Charles, Earl Spencer

Charles, Earl Spencer

Charles, Earl Spencer

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Sept. 14 1997 3:30 AM

Charles, Earl Spencer

How did a tabloid-savvy nobleman become a populist press critic?

Illustration by Philip Burke

Last week Britain lost a princess and found a hero: Charles, Earl Spencer, the angriest brother in the world. Spencer's vitriolic, anti-press, anti-monarchy eulogy was wildly popular in the United Kingdom--it's been called "one of the most important speeches in recent British history" and reprinted by all the vile tabloids it denounces. (Spencer has invented a literary genre, the Attack Eulogy.) You might think that Spencer's plummy accent, Hugh Grant-y good looks, and lordly manner--well, he is a lord--would make Britons nostalgic for the good old days. (Remember when toffs were really toffee?) But the earl is a very new, very modern, and almost American kind of aristocrat. The stiff upper lip has been replaced by the barbed, blabbing tongue; reticence by confession; traditionalism by populism.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

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Spencer's eulogy, which did as much to settle scores as to commemorate his sister, did not surprise anyone who's followed the earl over the years. The 33-year-old Spencer has nursed a grudge against the press since Diana's marriage to Prince Charles interrupted his boisterous adolescence. Fame was thrust upon him, and he didn't like it much.

In a normal aristocratic family, Spencer would have been just another playboy. But he was the Princess of Wales' younger brother, so his noble pursuits--i.e., wine, women, song--became tabloid fodder. His escapades--Eton roughhousing, Oxford carousing, riotous birthday parties, speeding tickets--made headlines. Fleet Street dubbed him "Champagne Charlie." His many model-girlfriends decorated gossip columns, much to his annoyance. (Of course, the models wouldn't have been his girlfriends if it hadn't been for the earl's high profile.)

Spencer's rage at the press has grown in recent years, and with much justification. In 1995, the News of the World publicized his wife's alcoholism and anorexia (or, to use that excellent British phrase, "a slimming disease") and snapped surreptitious pictures of her at a private treatment facility. When his best friend committed jewel fraud, the Daily Express falsely accused Spencer of abetting the criminal. Another paper falsely accused him of selling black market tickets to the Bolshoi Ballet. A paparazzo in South Africa, where Spencer has lived since 1995, sneaked into his home as a domestic worker and photographed him. Spencer has fought back, repeatedly winning damages from papers that intruded on or defamed him.

But, like the British public--which demands more celebrity photos even as it shouts for journalists' blood--Earl Spencer has a much more ambivalent (read: "hypocritical") relationship with the press than he pretends to have. He uses the media as much as he is abused by it--a trait he shared with Diana. A few months after he married, for example, Spencer slept with an old girlfriend in Paris. She was preparing to sell her story to the tabloids when Spencer pre-empted her. He confessed his adultery to a sympathetic Daily Mail columnist, got his soft-pedaled version of the story published, and escaped serious damage. (In the old days, this would have been called caddishness. Today it is spin control.) On another occasion, Spencer went on a talk show and discussed his sex fantasies--Roman orgies, if you're curious. The earl has even practiced the very journalism he decries. For much of the last decade, he has been a correspondent for NBC and British networks, covering celebrities and the aristocracy. His first TV assignment--no joke--was to serve up royal gossip for NBC at the wedding of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson.

The earl takes an equally modern--and practical--approach to his noble heritage. He's worth more than $100 million, but most of the fortune is tied up in land and antiques. He needs cash flow to maintain his 121-room mansion and 13,000-acre estate, and he's been savvy about finding it. A few years ago, he raised $336,000 by auctioning four of his lesser titles, including Lord of Wimbledon. The titles were purely symbolic--they carry no land and no seat in the House of Lords--but the sale nonetheless horrified traditionalists. He has hocked heirlooms to pay taxes, rented his mansion out for conferences and banquets, proposed turning 500 wooded acres of his estate into a housing development, and leased the grounds for concerts.

One of the most admired lines in the earl's eulogy was his promise to Diana that the Spencer family will do all it can to ensure that Princes William and Harry "are not simply immersed by duty and tradition, but can sing openly as you planned." He presents his royal nephews with an awkward choice: Charles the prince or Charles the earl. One is hidebound, stiff, silent in the face of media criticism. The other is entrepreneurial, telegenic, noisy, and restrained by no tradition. One is Britain's past; the other is its present.