Prince Harry has held a special place in the public affection since that long walk he took, as such a young boy, behind his mother’s coffin. After his turbulent teens and early twenties, in recent years affection and understanding has turned to genuine respect as he knuckled down to Army life and purposefully began to carve a philanthropic role from his royal position. Then came the fairytale romance and marriage to the American actress Meghan Markle which put him, even more than before, in a spotlight he seems ambivalent about.
Angela Levin captured all of this and more in her engrossing and empathically observed biography Harry: Conversations with the Prince published last year. Now her updated edition, with new chapters on the latest dramatic stage of his life, has arrived in the bookshops. It is, even for a non-royal watcher like me, a compelling read, with its detailed research and reportage made all the more devastating by the absence of judgement or commentary. So what has been Meghan’s impact on this rebel-turned-role model been – good or bad? Is she a threat or the lifesaver that the monarchy, that institution so intrinsic to British life, needs?
Angela kindly agreed to answer my questions:
Kathy Gyngell: You are a long-term respected journalist and royal biographer but how did you persuade Prince Harry – though the most popular and empathetic of the young royals – to win his trust and engage in conversation with you?
Angela Levin: After five months of trying, Kensington Palace allowed me to accompany Prince Harry on various engagements. At regular intervals I also asked one of his staff if I could do a personal interview with him. It took over a year before they agreed, but said it could only last for 20 minutes. It was no time at all, but I guessed the time restriction was an escape plan for him if he didn’t like my questioning. So I racked my brains to come up with something that would engage him, knowing that if he didn’t like what I asked I’d either be out the door or, with luck, put the conversation on a more profound level. I had seen countless times how inspirational and caring he was with people of all ages and types, especially those who were psychologically damaged. So, holding my breath, I asked if he was also using these occasions to try to help work through his own mental health issues. He was silent for a while, then said: ‘You’re right, of course’, and we had a wide-ranging conversation that lasted much, much longer than twenty minutes.
KG: You’ve added two new chapters to Harry: Conversations with the Prince on the wedding and on the marriage (which contain some revelations which we will come to) for this second edition. Were you able to talk to him one-to-one again?
AL: I spoke to him personally more than once when I was writing the hardback. He was enrapt with being newly married and I felt it would be more productive to follow the newlyweds, observe in detail how the public reacted to them and how they related to each other. I also talked to the contacts I had made.
KG: Like every mother, my heart has bled for those young motherless Princes, wept for their dysfunctional family start and worried about the affluent neglect of their teen years. His early life, as you recount it, could be called ‘The Labours of Harry’. Was life a particular struggle for this privileged but sensitive boy?
AL: Prince Harry is more emotional than William and wears his heart on his sleeve. Although his mother, the late Princess Diana, did her best to make sure he didn’t miss out, it was hard to compete with an older brother destined to be king one day. Harry adored his mother and marvelled at how much ‘fun’ she was. He said he felt safe because a key aim in her life was to ‘protect’ him and William. Although Harry was not short of material possessions, the toxic atmosphere between his parents was very unsettling, as it would be for any child. He was understandably totally devastated by her death. The tragedy coincided with him starting at Eton. He began drinking alcohol before then and from the age of 12 was regularly drunk. He was also an early smoker. He disliked Eton and although he was good at sport, he was not academic. Instead, he told me, he decided to be ‘a bad boy’. Meanwhile his grief festered inside him.
KG: You describe Harry as surviving his ‘trials’ (or temptations) by luck but also, as time went by, by judgment and a capacity for personal discipline and courage – far greater than most of his contemporaries. How do you rate his character?
AL: I rate him highly. It was no easy task to haul himself back from his self-destructive streak. Sometimes his impulsiveness overwhelmed him when he seemed to have got his life back together. For example, he longed to be a soldier and was thrilled to get into Sandhurst. He enjoyed the rigorous physical training but found the academic side hard, and it was a real triumph that he had beaten his demons to do well. In 2006, just before the passing out ceremony in front of the Queen, he and some pals went to a strip club. Of course he was recognised and a picture of him appeared in the following day’s Sun, referring to ‘his night of shame’. His behaviour as a newly qualified second lieutenant was considered inappropriate and badly timed.
There was also the incident in 2012 when he played strip billiards in Las Vegas and was photographed naked. He subsequently apologised to his family for letting them down.
Prince Harry’s most significant act of bravery, in my opinion, was to admit how in his late twenties he was overwhelmed by the grief he felt at losing his mother so young, and had panic attacks and depression. Doing so broke the taboo about mental health issues and enabled countless others to admit how they had suffered.
KG: The obvious historical comparison to be made is with Harry Hotspur in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 2, when he starts to turn his back on licenciousness and recognise looming responsibility. All the more remarkable – given that he is not the heir – that Harry turned himself into a man of both action and conscience, well before Meghan came on the scene. What was the catalyst? The Army?
AL: Growing up helped Harry deal with his childhood difficulties up to a certain extent. He first turned a corner when, in his third year at Eton, he became part of its Combined Cadet Force. He was stimulated by being ‘part of a team’, something he still believes in. He also found he was a natural leader. As he grew older his desire ‘to make a difference’ drew him to help those who could not help themselves.
