17 Million Americans watched the Oprah interview on Sunday night. That’s six million more than watched the opening of Round 2 of our own President’s impeachment. The airwaves today are exploding with controversy as various sides line up to condemn the House of Windsor or its recently exiled couple. This piece is not about who won or lost. It’s pretty clear that there are only losers in this battle. As I watched the interview what resonated for me was how often I have witnessed this warfare in a lesser form.
The House of Windsor is a family business. When the Stuart monarchy crapped out in 1714 the Brits had to import a German replacement in King George I. The Family carried the name of Saxe Coburg and Gotha until the end of World War I when the embarrassment of being attacked by Queen Victoria’s own grandson (Kaiser Wilhelm) prompted a change to the anglicized House of Windsor. Then the royal family lived through the humiliation of Edward VIII, who quit after a year to marry a Baltimore divorcee. During World War II, Queen Elizabeth’s parents changed the game by staying in London through the blitz and making their children perform public service. Yes, they live fabulous in fabulous castles. But unlike their worst predecessor, George IV, the modern Windsor’s have largely performed admirably as public servants and created a Windsor “brand” that is widely regarded as honorable in spite of the occasional problems created by Princess Margaret, Fergie and now Prince Andrew.
Diana Spencer and now Meghan Markel married into the family business without a clear vision of just how demanding and, to some degree demeaning, that business can be. There are those who dismiss Spencer and Markel as weaklings or worse; brats, because they could not take the “pressure” of living in castles, riding in limos and sailing on 400’ yachts.
What most of us “commoners” fail to realize is that, while immense wealth does provide every convenience and a host of amenities, it does not spare our “betters” the indignities of communicable disease, infidelity, mental illness, drug addiction or any of the other frailties to which many humans fall prey. It is easy to fall prey to these problems when living a life of privilege, especially when the family business takes precedence. Queen Elizabeth II and her late mother set a well-nigh impossible standard. At age 101 the Queen Mother insisted on standing for the national anthem at a public event even though she had just fractured her pelvis. Twenty-five days before her death in March 2002, she attended a lawn party for the “Eton Beagles.” One must concede that she did this out of duty to King and country; not because she missed picnicking with the hounds.
Those who have been born to or married into a family business will fully understand what they saw on television in the Oprah interview. They may recall the BBC interview of Harry’s mother in 1995, two years before her death. Last year’s interview with President Trump’s niece recalled how her grandfather (Fred Trump) dismissed his own son as a loser because Fred didn’t have the conviction to make the family business the epicenter of his life.
Lawyers practicing family law see these casualties every day. Innocent people fall in love with a person who is part of an existing family business or one who decides that their vocation is their reason for being. The business can be as intoxicating and as addictive as any narcotic. And, in many cases it produces wealth that seems to compensate for certain types of dysfunctionality. Nonetheless, wealth and happiness are equivalents right? Unfortunately, the experience of Diana Spencer, her son Harry and his bride Meghan demonstrate that is not the case.
Like Charles and Diana, Meghan and Harry were to have another fairy tale marriage. Think what you will of Wallis Simpson, but she persuaded Edward VIII to abdicate and enjoy their marriage for 35 years, until his death. In a sense, Markel (another American) persuaded another royal that their relationship was more important than the family business known as the House of Windsor. To family lawyers, the pain of all those involved is clear. The Windsor’s feel betrayed by the crewmember who has left the ship. But inwardly they also understand the toll that living in a fishbowl takes on anyone who aspires to a normal life. Not all of us are equipped at age 102 to answer the call of the Eton Beagles, even if we have a Rolls Royce Phantom to get us there.