At a tricky crossroads: Meghan in New York with Suits actress Abigail Spencer
The Duchess of Sussex was in New York this week, catching up with friends, having lunch and doing a little light shopping. It was a private visit so there was no additional cost to the British taxpayer.
She is already back at work, flying the flag for Britain on a high-profile official visit to Morocco, where she and the Duke will promote diplomatic relations, boost UK interests and support humanitarian causes.
Just another week in the everyday story of royal folk? Hardly. As Princess Diana’s private secretary, I learned to recognise that the line between official and private travel is never just about the money. It’s a code that opens a Pandora’s box of unintended consequences.
Rich people’s jets — in this case a Gulfstream reportedly paid for by George and Amal Clooney — always come with a bill attached, even if it’s not the kind you can pay with a Duchy of Cornwall credit card.
Favours must be returned, obligations quickly multiply and pretty soon royal free-riders are handing over their most precious assets: credibility and dignity, if not, please God, their lives.
The uproar created in some quarters by Meghan’s brief, but undeniably extravagant, Big Apple excursion could hardly have been greater if she had run naked down Broadway and burned a Union Jack in Times Square.
But let’s keep a sense of proportion here. A high-profile former actress, she happens to have rich celebrity friends and, if they behave as rich celebrities usually do, then good luck to her, surely.
Anyway, other members of the Royal Family, notably Prince Charles and Camilla, have often been known graciously to accept favours from the mega-rich, especially if there’s a jet, a yacht or a private island on offer. Just don’t tactlessly mention the environmental damage.
This whole subject is a high-hypocrisy zone, so instead, relax, enjoy the exotic pictures and remember the words of Jimmy Stewart’s character, the cynical hack Macaulay Connor in The Philadelphia Story: ‘The prettiest sight in this fine pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.’
Royal dramas of this kind tend to fizzle out pretty quickly, fit only for tomorrow’s recycling bin.
There will surely be some courtiers this morning (not least in Casablanca with the Duke and Duchess) who are trying this explanation on for size. Perhaps it will all blow over, they hope, and the British public’s love for its excitingly-disruptive American newcomer will resume undiminished.
After all, it seems only yesterday that Her Royal Highness was winning hearts with her ‘bananagrams’ for sex workers in Bristol, recipe-sharing with women in the Grenfell community kitchen, and speech-making on women’s education and women’s suffrage on a hugely successful tour Down Under in October.
Taking a tough line: Patrick Jephson with Princess Diana. Patrick Jephson was equerry and private secretary to HRH The Princess of Wales 1988-96
Away she goes: Markle was seen leaving The Mark on Wednesday night an hour after her five-day baby shower holiday
Then again, perhaps this time it won’t blow over.
Here’s why. The juxtaposition of the baby shower excesses of New York — even if the celebrations were, as reported, funded by her friend the tennis player Serena Williams — and the sober mainstream royal duty of Morocco represents a critical crossroads for the new Duchess. Which path she chooses will determine not just her own future, but also that of the Monarchy itself, whose fortunes are now linked by marriage and genetics with her own.
To quote the fictional Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey: ‘The truth is neither here nor there, it’s the look of the thing that matters.’
From any angle, the look of Meghan’s Manhattan partying is pretty unedifying. Not just for its excess — though that’s impressively unsettling — but for its calculated recklessness.
Taking off: Meghan Markle boards a private plane to fly back home to London following her baby shower in New York (above)
Meghan’s famous friends: Amal Clooney (left) arrives for the baby shower while Serena Williams (right) heads into a dinner with Meghan at The Polo Bar the previous evening
Who wore it better: Jessica Mulroney (left on Tuesday) and Misha Nonoo (right on Wednesday) put on a colorless display in New York as they arrive for Meghan’s dinner and baby shower respectively
Traditionally, when royal people screw up, it’s the courtiers — those bumbling ‘men in suits’ of popular myth — who cop the blame; royal people never actually make mistakes, goes the time-honoured formula; they’re just badly advised.
But this time Meghan can’t use that excuse because, for reasons of her own, it seems that she has outsourced her support operations, including reputation management, to a group of her friends.
