towering red and gold magnificence of the Throne Room, they sipped champagne and cocktails. The glorious throne therein dates from William’s reign and the backcloth of its canopy carries the arms of Queen Victoria. Then it was on to Queen Anne’s Room for a performance by the soprano, Angela Gheorghiu, as noted for her temperament as for her talent and beauty. Miss Angela wore a clinging — very — red chiffon dress, so see-through that some of those present found it a little difficult to concentrate on her singing. She also was late for her appearance — it’s not good form to keep a prince waiting — but all’s well that ends well, as someone once said.
Before we wend our way into dinner in the fabulous Picture Galley, here’s a bit of history on St. James’s. It was built between 1532 and 1541 by that old rogue Henry VIII, who never saw a lady he didn’t want to bed or behead or both. It was the former site of a female leper colony, but Henry knew prime real estate when he saw it. Actually, it was built not for himself but as a Royal Manor for his natural son, Henry Fitzroy, the Duke of Richmond. When Henry arranged for Richmond to take the throne in the Acts of Succession, he thus illegitimatized his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, making them, if you will, bastards. As we all know, that didn’t stop Elizabeth I for a minute.
St. James’s has remained a principal royal residence for more than 300 years, and even though the state apartments have not been used since the days of William IV, the British Court is still known as the Court of St. James’s, where ambassadors all over the world are accredited.
So now, on to dinner in the Picture Gallery, a wondrous room of stunning proportions where perhaps the finest paintings of the Stuart royal family are to be found. They range from a huge portrait of Queen Anne of Denmark, who married James I, through the families of Charles I and II and James II. At the center of each table were great golden gilt bowls and vessels chosen from the vaults of Buckingham Palace and filled with luscious fruits. Before each spectacular place setting, a hand-painted menu informed that for the guests’ delectation, they would be served such as parfait of foie gras with a salad of serrano ham and garden leaves; leg of lamb roasted with rosemary, and gooseberry fool ice cream with a compote of gooseberries. Who knew so many splendid folk were such fools for gooseberries?
And this is who was there: Mercedes and Sid Bass (she wore a multicolored silk one-shoulder dress below the calf with a big yellow flower on that one shoulder and said she designed it herself. Watch out Oscar de la Renta. Mercedes would also love to stage an opera of “Gone with the Wind,” she said, and she means it. Watch out Joseph Volpe); Cécile and Ezra Zilkha; Pauline Pitt; Anne Hearst; the fashionable Californians, Betsy Bloomingdale, Erlenne Sprague and Marion Jorgensen; Princess Firyal of Jordan; Lionel Pincus; Boaz Mazor; Hilary Geary with Wilbur Ross; Rose Marie Bravo; Anne Forbes; Nada and Nemir Kirdar; Astrid and Kip Forbes; Tim Jefferies without Alexandra von Furstenberg; Denise Hale; Deborah Norville and Karl Wellner; Blaine and Robert Trump; Patricia Hearst; Joan Rivers; Kimberly and Stephen Rockefeller; Genny and Fred Ryan; our great baseball legend, Cal Ripken Jr., and his beautiful blue-eyed wife, Kelly, and last but never least, Robert Higdon, the Prince of Wales’ man in Washington, who heads the Prince’s foundation and is responsible for all those royal galas running as smooth as silk.