Journalist Tina Brown has always known where to dig to get the best society dirt, but the most fun thing about reading her books is how unsparing she is in the retelling. On both scores, her latest royal biography, The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor — the Truth and the Turmoil, delivers. Over 500 pages, Brown lays out a buffet of well-sourced beefs and scalding descriptors: The disgraced Prince Andrew, in Brown’s estimation, is “a coroneted sleaze machine” with “a guffawing, boob-ogling pickup style.” Prince William? “Until he lost his hair … probably the biggest heartthrob to be heir to the throne.” Each and every one of the queen’s heirs, up to and including the soon-to-be king, Charles? “High-born scaffolding.” The queen once awarded Brown the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for her services to journalism, and you can see why.
The Palace Papers, published April 26, touts itself as a “tour de force journey through the scandals, love affairs, power plays, and betrayals” the crown has weathered since Brown published her last royal biography, The Diana Chronicles, in 2007. Brown says she solicited inside info from more than 100 sources — courtiers, former staff, an assortment of toffs — willing to speak on aspects of the royal life ranging from Prince Charles’s preferred toilet paper (Kleenex Velvet lavatory tissue, allegedly) to the Duke of York’s stuffed-animal collection (50 teddies strong, says Brown) to “Megxit.” Almost no one looks good after going under Brown’s knife. She portrays Meghan Markle as an image-driven social climber — one guest at her wedding asked the Clooneys how they knew the couple, and recalls them “brightly” answering, “We don’t!” — with another source claiming Meghan and Harry are “mutually addicted to drama.” Brown has covered the royal family for years — she has been the editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, and the Daily Beast — but in The Palace Papers, she has a surplus of catastrophe to work with.
Brown started working on the book over two years ago, “when Prince Philip was still alive, Prince Andrew was still a tolerated oaf doing the rounds at dinner parties, and Meghan and Harry were still beloved members of the royal family,” she says. “By the time I got two thirds of the way through, the House of Windsor had turned into a dumpster fire, and I was racing to keep ahead of the next explosion.” One remarkable thing about the monarchy, in her eyes, is how the cycles of chaos repeat themselves. Yet, Brown observes, “they do find ways to survive — even if it means eating their young.”
Having read the book, I will say — Meghan and Harry do not come off great.
I think I have been very empathetic to what Harry has been through in his life. Frankly, I began by being somewhat impatient of his constant wars with the press, but when I finished researching, I did feel that what Harry has been through is absolutely disgraceful and shocking, and no wonder he’s as bitter as he is. From the time he was an adolescent, he was hounded and harassed. His girlfriends were treated abominably by the press. He’s had a really rough time of it. I completely get why Meghan took one look and said, I’m out of here.
You write about Meghan and Harry’s complex relationship with the media.
Well, that’s a massive paradox, isn’t it? Harry spent so many years inveighing about the press, and now he seems to not be able to stop talking: giving interviews that are pretty explosive and invasive to the rest of his family. He remembers, surely, how much it hurt for him when his privacy was invaded, but he’s about to write a book of his own memoirs which clearly will invade the privacy of other members of his family. So he has a very complex — I would say, confused — attitude about it all.
Some of your sources seem to believe that Harry’s exit was inevitable, and also the right choice for him. What do you think?
One of the big discoveries of the book was when one of the people very close to him said, We always thought there was a point at which he would go. The queen felt that too. She was not surprised that Harry was going to choose to get out. What surprised them was the combative and angry way it all went down. That’s what really stunned them. And I think that to this day, Charles, apparently, is particularly baffled as to how it got so bad so fast.
What’s your view on how it all went down?
Do I think there was a better way to do it? I do. I’m sure that if they said, Look, we’re going to stay in Canada for a year and try to settle down as a family, I think there would’ve been great support for that, actually. But they wanted to bolt for the exit, the really thorny issue being the ability to make money while still retaining their royal patronages and positions. It’s a whole complex, conflict-of-interest mess, because whatever they might say about keeping these interests separate, in their commercial activities, they would be leveraging the crown. That’s why commercial opportunities would come their way, and did come their way; it was about the fact that they were royal. And the monarchy’s about service that is unremunerated. I think that they felt there was a lot of money to be made, and there was, but not as part of the royal system.
Having said all that, I think Meghan and Harry are a great loss to the royal family. They were great assets.