As befits a self-declared champion of ‘women who work’ as opposed to ‘ladies who lunch’ (her own words) she owns this one: chaos, candy floss, flower charity, Gulfstream, the lot.
In a prelude to this week’s junket, it was these friends who monopolised an issue of People magazine to ‘set the record straight’ about how the Duchess was being victimised and bullied by some members of her own family.
Big day: Gayle King (above on Wednesday leaving the shower) revealed that Markle was waiting to open her gifts until she was back with Prince Harry
The Duchess of Sussex helps pack food during her to visit the Hubb Community Kitchen, London
Pictured: Messages written on fruit by the Duchess of Sussex when she was helping to prepare food parcels
Having organised several New York trips for Princess Diana, I’m very aware of the need to keep everyone from the Consul General to the New York Police Department properly aware of the VIP on their patch, writes Patrick Jephson (Pictured: Diana on Panorama with Martin Bashir)
These same friends kept the media and the Twittersphere intimately informed of every breathless detail of the very un-British custom of the baby shower — including the presence of a harpist and tuition in flower-arranging (the finished creations were donated to charity).
We might ask if this is merely a dreary attempt by Meghan’s friends to catch a bit of royal limelight for their own ambitions, social and professional (coincidentally, George Clooney has a new TV show, Catch-22, to promote), or if there is some other strategy at work in which these are just the early moves.
Because, intentionally or not, Meghan seems to be assembling an array of PR firepower which should make any palace press office sit up.
Somewhere in the bowels of Buckingham Palace, I suspect anxious courtiers might reasonably be pondering that if this People stunt is how she treats her own flesh and blood, what might she be willing to do to her in-laws if they were ever to similarly incur her displeasure?
The apparent decision to keep those men in suits in the dark about this private PR initiative will certainly add to their anxiety and cause them irritation. I should know: Harry’s mother did it to me, especially her ill-judged Panorama interview in 1995.
Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, prepares personalised messages on fruit in the charity kitchen with volunteer Sue Creighton
In reality, if you’re a front-rank member of the Windsor brand, there’s no such thing as a ‘private’ visit to the City That Never Sleeps (left: Harry and Meghan’s wedding. Right: Duchess of Sussex on stage during The Fashion Awards 2018)
But it also cuts Meghan off from a support organisation that, if sometimes irksome, exists to protect her from the traps that await newcomers to royal red carpet, including those set by ‘best friends’ with agendas of their own to serve. Crucially, it also exists to protect and perpetuate the Monarchy: in fact, that’s quite properly its first priority.
The cost of Meghan’s New York baby shower
Private jet from the UK to New York, round trip – $250,000
The Mark Hotel Grand Penthouse Suite – $150,000
Five nights in a one-bedroom suite at The Mark Hotel – $9,982.05
Dinner for five at The Polo Bar – approx. $420
Lunch at Cafe Bolud – approx. $78
Afternoon tea for two at Laduree – approx. $45
Two Royal Protection officers – $14,213
Harp player Erin Hill – $625
17 Away carry-on suitcases – $3,825
Gifts: Babyletto Hudson 3-in-1 Convertible Crib – $379
10ft mandarin tree – approx. $140
Lady Fleur NYC roses – approx. $399.95
Trek bicycle – approx. $609.99
Carnival King cotton candy machine – $199.99
JZ Events – $50,000
Lewis Miller – $20,000
Thanks to this baby shower, improbable as it seems, we now need reassurance that the Duchess of Sussex — and her friends — share that priority. She is a prominent member of the British Royal Family, entrusted with the country’s reputation in everything she does. That responsibility sometimes seems at odds with her personal behaviour.
Who else was kept out of the loop? Having organised several New York trips for Princess Diana, I’m very aware of the need to keep everyone from the Consul General to the New York Police Department properly aware of the VIP on their patch.
Perhaps the British Embassy in Washington had lots of warning of the treat in store, with ample time to orchestrate another faultless event of the kind for which British embassies are renowned the world over.
I wonder . . . because the truth is, for consuls, cops and dozens of concerned officials, ‘I didn’t know’ is hardly going to save their careers if disaster strikes on their watch.
