Byline: Aileen Mehle
History Lesson for Today: Kensington Palace, a huge brick structure famously designed by Christopher Wren and William Kent, the legendary 17th- and 18th-century architects, is one of several of London’s magnificent royal palaces and the birthplace of Queen Victoria. It is here that Victoria was born in 1819, grew up and was trained to be a future ruler. She was lucky enough to enjoy a deliriously happy marriage to her cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, whom she adored and idolized, and who influenced her reign mightily until his death in 1861. He must have been rather keen on her, too, certainly physically, because they had nine children. Albert sure knew how to treat a lady, especially this one who was so stuck on him.
Kensington Palace, interiorly sumptuous and adjoining Hyde Park, has been the royal residence through the years of William III, an asthmatic; Queen Anne; Victoria, of course; and other assorted sovereigns who indulged in one splendid fete after another and who dressed themselves lavishly — it took them forever — in gorgeous opulence in plumed hats, the finest of satins and silks and diamond buckles on their shoes — and that was just the men. In an era noted for its luxury, fashionable, bewigged, bejeweled ladies of the court — anxious to impress — wore panniers so awesome they had to sidle into doors sidewise and be careful when they sat that these incredible hoops didn’t fly over their heads. Not that anyone would have minded much. It was a time when men were men, and women were glad of it — and the more of your bosom that popped out of your bodice the better. In fact, it was decreed that female courtiers, other than those aged or infirm, must have special permission to wear high-necked dresses that did not display their boobs. Who else would tell you these things?
Charles, Prince of Wales, is one of numerous direct descendants of Queen Victoria, and if Kensington Palace was good enough for his famed ancestress, it is certainly good enough for him. So when he gave a dinner in honor of the American donors to his Prince of Wales Foundation — the only one of his many charitable organizations based in this country (in Washington, D.C.) — he chose to elegantly wine and dine them there with cocktails in the King’s Gallery, followed by a delicious hot meal in the King’s Drawing Room.
The King’s Gallery, decorated by the great William Kent, has been restored to what it looked like during the reigns of George I and George II. Kent painted the ceilings depicting the legend of Ulysses, and every inch of the walls is hung with pictures that were there in the 1730s. (One doesn’t have to look for the nudes; they look for you. Especially the one with a saucy jade — her ivory derriere totally exposed in the painting’s forefront — hanging over the door leading to the King’s staircase. So how can you miss her and hers?)
The King’s Drawing Room, also a Kent opus, has been restored with beautiful chandeliers and acres of crimson silk damask. (It was also the innovative Kent who first used wallpaper in a royal building, probably having had it up to here with cut velvet.) Dinner was served at a big horseshoe-shaped table, beautifully laid with examples of the royal silver, so heavy it takes three men and a boy to lift the epergnes and candelabra. There were almost as many flowers as there are in the Prince of Wales’s gardens at his country house, Highgrove. During drinks and dinner, a harpist, a flutist, an oboist and two clarinetists, all young girls, played Mozart, Haydn and Handel. Prince Charles spoke eloquently of his aims for his Foundation, and don’t let anyone tell you he can’t be amusing at the same time.
And this is who was there: Joe Albritton, the American banker and communications tycoon, and thoroughbred horse owner, and his wife, Barby; Florida real estate magnate Steve Wilson and his wife, Courtney; William Berger, the prominent mutual-fund founder from Denver, and his wife, Bernadette; New York philanthropists Russell Wilkinson and his wife, Eileen Guggenheim, who are affiliated with the New York Academy of Art; Scott Bessent, the young money manager and director of the Soros Management Fund in New York and London; Joan Wegner of Oak Brooke, Ill., the noted chairman emeritus of Jel Sert Company; Lord and Lady Browne-Wilkinson (milord is a London law lord; milady is a director of the Prince of Wales Foundation for Architecture and a board member of the Prince of Wales Foundation; Cissy and David Walker (he is a London stockbroker, and both are prominent conservationists); Carole and Lodwrick Cook of Beverly Hills, great friends of the Reagans — he is very big business and both are noted philanthropists; Blaine and Robert Trump of New York, both self-explanatory — she wore navy silk by Gianfranco Ferre; Their Serene Highnesses Prince and the beautiful Princess Pierre d’Arenberg (they are expecting a baby girl and are both overjoyed); David Tang, the Chinese entrepreneur, and his fiancee, Lucy Wastnage; such Forbeses as Christopher, a member of the Foundation’s board; Wallace Forbes and his daughter, Alexandra; Bobby (the Forbes publishing empire’s man in London) and his wife, Lydia; Diane Sawyer in all her glory, and others too scintillating to be mentioned until next week.