PARIS – Prince Albert is giving Monaco a new princess.
The boyish if balding monarch is ditching decades of eligible bachelorhood, and is now engaged to South African ex-swimming champion Charlene Wittstock. Albert’s betrothed has iconic shoes to fill, stepping into a role vacant since the much-beloved Princess Grace died in a car crash in 1982.
Royal watchers are ecstatic at Wednesday’s palace announcement, and they’re wondering: Is the bespectacled playboy prince manning up? And most importantly, will the 52-year-old Albert finally produce a legitimate heir?
"It’s been 30 years since Grace died, 30 years they’ve been waiting for a first lady, a princess, a dream beauty, glam. And voila!" says Colombe Pringle, executive editor of Point de Vue magazine, which has followed Albert’s amorous adventures.
The palace of the moneyed Mediterranean principality didn’t say when His Serene Highness Albert II, Grace’s second child and the head of the 700-year-old Grimaldi dynasty, will marry the 32-year-old Wittstock.
But the announcement put to rest months of speculation that the two longtime companions would tie the knot.
Albert met the willowy blonde Wittstock in 2000 when she traveled to Monaco for a swimming competition, and she has lived in the principality since 2006, said Laetitia Pierrat, a palace spokeswoman.
The couple are both Olympians — Albert was a bobsledder — and share English as one of their native tongues.
Wittstock swam for South Africa at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, though won no medals. In the All Africa Games the year before, she won gold in the 100-meter freestyle. Before moving to Monaco, she also worked as a schoolteacher.
According to protocol, royal couples must wait at least six months between the announcement of the engagement and the wedding day, Pierrat said.
She demurred when asked whether Wittstock might be pregnant. "Honestly, I don’t think so," she said, adding she wasn’t privy to such matters but if Wittstock were, a formal announcement would probably have been made.
The head of the principality’s government, Minister of State Michel Roger, issued a statement saying the government "shares the joy of the Sovereign Prince, His finance and their families" and expressed "warmest congratulations" on behalf of the people of Monaco.
The rocky marriages of Albert’s older sister, Princess Caroline, and younger sister Princess Stephanie have long been the stuff of tabloids. Monaco — a tiny territory smaller than New York’s Central Park, but with grand, global allure — has hungered for a new royal wedding and fresh start.
Hollywood actress Grace Kelly married Albert’s father, Prince Rainier III, to massive hoopla in 1956. Princess Grace died in a car accident in 1982, casting a pall of tragedy over the family, but remains a style icon to this day. London’s Victoria & Albert Museum for art and design has a current exhibition on her.
Word of Albert’s engagement zipped quickly around town on Wednesday.
"This will be great for champagne sales," said Edith Wendebaum, who runs a wine shop in Monte Carlo. "It’s very, very good news, something happy at last," she said by telephone, describing Albert as likable when she has met him. "Everyone here knows him a bit."
Heirs? "Certainly, that will come soon," she said, hopefully.
Albert took the throne in July 2005 after the death of his straight-laced father, who built the sleepy Mediterranean port into a tax haven for the rich and a glittering financial center.
Albert was known for being a longtime bachelor — so much so that Parliament in 2002 changed the constitution to allow one of his sisters’ sons to take the throne if he never produces a legitimate heir.
Albert acknowledged in 2005 that he had fathered a boy, Alexandre, with a former flight attendant. The following year, he acknowledged an American daughter, Jazmin Grace Grimaldi, now a teenager, born to a California woman. Neither can assume the throne because they were born out of wedlock.
Pringle suggested that Albert’s advancing age, and the long time since his mother’s passing, meant that the time was right for him to marry.
"He’s 50-something. It’s time," she said.
She said Wittstock has spent their years together preparing for the stress and responsibilities of being a princess.
"She has learned a lot," Pringle said. "Now it’s a question of involvement and engagement in her new role. We’ll see how she does."
The couple attended Sweden’s royal wedding in Stockholm last weekend, which sparked new rumors of a possible union.
Still, Nancy Wilson, an editor at The Riviera Reporter based in nearby Nice, France, was not convinced that a wedding is "going to happen soon."
Wilson said the announcement may have been designed to appease those losing patience with Albert’s bachelorhood or perhaps to boost his standing among entrenched interests in Monaco who had resisted his efforts to change tax and economic policies.
"He’s tried to move the principality in a direction different from his father. It’s not working," she said. "There is negative economic press around him. This is something to take the spotlight away."
There’s also been plenty of bad press around his and his sisters’ personal lives.
Prince’s Caroline’s third husband — Prince Ernst August of Hanover — has been in trouble for attacking a German photographer, beating a Kenyan hotel owner and yelling at the editor of a newspaper that reported he urinated in public.
Stephanie has had two children out of wedlock and an 18-month marriage ended when her husband was photographed romancing a Belgian stripper. She made headlines with an affair with a circus director and elephant trainer.
Monegasque wine merchant Wendebaum has one wish for Albert and Wittstock: "I just hope they are happy."
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