In reality, if you’re a front-rank member of the Windsor brand, there’s no such thing as a ‘private’ visit to the City That Never Sleeps. Remember, any machine only runs as smoothly as the smallest cog.
Talking of that Windsor brand, here’s another reason why debate over ‘Showergate’ should not be lightly dismissed.
Ever since he emerged as the irresistibly cute naughty one of the two Wales brothers, Harry has occupied a special place in hearts the world over — a place reinforced by the poignant image of the little boy walking behind his mother’s coffin.
Any wife he chose would receive her share of that affection as a wedding gift, and Meghan duly received a generous slice of it. With that gift came a responsibility to recognise it as both priceless and fragile, and to protect it.
Just nine months ago, the world watched enchanted as the British Crown laid on its pixel-perfect wedding for the latest recruit. Back then, it seemed impossible that the bride who was its flawless centrepiece should fail to recognise what was being entrusted to her.
The Duchess of Sussex and Queen Elizabeth II attend a ceremony to open the new Mersey Gateway Bridge on June 14, 2018 in Widnes
Amal and George Clooney arrive at St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle for the wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry
Meghan helps to prepare food at an event to mark the launch of a cookbook with recipes from a group of women affected by the Grenfell Tower fire at Kensington Palace
A delivery truck was seen unloading an array of floral arrangements outside of the Upper East Side hotel rumored to be the host of Meghan Markle’s Baby Shower. Hotel staff carried in Bouquets of Pink roses as well as smaller table arrangements featuring colorful spring flowers
Pictured: The Mark Hotel Manhattan Suite. Five nights in a one-bedroom suite at The Mark Hotel costs $9,982.05
Yet the excesses of the baby shower now threaten the benign indifference of the British public — an accident of history that is the Windsors’ most precious, but also most volatile, asset. Unfortunately for Meghan, in Windsor World it doesn’t require wicked intent to set the centuries-old edifice a-tremble: not knowing what you don’t know will do the job just as well.
In this context, it’s hard to remember Meghan’s eager determination to ‘hit the ground running’ in her new royal career and not compare it with her sister-in-law Catherine’s less exciting but, in retrospect, wiser intention ‘to learn the ropes’.
All Meghan’s running has brought her, at private-jet velocity, to a lonely crossroads. It’s a stark choice between the path of celebrity versus the path of duty, service and sacrifice.
Did she recognise this dilemma before Prince Harry slipped that engagement ring onto her finger? As a gifted, intelligent and worldly woman, the answer is, surely, of course she did. She will also know that in marrying the Queen’s grandson, she has allied her interests with the Windsors’ instinct to protect their dynasty at any cost.
Duchess of Sussex visits the Hubb Community Kitchen, London
Meghan’s crossroads is as old as monarchy itself. A whole tribe of gutsy royal women have been here before her. In the last 100 years, several have been the spine and heart of the British Monarchy.
These include: Alexandra, who endured Edward VII’s serial philandering and pioneered a new style of compassionate royal work; Mary, who steeled her husband in World War I and Elizabeth the Queen Mother who did the same in WWII; and the present Elizabeth, whose reign will likely never be surpassed as the standard for service before self.
The common factor was a recognition that royal privilege and perks have to be paid for, not by rich chums, but by a lifetime of service to the people whose bows, curtsies and taxes will always be willingly given in return. Better make that probably willingly.
Other women also passed this way. In the present reign, there has been a high failure rate of church weddings of first-rank Royal Family members. Only three, out of seven, have escaped the divorce courts.
One of those statistics was Harry’s mother, whose experience has hopefully also been carefully studied by Meghan. In comparing the two women, differences quickly outnumber any similarities. Diana’s 16-year royal career was already consigned to history before she reached the age Meghan is now.
Meghan is no teen virgin, but a divorced, media-smart and ambitious celebrity, empowered by all the arsenal of right-on feminism. Her fate is emphatically in her own hands, as it should be.
Recent lurid headlines will fade, hurried on their way by the imminent arrival of what will surely be the most photogenic of babies.
But that crossroads will, I predict, obstinately remain.
- Patrick Jephson was equerry and private secretary to HRH The Princess of Wales 1988-96. His latest book, The Meghan Factor, is available from Amazon.com