The Sad Prince

by Derek Neal

If Joan Didion were alive today, she might write an essay about Prince Harry and include it in an updated version of Slouching Towards Bethlehem. She might write a passage like the one she wrote about Howard Hughes:

That we have made a hero of Howard Hughes tells us something interesting about ourselves, something only dimly remembered, tells us the secret point of money and power in America is neither the things that money can buy nor power for power’s sake (Americans are uneasy with their possessions, guilty about power, all of which is difficult for Europeans to perceive because they are themselves so truly materialistic, so versed in the uses of power), but absolute personal freedom, mobility, privacy. It is the instinct which drove America to the Pacific, all through the nineteenth century, the desire to be able to find a restaurant open in case you want a sandwich, to be a free agent, live by one’s own rules.

Didion’s comment about finding a restaurant open for a sandwich comes from a remark she’d heard as an explanation for Hughes buying up real estate in Las Vegas. It may seem a bit much to procure a whole town as a way of ensuring you can get a bite to eat at 3 pm in the afternoon, or 3 am in the morning, but have you ever been to Europe? My first experience of Europe was a year abroad studying in Nice, France. One day, I planned to get together with an American friend for lunch. We figured we’d meet up in the old city center, walk around a bit, then pick a place that looked good. As it happened, we were both running a little late, then we strolled around a bit too long, and finally we walked into a restaurant at about, well, 3 pm. Ever the innocents abroad, we had yet to realize our fatal error. The restaurant was deserted, and we had difficulty finding someone who worked there. Eventually, we did. After we bumbled along in our best French, asking if we could eat there and feeling confused as to why we had to ask, the proprietor cast his cold gaze upon us and proclaimed that, in France, restaurants close between lunch and dinner time. The kitchen, he said, is closed. We were stunned. Were the social conventions truly so strong that they couldn’t be amended for us, two Americans, who just wanted something to eat and secretly felt that we deserved something to eat, as well? Were we really going to be turned away? We had money, after all.

There’s a scene in The Wire when D’Angelo, a drug dealer from the inner-city of Baltimore, takes his girlfriend Donette to an expensive, upscale restaurant. The lights are dimmed, a piano plays quietly, and well-to-do people laugh and converse softly. At one point, D’Angelo looks around and asks:

“Think they know?”

“Do they know what?” she responds.

D’Angelo leans in closer. “You know. It’s like, get all dressed up, right? Come all the way across town, fancy place like this, after we finish we gon’ go down to the harbor, walk around a lil’ bit, you know, acting like we belong down here, know what I’m sayin’?”

“So? Your money good, right? D, we ain’t the only black people in here.”

D’Angelo shakes his head. “It ain’t about that. It’s about where we—come on, you know. I’m jus’ sayin’ you know, it just feel like, some shit just stay with you. Know what I’m sayin’? Like—hard as you try—still can’t go nowhere, know what I’m sayin’?”

At this point, D’Angelo and Donette are interrupted by the waiter, who offers them dessert. Doing her best imitation of the kind of person who feels at ease in this type of restaurant, Donette flips her hair back and asks in a practiced voice:

“Can I have some chocolate cake?”

As the waiter walks away, she switches back to her usual locution and tells D’Angelo:

“Boy, don’t nobody give a damn about you and your story. You got money, you get to be whatever you say you are.”

This is the American Dream, the one Hughes believed in, the one Prince Harry wants to believe in, and the one D’Angelo is suspicious of, because his experience has taught him that the dream is a lie. As the waiter comes back with the dessert cart, D’Angelo takes the chocolate cake off the top and hands it to Donette.

“Oh, sir, I’m sorry” the waiter interjects in a flustered voice, “these are the samples,” and he takes the cake back and puts a new one from under the cart on the table. The scene fades out as D’Angelo and Donette stare at each other in silence. Nothing needs to be said. D’Angelo feels that he’s proven his point—there are some things money can’t buy, and try as he might to disguise his origins and enter a new sphere of society, he’s bound to commit a faux-pas that reveals his true identity. Donette thinks differently; she believes she can play the part well enough that she can become the part, that if she has enough money, she can erase where she comes from—be a free agent, live by her own rules. At the end of Season 3, after D’Angelo has been killed by his own gang as they tie up loose ends, a montage shows Donette at home, crying, a single mother left to raise a child on her own. Although she doesn’t know it, the dinner at the restaurant is the highest she’ll go into the upper strata of American life.