I liked your point about William refuting the idea that his family is a racist family: “How would he know?”
It’s a thousand-year-old institution, it’s a white protestant fortress. Meghan didn’t see anyone who looked like herself any of the time that she was there. So for a woman of color to come into that must’ve been extraordinarily difficult.
I know the palace has announced that it’s doing diversity trainings. Do you think that is them listening and hearing, or just lip service?
William, in his football patronage, has absolutely spoken up very persuasively in defense of the Black players who were trashed during the European finals, and there’s a sense that William’s generation wants to take it seriously. So in that sense, I do think efforts are being made — whether they’re enough, we will see.
What do you make of the rumored rift between Meghan and Kate?
I mean, the press loves cat fights, doesn’t it? Even if there wasn’t any tension, they would’ve made tension, because constantly pitting two women against each other inevitably makes people on edge. It was a very tricky situation, because here’s Harry and his new wife, who actually are more interesting and glamorous and charismatic than the number-one couple: That’s going to lead to tension. Kate is a strong character, very well-educated, very smart. She was the first royal woman, now that I think about it, who had any proper education. She’s impressive, but she’s human, and who needs to be described continually as the Duchess of Dull, compared to the charismatic Meghan?
Though Meghan has been the subject of— as you note — very plainly racist coverage.
Absolutely. The press started to do a really awful, and typical, chauvinistic and racist tack. The undertone was definitely the lily-white, flawless Kate versus the confounding Meghan. When they were both pregnant, and Kate would be holding her belly — as a pregnant woman tends to do — and it’s, How lovely, Mother Earth Kate. But when Meghan did that, it’s like, What’s the matter with Meghan, why is she always flaunting her pregnancy? It was so blatantly discriminatory.
Meghan has been clear that it was a driving force behind her unhappiness, saying in the Oprah interview that she felt completely unprotected.
I do think that they should have been more aggressive in their defense of Meghan, and they should’ve done it faster. You can’t tell the press to be positive, but you can give a thundering rebuke. A statement from the queen, Buckingham Palace, would’ve helped, but it didn’t come.
When I think about who the palace does protect, one person who comes to mind is Andrew. He is someone for whom the palace has issued these statements, year after year.
That’s a very valid point. Andrew was protected for far too long, and if I were Meghan, I would look at that and think, This unbelievable oaf and sleaze is getting all this protection, and why isn’t there more for me?
Regarding Andrew, you write that, even after his disastrous 2019 BBC interview, both he and the queen held onto the belief that he could eventually “be returned to the fold with a reduced role, rather than full banishment.” Do you still think that’s true?
Absolutely. We saw the awful lapse when Andrew escorted the queen at Philip’s funeral. That was appalling, and there was a great deal of upset and anger about it at the palace. Andrew was supposed to hand the queen off to the Dean [of Westminster], so that the queen would be escorted to her seat. But Andrew shouldered in, muscled in and extended his arm to his mother, and she took it. Now, she’s 96; it was the memorial of her husband, Andrew’s father. I think in the queen’s mind, this was a private mourning of her husband, even though it was publicly seen. I think the queen actually likes being able to show that Andrew is still her son, and whatever happens to him in public life, it doesn’t affect her feelings for him. She has a very soft spot for him. Frankly, the thing that stunned me is that none of the other children brought her into the service. It was very bad optics.
Do you think Andrew is trying to sneak back into a more public role?
No doubt about it, but it’s not going to work. As long as the queen is around, it might be possible for him to keep sneaking back in, but it’s not going to work when Charles is king or when William is king. He is going to have absolutely no truck with Andrew.
You write that the monarchy retains its public interest and its relevance because it “plays the long game,” and at the same time, because it’s such an old institution, “it cannot be expected to be nimble.” But doesn’t it have to be, if it wants to survive?
Actually, it has been. The whole trauma of the Diana marriage was that Charles was supposed to marry a virgin, and she became the only one available because to look for one was like trying to find the Loch Ness monster. And then we get to a point where the grandson of the queen is marrying a divorced American woman of color. That is a pretty big change. We get to the point where the divorced, scandal-scarred Duchess of Cornwall has been declared by the queen to be the next queen consort — and that is a woman who wasn’t even allowed to come to Charles’s 50th birthday. So the monarchy is changing and evolving all the time, but it’s like a glacier. Like any massive institution, it does change but it’s not nimble. It works according to the people who are there.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.