Revenge is a dish best served cold, over many courses and paid for by someone else.
I come to you having actually read Harry Windsor’s much-anticipated and intentionally controversial memoir, “Spare.” Not the lists of “Top Five Bombshells” or “Key Takeaways” but the book itself, from start to finish. It is a quick read, more sad than sensational, ringing with exactly the sort of loneliness, frustration and rebellion one would expect from a still-young, motherless prince whose royal bubble of a life has been narrated through the emotional whipsaw of tabloid headlines. An earnest, almost childlike attempt to explain what that life felt like to the boy and man inside the bubble.
More important, it is the capstone of a personal disclosure campaign that puts Lena Dunham to shame. That the royal family is a chilly, oppressive and internally competitive institution that will eat its young to survive can come as no surprise to anyone with knowledge of Princess Diana’s life and death or Peter Morgan’s highly regarded royal multiverse of “The Queen” and “The Crown.”
That many in the U.K. will also defend the royal family is also well known. (Has anyone checked in with Dame Judi Dench about her thoughts on “Spare”?)
The British tabloids have built a media ecosystem on covering, creating and then defending House of Windsor drama.
Since Harry’s marriage to Meghan Markle and their subsequent break with the royal family, however, the two have decided to seize the means of production; they have nothing to lose but their titles.
Like many, I watched the Netflix docuseries “Harry and Meghan” and Harry’s recent chat with Anderson Cooper, read the Cut and Variety interviews with Meghan, experienced the endless cycle of reactions on social, British and American media. I, myself, wrote about the famous Oprah interview in which the couple explained why they fled the U.K. for California and jump-started the whole multimedia, multimillion-dollar Sussex industrial complex.
There is something hypnotic about a narrative that contains, at one end, the endurance of inarguable racism, sexism and sheer hatefulness and, on the other, painstaking clarifications of who made who cry over Princess Charlotte’s flower girl’s dress.
Whether or not Harry and Meghan are good, bad or even interesting people, their ability to drive the press crazy by giving them exactly what they want — endless royal content — while wresting control of the narrative and getting a whole lot of money to boot is astonishing to watch.
As “Spare” describes in truly disturbing detail, Prince Henry Charles Albert David was born to be press fodder. The only power the British royal family wields is popularity, and that popularity is determined, to a large extent, by the tabloid press. For pretty much all his life, Harry has been trailed by photographers, rumors, headlines, supposition and reporters endlessly shouting questions at him. Questions that he could never, would never answer.
How did he feel about being at Eton/his mother’s death/his father’s remarriage/reports that his wife was a Boss Bully? What was he thinking when he smoked weed at school/wore a Nazi uniform to a party/caroused in Las Vegas/took three days to announce the birth of his second child? How could he abandon England? What did the queen say? What did Prince (now King) Charles say? What did Meghan and Kate really fight about? What did he and William fight about? Why is he living in freaking Montecito?
His life may have been one of privilege, but look at where privilege got him: his mother literally hounded to death by paparazzi, a string of romantic partners chased off by the same, a family in which displays of affection are rare but every member has a separate press secretary, his wife scourged by racist attacks and every move watched, captured and critiqued by multiplatform media.
You don’t have to feel sorry for him — every life has its own realm of pain and most come without footmen — but when he writes at several points in “Spare” about his visceral reaction to the click and flash of cameras, it is difficult not to see it as a legitimate form of post-traumatic stress.
It would be great if we just accept what we already know — that even with the butlers and the limousines, being a member of the royal family is a full-time job and nowhere near as much fun as it seems.
And while we’re at it, can we please stop spluttering about how ridiculous it is that Americans have any interest in the royal family? We may not have a monarchy, but our democratic culture force-feeds us aspirational tales of princes and princesses from the moment we are born.
I have come to believe that Americans like the royals specifically because they have fantastic jewels, fabulous clothes and fancy domiciles and are essentially miserable. Which makes many of us all feel much better about never having the occasion to wear a tiara, much less a tiara to wear.
But the British press hews to the (legitimate) belief that because some of the royal family’s bills are paid by the taxpayers, they are essentially public servants. Less legitimate is a definition of public service that includes providing constant soap-operatic personal content for purposes of entertainment, often under the guise of “news.”
Tell us all, tell us everything, we have a right to know. And if you don’t tell us, we will just fill in the blanks ourselves.
Most of the time, as Harry notes repeatedly in “Spare,” the royal family chooses the latter course — “never complain, never explain” — so the answers get filled in by “unnamed sources within the Palace.” To preserve the mystique. “Just don’t read them, darling boy,” was how Charles met Harry’s outrage over racist, hateful stories about Meghan. And for heaven’s sake, don’t respond.