Escaping one’s origins, as Didion reminds us, is what makes an American hero, because it’s also what created America in the first place. The desire to be free from the rules and conventions that have shaped us, to cast them off and to live however we please and to not be beholden to, say, strict mealtimes, is part of what it means to be American. In France, they don’t “snack,” and they don’t eat lunch at 3 pm, although we did eventually get the restaurant to make us a pizza—that’s all that was available. The entire time we ate, my friend and I felt that we’d committed some sort of crime without knowing what it was, like D’Angelo taking the dessert off the tray.

Prince Harry, it seems, simply wants to find a restaurant open in case he needs a sandwich. In his own way, he’s an American hero. Like Hughes, he wants to live by his own rules, not those imposed upon him by the British monarchy. He’s not interested in power, as he has given up his power in favor of personal freedom. He’s in search of privacy, or so he claims, although he goes about this in a curious way, living the life of a C-list celebrity: featuring on late night talk shows, appearing on podcasts, publishing a memoir. The beautiful thing about America, or the damning thing, depending on your perspective, is that anyone can be an American. Prince Harry is American.

At the end of the Netflix show Harry & Meghan, Harry walks out of their pink stucco house in California and gets into his Audi. It’s dusk. He’s going for a drive among the palm trees and along the beach. In the background, a song by Xavier Rudd plays; it’s called “Follow the Sun.” This is what Harry has done; like all Americans, he’s gone west until the Pacific stopped him. The images of Harry are juxtaposed with bittersweet reminiscences of his life in the UK:

I miss the weird family gatherings when we’re all sort of brought together under one roof, for, you know, certain times of the year—umm, that I miss. Yeah, just, being part of the institution meant that I was in the UK, so I miss the UK—I miss my friends. Umm, you know I’ve lost, I’ve lost a few friends in this process, as well.[1] You know I came here because I was changed. I changed to the point of I’d outgrown my environment. Therefore this was the most obvious place to come.

This is supposed to be the uplifting conclusion of the series, the moment when Harry and Meghan break free—outgrow—the restrictions of the Royal Family, the UK, and the dated and dusty ways of the Old World. But Harry is sad; you can tell he’s sad and he’s simply trying to convince himself that he’s made the right decision. He has to, otherwise what has the media tour, the book, the TV show, the irreparable break with his family and many of his friends, what has it all been for?

James Baldwin, who along with Joan Didion and Henry James, is one of the great examiners of American identity, wrote this about Americans in post-war Paris:

Their rejection of the limitations of American society has not set them free to function in any other society, and their illusions, therefore, remain intact: they have yet to be corrupted by the notion that society is never anything less than a perfect labyrinth of limitations…Society, it would seem, is a flimsy structure, beneath contempt, designed by and for all the other people…Though they persist in believing that their present shapelessness is freedom, it is observable that this present freedom is unable to endure either silence or privacy, and demands, for its ultimate expression, a rootless wandering among the cafes. 

Prince Harry has found what he believes to be freedom by throwing off the shackles of British society, but like the Americans who did his migration in reverse, he seems unaware that this freedom comes with its own rules, that one is always in some sort of society, that a blank slate doesn’t exist. The Americans before him, according to Baldwin, could not bear the privacy that freedom afforded them, and they were doomed to wander the cafes. Is Harry destined for a similar fate, appearing every so often on Colbert, Good Morning America, and other American shows? Apparently his publishing deal is for multiple books, not just one.

During his interview with Stephen Colbert, Harry said, “We’ve created a fantastic life here in California, which, by the way, is beautiful, and America is a great place to live.” At this point, he pauses, giving the audience a chance to applaud. In the Netflix show, after his sunset drive, he pulls back onto his California street, lined with towering palm trees, and says “Home sweet home.” But does he really mean it, or is it just for the cameras?

I never thought I would write about Prince Harry. As an American, I have a natural aversion to the Royal Family and to the idea that they are somehow different or special by virtue of their birth. They’re just people. But I’m also Canadian by way of my mother, and now that I’ve lived in Canada for a few years, the Canadian interest in the Royals seems to have rubbed off on me, and I can’t help but feel some sort of sympathy for Harry’s plight. He thinks he’s made it to the end of his story—the narrative urge is incredibly strong in the Netflix show (Meghan mentions how they’ve come “full circle”)—yet I can’t help but feel this is just the first chapter, and that the story, which Meghan calls “a fairy tale,” will end up being a bit more sinister, a bit more like a Henry James novel or a Joan Didion essay.

[1] Like any good reality show contestant, Prince Harry “isn’t here to make friends.” He’s here to win.