Watching the royal wedding brought back memories from long ago, my one and only brush with royalty…
It was 1990, I was pregnant with my first child. I was working as a photographer in Washington, DC and my husband and I had gone to Florida for a business trip he had to take. A few months earlier, I'd contacted the British Embassy after having read about an upcoming garden party; I figured any self-respecting garden party would need a photographer so I pitched my services.
The charming press person at the time politely told me they had a photographer but would take my name for future events, should they arise. I figured that was the last I would hear from him.
Fast forward a few months later, to a dingy hotel room in Bradenton, Florida. My husband had to attend a carnival trade show because a product his company produced was being knocked off and pawned off as carny prizes. He'd hoped to persuade those power mongers (read with a wink) who operate carnivals to buy the legitimate product, rather than ripping his company off.
Now, if you've ever gone to a carnival, you can probably conjure up images of your average carny type: Seedy-looking men, missing and rotting teeth, grizzled faces. There's usually an all-around feel of felons-freshly-sprung-from-prison about the place, coupled with the aroma of years-old trans-fat sizzling away in deep-frying vats awaiting a plunge from a 2000-calorie corn dog or maybe a fried twinkle, perhaps a grease-sopped funnel cake if you're lucky.
Well, the difference between a carnival and a carnival trade show (at least 20-some years ago) is simply that the grease isn't as old. Same creepy people, same vile food, same crappy products. So we were coming off a most relaxing day amidst the seedier element of society at Carny-ville, and were relaxing at the hotel when I decided to check our voice mail.
Back then we'd only recently acquired an answering machine. I know this sounds crazy, but they were newfangled devices then. Technologically-stunted as I've always been, I'd barely figured out how to check our messages on the thing before we left for our trip. And while gone, one morning before embarking on our carnival trade show expedition, I called home to see if we had any messages. Which was when I heard the voice mail from a Gareth So-and-So from the British Embassy, asking if I was interested in an upcoming event. He needed an answer immediately.
Of course I called back pronto. Remember, there were no cell phones back then. Wait, there were. When I worked on Capitol Hill in the 80's I'd gone to a hair salon near the White House and remember seeing an Important Looking Man lugging a small suitcase in one hand, holding a phone receiver attached to the suitcase by a long coiled cord, with the other. This was back when offices had rooms devoted to housing gargantuan "mainframes" to operate computers. How far we've come in so short a time…) But making long-distance calls from anywhere other than home was a cumbersome process back then: using a calling card, you had to dial about 70 numbers without screwing up the number sequence and then get connected to some remote operator or bell tones, enter in another 20 digits and maybe then you'd be connected to your number. Amazingly I dialed through successfully, and got hold of Gareth before he'd found another photographer.
"Hallo," he said to me in a gorgeous clipped British accent. I don't care what one looks like, when you speak with that accent it erases all flaws instantly. I swooned over the phone. In a professional manner, of course.
"I have a job you might be interested in," Gareth told me. I figured maybe another garden party, one of those things where women wear silly hats (Princes Beatrice, anyone?)
"His Royal Highness will be coming to Washington and there are several events for which we need a photographer."
I tried hard to maintain my composure and not choke. His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. Needed me. Prince Charles, then the celebrated man of the hour, considered studly despite his jug ears (and yes, they are quite juggy). The embassy needed me, to shoot the man (with a camera of course).
I tried to remain cool, as if often I was invited to be the official photographer of the world's most famous royal (next to his then-wife Princess Diana).
I told Gareth I needed to check my schedule, and pretended to leaf through my sad-sack calendar, the dinky 4" x 4" one like you used to get for free at the Hallmark store (yep, electronic calendars were years away). And of course I instantly leapt at the chance, no doubt appearing pathetically excited and simpering about the prospect of this brush with British royalty.
I was, as I said, pregnant. At that time speculation abounded that Diana and Charles were going for a girl, and rumors were running amok that she was indeed pregnant. I pondered drumming up some small talk with Chuck about his pregnant wife (a presumptuous leap on my part), what with us having so much in common, I knew we were bound to be BFFs and all. Fortunately I opted out of that tack. Because it wasn't long after that that we all learned that Charles had been clandestinely telling his extramarital fling Camilla he yearned to be her tampon or maxi pad or something equally abhorrent. Clearly he wouldn't have been keen dishing on Di with me when he was fantasizing about being inside Camilla's knickers (literally).
My husband never once wanted to come along on my photo shoots (particularly the dull ones, like the American Institute of CPAs; can't blame him, though those CPAs were a lovely bunch). Even my Liz Taylor shoot he shunned. But he jumped at the chance to be my assistant for the royal visit.
Prior to undertaking the job, we got a mini-lesson on dealing with the Prince--i.e. avoid dealing with the Prince. No handshaking, speak to him only when spoken to, that sort of thing.
I was told the Prince always had a group photo taken with his equerry staff (the cadre of helpers who travel with him everywhere to be sure someone puts the toothpaste on his toothbrush, that sort of thing). So we assembled the group amidst the splendor of the British Embassy, an elegant building filled with a vast collection of priceless artwork. I directed the men to line up in two rows, some seated, some standing.
"I need all of the men seated to place hands in laps," I instructed them.
"Your own laps," my able-bodied spouse interjected, to the horror of the embassy staff.
Silence hung in the air as I awaited the big man himself firing me from the job. But then instead, Charles placed his hand over his mouth and…snickered. It was a very royal sounding laugh, a ha-ha-ha rather than an all-out guffaw. But enough so that I knew the job hadn't slipped through my fingers, and for my husband to this day to be able to stake his claim on having gotten Charles to chuckle.
Shame Charles and Di never did end up being our BFFs, no double-dating was in the cards, no naming each other our kids' godparents. But we'll always have Charles' chuckle.