Now we’re all getting more than 30 years of repressed response in one big lump.
You want answers? You want “behind-the-scenes” intel and fun family photos? The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are happy to drown you in their side of the story, answer every question you’ve ever asked (as well as some you never have, especially about the horrors of penile frostbite). They are proud to show you more photos and videos of themselves — at home, on the beach, traveling the world — than the human optic nerve can stand.
Hilariously, though perhaps not unexpectedly, the press has turned on a dime. “What do you have to say to that?” has become “Too much, quit whining, shut up, we’re not listening lalalala.”
Suddenly outlets that regularly rail against the royal family’s lack of transparency, that have illegally tapped phones and printed personal letters to “get the story,” that regularly feast on rumors of family conflict and kill damning stories for increased access are now wailing about the couple’s “oversharing.”
If a tabloid had “uncovered” the personal details Harry shares in “Spare,” that would have been “news.” But because the couple is controlling and profiting from their own story, they are seen are as disloyal, exploitative, self-serving. Even CNN’s Don Lemon called Harry’s account of a physical blowup with his brother “gauche” because, well, families are families and some things are none of our business.
Hahahaha. None of our business. Right.
For years, millions have hoovered up every season of “The Crown.” For decades they have wallowed in royal weddings, jubilees, scandals and, most recently, the queen’s funeral. As a culture, we regularly mark the anniversary of Princess Diana’s death with documentaries, tributes and reminders that she was literally killed by the demand for more photos, even as we demand more photos. Americans have a more vested interest in the treatment of Meghan Markle, but before she came on the scene, our press regularly swooned over the Prince and Princess of Whales.
We all find little Louis’ antics adorable.
Yet otherwise intelligent people are now all wondering why Harry and Meghan would think we care that much about the royal family anyway.
I mean, didn’t they want privacy? If they wanted privacy, why are they saturating every medium with their tales of woe? People are just going to get sick of them.
A part of me hopes that this is, in fact, Harry and Meghan’s endgame. Maybe they are betting that the only way to achieve privacy is by dominating the conversation like some garrulous party host. Hey, you want to hear about the time I went to the South Pole and got frost-nipped on my “todger”? Or the bizarre bathing rituals of Ludgrove School? Or when I did mushrooms in Courteney Cox’s house?
Wait, let us show you some videos of paparazzi cutting through our fence. Or maybe a slide show of our trip to Africa. Oh, are you leaving so soon?
But this is just a wild dream. The hysteria generated by the docuseries and the interviews and the memoir, not to mention the ratings and sales figures they have generated, proves that if there is in fact a Harry-and-Meghan saturation point, we are not at all close to it.
And if the interest is so bloody keen, why should Rupert Murdoch and Peter Morgan be the only ones spinning the royal narrative and cashing all those checks?
Far from being uninterested in “Spare,” outlets went to great lengths (including reading Spanish!) to get an early look, quickly thumbing past the many, many pages in which Harry recounts loving memories of his father, brother and grandparents in the horrible aftermath of his mother’s death, to get to the “juicy” bits — Harry’s youthful drug use and loss of virginity; William knocking Harry to the floor, now Queen Consort Camilla allegedly leaking a false account of the pre-wedding dispute between Meghan and Kate — which were shocking only in their lack of actual shock value.
Those who actually read the book (ghost-written by Pulitzer-prize-winning J.R. Moehringer, who once wrote for The Times) will find more sorrow and personal struggle than sensationalism. Harry admits early on that memoir is not journalism; it is memory and his is, at times, faulty. Though the book begins on the day of Diana’s death, one of its most moving threads is the gap that loss inflicted on his memory. For years, he cannot summon his mother, only the painful absence. It isn’t until an angry outburst at Meghan sends him back to therapy that he is able to destroy what he calls “the Wall” and reunite with his own childhood.
But Diana haunts “Spare,” as she does all of the Sussexes’ attempts to tell their own story, to explain the choices they have made. When she was killed, there was much beating of breasts over how she was treated by the press and the Palace, many lamentations over the chasm between her public glamour and her private, tortured reality. Promises were made to protect her children from similar persecution, to stop treating members of the royal family as public playthings.
But here we are again, watching Harry and Meghan decide the only way they can survive being members of the royal family is to flee it. Only they’ve decided to to fight centuries of mythology and decades of excruciating coverage by explaining why.
Which, quite honestly, may still take a while.