As an Army officer he was posted to Afghanistan, a secret the British press kept but was leaked by a foreign magazine after just ten weeks. He had to leave immediately for his own and others’ safety. He had loved being ‘one of the lads’ and felt devastated, resentful and lost that the satisfaction he felt at finding his vocation had been torn away. By chance on the plane home there were also seriously wounded British soldiers. This sowed a seed in Harry’s heart that developed into the inspiring and successful Invictus Games.
KG: Your account of Meghan and her background is not quite the all-American rags to riches story, but not far off. You paint a picture in the fascinating final chapters (with their several eye-watering revelations of expenditure and indiscretion) that to some will confirm their prior view of a determined, driven, self-obsessed – sometimes insensitive, sometimes controlling – #MeToo feminist. To others it will confirm their perception of a modern woman fighting for her egalitarian principles – courageous, genuinely socially concerned, pursuing her causes, rescuing Harry while breathing much-needed new life into the stuffy Royal Family.
Which is it, or something of both?
AL: It is a mixture of both. Like Harry, Meghan has had a difficult background. Her mother, father, half-brother and sister have also all been bankrupt. For her it has continued – illustrated by the series of very public family rows culminating in the breakdown of the relationship with her father, Thomas Markle. She is proudly self-reliant, and she has been fortunate with her good looks, a supple, yoga-honed figure, energy, drive and brains. Climbing the slippery slope of fame, however, has required her to be tough, ruthless even, and one consequence is the perception that she is willing to leave behind those she feels are no longer useful. She has also been an active feminist since she was 11 and got a dishwasher soap powder manufacturer to change an advert which she declared was sexist.
Unlike Harry’s previous long-term girlfriends, the actress in Meghan has enabled her to cope with the media spotlight, and she seems to enjoy it. She also has a maternal streak which she overtly shows even on royal engagements, something Harry no doubt needs. She has made him ‘over the moon’ by giving birth to baby Archie and fulfilled his very long yearning to be a father.
KG: For all their putative common concerns, they seem to me to be fundamentally different. He is genuinely virtuous and altruistic, as in his loyalty and work for desperately injured soldiers, his African Charity and the incredible feat of organising the Invictus Games. She however seems more of a modern virtue-signaller – a la Angelina Jolie – enjoying going from red carpet to refugee camp. Am I right?
AL: I don’t think Meghan is the epitome of the modern virtue-signaller. She has been a keen philanthropist since her school days – she used to take toys and clothes to a school where many of the pupils were poor. She has also, among other things, been involved with the international charity One Young World, travelled to Rwanda for the Clean Water Campaign and worked as an advocate for the United Nations on gender equality. All of which took place before she met Prince Harry. Humanitarianism is a powerful interest they both share. Many British people adore Meghan and see her as a breath of fresh air and modernising influence, which they feel the Royal Family sorely needs.
KG: Harry with his comfortable Army camaraderie should have been the last man to be feminised. But that is how it comes across.
AL: I have been a bit surprised by Harry becoming a keen feminist. But it has obviously made Meghan, whom he loves and is in awe of, very happy. She may also have shone a light for him on aspects of society where women are still struggling for respect and equality.
KG: You have detailed her extravagance – some would call it greed. How dangerous is this and her determination to buck convention for the Royal Family? How will they control her? Could she bring The Firm down?
AL: I think Meghan on occasion has been extravagant, which has not gone down well. The Queen is known to be frugal and some members of the British public have balked at a proportion of their tax going towards what they consider to be frivolity. For example, the dress she chose to be photographed in to mark her engagement to Prince Harry is believed to have cost £56,000. More significant was her baby shower in New York which was estimated to cost more than £300,000, an excessive amount whoever offered to pay for it, especially for someone who calls herself a humanitarian. It is, so I have been told, one of many reasons why all Harry and Meghan’s staff and offices are in the process of moving to Buckingham Palace, where even their newly hired PR director, Sara Latham, a Left-leaning high-powered communications director who has worked for Bill and Hillary Clinton and Tony Blair, will be expected to report to the Queen’s Communications Secretary.
However, I don’t think the Duchess will ‘bring The Firm down’. The British monarchy is over 1,000 years old and is used to roller-coaster episodes. It is also early days and hopefully she will become less showbusiness and more royal, a narrow but important distinction where royals are expected to keep their politics to themselves and are motivated by a sense of duty.
KG: Do you find it somewhat ironic that while Harry thought in his 20s about leaving the Royal Family and having a more private life, it’s a life that Meghan loves, despite its restrictions?
AL: Prince Harry told me he longed to have someone by his side when he was on royal engagements, and I’m sure he is enjoying being a member of the Royal Family much more now he is married. Despite being sixth in line to the throne, he maintains a deep-seated sense of duty and will do as much as he can to help his 93-year-old grandmother, the Queen. However, he has also longed for a private life away from what he calls ‘the goldfish bowl’, and I suspect that when the time is right he and Meghan will spend more time out of the country, especially in Africa which he loves and introduced Meghan to within days of meeting her. How much Meghan would like to be out of the spotlight remains to be seen.
Harry: Conversations with the Prince is available here.