September 10, 2005
The New Prince of Monaco Confronts His Past
By CRAIG S. SMITH
MONACO, Sept. 9 - His Serene Highness Albert II, Sovereign Prince of Monaco, Marquis of Baux, sits alone in his mother's old corner office on the top floor of his palace beneath a small crenellated clock tower from which flies the white flag of Monaco.
It has been a punishing six months for the prince since the death of his father, the dashing Prince Rainier III, whose marriage to the glamorous Grace Kelly created the Monaco that the world knows today as much as any tax laws or stone and mortar.
Midway through the official yearlong mourning period for his father, just as the bachelor prince was trying to assimilate his new responsibilities and project the gravitas expected of him as a ruler, a former flight attendant announced with rather graphic detail in Paris-Match that she and Prince Albert had conceived a son, Alexandre, who was born two years ago.
"It was a very difficult moment for me," he said with characteristic understatement, adding that he is still "coming to terms" with the unintended fatherhood. When asked if he believed he was tricked into having a child, as the mother's account suggested, he was unflinching. "Yes, I think I was set up," he said.
At 47, with wire-rimmed glasses, American-cut charcoal gray suit and black wingtip shoes, Prince Albert II looks more like a prosperous Midwestern banker than the sovereign of the world's smallest principality.
Though he seems indisputably European when speaking French, there is something in his features and his flat American accent when speaking English that recalls, however improbably, the actor Dennis Quaid and gives someone meeting him for the first time the impression of watching a movie in which the main character has been miscast. This is less the Riviera playboy or the medal-bedecked European monarch the tabloids love than the well-bred Amherst College boy he once was.
He is surprisingly funny, though one has to listen closely to catch all of his dry asides, delivered as his voice trails off into a murmur. He does not own a yacht, or even a dinghy. He drives a hybrid gas-and-electric Lexus S.U.V.
He attributes his American demeanor to the time he spent with his mother's family in the United States while growing up and to four summers at Camp Tecumseh on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire.
Yet he also seems aware that much of Monaco's continuing attraction lies in maintaining the precarious fantasy of royalty in a modern age without turning himself into the central character of a very expensive theme park. He never appears in the public areas of the palace without a tie, which on this day was a pale, silvery blue. All palace correspondence and communiqués capitalize the pronouns when referring to him.
He has made one change: tradition long held that the flag flying from the staff on the tower above his office be hoisted when the prince was in Monaco. But Prince Albert flies the flag regardless of whether he is in town or not, preferring to keep his whereabouts, like so much else in his life, out of public view.
The small office is cluttered with an eclectic assortment of artwork and memorabilia: an odd sculpture of artificial flowers sits on the floor beside the door; a bronze sculpture of a woman's torso stands in front of windows overlooking the yacht-filled port below; a black-and-white photograph of his mother in her youth stands on a mantle beside an antique clock, one of the few bits of décor that remain from when she occupied the room.
He sits in a low, leather easy chair, one of a set that dominates the room. The chair is so low his knees are higher than his lap. His feet fidget as he talks and his voice is surprisingly high, almost boyish as he speaks about the pressures of finding a princess who can stand up to his mother's legend.
"There was pressure, not so much from the family but people outside were expecting and are still expecting something big to happen," he said, adding that it has taken him a long time to feel ready for that challenge.
"Some called it immaturity," he said. "I don't think it was immaturity, but I wanted to do it in the right way."
He said that finding someone to fill Princess Grace's shoes "has not only scared me, but also many women I have known."
"It has scared them away," he said. "It will be very difficult for whoever will be with me, not even in marriage, whoever goes out with me seriously. Even if she doesn't look remotely like my mother, she will be compared to her."
He said he was not involved with anyone now and was too busy to look.
The prince lives alone in the palace, in the family's private wing that juts out from the main building and overlooks the principality's newest neighborhood, Fontevielle, built on reclaimed land.
But most of his private life takes place at Rocagel, the remote mountain retreat that his father built high above Monaco, reached by a long series of hairpin turns on roads cut into the mountainside, one of which claimed his mother's life in 1982.
He is gradually making the property his own and recently had two tons of sand trucked up the hill and dumped near the swimming pool on the farm's rustic grounds to lay a beach volleyball court, where he occasionally entertains friends. He has always been known as a sportsman, and for years occupied a spot on Monaco's Olympic bobsled team.
"I've practiced a lot of different sports," he said. "I stopped counting after 15."
NOW that he has inherited his father's title, he seems to be searching for what will define him. He began by retracing the steps of his great-great-grandfather, Albert I, with an Arctic expedition in July. Next April, he plans to travel by dog sled to the North Pole, 100 years after his namesake did the same.
While his father had a history of suspicious business deals (he was accused by the French of elaborate and dubious but highly profitable stock market arbitration on the eve of his coronation), Prince Albert II may become known more for conservation and clean dealing.
"I'm tired of seeing the press equate Monaco with money laundering," he said.
Despite the principality's lingering image as "a sunny place for shady people," in W. Somerset Maugham's famous phrase, present-day Monaco is really more of a conventioneer and package-tour destination. Only 4 percent of its state revenues comes from the storied casino, now mostly patronized by hard-bitten Russians, and just 10 percent comes from banking transactions. The biggest chunk of national revenue, about two-thirds, comes from a value-added tax on goods and services sold in Monaco, which the principality shares with France.
"I intend, however, that ethics remain the backdrop for all the actions" of the Monaco authorities, he told his subjects in his first speech as sovereign in July, vowing to respect the French and American tax regulations.
He is resisting proposals to extend Monaco's territory with a man-made peninsula extending off the eastern end of the tiny city-state, arguing that a large project would gobble up beachfront, block views and overwhelm the principality's already car-jammed tangle of narrow, twisting roads.
"How many more thousands of people do we want to add to Monaco?" he asked, warming to a subject he clearly cares about. Monaco now has 32,000 residents, 7,100 of whom are citizens.
He is also interested in alternative energy, and talks with passion about hybrid vehicles, fetching a French-English dictionary to check the word for the kind of oil used to fuel some of Monaco's buses (rapeseed). The government gives residents up to a 30 percent rebate on the purchase of alternative energy vehicles.
But there remains the question of an heir, complicated now by his son, Alexandre, who will eventually inherit a healthy portion of the prince's $2 billion fortune. Prince Albert acknowledged paternity in July and has installed the mother and child in a villa in nearby Villefranche on the French Riviera.
He said he had seen Alexandre only once, briefly, since the story became public, "because of his mother's attitude toward me."
"It's not a very pleasant situation," he said. "My only concern now is the well-being of the kid."
He fumbles when discussing the possibility of children, noting there are other women who have made similar claims. "I don't know of any others that could be true," he said. He denied he had paid money to Tamara Rotolo, a California woman who claimed she had a daughter, Jazmin, by the prince 13 years ago.
Ms. Rotolo made a paternity claim shortly after the child was born, he said, but after an American court dismissed the case, he thought the matter had gone away. Since the story of young Alexandre hit the press, though, he said she had contacted his lawyer again.
"Other people will jump on the bandwagon," he said, chalking it up to the large number of women he has known over the years and of being in the public eye.
As for Alexandre, he said there was no chance that the boy would ever be prince.
"He is not a possible successor," he said, citing Monaco's Constitution, which requires that the parents of heirs to the throne be married. "I don't think that will change."